I had to sit back and really, really ponder the title of my article before publishing it. I’m not a fan of hyperbole, generally, so I really had to make sure that I wasn’t missing or forgetting a Florida Gators football game that concluded in a more devastating fashion than Saturday night’s game against LSU. Here’s what I came up with:
1976, vs. Georgia: the “Fourth and Dumb” play. (Younger Gator fans, google that.) But there were no realistic national championship hopes that year. Florida was very good, yes, but checking into Jacksonville at 6-1 and #10 in the country in mid-November before the days of conference championship games and the College Football Playoff was a solid indicator that the ultimate pot of gold at the end of the rainbow did not await. Maybe in the moment it was the most devastating loss in history up to that point, but it definitely did not stay that way.
1985, vs. Georgia: a 24-3, national title killing loss. This one at least has an argument. But in hindsight, Florida had been owned by Georgia over the prior decade and a half, so how surprising could it really have been to lose to them yet again? And Georgia was solid that year, entering the game at #17, so it wasn’t like a loss would have been unfathomable.
1994, vs. FSU: the “Choke at Doak”. Hard no to this one simply because it wasn’t a loss. While the end result was wholly inexcusable, this game is ineligible for the title of “most devastating in school history” because both teams finished the day with 31 points. By definition, that is a tie, not a loss.
2001, vs. Tennessee: the 9/11 makeup game. While Florida was a definite favorite in this game at home, it has to take a back seat to Saturday’s loss to LSU in terms of devastation simply because Tennessee was a top five team gunning for its own national championship hopes. No Gator fan would admit it that day, but in the back of everybody’s mind existed awareness of the possibility that Florida, ranked #2 and playing for a trip to the SEC Championship Game and then the Rose Bowl for the BCS Championship Game, could lose to Tennessee, ranked #5 and playing for those same prizes.
2009, vs. Alabama: the end of the Tebow era. This is the only one that comes close for me. It was worse than the Tennessee game eight years earlier because that 2001 Florida team was three wins away from a title, and this 2009 team was two. But again, it ultimately takes a back seat to the LSU game because we all knew the nature of the beast we were facing. Sure, nobody knew then that Nick Saban would build Alabama into a juggernaut the likes of which we’d never seen, but that was the #2 team in the country with a Heisman Trophy candidate in Mark Ingram. Devastating, for sure, because it cost Florida a shot at a title, but we all knew a loss was within the realm of possibility.
2012, vs. Georgia: the Jordan Reed fumble. Not even close. Not even in the same thermosphere. Savvy fans saw the problem with that team against Bowling Green, and knew the Gators were running on borrowed time. By the time Jeff Driskel threw that interception to Bacarri Rambo in the end zone at the end of the first half, I think deep down, everybody knew what was coming. It was a matter of when, not if, living so close to the edge would prove fatal. Sure, it hurt, but it was utterly predictable. It just sucked that it had to come against our biggest rival.
And that’s it. That’s the end of the list of games in the 114 year history of Gator football that even belong in the same discussion with the 2020 LSU game in terms of being the most devastating loss in program history. Florida may have had a football team before 1976, and I realize there’s a whole 70 year gap I left out, but never in that time gap were the Gators seriously in contention for the sport’s biggest prize.
Because of the high likelihood of a Gator win (Florida was a 24 point favorite), the apparent lack of motivation the opposing team was said to have, the fact that Florida was four wins away from a national championship, and the profound lack of brain activity from Marco Wilson that ultimately did them in, Saturday night was, bar none, the most devastating loss in Florida Gator football history.
And part of what made the loss so frustrating was because the things that have been so commonly pointed out, including by myself and my co-hosts on the In All Kinds Of Weather Forecast. Florida’s defense is atrocious, has been all year and the only surprise was that their day of reckoning came against LSU and not Alabama. (And it still might come against Alabama, again.) The only reason this defense is currently allowing 384.7 yards per game and not significantly more is because inexperienced quarterbacks like Stetson Bennett IV, D’Wan Mathis and Max Johnson missed open throws for potentially huge gains.
