ATLANTA — Practice was over and the Florida players were making their way off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But not everybody was finished.
In one end zone, defensive end Malik Langham was working hard on technique with Tyrone Smith, the coordinator of strength and conditioning at UF.
Langham won’t be playing Saturday against Michigan in the Peach Bowl. He’s a freshman who is redshirting this year.
But it was another indication of how Florida may be in the present, but the staff still has an eye toward the future.
This season will finish in Atlanta, but this was step one in a building process. And to see how that first step has progressed, the guys who will be playing are locked in on showing their opponent how far they have come.
A good chunk of this team remembers what happened the last time UF faced Michigan. It was ugly, a 33-17 loss at Jerry World to open the 2017 season.
“I think Michigan knows this is a very different team,” said cornerback CJ Henderson. “We’re not the same team as last year.”
That team opened the season with high expectations that were flushed right from the start. It was exposed and embarrassed by a Michigan team that dominated both lines of scrimmage.
That group won four games and went without a bowl game (in case you forgot, although I’m guessing you did not).
This team won nine games and is experiencing the treatment of a big-time bowl game.
Take yourself back to that Michigan game a year ago and imagine what you would have said if I told you this team would be here getting ready to face the Wolverines in a New Year’s Six bowl.
No, I wouldn’t have believed it either.
“Light years,” said linebacker Vosean Joseph. “A rematch in this game from where we were last year … This whole season has been about playing teams we lost to last year.”
Players are supposed to improve from year to year, so that’s not the big surprise. But there are different level of improvement and certainly different levels of playing like a team.
You take a guy like Jachai Polite.
“I feel like I came a great distance,” he said Wednesday after practice. “Coaches have helped me really a lot. All around, the whole team, it’s just hard to explain. It’s different.”
Or a guy like Martez Ivey, who finally lived up to his five-star status.
“As a team we play hard, are a lot smarter and have more confidence than the team that played Michigan last year,” Ivey said. “There’s a little more heart out there.”
And of course, Feleipe Franks isn’t the same quarterback who threw for 75 yards and had a key lost fumble in that second-half rout last year.
There is no doubt this is a different Florida team. But is it good enough?
Bowl games are different animals. On the surface, Florida seems like the team that is more committed with four Michigan players already announcing they are going to sit this one out.
But it still comes down to handling the business at hand. Michigan is the favorite and the six-point spread has barely budged even with all of the stud players the Wolverines will be without.
Talking to the players Wednesday, this seems like an important game, not just a chance to gather bowl gifts and compete in go-kart races.
They want to keep the momentum of a three-game winning streak going. Mullen’s message has been simple: win the game. That’s hardly unique.
It’s not any different at the Marriott Marquis (Michigan’s home for the holidays) than it is at the Omni where Florida is staying.
You know what Florida needs? It needs a bunch of guys to play like Dante Fowler. You remember that 2015 Birmingham Bowl when we wondered how motivated the Gators would be.
Fowler played like his hair was on fire and Florida beat East Carolina.
This isn’t East Carolina.
But it’s also not the Florida that the Michigan players saw last year.
It still comes down to this for these Gators.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.