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Tuesday Musings: Florida is ahead of schedule — but not yet a contender

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The Gators being better than expected doesn’t make them a contender. Also, why beating LSU rules for Gators fans, and why Florida should shun Kodak Black.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida is very good — but there’s a difference between that and contention, especially in the SEC

I am ready and willing to declare these Florida Gators good.

I know, I know: You’re shocked.

But after six weeks and five wins — and a single loss against a team that has beaten every team on its schedule so long as it remembers that Benny Snell is a) really good at football and b) allowed to play in overtime — the Gators are up to No. 14 in both S&P+ and one national poll, and are favored to win all but one of their remaining games, five of which are in the Sunshine State.

To reiterate: A year after a 4-7 campaign in which Florida’s only wins were over Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and UAB, and two of those wins were largely fluky, the Gators should now be favored to win 10 games.

That’s pretty good! It’s not enough to make Florida a national championship contender, though, because of what awaits in the SEC.

Florida isn’t favored to win out because it still has to play Georgia, and Florida — despite being the No. 14 team in the country, remember! — is still looking at an uphill climb against the Bulldogs, getting just a 27 percent chance of winning from S&P+ in that game in Jacksonville.

And even if Florida wins out and beats Georgia, which would all but secure the Gators the SEC East crown if they hold serve in two final SEC home games in November — Kentucky would have to win out, which would require winning at Missouri and over Georgia in consecutive weeks, to prevent a one-loss Florida team from getting to Atlanta — college football’s final boss would still stand between the Gators and the College Football Playoff.

Florida’s chances of beating Alabama? They’re much slimmer than its chances of beating Georgia. And Florida’s margin for error in its championship chase essentially doesn’t exist: The Gators, we can safely project, certainly aren’t making the College Football Playoff as a two-loss team without an SEC title, and very probably can’t make it as a two-loss team with one, because of how damaging that loss would have been.

So no, I’m not considering this team a title contender, which is what Dan Mullen and Florida’s administration would very much like the Gators to perennially be.

But it’s just as clear that they’re ahead of schedule.

Florida looked like it was on the verge of another lost season after that Kentucky loss, and being shaky on offense against Colorado State a week later didn’t help. Since the Kentucky loss, though, Florida’s defense hasn’t let up 20 points before garbage time — sorry, Tennessee’s last touchdown was not significant in that game — and Florida’s offense has rallied to take second-half leads against both Mississippi State and LSU, maybe the SEC West’s best teams not named Alabama.

And, look: You may be a skeptic of the SEC supremacy narrative, or of the SEC West’s teams not named Alabama, but LSU and Mississippi State both have good wins (LSU, over Miami and Auburn; Mississippi State, over Kansas State and Auburn) to their credit, and Florida beat them both by a touchdown.

The top 20 teams in this week’s current S&P+ have lost a combined 15 games, and Florida is one of three teams nationally to have handed out two of those losses ... and the other two are Kentucky, which Florida played close to the end despite getting blown off the ball and having a pivotal field goal called no good, and LSU, which Florida just beat.

Any way you want to do an honest analysis right now, Florida’s going to look good. That’s because, I suspect, Florida is good, at least at some of the most important skills that go into winning football games.

And Florida’s here six games into Dan Mullen’s tenure. That’s nuts.

Florida is S&P+’s highest-ranked team with a head coach in his first year ... and the only other team in the top 15 of S&P+ with a new head coach at the helm is Mississippi State, which, y’know, Mullen built. The only other top-30 S&P+ team with a new head coach is Texas A&M, which a) hired a new coach with a national title to his credit and b) turned over an underachieving roster that still managed to beat Florida on the road and go to a bowl last year.

And A&M has leapt from No. 61 in the final S&P+ for 2017 to No. 17 today.

Florida? Try a vaulting from No. 86 to No. 14.

I think there’s reason to believe that Florida is likely to get better, not worse, from here, and that any backslides as talented upperclassmen leave are going to be backstopped by improvements in recruiting, conditioning (which seems increasingly likely to have been an area of serious deficiency under Jim McElwain), and development.

And Florida getting better from here could very well push it from very good to great to championship contention.

The Gators aren’t there yet. But there are plenty of signs that they will be.


Why it’s so fun for Florida to beat LSU

You know what hit me this weekend? It’s fun for Florida to beat LSU because this will always mean more to LSU than it does to Florida.

Consider where Florida sits on LSU’s pecking order for big wins. LSU’s the top dog in its own state, and thus lacks a rival like Florida State. LSU’s the underdog in its most important SEC rivalry, against Alabama, and has largely run away from its more ancient rivals, Ole Miss and Arkansas, and outpaced its more recent ones, Auburn and Texas A&M. (LSU hasn’t lost to Texas A&M on a football field since the Aggies joined the SEC, though A&M ultimately hired Jimbo Fisher when LSU tried and failed to do that. Did you know that? I didn’t.)

