The 2021 edition of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party did not go very well for the Florida Gators. In fact, it further illuminated the long-term questions about the Gators’ program.
What stood out along the way?
1: This game belongs in Jacksonville. Forever.
There was a time way back when, where I naively believed that this game should be played on a home and home basis. The idea was to give Florida an extra home game every two years so that the Gators could play their old rival Miami Hurricanes again on a yearly basis– and I still do want to play Miami every year, because that game used to be what Florida-FSU is now. Rivalries are best settled on the field by players, not in bars or on social media by fans. And the economics of having that extra home game every other year would have paved some financial room for the Florida-Miami game to happen.
But then I went to my first ever Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville this past weekend, and realized how… for lack of a better word… dumb I was for daring to insinuate that the game should ever be moved out of the River City. The pageantry was something that I’d never seen before. The tailgates on the banks of the St. John’s River, the boats in that river with all those waving Florida and Georgia flags, and just the sight of an entire city shutting down to honor these two teams and how they grace that city with their presence for their annual meeting… oh my. And mind you, this incredible experience was all on a day that Florida was responsible for one of the most miserable outcomes in the rivalry’s post-World War II series history (but more on that later).
I’m fine with handing this game off to Atlanta for a year every now and then if a hurricane floods the streets of Jacksonville in late October and renders a significant portion of the city uninhabitable, or if the Jaguars’ home stadium needs renovations like it did in the 1990’s. But Jacksonville is where this game has been played since 1933 (with the exception of those two years in the 1990’s), and Jacksonville is where it should stay for all eternity.
2: Florida played well for most of the game…
Yes, believe it or not, there were positives from a game that Florida lost by four touchdowns. And quite a few of them, at that. For nearly the whole first half and much of the second half, the Gators actually played Georgia fairly evenly.
Anthony Richardson moved the ball efficiently. He couldn’t lead a scoring drive, but at least the Gator offense was somewhat functional against the best defense in the country. The offensive line, particularly Josh Braun, held their ground and gave Georgia fits in the trenches. Against an elite secondary, Florida’s route running wasn’t spectacular, but was at least respectable. The defense gave up some yards, but stiffened in the red zone and forced several field goal attempts. And when Stetson Bennett IV inevitably made mistakes, Florida was there to capitalize, most notably in the form of a pair of Rashad Torrence II interceptions.
For all the rumors that the players had shut it down during the week, that they were about to quit, and that Florida was about to roll over and die for Georgia, that didn’t happen. If you remove the scorebug at the bottom of the CBS telecast and just watched the raw tape, you would not see as lopsided of a disparity between the teams as the final score indicated. So for all the premonitions flowing through the Florida fan base right now about how bad this final month of the year might be, the game tape did at least provide some good things to build on.
3: …but it all unraveled in an awe-inspiringly terrible two-minute span.
For every word I just typed out in takeaway #2, I’m not here to play the moral victory card or pump sunshine. The Florida Gators lost 34-7. That wasn’t a mistake. Yes, the Gators did some good things, but they lost 34-7. Not because Georgia is necessarily 27 points better than Florida- but because the Gators got careless, and let it all get away from them in one of the most shockingly inept two-minute stretches of ball that a Florida football team has been responsible for in recent memory.
You can’t fault Torrence II for falling down at the one yard line with three minutes left in the first half after picking off the duck that Bennett IV threw, because he didn’t know whether or not the referee would grant him a touchback after his interception. And while you’re running with the ball in a live play, you can’t exactly stop and ask him. But from that point on, anything and everything that Florida could have possibly done wrong, they did wrong.
Anthony Richardson fumbling at the end of a tough run? Check. Georgia recovering that fumble? Check. Florida’s defense finally breaking and allowing James Cook to slice through for an easy 11 yard touchdown? Check. A false start on tackle Michael Tarquin to start the next drive behind the chains? Check. Richardson throwing a ball to a teammate (Kemore Gamble) that wasn’t open, resulting in Travon Walker deflecting the ball high in the air for a Nolan Smith interception? Check. Torrence II getting fried on a 36 yard touchdown bomb to Kearis Jackson? Check. Richardson throwing a pick six to Nakobe Dean for a finale? Checkmate.
The hope is that Richardson will learn from his three turnovers, and become better because of them. Number one, when four or five guys show more interest in ripping the ball out than tackling you, realize that you’re at a numbers disadvantage and just go down. Number two, you have to see that Gamble is running a crossing pattern right into where Walker is lurking, so you go on to your next progression. And number three, whatever you do, do NOT stare down a running back who’s just sitting there and not moving after running a quick dig route- and then throw it there.
The line of logic that some are using to justify roasting the coaching staff on social media is that if Dan Mullen had only been using Richardson all along, he could have taken those lumps, grown through those growing pains, and learned through prior experiences- experiences that weren’t against the best team in the country- not to do those things. Of course, he still might have made those mistakes anyway, as Georgia boasts a better defense than any Florida has faced all year.
Suffice to say that the QB debate in Gainesville is far from over. The shame of it was, to reiterate takeaway #2, that Florida really played well on both sides of the ball for most of the game. It just goes to show that football games are a full 60 minutes, that every play counts, and that you can’t say, “well, just throw those two minutes out and X-Y-Z happens.” Nope. Florida lost 34-7 because those plays still happened.
4: The kicking game is as big a problem as ever.
