College football is more than just talent. It is more than speed, more than strength, and more than endurance. There is something about college football that can’t be seen or gauged. The presence of that “something” can turn an average football team into an unstoppable machine and can render the most talented team useless.
As Florida Gator fans, we have seen both ends of the spectrum this year alone. There is no doubt in my mind that the raw talent of the Gators is enough to compete for a national title, but earlier in the season we were missing the most important piece to the puzzle- fire. Though the fire in a team is such an intangible entity, its presence can definitely be seen on the field. Fire is what blocked South Carolina’s field goal to set us up for the national title game in 2006 and fire is what ran 418 yards against Georgia’s solid rush defense last weekend in Jacksonville. What changed in the last two weeks that brought passion and fire back to the Florida Gator locker room? The answer is simple, it was the change of quarterback.
Now let me make myself clear: I am not, by any means, one who is worshipping Treon Harris at the altar after two games as a starter and a relief effort against Tennessee. He been a solid leader at the QB position, and I think he can become a great QB, don’t get me wrong, but he is still young and has a lot to learn before he becomes great.
But so far, Treon hasn’t done anything spectacular to bring that fire back to the Gators other than simply standing on the field. You could see it on the field by the ways all the players put in that extra effort during the game (all except for Leon Orr, that is). And by all, I mean each and every single young man wearing an orange Gator helmet. Between Matt Jones lowering his shoulder and charging through the defensive line to gain those extra few inches, Jalen Tabor putting his body on the line to make an incredible interception, Max Garcia finding his way to the second level of the defense to block the linebacker and free up a hole for Kelvin Taylor, and… well, take your pick from the entire team’s incredible blocking performance against Georgia– the Gators just play harder with Harris in the game. All of these performances require so much more effort for a small return, but when the entire team puts forth this effort, the smaller efforts by all those different players add up to wins. And wins are exactly what the Florida Gators need at a time like this.
During the beginning of the season with Jeff Driskel under center, we didn’t see that fire, that extra push, or that incredible block. It seemed as if the team just didn’t have it in them. The life was sucked out of the locker room after the 4-8 season in 2013. Some of it seemed to be restored during the routing of Eastern Michigan, but after the loss in Tuscaloosa, the despair instantly returned. The team seemed to have given up all hope of having a redemption in 2014. The “Revenge Tour” mindset was gone. And from there, things only got worse. A myriad of Driskel mistakes (plus a dropped touchdown by Tevin Westbrook) led to a gut wrenching 30-27 loss to LSU at home; the week after that (again with Driskel getting the start), the Gators played what may have been their worst game under Will Muschamp in a 42-13 blowout at the hands of Mizzou. Yes, 42-13. In the Swamp. And it wasn’t even that close.
In times like these, the team needs a leader to rally around, and that usually falls on the shoulders of the quarterback. Jeff Driskel unfortunately didn’t have much of a leader persona, and his lackluster performances didn’t help his case. With the guy who is supposed to lead the team appearing to give up on himself, the Florida Gators seemed to have no hope.
Enter Treon Harris in the Cocktail Party two weeks ago. When Harris took the field as the starting QB against Georgia, there seemed to be a new team on the field. It is a phenomenon that can’t truly be understood by anyone but the guys on the field. The intangible evidence of the fire being restored back into a team was shown through the scoreboard. Treon didn’t really have that much of a physical impact during the game. He only passed the ball six times, completing three of them for a total of 27 yards. On a performance level, Driskel could have played the same game as Harris, but I would be willing the bet the outcome of the game would have been vastly different. The Florida Gators don’t seem to want to play under Driskel (See footnote). The young, winning personality of Harris is what led to the win against Georgia, and that fire carried into Saturday’s contest in Nashville.
Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt was more than just an easy game against one of the joke teams of the SEC, it was the game that determined the attitude for the rest of the season. As a student here at the University of Florida, I can tell you that Gainesville was an absolute ghost town this past weekend. It seemed as if the whole campus made the trip to Nashville to cheer on the orange and blue. The students turned Nashville into a swamp, albeit a cold one. The heart of the Gator Nation was in Vanderbilt that day. With Harris starting under center again, it was up to him and the rest of the team putting in that extra effort to prove that the Florida Gators are not the same team as last year. With the loss to Vandy last year at home still fresh in their minds along with the rekindled spirit brought back from the Georgia game and Harris under center, the Gators were on a mission with a lot to prove. When Vanderbilt caught on to the running game, Roper had the trust in true freshman Harris to step up to the plate and try to air it out.
When looked at closely, Harris’s passes weren’t always in the perfect spot for the receivers to make a grab, but they put in extra effort that we haven’t seen out of the Florida Gators in the last two years. Laying out for passes, turning the afterburners on to get under the ball, getting more physical with the defenders, all of these things combined to actually make the passing game somewhat useful against the Commodores. One of the performances that sticks out in my mind after this Saturday was that of Demarcus Robinson. On multiple occasions he made some outstanding catches by putting his body on the line to get the ball in his hands. When the defense would start spreading out to cover the possibility of a passing attack, Taylor and Jones would break through the middle and run like they were trying to break down a brick wall. To sum that up, everything seems to click for the team when they have a winning attitude brought by the young Harris.
I can’t speak for the guys on the field, and to try to seems foolish. But it does seem like they play so much harder with Harris under center. He brings something to the team that nobody can explain- the fire. His presence on the field changed something. Harris knows how to win. Just ask any team Booker T Washington High School faced over the last two years; Harris did not lose a single game in his last two years of high school ball.
With a team that seems to have forgotten what it feels like to win, having someone with the taste of victory still in his mouth leading the team created a spark. That spark appears to have lit the fire in the hearts of the rest of the team. And that fire, the players believe, is going to change the dynamic of the Florida Gators and hopefully bring the program back to national dominance. The victory at Vanderbilt, though nothing too impressive, gave me a strong sign that maybe, just maybe, something that I’ve been hoping for will come true.
It gave me hope that these next few years with Harris in Gainesville are going to be special.