The optimist in me has the strongest voice.
You all know this. It's why I'm suffuse with hope, bullish on chances, almost always looking for the bright side of anything — even if it's not Florida sports.
That guy thinks Florida went through a crucible last night, and will be better for it.
Florida hasn't won a game like this in two years. Last year, Florida lost four games like this, four games that were decided by one possession. Miami. Georgia. South Carolina. Georgia Southern. Throw in an LSU game that felt like a one-possession affair and was decided by 11 points, and the Gators had what was about the 2000s' worth of despair in close games in one year.
The 2013 Gators don't win this game if it's the third game of the season, either. Tyler Murphy, inserted for an injured Jeff Driskel, doesn't throw Florida out of it like Driskel did. Matt Jones isn't at full strength. Neither is Demarcus Robinson, sort of: He doesn't even play in this game, in theory. That team probably does a better job against the pass, and just as good a job against the run; Dominique Easley would've helped immeaurably. But Kentucky hitting bombs would have tested the will of that team. And without a passing game to speak of, how could Florida have responded?
This Florida team could, and did, even if it took until the shadow of midnight to put Kentucky away. That's an improvement, and even if we want to see a better team, and more improvement, last year taught me to not take that for granted.
And, hell, Kentucky looked good last night, and might just be good for the first time since 2007, and maybe the second time in my lifetime. This team had talent, a coherent game plan — arguably better than Florida's — and verve. Given how spotty every team in the SEC East has looked, with the exception of Missouri, I think it might upset someone eventually.
And Florida's leading the SEC East! South Carolina's win over Georgia means that Florida controls its own destiny, and that the other two teams often thought of as part of a three-team race for the division this year.
If we're grading on outcomes and not process, this wasn't bad at all.
And then there's this niggling thought I have: Florida didn't get many bounces, and even a few more going its way could have changed the game entirely. There were maybe a half-dozen almost-picks in this game. Refs missed calls on and made calls that favored Kentucky with greater frequency than they did for Florida. A fumble forced by Dante Fowler, Jr. on one of the most impressive pass rushes I've seen in a while fell to Kentucky. Keanu Neal got screened by Jabari Gorman, which turned a long pass into a touchdown pass. Kentucky got a knuckleball field goal to tie the game late. Kentucky's lone overtime touchdown was a ridiculous field-reversal run that required luck and some blown assignments.
Florida got quite lucky at crucial moments, too, but, on balance, I'd say Kentucky was luckier. And Kentucky was playing better, or certainly closer to its A game, than Florida was.
And Florida still won.
There were better teams that didn't win, and lost to potentially lesser teams, on Saturday.
But the way Florida played should give us pause.
I don't think Florida expected Kentucky to fight like it did; whether that was an issue with the Gators' preparation and motivation, or an issue that really only arose after Florida failed to score early in the first half, or an issue that wouldn't have been an issue had Florida only hit a few big plays, or an issue that would've been rectified by Vernon Hargreaves III simply catching that wobbler from Patrick Towles in the third quarter, it was an issue.
And Florida's had issues with "inferior" teams playing up to the Gators repeatedly under Will Muschamp. I don't need to recap all of those close games: You know them.
Florida also doesn't have many teams as "bad" as Kentucky left on its schedule. Eastern Kentucky's worse, for sure, and Vanderbilt probably is, too, but that's two teams — six of Florida's seven other foes are in the S&P+ top 20, and the seventh opponent, Tennessee, will be waiting for the Gators in Knoxville and hoping for a landmark win.
At a minimum, the way Florida struggled in this game is a reminder that this schedule is going to be very, very difficult on a weekly basis, and that the Gators don't have an enormous margin for error. After a week of feeling nearly untouchable, that's a rude wake-up call.
And, hell, if you want to take the truly pessimistic view, it's that an unprepared Florida team was shown up by a far lesser Kentucky team, had to be gifted a win, and has no clear way forward to improvement.
Here's a list of questions that I can ask if I'm being really skeptical, just off the top of my head:
- Is Driskel going to suddenly get much, much better at reading the field?
- What happens when teams can lock up Demarcus Robinson and force other receivers to beat them?
- How bad is Florida's secondary if an unheralded true freshman who wasn't even listed on Kentucky's roster — Garrett Johnson — could burn it repeatedly?
- Will Florida's defensive line look as stout against the run against an offensive line like Alabama's?
- Don't those field goal misses by Frankie Velez and Austin Hardin mean that Florida's got to go for it more often, and doesn't the recent inefficiency on third and fourth downs mean that's a bad thing?
- What happens when Florida isn't forcing four turnovers per game?
- How will Florida flip the field if Kyle Christy reverts to 2013 form, or Andre Debose gets hurt?
- Will Florida's receivers ever solve their problems with drops?
- How much does Florida already miss Jake McGee and D.J. Humphries?
Saturday night's game reassured Florida fans in one way only: It was a win. It didn't meet expectations, and it frustrated the hell out of a fan base that hasn't taken frustration well of late, and it can be read as a bad omen in so many ways.
The truth probably requires some triangulation.
Florida's secondary looked young, but Florida's offense could've covered for that with better execution and more points early, because it's easier to play from ahead, and the secondary still came within half-steps of half a dozen picks. Florida's offense took a while to get into gear, sure, but the Gators moved the ball and then scored when they had to, which is why they won. (Florida's offense kinda rescued its defense for one of maybe two times in the Will Muschamp era. I don't think that's a bad thing!) The Gators got breaks, but had a laundry list of missed opportunities, too.
It's almost never as good as it seems when it's good, and almost never as bad as it seems when it's bad, and beauty (or ugliness) is always in the eye of the beholder. Middle ground is hard to find in any argument or discussion, but middle ground is where most people actually stand.
It's where Florida stands, too, in all probability. We want to know whether they will push forward or fall back — and we will, not much more than five days from this very moment.