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Gators struggle early-survive Saturday in Nashville

Matt Zemek

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators can’t say they weren’t warned.

A young team with an unproven quarterback had just scored the biggest victory of its season against a top-10 opponent. The misery of early September had been washed away by a series of steadily better and more encouraging performances. The Gators grew and developed, just as any fan would hope for in a transitional season under a first-year head coach. No one expected all the pieces to perfectly fit together, but Florida gradually assembled the puzzle and solved several of its biggest problems.

The next step for a team which evolves from chaos into continuity: Maintaining that evolutionary process instead of stopping to rest and think it has it all figured out. Weeks 1 through 6 of the college football season brought the Gators to a much better place, but with a month and a half left in the journey, Florida needed to realize the race — entering its daunting middle stages — was only beginning to take on added textures and tones.

Every challenge surrounding a young football team was neatly crystallized — or not-so-neatly, as it were — in Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The Florida team which had begun to figure out how it wanted to play; the Florida team which had begun to establish and cement the template for the rest of the season; the Florida team which had begun to breathe in the intoxicating aroma of success, and all the temptations that go with prosperity, had to develop tunnel vision and not rest on recent achievements. Playing a late-morning game in a half-filled stadium against a reeling Vanderbilt side, Florida had to shove complacency and human nature into a dungeon, lock the door, and move on.

That proved to be a huge challenge… and not unexpectedly, either.

Believing you are better than you actually are — in that first moment when a team tastes considerable success — is not an easy thing to confront. Young teams and imperfect teams inevitably have to go through the process of playing a game (or many games) in the face of that complacency before they learn how to master and subdue that inclination.

This game against Vanderbilt was a maiden voyage for the 2018 iteration of the Gators. Without question, this experience will do UF a lot of good in 2019, but the more immediate question emerged as Florida sleepwalked through most of the first half in Nashville: Could this 2018 team, warts and all, find the clarity to dig its way out of trouble?

The answer: Yes… and in the way which has defined the Gators in their upward climb this season.

The central characteristic of the Vanderbilt team which limped into Week 7 is that it had been punched in the mouth, outworked and outplayed by two SEC opponents… and Tennessee State. Vanderbilt had conclusively shown that it could not handle a street fight.

In the first half, Vanderbilt threw and landed the punches, en route to a 21-3 lead.

Would the Gators get off the canvas?

Would they immediately show they could take several body blows?

The eruption of tempers among various players and coaches from both teams late in the first half could have cut in either direction. It could have become an indication of how unfocused and unprepared this team was… or it could have become the application of smelling salts the Gators needed.

Safe to say, they woke the heck up.

The Florida offensive line, which has to flex its muscles in order to minimize and guard against Feleipe Franks’ limitations as a passer, began to roll up its sleeves. The concept of physically dominating an opponent is not hard to grasp, but doing it is the hard part, especially after a first half which sent frustrations past the boiling point.

Florida was tested — physically, emotionally, and situationally — on Saturday in Nashville. The Gators were far from perfect, just as they have been all season… and will continue to be.

That is what they are: very flawed, and unlikely to become a great team by the end of November.

What they also are, however, is a team that is winning more than most people expected at the start of this season, especially after the Kentucky game.

Four wins in a row in the SEC is nothing to disregard.

These Gators don’t play beautiful football… but what they lack in aesthetics is more than made up for in the intangible realm.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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