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3 things to watch as Dan Mullen era begins with Gators Spring game

Josh Ciganek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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Saturday marks the first look of 2018 at the new Dan Mullen-led Florida Gators team. Mullen returns as the head coach of the Gators after a nine-year stint as the head coach of SEC opponent Mississippi State. This isn’t Mullen’s first appearance on the UF coaching staff, as he previously held the Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator positions at Florida.

Dubbed the “Orange and Blue Debut,” Mullen pushed for the spring game to be moved back to a Saturday afternoon so fans could experience a real Gators gameday. The University announced prior to the game that there will be two celebrity head coaches from the Gator Boosters board of directors.

Gary Condron and Bill Heavener will get the chance to say a play type, such as run-pass, blitz, play-action, etc., and then specific plays will be called by the coordinators of the teams. However, this spring game comes with multiple questions and plenty of stories to watch for as fans get a glimpse of what is to come this fall.

First Impressions: Mullen’s Staff

Seven coaches on coach Mullen’s Florida staff followed him from Mississippi State, including co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy as well as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Each of the coaches will be split between the Orange and Blue teams for the game with coach Mullen overseeing everything.

Fans will get their first look at the new offensive scheme that Mullen’s staff brings to Florida. Many speculations have come up that the offensive plan will be similar to the scheme Mullen ran while he was the offensive coordinator at Utah and Florida under head coach Urban Meyer. In addition, the defense should see improvements under coach Grantham as he looks to get this Gators defense moving in the right direction under his 3-4 scheme. Mississippi State ranked 10th in the nation in total defense under Grantham in 2017.

Quarterback Battle: Round 1

This will be the second season for redshirt-sophomore Feleipe Franks fight for the starting position at quarterback. He does have competition, though, with fellow redshirt-sophomore Kyle Trask and incoming freshman Emory Jones. When fans last saw Franks in action, he was looked quite lost against the Florida State defense while completing less than half of his passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns. He also committed four turnovers, throwing three interceptions and losing one fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

With a bigger target on his back and new competition by his side, Franks will have to impress coaches and fans Saturday in order to continue his push for the quarterback starring role. Trask and Jones will each get their opportunities to show fans what they’ve got, as the quarterback competition in Gainesville heats up this spring.

Exposure: Offensive Talents

As the new season nears, there will be plenty of opportunity for new players to emerge as key components to the Florida offense. Running back Jordan Scarlett will be returning from his year-long suspension and will potentially have to fight for playing time with standout Lamical Perine who led the team in rushing last season. Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons round out a crowded backfield that will surely have their hands full in an attempt to shine.

With the departure of Antonio Callaway, 2017 leading receiver Tyrie Cleveland and athlete Kadarius Toney will lead a new group receivers into the 2018 campaign. Fans will get a look at two new transfers in Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes, as well. There has yet to be a decision on whether the pair will be granted eligibility waivers from the NCAA.

The last main piece that will be intriguing to watch is how the offensive lines play during the spring game. With three seniors, including left tackle Martez Ivey, returning for the offensive line and a potential position battle at center, Florida has the opportunity to shine Saturday night. They will face a strong edge rush and new defensive scheme that coach Mullen brings back to Gainesville.

The Orange and Blue Debut will begin at 1pm with the Gator Walk at The Swamp as the teams arrive. Kickoff is set for 3pm.

Josh Ciganek is a young draft pick working his way up the depth chart on the F.F.I. roster, who enjoys watching and writing about all of Florida’s football teams.

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Florida Gators

Gators strong finish Saturday keeps them atop our rankings

Jamil King

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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The college football regular season came to an end last week. For some, it was great, and for others, it was horrible. The Gators and UCF rolled to victories over their rivals. FIU continued their winning ways, while their rival FAU clinched the C-USA East and will be hosting the title game.

The Noles got beat down, while their other rival Miami fell flat on their face for the second week in a row. In the NFL, the Bucs were on their way too embarrassing the Jaguars before a QB change softened the blow, while the Dolphins pulled one of the stunners of the NFL season.

With all of these games to unpack, this is how the top 5 looks heading in conference championship week and week 14 of the NFL:

Florida Gators- The Gators have been the most consistent team in the state, both college, and pro. Their only two losses are against the two teams playing for the SEC Championship Game (LSU and Georgia), and both of those teams can still make the playoff.

Florida had their way with Florida State all night Saturday. Taking advantage of missed tackles and a shaky secondary, Kyle Trask threw three touchdown passes. Florida State couldn’t do anything on offense aside from the opening drive, and a long Cam Akers second-half run. The 10-2 Gators will now wait to see where they are sent for a bowl game. They have an outside shot at a “New Year’s Six” game, but even if they fail to gain entry, an 11-win season is still a great one.

FAU Owls- It was simple for FAU: win, and you’re in. They answered the call by beating Southern Miss in the season finale, and now they are C-USA East champions. QB Chris Robinson connected with tight end Harrison Bryant for all three of his touchdowns passes in the 34-17 win. The Owl defense forced five turnovers on the way to the victory.

