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.
Gators strong finish Saturday keeps them atop our rankings
The college football regular season came to an end last week. For some, it was great, and for others, it was horrible. The Gators and UCF rolled to victories over their rivals. FIU continued their winning ways, while their rival FAU clinched the C-USA East and will be hosting the title game.
The Noles got beat down, while their other rival Miami fell flat on their face for the second week in a row. In the NFL, the Bucs were on their way too embarrassing the Jaguars before a QB change softened the blow, while the Dolphins pulled one of the stunners of the NFL season.
With all of these games to unpack, this is how the top 5 looks heading in conference championship week and week 14 of the NFL:
Florida Gators- The Gators have been the most consistent team in the state, both college, and pro. Their only two losses are against the two teams playing for the SEC Championship Game (LSU and Georgia), and both of those teams can still make the playoff.
Florida had their way with Florida State all night Saturday. Taking advantage of missed tackles and a shaky secondary, Kyle Trask threw three touchdown passes. Florida State couldn’t do anything on offense aside from the opening drive, and a long Cam Akers second-half run. The 10-2 Gators will now wait to see where they are sent for a bowl game. They have an outside shot at a “New Year’s Six” game, but even if they fail to gain entry, an 11-win season is still a great one.
FAU Owls- It was simple for FAU: win, and you’re in. They answered the call by beating Southern Miss in the season finale, and now they are C-USA East champions. QB Chris Robinson connected with tight end Harrison Bryant for all three of his touchdowns passes in the 34-17 win. The Owl defense forced five turnovers on the way to the victory.
Next, the Owls will host West champ, UAB Saturday afternoon to decide who will win the Conference outright.
UCF Knights- The Knights ended their regular season by rolling over USF and ending the Charlie Strong era. Dillon Gabriel had 270 yards passing and two touchdowns, and WR Gabe Davis went over 100 yards again, catching both touchdowns. The Knights won’t be heading to the AAC title game or a New Years’ Six bowl game. A 10th win in the bowl, though, is still a good season for the Knights.
A consolation prize for them would be to draw either FSU or Miami in a bowl game for a shot at an in-state power five schools.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- For the second week in a row, the Bucs came away victorious and both road wins were highlighted by excellent defense. They were able to knock Nick Foles out of the game at halftime for poor performance. Foles had just 93 yards passing, an interception and two fumbles.
On offense, the Bucs didn’t have to do much, as Jameis Winston had no touchdowns and no interceptions. Peyton Barber was the running back who was hot, scoring twice one from 15 yards and the other a goal-line touch. The Bucs will look to make it three wins in a row and a home win this week against the Colts.
Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins, yes, the Dolphins, are in our rankings, as they pulled off one of the upsets of the season, defeating the Eagles 37-31.
Devante Parker had an explosive 159 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick had 365 yards and three touchdowns.
The craziest play, however, came on fourth and goal when punter Matt Haack rolled left and shuffle passed the ball past three eagle defenders to kicker Jason Sanders.
The win puts the Dolphins at three wins, and they have three more winnable games coming up. Once looking like the sure-fire choice for the first pick, the Dolphins are sliding down the draft board towards the 3-6 range.
Gators/Mullen are better version of Harbaugh/Michigan
The Florida Gators under Dan Mullen have become a better version of Michigan. One can say this based on the Gators’ authoritative Peach Bowl win last year, but in fairness to the Wolverines, some of their elite defensive players skipped the bowl to prepare for the NFL Combine or Draft.
When I say that Florida – an easy winner over Florida State 40-17 on Saturday night in The Swamp – is a “better Michigan,” I am not talking about the Peach Bowl last season. I am referring to a bigger picture.
Yes, Florida State is the end-of-season rivalry game for Florida. The Gators have their Thanksgiving weekend rivalry opponent figured out, unlike Michigan. You might be wondering where the comparison lies.
It’s actually a simpler connection than you might think.
Michigan cannot solve the chief rival in its own conference and division. The same is true of Florida. Like Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, Florida and Mullen cannot get past the brick wall known as the Georgia Bulldogs.
Ohio State keeps winning the Big Ten East at Michigan’s expense. The Buckeyes keep locking the Wolverines out of Indianapolis.
Georgia keeps winning the SEC East at Florida’s expense. The Dawgs keep locking the Gators out of Atlanta.
In both cases, one side has the plainly better players. The margin of victory has been substantial the past few years. The real story is not so much the failures of the loser, but how well the winner has built a program and created a high floor.
Ohio State is enjoying a supremely prosperous period in its history, a period on par with Woody Hayes’ great teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s Jim Harbaugh hasn’t done as well as he possibly could at Michigan – we can criticize him for that – but Harbaugh hasn’t exactly been awful, either. He has been a 9- or 10-win coach… which is not much worse than Bo Schembechler.
Michigan shouldn’t be going 0-3 against Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. That is true. However, Michigan is not Texas, going 7-5. Michigan is not USC at 8-4. Michigan is not Nebraska, failing to make a bowl. Michigan is not the Florida State program which is a total mess right now.
Michigan could be so much worse.
As we consider Dan Mullen and Florida, then, the Gators are a better Michigan. They do lose to Georgia. They do fail to win their division. They do fail to play for conference championships… but whereas Michigan will not make a New Year’s Six bowl this season, Florida will. Whereas Michigan failed to win 10 games in the regular season, Florida succeeded in reaching that mark.
The Gators did this largely without Feleipe Franks. They did this without Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga for a significant chunk of the season.
Dan Mullen coached his butt off… and yet, because Georgia is clearly better than Florida, it is easy to think the Gators are falling short.
It is no secret that Florida fans – given their first taste of sustained success by Steve Spurrier, and then a second golden era created by Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow – love winning in STYLE. The style points matter to Gator fans.
The Mullen-era teams aren’t amazingly stylish. They certainly look bad against Georgia’s defense. This isn’t the gleaming, glowing, glorious period of conquest and domination the Spurrier or Meyer years were.
Yet, when you look at Florida State – and also at a Miami team which just lost to Florida International and Duke to close its season – the Gators don’t look that bad after all. FSU and The U are 6-6 and going to Shreveport or another off-the-radar bowl location. Florida will play in a Cadillac bowl, and elite bowl, a bowl the Gators expect to play in.
Yes, Georgia is still better, just as Ohio State is relative to Michigan. Yes, division and conference titles need to be won sooner rather than later. Yet, all things considered, Florida has done well with what it has. The key is to create something better and larger, but in 2019, Dan Mullen did not fail.
He is doing a better job than Jim Harbaugh, for sure.