ATLANTA — One of Florida’s goals every year is to make it to Atlanta at the end of the season.
The Gators have made it this year, which is big, even if they got here later than they had hoped when this all started back on the first Saturday in September. They didn’t reach the SEC Championship Game, the No. 1 goal, but they did earn a trip here for a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game.
Now that they have come this far — from 4-7 in 2017 to 9-3 and ranked No. 10 in the nation, and now with a date against No. 7 Michigan in the Peach Bowl — the goal for 2019 is to make it to Atlanta twice. Once for the SEC title game, a second time for one of the semifinal games in the College Football Playoff.
A win over the Wolverines, the same team that physically overwhelmed UF in the season opener a year ago, would not only put a bold exclamation point on this turnaround season, it would signal that the Gators are possibly ready to take the next step toward becoming a national contender again.
“The opportunity to play and the prestige of this game, for a lot of the young players out there, they have the opportunity to look and say, ‘Hey, I can go play at the University of Florida and have the opportunity to go compete for championships,’” UF coach Dan Mullen said Friday. “I think one of the big goals for us, obviously, is to play in this game again next year. When you look at the ability to be here this year, certainly shows that we may have the potential to be here next year, and that’s the type of program (recruits) want to play for.”
In what has been a season of change, the Gators have come a long way in just one year under Mullen and the new coaching staff.
They’ve become relevant again.
Saturday’s game will be a good gauge to see just how far the Gators have come, and whether they are ready to start competing for championships again next season.
“I think that we could have easily been a College Football Playoff team (this year),” sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “We have the talent and we have the coaching for us to be there. At the same time, with a couple losses, Kentucky and Missouri, put us out of it.
“We’re looking forward to a big-time bowl. We’re in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Peach Bowl is a good bowl for us. Capping off the whole season with a win over Michigan would be great, especially for just going into next season. That’s pretty much all we’re focused about right now is trying to get a big-time win in a big-time bowl game.”
It’s a big-time game, on a big-time stage against a big-time opponent. And it would be a big-time win if the Gators can pull it off.
“We’re playing against a great program,” junior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “This will be a huge game for us. Going into the next season, potentially being a top-five team coming in, this is a big game for us.”
It’s a tough draw for the Gators, who are 0-4 all-time against the Wolverines. UM has drubbed UF twice in the past three years in what were two physical dominations — a 41-7 loss in the 2016 Citrus Bowl and last season’s 33-17 loss in Arlington, Texas.
This is a different Michigan team, one that is missing four of its best players who are skipping the game to get ready for the NFL draft — defensive tackle Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush Jr., running back Karan Higdon and offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
And this is a different Florida team, one that has made an impressive turnaround in all phases under Mullen.
“This is the year of change,” senior defensive end/outside linebacker Cece Jefferson said. “We beat Florida State for the first time in the past several years. Now, hopefully, we can do the same with Michigan as well. We’re excited about this opportunity to play them a third time.”
Despite the recent results against the Wolverines, several UF players said revenge is not a factor in Saturday’s game. The plan is to approach this game like they have every other game this season by being focused, playing hard and trusting the coaches.
“Coach Mullen always preaches that we should go out and execute regardless of who we’re playing, go as hard as we can,” junior running back Jordan Scarlett said. “That’s what he instills in us and we just go out there and do it all the time and we always get good results. So we’re just going to go out there and execute and play as hard as we can.”