ATLANTA — The cannons went off and the brightly-colored confetti began to flutter through the air. In the stands Gator fans were standing on their heads in orange-and-blue ecstasy and on the podium, the players were mugging and dancing.
This had the feel of Florida’s last two national title scenes — in Glendale, Ariz., and Miami Gardens — even though there was no real title belt won Saturday.
But it was a big deal and these players were going to celebrate it just like their coach.
“I had a great time,” Dan Mullen said. “I’m going to have a great time tonight, too. Partying in Atlanta one more night.”
Hey, the last time a team won this game it celebrated a fake national championship for months. Why not Florida? OK, so there were those three losses, two of them bad. But nobody in these discussions usually let facts get in the way of fantasy.
Florida Gators — 2018 national champs.
Of course, I’m kidding.
But I will say this. These guys played some championship football at the end of the season.
“I don’t think a lot of teams would be lining up to play us right now,” Mullen said.
It was Mullen who told us about his plan to have the Gators playing at their best at the end of the season, how the goal was to have his team get better week to week and we all pretty much blew it off as coachspeak.
But this team started improving from the day he walked on campus and the last couple of months have been pretty impressive.
He’s taken players and turned them into a team, a team good enough to make the Gator Nation proud. And they, in turn, have run through the figurative brick wall for a guy they had to get to know.
“They didn’t have to buy in,” Mullen said. “They didn’t have to believe. I told them, I didn’t recruit you. You didn’t come to play for me but you did come to be a Florida Gator.”
Perhaps there are no better examples of the difference Mullen has made than the offensive and defensive MVPs of the game.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson finished off his Florida career the way he started it, by intercepting two passes and returning one for a score just like he did as a freshman in the Outback Bowl.
But in between, there was a guy who struggled to make tackles on a bad team.
“It’s been a ride,” he said. “It just shows you the growth because you’re going to take some bumps along the road.
“This year was nothing but joy. All my teammates are smiling. This game, one step closer to the program being back where it was.”
There was some irony in that Gardner-Johnson had the game he had after declaring for the draft and Michigan certainly wasn’t helped by the four players who bolted rather than play.
“That’s not the kind of guy he is,” CeCe Jefferson said.
And, of course, there was Feleipe Franks, the poster boy for the Bronx cheer, a redshirt sophomore who so many fans could not and would not accept because there had to be someone better.
There just had to be.
And here he was playing what was pretty much a flawless game — even when Mullen kept going to the jugular rather than play conservative with a lead — against the nation’s top-ranked defense.
“Just go out and play the game I’ve been playing my whole life,” he said of the trust Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson put in him. “And it just made football fun again. That’s what it kind of did for me.”
It certainly was fun for the Gator fans who made the trip and paid big money for tickets.
They were worth it.
And as they celebrated, they were cheering more than the present.
Because here’s the thing — the first full year of Mullen has shown us that he and his staff know what they’re doing with player development and certainly with the X’s and O’s.
It was another coaching mismatch.
And that has to have Florida fans believing there’s a chance that somewhere down the line they’re going to see more confetti.
A lot more.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.