Florida's relentless effort the main takeaway from Dan Mullen's electric debut in The Swamp
In a few ways, opening weekend of this Florida Gators football season was like so many others that came before it.
Tailgates started early and the season’s first handshakes among friends lasted a little longer. The brisket tasted a little better, the music was a little louder, the smiles a bit bigger.
Patrons in orange sundresses and royal blue pants poured into the local watering holes on University Avenue, ready for a new beginning — but not entirely knowing what was next.
Fans lined Gale Lemerand Drive early for the Gator Walk, kids resting on parents’ shoulders just hoping to get a glimpse of their heroes.
Show me a SEC campus on the opening weekend of football season and I’ll show you an excited — or, at a minimum — an optimistic fan base.
In that respect, the first college football Saturday at Florida under Dan Mullen was quite a bit like a host of opening weekends across the country.
In other ways, this opening night of Florida football, played on a warm, glorious night in an energized Swamp, felt entirely different.
For one thing, it was fun.
From the moment Dan Mullen burst out of the south end zone tunnel with a huge smile, the whole evening was defined by joy.
No more talk about the McElwain misery. No matter chatter about frying pans and air rifles and Gainesville gamblers named Tay Bang. No more noise about slow recruiting starts, no more debates about the starting quarterback.
For three hours Saturday night in The Swamp, the only “noise” in the system was the noise of a well-lubricated, rapturous and ready Gator crowd or the public address system pumping Gainesville native son Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with Florida leading 51-0 after three quarters.
Yes, Florida scored 50-plus points. In a football game. This is not a drill.
It was only Charleston Southern, of course, but for one night at least, no one much cared. It was easy to watch the Gators play.
Besides, all you can do is execute against the opponent in front of you. Control the things you can control. Play to the Gator Standard. That has been the Mullen mantra.
Gators fans came to see the Gator Standard: improvement on offense, especially from their immensely talented but frustrating young quarterback, Feleipe Franks.
Franks delivered in spades, becoming the first Florida quarterback since Chris Leak in 2004 to throw five touchdown passes in one game, all coming in the first half.
Gators fans came to see the Gator Standard: imaginative play-calling, an offense that dictates the game’s tempo and terms, and a coaching staff that puts the ball in the hands of an assortment of blue-chip playmakers.
Mullen answered the bell, finding Trevon Grimes quarantined on an early touchdown, Freddie Swain beautifully open on another and bringing the shovel pass and jump pass back to The Swamp for the first time since, well, since Mullen was the offensive coordinator.
Florida fans came to see the Gator Standard: a defense with the audacity to attack and play to the personnel strengths of an elite group of edge rushers and a tremendous group of defensive backs.
Todd Grantham’s group played downhill from the opening defensive series, when Chauncey Gardner-Johnson came on a perfectly timed corner blitz to make a big play and set the tone. The Gators aggression would force three turnovers by night’s end and limit the Buccaneers to 225 total yards, exactly the type of domination you’d expect from a good defense against an overmatched opponent.
The Gators delivered, had fun doing it, and The Swamp roared in full-throated approval.
Florida has spent a decade mostly wandering the college football wilderness, a parochial afterthought nationally and often not even second-best in their home state.
Saturday night was about hitting the reset button, demonstrating to a fan base starved for a winner that the decline was over. It was about laying the first bricks in the foundation for the ascent to come. It was about beginning the process of making Florida football a source of pride again, instead of a source of constant frustration. It was about showing on film that a coaching staff that promised to flip the culture had a message that was resonating. It was about, as Dan Mullen put it, “playing with relentless effort and energy and letting results take care of themselves having met that standard.”
One play, more than any other, captured that mantra, and why this was a special night in The Swamp.
It came in the waning moments of the second quarter, with the Gators leading 38-0.
Having been stopped by Florida near the goal line, Charleston Southern elected to have their senior kicker, Tyler Tekac, come onto the field and attempt a field goal to give the Buccaneers points as they headed into the locker room.
Florida, a program that so rarely blocked kicks under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain that you’d have thought they had instituted a self-imposed blocked kick ban on special teams, had spent the early portions of fall camp placing an emphasis on special teams.
Mullen explained the obvious reason why earlier this summer. “When you are making impactful, winning plays on special teams — especially when you are a player fighting to get on the field elsewhere — that is part of playing to the standard, playing with relentless effort and energy.”
How many times during the McElwain era did we see Florida teams not even try to block a kick?
Already up 38 points, it would have been easy for the Florida players to do that Saturday night, go through the motions, head into the locker room up 35, especially on such a short kick.
Instead, the players started dancing around, juicing up the crowd and pointing at Charleston Southern’s gaps and protection scheme.
An engrossed Swamp roared back in approval, the noise rising and enveloping the building whole, beckoning back to the old days when The Swamp felt mystical and the Gators felt invincible inside its walls.
Just before snap, a handful of Gators defenders quickly switched places on the line. Sophomore defensive lineman Zachary Carter shot the gap and got a fist to the ball, blocking the kick and, for the moment, preserving Florida’s shutout.
The Swamp roared back, a wall of sound in riotous approval, and the Gators sideline celebrated like they had won a championship. That’s what buy-in looks and sounds like.
There will be adversity and challenges in three months to come, perhaps as soon as next Saturday when Florida opens SEC play against a Kentucky team that let one get away against the Gators last season.
But for one night, the Gators made The Swamp fun again, and in the process, showed they’ll be a team that fights and battles in the weeks ahead.