That was the sense as the No. 9 Florida Gators celebrated following their 36-28 win over No. 24 Virginia.
There was general jubilation and merriment. Defensive lineman T.J. Slaton tore into the oranges on hand for the victors. Standing on the trophy stage, safety Shawn Davis realized he could throw the oranges far enough to get them to fans in the stands. Before long, most of the team was doing the same. Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland fell off the stage trying to reach his own orange, his teammates immediately laughing at his expense.
Running back Lamical Perine was greeted by teammates after winning Orange Bowl MVP following his 181 yards, three touchdown performance. And seniors signed teammates jerseys in the locker room as they began to make their goodbyes.
There was all the requisite celebration that follows a New Years Six bowl win to cap an 11-2 season. But for those that had walked through the confetti and tears of the Peach Bowl celebration a year before, there was a palpable difference. That celebration was the culmination of three years of drudgery and arduous rebuilding. That celebration was an explosion of emotions, feelings and worries that had been internalized, now lifted with the knowledge that the Gators in 2018 had gone farther than even they themselves believed was possible.
That wasn’t the case in Miami Gardens on Monday night. And that might be the best indicator of how far this program has come and where it can go.
“We come, we came here to win no matter, like Coach Mullen said, it’s expected,” remarked defensive back Trey Dean, because now, “ to get into the National Championship—it’s expected you know.”
“[I] think we can be real good. You know, we’ll just continue to get better, like I said, this training only gonna get better so like in the weight room, in the offseason, continue to get bigger, have a better bond. It’s year two of the offense and the defense so we can add more to it so it ain’t like a brand new, like gonna be a new offense, we’re just gonna keep adding to it.
“I think it’s gonna be a great—I think we’re gonna win the National Championship.”
That was the standard given by more than one player following the Orange Bowl win. Simply a New Year’s Six bowl is no longer the goal. It’s an accepted standard and not a bad compensatory prize for missing the four-team playoff. But there’s more to work towards moving forward.
Added receiver Tre Grimes, “this year we came out coming off last year, and we knew we had to pick up where we left off, so next year coming in, we have 11 wins, so next year we have to try to strive for 12 wins and so forth and go for the National Championship. I feel like it gives us a lot of momentum going into next year.”
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney agreed.
“I feel like next year’s team might be better than this one.”
But is it?
Senior BUCK Jon Greenard will be in the NFL next season, taking with him one of the best season long defensive performances the Gators have seen from an individual player in a decade. But he maintains that he likes what he’s leaving behind.
“I'm looking at what they've got coming back, they can do more. And the guys coming in. I'm excited. I mean, this is only just the beginning of it, honestly. Last year was a little taste of it. We keep building, we got 11 wins, which is really difficult.
“A couple plays this year and we would've been right where we wanted. Next year, they are just going to capitalize off of that, understand where we were this past year, and National Championship in my eyes, so we've got that in our eyes now.”
Before examining what the Gators have coming back, we have to acknowledge what they’re losing. Florida said goodbye to 22 seniors this season. Of those, there were 14 starters and/or consistent contributors. Greenard as mentioned, will also leave with linebacker David Reese II, defensive end Jabari Zuniga, linebacker Adam Shuler, safety Jeawon Taylor and end Luke Ancrum on defense. On special teams, the Townsend era is over as punter Tommy Townsend and long snapper Jacob Tilghman graduate. And on offense, Florida loses center Nick Buchanan, running back Lamical Perine and receivers Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Van Jefferson all bid adieu.
If you’re keeping track at home, that’s the two of the top three tacklers (Reese and Greenard), the sacks leader (Greenard) and 54% of the Gators offensive production this season (receiving, rushing, kickoff and punt returns).
For whatever is still in the locker room, that is a significant amount of production in all three phases of the game to lose. And that’s without taking into consideration how much more could be lost with early NFL departures. To this point, only corner C.J. Henderson has announced a decision to depart early, but there are around five more players to keep an eye on for that decision.
To reference Will Sammon of The Athletic from a piece this week, the biggest plays on Monday night to defeat Virginia came courtesy of those senior leaders more often than not. The pitch to Lamical Perine on 4th and 1 that kept the drive moving towards a breather touchdown. The other three touchdowns that were products of Perine’s tenacious style and sneaky speed. The second converted 4th down that came with a shot to Freddie Swain in the middle of the field, one of the Gators most reliable options there. Two huge plays by Van Jefferson of 36-yards and 53-yards respectively helped Florida gain field position in crucial moments.
