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Gators-Mullen get shot at Harbaugh-Michigan in Peach Bowl

Matt Zemek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let me tell you a story.

A man came to a prominent football power after nearly 10 years in which that football power endured suffering and misery.

That man was expected to restore glory, to follow in the path first carved out by famous and iconic predecessors.

That man went 9-3 in his first season under very difficult circumstances with a noticeably limited roster, especially at quarterback.

He did well, and created legitimately high expectations for his future.

The man’s name was Jim Harbaugh. The prominent football power was Michigan.

The Wolverines, entering Harbaugh’s first season in 2015, had done very little over the previous eight seasons. They had made a BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowl only once in those eight seasons and performed well below the standards expected of them. The man Harbaugh replaced, Brady Hoke, made a lot of poor administrative decisions which undermined confidence and morale inside the program and unsettled the fan base. Hoke never developed quarterbacks to an elite level.

Harbaugh had been part of the Michigan program before. He was a player for a Michigan Rose Bowl team under the father of the modern Wolverines, Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh had impeccable credentials and significant achievements to bring to Ann Arbor.

Jim Harbaugh was Dan Mullen three years before Dan Mullen came to Florida to revive the Gators.

The parallels are obvious, but let’s put them down in print to make them absolutely clear:

The Gators, entering Mullen’s first season in 2018, had done very little over the previous eight seasons. They had made a BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowl only once in those previous eight seasons (2010-2017) and performed well below the standards expected of them. The man Mullen replaced, Jim McElwain, made a lot of poor decisions and public statements which undermined confidence and morale inside the program and unsettled the fan base. McElwain actually achieved more than Hoke did at Michigan, winning multiple SEC East Division championships, but he eroded trust among many important people in the program. McElwain never developed quarterbacks to an elite level.

Mullen had been part of the Florida program before. He was an assistant coach for two Florida national championship teams under one of the two icons of Gator coaching, Urban Meyer. Mullen had impeccable credentials and significant achievements (Mississippi State to a No. 1 ranking and an Orange Bowl appearance) to bring to Gainesville.

Mullen — like Harbaugh in Year 1 at Michigan in 2015 — went 9-3 at Florida in 2018. Everything mentioned at the beginning of this piece in relationship to Harbaugh, of course, also applies to Mullen now.

Mullen really and truly has taken Harbaugh’s place. It forms a perfect parallel — and backdrop — for the upcoming Peach Bowl between the two schools, which have so much in common beyond the details I have already laid out.

Michigan has a foremost program icon from the past 60 years: Bo Schembechler. He is the man who said before the 1989 NCAA Tournament that “A Michigan man will coach Michigan,” a reference to then-coach Bill Frieder wanting to coach elsewhere. Bo dismissed Frieder and had Steve Fisher coach the team in March. Six wins later, the Wolverines won their first — and still only — national title in men’s basketball. Bo represented his school — and advocated for it — with such relentless dedication that his association with the school transcends his luminous coaching career. Yet, Bo’s standard of excellence established a culture at Michigan which Harbaugh is expected to carry forward.

Florida has a foremost program icon from the past 60 years: Steve Spurrier. First a Heisman Trophy winner as a player, then a favorite son who came home to coach the program and awaken a sleeping giant in 1990, Spurrier remains today the ultimate Gator. “God’s smilin’ on the Gators” is a Spurrier staple. He coached at South Carolina, but he was always an ambassador for Florida and is now serving in that capacity in a way which transcends labels or titles.

Much as Schembechler created the modern template for excellence at Michigan, Spurrier did the same at Florida. Michigan drifted through the 15 seasons which preceded Bo’s arrival at Michigan in 1969, and in much the same way, Florida hadn’t done much of anything in the decades preceding Spurrier’s ascension to the head coaching chair in Gainesville at the beginning of the 1990s.

Both men — Bo and the Head Ball Coach — initiated a Golden Age at their respective schools. Those Golden Ages were carried forth by even better successors.

Bo never won a national title at Michigan. Lloyd Carr did. Carr improved upon the Bo standard in Ann Arbor in a career which lasted over a decade.

Spurrier won won national title at Florida. Urban Meyer won two. Meyer didn’t stick around in Gainesville for a long time, but in the time he was there, he won more of the biggest prizes college football can offer.

The parallels between these schools are strong — have I mentioned that yet?

They keep coming.

