The Kentucky Wildcats beating the Florida Gators in football is such a big deal that fans stormed the field — that incurred a fine of about 20 years of in-state tuition at Kentucky, mind you — and then rioted in the streets, though we call the latter act “celebrating” when it’s done by people rejoicing in a sports team’s success and criminalize it when it’s done by people asking for rights and fairness.
It’s happened two times in my lifetime.
Since I enrolled at Florida in 2007, the Gators have lost to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt four times — combined.
To put that in some perspective, Alabama, which is arguably the greatest college football program ever and is currently on a dynastic run, lost to Sylvester Croom’s Mississippi State in both 2006 and 2007, has lost to Ole Miss while the Land Sharks — I’m just calling them the Land Sharks until further notice — were coached by both David Cutcliffe and Hugh Freeze, went 2-3 against Arkansas from 2002 to 2006 and later had both wins vacated.
Almost 20 years of uninterrupted dominance in any one annual series is nearly impossible for the best teams in college football. But when winning those games becomes less achievement and more fait accompli, fans react like the Florida fan base has to the Gators losing to Kentucky on Saturday.
No, Florida shouldn’t have lost that game. It outgained Kentucky dramatically because it moved the ball when it absolutely needed to and generally kept the Wildcats in check on defense, and those are two of maybe the five most important tasks in football. But Florida also turned an interception that yielded great field position into a touchdown for Kentucky thanks to a catastrophic failure on special teams, could not coax other big mistakes out of the Wildcats, and minimized some of its advantages and maximized the pain of its many penalties by deploying a game plan that was more conservative than aggressive.
This happens, at least from time to time, in every sport at every level. But the difference, when it happens in college football, is that any one loss can dash the dreams of a national championship-contending team — and while Florida only got to be one of those via a valiant loss to Alabama that reshaped perceptions about what was likely a rebuilding year,
And Florida giving up that status with a frustrating loss to what fans consider anything but a peer program — I mean, Kentucky? Really, Kentucky? — is obviously going to exacerbate any psychic wounds the loss of national title fantasies created.
Florida fans have, in large part, grown up and/or lived long parts of their lives with the idea that Kentucky is a doormat to be trod on; now, that is no longer the case, but the primacy bias that fans — myself included — hold means that we will annually underrate just how good Kentucky is, misjudge its strengths, and straight-up forget that Kentucky under Mark Stoops has treated its annual meeting with Florida like the Super Bowl.
Kentucky was ready for Florida, at least mentally. And a team that had made many, many mistakes leading into Saturday’s game kept those to a minimum — while a Florida team that had not made many mistakes outside of its quarterback’s interceptions committed more than a few errors that were not picks ... and had that QB throw a pick for good measure.
I have taught myself to concede a fair bit more respect to the opponent every time Florida loses a game I think it should have won to compensate for being wrong in the first place. If I had an outcome read wrong, it was probably partly because of my misjudgment of the team I am less familiar with than the one I am most familiar with, right?
And Kentucky is better — maybe much better — than I thought, especially on defense. After Florida’s first two drives netted 111 yards on 12 plays, the Gators ran 59 more plays and only gained 271 yards, their yards per play dropping from nearly 10 to barely better than four and a half. That would be an impressive bit of improved resistance even if Florida’s offense were not one of the nation’s best — which I still think it is, even if there are clear flaws with it.
Kentucky managing to not make mistakes also makes a huge difference in what I thought about it. A team that had fumbled 14 times through four games did not fumble once against Florida, and managed to also cut down on penalties that had been an issue for much of the year and were an issue early on in this game. (You can credit some of that to Mark Stoops laying into the referees if you want, but Kentucky was also pretty disciplined for the final three quarters of Saturday’s game, the major exception being a truly terrible facemask penalty late that gave Florida another set of downs with goal to go.)
When I compared where Kentucky is now to what Will Muschamp’s Florida teams were on Saturday, I meant it as a compliment. And while those Muschamp teams could make even big wins excruciating, they did win games as big as that one — several of them, in 2012 — in fashions very similar to how the Wildcats won on Saturday.
But because I am a Florida fan managing a Florida blog and communicating to Florida fans on a daily basis, I also know that most of that is close to meaningless to many, many fans who were so delighted by 1996 or 2008 or the eras surrounding those years that they think not only that the Gators of the gridiron ought to crush everyone and put up half a hundred while doing it but that they can do that almost every time out, context be damned.
And so a Florida football team that has to cut and chew its meat rather than wolfing down half a steak in one bite is uniquely painful. Anthony Richardson being incredible against FAU and USF gets interpreted as persuasive evidence that he is not just the unlimited future but also the best option at present. Florida’s much improved defense — which was fans’ mortal enemy last year, remember — has been largely overlooked.
In college football, especially at the highest levels, any weakness a team has can be fatal to the ultimate dream — one that only one team ever accomplishes in any season — because every loss can be interpreted as a dream-dasher. So weaknesses get magnified, and strengths get downplayed — and the college football fans who want very, very badly to brag about their teams making it to the mountaintop spend so much time catastrophizing about a crampon that is not at optimal sharpness that they fail to celebrate climbing the damn mountain in the first place.
Maybe I am just not one of those fans — not anymore, at least, and maybe not ever again. I do want Florida to win, but I have grown out of wanting Florida to win so badly that a loss itself ruins my day; now, it is, almost without fail, seeing the vitriol and venom for people trying to do a task well and achieve something worth being proud about that can and does ruin my day or weekend.
But Kentucky beating Florida before its fans for the first time in my life does not make me feel like my life is demonstrably worse, and if it makes Kentucky fans’ lives measurably better, then more power to them.
And if my job has become trying to communicate to Florida fans about how the Gators played while also communicating that I have found it better for me — to the point that I think it is worth recommending — to do more hat-tipping and less teeth-gnashing, then so be it.
Life goes on. Florida plays Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Florida lost to Kentucky and likely will not win the 2021 College Football Playoff. Get over it?