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Florida showing more energy, unity under Mullen

Florida coach Dan Mullen and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discuss recruiting in Atlanta, Ga., ahead of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Dan Mullen is off to a commendable start as he’s transformed a four-win Florida team into a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl participant in his first season as head coach.

While the Gators’ future under the former Mississippi State head coach looks bright, his success evokes a striking similarity to the achievements of Florida coach Jim McElwain in his first season leading the program.

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Fired in October after less than three seasons in Gainesville, McElwain’s first season eminated a similar promise on paper that Mullen’s does during the 2015 season. The former Colorado State coach ended his first season at Florida with a 10-4 record, an SEC East title, a No. 25 ranking and an appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016 against No. 12 Michigan.

Saturday’s Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will serve as a measuring stick for a new coaching staff and its ability to motivate its players.

Luckily, Florida has more reason to be hopeful in the outcome of Saturday’s game against Michigan than they did under McElwain. The Gators prepared for the Citrus Bowl in 2016 in the wake of a devastating loss to Alabama in the 2015 SEC Championship game, leading way to a funk that the Gators couldn’t shake and a 41-7 loss to the Wolverines.

This season’s team also experienced heartbreak when it fell out of College Football Playoff contention after back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri, but Mullen didn’t let that disappointment reign and ruin the rest of the season. He’s demanded unity and focus.

“I’ll say this: offense is probably a lot more locked in than that (2015) team at the time,” Florida running back Jordan Scarlett said, remembering his freshman season. “I remember that team of those guys. It was a really talented team with a lot of (former coach Will) Muschamp’s kids where coach (McElwain) just brought us together. I’m not going to lie, that defense carried us through that whole season. ...

“Playing a team like Michigan, you need to be able to score a lot of points, you can’t rely on your defense the whole time. I feel like that’s where Florida got hurt because they weren’t really expecting Michigan to come out like that and (had) a really hard time scoring and it ended up bad for them.”

In the 2016 Citrus Bowl, Florida committed two turnovers and was held to 155 receiving yards and 118 rushing yards. This season, Mullen’s offense has averaged 217 passing yards and 209 rushing yards.

Introducing a new coach, system or strength and conditioning program still has no guarantee of success against a talented, well-coached program like Michigan, but Mullen has some advantages in his first season at Florida that McElwain didn’t.

Mullen, who coached at Mississippi State for eight seasons and served a Florida assistant coach from 2005-2008, led Mississippi State to bowl games in all but one season and went 5-2 in bowl games he coached, including a 52-14 win over Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl. McElwain led Colorado State to one bowl game before his stint at Florida.

Also counter to McElwain, Mullen is an offensive-minded head coach with experience coaching against Michigan’s nationally ranked defense which leads college football allowing 262.5 yards per game this season.

When asked what he thinks of this Florida team under Mullen compared with facing the Gators under McElwain, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said comparing the team’s last matchup, which Michigan won 33-17 in the 2017 season opener, is too distant to have any real significance.

Of this season’s team, other than general observations about Florida’s speed, size and athletic ability, Harbaugh was complimentary of Mullen’s ability to all utilize players, no matter the extent of their collegiate experience.

“You have freshmen that are playing that you guys have come right in and coached right up, right out of high school,” Harbaugh said to Mullen on Friday at the coaches’ joint news conference. “That's been really impressive. You've got your sophomores, your redshirt juniors. You've got seniors, a few fifth-year seniors. That's really impressive to come in as a first-year coach and get the buy-in from the whole team.”

One of the reasons Mullen has been able to convince the entire team to unite under his vision for the program is his infectious energy.

Scarlett said Mullen’s fresh mentality is the key reason the Gators won nine games this season and will play in a New Year’s Six bowl one year after failing to quality for a bowl game.

“(Before Mullen) a lot of people would just go to practice and go through the motions and stuff like that, just go through the game time and just mad because they’re not playing in the game or upset,” Scarlett said. “Coach Mullen makes sure that whoever’s traveling, you’re going to have energy on the sideline. If you’re practicing all week, you’re going to have juice in practice. You’re not going to go out there going through the motions and I feel like once you start that mentality, it’s just repetition. You’re just always going to want to keep going hard and play fast and you’re just getting yourself better in that time that’s why there’s been success under him at Florida.”

Florida quarterback Feliepe Franks, who played under McElwain in 2016 and 2017, said Mullen’s ability to instill confidence in every player has brought a culture change in a short period of time that feels a lot like “a roller coaster.”

“Just the mentality that coach Mullen brings to our team, a lot of people don’t think that’s something that can change somebody’s play, and I think that’s totally a misconception is that mentality can change completely how you play,” Franks said. “Like coach Mullen always says, it’s one of my favorite quotes he always says, ‘Being a champion is not a sometimes thing, it’s a way of life,’ and it’s something he’s very true about.

“In everything you do, you want to be a champion.”

Florida looks for its first win over Michigan Saturday at noon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and can be watched on ESPN.

Members of the Florida offense, including quarterback Feleipe Franks, discuss the feeling of playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.