Once again, Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators are preparing for the biggest game of the season. Saturday’s contest with Georgia will be the third top-ten matchup the Gators have played in the past five weeks. The team used last week’s bye-week to rest up, get healthy, work on fundamentals, and to begin preparing for their next opponent. With the bye in the books and the official start to game week upon us, Mullen met with the press to provide updates and discuss the rivalry.
For the first time since their second game of the season, the Gators are expected to be at full strength. Kadarius Toney is expected to bring his explosive playmaking ability back to the field on Saturday. On the defensive side of the ball, the Gators are anticipating the return of prolific edge rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard. All three will be welcome additions to the roster. However, Greenard may be the most important piece to the puzzle for Florida. In his two-week absence, the Gators have struggled to pressure the opposing quarterback and they have suffered in run defense as well.
Florida enters the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party as 3.5 point underdogs. As usual, Mullen is unconcerned with what Vegas has to say about his team’s chances. “That’s more a Vegas deal,” Mullen said. “It would be a much bigger deal if we walked in and they spotted you the points one way or the other. Like, it would be a much bigger deal at that point.”
The cocktail party has been played annually in Jacksonville, Florida since 1933 outside of 1994 and 1995 when it was played in Gainesville and Athens, respectively. Recently, an extension was signed that guarantees the game to be played in Jacksonville through at least 2023. Mullen was pressed with a question regarding the significance of the neutral site and whether he believed it would ever change.
“I think it’s a really unique scene for college football,” declared Mullen. “There’s not many games like this, in the country. So I think that part of it’s pretty special and I think it’s pretty good. I think a lot of the schools will look… you know, the landscape of college football is constantly changing but I think right now and for the next couple of years, it’s beneficial for that and we’ll see as it continues to move forward if that remains the case.”
The Florida/Georgia rivalry is a particularly nasty one and there is little in the way of love between the two schools. Many are labeling this year’s game a de facto playoff quarterfinal. Mullen quickly dispelled any added grandeur, stating, “I think at this point in the season, it’s for first place in the SEC East which I think… all you can really control is winning the East. If you do that, you get an opportunity to go to Atlanta and play one game there.”
With it being such a heated rivalry and a top-ten meeting, Mullen was asked if he does anything differently to get the team hyped up. “I don’t have to. You know what I mean? This is a big game. If our guys aren’t juiced to play in the game, then we’ve got problems. Right? I mean, you wanna come to Florida to play the big games and rivalry games like this. I’ve never thought that you have to… if I have to go and motivate our team, it ain’t much of a rivalry then.”
The Gators have been especially dominant in the fourth quarter of games, outscoring opponents 85-21 this season. Naturally, Nick Savage deserves some of the credit in that regard as he is responsible for Florida’s strength and conditioning. Mullen was quick to give credit where it is due.
“I think they do a great job, our strength and conditioning staff. You know, especially throughout the off-season. Not just, you know, making sure the guys are in shape but also developing that mental toughness,” said Mullen. “Anybody can do it when it’s easy, you know? When it gets hard, when you’re facing adversity, when you’re tired do you have the mental toughness to go push yourself to another level? And I think he does a great job and our staff does, at preparing guys for that, not just physically, but mentally.”
The Gators will continue to prepare for a tough opponent over the remainder of the week. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party kicks off at 3:30 EST in Jacksonville this Saturday. Television coverage begins at 10:00 a.m. on the SEC Network with SEC Nation being on-site. The game will be televised on CBS at 3:30 and as always, you can follow along with the action on Twitter @ChompTalk and @MikeyPfeffer and tune into the Own The Fourth Quarter with myself and Will Miles, during the fourth quarter.