On Saturday night, moments after Florida State fell to N.C. State to shatter the Seminoles' dreams of an unbeaten and national championship season, I tweeted this:
Florida beats No. 4 LSU at home. No. 3 Florida State loses. No. 5 Georgia gets stomped. Today was #TheGatorestDay.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) October 7, 2012
I talked to friends and read feedback on Twitter, and I'm pretty sure calling Saturday #TheGatorestDay is true in a way that even the days of national championship victories aren't. Florida was home, and Gainesville had been aching to throw a welcome home party to celebrate its relevance. Florida's win came before the Georgia and Florida State losses, giving fans a chance to get back to tailgates or well and proper soused before absorbing those results. Gators fans came into this season worried that there would be an Alabama-Florida State or Georgia-Florida State title game, and now that looks like an impossibility; similarly, Florida looked like a team that was destined for the margins in September, and after its opener, but now stands tall as a national championship contender.
There may be more important and seismic days for the Gators (I think of the Saturday of the SEC Championship Game in 2006), but I truly think that never before in Florida history have so many things gone right for Gators fans, who are just about peerless when it comes to talking shit, on a single day. Thus: We all just lived through #TheGatorestDay.
There's a hashtag that pops up from time to time from Florida players after games: #FNB. It almost never gets explained, but it stands for "Florida never breaks," and it's the perfect motto for a team that takes its character from its hard-working coaches.
Will Muschamp preached his interest in making Florida a "blue-collar" team again and again last year, and when it didn't happen, he called his team "soft" and sounded like a guy who needed to pass several kidney stones in every interview. Google "Will Muschamp soft" today, and all you're going to get is a bunch of columns affirming that Muschamp's Gators are decidedly not, evidence that Florida has at least changed the national perception about its program.
I've been crediting Jeff Dillman, who has made Florida stronger almost to a man, for that, and Brent Pease, who is up to the task of building a dominant SEC offense, for that, but I've barely written Tim Davis' name here, and there's just not a lot of praise out there for an offensive line that now has the ability to take over games. The common thread between those three coaches is that Muschamp hired them this offseason, correcting the biggest mistakes he made in his first year — hiring Charlie Weis and Frank Verducci, and retaining Mickey Marotti — by learning from them and doing better with his do-overs.
Muschamp could have panicked at the end of last year, sitting at 6-6 with a coaching staff that he had some problems with, and he could have certainly fired a coach or two had he wanted to. But he didn't, and things worked out: Weis' decision to leave for Kansas and Marotti's move to Ohio State to reunite with Urban Meyer (he is now an assistant athletic director for football sports performance at The Ohio State University, in case you thought people didn't care about titles) made his life a lot easier, and he fired Verducci very quietly before nailing all three of his next hires.
After two years of mediocrity and a report of a "broken" program, Florida never breaks. Will Muschamp doesn't, either.
The flip side of "Florida never breaks" is that Florida is designed to break everyone else. Spencer Hall's phrase is "I have never seen a gameplan so designed solely in thrall to the notion of obliterating an opponent for obliterating them's sake" at EDSBS, and Florida ran the ball so far down LSU's throat that the Tigers were probably checking their toilets for pieces of pigskin. Florida ran the ball on its last 23 non-Victory snaps, and on 33 of 37 non-Victory second-half plays.
Do you care that the Gators are now a run-first team far removed from the Fun 'n Gun? I suspect that as long as Florida keeps winning, most won't.
The Swamp was electric throughout the game, as good as it's been in my time at Florida, which is entirely post-'Cock Block. I have heard it very loud for Tim Tebow in his first big game against Tennessee in 2007, very loud for Lane Kiffin's debut in Hogtown in 2009, very loud for Tebow's farewell in 2009, very loud for attempts at punching up at Alabama and Florida State in 2011. (2010 was a year I spent working virtually every Saturday, which was dumb.) This game was on par with those, and I expect that this was only the second-loudest I will hear it this year: South Carolina's coming to town in two weeks for a de facto SEC East Championship Game.
The best sequence of the game was the one that led to Matt Elam's incredible forced fumble: Mike Gillislee scores the touchdown to make the score 7-6, Elam stops Kenny Hilliard for a gain of three yards on first down, and, on the play immediately before the fumble, Jon Bostic "breaks up" a Zach Mettenberger pass — which is to say the ball lands on him as he's falling to ground. I suspect that was a pretty clear incomplete pass on TV, but for me, and for hundreds of people around me in the part of the student section that was right next to that play, it looked like an interception, and so we celebrated as such until about the moment of the next LSU snap ... which left us all aghast, as Mettenberger launched the ball (with Gators all over him, and without a chance to step into it) to Odell Beckham, who was running free. I saw that play from the worst possible vantage point, and so Elam's strip didn't look like a fumble to me, but when The Swamp saw the replay, it was pretty clear that it was.
