FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Almost two years through the Dan Mullen era, Florida appears to have regained its mantle as the top college football program in the state.
But, despite back-to-back 10-win seasons in each of Mullen’s first two seasons, the Gators still aren’t where they want to be.
“When we started with this team last January, we talked about how hard you have to work, and whatever we did the year before, that wasn’t enough,” Mullen said Sunday on the eve of No. 6 Florida’s game against Virginia in the Orange Bowl. “If you did the same, you could expect maybe to win 10 games, but that’s about it. You have no opportunity to win more if we didn’t desperately work every day.”
Indeed, a win would give the Gators (10-2, No. 9 College Football Playoff) their first 11-win season since 2012. Their only losses were to top-ranked LSU and No. 5 Georgia. The Tigers are playing for the national championship next month and Georgia is just two seasons removed from playing for one.
“I think by even just having this opportunity, I think you saw the work the guys have put in through the offseason, through the entire season,” Mullen said. “To put themselves in this position, to be in a position to be better than we were last year, that’s not easy to do.”
Florida is playing in its second straight New Year’s Six bowl since Mullen was hired to replace Jim McElwain, who was fired seven games into the 2017 season. The Gators went on to finish 4-7 -- just their second losing season since 1979.
Under Mullen, Florida has quickly surpassed Florida State and Miami to become the premiere program in the Sunshine State. The Gators bookended the regular season with victories over the intrastate rivals, claiming the mythical state championship.
It’s the first time that’s happened since 2008, when Mullen was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator on the way to Florida’s second national championship in three years. That season culminated with a win at the same stadium where the Gators will play Monday night.
Technically, Florida’s 24-14 win against Oklahoma at then-Dolphin Stadium wasn’t an Orange Bowl. That was during the Bowl Championship Series era, when the BCS National Championship was a standalone game that rotated between the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls.
The Cavaliers (9-4, No. 24 CFP) will no doubt be tested by Florida’s talent -- and what is expected to be a a partisan crowd at Hard Rock Stadium.
“Yeah, they have all this depth and talent at wide receiver,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That is the challenge. And they play a lot of them at the same time. So it’s one of the first things that jumps off the film when you study Florida’s offense is just how many really good athletes are in space and how frequently the ball is delivered accurately and effectively in well-designed plays. It’ll be a challenge for us and will require, man, a lot of innovation, a lot of coaching on our part to try to neutralize that, but that’s one of our biggest tests.”
Florida hasn’t played in a true Orange Bowl game since Steve Spurrier coached his final game as a Gator to conclude the 2001 season. Playing in South Florida is something Mullen’s players and coaches have embraced, though not at the expense of what they’re here to accomplish.
“The key to our team, though, the one thing is the focus while we’re here, that we’re here to win a football game, and then we’re going to enjoy the time and the experience,” Mullen said. “And as long as you have it in that order, you don’t miss out on the preparation.”
Mullen’s last trip to the Orange Bowl didn’t go the way he had hoped. His Mississippi State Bulldogs were upset by Georgia Tech in 2014.
But, for the kid who grew up in snowy New Hampshire dreaming of one day playing in sunny Miami, it hasn’t soured his memories of the Orange Bowl.
“The Orange Bowl is the first bowl game that I was ever a part of as a grad assistant at Syracuse,” Mullen recalled. “You know, I think it just brings back so many memories and is such a special game from just watching it growing up to also having the honor for me -- it’s special for me to be my first bowl game.”