By Tom D’Angelo, The Palm Beach Post
HOLLYWOOD – The timing could not be better for Dan Mullen to capitalize on Florida’s recruiting success in South Florida.
The second-year coach has the Gators once again the team everyone is chasing when it comes to football in the state having led Florida to consecutive double-digit win seasons after taking over a 4-7 team and defeating his two biggest in-state rivals this season. And he is parlaying that success into another top 10 recruiting class, sitting at No. 9, in 247sport’s composite rankings, with the Dec. 18 early signing period a week away.
Now, he can show off his team in the home stadium of one of those rivals when No. 9 Florida (10-2) plays No. 24 Virginia (9-4) in the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl game in Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Hurricanes.
Though the Gators would rather be representing the SEC in the Sugar Bowl, there is not a better spot outside the playoffs for Mullen to keep the momentum going in Gainesville. Florida has commitments from six players from South Florida, just one fewer than Miami. Four of those are among the top 50 in the state according to 247, the same as the Hurricanes.
And Mullen was able to visit most of them the last two days while in town for an Orange Bowl event Wednesday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel.
“Last night, this morning, this afternoon and then this evening again,” he said when asked how much recruiting he did while in the area.
“Being at the University of Florida this is our home. When you look at recruiting and look at what you are trying to do and accomplish in building a championship level football program, the fact you are playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl and you are here at the Orange Bowl playing on the biggest stage in college football that’s attractive to young men.”
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away as he, too, spent time recruiting, some of it on the local level.
“I spent the morning recruiting, right before we came in here, and as soon as this is over I’m either in the car on the phone or doing it again,” Mendenhall said Wednesday afternoon. “And that will happen the whole time I’m here.”
For Virginia, this is a new experience never having been played in the Orange Bowl game. The Cavaliers, though, did come to Hard Rock Stadium this season and things did not go do well, losing 17-9 to Miami, one of few highlights of the Hurricanes’ season.
Virginia recovered and went on to win the Coastal Division and play in the ACC championship game, where it was crushed by Clemson, 62-17.
“We’re a program that is developing, rising, growing and becoming,” Mendenhall said. “(One) that hasn’t arrived. … is arriving. So, this is a giant opportunity for us.”
Mendenhall said just saying “Orange Bowl” while recruiting brings more credibility to his program.
And because it is the ACC representative for the game, Virginia is the home team. Mendenhall knows how much that designation means considering the opponent.
“This might be the most disproportionate home team/visiting team. … , ” Mendenhall said.
Mullen then chimed in, “I think there’s going to be a lot of orange and blue in that stadium.”
Mendenhall is OK with that considering Virginia is playing in its first major bowl since the Jan. 1, 1991, Sugar Bowl. The Gators are in the Orange Bowl for the fourth time, not including the 2009 BCS national championship game played in the same stadium.
“When announcement was made at Virginia basketball game … It was as if we won a national championship in basketball, which just happened,” Mendenhall said.
The Gators recruiting class a year ago, ranked No. 9 nationally, included two players from the tri-county area, including cornerback Kaiir Elam from Benjamin. In recent years, teams like Georgia and Alabama and Clemson have swooped in and poached most of the top-rated players.
“We’re changing that,” Mullen said. “A lot of it is they look at the opportunity now. You look at the guys we recruit and their opportunity to win a national championship, that’s really important. They now say, ‘Hey, you can do that at the University of Florida again.’
“It’s made it a lot more attractive to all the guys here who say, ‘I’ve love to say close to home but …’ We’ve eliminated all the buts.”