HOOVER, Ala. — A football program that was 4-7 and seemingly almost hopelessly lost just two years ago, suddenly has an old yet familiar issue to deal with heading into the 2019 season.
Very high expectations.
That’s what happens when you follow up 4-7 with a 10-win season that culminates with a 26-point win over an iconic college program (Michigan) in a New Year’s Six bowl game and a ranking of No. 7 in the final national poll.
So, here the Florida Gators find themselves again, just like in better times, staring at soaring expectations heading into the season.
And they are embracing them like a long-lost best friend.
That’s the Gator theme that emerged at SEC Media Days on Monday.
“I like to set the bar really high,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody out there that has higher expectations for the team as a program than I do. We like to set that bar high, and we’re constantly striving to be the absolute best that we can be
“I don’t let expectations bother me. I kind of like them, having expectations, and I like guys in our program having expectations and expect great things from themselves, expect great things from the team and expect great things from the program.
“Instead of shying away from them, embrace those expectations, and try to live up to them and surpass the expectations out there for us as a team and for us as a program. I think if you do that, you’re going to have the opportunity to be successful. That’s something we’ve always tried to live by.”
The players seem to be all in.
They created these expectations with what they accomplished last season in Mullen’s first season. Now, they’re getting ready to take their shot at meeting those expectations.
“You’ve got to embrace (the expectations),” senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “When you come to a school like this, this is what you expect. You expect to play against the best, you expect to be the best.
“I want an SEC East championship. I want an SEC championship. I want a national championship. I have high expectations for this team.”
Junior quarterback Feleipe Franks has the same.
“Win a championship,” Franks said when asked what his expectation is for the Gators in 2019. “Every year. That’s the expectation every year. You shouldn’t want less than that. Yes, that’s my expectation.”
The Gators started generating these great expectation coming down the stretch last season. In the final four games, UF rallied from a 31-14 second-half deficit to beat South Carolina 35-31, then they clobbered Idaho 63-10 and closed it out by downing arch-rival Florida State and Michigan by a combined score of 82-19.
Then came the No. 7 final ranking in The Associated Press. Now come the expectations.
The Gators apparently have put themselves in pretty good shape to try and live up to those expectations.
Teams usually have a considerable bounce in the second year under a new head coach. Mullen said the players have been putting in the work to make that happen this season.
“We’ve had a great offseason,” Mullen said. “The strides our guys took coming in, getting ready for year two. We need to take a huge step forward for us this year. We had a lot of success last year, but our consistency of performance is something I want to see us change to perform at a high level every single game, every single week, every single play, the consistency of our performance to continue to improve.
“Our players know what to expect coming into the offseason. It’s easier to attack the offseason. There’s a better understanding of what they are trying to accomplish, so you can make big gains.
“Everybody knows what the expectations are. They’ve run the offense and run the defense. That gives you the opportunity to have a big jump in the second season. We had a great year last year, but would love it to be even better this year.”
That’s the plan. But the players seem to understand it’s going to be a challenging one to execute.
“To go from winning four games to 10 was pretty tough,” senior running back Lamical Perine said. “To win those 11, 12 games, you’ve got to do all the little things right. Learning from the mistakes last year, we’re going to change it up this year.
“Every year we’re going to try and compete (for a national title). That’s our goal. It’s hard to go win a championship, but that’s the goal.”