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Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) celebrates with teammates after last Saturday's 37-27 win at Vanderbilt, which gave the Gators a 6-1 record enting next week's rivalry game against Georgia.

Kirby Smart knew it would be an aberration.

When the third-year Georgia football coach took last season's Bulldogs to Jacksonville for the annual showdown against Florida, they encountered a program in complete disarray and on its way to a 4-7 record. Georgia improved to 8-0 by rolling to a 42-7 victory, with the Gators scoring their lone touchdown with 2:42 left, and Florida fired coach Jim McElwain the next day.

Now they're Dan Mullen's Gators, and when the two teams meet next Saturday for the first time since last October's carnage, each will be 6-1 overall and 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play.

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First-year Florida football coach Dan Mullen took over a program that went 4-7 last season and already has the Gators ranked 11th in the country.

"I'm not surprised all," Smart said this week of Mullen orchestrating a quick turnaround. "They've got talent now. They've got good football players. They had good football players last year. They're extremely athletic on defense. They've got one of the premier secondary cover guys (C.J. Henderson). They do a tremendous job on their offensive line and are huge.

"They've added two receivers (Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes and Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson) who are as good as anybody in the league, and those are just added dimensions. Those guys are on top of wideouts they already had."

The No. 8 Bulldogs and No. 11 Gators wrapped up their practices for the week on Thursday and will take this weekend off.

Mullen was the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer for Florida's national championship teams in 2006 and 2008, leaving after the second title to become the head coach at Mississippi State. After a 5-7 debut year with the Bulldogs in 2009, he guided them to eight straight bowl games and to the program's first No. 1 ranking during the 2014 season.

His return to Florida this year was sullied in the second game by a 27-16 home loss to Kentucky, a program the Gators had defeated 31 times in a row, but Mullen has since delivered a five-game winning streak that includes wins over No. 23 Mississippi State, 13-6 on Sept. 29, and No. 5 LSU, 27-19 on Oct. 6.

"I like how we've come together as a team, because I think that was a really important thing for us as a program," Mullen said. "Our guys are learning how to go play the team game. If you look at how we've won, it hasn't been with just defense or just offense. We've found several different ways to win games, and we've done it as a full team.

"It's been a big plus that our guys have bought into that."

Georgia rushed 35 times for 292 yards and four touchdowns in last year's laugher, averaging 8.3 yards a carry. Florida's quarterback duo of Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire combined on 10-of-25 passing for just 66 yards and an interception, but Franks has flourished under Mullen, throwing 15 touchdown passes and five interceptions after posting a mediocre 9-to-8 ratio last season.

Asked this week what he could learn from watching last year's game, Mullen said, "Nothing," adding that revisiting Mississippi State's 31-3 loss at Georgia in 2017 would make more sense.

Georgia was the overwhelming pick to win the SEC East before the start of this season and could clinch that crown by beating Florida and winning at Kentucky (5-1, 3-1) on Nov. 3. The Gators were picked to finish third in the division and still could, but nobody is thinking in those terms now.

"As the season goes on, you want to be playing in big games," Mullen said. "When you're playing in big games the second half of the season, the reason is you've made them big games. That's the fun part, and if you want to continue playing in them, you've got to continue to succeed in order to make the next game bigger than the last one.

"I don't know if I'm surprised, and I don't know if this is where I expected us to be. It is what it is, and you adapt and move on. I'm not disappointed with where we are, but I think there are a lot of things we have to get better at in every phase of the game."

A Georgia-Florida showdown with meaning again. That didn't take long.

"Dan and his staff do a great job," Smart said. "Across the board, they've got really good football players. Florida always has, so their turnaround is no shock to me."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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