Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Florida could have used the Sugar Bowl as a springboard to a sensational 2013 season. Instead, a stinging defeat at Louisville's hands will be the bittersweet memory taken from this night.
Florida's 33-23 loss to Louisville came just hours ago, but we'll be seeing bits and pieces of it all summer, and it will never seem to have happened more than a few painful minutes ago. Before I wallow in the pain — and, trust, I will — a rundown of what I learned.
There are holes too deep to claw out of.
Florida had worked a Houdini act into its routine this season, compiling five comeback wins (Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU, Louisiana and Florida State) in which it had to pull ahead in the second half to win. And the Gators did their best to work back from a massive 24-3 hole in the Superdome on Wednesday night, resorting to a trick play on fourth down to pull back to 24-10 at halftime, trying a surprise onside kick on the second half kickoff, and reaching deep into Brent Pease's bag of fun to take unorthodox cuts at a surprisingly stout Louisville defense.
It didn't help, not even with Andre Debose coming on like a comet with a brilliant 100-yard kickoff return touchdown and Matt Jones running like a stallion on his few carries that also featured daylight. Florida fell to 0-16 since 2004 when trailing by 14 or more points, and has no easy answers for a problem that plagues every team, but sinks Florida more often than most: Those 16 losses are more than half of the Gators' 28 since 2004, Ron Zook's final year in Gainesville, suggesting that when the Gators lose, they lose.
There is a college quarterback better than that freshman who won the Heisman.
His name is Teddy Bridgewater. He performed surgery on one of the nation's best secondaries, and delivered one of the best throws I've seen in person to DeVante Parker for Louisville's third touchdown of the night, the back-breaker that put Florida in its 24-3 hole.
Bridgewater's a patient, polished passer who was impossible for Florida to rattle, despite the Gators' five sacks. He made plays with his feet on the hoof and as a passer, and he rifled the ball into windows that made Louisville lethal on passing downs.
Football is the manipulation of geometry and physics at speed more than almost any other sport, and the passing game is unstoppable if performed perfectly. Bridgewater made sure it was, time and time again, and there was very little Florida could do against him.
I hope to hell that Florida never sees Manziel again, except maybe in an SEC Championship Game. But if Florida sees Teddy Bridgewater again, I will believe until 0:00 on the clock with the Gators ahead that Louisville can win that game. He's that good.
Florida wasn't good enough to lose the turnover battle in 2012.
Cynics and FSU fans interested in diminishing the accomplishments of a Florida team that still has a résumé better than almost any other in the country will say that Florida was reliant on turnovers in its wins. That's fair, to some extent: Florida was +20 in turnover margin in its 11 wins, and -5 in its two losses after its -2 night against Louisville.
But Florida not only committed turnovers in those two games, it committed crippling ones: The Gators' first fumble against the Bulldogs earned them a 7-0 deficit; Driskel's first pick against Louisville was six points for the Cardinals in seconds. Driakel's fumble almost put the Gators in a 37-10 hole, but downright superhuman work from the Florida defense pushed Louisville back, and the Cardinals' John Wallace pushed that attempt left. And Driskel's pick in the red zone scuttled all but the wildest possible comeback attempts: Had he thrown a touchdown pass instead, Florida would have been down two touchdowns with about 12 minutes to go.
And Florida scored two touchdowns in those 12 minutes. So.
Turnovers are almost always very bad when they happen to you and very good when they happen for you, and Florida got a few very good games (South Carolina, Florida State, and LSU — in which the one more turnover the Gators got was one of the biggest in college football this year) and a pair of very bad ones this year. That happens. Let's not pretend that a 10-point loss with a -2 turnover margin is an extraordinary and revelatory result.
Florida's corners are not as good as previously advertised.
Loucheiz Purifoy getting hurt in the second half didn't help, but Jaylen Watkins had by far his worst game as a Gator on Wednesday ... and he was part of the meltdown in 2011 against Georgia in which Aaron Murray threw 53* touchdowns on fades on fourth down. (*It felt that way, anyway.) He was slow getting out of breaks and left receivers open repeatedly, a fatal mistake done even once or twice against Bridgewater, and he bit on a move that allowed Bridgewater to throw over him for Louisville's final touchdown.
Marcus Roberson has gambled too much and did gamble too much and probably will always gamble too much. He's a good corner when those gambles pay off; he's just decent when they don't.
And, this year, beyond the two of them and Purifoy, there was nothing. Cody Riggs' injury really hurt Florida's depth in the secondary, where five players (and De'Ante Saunders, when not hurt/"hurt") handled somewhere north of 85 pecent of the meaningful snaps, but Florida was reluctant to roll out Brian Poole (who struggled in coverage, though he flashed good press skills, in the fall practice I saw) despite burning his redshirt, could just use Elam as a nickel corner on every play, and just didn't have anyone else worth using.
That'll change, because incoming superstar corner Vernon Hargreaves III is, by all accounts, already somewhat beyond the level that Roberson and Watkins played at tonight, and because Riggs will be back, and because a year of growth will only help Poole and others. But it was crystal clear that Bridgewater would have open men all night from early on, and Bridgewater was just not going to miss them.
It's a ton of fun to go to a destination bowl game.
I'd never been to New Orleans before this week, and I wasn't really in charge of my travel or lodging or eating plans this week (because affording things is more worth my while now than enjoying everything in one fell swoop), but I can't wait to come back at some point, and Gator Nation's apparent lack of interest in ever going to a bowl game that isn't the BCS National Championship Game — Florida fans made up the vulture's share of the smallest crowd in BCS bowl history on Wednesday — is puzzling when the context is, in part, "You also get to go to New Orleans."
Sports tourism is something you do to see a game, specifically, but the run-up to and aftermath of a game in a city that cares about sports with other fans who care about sports is part of the fun. My traveling party stayed in tonight after the game, only going out to a nearby sports bar to eat — we went to Extreme Sports Bar on Tchoupitoulas, and after going in the evening on Tuesday and thoroughly enjoying ourselves, our food was incredibly slow and overdone and the service Lindsey W. rendered was horrific, so the late-night version of that bar is one of the rare places I'll go out of my way to dissuade others from patronizing — and, even after a really dispiriting loss, I enjoyed bantering back and forth with the few Louisville fans who were also in the bar.
While writing this post in the lobby of the hotel I'm in from 1:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Nawlins time, I've shot "Congrats, y'all" to almost every group of obvious Louisville fans I've seen and struck up a few conversations because of it. I'm clearly wearing Gators apparel, clearly wearing the grimace of a person who saw a horror show, and still capable of being me when talking about and experiencing sports with people.
Will I be sure to go to Florida bowl games in Florida, ones that are just a drive away? I don't know. Not staying in town would make things harder, as it would limit the amount of consequence-light drinking I could do. But will I find ways to get to games that allow me to go to different cities and enjoy new things? Repeatedly.
My time as a loyal citizen of Gator Nation is just beginning. And I can't wait to visit more outposts.