ATLANTA (AP) — The signage on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium facade reminded Chauncey Gardner-Johnson that Florida’s dramatic comeback is not yet complete.
Florida’s big reward for its bounce-back season was a spot in the Peach Bowl. A bigger prize would be a return trip in one year.
Gardner-Johnson, a junior, already has announced plans to enter the NFL draft. He knows his younger Florida teammates will be shooting for a return trip to Atlanta next season, when the bowl hosts a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Gardner-Johnson turned his Florida farewell into a perfect advertisement for NFL scouts.
What’s better than a pick six in a New Year’s Six bowl game to close a college career?
Gardner-Johnson intercepted two passes, returning one 30 yards for a touchdown, in the No. 10 Gators’ 41-15 rout of No. 8 Michigan on Saturday.
“When you look up in the stadium, it don’t just say Peach Bowl,” Gardner-Johnson said. “It says the semifinal hosts. So for the young guys, I mean, you’ve been here before. So you know what’s expected of you.”
Florida (10-3) had been 0-4 against Michigan, including a loss in the 2017 season-opener that set the pace for a disappointing 4-7 finish. The Gators completed a comeback behind first-year coach Dan Mullen and now will look to compete for a championship next season.
“It just changed our perspective playing in a semifinal hosting stage, picturing yourself in the playoffs and go out and play like it,” Gardner-Johnson said.
Gardner-Johnson’s first interception may have been his biggest.
Florida led only 13-10 early in the second half when the “star” defensive back intercepted the deep pass by Michigan’s Shea Patterson at the 3. Gardner-Johnson’s 47-yard return set up a touchdown for a 20-10 lead.
Michigan never recovered.
Gardner-Johnson was the only Florida junior to declare his intentions to enter the draft. Even so, he said he wanted to enjoy his final college game. By comparison, four Michigan players skipped the game to prepare for the draft.
“Chauncey is a great guy,” Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “I never imagined him sitting out this bowl trip. He’s committed to our team. He’s committed to this staff and he’s not that type of guy. It’s no surprise to me he came out and had the success he had.”
Franks and Gardner-Johnson were emotional after the game.
Gardner-Johnson said he remembered he and his Florida teammates were home watching other teams play in bowl games last year.
“We knew it was going to be a big turnaround if we just bought in,” he said. “… We did everything a champion is supposed to do, and we deserve this win, and that’s what it came out to.”
Florida held Michigan to 326 yards, including only 77 yards rushing.
“We got outplayed, really, on that side of the ball,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Florida did a nice job defensively.”
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