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Weekly Recon: Could the 2018 bowl season have gone any better for Florida?

A rout of their own was only the best part of the bowl slate for the Gators.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Florida vs Michigan Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators skunked the Michigan Wolverines in last Saturday’s Peach Bowl, stamping their 2018 season as a fully successful one by making their first appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl a dominant performance.

And that was just the best part of a 2018 bowl season that delivered nearly endless joys to Florida fans.

Consider what happened to the Gators’ rivals and opponents.

Florida State, thanks to Florida’s other recent beatdown of a 2016 Orange Bowl participant, did not make a bowl for the first time since 1981, when Florida beat FSU by a 35-3 count to end a four-game winning streak for the Seminoles in the rivalry. (Things go hilariously poorly for FSU when Florida restores order in the series, it seems.)

This snapped what was either college football’s longest bowl streak ever, if you believe your eyes, or a bowl streak that survived based on a) the NCAA only learning after the fact that FSU players were cheating in a music class and should have been ineligible for not just a Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky but the previous year’s Emerald Bowl and b) FSU hastily rescheduling a cupcake game to preserve bowl eligibility a year ago.

And the lack of a bowl game freed up Florida State fans to finally pay attention to the troubling abuse of power that is epidemic in college football and protest the school hiring Kendal Briles — the son of disgraced former Baylor head coach Art Briles, and a human being who would like you to take him at face value on having both served as his father’s offensive coordinator at the time and yet not learned about his father’s failures to properly respond to a slew of instances of sexual violence by Baylor players until after the fact — as offensive coordinator.

My hat is off to those fans who actually did that, even if they comprise only a minority of the FSU fan base. Still happy your team didn’t play in a bowl game, though!

But had the worst FSU team I have ever seen played in a bowl game, it’s hard to see how it could possibly have gone better for the Seminoles than for most of Florida’s foes — except, of course, in the sense that it could scarcely have gone worse.

Miami? The Hurricanes got plastered by Wisconsin in a bowl game for the second straight season, and so definitively that it touched off a saga that began with athletic director Blake James issuing the always-worrisome vote of confidence via Notes app and is ongoing now, with former coach Mark Richt retiring rather than choosing to shake up his staff and former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz returning to The U after accepting the head coaching job at Temple.

There is reason to believe that Diaz could ultimately be better at Miami than Richt was, especially given how the ‘Canes cratered on offense over the last two years. But Miami has gone from having one of the nation’s most experienced and esteemed head coaches running the show to having a first-time head coach in a matter of weeks — and Florida is the first team that gets to take advantage of that in 2019.

How about Georgia, which narrowly missed the College Football Playoff? The Bulldogs were apparently so miffed about that that they tweeted up a storm last Saturday while watching Notre Dame and Oklahoma get largely outclassed in the Playoff semifinals, then took out their anger ... by falling behind Texas 28-7 in Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl before rallying to make the final score of 28-21 look more respectable.

Those who paid slightly more attention to that game will likely take their understanding of how superior Texas was over its course into the offseason, and possibly remember that Georgia has come up short on a multitude of big stages under multiple coaches over the nearly four full decades since its last national title when constructing narratives around Georgia in the future. At a minimum, those who considered Georgia one of the nation’s best teams this season — myself included — will have to factor in this flop when considering these Bulldogs and those coached by Kirby Smart going forward.

The rest of the SEC East? It mostly clarified Florida’s season with its bowl results.

Kentucky impressed again by throttling Penn State, suggesting that Florida’s decades-long streak getting snapped by this Kentucky team was really not that surprising after all. Vanderbilt scoring at will, albeit in a loss, with Ke’Shawn Vaughn looking like a superstar helps make Florida getting a scare from the Commodores more understandable. South Carolina got blanked by Virginia, reinforcing the idea that the Gamecocks have never really recovered from Florida’s furious comeback against them. Tennessee did not make a bowl, which is hilarious.

