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How far have Florida Gators come since last Georgia game? We’ll see

Georgia's blowout last year and the Kentucky loss this year have been two turning points that helped the Gators get back into the top 10.
Who would have thought a year ago that the Florida Gators would be 6-1 and ranked in the top 10 heading into the Georgia game? [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]
Who would have thought a year ago that the Florida Gators would be 6-1 and ranked in the top 10 heading into the Georgia game? [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]

GAINESVILLE — Obviously Florida coach Dan Mullen would prefer to be undefeated heading into Saturday's rivalry game against No. 7 Georgia.

But if you would have told him in August that his No. 9 Gators would be 6-1 and one of three contenders in the SEC East at this point in the season…

"Like on the game shows, you hit the button," Mullen said. "I might consider hitting that button right there and taking it."

Considering where the Gators were in this matchup last year, and where they were after the Kentucky loss last month, 6-1 seemed unthinkable from the outside. But not to those inside the program.

"Am I surprised? No…" quarterback Feleipe Franks said. "We've always had good players. It's just been, when can we put it all together? When can we make it all happen?"

We don't know those answers yet. Check back around 7:15 Saturday night.

Regardless of what happens in Jacksonville, UF is undeniably closer to challenging for championships than it was a year ago during Georgia's 35-point demolition.

The biggest change, of course, was Mullen replacing Jim McElwain as head coach.

Running back Lamical Perine said the Gators "only had like three or four run plays" under McElwain.

"My grandma could call that out in her sleep," Perine said.

RELATED: Florida Gators reflect on the weirdness of Jim McElwain's exit, one year later

Teams can't do that for Mullen. His play-calling —including pivotal trick plays against Mississippi State and LSU —has put him in the conversation for coach of the year honors.

"We went through a coaching change, which turned out for the better of us," Franks said.

The Gators also went through a historic slip-up, which also might have worked out for the best.

Losing to Kentucky for the first time in three decades was a warning against overconfidence and complacency.

"That your performance on Saturday is a reflection of how you practiced during the week," Mullen said. "That just because you have a Gator helmet on doesn't mean everything is going to work out fine and we'll be OK. If we don't put in the time, if we don't put in the work in every phase of the game, we can't expect to be successful."

That defeat might have been the early wake-up call the program needed. Practices got more intense. The execution became cleaner as players began to understand Mullen's system and expectations more. As the execution improved, players' confidence increased.

The toughness and physicality that were lacking against the Wildcats also began to show up.

After not recording a sack that game, UF's defense has amassed 18 in its next five (including five against LSU), with defensive lineman Jachai Polite earning All-America consideration and NFL draft buzz.

On the other side, the Gators' offensive line is making progress. UF is tied for 20th nationally with nine sacks allowed, and only 11 teams in the nation have allowed fewer tackles for a loss than UF (30). The Gators were the first opponent LSU failed to sack since Notre Dame in the 2014 Music City Bowl.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say we just out-physicaled them all day long," Mullen said of LSU.

Maybe. But the fact that a UF team that got pushed around by Kentucky held its own against the top-five Tigers shows the Gators' growth through seven games.

RELATED: The one stat that will decide the Florida-Georgia game

This eighth game could be the biggest test. Despite Georgia's 20-point loss at LSU, the Bulldogs are one of the most talented teams in the country. Beating them would keep UF alive for the division title and in the College Football Playoff conversation.

"Winning's certainly going to help in a lot of different ways…" Mullen said. "I understand the aspect of it being a big game, but is one game going to define our season or our program?"

Probably not.

But winning would be another sign of just how far the Gators have come in one turbulent year.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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