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Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators need football games, badly

Martin Fennelly: Gators look to distance themselves from troubling offseason.

GAINESVILLE — Is there a college football team more anxious to begin its season than Florida?

The Gators, who open Saturday in Orlando against Miami and were installed as No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, is coming off a tumultuous and troubling offseason.

No, Dan Mullen never got to do a victory roll after going 10-3 in his first year in Gainesville, edging Florida back toward national relevancy, the signature win over LSU, the four-game win streak to end the season capped by blowing out Michigan in a bowl game.

MORE GATORS: UF-Miami have the national spotlight. Now what?

Mullen was too busy trying to clean up and explain after no fewer than four of his players and one staff member either left the program or were dropped after accusations of violence toward women. These are not the headlines 10-3 teams want to make, that any team wants to make.

Mullen spent a large part of the offseason defending his program’s values, and his action, or inaction, in the face of accusations, saying at one point during the mess, “We do a lot of education on our team with that stuff. Obviously, I’m a big anti-violence against women person.”

It vaguely reminded us of last preseason, when Mullen discussed his program’s no-tolerance policy on guns while at the same time not ruling out that his players had the right to own them. Now this.

In each case of players or staff accused of violence against women, Mullen let the university investigation and legal process run their course, at one point saying, “How many of them are actually charged?” Unfortunate moment.

When are the games again?

Saturday offers a start to a promising with a stand-alone opener that gives Florida a chance to put its “stamp” on 2019, as Mullen said Monday.

It has to be better than the off-field stamp.

“The one thing you don’t have in the offseason is games to talk about,” Mullen said. “Don’t have games to talk about, so there’s all kinds of stuff to talk about. We’ve hit a lot of them this offseason. But I don’t know it’s different than a lot of offseasons, to be honest. Yeah, now it’s games.”

Now Florida again gets to try to be the standard bearer of state football. Now we get to see if quarterback Feleipe Franks can take his team to the next level. Now is next-level time.

“There’s more to come for this team,” Florida running back Lamical Perine said.

It’s time to find out what the season holds. It’s time to see if Mullen has what it takes to take Florida all the way back, the top of college football, as Steve Spurrier first put it there and as Urban Meyer returned it with two national titles in three seasons, with Mullen as his offensive coordinator. Mullen has been there.

“Two national championships in three years is a pretty good level, I guess,” Mullen said. “I guess the next level is three in four. The goal, you know, I think we absolutely can. I think as we’re building the program right now and get caught up in a lot of ways in college football — facility-wise and some other ways that we continue to catch ourselves up to the rest of college football … .

"What we want to do is make sure that we have the most to offer in every category across the board, and when we do, we can get back to that level.”

MORE GATORS: Five Florida Gators have now been accused of violence against women under Dan Mullen

This doesn’t feel like next-level Florida, playoff level, championship level, at least this season. Ten, even 11 wins are a distinct possibility, but the Gators are probably the second-best team in the SEC East, behind No. 3 Georgia, and possibly the fourth best team in the conference when you throw in No. 2 Alabama and No. 6 LSU.

But at least it’s time to start.

“I think coming off last season, we have a lot more confidence,” Franks said. “We’re looking to take the next step.”

It beats the offseason.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

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