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It’s time for the Florida Gators to start challenging for championships

Matt Baker | Dan Mullen has restored the Gator Standard to Gainesville. Now UF needs to begin doing more than winning the Orange Bowl.
Florida head coach Dan Mullen celebrates and throws oranges to the team after the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against Virginia, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Florida won 36-28. [BRYNN ANDERSON | AP]

MIAMI — Florida coach Dan Mullen gave himself a few minutes Monday night to bask in one of the biggest victories of his career.

He tried to hoist the Orange Bowl trophy into the midnight sky. He tossed celebratory fruit to his players. He proclaimed that his No. 6 Gators have done what he said they would — restore what he calls the Gator Standard — thanks to a talented, dedicated group of upperclassmen.

“I certainly hope all these underclassmen understand they’ve got to live up to that…” Mullen said, “so we can get back here next January for the national championship game.”

Related: Florida Gators’ run game shows up in Orange Bowl triumph over Virginia

And with a roar from the Florida fans still lingering at Hard Rock Stadium, Mullen correctly reset the standard for his Gators.

It’s time for his program to start seriously challenging for championships.

Mullen’s UF tenure has been an unquestioned success. The Gators’ 36-28 win over Virginia Monday made him the first coach to win prestigious BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games in both of his first two seasons, according to ESPN. A program that went 4-7 before his arrival is 21-5 since he took over.

The Gators beat the teams they were supposed to beat this season — an improvement from their Year 1 losses to Missouri and Kentucky. And they made the hard, incremental climb from 10 wins to 11, potentially securing UF’s first top-five finish in a decade.

“That’s the Gator Standard,” Orange Bowl MVP Lamical Perine said. “Winning.”

If that’s the Gator Standard, then the Gator Expectation is to win championships. And so far, Mullen hasn’t come close.

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask (11) scores a touchdown during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against Virginia, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) [LYNNE SLADKY | AP]

As good as his Gators have been —and they’ve been very good — Mullen’s team has spent his first two Novembers largely outside of the College Football Playoff conversation.

That’s not surprising, considering what he inherited. His predecessor, Jim McElwain, wasn’t in the final four discussion, either.

But Year 3 is around the time when coaches and their new programs start to click into championship contention.

Fifteen different coach-team combinations have won or shared national titles in since the dawn of the BCS; nine of them won it all sometime during their first three seasons (including Mullen’s former boss, Urban Meyer, at UF and Ohio State). Ed Orgeron has one of UF’s rivals, LSU, one game away from a championship in his Year 3.

Jimbo Fisher didn’t win a national title in his third year at Florida State, but he used an Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois to springboard his Seminoles to an undefeated season in Year 4.

Related: Feleipe Franks: ‘I’m still part of this team for one last night’

Mullen’s Gators are already hoping for a similar trajectory. Coincidentally, next season’s College Football Playoff championship is also at Hard Rock Stadium, site of Monday’s Orange Bowl and where UF won its last national title (in Mullen’s final game as a UF assistant).

“Next year I don’t expect anything less than a national championship,” defensive back Kaiir Elam said.

If that’s the Gator Expectation, can Mullen reach it next year?

Florida players eat oranges after the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Florida won 36-28. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) [BRYNN ANDERSON | AP]

It’s far too early to make any firm declarations. We don’t yet know whether top talents like defensive Marco Wilson and receiver Kadarius Toney will leave early for the NFL draft or remain at UF. Nor do we know how UF will close on the recruiting trail. Or whether SEC East juggernaut Georgia will reel in the nation’s No. 1 class. Or how much LSU will regress without Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.

But UF undoubtedly has the foundation necessary to begin dreaming of bigger prizes than the Orange Bowl.

“You’ve got to be a consistent winner to go be a championship program,” Mullen said.

Now that Mullen’s Gators have the first part down, it’s time to start talking about the second.

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

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