2019 Orange Bowl: Florida football aims to finish strong with championship hopes for 2020

By Adam Silverstein
December 29, 2019
2019 Orange Bowl: Florida football aims to finish strong with championship hopes for  2020
Football

Image Credit: Orange Bowl

Though it is a New Year’s Six bowl game, it is tough not to feel as if the 2019 Orange Bowl has been a bit overlooked. Perhaps it is because the No. 9 Florida Gators enter as a 14.5-point favorite. Maybe it is due to the No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers being a fringe top 25 team that many believe was only ranked to give the ACC a “quality” team in its featured bowl game. Truthfully, it’s probably because it is taking place two days after the College Football Playoff semifinals and two days before the highly-anticipated New Year’s Day games.

Regardless of the reason, Florida and Virginia have plenty on the line Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

In front of what should be a friendly crowd, the Gators (10-2) are looking to finish with 11 wins for the first time since 2012. In between, they have suffered a pair of four-win seasons and seen two coaching changes over the six years that followed. They have also begun a resurgence under head coach Dan Mullen.

The Wahoos do not have the same championship-caliber football pedigree as their opponent but are looking to build one under fourth-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has improved Virginia by 2+ wins in each of his prior three seasons. A 10th win in 2019 would continue that trend and set the stage for what could be a tremendous 2020.

And that’s where these teams have their most significant similarity. Successful 2019s already seem to be in the rear-view mirror. Florida sees the Orange Bowl as an opportunity to prove its positive vibes justified.

“Obviously, you always want to finish the season on a win and on a high note,” Mullen said. “… When you head into an offseason, you have the opportunity to get a win over a top-25 team … I think that helps catapult you into the next season on a positive note. We don’t get to play again until September. That’s a long time to sit around.”

“I think a win is real important. The number one object is to win the game,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham agreed. “… Number one, it allows us to get the 11th win of the season. It allows us to finish the season off the right way. But also it creates energy and excitement moving forward. …

“After the Michigan win, there was a lot of confidence because of what we had done in that bowl game propelling us into the offseason. I think it sets up your offseason the right way. I think it creates energy moving forward. I think it gives a sense of pride in the sense you know you’ve accomplished something, and the ability to win 21 games over the past two years would be something I think is pretty good.”

With their only losses to the No. 1 team in the nation (LSU) and the SEC East champions (No. 5 Georgia), the Gators have as good a resume as anyone in the nation not in the CFP. Florida also has the opportunity to finish inside the top 10 in consecutive seasons for the first time in a decade (2008-09).

“We had two top-10 years, back to back, and next step is a championship. I feel like a championship is coming soon,” said senior linebacker David Reese III. “[It] just shows you how hard we worked just for one extra win [this year]. Next thing you know, if we get one extra win to next year, we’re contenders in the playoffs.”

“Just knowing how much the program has been through the last two, three years, and just with coaching changes, adversity, being 4-7 to now, we’ve got a lot of guys that understand the program coming in,” said senior running back Lamical Perine. “Just knowing what Coach Mullen expects, having two 10-win seasons back to back, that’s a big statement. [There’s] more to come.”

The next step for the Gators coming off consecutive New Year’s Six bowls and 20 or 21 wins in two seasons would indeed be the College Football Playoff. LSU this year became the third SEC program to find a spot in the four-team field over the six-year history of the event. Will Florida be the fourth in 2020?

“I think it’s headed in the right direction,” said senior wide receiver Josh Hammond of the program as a whole. “You can see the national prominence that the Florida Gators have at the moment, back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls, 10-win season, getting top recruits in the recruiting game. It’s definitely headed in the right direction. I think it’ll be within the playoffs in the next couple years, and as long as they continue to work hard, I think they’ll be fine.”

Redshirt senior WR Van Jefferson, who transferred in as one of Mullen’s key pickups ahead of the 2018 season, agrees with his position-mate. “I think it’s [trending] up. I think Coach Mullen came in and did a great job with the program,” he said. “It’s only going to get better. … [The returning players] have a good understanding of what the Gator standard is, so I think the guys leading that team [next year will help it] go up from here.”

Those are certainly the aspirations the Gators should have 12 months from now — to be competing for a national championship against the best teams in the nation. Is it possible? That depends on your outlook for Florida football and the rest of the SEC.

Florida will bring back a quarterback it has true confidence in for the first time in a decade with redshirt junior Kyle Trask returning for his final season. It will also have one of the top pass-catching weapons in the country with sophomore tight end Kyle Pitts only expected to become even more dominant as he grows with Trask. However, the Gators are going to be thin at running back, working with a young group of wide receivers (after the veterans the stirred the drink in 2019 depart) and still hoping that their offensive line — which contributed to many of the offense’s problems this season — develops into a strong unit.

Defensively, Florida will see both starting defensive ends, its primary linebacker and at least its No. 1 cornerback in junior CJ Henderson depart a unit that was strong all season despite some struggles largely due to injury. Will redshirt sophomore CB Marco Wilson return? Does freshman defensive back Kaiir Elam breakout in the Orange Bowl as so many Gators at his position have in the postseason over the years? There’s still a lot of questions to answer about the defense going into the offseason.

The best news for Florida — whether it reaches its championship goal in 2020 or not — is that the tide appears to have turned with this program. It was clearly the best team in the Sunshine State in 2019, has improved (but not yet fully strengthened) its recruiting acumen and is now a true threat to unseat Georgia as the power of the SEC East. Perhaps even more importantly, it has Gators of present, future and past believing in what’s ahead.

“There was a period of time a few years ago when it seemed like the program had lost that spark — that edge that separated us,” explained former CB Joe Haden, who starred in the 2009 BCS Championship Game (played at the same stadium as Monday night’s Orange Bowl) in an entry for The Players Tribune. “And that’s why I was so happy when Coach Mullen came back to the program, because he knows the level we should be playing at. And he’s put in the work to get us right back there.

“I see it. It’s not something that happens all at once — of course not. This is a process, a step-by-step goal that everybody in the program works toward. And that’s why this game matters so much. This is the step that propels us into next season with the right momentum and mentality.

“Right now, no other program in the state can touch us. That’s how it should be. But that’s not enough. We all know that. When the Gators are going, when we’re out there playing at our absolute best, there’s no team in the nation that can touch this program.”

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