GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After he exited the field at the Swamp for the last time this season, coach Dan Mullen made his way to the stump to lobby for the Florida Gators.
As Saturday night segued into Sunday morning, Mullen hoped the College Football Playoff selection committee was paying attention as the final day of the regular season wound down.
UF’s head coach has been.
By Mullen’s account, the No. 11 Gators’ 40-17 thrashing of Florida State made their case even stronger for a top-10 ranking and a bid to a prestigious bowl game, possibly the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl in Miami.
“Hopefully we did enough to get a New Year’s Six bowl, maybe even more,” Mullen said. “I saw, right, Baylor beat a six-win team last week (Texas) and jumped up five spots (to No. 8). We did the same thing today, pretty handily, so we’ll see how that is.”
On Tuesday night, Mullen and the Gators will find out how their final performance was received by the 13-member selection committee that includes UF athletics director Scott Stricklin. A member of the playoff selection committee who heard Mullen lobby for the Gators, Stricklin must recuse himself from any discussions involving the Gators.
Florida did its talking on the field against FSU, jumping out to a 30-7 halftime lead against the Gators’ in-state rival and not letting up until the game ended. A fourth-quarter failed fake punt by Tommy Townsend on fourth-and-one from the UF 19-yard line seemed to be more of an attempt to run up the score as much as celebrate the Orlando native’s final game on Senior Night.
Whatever the motive of that play, the Gators (10-2) were determined all night to show they are overwhelmingly superior to the Seminoles (6-6) and establish UF’s place in college football’s pecking order.
“I think it was a big statement for us. We haven’t been getting a whole lot of respect around the country,” said quarterback Kyle Trask following a 343-yard, three-touchdown night. “This was a big statement win and for us to finish the season strong, which is exactly what we did.”
Meanwhile, other schools with lofty goals failed to finish their seasons with a flourish, paving the way for the Gators to move up in the rankings and earn a spot in a New Year’s Six game for the second straight season.
No. 5 Alabama’s loss at No. 15 Auburn (9-3) knocked the Crimson Tide (10-2) out of playoff semifinal contention and could drop them behind UF, which beat the Tigers 24-13 on Oct. 5.
No. 8 Minnesota’s home loss to No. 12 Wisconsin is sure to put the Gophers (10-2) behind UF in the rankings, but it could move the Badgers (10-2) in front of UF heading into the Big Ten title game that will pit Wisconsin against No. 1 Ohio State. Barring an upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes, though, Wisconsin’s ascension will likely be short-lived.
No. 10 Penn State’s lackluster showing during a 27-6 home victory over two-win Rutgers could hurt the chances for the Nittany Lions (10-2) to finish ahead of the Gators.
The Associated Press top-25 poll pegged UF at No. 7 Sunday, up a spot from week earlier, and ahead of No. 9 Alabama, No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 12 Penn State and No. 15 Minnesota.
Now it is the selection committee’s turn to be heard. Mullen hopes its members, other than Stricklin, were listening Saturday night.
“We’re 10-2,” he said. “We went out to aggressively schedule two Power 5 teams nonconference (Miami, FSU). There’s a lot of teams not doing that. Unfortunately, we lost two games by a total of 21 points to the two teams that are right now in the top-four in the country (No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Georgia).
“So I don’t know. Again, I don’t know the discussions that happen in the room and all that stuff, but résumé-wise I think we have a pretty solid résumé to be a top-10 team.”
Following the win over FSU, the Gators were left to wait but also to wonder what could have been.
Top pass rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard barely played during a 42-28 loss at LSU and each was not 100% healthy during a 24-17 loss to Georgia. Zuniga has not played since the Georgia game, but Greenard has earned five sacks during the past two games.
Senior receiver Tyrie Cleveland has an idea how the Gators would have done with both pass rushers in the lineup and at full strength.
“Oh yeah, that’s a win,” Cleveland said with a smile. “Everybody knows that.”
UF cannot earn a spot in the playoff semifinals with two losses.
The Gators, though, still feel like they have plenty to play for this season and beyond. UF hopes it begins in a bowl game that Mullen and his players feel like they have earned.
“That wasn’t our goal coming into the season, but I’ll take it,” Cleveland said. “The team’ll take it and keep moving on, keep pushing to get better and next year the sky’s the limit.”
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