Updated: Jan 16
This wasn’t the same Florida Gators team from the first 11 games. We knew that coming into the 2020 Goodyear Cotton Bowl matchup with the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners. It was just some guys in the same orange and blue uniforms.
Head Coach Dan Mullen hedged after the 52-46 loss to No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship, saying that fans had likely just seen the last of the 2020 Florida Gators.
“That was really the last time this team will play together, I imagine. Whatever the future holds, I imagine this team as a whole of how it is will be the last one played here,” he said at the time.
And after a blowout 55-20 loss versus the Sooners on Wednesday night, Mullen said yet again that the No. 7 Florida Gators that had been on the verge of the College Football Playoffs were not the same Gators who took the field in Texas.
“Maybe this is wrong,” Mullen began, indicating in a season marked by the moments, he yet again was about to say something that would likely be controversial.
“I viewed this game, that wasn't the 2020 football team that you saw. I mean, there were about 25 guys missing off the 2020 football team out there tonight. That was kind of like a kickstart for us for the future and the opportunity for young guys to go play and, you know, even with me, all the coaches, I wanted to make sure—I think you saw all a lot of different guys on the field, us rotate a lot of different players in different situations, and a lot of that was for me to get to evaluate guys and for us to be able to teach those guys moving forward.
“That's how I kind of view this game. Not really; I view the last game the last team the 2020 team played was 11 days ago.”
Scholarship numbers were actually under the threshold for the Gators, to the point they could have opted out of the game. Mullen credits young players who wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to play amidst a flurry of individual opt outs, COVID positive tests and injuries. With an unofficial tally of seven starters opting out to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, a total of 17 scholarship players were listed as unavailable Wednesday night.
Combined with the fact the Gators were only able to hold three full practices following the emotional slugfest with Alabama and a short turnaround during a truncated postseason, and it wasn’t too surprising that the Gators seemed “off” all night versus Oklahoma.
Yet the performance should not be excused. While there was always a decent possibility that Florida would lose their third in a row and end the season 8-4, what needed to be seen was the fight coming from the field against the Sooners.
One could justifiably argue there was little fight from this shell of a Gator team in their third straight New Years Six bowl game, lacking the fire that was evident in the previous two. Still, with so much of their veteran leadership not present, linebacker Mohamoud Diabate is proud of what a young group was willing to fight for even when the game was out of hand.
“Even though we wanted to win and it wasn't our desired result at the end, we're still proud of ourselves because there's a lot of people going through a lot of things in this world, a lot of distractions going on in this world today and during this time, but we were able to come and finish the season.
“And whether we finished it with a win or a loss, we finished it like men and we finished it -- when that scoreboard said 0:00 with no time left, we finished it. So I'm proud of my guys, every single one of them, from K.T. (Kadarius Toney) to a walk-on. Every one of them. That's how I feel about it.
“At the end of the day…players have to get out on the field and make plays. We're the University of Florida. We can't say we didn't have one guy. This is Florida. So you can't say we didn't have one guy who could make a play.”
Safety Trey Dean is heading into the offseason though, having clawed his way back into more playing time and a leadership role, knowing that what Florida brought to the field Wednesday night was unacceptable.
“We've got to be ready to play each and every game. No matter if we're playing Bethune-Cookman or the University of Alabama, we've got to play to the Gator standard, no matter what it is. So there really was no bad turn-around. On to the next one. You've got to look at the new game plan. At the end of the day, we're in the Cotton Bowl. So we've got to play like the Florida Gators in the Cotton Bowl.”
The voices of Diabate and Dean, among others, will be the ones to speak up now as the veterans in a group that was maligned all year. So will corner Kaiir Elam, who will be taking on the role while adjusting to a part of college ball he hasn’t experienced before. And that is the lesson in moving forward according to Mullen.
“You look at Kaiir Elam is really the leader of our secondary moving forward. He has never had a spring practice, not one spring practice day in his life, and he is our veteran leader in the secondary. He's never had a spring practice, not one, not one.
“So I think I am really excited about all of these guys and life hopefully getting a little bit back to normal as these guys continue to grow and develop to see what type of team we're going to have next year.”
Knowing much of the production on offense would also be leaving this season, Mullen says he and staff wanted to provide opportunity for others to get reps that would prove valuable down the road. Quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson both saw ample playing time versus the Sooners. Jones went 8-16 for 86 yards through the air and led the team with 60 yards and a touchdown on 10 rushes. Richardson picked up 42 yards on three rushes and tossed one pass for a 27-yard touchdown.
“You look at this right now, Anthony Richardson is throwing a touchdown pass in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. Emory Jones has played in a lot of big games and a lot of big moments, so he has the experience and he's really learned how to prepare to get ready to take over that main role.”
Added Jones, “It was an opportunity for the young guys to get in and get some reps. And just being on this stage, I feel like the young guys that played, they're going to be ready to step on any stage. They got in and played here. Some of them made some plays. You just have to get better from that.”
Getting better from that is the key. This was a bad loss that came at the hands of players—and possibly even coaches—with eyes on the NFL. Now the key is making sure it spurns a positive result. Mullen couldn’t come right out and say before the game this would be like a spring game. The goal is to win. But hindsight allows quotes to be revised and all indications are the Gators came into this game knowing they’d be shorthanded. Once halftime hit and it was clear this game was out of hand, it became a chance to prepare for the future.
It came at the expense of a third straight New Years Six bowl win, making it painful in the moment. But if it sets a foundation for the next round of talent in Gainesville, could hindsight show losing this battle to win a war [National Championship] was a smart decision?
The Gators didn’t get to stand on the trophy stage after the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday night. But Emory Jones maintains the lessons learned will have them prepared to stand on the bigger stage soon.
“It was a great feeling to get out there, and the young guys getting out there on this big stage, I mean, it just put them in a position to be ready to step on any stage.”
Concluded Mullen, “I think I'm really excited that some guys got some experience out there to go play. A bunch of those guys have been on the scout team all year, like I said. I'm looking out there at Kamar Wilkinson should be finishing up his senior year in high school, and he's playing corner in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.”
“So I think there's a lot of things that we can grow off of and those guys now, guys that have played, minimum snaps throughout a season, guys that were at best in backup roles, a majority of who were on the scout team for most of the year, so they didn't even get to run our defense, got opportunities to go play in a big time atmosphere in a big game.
“I think there's a lot of those things that guys can learn from, and we can build off and take that into the future for this team.”