An early defeat can often spell the end of a team’s season, as the loss of momentum, and the belief that fate is sealed, sets in and doesn’t dissipate.
Florida’s 27-16 loss to Kentucky at home in the second week of the season could have been such a game for the Gators, especially considering the circumstances surrounding the loss. After the double-digit loss to the Wildcats, coach Dan Mullen was asked about UF’s potential that season. Mullen said the Gators would need to work harder in practice, and that UF’s progress hinged on toughness, mentally and physically, proclaiming the team would only succeed if they continued to develop in areas critical to success during the season.
Now, with a five-game winning streak and an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat in the SEC East, UF is crediting much of their success since the loss to the Wildcats to improved fortitude all-around.
“I think their understanding of how to prepare for a game and play in different games,” Mullen said after being asked about the team’s most significant improvement since that loss to the Wildcats. “That your performance on Saturday is a reflection of how you practiced during the week. That just because you have a Gator helmet on, doesn’t mean everything is going to work out fine and we’ll be OK. If we don’t put in the time, if we don’t put in the work, in every phase of the game, we can’t expect to be successful. I think that’s the biggest one that our guys have really bought into.”
Physical toughness often comes from mental toughness, and cognitive fortitude requires treating each opponent as if they’re a top-10 program. Just because Florida has on a Gator helmet, as Mullen said, and the opposition has on a historically inferior one doesn’t mean they deserve to be taken lightly. It ended up becoming another teaching point, but the Gators almost experienced it in Nashville just prior to the bye week.
“Biggest change, I think that we approach each week knowing that we got to respect each opponent, and we learned a little bit of that when we played Vandy,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “You got to respect your opponent, no matter who you’re playing. It’s not easy to go on the road in the SEC and win.”
Now, while not a true road game, the Gators will head to a neutral site for a top-10 match-up with Georgia where, if both program’s records and performances this season are any indication, the mentally toughest team will likely prevail. Many thought Florida would need more than a season to return to prominence in the SEC; as it seems, the talent was there all along — the program just needed a coaching staff to instill mental toughness. It’s a far cry from where Florida was at mentally before the Georgia game last year.
“Last year wasn’t so fun for our team, but just coming from then to this year, our record is a lot different. The way the guys approached the week, preparing for a game is different,” Franks said. “We went through a coaching change, which turned out for the better for us.”