You can’t really blame the kicker for a loss because he missed field goals in a game that ended 34-7. Sure, maybe the game has a different feel if it’s 3-3 with three minutes to go in the first half, and maybe if Georgia just gets that first turnover and scores- Florida would have had to run the same play to get the ball out of their end zone regardless of what the score was- it’s only 10-3, and Florida would have just taken that score to the locker room, not put Richardson in a position to make mistakes against a tenacious defense and kept it at that. Two more field goals, though, only makes Florida’s output 13 points for the day- and as we saw against Kentucky, that isn’t likely to win you games. And the first miss from Jace Christmann- from 51 yards out- was understandable, because there’s a degree of difficulty to that that a lot of college kickers aren’t up to.
But for a Florida Gator kicker to miss a 23 yard field goal triggers the memories of open tryouts and dentists from the 2015 season- the ultimate low point of that position in Gator history. To get the ball down to the opponent’s five yard line and come away with zero points simply isn’t acceptable. And it’s nothing new. The kicking game didn’t cost Florida this past Saturday, but it did cost Florida, at the very least, chances at overtime against Alabama and Kentucky this year.
Think about that. Despite all the litany of problems this Gator team has, with even a competent kicking game that can make extra points automatically and not allow blocked field goals that get returned for touchdowns, Florida is, at worst, two overtimes away from being 6-2. The Gators would have still lost to LSU and Georgia with a competent kicking game, of course, but at least they’d still be ranked now and have a real chance at another double-digit win season and a fourth straight New Year’s Six Bowl.
It’s become apparent that, at least on Saturday, Mullen reached the point of, “The hell with this, I’m not even going to bother trying.” Mullen was so wholly non-trusting of his kicking game that instead of ordering a second 51 yard field goal attempt down 3-0, he opted to go for it on 4th and 13. To me, this move didn’t say, “yeah, we’ll be successful in whichever path we take here- be it the 51 yard field goal or the 4th and 13- and seven points are more than three, so let’s go for the road that could lead us to seven.” No. It told me that Mullen straight up believed he had a better chance to convert a 4th and 13 than he did of watching his kicker make a 51 yard field goal attempt.
He’s been getting crucified on social media for this- after all, converting a 4th and 13 is an extremely low-percentage gamble- but after watching Christmann miss a 51 yarder earlier, and undoubtedly with memories of getting kick-sixed by Kentucky (as a result of a low kick) still fresh in his mind, it’s hard to blame him.
Making matters worse, there isn’t a real fix to this that can be installed mid-year. At this level, kicking is as much a mental thing as it is physical, because every Power Five kicker has undeniable talent. Just look at what happened to Roberto Aguayo at FSU, and then with the Bucs. Or even Austin Hardin, for that matter, who displayed a crazily strong leg but then didn’t have a great college career. Talent wasn’t the reason why either of them started mishitting balls and shanking them all over the stadium; they didn’t just magically “forget” the mechanics of how to kick. That also goes for both Jace Christmann, who for the most part was money at Mississippi State, and Chris Howard, who filled in admirably for Evan McPherson last year when the COVID bug bit.
So as much as this sucks to say, Christmann and/or Howard figuring things out for themselves is one of those things that Mullen & Co. just have to hope happens. But they also may have to prepare for the possibility that they never do.
5: What’s next, Dan? It’s the ultimate choose-your-own-ending story.
For all the analysis of where this program is headed and why it’s headed that way, I actually see it as very simple. One of two things is going to happen. One, Dan Mullen will remain a stubborn, petulant man-child and Florida will remain a solid-to-good, but never great program until he leaves- whenever that may be. Or two, he’s going to have an epiphany, realize that he has to sacrifice his own personal comfort and make business decisions that put his program in the best position to win, start putting that realization into action and he’ll have the Florida Gators up there with Oklahoma and Ohio State as another annual challenger for Georgia, Alabama and Clemson (yes, aside from this year for the last of those three teams).
This last month is going to tell us a lot about what the future holds. Oh, yes, recruiting is a huge aspect of it. Kirby Smart was 100% correct in his now-viral assessment of recruiting that you need to recruit, and recruit well, for 365 days a year to be successful. No doubt, Mullen needs to dislodge the tumor to his program that is Todd Grantham in order to truly succeed. Those things absolutely cannot be ignored.
But first things first. Right now, I’m more worried about Florida putting out a product that recruits want to be a part of. Because the last two times Florida had four losses with four games still to play, things came off the rails and the Gators finished 4-8 and 4-7 in those seasons. So there’s certainly a precedent for this season coming off the tracks and barreling full force into a thick tree trunk in the middle of the woods.
Go 4-0 this next month against a quartet of teams that Florida should be favored to beat by double digits each, though, and suddenly, the tune changes. Suddenly, Florida has momentum heading into 2022, even if the Gators lose the Plastic Water Bottle Bowl against a Group of Five runner-up. Sure, it may feel eerily similar to when those Butch Jones teams of the mid 2010’s got on late winning streaks against bad opponents to drum up unwarranted hype for the ensuing season, but at least there would be something for recruits to grasp onto and feel confident about playing for the Florida Gators.
So it’s really all on you, Dan. This season is shot in terms of championships and even the New Year’s Six, but you can still give yourself some ammo for if and when you do realize that recruiting is important if you win these last four games.
Go do that. Go quiet that noise in the system, and make some noise- the right kind of noise- on the recruiting trail. And by “the right kind of noise,” I mean the kind of noise that shows you want to be the Florida Gators’ head coach.