(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
Oh, how things can change.
After a measuring stick test against Georgia proved how far the Florida Gators have to go, they’ve won two games in a row and have things looking a lot better under head coach Billy Napier than they looked 365 days ago- and even two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago, Florida blasted Texas A&M in College Station, notching a 41-24 triumph against Jimbo Fisher. Before this game, Fisher held an 8-1 head-to-head advantage over the Gators (with seven of those wins being at FSU). So, obviously, it feels good to defeat a rival coach who owned your program for many years- even at a different school.
And last week elicited another on feel-good moment. On Senior Day in the Swamp, Florida trounced South Carolina 38-6 in front of an audience that included well over 89,000 guests- several highly rated recruits among them. The beatdown served as payback against both Spencer Rattler from his days at Oklahoma, and the Gamecock program on the whole after they stomped on Florida a year ago in Columbia.
The two straight wins served multiple purposes.
These weren’t just quality SEC victories sprinkled in with spurts of domination and player improvement, they were feel-good wins that can help jump-start the confidence and trajectory of a program. After the Florida Gators started 1-4 in the SEC, these two games were expected by many to be losses. The players and coaching staff could’ve mailed in the season and solely focused all in on next year- and to a degree, the latter is important- but that’s not how they did it.
Billy Napier and the coaching staff did make some changes that addressed the future. Edge rusher Brenton Cox was released from the team on Halloween morning. Additionally, a couple of Gator pass-catchers in TE Nick Elksinis and WR Trent Whittemore (who hasn’t had a catch since Oct 2nd) opted to transfer. And perhaps saddest of all for most fans, linebacker Diwun Black was just dismissed from the team on Wednesday.
Of course these aren’t impulsive choices made by coach Napier, these are decisions that sting right in the moment but end up bettering and thinning out a program with a lot of weeds. Napier is just simply pulling the weeds with care, enough so they still have their roots to grow under.
And the ability to pull weeds selectively is an impressive trait considering all the hoopla that comes with the job. The fact that the Florida Gators, under a first-year coach, can clean out a mess left by the previous coach and acquire two quality wins at the same time shows tremendous promise. It’s very rare for a new coach to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and it really makes me think; what will our record be if we had zero waste to clean out?
Furthermore, Napier is walking, chewing gum, AND talking on the phone at the same time (with your friendly neighborhood recruit, I might add). Which, being completely honest, this is something I can’t think of too many coaches doing in year one.
The first couple of months may have been frustrating, heartbreaking, and overall disappointing. But for as frustrating as those first two months were, to see a team and coaching staff trend upward during the final month of the season is made that much sweeter. This carries tons of momentum into the signing days in December and February, which of course in turn add more excitement onto the buildup for next season.
But this season being mostly over doesn’t mean it’s over. There are still two games left, including the biggest one of all (well… maybe the co-biggest along with Georgia). And while momentum takes a lot of strength and effort to gain, it does not take much to lose. So when the Florida Gators enter Doak Campbell Stadium on Black Friday to face the Florida State Seminoles, they need to realize how big this game is for the season to feel like something more was accomplished. A win could, at least to a certain extent, salvage the season.
Obviously Florida has bigger aspirations than an 8-4 season. We know that. But to me, 8-4 sounds a lot better than 7-5, especially having a win against a rival under our belt. This season would not feel like a success with another loss to a cutthroat rival like the Seminoles furthering the losses to include Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, and Kentucky.
At the same time, it’s also imperative the Gators don’t overlook Vanderbilt in the cold weather of Nashville.
The last time Florida faced Vanderbilt under a first year coach in Nashville was in 2018 and the Gators started off down 21-3. It very much looked like Vandy would pull off the upset. Thankfully Florida made the comeback and ended up winning 37-27, but this performance shows how you can’t take an SEC road game for granted.
So here we go. This is the home stretch. This is the time of the year where every game is cherished but also sweated out. November should at least be decent for the Gators, but it can be great with two more wins to make this a “November to remember.” How many fanbases can the Gators silence this month? More importantly, how many times between now and spring practice can Florida look like a prototype of what we all envision will be a team that competes for championships again? Let’s make it three, ensuring Florida as state champions, and finishes the year at 9-4.
As far as predictions go? For Vanderbilt, I trust Napier and the fact that this game won’t be ugly like 2018, or even worse, like 2016; give me the Gators 34-20.
As with Florida State, a team we have handled since 2018, this game will be a lot more physical and intimidating for Florida. This really depends on what Gator team shows up. Anthony Richardson has gone four games without a turnover, the Gators running game has vastly evolved with long and physical rushes, and the defense has stood its ground the last six quarters. I don’t see the Gators backing down; Florida wins in a sloppy but nailbiting game at Tallahassee, 31-30.
The time for talking is now done. The Florida Gators play their next two games in the next six days. And one way or another, how this team chooses to be remembered will be decided soon enough.