Carr stepped down after — interestingly enough — beating Meyer and Tim Tebow in the 2008 Citrus Bowl. Michigan then went into its eight-year slump, briefly interrupted by the 2012 Sugar Bowl, before Harbaugh was asked to save the day preceding the 2015 season.

Meyer, burned out, stepped away from Florida after the 2010 season. Florida began an eight-season slump in that 2010 campaign, briefly interrupted by the 2013 Sugar Bowl, before Mullen was asked to save the day preceding this 2018 season.

Mullen and Harbaugh can look at each other — and talk to each other during Peach Bowl media appearances, or on the field before kickoff — and exchange stories about handling the pressure at their respective programs. Harbaugh is in position to impart to Mullen some words of advice about how to deal with internal noise and the burden of expectations. Mullen might be in a position to tell Harbaugh how to develop quarterbacks, because it just hasn’t come together for the Wolverines at that position in Harbaugh’s four seasons on the job.

The particularities of the 2018 Michigan team and the 2018 Gators, however, represent another story for another day. That story will be told in the coming weeks in the buildup to kickoff in Atlanta.

For now, simply realize how much of a parallel track these schools have followed — not just this decade, not just in the past 12 years, but in the past several decades, all because of leaders who began their legends at Michigan and Florida in the 1960s (Bo in 1969, Spurrier in 1966).

Dan Mullen is Jim Harbaugh three years ago. The Peach Bowl is the end of one season, but Mullen and Gator fans hope it represents the beginning of a rise to power. That is where Florida hopes the next three years acquire a trajectory which is different from the one Harbaugh and Michigan have followed.

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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Florida Gators

Gators/Canes agree to home/home series in 2024-25

Abbey Radeka

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Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

It is officially the last Saturday of the year without college football. Exactly one week from today, the Canes will be taking on the Gators in Orlando, kicking off the 2019 season.

However, this game will now be the first of three match-ups over the next six seasons. On Saturday afternoon, Stadium writer/insider Brett McMurphy reported that the Gators and Hurricanes have agreed to a home-and-home series in 2024 and 2025.

This will be the first home and home series in the rivalry since 2002-2003.

In this home-and-home agreement, Florida will host the 2024 game and Miami will host the 2025 game. And with next weeks game taking place in a neutral site, it makes for a pretty even match-up between this sunshine state rivalry.

While this year’s game will be the first time the teams have played each other in 6 seasons, the history of the UF vs UM rivalry dates back to 1938, when the teams would play annually. They were the state’s original rivalry, as the only two major college programs in Florida with football teams, before FSU entered into the arena.

Miami currently leads the all-time series 29-26, but the Gators now have a chance to tie it up by 2025.

The Gators are the favorites heading into next weekend, coming off of a stellar turn-around season led by (then new) head coach Dan Mullen. Florida has been ranked in the top 10 on multiple preseason polls and are returning starting QB Feleipe Franks.

The Canes announced last week that they’ll be starting Jarren Williams at QB over last year’s starter N’Kosi Perry and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. They’ve recently been hit with a few injuries at the linebacker spot heading into the season, but overall are feeling confident under the direction of new head coach Manny Diaz.

With Florida having a shaky offseason, Miami heading into an exciting new era, and the added intensity that comes with playing an in-state rival, it really could be anyone’s game.

And it could be the start of a great series of football in the sunshine state.

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Florida Gators

Gators QB Feleipe Franks playing for his place in history

Matt Zemek

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Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Feleipe Franks is playing for history this year in Gainesville, Florida, but more than history, he is playing for a place in the hearts of Florida Gator fans. He might not characterize his journey that way, but viewed from a distance, that is the poignant center of Franks’ story as Florida’s starting quarterback.

Go through the history of Florida quarterbacks since the start of the Steve Spurrier era. The stories of these quarterbacks are very different. There is room for Feleipe Franks to fall between various extremes.

Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow are the ultimate immortals who lifted the Gators to the mountaintop. Rex Grossman deserved the Heisman Trophy in 2001 but didn’t get it. He played well against Tennessee that year, but defensive coordinator Jon Hoke coached poorly, and Alex Brown got owned by the Vols’ offensive line. Nevertheless, Grossman brought the Gators many richly satisfying moments. He isn’t in the Wuerffel-Tebow pantheon, but he was a great UF quarterback.

Shane Matthews has a special place in Gator lore. He is the man who started it all, the first special Spurrier quarterback who gave birth to the golden age of Florida football. College sports fans cherish the young athletes who built a foundation for a treasured part of their lives. Matthews was that foundational figure for Florida football fans, much as the 1994 basketball team showed Gator Nation what was possible in college hoops, catching the attention of a man named Billy Donovan, who would come to Gainesville a few years later.

