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Potential championship team? Gators might find out against Georgia

Robbie Andreu
Gator Sports
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask runs past Missouri's Martez Manuel (3) and linebacker Nick Bolton, back left, during the second half Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Given all that’s been going on with COVID-19 — the positive tests, the interruptions, the postponements, the daily and weekly unknowns, the conference-only schedule — Florida coach Dan Mullen still can’t gauge whether or not this Gator team is championship material.

But he’s about to find out.

He’ll have a much better idea Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville, when the Gators face off with No. 5 Georgia, which has become a championship program under Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs won the SEC title in 2017 and have captured the last three SEC East trophies.

So, a win over these guys might just mean the Gators are on the right path toward becoming a championship program.

“You know, it doesn’t clinch it or seal anything,” Mullen said Tuesday. “But it's certainly whoever wins this game is putting themselves in the driver's seat to get to Atlanta. You're two games up on this team and you're really two games up on everybody else in the league at that point. So it makes it a big game. But you know, it's always been a big game for a long time." 

For a UF team with championship aspirations, this Florida-Georgia game is even bigger than most.

But it’s also even more different than most because that’s the kind of strange year it’s been, not just in college football but everywhere during this pandemic that has turned so many things sideways.

“It's such a different year,” Mullen said. “I'd love to be a championship team this year. I would love this year for us to go on and win the East, win the SEC Championship, win a national championship. I hope I never have anybody having to call me and saying, 'OK, when we have to shut down the world, how do we win a championship when that happens?' 

“I hope this is just a one-time deal, because I think it's a very unique, different situation.”

Coming out of an 11-win season in 2019, expectations were high for the Gators in 2020 in Year Three under Mullen. With a proven, experienced quarterback and a large part of the roster returning, the early consensus around college football is that this would be a top-10 team again capable of winning the SEC and making the College Football Playoff.

Mullen figured he’d know much more about this team after it had gone through the spring. But there was no spring for the Gators, who were sidelined along with everybody else by the shutdown.

Nothing has seemed normal since, even though there is a college football season going on.

“I thought coming into the season we had the potential to be a championship team,” Mullen said. “I thought there were certain things I wanted to see us grow on. I think we talked about it, then you never got to see it through spring. We never got to see if we could develop all those things.”

Mullen and the Gators are still waiting, in a way.

“I think that to be a championship team this year it's going to take something a little different than it would in most other years,” Mullen said. “And if we're able to do that, I hope I don't ever have to replicate it the exact same way because we don't have to deal with what we are all going through again.” 

This certainly hasn’t felt anything close to being a normal season. And this probably won’t feel like a normal Florida-Georgia game — with no tailgating and only about 19,000 fans in the stands.

But it’s still Florida-Georgia. So, it’s big. And it’s important for a Gator team that’s trying to find out if it has what it takes to grow into a championship team.

“Obviously, our goal is to win a championship,” Mullen said. “The winner of this game is going to be in the driver’s seat to be that SEC East Champion. It certainly does that.

“Our guys know (the importance of the game). They like playing in big games. I think they’re excited to go play in a big game.”

One that might tell them a lot.

Saturday

Who: No. 8 Florida (3-1) vs. No. 5 Georgia (4-1)

When: 3:30 p.m.

Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850