Florida football: 5 ways the Gators will measure success in 2020
After a decade in the wilderness, Florida football has come to life again under Dan Mullen. He became the first coach in the BCS/College Football Playoff era to win a traditional BCS or New Year’s 6 Bowl in each of his first 2 seasons on campus. For Gators fans wondering if glory and championships left with Tim Tebow, the turnaround was a long time coming and a sweet reminder of what Florida football can be.
Of course, as Steve Spurrier said, “winning is a habit and with winning comes the expectation that you’ll do more winning.”
After back-to-back seasons with New Year’s 6 bowl victories, Florida fans have their eyes set on bigger prizes. The program does, too.
After the Orange Bowl win, Dan Mullen was quick to credit his seniors for their accomplishments in turning around a 4-win program and cultural hellscape in just two seasons. He thanked them for putting a winning foundation in place, but was quick to point out the hard stuff comes next.
“Going from 4 wins to 10 wins wasn’t easy, but it was, in some ways, the easy part,” Mullen said in Miami. “Going from 10 to 11 was very difficult. That’s a big leap. But the leap from 11 wins to 12, 13, the College Football Playoff. That’s even bigger. That will take even more investment and commitment.”
Mullen is correct, but the always high expectations in Gainesville are even higher now. Measuring what, precisely, constitutes success amidst feverish expectations can be difficult. Nevertheless, there are some objective markers that would signal even more growth as Mullen continues to build this program back into a national power.
Here are 5 things Florida fans should be able to agree would make 2020 successful
1. Beat Georgia
I expected more pushback last week when I wrote that for Florida to be happy with the 2020 season, they had to win the Cocktail Party. After all, there are scenarios, thanks to Georgia’s tough early schedule, where Florida could lose the game in Jacksonville and still backdoor its way into the SEC Championship Game.
That’s fine. It also would be very disappointing to lose another Cocktail Party.
Here’s the reality: Florida has recruited well of late, but Georgia is a more talented roster. The Dawgs have to replace a bunch of mainstays on offense, but they also return a host of highly-recruited playmakers who all took their lumps and grew up last season. And let’s not forget that getting boatraced in Atlanta aside, Georgia played its best football down the stretch last season, navigating a brutal late schedule and beating a very good Baylor team in the Sugar Bowl.
In 2020, Mullen needs to get the monkey off his back and finally beat Kirby Smart and Georgia. Last year’s loss, to a Georgia team that spent most of the season not playing as well as the Gators, was particularly soul-crushing. It now risks becoming a trend if Florida can’t find a way to win in Jacksonville next fall.
“Beat Georgia, and everything else you hope to do at Florida falls into place,” Spurrier once said.
That will remain true in 2020.
2. Play — and be competitive — in the SEC Championship Game
If the Gators accomplish goal No. 1, they’ll likely achieve goal No. 2, which is to play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2016.
It won’t be enough to get there, either.
Florida hasn’t been truly competitive in a SEC Championship Game since Tebow and Florida lost to Alabama in 2009. If the Gators get to Atlanta, they need to play well and enter the game with the expectation that they can or will win. I don’t think the Gators believed they’d beat Alabama in either of their SEC title games under Jim McElwain.
Going to Atlanta with the chance to win the program’s first SEC Championship in 12 years, that would be a great way to measure success.
3. Offensive line gels
There were glimpses late in the season. Florida bullied a solid Florida State front in their rivalry game last November and physically whipped Virginia at the point of attack in the Orange Bowl. For an offense that spent the bulk of the season near the bottom of the country in rushing offense, that was genuinely encouraging.
The Gators will need better balance in 2020 after graduating the bulk of one of the best wide receiver corps in school history. Florida fans have painted a rosy picture of the receivers returning, but the truth is only Kyle Pitts and Trevon Grimes have proven anything. That suggests the need to take some pressure off Kyle Trask and a strong offensive line that can establish the run will be key.
4. 3rd-down defense improvement
Florida was only an average 3rd-down defense last season, finishing 40th nationally and looking ordinary, at least in most of their big games. Here are Florida’s numbers on 3rd down against its best 4 opponents in 2019: Auburn (2-for-14); LSU (1-for-4); Georgia (12-for-18); Virginia (5-for-13).
The Auburn number is exceptional, the Georgia number abysmal and the Orange Bowl number is average. LSU didn’t have enough 3rd downs to really make 3rd-down defense a factor.
Florida was better statistically on 3rd down in 2018 and will want to get back to that standard if they hope to close out big time opponents and achieve their goals in 2020.
5. Close recruiting with a top 5 class
It’s too early to gloat, but the addition of Tim Brewster to the staff finally gave the Gators an “Alpha” on the recruiting trail and Florida’s improved facilities, results on the field and overhaul of the recruiting operation have begun to pay dividends.
It took Dabo Swinney a while to get his recruiting machine going at Clemson in that rebuild, and I’ve always viewed the Florida build as somewhat similar, given the length of time Florida was “down.” It’s harder at Florida, because the Gators are in the SEC — but there are structural advantages — namely location — that offset some of that.
A big close and a top 5 class would be a huge sign of success for Florida in 2020.