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13 thoughts from 11 hours of watching Florida on the SEC Network

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You didn’t think these would be short thoughts, did you?

FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent most of my Sunday afternoon and all of my evening watching the various Florida Gators events that were part of the SEC Network’s 24-hour marathon of Gators coverage.

As I also mentioned, I wanted to impart some of the things I thought about as I was doing that very important and very sedentary task — so here’s that.

1. Florida’s baseball team really struggled in the postseason

The first thing I watched in full — or nearly in full — was the decisive Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional between Florida and Auburn, a game that was dramatic to its walk-off finish. But that game was dramatic not just because Auburn played brilliant defense, but because Florida, a great offensive team all year, just couldn’t hit consistently in the postseason.

In that game against Auburn, Florida had six hits — and, rather impressively, had two in one inning just once in those 11 innings. And in that inning with two hits, it wasn’t either one that brought home a run, but Florida’s daring fake-out double steal that resulted in Nick Horvath stealing home. The only RBI hits of the night were solo homers.

Auburn had some really good pitchers, and they pitched well that weekend — and, to its credit, Florida touched up Casey Mize, the best of those pitchers, on Saturday. But this was not a great lineup, or one that could have reasonably carried Florida to a national title, at any point after JJ Schwarz got hurt and disrupted both the Gators’ rhythm and Kevin O’Sullivan’s lineup card, despite how much Jonathan India and others did to try to lift Florida at the dish.

2. Holy hell, was that walk-off homer great

Still, that team defended its national championship all the way to Omaha, and Austin Langworthy authored a truly unforgettable moment by swatting the walk-off homer to get them there.

And the best thing about that homer remains the guttural, visceral roar of the crowd, which is a) captured well by the broadcast and b) as loud as I’ve ever heard McKethan Stadium on TV. Maybe it’s a cool thing to play dramatic games until the wee hours and win them in dramatic fashion?

3. Florida’s softball team also struggled this year

The stat that anyone broadcasting a Florida softball game this spring yammered on about was the walks and hit batters. And that was fair: Florida drew a staggering program- and NCAA-record 360 walks in 2018, and was not far off from getting as many passes to first base via walks and hit batters (413) as it had hits (458) — and the Gators did draw more walks and HBPs than they had singles.

But Florida couldn’t get those runners in as often as it liked, and that — along with an ump blowing a call that sent the Gators from pole position to the pits in Oklahoma City, of course — would prove to be this team’s fatal flaw.

4. Holy hell, was that walk-off homer great

Yet, just like for Florida’s baseball team, the softball team’s season peaked at an unforgettable, legendary moment: Jordan Matthews cranking a homer off the scoreboard to send Florida to the Women’s College World Series. The roar at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, for the last homer hit out of it in that configuration, was equally visceral, if not quite as loud — hard to match the noise of a crowd twice your size — and is a wonderful moment those players and us fans will remember forever.

I think Florida might have had the nation’s best college softball team last year, even considering its inability to drive in runs with its surfeit of runners on, and I really wish the Gators could have gotten decent enough officiating to have run into Florida State in Oklahoma City, because I think Florida might have been able to go toe-to-toe with that red-hot Seminoles outfit that won (and well deserved) its first national title. But you have to get and stay hot in the grueling postseasons in most collegiate sports with tournament play that crowns a champion, and Florida didn’t do that this year.

All the Gators did instead was win the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles and get to the Women’s College World Series via a thunderbolt of a walk-off homer. And this was arguably a disappointing season to some fans.

That sort of thing — reaching the moon and wishing it were the stars — is why the “Everything School” mantle that I originated fits Florida better than any other athletics program that might try to claim it.

5. Actually, Florida’s great year was (kind of) disappointing

So Florida’s 2017-18 academic year featured one national title and like a dozen — I’m not counting them; this piece needs to go up today — conference titles and a claiming of the SEC All-Sports Trophy for the billionth straight year (do not fact check this) by a comfortable margin despite me distinctly remembering someone hand-wringing about that this spring and a third-place finish in the Directors’ Cup.

There is a good and persuasive case to be made, though, that this was a slightly disappointing year for Florida’s leviathan of an athletics department.

Florida’s volleyball team made the national final, but came up just short of its first national title. A good and very talented Florida soccer team — which, like that Florida volleyball team, knocked off a No. 1 team during the season — still didn’t make the deep postseason run that has eluded Becky Burleigh in recent years. Florida’s football season was a disaster on nearly every front. The cross-country program existed.

The super-talented men’s basketball team that had the potential to beat any team in the country also had the consistency issues that made it capable of losing to any team in the country — and suffered a humiliating home loss to Loyola of Chicago that only really looked better as the Greyhounds made their Final Four run. The women’s basketball team was a largely anonymous, mostly mediocre bunch that didn’t make a significant impression in a new coach’s first year. The gymnastics team was elite again, and a plausible national championship contender, but a critical injury to Kennedy Baker made a title a very, very long shot, and Florida arguably overachieved to do what it did in NCAA Championships competition.

