Since Dan Mullen was hired as the Gators’ coach more than two years ago, he has constantly stressed the importance of getting the program back to the ‘Gator Standard.’
The Gator Standard includes many things, such as practicing and playing with maximum effort at all times, succeeding away from the field and making the Swamp the most intimidating place to play in college football. Above all, however, the Gator Standard is about winning championships. At its best, this program can compete for a national championship every year.
To say the Gators hadn’t lived up to the standard in the eight seasons prior to Mullen’s arrival would be an understatement. Losing eight games and needing a signing day surge to finish with a top-20 recruiting class would’ve seemed unthinkable 10 years ago.
On Monday night in Miami Gardens, the No. 9 Gators again showed how much progress they’ve made toward becoming annual contenders under Mullen with their 36-28 defeat of No. 24 Virginia in the Orange Bowl. With the win, Florida (11-2, 6-2 SEC) secured its first 11-win season since 2012, won marquee bowl games in consecutive years for the first time since 2008-09 and finished in the top-10 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2008-09.
“I'm really proud of our players,” Mullen said. “Just under a year ago, this team was born, and we talked about going from four wins to 10 wins was special, but to go from 10 wins to 11 is going to be a lot harder, and those guys bought into it. They started working last January, and they worked, they grinded all season long in everything that they did.”
Mullen became the first coach ever to win a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl in each of his first two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Not only did he do this, but he did so with a banged-up defensive line, a porous offensive line and a backup quarterback for most of the season.
With his best recruiting class so far on its way, the future seems bright for Mullen and the Gators. He credited his seniors for changing the culture and leading the program on an upward trajectory.
“They've bought in and they've restored that Gator Standard, and they get to walk out the door knowing they've restored the Gator Standard to what it is, building that foundation of a team that expects to … go win an SEC and a National Championship,” he said.
Mullen clearly wanted to enjoy the victory as he accepted the trophy, tossing oranges to anybody who was looking. However, he was quick to point out that while winning the Orange Bowl is good, the standard hasn’t been completely restored yet. That will only happen when they win the national championship game, which will be played in Miami following next season.
“Next year, I don't expect anything less than a National Championship,” freshman cornerback Kaiir Elam said. “That's just me. I feel like we just need to keep improving, don't take any steps back, and we'll be there.”
They’ll enjoy the victory for a few days, but the 2020 team will begin its journey soon.
“We have to do more than we did last year, get better than we were last year, and then the mental toughness it takes from every single game, every single practice throughout the year to be exact because you look at the margin for error is so small,” Mullen said.
Added senior defensive end Jonathan Greenard: “I'm looking at what they've got coming back, they can do more. And the guys coming in, I'm excited. I mean, this is only just the beginning of it, honestly.
“Next year, they are just going to capitalize off of that, understand where we were this past year, and National Championship in my eyes. So, we've got that in our eyes now.”
Perine’s perfect sendoff
Several of UF’s seniors enjoyed big games against Florida State on their Senior Night on Nov. 30. Freddie Swain and Van Jefferson each caught a pair of touchdowns, Tyrie Cleveland had a long kickoff return and Greenard racked up three sacks. However, as was the case most of this season, Lamical Perine was held in check, rushing for just 18 yards on four carries. He didn’t get that senior sendoff moment that so many were hoping for.
He’ll have to settle for merely winning Most Valuable Player honors in the Orange Bowl. He rushed for a career-high 138 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries (10.6 yards-per-carry) and caught five passes for 43 yards and another score. He became the first player in school history to record a rushing and receiving touchdown in multiple bowl games.
If not for his toes barely dragging the sideline chalk with the ball at the 1-yard line, he would’ve had another touchdown midway through the final period. Perine credited Mullen for his career night.
“Just getting put in the right situations, honestly,” he said. “The guy next to me is a great head coach and great guy, so he just schemes it up every week, makes sure he puts players in the best position.”
Mullen said that Perine is one of the best running backs in the country, which is a result of his selfless and hard-working attitude.
“Instead of worrying about ‘Hey, where are my rushing stats?,’ he worried about ‘Am I doing what I need to do to help the team win and to be the great player on the team that when the game’s on the line, they can go to me, run or throw or protect the quarterback, and I’m going to be ready to make a play?’”
Florida’s offensive line finally got some push in the running game against the Cavaliers (9-5, 6-2 ACC). While undersized, UVA still entered the game ranked 30th in rushing defense. UF pounded out 244 yards.
Mullen said UVA was the only team they played this season that tried to take away the pass and force them to run the ball. The deep passing game simply wasn’t an option.
“We have a bunch of four senior wideouts at halftime, they're looking at me, and they're like, ‘Man, Coach, like, this is it. This is our final game, and we're running the ball,’” he said. “And I'm like, ‘Can we run by?’ And they're like, ‘No, man, they keep backing up and backing up and backing up. We've just got to keep blocking.’ But it just shows the selfless manner of our team.”
Because of their selflessness, Perine finally got that special sendoff.
As usual, once the final seconds ticked off the clock, some of the attention began to turn to who might declare early for the NFL Draft.
Cornerback CJ Henderson declared for the draft earlier this month and didn’t play against Virginia. Mullen said a couple of weeks ago that he doesn’t anticipate any more juniors declaring. Still, you never know what a player is going to do until he announces his decision.
The three most likely candidates to declare for the draft are receiver Trevon Grimes, cornerback Marco Wilson and receiver Kadarius Toney. Wilson said on Saturday that he will discuss his situation with his family and make his decision soon. Grimes has yet to set a timetable for his decision, but the signs seem to indicate that he will return.
That leaves Toney, an explosive and frustrating-to-watch athlete who can either take a play 80 yards to the house or lose 15 yards by running sideline-to-sideline. After the Orange Bowl, he said that he hasn’t made his decision yet but believes he has put enough on tape to give himself the ability to turn pro.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Toney said. “I’m trying to enjoy this.”
Elam calls game
With Florida leading 33-21 midway through the fourth quarter, Virginia put together a 58-yard drive down to the UF 17-yard line, looking to make it a one-score game with plenty of time left. On third-and-seven, UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins lofted a pass down the right sideline for Hasise Dubois. Florida true freshman cornerback Kaiir Elam leapt high above the field, caught the ball and held on as he hit the ground for an interception that essentially sealed the win.
"I know [Dubois] was their bigger-bodied guy," Elam said. "I just knew that if I got my head around, I would be able to just play the ball. I knew he wasn't really used to doing any routes except for like flies, so I just used my head and played the play."
Without Henderson, Elam assumed an even larger role in making his third straight start. He’ll enter the 2020 season with a ton of expectations to live up to, including those of his head coach.
“We're expecting him to carry on that tradition of being DBU here and having one of the best secondaries in the country,” Mullen said.
One of the Gators’ biggest points of emphasis entering the game was to keep the supremely athletic Perkins in the pocket and make him beat them with his arm.
While he did throw for 323 yards and four touchdowns, he gained only 24 yards on 14 carries. Mission accomplished. UF’s front-seven did a great job of staying in their rush lanes and keeping Perkins from scrambling. They sacked him three times but could have gotten a few more if not for his elusiveness.
“He's slippery,” Greenard said. “He's like playing a running back back there. We kind of knew going into the game we just had to make a couple adjustments in the beginning, basically learning how to rush against him and what he wants to do. Hats off to him. He made our jobs a lot harder.”