Kirby Smart

Georgia coach Kirby Smart looks on during an NCAA college football practice at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019.

Making a good team a great team is rarely cut and dry. Florida won 19 games in former coach Jim McElwain’s first two years, but failed to reach the ultimate stage.

Coach Dan Mullen doesn’t have to look far for a roadmap on how it’s done, though.

One of Florida’s biggest rivals – Georgia – built off of a solid first year from coach Kirby Smart, improving from an eight-win campaign in 2016 to a College Football Playoff berth in 2017.

It’s a long shot, but Florida will look to do something similar this season. Coming off a 10-win season in Mullen's first year, it already has a head start on where Georgia was two years ago.

The biggest difference between the Bulldogs’ 2016 and 2017 campaigns was the team’s offensive production. Led by Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Georgia had the SEC’s best rushing attack in 2017. The emergence of true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm allowed Georgia to improve from the conference’s No. 11 scoring offense in 2016 to No. 3 in 2017. 

Florida’s offense will have to take a similar leap this year to replicate Georgia’s rise. UF had the No. 5 scoring offense in the SEC last year – good, but not good enough if it wants to be in the College Football Playoff discussion. The passing offense (10th in the SEC) needs to improve in particular.

That responsibility falls on quarterback Feleipe Franks. The redshirt junior quarterback will have to replicate the success he had in the last four games of 2018 (eight touchdowns passing, four rushing and zero interceptions) for Florida to compete for a playoff spot.

UF’s defense and running game, which are two of its strongest facets, will need to make incremental improvements like Georgia did in those areas.

The Gators’ most important contest on the schedule is the Florida-Georgia game. Barring any surprises, there’s a good chance that game decides the SEC East division. UF needs to win the division if it wants to make the College Football Playoff. End of story.

Georgia lost to No. 10 Auburn 40-17 two years ago and still made the College Football Playoff. Similarly, Florida could afford to drop one SEC game in the regular season that’s not UGA. 

The most similar game on UF’s schedule this year is its Oct. 12 visit to No. 6 LSU. The selection committee will give a pass to a team that loses to a highly-ranked SEC opponent, but that’s the only slip-up UF can have.

The odds are slim, but it’s possible. At the very least, their performance last year makes it a discussion worth having for the Gators. A UF team that runs the table during the regular season but loses the SEC Championship Game will probably make the College Football Playoff. A one-loss SEC champion UF team would absolutely make the cut. 

If Georgia did it coming off an eight-win season, why can’t Florida do it coming off a 10-win season?

Follow Sam Campisano on Twitter @samcampisano. Contact him at [email protected].

Sam Campisano is the sports editor of The Alligator. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017, and previously covered men's golf, swimming, soccer and women's basketball.