The LSU game was one of those contests that could portend any number of things, and which one it is can only be gleaned in hindsight. Of course some folks think they know exactly what it meant. I am not one of them. I have a distinct impression of what was happening in the big picture sense of the program, but I won’t be sure of it until it is a few weeks in the rear view mirror. Because all of the wheels currently in motion are fluid and dynamic and as we found out in the hours following the Tennessee win, they can turn on a dime in a heartbeat. Some of you will follow my line of thinking about this game right down the line. Some of you will think that my perspective is the symptom of a mental disease belonging to a raving lunatic.
So what else is new?
A Familiar Feeling Beckons
Regardless of what the LSU game portends for the future of the season and the program, it presented a significant tease. Sprinkled around the Swamp Saturday night were signs everywhere that you had to feel. Signs of things that had not been present very often at Gator games the last five years. The Swamp was rocking. All game long. The Gators jumped out to a nice lead against a young but very talented traditional SEC power. They came back from a deficit in the fourth quarter. Twice. And I believe they were an unfortunate perfect storm of bad quarterback decision, bad lack of execution from a receiver, ignoring an obvious penalty by the refs and a very fortuitous ricochet away from a third comeback. It felt and looked for all the world like a Gator football game again. And that signaled or at least hinted at the thing that we have been waiting to see for half a decade. It’s the thing that gives us comfort. That which allows Gator fans to enjoy their Saturdays again without wondering what terrible thing will happen next.
A return to normalcy.
It has been such a long time since there was any notion, any hint of normalcy around the Florida program. Gator Nation strongly sensed with Treon Harris assuming the mantle after saving the Tennessee game, that the LSU game would be the start of that return to normalcy. But then the allegations hit the wire and a new level of abnormality was met. Yet again.
But then, this is nothing new. To understand just how abnormal has it been in Gator Nation the last several years, you need only to chronicle the otherworldly avalanche of bizarre and literally unbelievable events that have befallen the Florida program. Those of you who like to just blame everything on Will Muschamp or Jeff Driskel should avert their eyes, because you will be hard pressed to assign blame for any of these to them or to anyone else.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I will preface this list with the reminder that words of optimism will follow. Which is well deserved, if you ask me. Because with everything that has gone wrong lately, I think it is time for a little hope, or at least a morsel of optimism. And frankly, that’s all we need is a little tad. A tad of promise; a tad of sunshine; a Tad of Lincoln. To emancipate Gator fans from their shackles of fear and loathing in Gainesvegas.
Because when you’ve been beaten about the head and shoulders with the Mike Tyson fists of fate, any tiny scrap of good tidings is something to embrace and hold on to like grim death. And Gator fans have gone one further: bitten about the ears with the Mike Tyson teeth of bad fortune.
And I am not just talking about last week. I am not even talking about just the last twelve months. For those who think things have gotten a little weird and a little morose in Gator Nation lately, take a stroll with me, will you, down bad memory lane. Cast your mind back to January 2009, when Florida beat Oklahoma for their second national title in three years, and Sports Illustrated titled its BCS title game feature, “Get Used To It,” because as explained in the subtitle, “The Gators have built a program to last.”
Here is the highlight reel for the football program following the publishing of those less-than-prescient sentiments, and in fact, like termites eating through the foundation before the damage is ever seen on the siding of the house, it started even before the national title game:
* November 2008: Cam Newton is suspended and later kicked out of school for multiple transgressions. The heir apparent to Tim Tebow and as we found out, future Heisman and national title-winning quarterback…but at Auburn instead of Florida.
* December 11, 2008: Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen is hired as Mississippi State’s head coach. Multiple sources claim that this job hunt was done without Urban Meyer’s knowledge or blessing. The Florida offense is never the same, and the first of many bristles and clashes between Meyer and his staff comes to light.
*February 2009: Florida signs perhaps the lowest-ranked signing class of any reigning national champion since rankings have been produced. After raking as high as #2, #1 and #3 in the nation over the previous three years, this class was ranked as low as #10…in the SEC. The class produced almost as many transfers and expelled players (7) as full-time starters (8)
*September 26, 2009: Tim Tebow is dealt a concussion near the end of the fourth game of the year, an injury that significantly limits the Gator offense for the next month, sending it into an extended funk. The offense that could not be stopped by anyone the previous two and a half years (except by Will Muschamp’s defense at Auburn), suddenly found itself straining for points and only blew out three of its final eight regular season opponents. But not only did it send the offense into a haze, it sent a number of its star players into self-protection mode. Witnessing the team thoroughbred – the guy who couldn’t be injured by driving a brinks truck into him, was lying on the turf motionless and on the bubble for two weeks with a head injury. Future NFL careers flashed before the eyes of at least a dozen Gator starters who (it was reported) spent much of the rest of the season trying not to get injured and saving their bodies for the NFL draft. The most symbolic element of this Tebow injury that sent ripples through the heart and the future trajectory of the program: it was self-inflicted. Tebow’s head was knocked into next month by a collision with his own lineman’s knee.
