The high expectations that weighed on the Gators football team leading into the 2019 season were warranted after coach Dan Mullen’s first season at the helm.
Florida’s six-win improvement last season saw the team win a New Year’s Six Bowl and finish the season with the No. 7 spot in the final AP Top 25 ranking.
Mullen said last week he knew the jump from four wins to 10 was special, but to go from 10 to 11 was a lot harder.
Several key injuries on both sides of the ball and a injury-induced midseason quarterback change only made that one-win improvement even more challenging.
Regardless, last week in Miami Gardens, Florida, Mullen and the Gators notched their 11th win of the season after outlasting Virginia in the Orange Bowl 36-28.
“We told them, ‘Hey, if you buy into what we're doing, just buy into what we're doing, believe we're going to be successful,’ they've done that, they've bought in,” Mullen said. “Back-to-back 10-win seasons, back-to-back top-10 teams, back-to-back New Year's Six bowl victories... They've bought in and they've restored that Gator Standard.”
The ability of this team to live up to the Gator Standard on the field was tested on several fronts.
Cornerback C.J. Henderson, linebacker Jonathan Greenard, defensive end Jabari Zuniga and wide receiver Kadarius Toney all missed significant time this season with injuries. And returning starting quarterback Feleipe Franks broke his ankle with UF trailing on the road against Kentucky in Week 3.
He missed the remainder of the season, but Kyle Trask, and, at times, Emory Jones, stepped up in his place and collectively improved on last season’s quarterback play, which was the best sustained play since Tim Tebow.
Trask fell just short of a 3,000-yard passing season. It would have been the first by a UF quarterback since Tebow did it in 2007. That near milestone shows how Trask revolutionized the offense and took advantage of the deep receiving corps he had at his disposal and the successful weaponization of tight end Kyle Pitts, who is second on the team in receiving yards (649) and led the team in receptions (54).
Despite being banged up for much of the season, Florida’s defense still posted an SEC-leading 49 sacks, the fourth-most in school history. Greenard led the conference with 9.5 sacks and 18 different players were credited with at least half a sack.
The Gators also finished the season with three shutouts (UT Martin, Towson, Vanderbilt) and one of the top scoring defenses in the FBS.
Top-15 offensive and defensive efficiency marks, per ESPN’s FPI, still were not enough to carry Florida over the hump that is Georgia in the SEC East.
Prior to the season, Georgia and LSU were the easy picks for the two games that Florida would lose, and that was before the emergence of Heisman winner Joe Burrow.
Losing to two top-five teams, one of which will play for the national championship on Monday, is not an indictment of the season. But it is what stands between UF and its first College Football Playoff berth.
The momentum that this season created has carried over well into the recruiting cycle, where Mullen has been cleaning up, along with his recent success acquiring top talent in the transfer portal.
That should help Florida climb that mountain in the division and, at the very least, make a return to Atlanta in the coming years.
The next jump to a 12- or even 13-win season will be even more difficult than the leaps the program has taken the past two seasons. But the Gators are certainly trending upwards.
Follow Kyle on Twitter @Kkylewood and contact him at [email protected]