In every season, there are turning points, transformative moments that can lead to good things, to bad things, and sometimes, just to mediocre things.
In the case of the 2018 Florida football team, there are two significant turning points that have led the Gators to where they are now — 9-3, No. 10 in the nation and heading for a date with No. 7 Michigan in a New Year’s Six bowl game, the Dec. 29 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
First turning point: the SEC road win at Tennessee on Sept. 22.
The second: the second half of the South Carolina game on Nov. 10.
Many might assume that the first transformative moment came in the direct aftermath of the stunning loss to Kentucky in The Swamp that prompted Dan Mullen to demand more toughness and physical play from his players.
The Gators responded in practice, then went out and beat Colorado State 48-10.
That was a move back in the right direction. But the players will tell you the real turnaround to the season started with the 47-21 rout of Tennessee in Knoxville the following Saturday.
“Tennessee,” junior wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “I feel like that was the best game we played. We hit on all cylinders — special teams, offense, defense. That was a great game.”
Two weeks after getting physically pushed around by the Wildcats, the Gators did the same to the Vols, dominating both lines of scrimmage. The defense produced six turnovers (four fumbles and two interceptions) and the offense showed balance and explosiveness.
Complete game. Season-changing moment.
“If you go back to the Tennessee game, we had a really big game to go on the road and to come out with that win (was huge),” junior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “Then to go to Mississippi State and come out with that win, and then to come back against LSU and get a big-time win against a top-five team at the time.
“The momentum flowing throughout the team and definitely guys having confidence and allowing guys to play faster, play stronger, play together.
“It definitely allowed us to swing that momentum into a lot of different wins and give us the confidence we needed to be successful to win those different games.”
A week after the success at Tennessee, the Gators returned to Mullen’s former stomping grounds and upset No. 23 Mississippi State 13-6. A week later, UF returned home and stunned No. 5 LSU 27-19, a victory that moved the Gators into the top 15 in the nation.
One week later, UF moved into the top 10 (No.10) with a come-from-behind 37-27 win at Vanderbilt, a game in which the Gators were down 21-3 early in the second quarter.
The win at UT was the start of an impressive four-game SEC winning streak that made UF relevant again on the national stage.
Two weeks later, though, there was a turning point in the other direction — a 36-17 loss to Georgia. The downward trend continued the next game, with the Gators losing to Missouri 38-17 on homecoming.
Then came the second big turning point in UF’s season — the second half against South Carolina.
Trailing 31-14 late in the third quarter, the Gators were staring at a possible third consecutive loss and a probable mediocre season. But they came alive and rallied for a 35-31 win, then went on to finish the regular season with wins against Idaho and Florida State.
“We could have easily been 4-7 or 5-6 this year,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said. “That South Carolina win really changed the momentum of the season.
“We almost let that game slip away, but we realized we could be facing the same thing that we just faced the year before. From that point on, we decided we were going to finish out strong and do our best to send the seniors out right.”
For the Gators, two huge turning points that have led to the Peach Bowl. One after a loss. One in the second-half of a near loss.
Those transformative moments show the kind of resiliency the Gators have developed under the new coaching staff.
“Coach Mullen always talks about pulling the rope,” Hammond said. “That’s been our motto since Day One. That’s been something we’ve always worked on. That mentality that we have from never letting go of that rope definitely helped us pick ourselves up in hard times when we lost games.
“It kind of hurt us bad, and we knew it hurt us bad, but just never letting go of that rope. Just always keep pulling and pulling and pulling and find a way to bounce back has definitely been big for us. It showed up for us a lot this year.”