And when it was announced as a fumble, The Swamp went bananas.
There's an argument to be made that this Florida win over LSU is the best one in college football this year — I examined the art of big wins in college football over at the mothership on Sunday — but I don't think there's an argument to be made that a team other than Florida has the best pair of wins. Florida's win over LSU was impressive for its style and for the Gators' persistence in breaking a team that loves to break teams; Florida's win over Texas A&M was impressive for that, and for its comeback, and for its context as the earliest road game Florida's played in almost a decade and the first SEC game the Aggies played, and for the fact that Texas A&M looks like a top-20 team at least.
After triggering three straight blowouts, Johnny Manziel engineered one of the best comebacks we'll see this year in A&M's first SEC road game, rescuing them from a 27-17 deficit at Ole Miss with less than 10 minutes to go on two absurd drives. You can watch the big plays on those drives, but this works for shorthand: Manziel led the Aggies to two touchdowns on drives that took nine total plays to cover 127 yards, and he completed a pass for a first down on third and 19, ran 29 yards for a touchdown, and threw a gorgeous pass for the game-winner on them. I sincerely think Manziel's one of the top 15 quarterbacks in college football right now, and I think more and more that Florida dodged a bullet by seeing him in his first start.
But what if Florida didn't dodge a bullet, and instead showed the world the blueprint for shutting the indomitable Johnny Football down? And that blueprint's something no other team's been able to follow since? Well, that's even more impressive, isn't it?
Florida fans are used to Heisman contenders: Tim Tebow was one for three straight years, and Cam Newton was ours, dammit, before he won his. I don't think Gillislee's going to be one, though I would love to be wrong.
Certainly, I don't think he's going to win the Heisman: To win the Heisman as a running back, in the last 25 years, a running back has needed to be the primary offensive option of the nation's best team and/or a number-compiler. Mark Ingram and Reggie Bush were in the former category; Ron Dayne and Ricky Williams were in the latter. Eddie George basically mixed both (he set school records, and Ohio State was a top-five team all year), as did Rashaan Salaam, who topped 2,000 yards. Barry Sanders' 1988 season was the best by a collegiate running back in history.
Gillislee could still be the best offensive player on the best team in America, though that's going to depend on other Gators making Florida the best team in America, but he's just not going to get the numbers to be a Heisman contender without that.
Gillislee's got 548 rushing yards, which is excellent and over 100 yards per game, but well off a 2,000-yard pace, and only good for third in the SEC behind Georgia's Todd Gurley and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. He should be able to at least keep his current pace for the rest of the season, and especially in November, when Florida gets Missouri, Louisiana, and Jacksonville State at home. But he's not a receiving threat, with just two catches for 14 yards on the year, and he's not scoring an unreasonable number of touchdowns as a runner (his seven tie him for 19th nationally).
Could Gillislee get to New York if Florida ends up 11-1 or 12-0 and he's around 1,400 yards? Absolutely. But his Heisman chances depend on his team's numbers under W and L more than anything else.
This week's game against Vanderbilt is already getting cast as a trap game for Florida, and it should be: The Gators don't lost to Vandy, and have every reason to look ahead to South Carolina in two weeks. But the best ways to make sure Florida comes out ready to play Vandy this year are really simple: All Will Muschamp has to do is show film of last year's Vanderbilt game, far closer than it ever should have been, and have the team plane stop in (or fly over) Atlanta on the way to Nashville so that he can tell his players "If you win this Saturday, then you can pave the road to Atlanta to play for an SEC title."
With wins in the next two weekends, Florida would be 6-0 in the SEC and the only unbeaten in the SEC East. The Gators can't formally clinch the division with a win in that game — even if Georgia loses to Kentucky, and South Carolina to LSU, the Gators could get to 6-0 and finish at 6-2 and tied with both teams in the East — but beating Vandy and then beating South Carolina gives the Gators a chance to clinch against Georgia by running their record to 7-0 and handing losses to the only two teams that can tie them at 7-1.
But Florida has to win at Vandy first.
The Difference is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of the same name at The Two-Man Game, his thoughtful Dallas Mavericks, which makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about the game just played. Here at Alligator Army, it will make that number of points about the weekend in Gator Nation and in college football, and run Mondays.