Lot on the line for Florida, Michigan

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Florida practices Thursday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Florida faces Michigan in the 2018 Peach Bowl. (Jason Parkhurst via Abell Images for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl)

ATLANTA — Dan Mullen put a foot on the table laid out for the final pre-game news conference to show off his orange and blue Retro 4 Jordan sneakers, the perfect complement to the suit he was wearing.

To his left, Jim Harbaugh looked his nerdy best, Michigan hat with a suit jacket and glasses with thick black rims.

“His style is above the waist. My style is kind of below the waist, right?” Mullen said. “I’m more ankles down, right, in our fashion statements?”

Harbaugh looked like someone was trying to explain to him what water tastes like.

“Don’t know what he’s talking about right now,” he said.

And so we wrapped up this week of Chick-fil-A chicken biscuits and — I kid you not — a moonshine tasting in the media hospitality room Thursday night and get ready for a game that is kind of like the time I saw the Spin Doctors open for the Rolling Stones at Florida Field (1994).

I like the Spin Doctors. They did a fine job. But I wasn’t talking about their performance the next day. It was the freakin’ Stones.

So it is today. On the one hand, Florida and Michigan are playing a big game and on the other it’s a distant third for biggest game of the day. Most of what is on the line in this game is intangible, except the trophy Harbaugh was lusting after Friday.

There’s a lot on the line and then again there is not compared to what will take place in the eight hours after the Peach Bowl.

All the Gator players know is they are happy to be here. And after last season, they are happy to be anywhere still playing football.

“It wasn’t fun (last year),” said quarterback Feleipe Franks. “People ask me about missing Christmas and not being with my family. I like being with my family but I’d rather be here playing in a big-time bowl game.

“Last year, we were home for Christmas. Missing Christmas is OK.”

No offense, Santa.

But this was a program — a brand — that took bowl games for granted, playing in 25 straight before the streak was snapped in 2013. Florida barely got a new streak started before it was crushed again last year.

“We’re sitting at home watching them,” said senior Cece Jefferson. “It’s always hard especially when you feel like you had enough talent.

“Mistakes were made.”

Yes, they were. When 78 college football teams are extending their seasons and you’re home eating cheeseburgers, it’s a pretty sick feeling.

“I didn’t watch them,” said junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. “I didn’t turn them on. We won four games. We didn’t deserve to be in a bowl game. But we made a comeback. It was a reality check.”

I’m not saying Florida’s turnaround this season was because the team wanted so badly to get to a bowl game. But maybe it was a little bit of the motivation?

“I think you’re at the University of Florida, you expect to be playing not just in bowl games, you expect to be playing in New Year’s Six bowls and championship bowls,” Mullen said Friday. “For our guys, I think that the motivator of living up to what the Gator standard is, to be involved in these games.

“More than just getting to a bowl, but trying to get to premiere bowls, I think, was a motivator for this team.”

You have to understand that bowl games are about more than just playing on TV and getting in extra practices for these players.

They get stuff. The better the bowl, the better the stuff.

“I think it shows the young players that, OK, we got all this stuff this year,” Jefferson said. “If you keep working hard and go to the playoffs, think how good the gifts will be there.”

One thing for sure, these guys probably appreciate it more than some of the past Gator teams who always could count on gift cards and fancy sportswear during Christmas.

“We got Jordans that the whole world wants,” said linebacker David Reese. ”(Missing a bowl game) hurts you in the pocket, too. No per diem.”

For this game, Florida players receive $60 a day per diem even though they are fed by the program. The players who got to Atlanta on their own receive the national mileage rate, too (It’s 54.5 cents a mile this year).

And of course, there are all of the goodies. When you are a Jordan Brand school playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game you get the good shoes and other clothes. The bowl provides up to $550 in gifts and each school and each conference can provide gifts up to $400.

This year, Florida and Michigan players each received a $300 Visa gift card, a Fossil watch, Mophie Powerstation XL, an Amazon Echo Dot and a football from the Peach Bowl.

Not going to a bowl game? No fun.

“It almost was embarrassing,” Franks said.

Going to a bowl game, especially a New Year’s Six?

Ho, ho, ho.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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