The men’s tennis team continued a slow improvement under a coach who seems to have the program pointed upward; the women’s tennis team, stewarded by maybe the best coach on campus, had a wildly inconsistent season with tremendous highs and stunning lows for basically the first time ever under Roland Thornqvist, who did yeoman’s work with an extremely limited roster — and was coming off a national title, mind. #FLax won an NCAA Tournament match — yay! — but still probably underachieved in postseason play, and seems increasingly like it missed a window for national title contention by virtue of being so good early on that it chased then-dominant Northwestern out of its own damn conference and has had to play overmatched Big East competition since.

The talent-rich men’s golf and talented-but-improving women’s golf programs each had fine seasons, though J.C. Deacon’s guys kind of blew up in another postseason. The men’s and women’s swimming teams were fine, with the men getting another transcendent season out of Caeleb Dressel in his senior year, but Gregg Troy stepping down from collegiate coaching is a blow. I don’t need to belabor the point on baseball and/or softball.

And while Mike Holloway’s track teams got one national title out of 2017-18, it really should’ve been two — Florida’s men’s team had some bad misfires at the NCAA Outdoor Championships that cost it an indoor-outdoor natty sweep.

And, sure, I left out a lot of SEC championships and some awesome moments from some awesome players and teams — and, also, the awesome moments Florida’s terrible football team somehow managed to carve out of the hearts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. But I promise you that I’m also not exaggerating when I say that I firmly believed (and still believe) that Florida’s ceiling this year was something like five national titles, and maybe a Final Four or two to go with them.

And when your teams have won as many titles as Florida’s teams have? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, getting to base camp and not the mountaintop is slightly dissatisfying.

6. It’s weird that the Heave to Cleve wasn’t part of the Takeover

Neither Florida nor Tennessee fielded good football teams in 2017. Those teams still combined to play a thrilling, memorable game with an unforgettable ending, and Florida won the game.

So why wasn’t it part of this Takeover? I dunno. I think most fans would probably have preferred what football did get aired, given the choice, but it’s still odd that it wasn’t.

7. KeVaughn Allen is 3-for-3 on end-of-first-half shots threes against Kentucky

In 2016, Allen hit a — nigh impossible, Madison Square Miracle-mirroring — running three as time expired in the first half against Kentucky in Rupp Arena in a game Florida would go on to lose in lopsided.

This year, Allen hit a two with under 15 seconds left in the first half on Florida’s trip to Rupp, and then hit a devilishly difficult twisting three with seconds to go in the first half of Kentucky’s trip to the O’Dome. And this year, Allen’s Gators won both games.

Here’s hoping for more of that in future years.

8. Good lord, 2008 Florida was amazing

The 2008 Florida team capped a year in which it lost a single game by a single point — a game I promise I’ll be writing about at some point this fall — by holding an offense that was averaging a not-a-misprint 54 points per game to 14 points in a national championship game, and survived its all-everything quarterback making some really terrible throws in that game by riding an all-everything offensive Swiss Army Knife who was the best player on the field in a game with literal dozens of future NFL players despite being only 80 percent himself.

The nontroversy about ESPN’s ranking of the last 20 national champions in college football didn’t really register with me, maybe because I tend to lament disrespect from ESPN not with righteous spittle for arbitrary, subjective rankings but with sighs about basic fact errors. But Florida being second on that list, wedged between a team that won the all-timer game between undefeated titans of the modern and has thus been canonized for that and a team that destroyed opponents on the field and was stocked with seemingly half the NFL on its scout team, is a reminder that that team belongs among the greatest in college football history, regardless of its precise perch in any specific ranking exercise.

That was a pretty cool team to watch back then ...

9. Yeah, Aaron Hernandez makes that team hard to watch ...

... but, uh, it’s a bit harder now.

Fact: Aaron Hernandez was a reason that 2008 Florida team was awesome.

Fact: It is a tragedy that he went on to murder people after he played football at Florida — and, thanks to his suicide, it will be forever impossible to disentangle or know how much playing football, and playing it at Florida, contributed to his worst.

Fact: We can no sooner erase Hernandez from that team or that team from our memories than we can erase any other piece of history we’d like to forget. It happened. He was there. He was a part of that. Maybe he shouldn’t have been — maybe Hernandez taking a different path means Odin Lloyd is breathing air today — but he was.

Opinion: It’s possible and acceptable to celebrate that team — and even what Hernandez was to it — without glorifying or excusing Hernandez, and certainly possible to do that without playing the idiotic “Free Chico” game that so many of his teammates (and so many fans for whom multiple murders are apparently fodder only for jokes) unthinkingly did in recent years.

Fact: That’s what I’m going to try to do.

