Through the first third of the schedule, Florida’s 2019 season has undergone more plot twists than an overwritten movie.
The Gators got a rare win over old rival Miami in a blockbuster edition of the Camping World Kickoff, which itself featured more than its fair share of plot twists. Feleipe Franks was criticized for jabbering at the ESPN cameras by fans and broadcasters alike, while similar behavior from other quarterbacks in the SEC (namely Joe Burrow) was wholly ignored. Florida then scored a truly pyrrhic victory over FCS opponent UT-Martin that cost them both of their newly minted #1 jersey holders. A week later at Kentucky, Florida lost Franks for the year- while at the same time snatching victory from the jaws from defeat as backup QB Kyle Trask came from out of nowhere to lead the Gators back from 21-10 down in the fourth quarter to a 29-21 win. Oh, and also in that game, Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel drew intense heat (yet no punishment) for undeniably trying to break Trask’s foot right off his body.
It was such an action-packed, detail-rich first month of the season that Florida’s 34-3 dismantling of Tennessee, which a decade or two ago would have been the only primary of the town, was nothing more than an afterthought. But it does complete Florida’s preseason, so to speak. The season as we know it begins for real Saturday against Towson.
Now, I realize that Towson and Florida are not exactly on equal footing. The Gators opened as 30.5 point favorites against the Colonial Conference’s Tigers, and the spread has already ballooned to 34 as of this publishing- and may go higher still. And that spread is as high as it is without arguably the Gators’ three best players in Jabari Zuniga, CJ Henderson and Kadarius Toney. So I do understand that it may come off as a little strange to pinpoint Towson, rather than Auburn, as the start of Florida’s season in earnest.
Additionally, had Florida failed to narrowly escape against either Miami or Kentucky, let alone both, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, as those wins are what allow Florida to be able to start a brand new season right now as it pertains to being a player for the College Football Playoff. At 3-1 heading into Towson, Florida would be out of room for error, would have to win out against a schedule that includes four top seven teams (including the SEC Championship Game) and would likely still need a great deal of help given just how bad either loss would have looked on their resume. So it’s only because the Gators are 4-0 right now that I even get to look at this as starting a new season.
But anyway, I’ve identified Towson as the starting point of the “new season” for a multitude of reasons.
First, most college football teams have that one season opening cupcake game that they use to work on things and learn who they are before they dive into their schedule. That’s where Florida sits right now with this game against Towson, as they now have one final chance to work out its kinks and establish some depth before things get real. Most notably, the Gators will likely be without Zuniga and Henderson, and will definitely be without Toney for this Towson game, but since they’ll all be returning later in the year, Florida can use this game to give their understudies even more reps than normal in a season opening blowout win.
Additionally, to reiterate what I said above: the Gators do have some breathing room for a slip-up between now and December, as most Power Five conference teams do. In fact, fifteen of the twenty different teams to reach the College Football Playoff in its five year history had a loss. The difference is, Florida is now in a position where it can afford a loss in an eight or nine game stretch, rather than a twelve or thirteen game stretch. The tradeoff is that once the games get difficult beginning next week, the opportunities to breathe are scarce.
Then there’s the mental factor. One of Urban Meyer’s most famous sayings is that “the best part of being ‘n’ and 0 is that it gives you the chance to go ‘n+1’ and 0”. So yes, Florida is 4-0 and ranked 9th in the nation at the moment, but in a lot of different areas of the game, they haven’t looked like a team that could say that. I trust Mullen to attack any complacency he detects on the spot, and maybe informing his team that a new season begins against Towson is the way to do it. This team hasn’t accomplished anything to date, really, other than continuing to relegate Kentucky and Tennessee into their whipping boys and barely surviving a weak Miami team that’s already got two losses on its record with one of the easiest schedules in America. Or if the players want to think of it another way: all that the Gators have accomplished will be forgotten about, and effectively undone, if they can’t take care of business in the latter two thirds of the season.
Lastly: Towson is good. I mean, at least by FCS standards. The Towson Tigers have averaged exactly 40 points through their first four games and were ranked #5 in the FCS last week before losing a heartbreaker to then-No. 18 Villanova in overtime, and have still held on to a top ten ranking, checking in this week at #10. Towson is a shoo-in for the FCS playoffs this year unless they completely implode, and could be a dark horse pick to win it. None of that equates to a team that’s objectively smart to pick to beat Florida, which is ranked even higher in the FBS than Towson is in the FCS and favored to win by five touchdowns for a reason, but it does mean that Towson is good enough to scare the absolute s#%t out of you if you take them for granted and mess around. So, while this is by no means an evenly matched contest, it’s close enough to one that it’s real football.
So with all that said, all that’s happened so far this year is irrelevant. The Gators’ preseason is done, and now this team more or less knows what it’s got. The great debate over Feleipe Franks is a thing of the past; Kyle Trask is this team’s quarterback, and Emory Jones will be a featured part of this offense too. Florida’s offensive line, other than right tackle, is better than we thought it would be, and now those linemen finally have some real reps under their belts, meaning experience is no longer a true worry for the unit. Anything that any player may have done right or wrong up to this point, from Jacob Copeland dropping a touchdown pass, to Trask throwing two ill-advised interceptions, to the Gators’ slew of self inflicted wounds against Miami and Tennessee, no longer matter.
What does matter is how Florida moves forward, fixes its various issues and plays throughout its new season. Because for better or worse, what the Gators do between now and the first Sunday in December- and not what they’ve done so far- will ultimately decide how this team is remembered.