Put the Gators’ losses to Tennessee last week and Michigan in last year’s Citrus Bowl side by side, and you’ll notice some similarities.
In both cases, Florida was missing their starting quarterback, but after playing well early, both the Gators’ QB and defense completely unraveled as the game wore on. Of course, last week’s former was more due to terrible second half play calling than the QB’s ineptitude, but the constant was that the positive impact they’d had on the game early on disappeared when they were needed most.
In both cases, Florida’s defense allowed the opponent to reel off 30+ points in a row to shock them and knock them out of the game. And in both cases- though this one to a slightly lesser extent- the loss came with few long term ramifications.
Florida still has everything to play for sitting squarely ahead of them, and that includes an SEC East, SEC and even a national championship. While it’s going to be difficult to convince too many people that the team they saw last week in Knoxville is capable of winning the whole thing, it’s also certainly not out of the realm of possibility. We’ve seen teams take an early loss, even to a divisional opponent and then roar back to win it all. Hell, the last four SEC Champs lost within its division: Alabama lost to Mississippi the last two years, Auburn to LSU in 2013 and Alabama to Texas A&M in 2012. And of course, the year before that, Alabama shook off a potentially devastating defeat to LSU in overtime and whacked them 21-0 in a rematch for the national championship.
So Florida’s goal now is essentially the same as any team’s is heading into a season: win out. And the good news is, if they do, the reward will be the same.
Tennessee is bound to lose twice with an angry Georgia team, an explosive Texas A&M squad and the always powerful crimson-clad Tidesmen from Alabama on their schedule. Even in the highly unlikely scenario in which they don’t, though, Florida still has a shot to reach the CFP if they win out: Tennessee losing either once or not at all means that the Gators will likely have the “best loss” of all the one loss teams vying for an at large bid, and even if they don’t win the SEC, it would be a difficult decision for an objective panel of people to decide between an 11-1 SEC team with a loss to a 12-1 or 13-0 SEC Champ and a 12-1 conference winner like Stanford or Louisville, because if either of those teams lose once and it doesn’t cost them a conference crown, it’s likely to be a less tolerable loss than Florida’s to Tennessee.
So yes, there’s a possibility that Florida wins out going forward and gets turned away from the CFP, but that possibility is so slim given the wild world of college football, in which we still have two more months of craziness, that I refuse to plan on it at this stage.
In any case, the season starts all over again tomorrow against Vanderbilt. You don’t get too many true “fresh starts” or “blank slates” in college football, but Florida has one here.
The Gators have a chance to learn from the various mistakes they made last week. Quincy Wilson has taken a beating on social media (including from me) for promising that Florida would beat Tennessee, and hopefully he learns not to do that again. But there were several more alarming errors than that: Doug Nussmeier’s second half play-calling yielded more profanities than yards, nine of the eleven starters on defense played similarly poorly in that second half (only Caleb Brantley and Wilson stuck to their techniques and even held their own, let alone dominated) and the offensive line disappeared down the stretch.
The fixes are simple, too. Doug Nussmeier has to call plays the way he’s paid to do, the way he did in the first half and pretty much every half of football he’s ever coached before that (at least at Florida) and not crawl up into his shell. The defense has to decide whether it would rather sit back and chill with the attitude that their team is going to win no matter what they do because of one of their teammates’ guarantee of this, or play with the same fire and tenacity that earned their unit such high respect and made them into such highly touted individual NFL Draft prospects in the first place. And the offensive line… well, they need work. But I’m of the mindset that play calling that keeps the defense on their heels will help them out a fair amount, too.
Like most season openers, it’s not against a particularly strong team (though Vandy’s defense is certainly a notch or two above that or UMass or North Texas). But this is certainly a winnable game, if not one with the potential to get really ugly fast. If the Gators don’t mope around and feel sorry for themselves, turning one loss into two as the old adage goes, they could do wonders for their confidence by bouncing back with an SEC road win, even against a bottom feeder like Vandy. And with a remaining SEC schedule that suddenly looks a lot easier- an imploding LSU team, a Georgia squad that’s decent but nowhere near as good as Florida on paper, and an Arkansas bunch that just got their skulls smashed in by Texas A&M to go along with the games we knew were wins from the jump- it really doesn’t look as daunting of a road to Atlanta as Tennessee’s.
Anyway, tomorrow begins a brand new season for Florida. They’ve taken their lumps at the end of “last season” so to speak and hopefully learned from them. Now let’s see what they do next.