Heading into the 2017 season the Florida Gators were riding high. They had won the SEC East Championship in consecutive seasons, crushed Iowa in a bowl game, had a boatload of returning players and had a premier matchup against the Michigan Wolverines to start the season.
A win over Michigan would surely propel the Gators to another SEC East Championship with the opportunity to play in the newly opened Mercedes Benz Stadium, which opened that year and would host the SEC Championship game. That was the goal.
No need to rehash how that game against Michigan went or how the rest of the season went. If you’re reading it you lived through it and there’s no need to reopen that wound. However, with another matchup against Michigan it’s time to look back and realize just how far these Gators have come and just how quickly they’ve made it happen.
It began with Dan Mullen’s very first interaction with the team. He took over the job in November and told his new players to have fun over winter break because when they returned to school playtime was over. Mullen handed over the team to 29-year old strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage and in just a few short weeks the team looked like the Monstars from Space Jam. The body transformations across the board were undeniable and they’ve shown themselves in spades on the field. The Gators are bigger, stronger, faster and nastier than they have been in maybe a decade.
It paid off. After a week two stumble to a good Kentucky team the Gators ripped off five wins in a row and finished the regular season 9-3, a far cry from the debacle of a 2017 season.
“I feel like it’s really Coach Savage, he just made us all stronger, bigger. Everything starting to come in,” defensive end/linebacker Jachai Polite said. “Then the coaching, more disciplined than the last time. That’s what I really think it is — Savage and discipline.”
The Gators’ losses to Kentucky, Georgia and Missouri kept them from their goal of getting back to Atlanta but their no-quit attitude brought them to a New Year’s Six Bowl game in a stadium they’ve been waiting to see.
“We (felt) real bad just to come out there and lose to Michigan in Jerry’s World,” linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “And you know we’re back here in Mercedes Benz Stadium, probably one of the best stadiums in the world to come take on a great team.”
A great team indeed. The Michigan Wolverines were one win away form playing in the College Football Playoff. They’ll be without four starters but Florida isn’t looking past them. They haven’t done that to any opponent this season. To the seniors and the players that may leave this is their last chance to play for Mullen, for Savage and the rest of the coaching staff. It’s the last chance for them to play with this team, this collection of friends, classmates and brothers. It’s also the end of a long road. Will Muschamp, who is going to be in his third year at South Carolina soon, recruited some of the players on this team. It’s crazy to think how much this locker room has been through. Firth year senior R.J. Raymond tried to sum it all up.
“I guess it would be full circle,” R.J. Raymond said. “Starting the year like that was not good last year but hopefully this year we can finish it off with a win. We’ve been working these last couple of weeks preparing and I think we have a good game plan put together. I look forward to see how it goes. I can’t wait until Saturday.”