BATON ROUGE, La. — A strong argument can be made that Florida is back in Year Two under coach Dan Mullen, an elite college football program again, just like when he was at UF before as the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.
Coming off an electrifying win over then-No. 7 Auburn, the Gators are 6-0, ranked seventh in the nation, have won 10 games in a row and are finally starting to receive some love from what has been a reluctant national media.
And when ESPN’s GameDay shows up at your game on back-to-back Saturdays, you’re officially back in the big time.
“We were the biggest game in the country last week. We’re the biggest game in the country this week,” Mullen said. “That’s what makes you want to play at Florida and be a Gator so you can play in the biggest games in the country every single week.”
These are good times for Florida, for sure. But proclaiming that the Gators are back, all the way back, is probably premature because they’re only at the halfway point of the season. Whether they’re really back or not will be determined in the upcoming weeks (at No. 5 LSU tonight, at South Carolina, No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville).
What can be proclaimed now is this: the Gators are relevant again, a top-10 team playing in big games and now viewed as legitimate contenders in the SEC, and maybe even for the College Football Playoff.
Many may be stunned by what has been viewed as a rapid rise for Florida, but the Gators are not. The players say they saw this coming.
“Oh yeah, most definitely,” senior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “All the seniors, we talked (after last season) and I remember (running back Lamical) Perine saying we could come back and do a lot of things and contend for a National Championship. That’s what the seniors had in mind. Now we’ve just got to keep going and accomplish our goals.
“Coach Mullen is getting the program back where it needs to be. I’m just thankful and grateful to be apart of it. God let me come be a Florida Gator.”
The Gators find themselves where Florida football hasn’t been for some time: in the national spotlight.
“It feels great,” senior middle linebacker David Reese II said. “We’ve got College GameDay, we’ve got all the hype. It’s just special to have the opportunity to be 7-0 and continue the undefeated season and take down a big name and a top-five ranked team.
“This is special. This is why you come here, to play in games like this.”
What happens in Death Valley tonight could go a long way in determining how long Florida remains relevant on the national scene. An upset win against the No. 5 team on the road would move the Gators into the playoff conversation. A close, competitive loss, and they would be viewed as a serious threat to Georgia in the SEC East. A blowout loss, well, who knows where things would go from there?
Florida is facing a daunting challenge against an LSU team that is on an amazing offensive roll, ringing up almost 55 points a game. And the Gators will be facing the same kind of loud and hostile environment that they fed off of a week ago in the win over Auburn. Only this time it will be going against them.
Death Valley at night. It doesn’t get any tougher than that.
“It’s a great environment for college football, an intimidating environment,” Mullen said. “They have a great crowd. The place is loud, intimidating, a crazy environment. That’s SEC football. That’s what it’s all about. We’ve got to go in and try to manage the environment and try to do a good job executing.”
Senior center Nick Buchanan has some advice for his teammates: embrace the moment.
“Really, the only thing you can do is enjoy it,” he said. “It’s us against the world when we go down there, we’re traveling, the guys that we have, our coaches and trainers and that’s about it. So, it’s us against the world.
“You have to enjoy it and embrace the fact that you’re backed into a corner, your back is against the wall. Go out there and have fun and play football. You can’t be scared, you have to really enjoy the moment.”