The greatest trick Dan Mullen played in the offseason was convincing us all that 2017 was a long time ago.
He came out with a message of unity, inviting all Gators whether students, former players, or alumni to join in. He brought back an offense that has worked in Gainesville before with a new defensive coordinator as aggressive as last year’s was passive. Only three players transferred out in the offseason, all for understandable playing time reasons and not due to personality mismatches. Everything felt so new and positive.
For the most part, Mullen kept the illusion of distance from last year up through the bye week. There was the hiccup against Kentucky, where the team by the admission of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson thought it could win merely by showing up and Adarius Lemons announced his transfer locker room afterwards. That was a glimpse of the old Gators showing through, but the team rolled Colorado State and Tennessee before sweeping its West opponents and coming back big on Vandy.
The team was able to hang in there for three quarters against Georgia, but the defense ran out of gas. Since that final frame turn, we’ve been reminded that last year was not so long ago.
The team tried its win-by-showing-up routine against Missouri and got embarrassed. The defense could barely stop anything and the offense finally got so bad that Mullen tried a quarterback change. Early on against South Carolina, it seemed like we were in for more of the same.
The Gamecock offense could do almost nothing wrong for much of the game. It ground out a touchdown drive on 13 plays to start. It then went 15, 30, 22, and 19 yards on a six-play drive to score off of big plays. The Gator linebackers looked clueless in pass coverage, and in the second half, the secondary lost Deebo Samuel on a quick slant to the tune of 89 yards. This wasn’t a changed defense. It looked like the 2017 defense had run out on the field again no different than a week prior against Mizzou.
The UF offense couldn’t do much on its opening drive, but it could at least fight. Feleipe Franks turned in one of his best performances, not the least because the beastly running attack took the pressure off of him and tore up a severely shorthanded South Carolina defense.
To be sure, Franks was a part of that running attack too. He finally looked like the “willing runner” that Mullen has been hoping to see behind center all year. And with the run game slicing and dicing, Franks was able to run up a 151.5 passing efficiency with a 52.2% success rate on passing plays. The latter is well above what the Gators have normally gotten from him. His fire and aggressiveness on the ground appeared to rub off on others; I’ve never seen Kadarius Toney lower his shoulder on defenders that many times in the rest of his games at Florida combined.
The offense, then, showed that the promise of a new team in 2018 was still alive. The defense eventually got with the program late, too. The UF offense did its part by cutting the lead to ten with less than a minute to go in the third quarter. From there, the Gamecocks went punt-punt-interception with their final three drives.
In the end, the 2018 Gators won out. They rode another of the new storylines — that of Nick Savage and his greatly improved conditioning program — to a strong finish. South Carolina is not a good team, but make no mistake, this ultimately was a good win for the Gators.
That said, the 2017 Gators weren’t far away. In addition to the familiar blown coverages and head-slapping results like giving up a 12-yard run on 3rd & 7, there was the matter of Franks and Lamical Perine making shushing gestures at the home crowd. The extreme us-against-the-world that Jim McElwain cultivated reared its head, running exactly opposite of Mullen’s message of Gator Nation inclusiveness.
Over the summer, I compared Mullen’s time at Mississippi State to Steve Spurrier’s time at South Carolina. It took each of them a whole six years to break out of the ruts of mediocrity that those programs had been in before their arrivals.
I don’t think it will take Mullen that long to get Florida turned around — he can recruit far better players to Florida than either MSU or Carolina can, and I’m not sure he’d get that long to break out of the program’s seven-year trend anyway — but it goes to show that culture changes can be slow.
It’s not just about Xs and Os. It’s about what’s going on between the ears of the Jimmies and Joes too. The project in Gainesville has advanced in fits and starts. It’s not been without setbacks.
The fact is that 2017 really wasn’t that long ago. We’re still less than a year from the end of the Gators’ streak of losing six-of-seven to close out last season. The team is still mostly the same players, especially with Mullen having signed a small 2018 class with many of those newcomers redshirting.
The 2017 Gators aren’t completely gone, as we’ve seen them three or four times this year. The good news is that the 2018 Gators fought them off to secure a win on Saturday.
It’s no longer clear from one week to the next which team will show up. Every time the new guys win out, even if it’s not for an entire game on offense or only the fourth quarter on defense, it’s a win for Mullen’s project of reshaping the program into a champion once again.