I reckon I nailed this intro to last week’s Weekly Open Thread:
The Florida Gators will end this week with a 4-4 record — or a win over the No. 1 and consensus best team in college football.
There is, barring the surprising reintroduction of ties into the sport or something unfathomable that cancels Saturday’s game, no third outcome other than those two. One of those two things is going to happen.
Kind of makes the stakes striking, doesn’t it?
While I’m more optimistic than most about Florida’s chances of coming out fired up and ready to shock the world this weekend, I also realize that the Gators are not likely to win this game, and that owning a .500 record while one of their ancient rivals continues steaming toward a long-awaited national championship would surely discomfit Gator Nation.
Florida did come out fired up and ready to shock the world — but an all-time instant avalanche wasted a spirited first half, and so fans are going to remember the mistakes and the pain a lot better than the fight.
I think that’s probably true about this year, too. This Florida team, as I wrote Saturday evening, is “a team that does many things well — but nothing better, unfortunately, than make errors that become devastating to its chances of winning football games.”
And I totally get focusing on the mistakes: Florida’s made huge ones that have cost it all of its losses. Take away Emory Jones’s only pick in the Alabama game or the collision in coverage on one of the Crimson Tide touchdowns, and how does that game end?
Florida gave up a touchdown on a field goal try against Kentucky, a massive swing in expected points that reoriented that entire contest, and all of the false starts were individual mistakes sure to stick in craws. Jones threw a pick-six against LSU, one of Florida’s four turnovers on a day the Tigers had zero.
And on Saturday, Florida finally managed to cluster its giveaways into one ruinous span — with the Gators forcing a turnover helping to set up that charitable spree — while also suffering through a total meltdown from its field goal unit.
There are ways to make even more mistakes in football games, and I’ve seen Florida make them over the years. But I’m not sure I remember a year in which the mistakes have been this destructive while Florida has otherwise been really productive.
Florida has outgained all four of the teams it has lost to — and while Saturday’s one-yard edge over Georgia enables the truth of that stat while undermining the spirit of it, the Gators outgained Alabama by more than 100 yards, Kentucky by more than 150, and an LSU team that had a record day in some regards by more than 30. Those — especially the two bigger margins — are advantages earned over multiple drives, and it takes some doing to squander such advantages and lose football games, which is why Dan Mullen being miffed about losing while outgaining Kentucky substantially being described as having his offense stopped rather than having his offense fail to convert yards to points or pointing out that his team plays football pretty damn well on the plays when it is not pointing a howitzer at its lower extremities is technically correct even if it’s deeply unsatisfying to fans.
Florida is 4-4, which is a world away from competing for a national championship or even the SEC East — but it is also not so far from being 8-0 that it is preposterous to think it could have gotten there with a handful of breaks going the other way.
One can point to single plays — a missed point-after and/or a nulled two-point conversion, the field goal turned touchdown return, and a pick-six — that were the difference in those first three losses.
The loss to Georgia was the first one of Florida’s season by more than a possession — but if Rashad Torrence had stayed in the end zone on his first pick, allowing Florida to breathe a little easier and make a long drive before halftime, does that avert a 21-point landslide that all but zeroed out Florida’s chances of winning? And in a game that goes to halftime with the Gators in no worse a position than down 3-0, what are the butterfly effects? Does Florida play for field goals more aggressively? Does Stetson Bennett press and heave up more bad balls? Could Emory Jones have taken over for an ineffective Anthony Richardson for a drive and averted the contact that sidelined Richardson with an injury?
Some hear wonderings like these and call them the last refuge of losers and the delusional — and to an extent, those folks are right, because any and all counterfactual thinking is theoretical. But just as explanations are not excuses, thought experiments are not rewriting history; asking what could have been does not preclude engaging with what does.
So: Florida is 4-4. It’s played a lot more like a team that should have six or seven or even eight wins than one that should have four. Figuring out how to reconcile those two facts — or handle how the next several games introduce new ones to the equation — is going to guide our thinking about this team.