When the final whistle of the 2019 Orange Bowl blew, hopes for Florida Gators football was at perhaps the highest they had been since Urban Meyer’s peak 10 years ago.
In his second season, former Meyer offensive coordinator Dan Mullen had led the Gators to back to back ten-win seasons, capping each year with a New Year’s Six bowl win each year. And with an experienced and efficient quarterback and plenty of talent on both sides of the ball returning, 2020 was supposed to be the year the Gators returned to their height, returning to the SEC title game and making their debut in the College Football Playoff.
Then a pandemic hit and everything was uncertain. Could there even be a season? The answer, as it turned out, was yes. (Whether it should have been yes is still another discussion.) Nevertheless, Florida’s championship aspirations were born anew, and in an altered season, the Gators had as good an opportunity as anybody.
And through two weeks, hopes stayed high. The offense did its thing, looking every part a championship unit. Kyle Trask played at a Heisman-caliber level, Kyle Pitts was an uncoverable nightmare, and things were humming. The defense had issues, but looked as if it could figure things out as the season chugged along.
Then everything came to a grinding halt — again. Twice, really.
A trip to College Station to play a reeling Aggies posed the biggest challenge of the young season, but there was no reason to believe the Gators couldn’t handle Jimbo Fisher’s side. Through the first two and a half quarters, things were looking very good for Florida. A 28-17 lead in the third quarter behind an offense yet to be stopped had Mullen’s team in a great position to go 3-0, but things unraveled quickly. The shaky defense was exploited, and Texas A&M couldn’t be contained. The Aggies ran the ball right down the throat of the defense with no resistance while quarterback Kellen Mond played arguably the best game of his career. For the first time, Trask and the offense couldn’t overcome the defensive shortcomings, and a late turnover sealed the Gators’ fate.
But a challenging week for the Florida program was just beginning.
Following the crushing defeat (and some yikes-worthy comments from Mullen about “packing The Swamp”), things unraveled quickly. On Tuesday, all football activities were suspended indefinitely following the positive tests of 19 players, putting the weekend’s game against rivals LSU and the rest of the season in question. Following more positive tests and contact-tracing quarantines, the game was pushed to December, and the following week’s game against Missouri was also pushed back to Halloween.
With over 20 players and several coaches, including Mullen, testing positive, the future of the season is in trouble. While it’s possible that the breakout will be quelled, it’s a harsh reminder of how fragile this season is. One mistake or one breakout could put the entire season and the well-being of many young men at stake. From what I can tell, the program has been running a pretty tight ship in terms of COVID protocol, something that makes this breakout that much more frightening. There’s no way of knowing when the season could be taken away — and no certainty that we can get it back.
It will take a lot of work from a lot of people to get back on the field, and a good bit of luck. The only other big football program with a similar breakout this season was Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had to postpone their game against Wake Forest and missed several days of practice following a large breakout, putting their season in jeopardy. Luckily, a concentrated effort from the team and their medical professionals was able to stop the breakout and get the Irish back on the field. It’s also worth noting that they were lucky to avoid any serious cases of COVID amongst their players and hopefully no serious long-term effects are in play.
This is the model for the Gators, and I have faith they can pull it off. And what we should be doing right now is hoping everyone infected stays safe and avoids the worst of this virus.
If Florida is fortunate enough to get back to football, though, everything is still for the taking.
The last week has drained almost all of the positivity from the program and fan base, and you’d be forgiven for feeling as if all the hope and championship dreams have been squashed. But that’s not the case — and, hell, Florida’s road on the field looks slightly easier after last weekend than it did going into it.
While Florida was battling COVID, their biggest roadblock, Georgia, took a beating from Alabama — an absolute juggernaut of a team, and one Florida avoids playing this regular season — putting the two East squads on equal footing when it comes to the division title. The Gators control their own destiny in the Southeastern Conference right now — and while they would have been in great shape even if they were handing Georgia its only SEC loss, the Bulldogs taking another L ensures that Florida wins the East if it wins out without a tiebreaker coming into play.
And looking at what potentially lies ahead of this team, there’s nothing all that intimidating outside of the blockbuster matchup with Georgia that looms large in early November. The rest of the SEC East has not looked particularly daunting thus far, with Tennessee imploding in fantastic fashion, Vanderbilt being Vanderbilt, and Missouri — which edged LSU but was crushed underfoot by both Alabama and Tennessee — looking average at best. Kentucky might be the only East team outperforming preseason expectations or fielding a defense that has stayed largely flame-retardant, but the Wildcats did fall to Auburn and Ole Miss.
Even Georgia looks remarkably vulnerable by recent standards, with its ballyhooed defense struggling to contain mighty Alabama and a scoreless second half revealing and reinforcing concerns about its offense exposing just how average they are. Amazingly, one of Florida’s hardest matchups down the stretch might actually be a duel with former quarterback Feleipe Franks and a rejuvenated Arkansas team.
But it doesn’t matter who you play as much as it matters how you play. And right now, it’s hard to say how the Gators will play the rest of this season.
If Florida were merely spending an extra week off, it’d be easy to assume that things will be as they were: The offense will stay great with no apparent signs of slowing down, Trask will be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Pitts and Kadarius Toney will remain elite playmakers, and the offensive line is fairly solid; while improvements need to be made, especially in the run game, they shouldn’t require overhauls, but more obvious fixes. (For example: If this team wants to compete for a title, it likely needs to do a better job in the fourth quarter and with a running game intended to bleed the clock.)
Likewise, I wouldn’t have to tell you this defense is bad. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. The secondary can’t cover anybody, the defensive line is a complete non-presence, and the linebackers underperform. Everything is bad. But we still feel that maybe something can be salvaged — that even if this year’s defense will not be good, maybe there’s a chance to at least be functional. There’s opportunity for this unit to get better, but it has to happen now.
The problem with assuming anything, though, is that this unprecedented and unpredictable college football season that has been a whirlwind for the Florida faithful is going to continue to be. The past week has shown how hard staying COVID-free and unacffects quest is going to be. An all-SEC schedule, no matter how good or bad an opponent is on paper, is an incredibly grueling task that will challenge even the best teams every week. Florida will now have to play games three weeks apart that are equally important to its season, and then play six more games in six weeks.
The good news is that, through four weeks, we’ve seen how bad this 2020 season can get — and that it’s not over. If the Gators can get through this breakout, get healthy, and get back on the field, everything they’ve worked for is still theirs for the taking.