The only SEC East bowl result that sort of hurts the perception of Florida is Missouri losing a shootout to Oklahoma State. The Cowboys could not stop the Tigers, allowing 637 yards, but also had little trouble scoring on them — something that Florida cannot claim, as the Gators sputtered against the Tigers one week after falling to Georgia. Increasingly, that looks like Florida’s true outlier performance this year, and a case of the Gators essentially losing to Georgia twice.

But Florida is only really behind Georgia in the SEC East pecking order going forward — sorry, Kentucky, but you know what your team is losing — and no SEC East team looked better in its bowl than the Gators did.

And then there was UCF.

Arguably, Florida’s fan base had to deal with the most buzzing from the colony of gnats that UCF’s fan base has become. Not only do most Gators know Knights and vice versa, the two programs’ paths and statuses were constantly compared over the last two years, as UCF rose and rose and Florida faceplanted and skyrocketed.

UCF fans did not lose their former coach to Florida — and could have spent the offseason bragging that the turned Florida down, if they were not so enchanted with their self-proclaimed national championship — and rooted for an unequivocally better team in 2017, yet spent several stretches of 2018 measuring themselves against the Sunshine State’s flagship. UCF fans threatened to “take over” a College GameDay crowd at the Florida-Georgia game, then cried foul when Florida fans made obviously satirical threats on Twitter. UCF fans invented a conspiracy that Florida “ducked” the Knights by lobbying to play Michigan in the Peach Bowl — something a great many Florida fans, and perhaps the majority of Gator Nation, would have preferred to seeing Michigan for the third time in four years — instead of meeting their in-state rival, and refused to back down even when Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin refuted the theory.

And then UCF fans, who had days earlier asserted that Florida was ducking UCF, got miffed at Florida offering to play the Knights in a 2-for-1 series like the one that Florida will play with USF early next decade. Taking their leads from brash athletic director Danny White — who is definitely not going to leave UCF as soon as possible for the next big chair he can sit in, nope, no way — those fans asserted to guffaws that UCF is a) a program well removed from its natural rival and conference mate and/or b) a program too good to play 2-for-1s with any other program and/or c) a better program than Florida.

This has been annoying, and it has persisted for months in one form or another. The consensus among college football fans is that UCF fans have largely turned the rest of the nation into people rooting against their excellent and plucky underdog story by overplaying their hand. I think Florida fans have been more familiar with UCF fans pretending that a straight was a royal flush than fans of any other major program, save maybe USF fans — who have mostly had to sigh over the last two years, given that UCF is at least a half-step ahead of USF’s low pair at the moment.

And so it was admittedly fun to see UCF come up empty after the flop against LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, with the Tigers rolling up over twice as many yards as the Knights and rallying from an early 14-3 deficit for a 40-32 win that was a bit more lopsided than the score would suggest. A year after beating Auburn soundly and providing a single data point allowing idiots to suggest that UCF could possibly scythe through the SEC like it has the far less forbidding AAC, we now have an equally compelling data point that suggests that, no, actually, UCF might lose games in SEC play just like every other SEC team that is not the Nick Saban-led Alabama juggernaut ultimately does.

That loss will not silence UCF fans, especially because it came without McKenzie Milton at quarterback. And, to be fair, Milton’s serious injury was an admittedly significant loss that rendered the Knights less potent down the stretch this year. But losing one player and falling off is something that even great teams do, while great programs generally do not, and so UCF fans prone to be sobered by a first loss in two years might learn someth ... oh, who am I kidding?

Alabama or Clemson will win a national title on Monday, and those programs still compete with (and often beat) Florida for top recruits, which means this bowl season will not ultimately produce the best ending possible for the Gators. (Given this year’s Playoff field, that probably would have been Notre Dame winning it all — and, really, who wants that?)

But the way the entirety of bowl season worked out should please most Florida fans considerably. And the trajectory of Dan Mullen’s program is strong enough at the moment to hope that the Gators might well be capable of authoring their own best possible ending in a nearer future than previously thought possible.