As Dan Mullen walked off the field on Senior Day with his daughter Breelyn in his left arm, the Florida coach stopped to take congratulations from Florida president Kent Fuchs and his wife Linda.
“Big one next week,” Mullen said.
And then he said it again.
There is no doubt Mullen embraces rivalries the way Jim McElwain never did. He may not be Urban Meyer over-the-top about them, but he knows how important they are.
And this one today is the most important one this season. In fact, it’s the biggest game of the season.
I know, LSU was big and the outcome propelled Florida to be in the position it is in right now. Winning on the road in Starkville was big. The Georgia game was so big that everybody with a TV show set and a microphone showed up.
But this is the biggest game of the season.
Not because it’s the next one.
Because it’s the game that will define this season.
That may not feel fair to you. You would have taken eight wins and an improved offense before the season. You are thrilled that it appears that Mullen has changed the culture in this program, that guys who used to skip classes and workouts are trying to be senior leaders and dragging the young guys with them.
And in the big picture, there is no question this season has been successful in so many ways. Florida is 11th in the College Football Playoff rankings. I remember when Scott Stricklin, the Florida athletic director, was named to the committee and I told him one day he might have to recuse himself because the Gators would be in the conversation.
He chuckled and said, “Hopefully it’ll be soon.”
How about every meeting so far?
All of this is really nice. And a lot of it can be spoiled like a rotten pumpkin on the front porch (we had one, yuck) if the Gators don’t win in Tallahassee today.
That’s why this is the biggest game of the season. If you don’t think it is, let me give you three really good reasons:
1. Florida can get into a New Year’s Six bowl game with a win. It’s not guaranteed, because you never know what chaos could take place today and next week. But it would be likely.
“It would be huge,” Mullen said.
Even if they match up the Gators with UCF, playing in the Peach or the Fiesta would be a tremendous statement to the nation about this program. Winning today would also give a Florida a shot at 10 wins.
2. While I agree with Mullen that very few young men make their recruiting decisions based on who wins the game, it can’t hurt.
Especially if Florida is playing a New Year’s Six bowl game and FSU is playing in, uh, oh wait, there would be no bowl for the Semis.
Florida has a chance to put a foot on Florida State’s neck and not let it get up. The perceptions of the programs will be drastically different if Florida wins. If FSU wins, it’s 8-4 and 6-6. There isn’t that much difference in playing in an NFL stadium in Jacksonville (Gator Bowl) or an NFL stadium in Tampa (Gasparilla Bowl).
3. Florida needs to beat FSU the way you need oxygen. Before this season, if I gave you one game that I could guarantee you as a win, a lot of you would have pointed to Georgia for obvious reasons. But a lot of you would have pointed to this game for the even more obvious reason that FSU has won five straight against the Gators.
FSU is one reason Florida fans struggled to accept their last two coaches. Muschamp was 1-3, McElwain 0-2.
And you have to live with the fans of the Choppers. You don’t really have to live around that many Georgia or Tennessee fans. And Miami fans have gone back into hibernation after their three-game losing streak.
Mullen needs it. He needs to start his series against FSU by ending a painful streak and the fact that he ended another one in the second game of the year will be forgotten.
Feleipe Franks needs it, too. Go beat FSU and the feeling the fans have for their quarterback changes and it also helps him get a leg up on next year’s starting job.
I could go on, but I think you get it.
Tallahassee hasn’t been an easy place for Gators to win of late in any sport. Steve Spurrier never won there. Urban Meyer left there a broken man in 2010. Ron Zook and Will Muschamp coached their last games for the Gators in Tally.
Nobody said it would be easy, even if the Semis are an un-FSU-like six-loss team for the second straight year.
But there’s no better place to celebrate a road win.
That’s how big it is.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.