In the 2017 season finale, the wide gap separating the Florida Gators from the Florida State Seminoles was very apparent.
UF, in its final game under interim head coach Randy Shannon, lost 38-22 in the Swamp to finish the season at 4-7 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the two-score margin indicates. The loss marked the Gators’ fifth straight in the series. While FSU also had a down year in 2017 at 7-6, they had another strong recruiting class lined up. UF, meanwhile, had apparently struck out in the Chip Kelly and Scott Frost sweepstakes.
As Gator fans filed out of the Swamp that day, they had very little reason to be optimistic that the Gators could close the gap with the Seminoles and return to the ranks of college football’s elite any time soon.
The next day, the Gators hired Dan Mullen as their new head coach.
Fast forward to the Seminoles next visit to the Swamp on Saturday night, and the roles couldn’t have been any more reversed. This time, it was No. 11 Florida that was the heavy favorite and Florida State that had an interim coach and tons of uncertainty surrounding the future of the program.
UF (10-2, 6-2 SEC) made a resounding statement with its 40-17 defeat of the Seminoles (6-6, 4-4 ACC). Florida out-gained Florida State 467-250, picked up twice as many first downs (26-13) and dominated up front defensively to the tune of eight sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss. They could’ve easily put up 50 or 60 points had they not taken their foot off of the accelerator in the fourth quarter.
Clearly, a lot of progress has been made in Mullen’s two years leading the program, such as better offensive and defensive schemes, talent upgrades at the skill positions and defensive line, better quarterback development and a significantly more effective strength and conditioning program.
Perhaps the most important change has been the culture. The Gators know what it takes to win, expect to win every game and put themselves in position to win just about every game.
“We were just lost and confused [in 2017],” receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “When Coach Mullen came, he really changed the whole program and changed the whole mindset. He told us just to work hard, give relentless effort, play for each other and everything will work out."
New coaches always talk about instilling this culture, but it doesn’t always work out as envisioned (ask Willie Taggart and Chad Morris).
“I wasn’t here then, but overall, just looking back then, seeing the culture change,” defensive end Jonathan Greenard said. “What Coach Mullen has done, what this whole staff has done especially with us in the offseason working our tails off, it shows really what we can do. It’s Florida. The talent is always going to be there; it’s just a matter of making sure we’re all on the same page and that we’re executing and keeping our mind on the same goal.”
Mullen said one of the keys to establishing his culture was to give everybody a clean slate when he took over. Unlike other coaches, he didn’t try to build his program around a hand-picked group of players. Instead, everyone got an opportunity.
“I just knew what we were going to build, what we were going to establish,” he said. “I told everybody that. I never judged. I tried not to watch any film, honestly. I tried not to even look at a lot of record and issues – guys that maybe had discipline issues or academic issues or maybe guys were great. I wiped all that out in my first meeting. I said ‘This is what we’re going to do, and we need you guys to buy in.’ And really, they have. I’ve been really pleased with how guys bought in and the success we’ve had.”
Saturday night’s blowout victory accomplished several important things. UF has now defeated FSU two years in a row for the first time since 2004-09. They secured their first consecutive 10-win seasons since 2008-09. Mullen became the first coach in school history to win 10 games in each of his first two seasons. Combined with their win over Miami to start the season, the Gators can claim the mythical state championship. Those intrastate bragging rights might be the most important part of the win.
“Anytime you can win in-state rivals, those are your neighbors,” Mullen said. “People you’re getting up with to go to church with tomorrow, a lot of orange and blue in church tomorrow. You know, that’s when you go to like New Year parties coming up, Christmas parties and holiday parties and all this. You wear [your] orange and blue, you have a lot of pride because you know those are bragging rights for your neighbors.”
The win also represented progress over Mullen’s debut season. While they won 10 games in 2018, they lost at home to Kentucky and Missouri and had to put together a miraculous comeback against South Carolina. They’ve played more consistently this season and dominated the teams they’re supposed to, including the Seminoles.
“That means we’re headed in the right direction,” Mullen said. “We’re heading where we want to go. You come into the season, what record would make a successful season? The ultimate thing that would make a successful season is ‘Do we continue to improve? Do we continue to play hard from the first game to the last? Are we a better team at the end of the year than the beginning of the year?’ This team had to deal with so much adversity, so many injuries, so many other things, and I think we were a better team at the end of the year. So, I think it’s a successful year to this point.”
The Gators haven’t completed all of their goals yet, however. They believe that they deserve to play in a New Year’s Six bowl, which would mark the first time since 2008-09 that they’ve played in major bowl games in back-to-back years. They entered Saturday on the outside looking in, but No. 5 Alabama’s loss to No. 15 Auburn and No. 8 Minnesota’s loss to No. 12 Wisconsin should greatly improve their chances. The Orange Bowl seems the most likely destination, although the Sugar Bowl remains possible.
Mullen challenged the College Football Playoff selection committee, which includes UF athletic director Scott Stricklin, after the game.
“Hopefully, we did enough to get a New Year’s Six bowl, maybe even more,” he said. “I saw, right, Baylor beat a six-win team last week and jumped up five spots. We did the same thing today pretty handily, so we’ll see how that is.
“I think you look at it, we’re 10-2, we’ve played a tough non-conference schedule, going out. It’s going to determine a lot. You look, you say, OK, we went out to aggressively schedule two Power Five teams non-conference. You know, there’s a lot of teams not doing that. Unfortunately, we lost two games by a total of 21 points to the two teams that are right now in the top-4 in the country.”
To the rest of the country, UF’s defeat of a bad FSU team in the Swamp might not seem like much, but it means everything to the Gators and their fans. For the first time since 2009, they walked out of the stadium feeling good about the future of the program.
“We’re the first time in 10 years beating FSU in the Swamp, and we did it in good fashion,” linebacker David Reese said. “So, it feels good.”
It certainly feels better than it did two years ago.