Florida football: South Carolina is a defining game for Dan Mullen's program in Year 2
Saturday’s trip to Williams-Brice Stadium to take on Will Muschamp’s confident South Carolina team is a massive game for Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators.
I know, I know.
Coming off 2 consecutive weekends where the Gators played in top 10 contests featured on College GameDay, it’s a tough sell to call a noon kick at unranked South Carolina a defining football game. And isn’t Kirby Smart’s Georgia and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party next?
After all, wins over then-No. 7 Auburn in The Swamp are the games we remember. Classic games in Tiger Stadium at night, even when they end in hard-fought defeat, are the games we remember. Florida-Georgia games are the ones we remember. Ten years from now, will anyone remember what happens Saturday in Columbia?
I’m here to tell you they might, and for good reason. Saturday afternoon’s game is a defining moment for Dan Mullen’s program in Year 2 of his tenure in Gainesville.
Is Florida on the way back under Mullen? Oddly, the Gators had plenty of skeptics after their win over Auburn, but seemed to earn a great deal of respect for going toe-to-toe with Joe Burrow and LSU in Baton Rouge for most of 4 quarters. Is that respect warranted? Is Florida a team to be feared in the SEC East?
When you’ve spent most of a decade in college football’s wilderness — and having suffered through their worst decade from a win percentage standpoint since the 1970s — trust is doled out in teaspoons, not coffee cups.
Want people to trust the brand again? Go up to Columbia and take care of business. Set the stage for the biggest Cocktail Party since at least 2012, and the first one where both the Dawgs and Gators enter ranked in the top 10 since 2008.
A win at South Carolina doesn’t mean the Gators are back.
Hardly. But it would be a sign that in less than 2 full years, Mullen’s program is past the point of slipping up in the types of roadblock games that have tripped up the Gators throughout this lost decade.
Don’t buy that? We have the receipts. Ask Will Muschamp.
In 2014, what would ultimately be his final team in Gainesville started the season 3-1, losing only to eventual SEC champion Alabama. The Gators lost an epic game to LSU (sound familiar) before falling flat on their face a week later at home against Missouri, 42-13. Yeah, the Gators won the Cocktail Party two weeks later that season. But their season goals were derailed when they lost 2 consecutive football games in October.
How about the guy who replaced Muschamp? How did he do in tough road contests after hard-fought physical football games? Glad you asked, because in 2016 Jim McElwain’s team started 6-1, manhandling Kirby Smart and Georgia in the Cocktail Party 24-10.
A week later, his team was bullied and bulldozed by Bret Bielema and a pedestrian Arkansas team in Fayetteville, 31-10. That Gators team would rally to win the SEC East, but any chance they had at earning national respect that season mostly died in that loss to Arkansas.
Dan Mullen knows about deflating losses, too.
Last year in the Cocktail Party, Mullen and the Gators let a 1-score game in the 4th quarter get away from them, losing 36-17. Instead of rallying the following week, Florida was trounced on its home field by a .500 Missouri team 38-17. The Gators rallied to win a New Year’s 6 Bowl game, and hadn’t lost since until last week. But as Florida heads on the road to play a .500 South Carolina team, forgive some folks who might be wary of history repeating itself.
Mullen knows this and has been preaching the stay-focused mantra to his football team this week.
“Everything we want to do is out in front of us,” Mullen told the media in Gainesville Monday. “We’ll see what our attitude is like this week. You don’t win or lose the game on Saturday. You win or lose the game during the week with how you prepare. Look at the mistake we made last year with 2 losses in a row. How are we going to respond and fix our mistakes so that doesn’t happen again?”
Senior Joshua Hammond is leading and saying the right things.
“We can’t let it happen again,” Hammond said Monday. “A lot of guys that are on the team now were here last year and have been through the situation. Guys are just ready to get back on the practice field and break down mistakes from last week and get ready for South Carolina.”
Great programs with healthy, winning cultures don’t let that happen again.
They go and play good football teams — and make no mistake, the statistics and recent play suggest South Carolina is a gritty, good football team — and take care of business.
Great programs are accountable. They don’t use injuries to All-SEC defensive ends as a crutch for bad defense. They put their heads down, call the next man up and go execute.
Great programs don’t play composed, poised football in one of college football’s most taxing environments and then fall asleep at the wheel and make mental mistakes in a noon road kick the following week. They understand what is at stake and go seize the moment.
“It’s a reset for us, with 4 games left against the SEC East,” senior safety Donovan Stiner said Monday. “We have to use it as fuel to get better. We know that (LSU loss) is not going to count against us winning the East, and we know that one of our ultimate goals this year is to win the East.”
Four games for Atlanta. Destiny in hand.
Most this decade, the Gators would wilt. Mullen is building a program that won’t. We get a defining answer as to how far along they are in that project this Saturday.