I remember walking into Florida’s postgame press conference after Dan Mullen’s first signature win against LSU and thinking something that I’m sure plenty of people in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium also thought that day.
“The Gators are back.”
And by “back,” I meant back to being capable of beating anyone. “Back” in a sense that they were going to factor into the SEC East race a year after winning 4 games in what was one of the more bizarre seasons of any Power 5 program in the 21st century.
What I — and others — tend to forget in the heat of the moment after monumental wins is that things don’t always follow this linear path. Granted, we were right in assuming that the 2017 Gators were a distant memory and that Mullen righted the ship in a hurry.
It’s easy to look at this linear path that Florida is on now and assume that double-digit wins, a New Year’s 6 Bowl and perhaps even an SEC East title are in the cards this year. It’s not bold to say that the No. 7 team in America that ranks No. 26 in percentage of returning production is going to have a good chance to win a division title.
On the surface, that makes a lot of sense.
But what if I told you that a Florida team that went 3-3 and was -11 against East foes last year would be picked by some to win the division?
You wouldn’t make a “30 for 30” about it, though it should at least give you pause in thinking the Gators are destined to be the team to beat in the East, especially when Georgia has been nearly perfect against the division the past 2 years.
It’s funny because when Georgia started that 2-year run, it was after the 2016 season in which it also went 3-3 against East foes with a first-year coach. The Dawgs were actually +0 vs. the East in 2016, with a pair of those losses coming by 3 points or fewer.
Florida is coming off a year in which it lost 3 divisional games by double digits. And yeah, you could argue the Kentucky game was really a 1-score game, but still. None of those 3 games were true road games, either. And in 2 of Florida’s 3 divisional wins, the Gators trailed in the fourth quarter and needed a late comeback to survive (I’d still love to see what could have happened at Vandy had Ke’Shawn Vaughn been able to stay on the field).
In other words, Florida’s only convincing divisional win game against 5-win Tennessee. So that’s 5 of 6 divisional games that the Gators trailed in the fourth quarter last year. Believe it or not, that number was actually higher in 2018 than it was in the disastrous 2017 season.
And while everyone seems fixated in the Georgia matchup as being the lone hurdle that Florida has to clear, let’s not dismiss a Mizzou team that outscored the Gators 83-33 in a pair of blowout wins the past 2 years. Just because Drew Lock is gone doesn’t mean that hurdle is automatically clear. Franks got benched for how bad he was at home against a very mediocre Mizzou defense.
So why bring this up? Is this my way of saying Florida was overrated last year and that the hype is out of control?
Absolutely not. If I were a Gators fan, I’d feel extremely optimistic about the future despite the intra-division inconsistency and the less-than-ideal offseason. Watching what they did against LSU, in the Peach Bowl against Michigan and even on the road at Mississippi State were all extremely impressive performances in their unique way. If Mullen doesn’t have at least 1 East title 5 years from now, I’d be surprised.
But it’s worth addressing because the margin for error in the East is slimmer than usual. With Georgia at this level, even an East team that goes 6-2 in conference play with a win against the Dawgs could be on the outside looking in. This isn’t 2015 or 2016 anymore.
Florida, to its credit, capitalized during an extremely down time in the division to get to Atlanta twice. Those teams played down to their competition and usually got away with it (Jim McElwain went 7-1 in 1-score games in that 2-year stretch).
Times have changed. The division has changed. And while Florida has publicly focused its efforts on dethroning Georgia, there are other East foes standing in its way (it’s also worth noting that Kentucky outplayed the Gators each of the past 2 years and this year’s game is in Lexington). You can’t play with fire as much as Florida did last year and expect to win the division.
It’s interesting because as great of a job as Mullen did last year and at Mississippi State, he’s only had 2 winning seasons in conference play during his 10 seasons as an SEC head coach. Obviously it was an uphill battle to turn around a historically down program in what many believe to be the toughest division in football.
But Mullen is probably the only person who would be considered a top 10 coach nationally who hasn’t won a division title. How long will that follow him? Will 2019 be the first time that one of his teams puts an entire year together in conference play? I don’t know.
All I know is that if Florida is going to get to that level sooner rather than later, another big step lies ahead.