Gators seek to take next step toward a championship

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Virginia Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall, left, and Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen pose for a photograph during a news conference Sunday for the Orange Bowl in Fort Lauderdale.. Florida plays Virginia in the Orange Bowl on Monday night. (AP Photo/Mario Houben)

 MIAMI GARDENS — Winning 10 games for the second consecutive season, and having played LSU toe-to-toe on the road, the feeling among the Florida Gators is they’re closing in on becoming a championship program.

 “Next step is a championship,” senior middle linebacker David Reese said. “I feel like a championship is coming soon.”

 But to get there, to take that next step, the Gators probably first need to avoid making a misstep in the Orange Bowl, where they are more than a two-touchdown favorite over Virginia.

 Nothing would stall championship momentum more than an upset loss in the final game of the season that would drop UF out of the final top 10, and maybe off the list of national title contenders heading into the 2020 season.

 So, yeah, this game is important. The expectation is the Gators will not take the underdog Cavaliers lightly.

 “It’s really important for us to get this win,” sophomore cornerback Marco Wilson said. “Eleven wins would be cool to get, but also we’re playing. Any time you’re playing a game, we want to win no matter what, no matter what game it is or who we’re playing against.

 “This is the last time people get to see you on the field until next year. No matter what you did, the games before, usually people are going to just look at this game and have their opinion for the next season based off of this because it’s the last game of the season. So, it’s really important to just handle our business in this game and put on a show.”

 UF’s goal heading into the season was to win a championship, starting with the SEC East, then the SEC, then on to the College Football Playoff. None of that happened, of course, because of two close losses to two top five teams — LSU and Georgia.

 But two other important goals can still be achieved tonight — an 11th win, one more than last season, and a second consecutive top-10 finish that would continue to give Dan Mullen’s program momentum moving into 2020.

 “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. “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 to be a much better football team in every aspect of the program, in everything that we do

 “Just having this opportunity (to improve on last year’s record), you saw the work the guys have put in through the offseason, through the entire season. 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.

 “We’ve had a good year. Obviously, you want to finish it the right way and send everybody out, all our seniors out the right way for the work that they’ve put in.”

 This is a big game, an important one, for the Gators. So, this trip to south Florida has been a business trip. But a fun one. The players have been to the beach, received bowl gifts, stayed in a luxury hotel and been out on the town.

 Mullen is OK with that, because of the work his players have put in through the offseason and the season, and how they’ve kept that focus throughout bowl preparation.

  “One thing I do love, our guys love to play football,” Mullen said. “They love playing. One of the things we always try to do is make the bowl game such a great reward, and I think that’s one of the things that makes the bowl system so special. 

 “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. And as long as you have it in that order, you don’t miss out on the preparation. 

 “Our guys understand that. They’ve taken advantage of it, and I think they’ve had a lot of fun, and they’ve had a great week of preparation, as well.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Following up 4-7 and a coaching change in 2017, with 10-3 and two losses to teams they should have beat in 2018, with an 11-2 season and only losses to top 5 teams is REAL progress. The next step, after winning big tonight, is getting ready to take down the Ugly Dawgs and taking the SEC East crown in 2020.

    The above progression will complete Gator football’s cultural transformation. After that, next steps will be winning recruiting battles for top Florida talent and challenging for an annual spot in the CFP.