GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — It's been nearly a decade since Dan Mullen ran out of the Florida Field tunnel and onto the sideline.
It's been 3,570 days to be exact.
So, naturally, Mullen practiced the grand entrance with his team last week. No falls. No stumbles. Not even a hiccup.
He's counting on the same smoothness Saturday when the Gators open the season — and the Mullen era — against Charleston Southern of the Football Championship Subdivision.
"Things will be a little bit different for them this year," Mullen said. "I didn't get into much how they've done it throughout their career in the past. But you can see the different change in mentality, the change of mindset of everybody."
Coming off a 4-7 season, Florida is in need of a turnaround .
It's no easy task considering how former coach Jim McElwain left the program. The offense ranked in triple digits for the third consecutive year and the usually stout defense allowed its most points and yards in more than 70 years.
Throw in off-the-field issues, lackluster recruiting and a hapless strength and conditioning program, and it's easy to see how Florida endured its second losing season since 1979.
Mullen was charged with fixing it all and getting the Gators back to a higher, more acceptable standard. The former Mississippi State head coach spent four years (2005-08) as Florida's offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer and helped guide the Gators to some of their most successful years in school history.
He has two national championship rings to prove it.
But returning Florida to prominence could take time. Few believe the Gators are 2018 title contenders, and opening against an FCS team might not prove much.
"We'll still get geeked for this game," receiver Josh Hammond said. "Just to go out in the Swamp and play on Saturday is something we've been waiting for a long time. We haven't had a game since November, so just a chance to go out and compete on Saturday is really exciting. It's easy to get up for.
"We're just looking to get things rolling and get the offense going, try and get the defense going, try and get off to a good start and start the season off on a good note."
Here are some other things to know about the matchup:
Charleston Southern is 0-19 against teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision, including a 49-0 loss against Mullen and Mississippi State last year. The Buccaneers have lost those 19 games by an average score of 50-8. The Bucs last played in Gainesville to open the 2009 season against defending national champion Florida. The Gators won 62-3.
Florida's running backs are racing to 100 yards.
Fourth-year junior Jordan Scarlett, suspended all of last season after a credit card scandal, said the backs have a smack-talking bet to see who can top the century mark in the opener.
"We're going to try to set it off and do our thing," Scarlett said. "We got to shock the SEC this year, so we're trying to make it happen."
There's no doubt running back is Florida's deepest — and maybe most talented — position. Lamical Perine, Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce and Adarius Lemons are behind Scarlett and vying for carries.
Florida's starting offensive line is one of the most experienced in the country, even though it has struggled in recent years. Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan, Nick Buchanan, Fred Johnson and Jawaan Taylor have played in a combined 130 games, including 86 starts.
Junior defensive end Jachai Polite is one to watch in coordinator Todd Grantham's aggressive scheme. Polite beat out senior Cece Jefferson for a starting job, and tales of his strength and athleticism keep growing.
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