Billy Napier, get ready. (Photo credit: Matt Pendleton, AP)
For the past 253 days, the talk and feel about the Gator football program- even after Billy Napier took over- contained a pang of disappointment.
Oh, sure, there was optimism. Make no mistake, things have definitely been looking up for the past few months. There was hope. There were things that Billy Napier said and did that provided legitimate reasons to think positively about the program.
He’s changed the players’ parking, food, and living situations. Recruiting is looking up- Florida’s even off and running on its 2024 class. And he just brings an attitude that Gator beat reporter Zach Goodall said on our podcast was a “breath of fresh air.”
But nothing that Napier has said or done has changed the fact that the last time this Gator football program took the field, Florida suffered an embarrassing 29-17 loss to Central Florida, securing Florida’s third losing season in the past nine years.
Tomorrow, at last, comes an opportunity to change that.
And more specifically, tomorrow presents an opportunity for the above statement to change for the better.
The truth is, Florida fans may have been a bit spoiled by the early successes of Dan Mullen’s tenure. Florida won the Peach and then the Orange Bowl and finished ranked in the top 7 of both major polls to close his first two seasons, and then the Gators pummeled Georgia and won the East the following year. But after the initial successes of his first two years- even during the offseason following his second year, something didn’t feel right.
“It was like taking a huge jug of water on a trek through the desert with a small crack in the jug,” a multi-decade-long Gator booster in my family told me. “Like, sure, you look prepared. You look ready to deal with the elements. But if you just looked a little deeper, you’d see the fatal crack.” Or, to translate the metaphor into real life, you could see two: Mullen’s attitude and his recruiting.
And Napier, to put this simply, is strong in those two areas in which Mullen was lacking.
It’s quite possible that Billy Napier won’t match Mullen’s 21-5 record in his first two seasons, if not a downright likelihood. For one thing, the schedule is tougher. And for another, Napier isn’t interested in a quick fix. He’s said many times now that he’s in this for the long haul. A loss tomorrow means nothing in terms of what long-term expectations should be for Napier.
But the process of building for the long haul begins tomorrow.
A win over Utah would give the Gators a win over a top ten team in Napier’s maiden voyage in Gainesville. A bevy of recruits, including some committed to other schools, will be in attendance. Florida’s oft-criticized offensive line will finally have a chance to redeem itself after taking a beating in the second half of 2021, both from opponents and from fans online. And Anthony Richardson, easily the most talented QB Florida has had since Will Grier in 2015 and probably since Tim Tebow in 2009, can take a huge step toward proving that he is ready to step into that leadership role, and that it wasn’t simply a case of, “well, he’s the QB, so he’d better be a leader.”
The key thing to remember, of course, is that despite all those ways that tomorrow’s game could serve as a launching pad for Billy Napier and the Gators, it’s still a non-conference game. Next week’s game against Kentucky, in truth, means more. That’s an SEC game. That counts for the race to Atlanta. Utah doesn’t.
And yet- tomorrow is the game that will forever be remembered as the Billy Napier era opener. It is Florida’s first chance to finally get that nasty taste from the Gasparilla Bowl and 2021 in general out of its collective mouth.
And while Utah may be the favorite, you can bet that, unlike the last nine games the Gators played, this time, the team will be ready.