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If Florida hopes to beat Alabama, Dan Mullen cannot repeat Kirby Smart’s mistake


Florida football coach Dan Mullen faces a choice about his starting quarterback, but he need not make it difficult.

Just start the best player.

No. 9 Florida is 2-0 with Emory Jones as its starter, but if you’ve watched the Gators, you’ve noticed what Mullen surely cannot have missed: They’re better with backup Anthony Richardson on the field.

Even Jones is impressed by the redshirt freshman.

“I’m doing the same thing y’all (are) doing, just trying to see what exciting thing he’s going to do,” Jones said after Florida’s 42-20 win over South Florida on Saturday.

Mullen said after the win that Jones will remain the starter when the Gators host No. 1 Alabama (2-0) on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). Not only that, but Mullen for the second straight week expressed disbelief when asked about a potential change in starter.

Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) celebrates with Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) after Richardson threw a touchdown during the second game of the season against the USF Bulls at Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa Fla. Sept. 11, 2021.

Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) celebrates with Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) after Richardson threw a touchdown during the second game of the season against the USF Bulls at Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa Fla. Sept. 11, 2021.

Either Florida’s coach is playing coy to throw Alabama off the scent of a coming change, or he’s in danger of falling into the common coaching trap of sticking with his undefeated and more experienced quarterback, rather than turning to the younger, more talented backup.

If the win-loss record doesn’t prove it’s broken, don’t fix it, is often the way coaches handle these quarterback situations.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart got caught in this web twice.

In 2018, Smart started the more experienced Jake Fromm while the more talented freshman, Justin Fields, played in spurts as his backup. Georgia opened the season 6-0 before fizzling to a 11-3 finish, with losses to LSU, Alabama and Texas.

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Last season, Georgia started 3-0 behind quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, a former walk-on. His success was a neat narrative, but Georgia’s offensive limitations were apparent.

Meanwhile, the more talented JT Daniels, a Southern California transfer, sat in reserve after being cleared to play following his recovery from an August 2019 knee injury.

In this quarterback-fueled era, Georgia obviously could not win a national title with Bennett. Still, Smart stuck by his undefeated veteran.

Bennett’s unblemished record didn’t survive a Week 4 game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide intercepted him three times in a 40-18 victory.

Two games later, Bennett struggled again in a loss to Florida, causing Smart to finally turn the reins to Daniel, who led Georgia to four straight victories to finish the season.

Bennett returned to Georgia’s starting lineup in place of a banged-up Daniels on Saturday and fueled a thumping of UAB – a reminder that he’s good enough to lead Georgia past most teams, but not the elite talent needed to win a national championship.

And that’s the issue facing Mullen. He could stick with Jones, and Florida would win a lot of games with a veteran who spent the past three seasons as a backup. But Florida’s offense hasn’t played to a national championship caliber under Jones. He has thrown four interceptions this season and hasn’t matched Richardson’s big-play output.

Handing the reins to Richardson against the nation’s No. 1 team is a risk, but he has teased a higher ceiling. And if Florida’s goal is to contend for a national championship, the quarterback with the higher ceiling must be the choice.

Richardson needed just one play to bring Florida fans to a crescendo last weekend. Entering on UF’s third possession, he connected downfield with an open Jacob Copeland for a 75-yard touchdown.

That wasn’t even Richardson’s best pass. He later faked a quarterback draw before uncorking a beauty to Copeland for a 41-yard touchdown. But his best toss was his last: Richardson rolled left and, while under pressure from two defenders, zipped a perfectly placed 36-yard completion to Copeland into a tight window along the sideline.

Jones and Richardson are both good runners, but it was Richardson who broke safety Jayden Curry’s attempted tackle before outrunning defenders for an 80-yard touchdown. He injured his hamstring on the run, which might slow his depth-chart ascent. Richardson has 275 yards on 11 carries this season.

Few are better than Mullen at developing college quarterbacks. Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask can attest to that.

But this isn’t a question of quarterback development. It’s a question of whether a coach has the courage to replace a starting quarterback on an undefeated team in favor of a clearly talented, but more inexperienced, option.

Richardson had the reins of four possessions against USF. Three ended in touchdowns, while the other stalled after Mullen handed the offense back to Jones inside USF’s 10-yard line.

After Saturday’s game, Mullen said Richardson “doesn’t always do the right thing, but he does special things.”

A special quarterback talent is required to win a national championship in today’s college football.

The last three national champions were powered by quarterbacks Mac Jones (Alabama), Joe Burrow (LSU) and Trever Lawrence (Clemson). All became first-round NFL Draft picks, with Burrow and Lawrence going No. 1 overall in consecutive years.

Another first-round pick, Tua Tagovailoa, fueled Alabama’s national championship comeback victory to culminate the 2017 season. Before that, Deshaun Watson propelled Clemson past Alabama, then became a first-round pick.

Alabama possesses a quarterback, Bryce Young, talented enough to win a national championship. Florida might have one, too, in Richardson.

Mullen should start him Saturday and find out.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Toppmeyer: For Florida to beat Alabama, Anthony Richardson must start



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