David Reese stopped Bryce Perkins on a 3rd and 1 early in the game that stalled the Cavaliers momentum and allowed Florida to build a lead that would prove the difference. It came from Reese’s knowledge after years of experience. The Gators held the Cavs to 5-13 on 3rd downs, thanks to Reese on those short situations and guys like Adam Shuler and Jon Greenard both coming down with sacks to force long situations.
Are the pieces there to replace those guys?
Those that are tasked with the job say yes.
Perhaps the greatest example lies in corner Kaiir Elam. There has been a history of freshman DB’s at Florida using the bowl game as a coming out party. Vernon Hargreaves III, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, C.J. Henderson, Trey Dean—they all used their freshmen bowl games to cap jump start seasons and establish themselves in the defense. On a night when C.J. Henderson was not on the field, Elam came in and made arguably the play of the game.
Virginia was driving late with just over five minutes to play. The Hoos were down 12 and needed to score there if they had hopes of taking the lead on their next possession. T.J. Slaton and David Reese II had pushed the line of scrimmage back four yards on the previous play so from the 17-yard line, Bryce Perkins—who confounded the defense most of the night—targeted his receiver towards the front corner of the endzone. Elam jumped the route and picked him off for the Cavs only turnover of the night.
Elam, who said in the post game locker room that he wanted to win the Jim Thorpe Award his freshman season and felt he didn’t do near enough, is ready to push his team towards much more in 2020.
“Next year I don't expect anything less than a National Championship. That's just me. I feel like we just need to keep improving, don't take any steps back, and we'll be there.”
In the front seven, Mohamoud Diabate can replace a variety of guys depending on how the linebackers are shuffled to fill the middle linebacker spot left vacant by Reese II. For Diabate though, he has his eyes on reigns Greenard will leave for the BUCK position.
“I just been doing it my whole life, I’ve always been on the edge. Since I started playing football I’ve been on the edge so I feel like that’s where I’m comfortable but I feel like I’m a versatile player, I’m athlete, I can play anything. So whatever position the coaches put me at, I’m gonna do my best to master that position and be a great player.”
On offense, what Grimes and Toney do will shape the perception of the Gators this offseason. Dameon Pierce will be tasked with replacing Perine and while there will be some differences, it’s an area he can handle. But Grimes and Toney can bring back experience and leadership from a group that will suddenly have none. It’s a factor they’re both considering when making their decision.
“There’s the decision to come back and make my team better, be a captain. Just like Coach Mullen said, I [can] come back and be a captain and lead my team so that’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” admits Grimes.
Adds Toney, “it wouldn’t hurt me to stay another year but I mean I haven’t determined a decision yet.”
Returning Kyle Trask at quarterback along with Emory Jones as a redshirt sophomore will greatly help bring along younger receivers. Second leading receiver, tight end Kyle Pitts, will look to have a star junior season after a breakout sophomore season. The Gators also signed 10 offensive players on Early Signing Day and are rumored to be adding another one in the next week to the current No. 8 recruiting class (24/7).
No matter who leaves, stays or steps up on the roster though, former quarterback Feleipe Franks said after the game that the coaches are in place to help make a championship happen.
“Coach Mullen’s one of the best coaches in the game. There’s no doubt. Coach Mullen’s one of the best at what he does. For me personally in the QB room I think Coach Johnson’s also one of the best at what he does.”
Florida's schedule next season is the most forgiving it has been in recent years especially with LSU losing Heisman quarterback Joe Burrow to the NFL. Alabama, a likely SEC Championship opponent, will most likely be without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as he also weighs the NFL. The margin of error still lies with Georgia though, as Trey Dean aptly explains.
"10 [wins] to 11 [wins] is a drastic width. So playoffs is more, the margin of error’s so small. If they say go five inches right you go five and a half cause that’s how small it is...you’re gonna have to put in some real work. Them games come down to your training. Who put the most work in the offseason. The type of games, what team put the most work on and off the field. Them type of games, we go to the playoff. So it’s going, them games really intense.
"If you can’t win the East you’re not gonna be in it, that’s just how it is so lets start off with that, so Georgia. Really every SEC school in the East, you gotta win all those games cause if you’re gonna look to the SEC Championship, it’s gonna be hard for you to get in."
As the Florida Gators walked off the field on Monday night, early Tuesday morning, the smiles were there, the orange peels littered the field and each proudly donned championship hats. But they looked around the stadium less with an intent to celebrate but instead with an eye on the future. The National Championship for next season will be played in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
So what’s next? If you ask the Florida Gators, like defensive end Zachary Carter, a return trip to South Florida.
“This is a stepping-stone going into next year. We're in the Orange Bowl next year, and I feel like we'll be back in Miami next year for the championship.”