NASHVILLE, Tennessee – When it was over, they held a brief team meeting on the field, then spread out on the field near the locker room and quickly celebrated a working-class victory over lunch.
The venue was empty beyond the stadium staff, the UF travel party and about 125 family members who made the trip.
As a few players were talking to the family in the stands, most of the Gators were making chicken sandwiches.
“Different atmosphere,” said Dan Mullen, UF coach.
It was that kind of Saturday day at Vanderbilt Stadium. The 38-17 sixth-place win in Florida over the Commodores is one the Gators probably won’t forget soon. Not so much from what happened on the field – in fact, his ears could still be heard from the loud music he played throughout the game – but more so because of the unusual site to which Mullen alluded.
The Gators knew Saturday was going to be unique long before they landed there Friday afternoon and checked into their team’s hotel. Even by the strange 2020 standards.
They knew the game would start at 11 a.m. local time. They knew the stadium would be less crowded than most of their high school games due to strict COVID-19 restrictions locally. They knew they were getting emotional victories over rival SEC East Georgia two weeks ago and former teammate Feleipe Franks last week, facing the Commodores without a win in front of a few hundred fans wasn’t exactly a recruiting pitch who remembered Mullen and Co. .
And at first, it showed.
Vanderbilt walked onto the field in his opening drive and took a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Ken Seals, only the third SEC quarterback in history to start his team’s season opener as a true freshman, went 5-for-5 for 61 yards to present to the UF defense. The Gators responded with a proper scoring drive as receiver Kadarius Toney ended it taking a pass from Kyle Trask and throwing it into the end zone for a 27-yard point.
Vanderbilt picked up the lead later in the quarter on a field goal. That’s when Trask started putting Heisman numbers and the Gators began to take control, scoring 24 consecutive points to basically eliminate any serious doubt about the outcome.
Mullen called it a “ho-hum show,” which sounds just right. Of course, ho-hum products for the Gators are sure to be easier to digest than some of their ho-hummers over the last decade. Florida completed 586 yards of offense, Trask threw for 383 yards, and UF rushed for 173.
It’s a victory that was already taken over by social media quarterbacks before the chicken sandwiches arrived. But it’s nonetheless a win, Florida’s fourth in a row, and keeps them in rhythm for their first trip to the SEC Championship Game since 2016.
That was the mission when they left Gainesville and did it in a beautiful south of Tennessee.
“Coach Mullen tells us all the time, you have to enjoy a win, winning is hard to find,” said Kaiir Elam, the cornerback. “No one is going to put you in and just because you’re in high rankings and you’re not ranked.”
Trask starred once more, completing 25 of 36 passes and throwing three more touchdowns, giving up 31 in seven games. Considering all seven games are up against SEC opponents, Trask has set a league record for most touchdown passes in a single season in the conference games.
He did nothing to hurt his Heisman offer nor the Gators. Maybe they lacked the style points that fans wanted to see against the surviving Commodores, but they did the job and weren’t in the mood to apologize for how it might look like.
“We stubbed our toe along the way and we always came out with a 21-point win,” Mullen said.
They happily took the win for the trip home.
“There wasn’t a lot of energy on the stage since there weren’t a lot of fans,” Trask said. “I just think we have to do a better job of bringing energy to the team and making sure we’re ready to play when that foot hits the ball.”
The Gators get that opportunity in seven days when Kentucky visit The Swamp. The Wildcats were beaten by Alabama Saturday, losing 63-3 in Tuscaloosa. In anticipation of building toward a potential clash against the Crimson Tide in Atlanta next month – and perhaps a battle for the Heisman between Trask and Mac Jones in Alabama – fans will want to see the Gators handle the Wildcats in a similar way.
Maybe they will. Maybe not.
It doesn’t matter just while they win. However, they prefer it over another ho-hummer.
“We have to show where we want to go and it’s to win an SEC championship and to do that, we have to dominate the team we have to support and beat the teams that aren’t favored,” ‘Elam“ So, I think that’s just something we have to do. continue to improve, and our leadership, I think, starts with practice. ”
Mullen indicated he saw signs in practice last week that the Gators might not be their strongest on Saturday. They had a good day, then a bad day.
On Saturday, they had a good car, then a bad car. It will not be enough that the stakes grow. But Saturday, against a team without a win in a lifeless environment, was enough.
The goal now is to get back on the practice field and tune in for the stretch at home.
“If you’re going to be a great team, you win as a team,” Mullen said. “Not on offense, not just on defense or in football, you win as a whole team.”