But LSU sees Florida, longtime king of the SEC East, as a peer program, as the SEC did when it married the schools as permanent rivals. And yet, while LSU has a winning record against Florida since Steve Spurrier left Gainesville, six of the Tigers’ seven losses to Florida since then have come with a single digit next to the Tigers’ name. Florida beat LSU in one of the Tigers’ national championship campaigns in the 2000s, came like one fourth-down stop from doing so in the second, and derailed potential title runs for the Tigers in 2012 and now 2018.

And in that same post-Spurrier, since-2002 span, Florida has just four losses to LSU as the higher-ranked team — only one of which, in 2002, came in something other than a Florida coach’s dispiriting last year in Gainesville — and only as a top-10 team, which both came after significant losses: The 2007 Gators lost at LSU in an epic that came after Florida had already been felled by Auburn, and the 2015 Gators lost at LSU in an epic despite losing Will Grier just days prior. Both of those latter two losses came to top-10, higher-ranked LSU teams, too.

To oversimplify things: LSU has scored more of its recent wins over Florida when Florida was already seen as relatively mediocre or bad or had played itself off the national championship path; Florida’s recent wins over LSU have mostly sideswiped the Tigers and/or dealt significant blows to great Tigers teams.

And so LSU’s powers that be whine about the game — and LSU fans always will — as an “unfair” impediment to competing in the SEC, when Florida fans could complain about the very same thing, but very rarely do. The powers that be fight to get a game moved to Baton Rouge in the wake of a hurricane, claim that Florida’s athletic director is a villain and liar for ... not wanting to make a full commitment to playing a football game with a hurricane bearing down, I guess? They then get mad about Florida’s coach claiming that people who wanted that game moved or altered and called out the Gators while Florida was worried about a hurricane got what they deserved, and then stay mad a year after the fact, when Florida makes LSU its Homecoming game in a more light-hearted jab at the Tigers.

They do things as minor as get worked up about Florida players carrying around a dumb cat skeleton toy provided by a fan after a win to the point that they delude themselves into thinking it was a shot at the late mascot — you know, the one they shouldn’t keep in the first place — and not a football team called the Tigers, something that Florida fans who have had to watch Florida State players carry an alligator head around as a trophy know is deeply stupid to care about, then don’t get Florida fans’ angst over LSU’s puckish band deliberately playing over a musical tribute to a beloved native son.

LSU fans stay mad about Florida. Florida fans generally have bigger things to worry about.

And yet Florida fans still get to gloat about the wins.

That’s fun, ain’t it?


Florida should stop making nice with Kodak Black

Kodak Black is many things. He is a wildly — almost inexplicably — popular South Florida rapper. He is a devout Florida fan who has made zero secret of his love for the Gators, even during lean times. He is an inspiration for many Gators players, and many Florida recruits, and an artist who has made music that no doubt resonates with them. He was the namesake for Florida’s trick play that beat Mississippi State.

He is a frequent Twitter user, too, and one who tweeted at Dan Mullen just this Saturday.

Kodak Black is also an accused rapist who remains under indictment in South Carolina on a charge of sexual battery — which is just the worst of a long list of criminal acts he has committed, been accused of, and been punished for — and an all-around shithead whose youth (he’s 21) does not excuse his dumbassery.

And, to be clear, I’m not classing Kodak’s lyrics and music as dumbassery — lord knows that any number of artists have made problematic art and artistic decisions and been co-signed by Florida, to include Tom Petty. But I am troubled what Kodak’s allegedly done in his personal life, and by a program that took a stand by dismissing Justin Watkins in the wake of disturbing domestic violence charges trying to maintain a relationship with him despite those facts being public knowledge.

I appreciate that Florida’s in a bind, caught between wanting to look cool by playing nice on Twitter and maybe speaking to Kodak and suggesting Kodak come to The Swamp and adopting his pinkies-to-the-smile gesture and forgoing that transitive cool by maybe not publicly associating with an accused rapist.

But I really, really think Florida is going to be just fine with or without the co-sign of Kodak Black, that Kodak being a celebrity Florida fan is not enough to outweigh the blowback should someone other than me who knows all this about Kodak brings it up at an inopportune time for Florida — like, say, after Florida thinks it’s scored a massive win for public perception by getting Kodak on the bill for Gator Growl — and that Florida is doing more harm than good by co-signing Kodak at this point in time.

And I hope Florida figures that out, too, and soon.