Wuerffel and Tebow live eternally on Mount Olympus. Grossman and Matthews will always be treasured with great passion as all-time-great Gators.

Then the stories become a lot more complicated.

Terry Dean’s biggest sin was that he wasn’t Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel. Sandwiched between the two, it was hard for Steve Spurrier — trying to cement Florida’s powerhouse status in the SEC — to accept Dean’s limitations and push him to become even greater. The Spurrier-Dean relationship was memorably fractured and scarred. Since Spurrier is the most important figure in the history of Florida football, the friction which defined his relationship with Dean inevitably affected the way many (though not all) Gator fans felt about Dean.

If you were to argue that Dean was the most complicated Florida quarterback of the last 30 years, many would agree with you.

If Dean was the most complicated Gator signal-caller of the past 30 years, Doug Johnson would probably rate as No. 2.

Florida did keep winning under Johnson. It beat Florida State and knocked the Seminoles out of the national title hunt in 1997 (“BEHIND THE DEFENSE!”). It won a BCS bowl — the Orange Bowl — in the 1998 season. It won the SEC East in 1999. Yet, after the Wuerffel years, those three seasons felt like a huge letdown… and in truth, they were.

Doug Johnson, who did play with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL for a brief while, had the physical tools of a top quarterback, but he simply didn’t process the game the way great QBs do. This irritated Spurrier to no end, and it clearly wasted some of Florida’s best defenses, chiefly the 1998 group, which deserved so much better than what it got. Doug Johnson elicited the words “what might have been” in Gainesville, a frustrated litany of almosts and coulda-shoulda-wouldas.

The man who replaced Johnson in 2000 wrote a different story.

Yes, Rex Grossman played for portions of the 2000 season, but after a thoroughly ineffective first quarter in a pivotal SEC game against South Carolina, Spurrier called on Jesse Palmer — who had won in Knoxville against the Vols earlier in the year — to rescue the team. Palmer did just that, throwing for three touchdown passes and leading a 28-0 second-quarter surge which wiped away a 21-3 deficit created by two South Carolina touchdowns off blocked punt returns.

Florida won, 41-21, clinching the SEC East and setting the stage for the program’s first SEC championship since 1996 under Wuerffel.

Palmer did not have a lengthy Florida career, but in his year of truth as a Gator, the future college football commentator (whose greatest contribution to humanity was saving the life of Chris Fowler a few years ago during a Pinstripe Bowl broadcast at Yankee Stadium; Fowler had choked on a dry chicken sandwich, and Palmer successfully Heimliched the piece of poultry out of Fowler’s pipes) brought UF back to its rightful place atop the SEC.

Palmer was not an overwhelmingly great quarterback. He never dominated college football the way Grossman, his successor, did in 2001, but he stepped up when his coaches and teammates needed him most.

When considering where Feleipe Franks fits into the larger story of Florida quarterbacks, he is playing to be remembered in a vein similar to Palmer, and to avoid being remembered as a Johnson-like figure. The Johnson and Palmer comparisons aren’t exact and will never be easy fits with the example of Franks, nearly two decades later, but they represent larger portraits of careers and the paths they follow.

The mention of Doug Johnson’s name elicits a cringe or a wince in Florida football circles. His time under center was painful for Gator fans. Mentioning Palmer within a Florida football context would call forth many happy memories of a redemptive season and a year when Florida restored something which had been missing.

Isn’t this what Franks — under head coach Dan Mullen — is trying to chase down in 2019?

Franks has had his Johnsonian bad boy moments. He has lived through his own periods of considerable friction with the Florida fan base. Yet, at the end of the 2018 season — chiefly in the Peach Bowl win over Michigan — Franks showed that he was capable of evolving, that he could process the game at a higher level, the way Doug Johnson never quite achieved two decades earlier.

If Franks can turn the corner this year and give Florida an SEC East title — which would almost certainly mean a win over Georgia in Jacksonville — the way he has been thought of in Gainesville will give way to a distinctly different identity.

Yes, Feleipe Franks is playing for history, but more than that, he is playing so that he can be remembered in the right way and for the right reasons. It is a personal aspiration, but it is connected to team success.

Another powerful and complicated Florida quarterback story is about to be written in 2019.

We will see how happy the ending turns out to be.

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