For one week, Florida can breathe a sigh of relief.
The Gators head into their second open week of the season sitting at 7-1 and in first place in the SEC Eastern Division — a far cry for a program that just two seasons ago was preparing for a change at the helm en route to a 4-7 finish.
It seems important to put Florida’s progression over the past 24 months into a fair perspective: the No. 7 Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) have risen from the near bottom to the near top in the toughest conference in NCAA Division I football.
Florida coach Dan Mullen, in the immediate aftermath of UF’s 38-27 win over South Carolina, took time to reflect on UF’s path back to the pinnacle.
“You’re heading into November in control of your own destiny and what’s going to happen. And that’s where we want to be, that’s where we expect to be at Florida,” Mullen said. “But hopefully we get healthy. We’ve got a big break and have got a big three-game stretch after the bye to try to win the SEC East.”
Yet Mullen knows that “big break” will make or, well, break Florida’s season.
The week of rest and recuperation will be critical for UF, one of two teams in the SEC to have played eight games so far this season.
After UF defensive linemen Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga missed Saturday’s contest, Mullen acknowledged the duo’s impending return, saying he expects both to be ready to practice heading into preparation for Georgia.
That news was a sigh of relief for senior linebacker David Reese, who has embraced a larger leadership role in their absence.
“I’m excited to get my guys back. We’ve got some guys that have unbelievable talent,” Reese said. “When we’re healthy, we can be a great team.”
Reese made sure to credit the underclassmen who performed admirably in their presence, however; while Greenard and Zuniga should be cleared for contact, it’s unclear if either will be fully healthy heading into The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Mullen also expects the return of Kadarius Toney, who has been out with an ailing shoulder since early September, back in the lineup.
Meaning the Gators, who rose to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll after the 11-point victory, must prepare as if their hopes rest on the shoulders of players with less experience.
“The young guys, they have done a great job, but they’ve got to take this bye week and really look at their stuff and really take the opportunity to practice more,” Reese said, “and when other guys are getting healthy, they’ll start.”
There’s another side of the equation, one often forgotten yet just as critical from an attention-to-detail standpoint: the mental aspect.
Similar to blinder’s, the public tends to view football players solely through that lens — they’re seen as simply football players, not student-athletes at the University of Florida with educational responsibilities.
Aside from learning the playbook, balancing recovery with physical progression and a multitude of other responsibilities required by a Power Five football team, the Gators attend a top-seven public university. The bye week, while emphasizing rest, will come with a focus on school work, too.
Mullen admitted that mental fatigue possibly played a factor into a performance he deemed “a little sloppy.” For Florida to maintain its current trajectory and book a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, it can’t afford to neglect any aspects in need of reinvigoration, whether it be on the football field or off of it.
“18-to-22-year-olds grinding, trying to go to school, get a degree, learn a plan, having to play a tough schedule,” Mullen, speculating on the culprit of mental fatigue, said. “We’ve got a bye week, a chance to hopefully get some guys healthy. It’s good credit to the guys, our team, of ‘next guy up’ to get us in this position, with all the injuries we’ve had to deal with this year.”
Who: No. 7 Florida (7-1, 4-1 SEC) vs. No. 10 Georgia (6-1, 3-1)
When: 3:30 p.m. Nov. 2
Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850