Can Florida, Dan Mullen take the next step against Michigan?

By most accounts, Dan Mullen has had a successful first season at Florida. But the best way to show that the Gators have truly left the Jim McElwain era in the past is to finally beat Michigan.

That is why this Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup is perfect for the Gators, no matter how badly others wanted to see them play in-state UCF. Although Michigan and Florida have played only three previous times, the Wolverines have served as a nemesis to Florida, especially under McElwain.

You could even say that the two losses to the Wolverines defined his tenure much more than the SEC championship game appearances.

It started in Orlando on New Year's Day 2016. Florida had won the SEC East in McElwain's first year, a definite improvement over the previous season. But the Gators also lost starting quarterback Will Grier, 5-0 as a starter before a suspension and eventual transfer, and went into the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against Michigan off blowout losses to Florida State and Alabama.

Questions had already begun about just how solid Florida looked at 10-3.

Michigan exposed the Gators in multiple ways in an embarrassing 41-7 loss. Not only did Florida look completely uninterested but the Gators were manhandled up front and looked like the slower team, a stunning rebuke that left many more questions about the program's direction. Safety Marcus Maye admitted after the loss, "We didn't come out with energy the way we were supposed to. Once they got up, it was hard to fight back."

Then to open the 2017 season, Michigan embarrassed Florida once again, 33-17 in Dallas. Once again, Michigan manhandled Florida up front and the Gators had no response. McElwain said afterward, "Plain and simple, take your whupping ... and I'm taking it."

Except he took it twice thanks to Michigan, and those twin performances summarized all that was wrong with the Gators during his tenure: A team that benefited from an extremely weak SEC East could not hang with elite competition, and teams such as Florida State, Alabama and Michigan not only outplayed them but always proved to be the more physical team. McElwain was 0-7 against the trio.

So here comes Mullen now, off a 9-3 season in Year 1 with the Gators in a New Year's Six game for the first time since 2012, facing a foe that has become all too familiar, and not in a good way. The history here is dismal, but that is why a win in this game would send such a different message.

Quarterback issues continue to plague this team, and Emory Jones is sure to get his fair share of opportunities alongside Feleipe Franks on Saturday. But already this season, we have seen a different Florida, and one of the biggest differences is in the team's physicality.

Mullen restructured the strength and conditioning program to not only get his players stronger but also get them in shape. Players like Jachai Polite benefited directly, as he had 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. He entered 2018 with nine career tackles for loss in 19 games.

The offensive line improved, too, and with a deep, talented group of running backs, Florida goes into the bowl averaging 209.5 yards rushing per game, its highest total since 2009. Big results happened early, too.

Although the Kentucky loss was disheartening at the time, it helped serve as a rallying point. Players said it allowed them to come together, and one of the most immediate results was a defining win over then-No. 5 LSU in October. "It actually set fuel to the fire," Vosean Joseph said of the Kentucky loss. "We were just like, 'We can't let this happen again.'"

There were definite stumbles, including an ugly home loss to Missouri and another double-digit loss to rival Georgia, but ending a long losing streak to Florida State to close out the regular season gave the Gators plenty of reason for optimism headed into the bowl game.

Adding to that optimism: Mullen went 5-2 in bowl games at Mississippi State, including a 52-14 win over Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl, a loss that ended Rich Rodriguez's tenure.

But more than optimism is needed. Motivation and determination are needed, too, and that is where Florida must find an edge, especially because it was lacking in both departments the last two times it played Michigan. On paper, this could be an advantage, too: Michigan comes in off a terrible loss to Ohio State and will be missing three of its best players in Karan Higdon, Devin Bush and Rashan Gary. (All three chose to skip the game to focus on the NFL draft.)

Outside of that loss to Ohio State, Michigan has played well up front for the most part, so if Florida truly wants to show how much has changed, it must be the more physical team. A 10-win season is at stake, along with the positive momentum the program needs as Mullen tries to chart a course that gets the Gators back to competing for championships.

Beating a team that has owned Florida would only amplify that storyline.