ATLANTA — Not long after the Peach Bowl pairing of No. 10 Florida and No. 8 Michigan was announced, Gators receiver Van Jefferson and Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson made the obvious connection.
The good friends and former Ole Miss teammates would be sharing the field together, again, this time as opponents.
"I think more than anything, we were just excited to link back up with each other," Patterson said.
Not that they've ever really stopped being linked to each other since their first meeting during Jefferson's redshirt season in 2015.
When Patterson made his official visit to Ole Miss, Jefferson didn't know much about him, other than that the IMG Academy product was the nation's top quarterback prospect. Jefferson thought Patterson (generously listed at 6-foot-2) seemed a little short for a five-star prospect.
"Then he got to campus, and I see him throw the ball," Jefferson said. "Man, I see why he's a five star."
The two hit it off quickly.
On the field, Jefferson became one of Patterson's top targets, finishing as the Rebels' second-leading receiver in 2016 and 2017. Off the field, they became close, too.
"He's easy to talk to," Patterson said. "He's a real funny guy. Obviously getting there, the chemistry that we built and the friendship that we built is going to last a while."
The friendship became even stronger last offseason, after they were among the seven Rebels who decided to transfer because of Ole Miss' NCAA sanctions. They spent almost every day together at Patterson's house in Oxford, playing Madden, discussing possible landing spots and deciphering the NCAA's thorny, confusing transfer process.
When they arrived in Ann Arbor for a visit one snowy weekend last December, they planned to be a package deal.
"I'm not sure what happened," Patterson said.
What happened was this: Michigan didn't feel right to Jefferson. UF did.
From across the Egg Bowl sidelines, Jefferson had seen the way Dan Mullen built rival Mississippi State from a traditional doormat into a top-25 program.
"You could see what he did at Mississippi State and how he turned that program around," Jefferson said. "So I knew when he came here, he's going to do it at Florida."
And Mullen has; his Gators are in their first top-tier bowl game in six years. But Jefferson has had a role in it, too.
Jefferson leads the Gators with 31 catches for 439 yards and six touchdowns. As importantly, the redshirt junior's dedication and attention to detail have influenced the rest of the receiving corps.
"I think one of the big things is his approach to how he works every day," Mullen said. "I think that rubs off on a lot of guys."
Patterson is also thriving at his new destination.
The third-team all-Big Ten passer ranks second in the conference in efficiency (154.28). He can read defenses well enough to manage Michigan's run game, and he's gifted enough as a scrambler to succeed when plays break down.
"It goes without saying that all players have to earn field credibility with the coaches and their teammates," Wolverines passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "And he has."
The Gators owe Patterson some gratitude for their success. Patterson's successful challenge for immediate eligibility at Michigan led other Ole Miss expats (including Jefferson) to earn the right to transfer without sitting out.
Patterson and Jefferson haven't talked much about that issue, but they have talked about plenty of other things since they parted ways a year ago. They watched each other's games when they could. They texted. They chatted on the phone.
The friendliness continued this week. During a bowl outing Wednesday night, Patterson could see Jefferson one floor down. The quarterback watched as his old receiver cracked up at his texts.
But by Thursday morning, the good spirits were over.
It was time to stop acting like former teammates and start acting like new opponents.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.