The Florida Gators have some soul-searching to do after FSU became the latest team to expose their weaknesses. (Photo credit: Alicia Devine, Tallahassee Democrat)
As the Florida Gators trudged off the field, losers of the Sunshine Showdown against FSU for the first time since 2017, the Seminoles made sure to relish the moment.
The fans rushed the field as fireworks exploded over Doak Campbell Stadium. Seminoles coach Mike Norvell jubilantly pumped his fists in the air and ran around hugging every friend or relative that crossed his line of vision. Players celebrated with their fans and teammates.
Florida players, meanwhile, gave quick handshakes and hugs to the people on the other side that they had become friendly with through the years, and quickly retreated to the locker room. And as they did, a very particular feeling began to settle in: this was how the season was supposed to end.
Oh, of course Florida shoots higher than 6-6. Of course a loss to FSU is never acceptable. Of course a season that includes a loss to Vanderbilt is not going to be remembered fondly unless that is literally the only loss of the season (fine, maybe if Florida loses to Vanderbilt and the Gators finish 10-2, it could be pardoned). And of course a losing record in the SEC for the second straight year, when piled on top of all of those things, results in a season that can only be described as a failure.
And the Florida Gators aren’t supposed to fail. Not in football. Not in any sport.
But given how the first eleven games played out, a loss in game number twelve was a fitting end to a season that, yes, had some positives, and gave us some nice moments, but overall will be remembered as a very, very bad one.
All the issues that popped up throughout the course of the season reared their ugly heads once more in Tallahassee. Anthony Richardson’s Jekyll and Hyde routine as a passer? Check. His wide receivers not helping him out by either failing to get open or simply dropping passes when they were open? Check. The defense just being plain terrible in every sense imaginable? Check. Billy Napier making a bad situation worse with some questionable decisions? Check. Playing undisciplined and confused? Check.
And eventually- after Florida had surrendered 498 yards of offense, allowed Jordan Travis to escape what should have been certain sacks on four separate occasions, blew two timeouts in the second half because of undisciplined football, and Richardson’s desperation last-gasp heave fell incomplete, all those checks led to checkmate.
Anthony Richardson, by all objective accounts a sensational athlete but iffy at best as a pure thrower, misfired on eleven passes in a row. Some of that is on him for throwing bad passes. Some of that is on his wide receivers for dropping the ball. And some of that is on Billy Napier as the play-caller for thoughtlessly ordering so many pass plays when the Gators’ running game was working.
Billy Napier also blew two timeouts in situations in which he should not have had to.
The first came when Florida was confused and apparently only had ten men on the field for an FSU 4th and 2 at the Florida 32. I understand why he did so in this particular scenario; he was afraid that FSU would take advantage of a bust for an easy first down.
But here’s the counterargument to that- Florida’s defense is objectively terrible. Actually, no. Terrible doesn’t even come close to describing this defense’s jaw-dropping ineptitude. This Florida Gators defense finishes the 2022 regular season with the 102nd ranked defense in the country. That is easily the worst ranking of a Gator defense in my lifetime- it’s 19 spots worse than the paltry defense of 2020- and it wasn’t stopping the Seminoles’ offense when it had all eleven men lined up correctly.
So there’s a real argument to saying, “screw it, we’re probably not stopping them anyway and we’re going to need that timeout a lot more in the final minutes of the game” and just letting them play. There’s also an argument against that! But either way, that is a failure on the part of the Florida Gators that it came down to this even being a decision.
Of course, FSU converted anyway even after the timeout, although Florida’s defense did make a rare stop and forced a field goal.
The second timeout came because Florida couldn’t get lined up properly on offense on a third and twelve at FSU’s 25, and Napier had to call a timeout in disgust to avoid a delay of game. I understand why he did so; he wanted to prevent a third and twelve from becoming a third and seventeen.