*December 1, 2009: Early in the morning, Carlos Dunlap was arrested for DUI, four days before the SEC Championship Game from which he was summarily suspended for the offense. It is eventually discovered that this was just the tip of the iceberg, as a huge portion of the team’s star players had attended the same party at which Dunlap got inebriated, and the literal and figurative hangover from the party and the arrest severely crippled their week of practice and preparation. It is reported that receivers coach Billy Gonzales knew about the party and did not inform Urban Meyer, furthering ill feelings between the two.
*December 5, 2009: The bloodshot party-reeling Gators are torched by the laser-focused Alabama squad that had been preparing for this rematch for the last 365 days since Florida beat them in the 2008 title game, while many crucial Gator players had been spending their injury-fearing time laser-focused on the next year’s NFL draft. This game took the SEC and national dynasty – and mantle of the premier team in the nation – away from Florida and ceded it to Alabama.
*December 5-6, 2009: Two words: Esophageal spasms.
*Dec 8, 2009: Defensive coordinator for the last two national titles, Charlie Strong, leaves Florida to coach Louisville. The core of Meyer’s trusted and most talented staff continues to dissolve.
*December 10, 2009: Billy Gonzales resigns from Florida for a lateral move to an annual rival SEC school, by leaving his resignation and work effects on Urban Meyer’s desk and leaving the facility, without ever speaking to Meyer. It is widely reported that he resigned on a post-it note.
*December 26, 2009: Urban Meyer resigns to take care of his health and spend more time with his family. Nobody at the time questions these reasons.
*Apr 27, 2010: It is revealed that Mensa laureate Aaron Hernandez admitted during NFL draft interviews that he had failed multiple drug tests at Florida that were never reported. This caused the future NFL star and future alleged murderer to drop precipitously in the draft and cast a dubious cloud over the Urban Meyer era’s 1% of 1% mantra, otherwise known as the Aaron Hernandez approach.
*September 17, 2010: The Orlando Sentinel publishes a list of arrested players the previous two years under Urban Myer at Florida. This reprised a list they had published in June 2009. It noted that most of the players were represented by Huntley Johnson, a name that became very familiar to Gator fans last week. The list included 25 Gators, some with multiple arrests. From drug offenses to domestic violence to offenses so minor they were silly, the list brought another layer of negative film onto the program. Over 30 players were arrested during Meyer’s six year stint at UF, and seemingly countless drug suspensions (both reported as such and reported as injuries) for offenses that were not prosecuted.
*December, 2010: Urban Meyer resigns again, this time for good. Declares the Florida program “broken.” Asserts no responsibility for breaking it. Later players would tell the media that over the last two years of his UF tenure, he had let the players completely take over the team. Something for which Meyer set the stage by holding the team for years under the yoke of what the players called the “Circle of Trust”, a philosophy wherein he treated star players with preferential treatment in all aspects of the program, particularly with respect to discipline and how suspensions were reported to the media as “injuries” if you were an elite star of the team. When Meyer resigned and un-resigned and never got directly involved in the coaching again, he may as well have lit a fuse, with the explosion leading to a lunatics-running-the-asylum situation.
*Apr 26, 2011: After the first spring as the head coach, Will Muschamp dismisses Janoris Jenkins from the team for repeated drug offenses. Jenkins tells the Orlando Sentinel that if Meyer was still the coach at Florida, he would still be there as well, just more glaring proof of the culture of illegality and double standard for star players that Meyer fostered. Jenkins was just one of 24 players to be dismissed or who transferred or quit from Meyer’s signing classes (including the 2011 holdover class that was technically Muschamp’s first class, but all but a couple committed to Meyer). Reasons varied, but the vast majority were due to disciplinary issues. The turnover left the Gators far below the scholarship maximum of 85 players, a full 13 players short at its lowest point – which is usually only seen after having severe multi-year NCAA probation and scholarship limitations imposed.
*October 1, 2011: After a 4-0 start and looking smart for hiring Charlie Weis, Muschamp loses his starting quarterback John Brantley to multiple injuries against Alabama. After lighting up Bama through the air in the first half, he was bent in half a few plays before halftime, and with his recurring injuries and permanent mental shell-shock, essentially leaving the team with no healthy quarterback for the next two years because of Cam Newton’s expulsion.
*October 1, 2011: After losing Brantley to injury, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci basically give up on the season and the team. They sleep walk through the rest of the lost season, focusing more on their next jobs than the Florida offense. The offense disappears and has never been found since. Both men are gone at the end of the year.
*December 2011: The All-SEC teams are announced and Florida failed to have a first team selection for the first time since 2004. Florida also only had two players invited to the following NFL combine, the lowest number for UF since 1985, a year that is hardly remembered by anyone but Kansas City Royals fans. Hence was the developed talent pool that was left by Urban Meyer, minus the mass exodus of troublemakers.
