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Gators notebook: Mullen on Cotton Bowl, Sooners

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida coach Dan Mullen, right, congratulates Alabama coach Nick Saban for the win Saturday of the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

With Florida’s bid to the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, Dan Mullen will be coaching in AT&T Stadium for the first time in his career. 

Both he and his upperclassmen, however, are familiar with Jerry World. 

Mullen has attended multiple Dallas Cowboys games to watch his former quarterback, Dak Prescott. The Gators, meanwhile, opened their 2017 season in Arlington, Texas, against Michigan.

Apparently some of his players didn’t realize the Cotton Bowl also took place there. 

“We had a Zoom team meeting and, ‘Hey, we’re going to the Cotton Bowl.’ The first question was: ‘Where’s the game?’ And I think everybody was pretty excited when they found out where we're going to play,” Mullen said. “To be able to go play in that venue, I've been there to watch the Cowboys play a couple of times, watch Dak. But it's an awesome stadium. It's a great venue and I know our guys are really excited to just get the opportunity to go play there.”

Two players who won’t be making the trip are junior tight end Kyle Pitts and redshirt freshman linebacker Jesiah Pierre, who has entered the transfer portal. He recorded eight tackles in eight games played this season.

Pitts declared for the NFL draft Sunday and will skip the bowl game, a decision that Mullen had already addressed with him after he was injured at Tennessee and had to miss the regular season finale against LSU. 

“It was something we discussed actually when he was injured two weeks ago about where he was at, his future and we talked about the opportunity to go play in the SEC championship game. And he worked his tail off to get healthy, to get cleared to go play in that game,” Mullen said of Pitts, who caught seven passes for 129 yards and broke the school record for career receiving yards by a UF tight end. 

"I talked to him last night after the game,'' Mullen said. "You completely respect it. I mean, he's a guy that has the opportunity to be a top 10 pick in the NFL draft."

Mullen will give the rest of his players a few days off after a grueling SEC schedule with eight straight games and three top-10 matchups. The team will return to practice following Christmas break and go through a regular game week leading up to Wednesday. 

“There's not just a physical toll that's placed on their bodies but the emotional toll of this season, as well," Mullen said. "So, we’re going to give our guys some time off, let them get a little bit mentally and physically refreshed and try to recoup. And, hopefully, our guys, the competitive nature kicks back in to get ready to go play on December 30.”

Mullen, Riley on the matchup

The No. 7 Gators (8-3) are coming off back-to-back losses, but will still be the toughest team Oklahoma faces this year. 

The sixth-ranked Sooners (8-2) have played three top-25 opponents, with Iowa State being the hardest opponent on their schedule. The Cyclones defeated OU, 37-30, at home on Oct. 3 before their 27-21 loss in the Big 12 Championship Game Saturday.  

“Certainly proud to be able to hold that trophy once again,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of his fourth straight conference title. “To have the opportunity to play a great Florida team in what is one of the best bowl games without a doubt that exists, it’s a great way to end the season and we're certainly excited for the challenge.

“Thrilled to be here and have a chance to play a tremendous Florida team. Want to congratulate them, Coach Mullen and his staff and his players on a great season. Like he said, it’s certainly been very trying for all of us to have a chance to finish out a season, for us to both play basically a full schedule or pretty darned close to it.”

The game at Iowa State was the second of two straight losses for the Sooners. After a 1-2 start, they beat rival Texas in four overtimes and have now won seven games in a row. 

Mullen was able to catch some of their rematch Saturday against the Cyclones.

“I got to see some of the game,” he said, “just catching parts of it while we're waiting for our kickoff and looked like they got  the quarterback who can run around, extend plays, scramble, and make things happen with his feet as well as having a really live arm. And you always know they have great skill players out on the perimeter that can make plays with the ball in their hands and have always been a very physical team up front. 

“So, ought to be a big challenge for our guys to go against not just great offensive players but a great offensive scheme. … I know  with watching Lincoln in the past, they have explosive players. They spread you out, and they have great playmakers all over the field. So, I'm sure it will be a big challenge for us with the guys they have.”