The recently concluded football season had to be one of the most interesting seasons in recent memory.
Most people in the business of covering Gator sports have their own unique takes on the season. To save time, though, you could accurately summarize it in either of the following two sentences: “What was at one time a national championship contender slowly regressed back to the Dark Age it suffered through under Will Muschamp following the suspension of QB Will Grier.” OR “The Gators’ three game losing streak to end the season put a major damper on all they accomplished before then.”
But aside from just being an emotional roller coaster, the season taught us a lot, too. Here are #’s 10-6 on the list (the second half of which will be out on
Thursday Friday) of the ten most valuable lessons we learned from the 2015 seasons:
#10: Special teams is of the utmost importance
OK, so maybe it was Urban Meyer who first taught us that lesson. But this past season served as a reminder. The various components of the Gators’ special teams were either really good, or really bad. Take, for example, Florida’s kicking woes, which got so bad that Jim McElwain had to hold open tryouts. Florida also had several kicks and punts blocked, which never helps. Yet Florida had a fantastic punter in Johnny Townsend, who could flip the field as well as Chas Henry ever did, and an explosive punt returner in Antonio Callaway, who kept the Gators in games they eventually lost to LSU and Alabama by taking it to the house. But it’s also worth pointing out that Florida’s kicking struggles never actually cost the Gators a game. On the contrary, it was kicker Austin Hardin who won the Vanderbilt game. So even the weakest pieces of the Gators’ special teams unit came through when they were needed most.
#9: Fans should trust Jim McElwain on the recruiting trail
Of course Will Muschamp left Florida with several talented players who were key to the Gators’ success in 2015. But it’s also a given that Florida probably doesn’t win ten games without the pieces from Jim McElwain’s first recruiting class. On a rather shaky offensive line, freshmen Martez Ivey and Tyler Jordan stepped in and played pretty well. The Gators also got some major contributions from fellow freshmen Jordan Crronkrite and Jordan Scarlett in the running game, and Cece Jefferson on the defensive line. And of course, Florida’s would have been hopelessly lost without the monster season Antonio Callaway provided. Remember when Callaway was considered a backup plan to Ryan Davis when Muschamp was still here? The point is, whoever Mac lands will be fine; he’s already proven he can wring instant production out of his freshmen.
#8: Defense, on its own, does NOT win championships
It’s the oldest adage in sports, but this season only proved what 2010-2014 suggested: defense does not win championships. All defense does is put the team in position to win them by winning up to 11 of your 12 regular season games. All the offense has to do is win the other one. And as we saw in 2012 against Georgia, Muschamp couldn’t even do that. Then again, sometimes the defense needs help in more than one game a year, as we saw this year against Tennessee and FSU. With Will Grier, the offense bailed them out and beat Tennessee; with Treon Harris, the offense flopped and the Gators were embarrassed. Nobody could argue that the Gators didn’t have a great defense, as they finished in the top fifteen in every statistical category, but there’s only so much you can ask of them.
#7: Tennessee needs something totally out-of-this-world crazy to happen to ever beat Florida again
Consider this. Tennessee had everything they could realistically ask for fall into their hands in each of the last two years against Florida, and lost both games. Florida’s quarterback struggles reached a fever pitch in the 2014 game, as Tennessee built a late 9-0 lead- then watched as Treon Harris guided Florida back to win 10-9. And in 2015, the Vols held a 27-14 lead with ten minutes to go, only to watch Will Grier bring the Gators back with consecutive touchdown drives. I was fairly certain the Gators had finally damaged their chances to save The Streak beyond repair two years ago in Knoxville; last year elicited the “Well, they’ve really done it this time” feeling that comes with a shoulder shrug, a sigh and 1000% certainty. But now it almost feels like I’ve seen everything go wrong that possibly could go wrong in one real-life football game, and Florida survived that. So the question must be asked: if Tennessee can’t hold onto two score leads, take advantage of mind-boggling QB issues, or get a stop on 4th and 14, what, exactly, has to happen in order for them to beat Florida? Hold the Gators to 15 yards of total offense? Force nine turnovers? Block seven kicks/punts?
#6: Jalen Tabor is an even better cornerback than Vernon Hargreaves
Vernon Hargreaves is as sure a first round pick as you’ll ever see, and most experts have him going in the top ten. Losing him to the NFL hurts, yet Florida returns somebody even better. Jalen Tabor is bigger, stronger, faster and more naturally athletic than Hargreaves, which when combined with his similarly freakish instincts and sound fundamentals, makes him an even more feared DB than Hargreaves. That’s why defensive coordinator Geoff Collins put Tabor on LaQuon Treadwell when Mississippi came to town. The fumble-forcing hit against Tennessee and the one-handed pick against Vanderbilt in 2014 merely set the stage for a 2015 season filled with big-time plays, most notably two pick-sixes and an “assist” to Keanu Neal against Georgia.