Spending Christmas at the Omni Hotel is nice, but it isn’t home for the more than 100 players, coaches and staffers that the University of Florida brought to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. Dan Mullen tried to make things more like home by bringing the family dog, Heisman, along with him.
Heisman was in tow on Christmas Eve when Mullen met reporters for his first press conference since arriving in Atlanta.
“Christmas is Christmas Day, but it’s also Tuesday on a game week. We’ll try to do a great job of separating the two,” Mullen said. “We’ll walk out early in the morning and we’ll have a whole big Christmas celebration. There will be a lot of big gifts under the tree and a big Christmas breakfast. Then we’ll switch into game mode in the in the afternoon.”
The Peach Bowl has activities for the players. The teams will spend Monday night at the Andretti Indoor Go-Kart track in Atlanta. Tuesday, Christmas night, the two teams will compete against one another in a basketball competition in the Omni Hotel. The Peach Bowl will also host a banquet style dinner for both teams on Christmas day. The Gators’ coaching staff and the Peach Bowl committee will both do their best to make the Holidays feel like home for the players and give them an experience they won’t forget.
“They get the opportunity to go over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site and get to go to the College Football Hall of Fame and do things they might not have ever done educationally,” Mullen said. “The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is one of the premier games in all of college football. You have two top-10 teams playing each other, I think it’s as great of an experience as anything you’re going to do in college football.
As Mullen said, there is still a game to be played.
Not traditional opponents in the slightest, Michigan and Florida have become almost regular opponents. This will be the third time the Gators and Wolverines square off since 2016. Michigan is 4-0 all-time against Florida with a 41-7 win in 2016 and a 33-17 win in the 2017 season opener. Many players on Florida’s current roster were on the team in 2017 and some on the team for the 2016 bowl game as well. Those losses sting, but this is a new era for Florida football and they’re eager to change the narrative.
“We’re ready to go out there and compete. They went and beat us two to three years, so it’s going to be a big challenge on us, lot of pressure on us,” Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “Like I said, they’re a solid team. Just got to go out there and focus up, do what we’re supposed to do.”
Michigan will be without three of its best players. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and running back Karan Higdon will all skip the game as they get ready for the NFL Draft.
That won’t change how Florida prepares.
“What’s really amazing is when you win the game, it’s an unbelievable bowl experience. When you lose the game, it’s not quite as good of a bowl experience. It just changes the whole narrative of the week,” Mullen said. “So we talk to our players a lot about splitting the day in eights. They need to get at least eight hours of sleep to get ready for the game, spend eight hours a day worrying about football and then eight hours a day of social, fun time. In that eight hours of football, that’s how we eat, get dressed, taped, watch film and practice. There’s an awful lot of social, fun time as well to enjoy, but when it’s football time, make sure you’re completely locked down on football.”
Mullen also has stressed to his team that this is the last time they will all play together. Each year and each team is its own. This is the last opportunity they will have to be with each other and play football. This bowl game doesn’t have anything to do with what the 2019 team will do but it can go a long way to letting the team prepare with a smile on its face rather than having to go through a Nick Savage workout program with another disappointing loss on their mind.
“You know you play on Dec. 29 and we don’t play again until Labor Day next year. That’s a long time to not be smiling that whole time,” Mullen said. “You want to be smiling after the win. I love that feeling. You win that last game and you leave on a high note.”