Billy Napier, you simply have to beat Tennessee tomorrow. (Photo credit: John Raoux, AP)
Part of the joys of coaching in the SEC, they say, is that every game is the biggest of your life. Winning (or losing) each game simply makes the next one bigger.
For Billy Napier, that truly is the case. The Florida-Tennessee game tomorrow is the biggest of his career.
Oh, I know. He’s not getting fired if he loses. And I’ll defend the fact that he should not be. In fact, let’s take a brief moment to dispel all the craziness right now. Billy Napier is not getting fired in 2023 unless Florida loses every game left on the schedule, and even then it’s a 50/50 proposition because of the $31.85M Florida would owe him.
I’m simply setting the stage for Napier’s road ahead. Because while it’s outright ridiculous to opine that he should be fired with a loss tomorrow, it puts him in a position where he’ll have to win more games than the oddsmakers think he’s capable of in the looming 1.75 seasons ahead to keep his job in 2025.
Florida, with a loss tomorrow, would sit at 1-2 on the year with three near-certain losses still remaining: the back-to-back defending national champion Georgia, a road trip to face an LSU team that, while perhaps still with some issues to work out, is extremely talented, and what’s sure to be a top-ten team in FSU visiting the Swamp on Thanksgiving weekend. Could Florida win any one of those games? Sure, it’s possible, but let’s agree that the Gators would be considerable underdogs if they faced them tomorrow. The most likely scenario is that Florida goes 0-3 against these rivals.
That, to put it mildly, would not be good. A second sweep at the hands of Florida’s four rivals would not only drop Napier to 0-8 in those games, but cap Florida’s ceiling at 7-5. And that’s before you realize that winning every other game is no sure thing, either.
Because there are three other road tests that remain. Florida has to go to Kentucky, to South Carolina, and to Missouri this year. Speaking logically, Florida can certainly beat any of those three teams- and they can certainly lose to them, too. The most likely scenarios in those three games are going 1-2 or 2-1. Even if we take the most generous approach here and assume Florida wins two out of those three, that- with a loss to Tennessee tomorrow- still puts Florida at 6-6 on the season, an underwhelming match of the record in Napier’s first year.
Going 6-6 would not get him fired, but it would place Napier in one hell of a position in 2024- one where he’d either have to import the next Hendon Hooker or Joe Burrow through the transfer portal, wring his offensive line into a Joe Moore-worthy unit, or watch a true freshman in DJ Lagway learn quickly and look like a Heisman candidate by week three. And look at that schedule. Florida fans will not have patience for year three of a rebuild, and though Florida boosters and brass did agree to structure Napier’s tenure for the long haul, going 6-6 in year one, 6-6 again in year two, and 7-5 in year three is just not something that the University of Florida tolerates. Even going 8-4 in year three might not be good enough to justify a fourth year.
Remember, Ron Rook and Will Muschamp were fired for better results. Zook never had a losing season, and Muschamp enjoyed a stray 11-2 season and a top ten final ranking. And that’s not to compare the situation Napier walked into to the situations Zook and Muschamp walked into, but that kind of stops mattering if your program takes a step back in Year 2 and it definitely stops mattering if you’re still not competing for a national championship by Year 3.
I don’t want to see any of this play out. I’m a huge fan of Billy Napier as an off-field CEO. He was my first choice to replace Dan Mullen, and I advocated for Napier because I signed myself up to play the long game. And with a monster recruiting class set to enter in 2024, I want to give that class a chance to perform on the field. I want to see staffers like Mark Hocke (strength coach) and Katie Turner (recruiting guru) see their visions through. I want to see Napier grow into the job and become the Gators’ coach of the future.
But as someone who tries my best to take off my fan glasses and look at things objectively, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I pretended that everything would be perfectly fine if Florida loses to Tennessee. Florida went 0-4 against its four biggest rivals last year- Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and FSU- for the first time in school history, and while losses to rivals don’t count in the standings any more than any other loss, they do ratchet up the feeling of uneasiness among fans. When fan buy-in to the program decreases and a point of apathy is reached, it becomes very, very difficult for a program to regain its edge. Just look at the damage to the excitement levels that Mike White inflicted on the Gator basketball fandom.
Moreover, going 0-5 against those rivals with a loss to Tennessee likely comes with a promise of going 0-8 by the end of the season, as Tennessee feels like Florida’s best chance to beat a rival. Joe Milton has accuracy issues as a passer, and is a far cry from what Hendon Hooker was a year ago. Though Josh Heupel runs a very nice offensive system, that offense looked suspicious in a 30-13 win over Austin Peay last week. Tennessee’s secondary has a lot of question marks, which Austin Peay just underlined in a sharpie by throwing for 260 yards against last week.
On the other hand? A win, and Florida’s season is back on track. There’s very clearly a ton of work for Florida to do, not the least of which is establishing consistency in the execution of the little things, but a win does put all the Gators’ annual goals back on the table. Dreams of Atlanta and the CFP remain very much alive if the Gators can pull off the upset (as of publication, Tennessee is a 6.5 point favorite).
So this it. Billy Napier, I’m a huge defender of yours, but you don’t have a choice. You simply have to beat Tennessee tomorrow.
Please, Billy. No shovel passes to Dante Zanders on fourth and four this time. No screen passes four yards behind the line of scrimmage to Caleb Douglas on fourth and fifteen. No burning timeouts on third and six because you don’t have the right personnel on the field. No lining up with eight guys on defense. No more overthinking situations and beating yourself.
Instead, let’s beat Tennessee.