If you thought — really, truly, sincerely, honestly — that these Florida Gators were going to go 9-3 and stomp out Florida State to finish their regular season with a very good chance of making a New Year’s Six bowl as of, say, August?
You are either an optimist capable of seeing brighter views of the horizon than I am, or a liar.
But this is where we are after 12 games, which divided rather nicely into nine wins giving Florida fans reasons to be cheerful now and hopeful tomorrow and three losses with more sobering effects. Florida sequenced those wins and losses pretty well — it’s not just hard to recall the loss to Kentucky now, but hard to care that much about the losses to Georgia and Missouri — and achieved them mostly by scoring points and looking competent on offense, the things that Gator Nation most want the Gators to do, whether or not they are honest and vocal about that.
This has been, in the end, a season a lot like the 2007 season that many were projecting for Florida at the outset, given the Gators’ thin and mostly untested secondary and questions at quarterback. Feleipe Franks is, uh, not Tim Tebow nor a Heisman contender, and this Florida team has been surprisingly good on defense, but the record through 12 games is the same as it was 11 years ago, and you could argue that the results are better, given that no loss to Missouri stings as much as either of that team’s back-to-back losses to Auburn and LSU did, and that this year’s loss to Georgia was more expected and less surprising than 2007’s, and less full of the entire Georgia team coming on the field to celebrate a touchdown.
Yeah, this team lost to Kentucky for the first time in a generation — or a generation and a half, really, if not two. But that streak was one of the last ones Florida was fighting to maintain, and I’d say my doomsaying about Florida being worse for it ending now as opposed to earlier has proven to be unfounded in the short run.
“This team lost to Kentucky” isn’t just more distant than “This team exorcised some demons by beating the hell out of Florida State”: It means a lot less. In fact, Florida managed to take three losses a whole lot less damaging than their wins are beneficial: Kentucky now being 1-for-my lifetime against Florida instead of 0-fer is unlikely to suddenly flip the balance of power in that series, Missouri beating Florida is unlikely to sway the 0.0 recruits deciding between the two programs this year, and Georgia beating Florida — even in a rout in which the Bulldogs were decidedly better — felt a lot different this year, in a game that you could squint and see going the other way had certain mistakes not occurred, than it did last year, when Florida was lucky to score.
But now Florida will get its first extended test of sustaining success — of handling prosperity, in coachese, instead of handling adversity — of the Dan Mullen era.
The Gators arguably failed the course’s first pop quiz back in October, when they lost to Georgia and then let that frustration help beat them again against Missouri. And, really, that was only a test of being able to resist looking to the horizon or fixating on the rear view backward when their eyes should have been focused squarely on the road.
It will be harder for Florida’s coaches to translate this season’s successes on the field to a strong close on the recruiting trail before December’s Early Signing Period and February’s National Signing Day, and for those coaches and the players who will now wait about a month to play again to match their preparation and intensity for a hated rival in a bowl game — unless, perhaps, Florida ends up matched against a UCF squad it should very much want to beat as soundly as possible.
And then there’s next year’s opener against Miami in Orlando, a game that will once again test Florida’s players’ ability to balance preparing for a career in football with enjoying the perks of being only a semi-pro player in college.
Florida did not pass that test during the 2017 offseason, with about a sixth of the roster entering that first week suspended and much of the offseason itself spent on indiscretions well beyond this offseason’s long-forgotten brouhaha with The Legendary Gainesville-Area Gambler Tay Bang. But some players around in 2017 will now get a second chance — under a coach who appears to be steering a ship with a happier crew, and who employs a strength and conditioning coach who appears to command a fair bit more respect than the last one — to figure out that it behooves them to work hard even when no one is watching. And the players brought in since then — and who will arrive this winter or early next summer — can look at the opportunities afforded to freshmen under Mullen to realize that they, too, could play right away if they can play well.
After a decade spent pushing a big ol’ boulder uphill, the Gators have graduated from Sisyphean efforts to success, if only in the sense that they got that boulder to base camp. But there is a ways to go to the mountaintop, and embarking on another climb means risking the boulder rolling back.
Here’s hoping all involved in that effort in Florida’s program realize that, and want to work to keep things pointed toward the peak.