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The Mullen Effect

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Six games in, the Gators have more wins than they did all of last year. Florida also has a powerful direction and momentum.

What I am seeing from the Gators is a team that is starting to believe they can play with anyone in the country. I'm seeing the building blocks of what championship teams are made of.
~Johnny Rutledge

The energy around Dan Mullen's return to Florida has quickly transitioned from potential to a place in the national polls. Fresh off consecutive wins against Mississippi State in Starkville and LSU, the 14th-ranked Gators, in early October, have already topped last season's win total. Florida is suddenly a contender in the SEC East, playing with a passion and pride that has long made the program one of college football's most-revered. That return to form has rallied Gator Nation and Gator greats alike.  

Recent weeks have added fuel to Florida's fire. Consecutive hard-fought triumphs over nationally-ranked opponents from the mighty SEC West have the Gators repositioned right where they belong: on the big stage. There is a growing optimism ahead of the annual showdown in Jacksonville, a sense that Florida, much sooner than expected, is ready to give defending conference champion Georgia a run. The Gators have their sights set on a high-profile bowl game -- and possibly even more.

Winning is a Florida tradition that resonates.

"It feels good for your team to matter again and matter outside of the state," explained former first-team All-American tight end Ben Troupe. "The fabric around the program is tight-knit again."

Saturday's showdown with LSU had a vintage feel. In front of a sellout crowd and a nationally-televised audience, Florida made a statement with two touchdowns in the game's final nine minutes, a 26-yard pick-six by Brad Stewart included. The end result was the Gators beating a top five foe for the first time since 2015 and defeating consecutive ranked opponents for the first time since 2012. Ultimately, validation comes with victory and, at this point, Florida has a resume that compares with any team in the country.       

The scene in The Swamp was both a testament to all that was and a celebration of all that is. On a day where the Gators recognized their 2008 BCS National Championship team and Tim Tebow was inducted into Florida's Ring of Honor, the Gators played like a contender. It was a fitting platform for a signature performance.

"Atmosphere was insane, it erupted like no other," stated former All-American safety Ahmad Black, who was recognized alongside his teammates at halftime. "High fives, screams, cheers...it definitely felt like home again."

Mullen's influence has been immediate and dramatic. Only three teams in the SEC have scored more touchdowns than Florida, averaging 34 points per game, up from 22.1, 23.9 and 23.2 over the past three years. The Gators rank second in the country with a +11 turnover margin. Additionally, Florida leads the league and is tied for third in the game with 20 sacks. Furthering the argument for UF being DBU, the Gators have the highest pass defense rating in Power Five football. 

This is most balanced Florida has been in some time. The Gators rank in the top five in the SEC in scoring offense and scoring defense and slot in the top 15 nationally in ESPN's efficiency index on special teams. Across the roster, different players have made big the plays for Florida this fall. A team-wide culture is being established. 

Overall, the first-half of the season has been impressive; the Gators come in at number eight In Matt Smith's college football resume rankings.

"It's a great feeling as an alum and a fan of Gators football. We have a viable offense that can score and complement our other phrases. Simply put, we have three really good phases to our team and we are now back in the eastern division hunt!" beamed former All-SEC offensive tackle Max Starks, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With immediate success, Mullen's message has only resonated more. There is a newfound conviction in Gainesville, a belief that the past and future are now directly intertwined. Mullen, though it's still early in the process, clearly has Florida challenging the status quo. Internal expectations are being set.   

For a program with eight SEC Championships and three national titles, two of which Mullen was a part of, that approach is one that has been proven and one that has been earned.

"What I am seeing from the Gators is a team that is starting to believe they can play with anyone in the country," former national championship linebacker Johnny Rutledge added. "I'm seeing the building blocks of what championship teams are made of."

The rings on Mullen's fingers represent a firm understanding of what it means to be where he is. Mullen, the offensive coordinator at Florida before taking over at Mississippi State, has an orange-and-blue background; it's a culture that comes in crystal. 

"Are we there yet? No. But winning on the road against Mississippi State and against LSU makes you battle-tested. When you can grind out those ugly games and create turnovers that change games, it breathes a confidence into a team that desperately needed it," Rutledge continued. "Dan understands the DNA and standard of Florida. You can see it in how he leads the team. We're definitely on the right track. I'm enjoying seeing this team mature. We're not at the elite championship level yet, but it's a hell of a foundation that's being built."

Six games in, the Gators have more wins than they did all of last year. Florida also has a powerful direction and momentum. It's a new season in Gainesville and there is a new approach, too.    

"While the future has yet to be determined, I think everybody is looking forward to it and everybody is on board," Troupe concluded. "That is the Dan Mullen effect."

We knew Mullen's Gators were coming. Already, it appears, they're here.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports