Imagine how it must feel to be a Utah Ute this Sunday morning.
The football team you have loved well and wholeheartedly for some number of years is clearly at or near a historical peak. After a couple of magical undefeated seasons a decade ago, with a cometary coach establishing an incredibly high bar and a planetary one confirming that it was reachable in the first guy’s wake, the Utes — who began the 21st century by playing just their second season as a Mountain West team — have acquitted themselves nicely as one of the Pac-12’s acquisitions, putting together three 10-win seasons and nothing worse than a 5-7 mark since bumping up to their toughest competitive environment.
And the last three games the Utes played may be the coolest sequence of three games in program history.
A Pac-12 title game that wasn’t even remotely a dream a couple of decades ago became an utter beatdown by the Utes, who destroyed Oregon for the second time in three weeks for their first major conference championship. A Rose Bowl in which Utah’s defense gave up something like billion yards to Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba was also one in which the Utes nearly matched the immensely talented Buckeyes, falling by just a 48-45 final score.
And then there was last night, possibly the coolest road trip the program has ever been on. Utah has been to the Pac-12’s venues, yeah, and also traveled to Michigan three times this century, but its road games in non-conference play have usually been more on the level of visits to North Carolina or TCU, and from what I can tell, this was just the Utes’ second game originating from the Eastern Time Zone in my lifetime, following a 2011 visit to Pittsburgh.
Seeing your team come into The Swamp at night for a much-hyped season opener? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that is higher on the Utah fan bucket list than watching the Utes invade what was Heinz Field as a 2-3 squad.
And for the full 60 minutes, Utah and Florida went toe-to-toe. The Gators’ early fumble put them on the back foot in the first half, but they came back out of their corner swinging, and took a lead after a well-played first half in which Utah had to do some holding on. Then the Utes had their chance to be superior on a swing-by-swing basis, with Florida needing to summon the reserve for a final go-ahead drive and very clearly wanting no part of Utah’s offense taking the turf with a chance to stage its own go-ahead drive.
But the Utes got that chance — and went on that drive, getting in position for a game-tying field goal but refusing to settle for just that. The Utes had displayed the cowardice and conservatism that every Florida fan will diagnose in opponents as Scared Money Syndrome for the length of Billy Napier’s tenure in the second quarter, eschewing a chance to convert on a fourth down and settling for a field goal, but they were not going to do the same in the fourth, throwing into the end zone in search of a win-stealing sixer.
Except: Florida swiped that chance to win and the chance to tie from the Utes when Amari Burney dove to snag Cameron Rising’s last pass of the night. And so Utah played a game that resembled a heavyweight fight in Gainesville about nine months after playing a similar game in Pasadena — and lost both.
I have to guess that a Utah fan who went to both hallowed venues will look back on these two trips as high points of her life as a fan — while also seeing them as bittersweet journeys, thanks to the narrow and vexing margins and methods of defeat.
Florida fans get to celebrate that game and the win — and the win was a cherry on top.
I realize there was and will be a lot of lying by Florida fans about our expectations for this team and program coming into this season, but on truth serum, I bet that most of us would have been satisfied with a good game in which Anthony Richardson gave us magic — and ammunition to keep being performatively mad about Dan Mullen — and The Swamp roared a few times. Richardson could have made some bad mistakes like the ones he made against LSU and Georgia last year, and we would have forgiven and memory-holed them like we did those; Florida could have looked more bad than good, and we would have written off the struggles as first-game and first-game-of-a-tenure bugs in the code to excise later.
Except: Richardson really didn’t make any mistakes that mattered, with his one awful pass thankfully not being intercepted, and Florida overcame the flaw that anyone with a brain predicted would be a flaw — a malleable interior of its front seven — and a flaw that nearly every college football team has — the lack of linebackers who are truly good in pass coverage — and won the damn game anyway.
I joked last week on Twitter that some Gators would be mad at Napier today even if Florida somehow won the game, and observed last night that getting to where Florida did on Richardson’s go-ahead score — up 29-26 on a leather-tough bunch with 1:25 to play — made everything else gravy for me, but not in the weird, appearing-with-the-mother-of-an-ephemeral-celebrity-for-notoriety-that-will-boost-my-novelty-rap-career way.
Is anyone mad at Napier today, or the least bit concerned about Florida’s long-term trajectory? Could last night have gone any better for Florida outside of our wildest dreams?
What happened in The Swamp on Saturday night arguably overshadowed all else in college football — and did so on a day when Georgia looked terrifying again in traumatizing Oregon and Ohio State fended off Notre Dame in the Irish’s first trip to Columbus since Florida first won a national title and there was a 40-point fourth quarter and Iowa maybe did the most Iowaing it has ever Iowaed in its existence.
Georgia fans might remember this day for the obscene stuff Georgia did in Atlanta, I guess, but if you ask slightly more neutral observers of the sport, my guess is that the standout sequence from this night will probably be what Richardson did on that amazing two-point conversion.
Still thinking about this Anthony Richardson play from last night— ESPN (@espn) September 4, 2022
And that’s the value proposition of Florida Gators football in 2022: You might, thanks to Richardson being a supremely athletic in a way that allows him to violate the logic of football and physics, see something you’ve never seen before, and those thrilling things just might engineer a Gators victory as a result.
There are Florida fans who will use that outline of this year as an indictment of a coach the program jettisoned a year ago, mostly because he seemingly could not just play Richardson and present this similar proposition. I get their position.
I think it is stupid and maybe intentionally immiserating, though — I really, really do not get choosing to live in the past when the present is so tantalizing, and I think the corollaries about Dameon Pierce needing more work or Feleipe Franks never deserving to start over Kyle Trask are all distractions from the idea that the fatal flaw of the Mullen era was substandard defense that would have rendered even the perfect sequence of decisions regarding Florida’s offense the equivalent of letting the rocket have its most picturesque liftoff ever only to burn up on re-entry via whatever the rocket equivalent of failing to defend a counter is.
And I would like to bring up a corollary of my own, the most important point I made on a night in 2021 when the Florida Gators men’s basketball program so often criticized under Mike White forced those critics to suck their teeth and bide their time with a stirring victory: If you can’t first and foremost enjoy the things you are supposed to enjoy as a fan, you are doing this wrong.
Yeah, there are obviously Things to Be Concerned About and Areas For Improvement that I can write or podcast or talk to a camera about after that game on Saturday night. Maybe it is abdicating my duty as a pundit or semi-professional opiner or quasi-beat writer to not include that Utah rushed for 5.9 yards per carry in my thoughts or observations or things we learned.
Florida played the single most significant season opener of my lifetime on Saturday night. Its amazing quarterback did amazing things. A rapturous crowd was enthralled. That crowd went home happy because a much-maligned player made the greatest play of his life and career — picking up the slack for a beloved teammate who committed to Florida before Donald Trump was elected President — to seal a victory that we will remember for decades.
Should, Tebow forbid, Richardson sustain a season-ending injury in practice this week — or even just elect to spend the rest of the year on the sidelines, avoiding the wear and tear of a college season that will probably only give NFL evaluators reason to nitpick his status as a potentially transformative professional quarterback — I swear that what we saw last night would be enough to keep me happy all fall.
I am not kidding. That game and that win was that good. I got what I needed from this season, and even if I’m probably more easily satisfied than many or or most Florida fans in that regard for a variety of reasons, I’m not going to pretend that a 1-11 year in which the 1 was that one would leave me weeping.
We saw how good it can be in seeing how good it was last night.
But, of course, we don’t have to believe it will never get better — because it might.
I don’t know where this ride goes from here. But it has already been worth the price of admission, and I am thrilled to have a ticket for the rest.