It has been 643 days since the Florida Gators last took the field to a packed house at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. One year, nine months and four days ago to be exact.
Somehow, it feels much longer than that.
Since then, the world has been rocked by a global pandemic that emptied out its stadiums and turned the sports world upside down. Now almost exactly a year-and-a-half since the sports world was put on pause, the Gators are on the eve of seeing The Swamp packed and feeling the energy that comes with it.
“It’ll be awesome,” head coach Dan Mullen said about running out to a full stadium for the first time in nearly two years. “The excitement, the energy, even walking into the tunnel, it’ll feel very different.”
Senior cornerback Trey Dean III expressed his feelings about being back to a full house in The Swamp.
“There’s no other place like The Swamp,” Dean said. “When the Swamp is fully packed I think it’s second to none. So we’re very excited.”
The Gators looked lackadaisical at home at times last year, including an extremely sloppy loss to LSU which infamously ended with the throwing of a shoe. The loss was the Gators first in over two years at home, and there appeared to be a lack of focus that resulted from the lack of a full stadium.
Last year was something nobody had ever experienced and could have ever prepared for. Mullen said at times the team had to self-motivate, which was difficult because of how much they usually feed off the crowd. He said having a full crowd in 2021 will change that entirely.
“You feel the crowd,” Mullen said. “You don’t just hear it, but you feel it. And I think that’s something that can really draw out things inside of you that you don’t get through last year, when your self-motivation and desire to go play. When you can feel the energy of a crowd, it lifts you up even more.”
After a year-and-a-half of suffering and isolation, Gator football will provide a welcome escape to Gator fans: A place to come together and unite around their beloved orange and blue.
While the beginning of last season came with so much uncertainty, this year comes with hope: The hope of returning to a normal season that can go off without a hitch. That a fan’s biggest worry will return to their favorite player being questionable, rather than how many of their favorite players will miss time due to COVID.
Though more normalcy is set to return, the lingering effects of the pandemic are not set to go away. The Delta variant is raging and it promises to still have an impact on the season nationwide.
The Gators are doing their part to avoid a scenario like last year, as at least 90% of the team has been vaccinated. It is hugely promising for the prospect of finishing the season without interruption because vaccinated players are subject to less testing and other protocols - such as quarantining because of a close contact to a positive case.
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the Gators had a great season in 2020 and will look to build off that in 2021. Though their final record, 8-4, did not look very pretty, it does not tell the full story of the 2020 Gators.
Florida had the number one ranked passing offense in the country, finally got over the hump against Georgia under Mullen, and reached their first SEC Championship Game since 2016.
Unlike 2016, the Gators actually hung with Alabama last season and were a defensive stop or two away from beating the Crimson Tide. It will no doubt provide some confidence that they can return to being an elite program in the nation, and will be able to run with the Tide when they come to Gainesville on September 18.
Led by redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones, the Gators' offense will look very different than it did in 2020. They also have to fill the massive shoes of Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, two of the most dynamic weapons in the country last season.
While the offense will look different under Jones than under Kyle Trask, it does not mean it will not be any good. Dan Mullen is still the head coach, and Jones is more of the prototypical quarterback that Mullen has enjoyed working with in his career.
With a dynamic running back room and explosive receivers ready to emerge - such as Jacob Copeland and Xzavier Henderson - the Gators have no excuses to not have a highly productive offense once again this season.
Despite the offensive tradition at UF in the early 2000s, fans came to pride themselves on their relentless defenses before Mullen arrived in 2018. Last year the defense was anything but relentless, and was ultimately the downfall of what could have been a special season.
The Gators will only go as far as the defense takes them again this season, and without a significant improvement from Todd Grantham’s unit, they will be staring at another disappointing season.
But for now, it is all excitement in Gainesville. A new season brings the end of summer transitioning to fall, and the hopes of lifting that wonderful golden trophy come winter.
This year comes with a new sense of hope though. Hope for better days ahead surrounded by family and friends, with the long-isolated months behind us. Seeing a sea of orange and blue in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will bring memories of better days and the promise of an everlasting force: College Football.
It also comes with a ton of questions. How good will the Gators be? What will the offense look like under Emory Jones? How will Florida match up with Alabama? Can they get past Georgia again?
Just like 2020, uncertainty lingers over the 2021 season. Unlike 2020, hope reigns supreme.
How long that hope lasts remains to be seen. Hopefully for the Gators’ sake, it lasts longer than the 643 days they waited for a packed house at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
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