Next, the Owls will host West champ, UAB Saturday afternoon to decide who will win the Conference outright.

UCF Knights- The Knights ended their regular season by rolling over USF and ending the Charlie Strong era. Dillon Gabriel had 270 yards passing and two touchdowns, and WR Gabe Davis went over 100 yards again, catching both touchdowns. The Knights won’t be heading to the AAC title game or a New Years’ Six bowl game. A 10th win in the bowl, though, is still a good season for the Knights.

A consolation prize for them would be to draw either FSU or Miami in a bowl game for a shot at an in-state power five schools.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers- For the second week in a row, the Bucs came away victorious and both road wins were highlighted by excellent defense. They were able to knock Nick Foles out of the game at halftime for poor performance. Foles had just 93 yards passing, an interception and two fumbles.

On offense, the Bucs didn’t have to do much, as Jameis Winston had no touchdowns and no interceptions. Peyton Barber was the running back who was hot, scoring twice one from 15 yards and the other a goal-line touch. The Bucs will look to make it three wins in a row and a home win this week against the Colts.

Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins, yes, the Dolphins, are in our rankings, as they pulled off one of the upsets of the season, defeating the Eagles 37-31.

Devante Parker had an explosive 159 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick had 365 yards and three touchdowns.

The craziest play, however, came on fourth and goal when punter Matt Haack rolled left and shuffle passed the ball past three eagle defenders to kicker Jason Sanders.

The win puts the Dolphins at three wins, and they have three more winnable games coming up. Once looking like the sure-fire choice for the first pick, the Dolphins are sliding down the draft board towards the 3-6 range.

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Florida Gators

Gators/Mullen are better version of Harbaugh/Michigan

Matt Zemek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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The Florida Gators under Dan Mullen have become a better version of Michigan. One can say this based on the Gators’ authoritative Peach Bowl win last year, but in fairness to the Wolverines, some of their elite defensive players skipped the bowl to prepare for the NFL Combine or Draft.

When I say that Florida – an easy winner over Florida State 40-17 on Saturday night in The Swamp – is a “better Michigan,” I am not talking about the Peach Bowl last season. I am referring to a bigger picture.

Yes, Florida State is the end-of-season rivalry game for Florida. The Gators have their Thanksgiving weekend rivalry opponent figured out, unlike Michigan. You might be wondering where the comparison lies.

It’s actually a simpler connection than you might think.

Michigan cannot solve the chief rival in its own conference and division. The same is true of Florida. Like Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, Florida and Mullen cannot get past the brick wall known as the Georgia Bulldogs.

Ohio State keeps winning the Big Ten East at Michigan’s expense. The Buckeyes keep locking the Wolverines out of Indianapolis.

Georgia keeps winning the SEC East at Florida’s expense. The Dawgs keep locking the Gators out of Atlanta.

In both cases, one side has the plainly better players. The margin of victory has been substantial the past few years. The real story is not so much the failures of the loser, but how well the winner has built a program and created a high floor.

Ohio State is enjoying a supremely prosperous period in its history, a period on par with Woody Hayes’ great teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s Jim Harbaugh hasn’t done as well as he possibly could at Michigan – we can criticize him for that – but Harbaugh hasn’t exactly been awful, either. He has been a 9- or 10-win coach… which is not much worse than Bo Schembechler.

Michigan shouldn’t be going 0-3 against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. That is true. However, Michigan is not Texas, going 7-5. Michigan is not USC at 8-4. Michigan is not Nebraska, failing to make a bowl. Michigan is not the Florida State program which is a total mess right now.

Michigan could be so much worse.

As we consider Dan Mullen and Florida, then, the Gators are a better Michigan. They do lose to Georgia. They do fail to win their division. They do fail to play for conference championships… but whereas Michigan will not make a New Year’s Six bowl this season, Florida will. Whereas Michigan failed to win 10 games in the regular season, Florida succeeded in reaching that mark.

The Gators did this largely without Feleipe Franks. They did this without Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga for a significant chunk of the season.

Dan Mullen coached his butt off… and yet, because Georgia is clearly better than Florida, it is easy to think the Gators are falling short.

It is no secret that Florida fans – given their first taste of sustained success by Steve Spurrier, and then a second golden era created by Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow – love winning in STYLE. The style points matter to Gator fans.

The Mullen-era teams aren’t amazingly stylish. They certainly look bad against Georgia’s defense. This isn’t the gleaming, glowing, glorious period of conquest and domination the Spurrier or Meyer years were.

Yet, when you look at Florida State – and also at a Miami team which just lost to Florida International and Duke to close its season – the Gators don’t look that bad after all. FSU and The U are 6-6 and going to Shreveport or another off-the-radar bowl location. Florida will play in a Cadillac bowl, and elite bowl, a bowl the Gators expect to play in.

Yes, Georgia is still better, just as Ohio State is relative to Michigan. Yes, division and conference titles need to be won sooner rather than later. Yet, all things considered, Florida has done well with what it has. The key is to create something better and larger, but in 2019, Dan Mullen did not fail.

He is doing a better job than Jim Harbaugh, for sure.

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