For four years the Florida Gators were the talk of the nation. They dominated college football with an explosive offense, punishing defense and a player in Tim Tebow that is arguably one of the best players to ever play college football.
Two National Championships, 14 All-Americans, a Heisman and countless memories from 2006-2010 — if you weren’t a Gator you were looking up at them and Florida fans let you know just how good they were. The rest of the college football world was waiting for it to end, to give them a chance to throw it back in Florida’s face but when you’re in it you can never see the end coming.
That’s what makes the actual end even harder, it happens quickly and dramatically. It hit Gator Nation like a ton of bricks.
Urban Meyer left and there was excitement about a local guy coming back to Gainesville in Will Muschamp. There was optimism after a 7-6 season. The Gators went 11-2 and, as Muschamp would remind anybody with ears that offseason, the Gators were a Notre Dame loss to Southern Cal from playing Alabama in the National Championship. Then, my first season covering the team, Florida went 4-8. Muschamp was fired after starting the next season 6-5 (4-4 SEC) and Florida went in a different direction.
They replaced the fiery tempered Muschamp with the “aw shucks” personality of Jim McElwain. Like Muschamp, McElwain came from the Nick Saban coaching tree. Like Muschamp, McElwain had early success. Florida went 10-4 in his first season and went back to the SEC Championship game. They lost that game 29-15 but there was a reason to be optimistic. Florida’s went 9-4 the following season and went back to Atlanta but skepticism started to grow. That reached a tipping point when Alabama blasted Florida 54-16 in the 2016 SEC Championship game, which just served to show how far Florida was from being an actual contender. Getting to Atlanta is nice but not if you couldn’t be competitive when you got there.
The excitement and hype that surrounded the beginning of Muschamp’s tenure quickly dissipated when Florida went 4-8. The McElwain bubble burst when Alabama dominated Florida in 2016 and then the following season was an unmitigated disaster. Losses, unsubstantiated death threats and off the field scandals ruined the 2017 season and sent McElwain packing.
The Florida Gators football team is too big to ever truly be irrelevant. Even when they’re losing that’s a story but the fan base has been through a lot. Each new coach brought excitement, not just the excitement of a new coach and a new start but wins as well. Early wins make the subsequent losses and restarts hurt even more.
Here we are again.
Dan Mullen took over and immediately won over the fan base. He was a connection to the times when Florida stood atop the college football mountain looking down at the programs trying haplessly to keep up. He came to Gainesville knowing the expectations, which was already a step ahead of the last two coaches. Muschamp knew the expectations and the pressure but struggled to deal with the backlash when those expectations were not met. McElwain never fully understood the expectations and therefore didn’t understand why fans weren’t happy losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship, as he was quick to point out that Florida was winning it’s division.
Mullen doesn’t just understand the expectations, he helped create them, he finds a comfort in the pressure that they create and he’s trying to build a program that will once again set a new level of expectations.
Florida is in it right now. The Gators are 6-1, nationally ranked, have beaten other nationally ranked teams and they’re staring at a date with No. 8 Georgia in less than two weeks. It feels like Florida is back but is this time different? Florida fans have gotten their hopes up time and time again since the 2008 season only to have them dashed.
This Florida team, this program feels different. Perhaps similar stories were written during the past two tenures but this time it truly does feel genuine. It didn’t back in September when Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time in 31 years but that was followed by a convincing win at Tennessee and a hard fought win over a ranked Mississippi State team and another over No. 5 LSU. The Gators weathered an early storm against Vanderbilt for its fifth win in a row. They’ve won by following the plan. They’ve won by explosive plays on offense. They’ve won thanks to an aggressive, stifling defense and field position.
Florida fans have every right to be skeptical if they choose to be. It’s a natural reaction if you try to tie the last three coaches together because of how their careers at Florida have started but they shouldn’t.
This is a different era of Florida football. This isn’t the smoke and mirrors of the past eight seasons and it’s time, if you haven’t already, to push all in on Dan Mullen and his version of the Florida Gators.