ATLANTA — With confetti falling around him Dan Mullen hoisted the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl trophy over his head and showed it to several thousand Gator fans that had stuck around after the Gators’ 41-15 win over Michigan.
The confetti, the crowd, the trophy, the million dollar smiles around him all serve as validation that his reclamation project is not only on the right track but ahead of schedule.
Saturday’s game against the 10-2, No. 7 Michigan Wolverines was a test. The Gators had never beaten the Wolverines and had been embarrassed the last time they played Michigan to start the 2017 season. Michigan was ranked No. 4 heading into the last game of the season with a chance to go to a playoff game.
Florida ran them off the field and out of Atlanta Saturday.
“After last season, everybody was shocked that we lost all those games and didn’t go to a bowl. Coach Mullen came in and changed our mindset,” linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “That’s what he did.”
It started last December when Mullen took over. He told the team in their very first meeting to expect the hardest offseason program they’ve ever experienced. Florida not only looked bigger, stronger and tougher than in seasons past but they were mentally tougher. Florida could have folded after a week two loss to Kentucky. They could have packed their bags up after losses in consecutive weeks. They didn’t. they continued fighting because they wanted to prove they belonged.
It’s a credit to the players, for sure, but Mullen is the one that built the program that made them believe in themselves again and gave them the tools to be successful this season.
“He wants to be a big time coach like (Nick) Saban of the league,” Jachai Polite said of Mullen. “He’s gonna be that very soon. This league is about to be his. I don’t care what anybody says. It’s gonna be his.”
Even Saturday’s route was uneasy early on. Florida won the toss and deferred. Michigan running back Christian Turner took a handoff and scampered 60-plus yards for a score. Replayed showed that he stepped out of bounds and the touchdown was called back. Florida ended up forcing a turnover on downs later in the drive. Florida had to settle for a field goal and then Michigan took a 7-3 lead when Shea Patterson found Donovan Peoples-Jones in the end zone. Florida settled for another field goal before eventually taking a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
That’s when they distanced themselves.
The Gators came out and scored on their second and third drives of the second half to make the score 27-10. Michigan would get within 14 points but that was it. Florida put its foot on the Wolverine’s neck and applied pressure.
“We bought in quickly, because we knew it was going to be a big turnaround if we just bought in. We had some balks during the season. We took our losses, got back up, and kept fighting. A lot of people looked down on us,” cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Jonson said. “Everything, we fought for, you know. Like he said, we champions now, and we thrive on that, being a champion, not only on the field but off the field. I think that got carried over into this game. We did everything a champion is supposed to do, and we deserve this win, and that’s what it came out to.”
This is just the beginning for Mullen and the Gators.
Walking out of Mercedes Ben Stadium Saturday night I thanked a Peach Bowl representative for their hospitality all week long — it’s truly a first class bowl game. He said, “well you’ll want to be back here next year for the big one.” He was referencing that the Peach Bowl will host a College Football Playoff Semifinal in 2019 and for the first time this season I didn’t think to scoff at the notion that Florida could do that.
Dan Mullen, in just over one season, has restored the Gator standard.