During the four years of Will Muschamp’s tenure, Florida’s football program gradually developed a distinct reputation: a program with a consistently solid defense, an offense that ranged from mediocre to plain awful and the ability to lose games that it had no business losing.
A quick look at the raw statistics from the 2015 season wouldn’t suggest that anything was drastically different. The Gators’ defense has improved from giving up 312 yards a game over Muschamp’s last two years to giving up just 280 yards a game in Jim McElwain’s first year, and the offense has gone from averaging 342 yards a game in those last two Muschamp years to 371 this year. So there’s improvement in both categories, sure.
But improvements of some 30 yards per game each way doesn’t exactly insinuate that the entire MO of the team has changed. Florida still sits at 87th in the nation (out of 128 FBS teams, meaning they’re in the bottom third) in total offense this year while sporting the country’s fifth ranked defense. Which upon staring at for five solid minutes presents you with the same opinion you had at first glance; Florida’s still got a pretty good defense but a weak offense, so they’re probably still losing games they shouldn’t, right?
Well, they aren’t, and it’s because of one curious fact. Florida has suddenly, almost inexplicably, turned into a team that finds ways to win games. Our previous seasons are retroactively defined by making crucial mistakes in big moments; see Tevin Westbrook’s drop against LSU and deflection to an FSU DB for a touchdown, and missed blocking assignments that led to a blocked field goal and a blocked punt within minutes of each other against South Carolina. By contrast, this season has been defined by Gator players making big plays time and again… including one of the biggest plays in Gator history.
Let’s just call it, “The Thri11 at Ben Hi11.” Will Grier’s 4th and 14 dart to Antonio Callaway, Callaway’s subsequent escape to the sidelines and Brandon Powell’s monster block that sprang him all the way for the game winning 63 yard touchdown against Tennessee may live on as the single most biggest play in Gator history. It’s got a tough opponent for that title in Jarvis Moss’s blocked field goal against South Carolina in 2006, and I don’t know how they stack up from an objective standpoint since it’s still so fresh in my mind. What I do know is that it won Florida a football game that logic and the first 50 minutes of the game suggested that Florida should have lost.
But that’s just one example of a laundry list of them. There was Austin Hardin’s 43 yard field goal that saved the Gators from an embarrassing defeat against Vanderbilt in the Swamp barely a month later. Nothing else had really gone right for Florida that day, so why should a field goal attempt from a very inaccurate kicker? But as we all know, Hardin picked the perfect time to nail one dead center between the uprights. And how about the job by Treon Harris, who had been woeful all day until the fourth quarter, to make the throws he had to make to get them in position? There was nothing spectacular about those throws, but they were throws he hadn’t been making all day and made just as the point of “it’s too late” began to draw near.
The Gators have come up big in the clutch in blowouts, too. Jalen Tabor’s backhanded punch of a Faton Bauta pass led to an interception in the end zone by Keanu Neal to basically seal Florida’s win over Georgia. A touchdown on that drive would have cut the Gators’ lead to 20-10. And the Gators’ defense had been run over that drive until then. But just as Georgia was about to score, the Gators’ secondary stood up and made a big play. Had Georgia scored… who knows what would have happened in the final ten minutes? Point is, we won’t know, because the Gators slammed the door shut when presented with an opportunity to.
The list goes on and on, from the offensive line opening up a big hole for Kelvin Taylor late against South Carolina to Tabor’s pick six against East Carolina and even Vernon Hargreaves’ interception and long return in Lexington to snuff a Kentucky drive, and we get the idea. Examples of this thesis are plentiful, and it’s the large quantity of them that makes the difference between winning 10 games in two years and winning 10 games in one year, which Florida is a win over a paltry Florida Atlantic team away from accomplishing.
Why the Gators are making the key plays in crucial situations this year under McElwain when they seldom did under Muschamp is up for fans to speculate about amongst themselves, but there’s no denying that this team has a knack for making them. Florida’s offense has been struggling with Treon Harris just as much as it ever did with John Brantley and Jeff Driskel, yet Harris and his teammates make the plays they have to make when they have to make them. Florida’s defense is minimally better than it ever really was under Will Muschamp, yet this year, the defense makes more big plays than they give up. Florida has similar personnel on special teams to those of the last two years, (specifically, Austin Hardin is a junior) yet the Gators’ special teams has been responsible for saving the Gators in a game they should have lost as opposed to blowing a game they should have won. And because of all that, Florida sits in a position nobody thought they’d be in in mid-November: SEC East champs.
There’s more football to be played, more games to get excited about for fans, and more plays for the players to make. But as the season winds down, keep one thing in mind. Florida’s back, and it’s no accident. They’re back because they know how to come up big in the clutch, which after the last few years, almost seems like a sort of magic.
And if anything we’ve seen so far is any indication, we may just have a little more magic left in store.