A decade ago, as Tim Tebow and Florida pummeled a helplessly overmatched Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl, it was hard to imagine the struggles to come for Gators football.

It was always going to be impossible to replace Tebow, one of the greatest players in the history of college football. But this was Florida, the program that dragged the SEC kicking and screaming out of the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust 1980s to the pinnacle of college football in the 1990s and 2000s.

This was a program that closed the 2000s with 30 consecutive winning seasons, 23 consecutive bowl game invitations, and 8 SEC Championships and 3 national championships since 1990. This wasn’t the kind of program that could fall precipitously off a cliff.

Until it did.

Since that bittersweet send-off to Tebow and a special group of Gators seniors in New Orleans, Florida has spent most the decade mired in mediocrity, wandering the college football wilderness.

The Gators have lost 46 games in the 2010s and own a .632 winning percentage (79-46), the worst decade for Florida since the 1970s.  The Gators suffered two losing seasons in the ’10s and lost 6 games or more in 3 seasons.

The Gators lost at least one home game in all but two seasons in The Swamp in the 2010s (except 2012 and 2016) and lost multiple home games in The Swamp in six of those seasons. For perspective, Florida lost only 5 times in The Swamp during the ’90s under Steve Spurrier. In the 2000s, Urban Meyer lost only twice in Gainesville.

It wasn’t just the losing. It was the culture too. Everything that could go wrong did.

Meyer coached the 2010 season through health problems and culture problems, deferring and delegating most operational duties to his assistants until he could take it no more. The Gators lost 5 games and Meyer resigned, admittedly leaving the program “broken.”

Native son Will Muschamp returned to his hometown and infused the program with energy, cleaning up the program’s broken culture off the field. Save one great season, though, he didn’t win enough on the field, losing a staggering 8 games in 2013, including an unthinkable home loss to then FCS Georgia Southern. Muschamp got more time but UF never fixed its offensive woes and Muschamp was dismissed in 2014 despite being beloved by players and the administration.

After the usual suspects (Bob Stoops, mainly) told Florida no, Jim McElwain marked Jeremy Foley’s second panic hire in an otherwise storied career.

McElwain, he with the gilded buyout and curious manner, was never a fit. He won two SEC East division titles, but the Gators never made progress in recruiting and were hopelessly outmatched and outclassed repeatedly by Alabama in Atlanta and Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State. By his third season, the stress of a misfit marriage grinded on McElwain, who made up death threats to escape.

He resigned, but not before an off-field credit card scandal torched his culture, repeatedly underwhelming recruiting classes depleted Florida’s roster and the Gators suffered through a 4-7 season, bottoming out in a 42-7 loss to Georgia, the program’s worst defeat to the archrival Dawgs in four decades.

Rivalry games were a nightmare too.

Florida suffered its first losing decade against Georgia since the ’80s (4-6), and was whipped even worse by FSU (2-7 entering Saturday). The Seminoles won a national championship and Georgia played for one this decade.

Until last year’s Peach Bowl win, Florida’s crowning accomplishment in the decade was either an 11-1 regular season in 2012, which ended in an embarrassing loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, or winning the Outback Bowl in 2016, which was tarnished by a bizarre postgame interview where McElwain declared war on the UF administration. McElwain lost, but not before running Florida into the ground the following season.

All told, Florida spent its lost decade under the management of six head coaches, including interims D.J. Durkin (for a humbling trip to the Birmingham Bowl) and Randy Shannon (who was humbled by a bad FSU team in The Swamp).

By the time Dan Mullen arrived in late November 2017, Florida had a roster with fewer blue-chip players than it had had since recruiting services started tallying them. UF’s 10-year run of consecutive seasons with a  first-round NFL draft pick over, a second losing season in 5 years in the immediate rearview and a College Football Playoff bound Georgia building a monster in Athens.

What’s the old expression? It’s always darkest before the dawn?

To say Dan Mullen has been a breath of fresh air undersells it.

Ever since he Gator chomped off the plane and into his dream job, Mullen has injected confidence and swagger back into the Florida program.

At the time of the hire, many balked. They wondered about his record in big games at Mississippi State and wished that Florida had landed one of its first two choices, Chip Kelly (who has bombed at UCLA) and UCF head coach Scott Frost, who has struggled at Nebraska.

I thought it made sense, and wrote that Florida didn’t settle for Mullen — they got fortunate. 

Not only did Mullen dream of being UF coach, he understood the demands and challenges of Florida’s culture, too. Mullen was offensive coordinator during the halycon days of the Meyer era, so he had an idea of how big you can win at Florida when it’s right. But perhaps more critically, he saw the pressure cooker of Florida off the field and didn’t shy away from that part of the job that swallowed some before him up whole.

Mullen went to work, overachieving in Year 1 and impressively maintaining and improving in Year 2, despite facing enough adversity to crumble less resilient operations.

Finally, after almost a decade, Florida appears to be snapping out of its slumber.

There’s more work to be done.

The program must recruit better to level the playing ground with Kirby Smart’s behemoth at Georgia, Ed Orgeron’s ascendant LSU and Nick Saban’s steady Alabama. The Gators have to find a way to beat Georgia, first and foremost, and even the sunshine pumpers must admit by now that Smart appears to have Mullen’s number.

But all that is for another day.

Saturday night, the Gators can close a lost decade by stylishly entering a new one, doing something they have not done in a decade in the process: Beat Florida State in The Swamp.

Do that, and Florida will have a 10-win regular season for only the third time in 10 years — and this time the losses would be only to two teams in the current College Football Playoff top 4.

A win would also cement Florida’s status as the supreme program in the Sunshine State, with Manny Diaz’s rebuild just beginning in Coral  Gables and Florida State’s coaching search dragging on into December.

Win Saturday, and the lost decade is over. Not just thanks to the turning of the Gregorian calendar, but thanks to the product on the field.

For the first time in a long time, Gainesville is a place filled with hope.