Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen was still basking in the glory of his second straight New Year’s Six bowl victory when he began setting the sky-high expectations for his third season.
“I certainly hope all these underclassmen understand they’ve got to live up to that,” Mullen said after the Orange Bowl triumph over Virginia, “so we can get back here next January for the national championship game.”
Nine months later, it’s time for his No. 5 Gators to live up to the hype he started in Miami. It’s championship or bust in Gainesville.
“That’s pretty much what it’s been every year,” standout defensive back Marco Wilson said. “We’re going to strive for that.”
They should, because they have a roster that’s ready to make a run at the College Football Playoff and, yes, the Jan. 11 national championship at Hard Rock Stadium.
Every recent national champion has signed more four- and five-star recruits than two- and three-star prospects over a four-year span. UF’s blue-chip ratio, according to 247Sports: 63 percent.
As importantly, the Gators seem to have the right pieces in the right spots. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are back. Even with CJ Henderson starring with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, the secondary looks promising. UF doesn’t only return one experienced quarterback; it returns two —returning starter Kyle Trask and talented change-of-pace option Emory Jones.
Jones could have easily transferred to try earn a starting job elsewhere but didn’t. His return underscores the roster stability in Gainesville. While opt-outs have rocked other SEC programs, including Georgia (which lost expected starting quarterback Jamie Newman), LSU (superstar receiver Ja’Marr Chase) and Texas A&M (top receiver Jhamon Ausbon), UF hasn’t had any known defections.
The rest of the program has also been steady, which should create a relative strength in the wildest season since World War II.
Georgia has tried to install a new offense led by former Bucs assistant Todd Monken during a pandemic-shortened offseason. Auburn lost offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham to Florida State, and UF’s first opponent (Mississippi on Sept. 26) is led by a new coach, Lane Kiffin.
UF, meanwhile, has the same systems under the same coordinators and only one new assistant (tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who spent a year with Mullen at Mississippi State).
“You don’t have to spend a lot of time on the staff on every little thing because the guys understand it,” Mullen said. “They know what my expectations are and what we’re trying to accomplish with each aspect of the program.”
Even the big-picture timeline is set up well for Mullen, because Year 3 is around the time programs elevate themselves. Jimbo Fisher won his first ACC title in his third year at FSU. Nick Saban’s first national championship at Alabama came in his Year 3, and LSU capped off Ed Orgeron’s third full season by winning it all in January.
None of this guarantees that Mullen will win the SEC East, let alone a national title. UF isn’t as deep as No. 2 Alabama or No. 4 Georgia, so one COVID-19 outbreak could derail the Gators' championship hopes. The revamped schedule with a trip to No. 10 Texas A&M and a Dec. 5 finale at No. 15 Tennessee weren’t helpful, either.
But even with the historic uncertainties surrounding this autumn, Mullen’s Gators are poised to make the jump from very good to elite.
“We have that potential,” Mullen said.
And if they live up to it, they’ll be back at Hard Rock Stadium in January, playing for something much bigger than the Orange Bowl.
No. 5 Florida at Mississippi
Noon, Sept. 26, Oxford, Miss.