*October 13, 2012: Florida brings a 5-0 record into the Vanderbilt game, where the Vandy defensive linemen proceed to throw filthy illegal knee-chopping blocks all night and injures four of Florida’s starting linemen to the point where they are unable to generate leg strength to play at a high level for over a month. This ultimately leads to the only loss of the season to Georgia, unable to run block or pass block all day. This loss prevented Florida from playing for the SEC and national titles at year’s end, which may have gone a long way to re-writing its script for the next season.
*2013 season: From the preseason camp to the final game, the Gators lost 26 starters or replacement starters for significant time to either injury (23), suspension (1) or ejection (2). They also lost 7 second-team players to injury (6) or suspension (1). A full 12 of those starters lost to injury, and 6 of the backups were lost for the remainder of the season.
*September 20-October 4, 2014: The Gator offense that was explosive against EMU and Kentucky (after halftime) went into a coma for two-straight games, largely because Jeff Driskel emerged from his lost season and off-season rehab to play two of the worst games in his career, back-to-back. He is spelled late in the Tennessee game by Treon Harris, who leads the team to victory, is the favorite pick of his teammates to lead the offense, and is clearly set to be named the new starter and take the offense to the next level, while confidence in Driskel sinks to an all-time low.
*Monday, October 6, 2014: Reports emerge that team salvation Treon Harris is indefinitely suspended for being investigated around the biggest social pariah of offenses of our time. Now the team must go back to the about-to-be-benched Driskel to lead Florida to victory.
Now THAT my friends….is an extended run of bad luck. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
So don’t you think it is time to entertain a little optimism? A little positive glimmer of hope? A little unrealistic folly, even? I thought so.
What I Saw in the LSU Game
This may come as a sarcastic shock to many, but I saw a lot of promising signs Saturday night for the immediate and long-term future of the program. Despite the myriad errors, any one of which would have won the game in its absence, the players were leaving it all on the field. There was more energy on the field and the sidelines than I have seen from this team at any time since Tebow left (excepting the series against Tennessee when Treon played). And while LSU is not a good team and does not have a quarterback, it is just as athletic and full of future first round draft picks as it ever was. And Les Miles is still an elite coach with a national title ring on his finger – and one unfortunate Alabama rematch away from having two. And LSU hadn’t lost three SEC games in a row since the eighties. Nothing about losing to LSU this year should have been shocking or embarrassing. There were way too many points of confusion on the field with this Gator team, which is a coaching failure, but we also knew that was coming. No team is going to come through the last week of legal and public relations turmoil that Florida endured and not come out with some lack of focus. I think given the week they had, they really out-played any expectations we should have had.
To give you an idea of what I saw in the team Saturday night, I will relay some comments made to me by an FSU fan I know. He is very worried about the remainder of FSU’s season. Asked to expound, he said there are just too many teams who could bite them. Including Florida. I asked my usually over-confident friend, “Florida? Have you seen them play this year?” He came back, “Did you see them play Saturday? They are getting really close to putting it back together. By the time they get to Tallahasse, Treon will be entrenched and the defense will be tuned up and they will probably be rolling.” He is a big fan of Treon and calls him the biggest recruiting loss since Fred Taylor. Bigger than Dante Fowler, bigger than Reggie McGrew or Gerard Warren, bigger than the Pouncey Twins combined. According to him. I think it is much easier for a non-Florida fan to see what is going on in the program on a macro level than a Gator fan can. Because they have not been eyes-deep in that long list of head-spinning misfortune that I detailed above. We are in too much pain, lost in too much fog, smarting from too many bean-balls. He is one of the few FSU fans I have met who sometimes knows what he is talking about. Let’s hope he does here.
Welcome to Thunderdome
Two quarterbacks enter. One quarterback leaves.
Tina Turner as the guest Mr Two-Bits. Master Blaster as the Mic Man. For one game, re-name the Swamp Thunderdome. The quarterback battle won’t likely end Saturday. There will no doubt be a big budget sequel or two. But the battle for command of Bartertown begins this week against the Missouri Tigers. Probably the most important Homecoming game for the Gators since any of the current players were born.
It doesn’t matter who starts. It doesn’t matter who gets the most series. Treon Harris is the future of the Gator offense, and the transition to that future begins Saturday. We know that Treon is going to ignite the offense and the crowd, and that Kurt Roper is not going to try to push him outside of his comfort zone and risk devastating rookie mistakes. We also saw against LSU that the pressure of Treon approaching in the rear view mirror pushed Jeff Driskel to play better against LSU than he had the previous two games – and we may see him improve his game even more against Missouri, knowing that Treons in mirror may be closer than they appear.
I am of the thinking that this is just the first step of a progressive shift that leads to Treon being the full-time starter later in the season. Whether or not that comes to pass, in the interim Florida fans will see the Gator version of Roper’s historically successful two-headed quarterback. Both signal callers will benefit from being coached up real-time while watching the other play, and seeing the defense from the sidelines as well as the pocket. The offense will benefit from the defense having to adjust to the different tendencies and speeds (both of foot and of arm) of the two rotating quarterbacks. The energy that Treon brings to the offense will very likely sustain when Jeff is in the game.
This could work. It’s going to work. It has to work.