Several Florida players are saying this could be a statement game. But a statement to whom?
To themselves? To the fan base? To Kirk Herbstreit and the nation?
Junior wide receiver Josh Hammond has a good idea. He says the Gators need to make this a statement game to the 2008 national championship team that is being honored today, to show those proud players that Florida football is starting to move back to where it once was as a championship program.
“It will definitely get the juices flowing for a lot of guys on our team and just make guys want to play a little harder and want to win,” Hammond said. “Just for those guys to come back and watch us play, it means a lot. Especially knowing the body of work that they put in and knowing that they wore the same jerseys, the same helmet, the same sort of uniforms. It means a lot for them to come back and watch us play. It means a lot for us as well.
“Definitely, this is a chance to show we’re heading back in the right direction. We know they expect a certain level of play out of us because we put on the same jerseys and helmets that they played in.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen talks often about the Gator standard, living up to the Gator standard. And that standard will be on full display today in The Swamp. The game is sold out, Florida’s first sellout since the Florida State game in 2015.
Tim Tebow. Percy Harvin. Louis Murphy. Ahmad Black. Major Wright. And so many others.
Those guys, that team, are the epitome of the Gator standard.
That was a team that not only had talent, it had a purpose, and a drive that would not be denied.
That team lost a heartbreaker at home to Ole Miss that led to Tebow’s promise and a turnaround that would see the Gators dominate the rest of the season, closing it out with a victory over Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game.
Mullen was part of that special team, too.
“That was a team that had a lot of talent on it,” Mullen said. “But, there are a lot of teams that have talent that don’t always know how to win. That was a team that started and they really learned how to win, how to play for each other, the intensity they went after winning.
“We lost the one game in a close game. And the intensity how they took that loss kind of throwing a chip on their shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, that’s not going to happen again.’ And the work ethic they put in. There are a lot of great memories, a lot of big games that season.”
The biggest game, perhaps, turned out to be the loss to Ole Miss. Tebow failed to convert a short fourth-down run late in the game, allowing the Rebels to pull the 31-30 upset.
The Gators did not look like a national championship team that day. But after the game, Tebow delivered his promise that no one would push himself and his team harder the rest of the way than he would.
It was a moment in defeat that seemed to bring the Gators together.
They were unstoppable the rest of the way, winning their next eight regular-season games by an average score of 50.5-12.2. Then they beat Alabama 31-20 in the SEC Championship Game to advance to the national title game.
“Early in the year we had a couple of big ones,” Mullen said. “Later in the year we started blowing people away as they kind of hit their stride. And then the conference championship game. I guess that was probably the first playoff game.
“Being in those big moments was a lot of fun and being in those big games, it’s a lot of fun to get to do that, to be a part of that.”
That 2008 team helped set the Gator standard. Today’s team is hoping to show Florida football is ready to start moving back toward that standard.
“That team was just electrifying,” said sophomore safety Brad Stewart, who is from New Orleans. “Every game they came out and put up points. They played dominant defense. That was just the Florida Gators. That was the standard around here and that’s what we’re trying to get back.
“I feel like this is a big game. It could be a statement game for us. Really, we just want to come out and show that we can be one of the top programs and we are one of the top programs still. We want to show everybody, all the doubters. We hear all the words, all the talk and we want to show everybody that we are for real.”