The double corner blitzes that never get home against quick-passing quarterbacks, because, well, they like to make quick passes on simple, short routes. The fourteen yard cushions on wide receivers on third and six. The three man fronts against obvious running sets, which ensure that Florida’s opponent is going to get the better of the line of scrimmage. The corresponding excuse from Todd Grantham that as long as a play doesn’t go for a touchdown, it’s a win because we like to bleed the clock down on defense even though we have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, and if we do get burned on a busted coverage, well, at least that saves our defense some energy. The lack of playing time for hungry and talented youngsters, who are forced to sit and watch as so-called veteran leaders like Marco Wilson and Donovan Stiner strut around celebrating like they just ripped a ball out of the hands of Larry Fitzgerald in his prime when in reality the ball was simply overthrown or dropped. And so on.
This is a horrible defense masquerading as a below average one because of opponents’ miscues. Meanwhile, this offense is one of the best in Florida Gators history, and now it’s been wasted, relegated to its final resting spot in a low level New Year’s Six Bowl if it’s lucky. That’s why this loss stings.
And it’s with that knowledge- don’t kid yourself or take their public statements too literally, the players all know this deep down- that these players are getting ready for what was supposed to be the biggest game of their lives, and now has been reduced to a consolation prize of sorts.
But now the topic of discussion needs to shift a little bit. I will go to my grave believing that Marco Wilson committed the single stupidest move in the history of Florida Gators athletics, and that Todd Grantham should have been pushed to the NFL while his stock was misleadingly up after the 2019 season. But none of that matters now.
This Gator team he plays on still has two more games to play. And the first of these- on Saturday night against Alabama- is for a championship. No, it’s not the national championship we all really want, but it is for a conference championship. Winning this game forever etches a team into the annals of sports history as champions. And no, not champions of the Sun Bowl or of the state of Florida or anything else you’d have to enter really specific search terms to find, but champions of the most prestigious conference in college football.
How does Florida move on? How does Florida regroup and get ready for a championship game? This is usually where I’ll provide analysis, but part of how I’ve built my brand is by being brutally honest, so here goes: I have no effing idea. How can I? How can anybody? It’s an open ended question. There’s no direct precedent for a situation like this, because the 1994 team didn’t actually lose the game of such devastation and the 2001 and 2009 teams each had a month to recover before playing vastly inferior opponents in their bowl games. (And you know, those teams had defenses.)
I’m not talking about a win or a loss this week against Alabama. Crazier things have happened in 2020, but Alabama seems as sure a bet to not only win but cover that gaudy 17 point spread as there can be in this wholly unpredictable year. But how does Florida play? Where are they mentally?
As I said on our most recent podcast, this offseason will ultimately tell what Dan Mullen is, and how he’ll ultimately fare at Florida. But in terms of building for the future, that starts now. This week. Today. How does he get his guys ready to play a championship game? We know he’s not going to make X’s and O’s changes this week, because he’s too damn prideful and stubborn for that, so discussing all the schematic and personnel changes he should make is pointless. But what’s his message for his players? How does he reset their minds?
And as my co-host Casey Hampton said on that same podcast, tick tock, Dan. You’re not on the hot seat. You’re not even on a warm seat. Your job is as safe as anybody’s in college football not named Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban, and allow me to interject a personal opinion here: it should be.
But resting on laurels is not what the Florida Gators do. You don’t have to be Nick Saban in order to not be considered a failure, but you do need to do all you can do at every given moment to put your team in the best position it can possibly be in. You said it yourself at your opening press conference, remember? “I can promise you that I will give relentless effort in everything I do to make sure that we return the football program to a national championship level.” And I appreciate that. That’s what a coach of the Florida Gators should strive to do.
Now starts the period of time where you need to start making moves. Because what you do between December 15, 2020 and December 15, 2021 will ultimately be what defines you.
And here’s a hint: defying the odds and getting this shell-shocked Florida Gators team to play the game of its life against Alabama and forever be known as champions of the SEC will take a lot of the pressure off of your workload to do so in the next 51 weeks.