There were two other Florida Gators head coaches this decade who made bowl games after their second seasons, and for some reason I’m thinking about them tonight, as Dan Mullen leads his resurgent Gators into the 2019 Orange Bowl against the Virginia Cavaliers (8 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN).
When Will Muschamp piloted the 2012 Gators to the Sugar Bowl, he was granted an opportunity to make the game an launching pad to once more being in most national conversations about championship contenders. Instead, the Gators stumbled out of the gate and never got level with Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville, falling in a 33-23 loss that was widely regarded as a faceplant.
For Jim McElwain, the Gators’ second bowl game in his tenure represented a chance to finally finish a season with something good. Florida had flailed down the stretch in 2015, getting rolled by Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan, and repeated some of that in 2016, once again being drubbed by the Seminoles and Crimson Tide. But that year’s bowl game, an Outback Bowl meeting with Iowa, gave the Gators a shot at redemption — and they took it, with Austin Appleby and Chauncey Gardner (who hadn’t yet added the Johnson) starring on the day in a 30-3 win.
But that first game was so long ago that Muschamp is now embattled at his second stop after Florida, and his opposing number, Charlie Strong, is done with his second head coaching stint; the second game was long ago enough that Feleipe Franks was an object of mystery, with cases being made for and against him playing against the Hawkeyes.
In college football, things can — and generally do — change in a hurry.
So Mullen restoring Florida to perennial top-10 status, something the Gators will assuredly attain if they beat Virginia on this night in South Florida, is less than shocking. Florida doing so with what Mullen’s had on hand — Franks and Kyle Trask at quarterback, offensive lines that have occasionally put sieves to shame, and defensive talent that had mostly dipped from Urban Meyer- and Muschamp-era high water marks — is arguably bit of a pleasant surprise, but what Florida’s done to date under Mullen is mostly within the upper range of what most thought was possible to likely with an established, comfortable coach in Gainesville.
And Florida beating Virginia, even handily — as the Gators, two-touchdown favorites, are expected to do — would not break from that range of expected outcomes. The Cavaliers had a fine season for their program standards, and finally downed Virginia Tech to end a streak of rivalry misery, but they have been on the field with two teams at par or better relative to Florida, and got blown off of it by Clemson and convincingly beaten by Notre Dame. They also lost to the Miami team Florida defeated, and narrowly topped the FSU squad Florida routed.
Bryce Perkins and a game defense have gotten Virginia to this stage; them getting the Cavaliers to a stage to accept postgame laurels would seem a stretch.
So Florida is in a New Year’s Six bowl that provides a national platform, but playing a team it would get few brownie points for beating, even in a rout. This is not the 2013 Sugar Bowl, a chance to finish a year with a flourish; this is not the 2017 Outback Bowl, in which Florida found solid ground and rebounded.
This is just a game against a good — not great — team that should help to prove that Florida is already better than good.
Getting better than that — or getting credit for being such — will have to wait.
So let’s just enjoy the night.