10. If Florida ever plays for a national championship in Florida again, I’m going if it is physically possible for me to do so

The weird thing about that 2008 title game broadcast — apart from it being in worse quality than the 1997 Sugar Bowl, because no one knew anything about how to broadcast things in high quality in the early days of HD television — is how goddamn loud the crowd is. You can hear it roaring like Florida’s in The Swamp on Oklahoma’s first drive, and it explodes when Major Wright sends Manny Johnson’s soul to Saturn. It goes nuts for Florida’s stops, too, and is into the game for its duration, even when things look dicey for the Gators.

I’m going to mostly credit that to Florida playing that game in Miami — really, “in Miami,” given that literal boondocks are jealous of how remote Joe Robbie Hard Rock Sun Like Whatever the Hell Stadium is from most anywhere else you’d want to go in South Florida — and Florida fans being able to drive to the game and/or easily afford to go, with an assist to the wave of success Florida was on in all sports making passionate Florida fandom a very cool thing to be a part of in January 2009. But mostly, I just wanted to revel in it.

And so this is a promise to myself: If a Florida team ever plays for a national title in our benighted phantom limb of a state again, I’m there so long as I can physically make it.

Hold me to this one — and hope with me that that day comes sooner than we expect.

11. 52-20 was, above all else, Steve Spurrier’s ultimate triumph

Only ‘90s kids will remember this: Steve Spurrier really never solved Bobby Bowden. Florida State almost always had the best defense that Florida faced in those years, and it was almost always well-coordinated by Mickey Andrews and occasionally ruthless — especially so in 1996, when it pulverized Danny Wuerffel basically by making sure it got in every possible borderline hit on him and helped disrupt Florida’s offense enough by doing so to claim a close win in the regular-season finale between the two teams.

FSU moved to No. 1 with the win. Florida stayed in the top five and positioned itself for a Sugar Bowl rematch by winning the SEC. The Sugar Bowl made the game. Fortuitous losses by other teams gave Florida a chance to win the national title with a convincing enough win over the nation’s No. 1 team in that game.

And Spurrier just put Wuerffel in the shotgun to nullify as much of FSU’s pass rush as possible, leading to Wuerffel picking apart a porous FSU secondary and the Gators thrashing their hated rivals with everything on the line.

Any takes about Florida only being able to beat FSU that night because it’s hard to beat a team twice in a year or because Warrick Dunn got hurt or blah blah blah? They’re revisionist history. Florida kicked the crap out of FSU in that game because Steve Spurrier outsmarted FSU’s coaches and Danny Wuerffel was a fantastic quarterback. Full stop.

12. “52 to 20” should’ve been a thing

If Florida fans and alumni had as much pull in the state capital as fans of the team that plays its games there think Florida fans and alumni actually do — and if I had been older than, uh, six in January 1997 — I would have advocated for finding a way to get the roads leading from Gainesville to Tallahassee renamed such that asking for directions to Tallahassee in Gainesville would have forevermore been answerable by saying “Take the 52 to 20.”

Alas.

13. Florida anti-deserved its win over Kentucky last year

You have already read nearly 2,700 words to this point, and this game wasn’t technically part of the Takeover, so I will do this in list form:

  • Florida’s opening kickoff went out of bounds.
  • Kentucky basically moved the ball at will between the 20s, and its first three TDs against Florida in that game were on perfect passes.
  • Florida’s first TD was a Kadarius Toney scamper behind a Mark Thompson block (!?!?).
  • Florida’s second TD required Kentucky completely forgetting about covering a player who had won a game on a last-second touchdown pass seven days prior and that player doing one of the great tip-toe acts I’ve ever seen to get in.
  • Luke Del Rio entered the game in the third quarter to relieve an ineffective Feleipe Franks, and his first two throws were 1) a fluttering 14-yard out off his back foot to Brandon Powell, who still had to make a diving grab and 2) a rocket throw directly at Kentucky’s free safety for the easiest pick of his natural life. Del Rio will somehow go on to win this game.
  • Florida’s third TD was the result of Florida somehow turning into a smashmouth football team and just running the ball down Kentucky’s throat ... while also making use of Powell, a high school running back, as a runner for essentially the first and only time in his Florida career.
  • Florida’s final TD required Kentucky completely forgetting about covering a wide receiver for the second time in the span of two hours, and doing so in the final minute of a game.
  • Kentucky still had a chance to win after that, thanks to a couple of great catches and an unfathomably stupid late hit that Mickey Andrews saw nothing wrong with pushed Kentucky into Florida territory, and only an equally stupid holding penalty for Kentucky saved Florida from a kick that really could have won the game — and that penalty came after a sack forced a field goal attempt that missed in the first half and a botched snap turned another potential touchdown drive to a field goal attempt.
  • Florida won this game by one point. One.
  • Florida still hasn’t lost to Kentucky in tackle football in my lifetime.