But third and long is third and long, and Florida’s available receivers, other than Ricky Pearsall and Caleb Douglas, simply aren’t very good to begin with, meaning it’s a long shot to convert either way. In this case, it’s probably worth holding onto the timeout and just telling your team, “you put yourself into this hole, now you get yourself out of it” and calling plays like it’s four-down territory (which it already was going to be this deep in Seminole territory, and which Napier likes to do a lot to begin with) so that third and seventeen becomes fourth and five or six.
Sure, we want to get that first down, but a quick cost-benefit analysis of the situation should result in most people concluding that it’s not worth reducing your allotment of timeouts late in a close game from two to one (remember, Napier already burned one) to turn a 3rd and 17 into a 3rd and 12. The cost later on down the road, in the long run, does not increase your chances in the short run by enough to make that move an objectively beneficial one.
As it turned out, FSU actually gave Florida a free five yards when Jared Verse lined up offsides, Anthony Richardson ran for six yards to make it a fourth and one, Montrell Johnson converted that with a nine yard run, and the Gators would score after a long, wild, and crazy goal line sequence.
But those two wasted timeouts proved huge. Florida was left with one timeout on its last drive, and thus the Gator coaches and players knew that if they didn’t score, the game was over because one timeout was not enough to stop FSU from bleeding the clock out. So the Gators called that drive knowing it would be their last. Had Florida had all three timeouts, they would have called that final drive a little differently- and there would have been the “at least if we can force a quick three and out here, we’ll get one last shot” possibility still keeping hope afloat.
And thus, Florida lost, cementing the 2022 season as a failure.
FSU has had an up-and-down season, but it’s all been illustrated in one sine wave. The Seminoles started out 4-0, lost three in a row to Wake Forest, NC State, and Clemson- and realistically, should have won the first two of those three- and then rallied to win their final five games.
Florida, for its part, was like the old adage of a box of chocolates. They played great against Utah. They played poorly against Kentucky. They played an all-time appalling level of football the following week against South Florida and barely escaped with their lives. In fact, given the way the Bulls’ season ended- a 1-11 record, including a perfect 0-8 in the American Athletic Conference- had Florida lost that game to USF, it might just have a bone to pick with Georgia Southern in 2013 for the title of “Worst Loss In Program History.”
And that three-game stretch to begin the season was just a microcosm of the whole season. Good performances against Texas A&M and South Carolina joined mediocre performances against LSU and Tennessee, bad performances against Missouri and Georgia, and an outright disgraceful performance against Vanderbilt. When you throw all those wildly varying performances into a pot and mix them all up, the Utah, Texas A&M and South Carolina games do help, but they’re overpowered by subpar showings against the rest of the teams that Florida faced.
Florida’s subpar performances in those games were all due to the same culprits. It was always some combination of questionable decision-making, Anthony Richardson’s struggles as a passer, and one of the worst defenses in the history of Gator football. Think that last point is hyperbole? Find me the last time a Florida defense ranked outside the top 100 in the FBS and get back to me.
And new to the table in the last three games: special teams fell off a cliff in November. The unit typically listed third in the hierarchy of “offense, defense, and special teams” cost Florida three points against Texas A&M when Adam Mihalek missed a chip-shot field goal, cost Florida a net of twelve points against South Carolina and cost Florida the entire game against Vanderbilt.
Florida didn’t lose to FSU because of anything we didn’t already know was going to happen. The play-calling has been debatable at best and downright detrimental at worst throughout the year. The defense was a human sieve, and what little mesh did exist between all the gaping holes was held together by Ventrell Miller, sometimes Jadarius Perkins, Jaydon Hill and Jason Marshall, and a bunch of freshmen. And Richardson displayed both the best and the worst of what he could bring to the table as a passer pretty regularly.
None of this is to say that a subpar year wasn’t expected, or that this season is any indication of what’s to come in future years. We knew 2022 was going to be a rough ride. Billy Napier told us as much this offseason. FSU simply did what we knew a lot of teams were going to do.
The task falls on Napier and the rest of this Florida Gators program to go to work, learn from its failures, make necessary adjustments, and bring this program back to where it’s supposed to be- the way I have always maintained that I believe he can.
It’s just that now, after a season that was even worse than we expected, it’s going to be even harder for him to do so than we thought it would.