Florida goes from death threats to posing a threat in year

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Dan Mullen pretended he was on a game show, slapping the podium like it was a buzzer.

It was Mullen’s way of demonstrating how quickly he probably would have jumped at winning six of his first seven games with the Gators and being in position for much more as November nears.

“If you said, ‘Hey, 6-1 going into the Georgia game, take it or leave it? I might take it,” Mullen said. “I would love to be 7-0, to be honest with you, but if you threw that out there … I might consider hitting that button right there and taking it.”

No one would blame him, especially considering everything former coach Jim McElwain left behind.

With Mullen leading the way and calling the plays, No. 9 Florida has made more offensive improvements in the last nine months than it did in the previous nine years. The biggest strides have come in the last seven weeks, all since losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1986.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks is functional. Playmakers abound. The offensive line has been better than expected. Tight ends are involved. And trickery is an integral part of the playbook.

“What I’m most pleased with is how our team has kind of bought in to what we’re trying to do,” said Mullen, who was offensive coordinator during the program’s most recent heyday. “Honestly, I think that results have helped that buy-in. You know, when you look, they’re acting like a football team. They’re playing hard, they’re giving great effort, they’re seeing how practice translates to games.

“You don’t see finger-pointing going on of, boy, the offense or the defense or the kicking or this guy or that guy. You see guys believing in a team concept. So, I think the success has helped that.”

The Gators (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern) have a chance to take another step in their rebuild Saturday against archrival and seventh-ranked Georgia (6-1, 4-1), which is coming off a 20-point loss at LSU.

Regardless of the outcome in nearby Jacksonville, Florida has enjoyed a huge turnaround — maybe the most impressive in the country — given where the program was just a year ago.

Five days before facing the Bulldogs, McElwain created a firestorm by saying Florida players and families had received death threats amid the team’s two-game losing streak.

School administrators, including athletic director Scott Stricklin, met with McElwain in hopes of gathering more information and helping alleviate any safety concerns. McElwain rebuffed their efforts, prompting a statement from the athletic department that essentially criticized McElwain for being uncooperative.

McElwain backtracked a bit two days later , but stopped short of apologizing and again refused to provide details about the alleged threats.

Questions swirled about Florida considering parting ways with McElwain, which happened a day after a 42-7 loss in “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” McElwain got wind of one report predicting his ouster hours before kickoff and made the unusual decision to mention it to his players during a team breakfast.

“It was pretty weird knowing that Coach Mac was going to get fired after this game, because his whole mindset, is whole demeanor was different,” linebacker Rayshad Jackson recalled. “And it just felt like we weren’t going to play because his demeanor wasn’t right.”

The Gators came out flat and were quickly flattened by the then-No. 3 Bulldogs.

“Coach Mac getting fired and that weekend was just a hectic weekend mentally for us, so I think a lot of guys kind of forgot about it,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “We’re just ready to move forward and put that behind us.”

A victory Saturday would go a long way toward helping the Gators forget about their worst loss to Georgia since 1982 as well as one of the most bizarre weeks of McElwain’s tenure.

There’s no doubt Mullen would buzz in on that one, too.

“Winning’s certainly going to help in a lot of different ways,” Mullen said. “It helps with the goals for this year. Rivalry games, you love winning because it’s bragging rights for that year. … So I understand that aspect of it being a big game, but is one game going to define our season or our program? Probably not, but it’s still a lot of fun to go play in it.”

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