What a win that was for Florida on Saturday. The Gators pounced on the top-10 team that came into The Swamp off a spectacular start to its season. A big ol' punt helped set the tone, along with an unbelievably fortuitous fumble, and from there, Florida bottled up that crew's potent offense, and nullified its great defensive lineman, while also creating a hail of turnovers. Florida's signal-caller threw four touchdown passes for the first time in forever, and the Gators came out of the game with a lopsided triumph that validated the team after a series of close wins and left the crowd in attendance amazed.
I am, of course, thinking of Saturday, October 20, 2012, when Florida used four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception), Kyle Christy's fantastic day of punting, and four touchdown passes from Jeff Driskel to help bury No. 9 South Carolina, which could do little with either Dylan Thompson or Connor Shaw at quarterback, and got only a garden-variety five-tackle performance from Jadeveon Clowney. The Gators came into that game as a shaky No. 3 team nationally, off a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Vanderbilt, and left it looking like legitimate national title contenders.
What, you thought it had been a really long time since a shocking blowout Florida win at home like the one we saw Saturday?
On Monday, during the best of his handful of weekly press conferences as Florida's head coach, Jim McElwain spoke of the importance of proving that his Gators are not just a one-hit wonder after their swamping of Mississippi over the weekend.
The most relevant bit from the song, The Cyrkle's Paul Simon-penned "Red Rubber Ball," that McElwain used to make his point? The hook:
I think it's gonna be all rightYeah, the worst is over nowThe mornin' sun is shinin' like a red rubber ball
While I think he mentioned the song because it's a sentimental favorite than for any allegorical purpose, the first verse does sound like a farewell:
I should have known you'd bid me farewellThere's a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very wellNow, I know you're not the only starfish in the seaIf I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me
And for Gators who desperately wished to have Will Muschamp gone, well, it's not quite "Hello, Goodbye," but it's close. But even if the worst is over now, I'm not convinced that Florida is "back." I saw what I thought was a Florida team that was "back" in 2012; very few would now argue that that team achieved that status.
Florida's 2012 win over South Carolina was just about as impressive on paper as the Gators' win over Mississippi on Saturday, really: The Gamecocks outgained Florida in that game, something the Rebels came close to doing in this one, but they never led, and seemed very much out of contention early on, with Florida preying on "violators" to force fumbles and create short fields. There was even a field goal as white flag in each game: Hugh Freeze ordered his Rebels' three-pointer down 25-0, while Steve Spurrier had his Gamecocks add three points while down 37-8.
But that plus-four number in turnover margin was a rarity, and noted as unsustainable by some. One week later, when Florida hit the road after that emotional win, luck flipped on the Gators, who saw their hopes of winning the SEC East crash and burn in a 17-9 loss to Georgia: Six Florida giveaways and a red three in the ledger on the line for turnover margin were what took down that team on that day.
Florida would rebound, eventually snagging a fourth win over a team that would win 10 games in 2012 by rallying in Tallahassee to stomp Florida State, but the Gators followed that triumphant and seemingly seismic day by faltering in another turnover-plagued loss in the Sugar Bowl. Any evidence those Gators made for being "back" in their wins was undermined by their losses, and anyone making the argument for them being "back" couldn't do so without cross-examination that offseason.
Ultimately, substandard offense and spectacular bad luck defeated the Gators over the course of the next two seasons, and the closest Will Muschamp got to getting Florida "back" was that Saturday in The Swamp.
Despite the eerie similarities between this most recent Florida win and that one, though, there's ample reason to feel that this one was different, and puts the Gators on a new and better trajectory.
First and foremost, Florida's victory in this game was fueled as much by its offense as its defense. Will Grier threw for 271 yards against Mississippi, or more yardage than Florida tallied in that South Carolina game; while short fields generated by turnovers helped artificially deflate the Gators' yardage total a bit in that 2012 game, the 91-yard final drive of the first half against the Rebels actually featured Florida gaining 94 yards after a penalty backed the Gators up from their original starting position, or one more yard than the 93 Jeff Driskel threw for against the Gamecocks.
