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Why the Florida Gators belong in a New Year’s Six bowl

Sugar Bowl? Orange Bowl? Cotton Bowl? Regardless, Florida has a compelling case.

GAINESVILLE — Florida’s regular season was barely over when Gators coach Dan Mullen began selling his program to a group almost as important as recruits: The College Football Playoff selection committee.

“Hopefully we did enough to get a New Year’s Six bowl, maybe even more,” Mullen said after Saturday’s 40-17 shellacking of rival Florida State. “Baylor beat a 6-win team last week and jumped up five spots. We did the same thing today, pretty handedly, so we’ll see how that is.”

RELATED: Gators’ rout of FSU proves they rule Florida. It’s not even close.

Sorry, Mullen, but your Gators do not yet belong in any serious conversations about a trip to the final four. But a second consecutive appearance in a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl? That’s a different story.

UF’s resume compares favorably with any other 10-2 team in the nation. The Gators’ 24-13 win over Auburn in October is a better victory than other potential New Year’s Six teams, like Wisconsin, Alabama, Penn State and Baylor.

The Gators don’t have a marquee victory after that, but they do have a handful of solid ones. Six of their other wins are over teams ranked in the top 52 in the Sagarin ratings. Four of them are by at least two scores.

The non-conference schedule wasn’t great, thanks to the mediocrity of in-state rivals Miami and Florida State. But Mullen thinks playing 10 Power Five teams should matter to the committee that will announce where his Gators play next Sunday.

“We went out to aggressively schedule two Power 5 teams non-conference,” Mullen said. “You know, there’s a lot of teams not doing that.”

Among the teams who didn’t do that: ’Bama, Wisconsin, Auburn and Baylor.

RELATED: My AP Top 25 ballot: Gators pass ’Bama, close call with Wisconsin

While wins are the most important criteria, the losses matter, too. And Florida’s are the best of any team in the mix.

The Gators lost to a pair of top-four teams (LSU and Georgia) away from home by a combined 21 points. In Baton Rouge, UF was without its top two pass rushers (Jabari Zuniga and All-America candidate Jonathan Greenard).

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Bill Feig) [BILL FEIG | AP]

“We slipped up against two teams in the top five,” receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “If we had a chance to play them again, I think we would come out on top."

Cleveland is biased (and probably wrong), but he makes another good point: “Just look how we started and look how we finished.”

The Gators didn’t look great in September wins over Miami (24-20) and Kentucky (29-21). But Kyle Trask’s emergence after Feleipe Franks’ season-ending ankle injury transformed the team. Since Trask took over, UF’s eight victories were by an average of 23.4 points apiece.

Add it all up, and UF belongs in a major bowl. The Gators have a better win and schedule than ’Bama, which means UF should be ahead of the Crimson Tide in the SEC pecking order. Their head-to-head win over Auburn should be a trump card over the Tigers.

RELATED: Rout brings paths for Florida, Florida State into clear focus

If Georgia and LSU both make the final four, then UF could be headed for the Sugar Bowl as the SEC’s top non-playoff team. If only one team does, then the Gators could end up battling Penn State, Wisconsin or Minnesota for a spot in the Orange Bowl. Even if the Gators lose that matchup, they’ll still have a compelling case against any conference runnerup for an at-large berth in the Cotton Bowl.

UF will know a lot more Tuesday when the committee releases its penultimate set of rankings. Until then, the Gators will have to rest on the fact that they have at least put themselves in the conversation for their first back-to-back big bowl games since 2008-09.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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