One year later, Florida is clearly a different team even if result is the same vs. Georgia

By Adam Silverstein
October 24, 2018
One year later, Florida is clearly a different team even if result is the same vs. Georgia

Image Credit: ESPN Images

It was just 12 months ago this week that Florida Gators football hit rock bottom. While preparing for a rivalry game against the surging Georgia Bulldogs, the program was focused on anything but the game as its head coach chose — for reasons still unknown — to make an unsubstantiated claim about coaches and players retrieving death threats rather than discuss the week coming game. Not only did he state this at the opening press conference that week, he refused to provide evidence afterwards, putting his administration in an impossible position.

Perhaps it was because Florida was a 14.5-point underdog in the game and Georgia had been favored by more points than it had in the showdown since at least 1980. Maybe it’s because that coach, Jim McElwain, had given up on his myriad promises that had gone unfulfilled, including improving the Gators’ offense, reenergizing the fan base and turning around the team culture. McElwain was more concerned about his job status — it was revealed this week that he spent time insinuating to players, while preparing for the game, that he expected to be fired by that week’s end – than game planning.

“He said he’s going to get fired and so we all came to the game like, ‘Man, our coach is about to get fired and we can’t do nothing about it either because it’s the last game, it’s the last game he’s going to do,’” redshirt junior linebacker Rayshad Jackson said this week, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “So we were wondering who we were going to bring in for him the whole time.”

When you think back on it, the result was really no surprise. Florida was whipped 42-7 by its biggest rival in a lopsided embarrassment that closed the book on the McElwain era even though his actions over the prior five days — and his entire tenure — did just as much to ensure his demise. It was the Gators’ worst loss in the series since 1982. Florida had more penalties (14) and penalty yards (85) than completions (10) and passing yards (66). UF’s defense, on its way to being arguably the worst in program history, allowed the Bulldogs to pile up 9.4 yards per play.

As the team drove back to Gainesville from Jacksonville, there was nothing for it to hang its hat on. The offense was listless, the defense an embarrassment and special teams completely non-existent.

It is nothing short of a miracle, then, that 12 months later it is a worthy talking point to consider that Florida has a legitimate shot to knock off that same rival, one that wound up competing for the College Football Playoff National Championship last season. Should it do so, UF would be a real contender for the CFP itself.

The Gators sit at 6-1 (4-1 SEC) with their lone loss coming unexpectedly in Week 2 when Florida was taken to task by Kentucky in shocking fashion at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, ending a 31-year winning streak in the series. Somehow, the Gators rebounded in a major way, winning five straight games including three on the road (all SEC opponents) and taking down a top-five LSU team 27-19 in The Swamp.

And while losing to Vanderbilt should have never been even a consideration, Florida’s comeback from an 18-point road deficit in that game two weeks ago spoke to how this team has truly matured under its new steward in Dan Mullen.

It’s crystal clear that Mullen has accomplished in a few months what McElwain was unable to in a few years, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the win-loss record or the scoreboard each week. The Gators feel like the Gators again; there is a belief not that they can win any game they play but they should win any game they play. Why? Because Florida has prepared to do so with the expectation that its coach’s game plan is one built for success.

“He’s an offensive guru, man, that’s what I call him,” junior running back Lamical Perine said of Mullen this week, per 247Sports. “He’s a great guy calling plays, man. I mean, he always has us ready. Last year, there was a couple times defenses were calling out our plays. They can’t really do that now because we have them so off-balance, and it’s something that we added to our game with Dan Mullen coming in.”

It’s that strength, toughness, belief and confidence that have made the difference for the Gators, so it’s no wonder why No. 9 Florida feels it is in the same league as No. 7 Georgia, even if recent history suggests it may not be there just yet.

Mullen this week even admitted he would have jumped at the opportunity to hold the 6-1 record the Gators possess if given the option prior to the start of the season. Consider that UF is the only top 25 team in the nation that had a record of .500 or worse last season.

None of this means things will go smoothly for Florida on Saturday in the World’s Largest Cocktail Party.

The overall roster talent favors the Bulldogs, which have out-recruited the Gators for a few years now. It also does not help that Florida remains thin both in the secondary and at linebacker, though certainly it has done exceedingly well to this point considering those truths.

The point is that Georgia may well be victorious on Saturday — it is favored by a touchdown, after all — but should that be the case it will not be an indictment on Florida or Mullen, neither of whom expected to accomplish as much as they already have at this juncture.

It will be how the Gators respond to victory or defeat that will be interesting to observe, because no matter the result, there’s a lot of season left, plenty of team building to continue and hurdles to climb until Florida is “back” in the true sense of the term.

One major step would certainly be taking down Georgia.

“Last year wasn’t so fun for our team,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks this week, “but just coming from [2017] to this year, our record is a lot different. The way the guys approached the week, preparing for the game is different. We went through a coaching change, which turned out for the better for us.”

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