An offense that can cover for its defense's errors had been a pipe dream for the last two years for Florida, as the Gators went a pitiful 1-11 when the opposing team scored 21 or more points over Muschamp's final two years, and 10-2 when holding the other team to 20 or fewer. Already, McElwain's 2015 Gators have more wins over teams topping 21 points than Muschamp's last two iterations did, and both of those wins came in the form of comebacks from second-half deficits, long thought of as something Muschamp's teams could not perform 1.
And it sure seems like Florida has a reliably dangerous quarterback at the helm now, something it has not had since Tim Tebow. It feels as though Grier can do more with his arm than Driskel could with both his arm and his legs, and while we haven't seen a truly ruinous performance from the precocious redshirt freshman, it's possible we just won't.
Plus, the purported trouble spots for Florida — a green and growing offensive line, a largely unproven group of wide receivers, and a talented but shallow corps of linebackers — have all been benign to good.
Of course, that last paragraph could apply to 2012 Florida circa mid-October.
A line that had played like matadors at Texas A&M dominated an ultra-talented LSU defense when it had to, Jordan Reed had come to the aid of Florida's wide receivers and Driskel much as Jake McGee has come to serve as Grier's safety valve, and Florida was getting the lion's share of its production at linebacker out of Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, with Antonio Morrison stepping in when Jenkins got hurt; flip Morrison into Bostic's role, Alex Anzalone into Jenkins's, and Jarrad Davis into Morrison's, and there's a clear parallel. The wide receivers are better in 2015, definitely, but I have a similar feeling about Florida's offensive line — "the dam has yet to break, but that doesn't mean it won't" — as I did that fall.
And the most striking parallel — between lopsided wins accomplished with the aid of a lopsided turnover margin — remains valid. Florida tied for eighth nationally in 2012 with a plus-1.62 turnover margin, but averaged a net loss of 2.5 turnovers per game in its losses. The 2015 Gators have posted a plus-1.2 turnover margin, and have yet to post a negative one.
It's possible that that's a sustainable feature under McElwain, who helped Alabama post just 13 games with negative turnover margins (against 41 with an even or positive turnover margin) in his four years in Tuscaloosa. But if it is, it only seems to show with premier talent: Colorado State had 14 games with a negative turnover margin in McElwain's 38 games on the sidelines (excluding the 2014 Las Vegas Bowl, after McElwain's hiring by Florida).
With no clear and emphatic evidence that this team is definitively, markedly, and sustainably better than previous groups of Gators, I'm going to be reserving my judgment on whether Florida is "back" — and what Florida is even supposed to be back to perplexes me, admittedly — until we're more than five games into a tenure that will hopefully last at least five years.
The two Florida coaches who have spent more than five years in Gainesville since 1990 both brought back SEC and national titles, after all, and every Florida coach who has made it through at least five seasons as the head Gator since 1950 has won at least 59 games. Every non-interim Florida coach since then has posted a winning percentage of .554 or better. Hopefully, McElwain's tenure will be defined a long time down the line; if it is, it will likely have been a good one.
What McElwain can do, though, unlike any of those predecessors, is go 6-0. No Florida coach has ever done that in his first year at the helm, much less won the SEC, or even gone to the SEC Championship Game. And why should McElwain give a damn about Florida getting "back," when he could take these Gators to places no first-year Florida coach has ever been?
"The story's in the past, with nothin' to recall," The Cyrkle sang, way back when. "I've got my life to live, and I don't need you at all."
As seems true with virtually every sweeping judgment of Muschamp's tenure at Florida, 2012 is a counterpoint: The Gators overcame second-half deficits in a stunning six games that year, and trailed at some point in eight of nine non-shutout wins. The lone exception to the "shut 'em out or come back" rule? The win over South Carolina.