MIAMI GARDENS — Since his first day on the job, and for so many of the days that have followed, Dan Mullen has been stressing the Gator Standard, talking about restoring it, about bringing the Florida football program back into national prominence, making it a championship contender again.
And he always said that it can’t come back with just one big win or one successful season. It would only come with consistent success.
That’s why after the Gators went 10-3 last year and finished in the final top 10 with a New Year’s Six bowl win over Michigan, Mullen was reluctant to proclaim the Gator Standard was back.
He is making that proclamation now after the No. 9 Gators defeated Virginia 36-28 in the Orange Bowl on Monday night to finish 11-2 on the season and earn what will be a certain consecutive top-10 finish.
“To go out there and finish with a win. … a couple of years ago with this senior class, a new coach got brought in and we told them, ‘If you buy in to what we’re doing, believe we’re going to be successful,’ ” Mullen said. “They’ve done that. They’ve brought in back-to-back 10-win seasons, back-to-back top-10 (finishes), back-to-back bowl victories. They’ve restored the Gator Standard.
“They get to walk out the door knowing they’ve restored the Gator Standard to what it is. Build on that foundation. We’re not where we need to be yet, to go win the SEC and a national championship.
“But they’re certainly living up to that Gator Standard of being one of the best teams and best programs in the country.”
The seniors, including Lamical Perine, the bowl MVP with 138 yards rushing and three touchdowns, also are walking out the door looking forward to what happens next in year three of the Mullea era.
The national championship game is in this very stadium (Hard Rock Stadium) a little over a year from now, and maybe, just maybe, the Gators might have a chance to make it back here. It would not surprise Jon Greenard, the senior rush end who closed out his UF career with another outstanding performance that included a sack, a forced fumble and one quarterback hurry.
“I’m looking at what they’ve got coming back, they can do more,” he said. “And the guys coming in. I’m excited. I mean, this is only just the beginning of it, honestly. Last year was a little taste of it. We keep building, we got 11 wins, which is really difficult.
“A couple plays this year and we would’ve been right where we wanted to be. Next year, they are just going to capitalize off of that, understand where we were this past year, and the national championship in my eyes. We’ve got that in our eyes now.
In the win over the Cavaliers, the Gators played like championship contenders at times. They rolled up 549 yards of total offense, 305 on the passing arm of quarterback Kyle Trask, they contained elusive UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins, holding him to 24 yards rushing, and every time they were threatened, they had an answer.
After the Cavaliers cut UF’s lead to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter with a 7-yard TD pass from Perkins to Joe Reed, the Gators responded with a 65-yard TD drive to retake command of the game. The score came on a 1-yard TD run by Trask with 9:33 to play.
UF stretched the lead to 36-21 on a 42-yard field goal by Evan McPherson with just 2:32 to play.
Virginia scored a touchdown to make it a one-score game with just 38 seconds left, but UF sealed the win when wide receiver Freddie Swain recovered the onside kick.
“This win is huge for this program, not only for the program but also this team and the seniors that bought in when Coach Mullen first got here from day one,” said Trask, who completed 24 of 39 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown. “They worked day in and day out.
“And as far as my season went, I couldn’t be more happy the way that my teammates had my back when I won versus Kentucky, and we just continued to grind every single week and get better each and every single week and here we are winning the Orange Bowl. That’s pretty incredible.”
It is. It means back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl victories and another top-10 finish, maybe even top five.
“I really want to congratulate our team,” Mullen said. “I’m really proud of our players. Just under a year ago, this team was born, and we talked about going from four wins to 10 wins was special, but to go from 10 wins to 11 is going to be a lot harder, and those guys bought into it. They started working last January, and they worked, they grinded all season long in everything that they did.”
The work doesn’t end now. It starts all over next week.
The goal: improve on 11 wins and compete for a championship.
“You’ve got to grind,” Mullen said. “It was tough to go from 10 to 11, it’s even harder to go from 11 to 12, the mental and physical toughness that it takes, the preparation that it takes starting Jan. 6 when we get back and when the 2020 team is born.
“We’re going to try to enjoy this for a couple days, but January 6th we have a team meeting and that 2020 team will be born, and the mental toughness that it takes to come in day after day, work, push, get yourself better. We have to do more than we did last year, get better than we were last year,
“We’re going to work harder starting Jan. 6. We’ve got to work harder next year than we did this year and try to get from 11 to 12. Once you get to 12, you might get a couple extra ones in there.”
The Gators open the 2020 season Sept. 5 against Eastern Washington at Florida Field.