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Gators future “Peachy” after pummeling Michigan Saturday

Matt Zemek

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators entered the Peach Bowl hoping they would play their best, or something close to it, but they also knew that all the pieces of a truly great team did not yet exist. Building for 2019 was the focus. Solving the whole puzzle on the offensive side of the ball was not realistic, but making noticeable improvements from the regular season represented an attainable goal well within the realm of possibility.

Dan Mullen and Feleipe Franks checked those boxes on Saturday in Atlanta.

Don’t start a runaway hype train with this team just yet… but the Gators very clearly showed that their future should own quite a few happy moments under their current head coach.

Don Brown is and has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the country over the past decade. Either at Boston College or now at Michigan, Brown has fielded a lot of tough and smart defenses which can physically punish opponents and possess good instincts. After getting smoked by Ohio State’s superior athleticism a month ago, Brown had a lot of incentive to get things right in the Peach Bowl, and since Florida’s passing game has not exactly lit up the skies this season, Brown had reason to think that even with star linebacker Devin Bush and pass rusher Rashan Gary not playing, his remaining players could at least contain the Gator offense.

No, it was unreasonable to expect that Michigan — minus Bush and Gary — could dominate Florida, but containment? That’s a standard of performance Brown needed from his defense.

Dan Mullen carved up Brown for most of the day, certainly in high-leverage situations.

Third-down quarterback draws, fourth-down jet sweeps to Kadarius Toney, tunnel screens — they all opened up big plays in timely moments. Florida’s pass routes schemed receivers wide open and confused Michigan’s secondary. The Michigan back four was not hit hard by player absences — Bush and Gary are both part of the front seven — so those breakdowns are harder to explain from the Michigan side than the other weaknesses the Wolverines displayed on Saturday.

Yet, as much as you might be able to say that the absences of Bush and Gary mattered — they obviously did to a considerable extent — not everything about Florida’s blowout win can be chalked up to the depth chart. Michigan still had Chase Winovich and a number of other really good defensive players who are better than many of the defenses the Gators faced this season. Once again, Michigan should not have been expected to crush Florida in its shorthanded state, but the Wolverines should have been able to keep Florida in the mid-20s.

Brown could not do that. Mullen very decisively outcoached him.

Florida’s players looked much sharper than they did late in the regular season. The month of fine-tuning Gator fans hoped would make a difference in this offense certainly carried the right effect.

The coaching staff was on top of its game. Players developed and improved, showing what can happen when their athleticism is more finely channeled into the feel and flow of a game against a 10-2, seventh-ranked opponent. (That opponent is now 10-3, but Michigan isn’t a bad team; it simply isn’t the great team many people thought it was heading into the battle with Ohio State.)

Feleipe Franks did not hit some open receivers in this game, but he didn’t make the big mistake, and he ran like a dynamo in the first half. In the second half, he relaxed and hit some tight-window throws down the field. He is not all the way there. He hasn’t yet reached a point of total comfort and command within Mullen’s offense.. but he came a lot closer in the Peach Bowl.

Now he gets an offseason to build on this performance.

Yes, it’s great… to be… a Florida Gator.

Now, though, let’s put the Gators’ situation in perspective. Optimism certainly floods the landscape and covers most patches of ground, but when I say that it’s great to be in Florida’s shoes, I am talking more about the program’s new floor rather than its new ceiling.

Let’s pump the brakes on the idea that, in 2019 and 2020, this program is going to be what Kirby Smart created at Georgia the past two seasons. Is that possible? Maybe. However, my focus on what this Peach Bowl romp means for Florida is more about the lower end of the spectrum for Mullen and Company.

What this game shows me is that even with a very imperfect quarterback and an offense which was stumbling in the dark for much of the season, Florida won 10 games and captured a New Year’s Six bowl trophy. Recruiting, talent and quarterbacking should all get BETTER in the coming years. Mullen — who did as much as he realistically could at Mississippi State, now has Florida’s resources to call upon. This season showed once again that Mullen does more with less.

Florida should very, very rarely win fewer than nine games in any regular season over the next decade with Mullen in charge. This hire was not viewed as a home run throughout the college football industry. I loved it, but not everyone else did, and I could understand why, especially since Chip Kelly was the man many Gator fans hoped for. Nevertheless, Mullen has now shown how much he can do with a given level of talent. He has already shown so much more acuity and skill than Jim McElwain did in building an offense which can maximize players’ strengths and minimize or hide their weaknesses.

Yes, McElwain won a pair of SEC East titles, but remember: That was after Missouri and Gary Pinkel lost their mojo, and before Kirby built the Georgia colossus. McElwain’s East titles were mostly the product of a power vacuum in the SEC East. Florida’s 2018 team was better than either of those two East championship teams under Mac If this Florida team had existed in 2015 or 2016, it wouldn’t have beaten Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, but it probably would have won more than those Gator teams did.

Florida might not be ready to deliver 11-1 seasons, but the days of being unsure if the Gators would be a lock to win nine games appear to be over. Florida now looks like a program which will once again be in the SEC hunt every year. That’s not quite what this program expects, but it couldn’t maintain that modest standard for much of the past decade. Now it has regained that level of footing as it tries to climb higher.

The 2018 season, now complete, did not raise the ceiling for Florida — that’s what Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow did. This 2018 campaign is significant because it raised the floor.

Like this Peach Bowl against Michigan, the 2018 UF football season wasn’t a perfect performance from start to finish, but it represented considerable improvement as it continued. It left Gator fans feeling a lot better at the end, compared to the beginning.

For Year 1, Dan Mullen ought to be satisfied with the degree of progress he attained. Judging by his reactions throughout the fourth quarter in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the final Saturday of the year, Mullen certainly looked like a man who knows he has begun to reestablish a foundation Florida football can build on.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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