ATLANTA — In this remarkable turnaround season under first-year coach Dan Mullen, the Florida Gators produced the perfect ending Saturday, one that included singing and dancing under confetti and fireworks, some tears of joy and big old football bear hugs all around on the field in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was a championship-like celebration that came after a stunning and complete 41-15 win over No. 7 Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl before 74,006 fans. The No. 10 Gators finish the season at 10-3, will certainly be in the top 10 in the nation in the final media polls and head into the offseason with all kinds of momentum and energy.
Mullen has said he’s going to make this a championship program again.
It appears UF is heading in that direction — and with great speed.
“This was a huge win, especially in Coach Mullen’s first year, to come in and win a New Year’s Six bowl game,” junior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “It’s a huge win for the program going into next season.
“Oh, definitely, (this is where Florida belongs). But we’re not finished here. Eventually, we want to be in the playoffs. But this is a start to it.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone foreseeing this turnaround a year ago. The Gators were coming off a 4-7 season that started with a humbling 33-17 loss to this same Michigan program.
The way the Gators improved over the course of this season, the way they ended it Saturday with one of their most complete performances of the year, it’s obvious this is a completely different team than in 2017.
“Our team really came together this season and changed the way we play,” junior linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “Our mindset now is way different. All we know is go, work hard, strain, strain, strain, keep pushing.
“This win is big. The Gators are back. I’m really proud of Coach Mullen and the staff the way they have just kept pushing us. They know our limits are way beyond what we think they are. They’re going to keep pushing us to be great players, be great men in the world. Just be great.”
The Gators certainly were great for much of Saturday’s game, the way they overwhelmed Michigan (10-3), a school that has been a recent UF nemesis with two one-sided wins over the past three years.
UF beat down a school the Gators had never beaten before, losing all four of the previous games to the Wolverines.
Things have changed in one year under Mullen and the new staff.
“We bought in quickly because we knew it was going to be a big turnaround if we just bought in,” said junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the defensive MVP who had two interceptions in the second half, including a pick-six in the fourth quarter that sealed the win. “We had some setbacks during the season. We took our losses, got back up and kept fighting. A lot of people looked down on us.
“We’re champions now, and we thrive on that, being a champion, not only on the field but off. We got that carried over into this game. We did everything a champion is supposed to do. We deserve this win. That’s what we came out to do.”
Often-criticized quarterback Feleipe Franks, who was benched in the second half against Michigan in last year’s game, was the offensive MVP on Saturday. He threw for 173 yards and a touchdown and ran 20 yards for a TD on a quarterback draw that he audibled into.
Franks has shown steady progress under Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. He may have played the best game of his UF career Saturday.
“The biggest thing they helped me do, just gain my confidence back,” Franks said. “Last year, especially me, I don’t think my confidence could have gotten any lower.
“They helped me bring back confidence day in and day out, whether it be in practice or on game day. Being able to come out here today, not play conservative. Just go out and play the game I’ve been playing my whole life.
“It’s just made football fun again. That’s what it’s done for me.”
The Gators had all kinds of fun at Michigan’s expense Saturday.
Led by Franks and running backs Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine, the offense rolled up 427 total yards, including 257 on the ground, against a defense that led the nation in total defense for much of the season.
Defensively, the Gators stuffed the Michigan running game, holding the Wolverines to 77 yards, and produced five sacks and two interceptions.
It was a complete victory on a big stage — and the perfect way to end this turnaround season.
“This game right here, one step closer to the program being back to where it was,” Gardner-Johnson said.
Mullen thanked his seniors.
“For believing in me,” he said. “I told our guys that the sooner everybody bought in, the sooner we’ll start winning. It started with the seniors. Those guys believed from day one. Nobody questioned, nobody resisted.
“We wanted to peak today. That’s what you want to do, peak on the final game of the season. You’re always getting better. We want to continue to improve.”
In Saturday’s win, the Gators won most of the crucial battles, including the coaching one.
“They were just a better team,” Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said. “They had us. For the most part, they had us figured out. They knew what we were in and how to manipulate it.
“Hats off to Coach Mullen and their coaching staff. They did a great job. And they outplayed us.”