At what point do you exhale all the hope and optimism that has been keeping you alive during this very disappointing football season and instead fill your lungs with the cold, harsh air of reality? For weeks, hope and optimism have been telling you that this is nothing more than a speed bump, a temporary setback, and that in the big picture of things, Florida has the right coach to take the Gators to championships in the future. Your hope is willing to blame the coach that hasn’t been here since 2010 for today’s problems and it tells you that you can’t blame Will Muschamp for this vicious cycle of injuries that has decimated his team. All that hope is trumped by this reality: The Gators came into a game they desperately needed to win flatter than the stainless steel lid on an F150 toolbox. Reality tells you the Gators lacked the kind of focus and discipline you see in winning teams.
We could spend the better part of a month pointing fingers of blame for both the Gators’ 34-17 loss to Vanderbilt and a season gone south and it wouldn’t change the fact that this is not a very good Florida football team. No matter who you choose to blame for the fiasco that is now 4-5 and threatens to end a 33-year streak of non-losing seasons, you cannot escape the fact that if you show up ill-prepared and poorly coached in the SEC, you get your butts handed to you on a platter, which is what happened Saturday.
If the other team’s athletes are bigger, stronger and faster then it’s simply a matter of outworking the other guys on the recruiting trail to bring in the kind of players it takes to compete. But line up the two teams that played Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and you tell me which team was bigger, stronger and faster.
Now look at the scoreboard and tell me what was more important: looking the part or playing with the kind of intensity and focus that you see in well-coached teams?
When these two teams were being put together, how many of those Vanderbilt players were on the Florida recruiting radar? How many got a second look much less an offer?
If you use the injury bug as an excuse, then take a look at the players who the Gators have plugged into holes when one of their warriors went down. Those second and third string Gators who have been forced into the lineup and are playing with such a lack of consistency were, for the most part, four and five-star recruits. If we are to take recruiting rankings seriously, then we have to believe that there shouldn’t be such a measurable drop-off when a first stringer goes down and a second stringer takes over.
Now take a look to the other sideline.
Those Vanderbilt players who were sticking it to the Gators so early and so often, were mostly two star guys and an occasional three when they were recruited. Those second and third string Florida players are pretty much unattainable studs for Vanderbilt. Yet Florida’s replacements – and regulars as well – were consistently outperformed Saturday by a bunch of Vandy guys who obviously pay more attention to their coaches than they do their recruiting rankings.
Vanderbilt was the better coached and certainly the better disciplined team Saturday and this one sequence of plays is all the evidence you need to know that is true.
With the Gators trailing, 10-0, early in the second quarter, the defense came up with a very inspired three-and-out, forcing the punt when Leon Orr bull rushed Patton Robinette for a sack back at the Vanderbilt 17. Taylor Hudson shanked the punt out of bounds at the Vandy 49.
Just one slight problem. Florida was offsides and of course, Vanderbilt chose to re-punt.
Given a mulligan, Hudson launched a 53-yarder all the way to the Florida 25 where Marcus Roberson fielded the ball and returned 17 yards to the Florida 42.
Just another slight problem. Mark Herndon was called for holding and the Gators were penalized 10 yards from the point where Roberson made the catch, so instead of extraordinary field position at the Vanderbilt 49 or pretty good field position at the Florida 42, the Gators started at their own 15.
On Florida’s first play from the 15, the Gators dialed up the same deep throw to Quinton Dunbar that got an 83-yard gain against Georgia last week. And, just like last week, Dunbar ran a good route and was open in the middle of the field.
Just one more slight problem. As he stepped into his throw, Murphy had his leg taken out. Instead of a decent throw that Dunbar could have caught in stride at the Vanderbilt 40, the ball fluttered like a wounded duck where Vandy safety Kenny Ladler had to avoid the urge of calling for a fair catch at midfield, a good 10 yards in front of Dunbar.
Ladler returned the pick 28 yards to the Florida 22 and four plays later it was 17-0.
Those seven points aren’t on Murphy. You can split the difference of blame between the lack of discipline that drastically altered field position on consecutive punts and the offensive line, which spent the afternoon doing its best imitation of a sieve.
Had they taken over at the Vanderbilt 49, there is no guarantee that the Gators would have driven the ball for a touchdown or even a field goal, but even a three-and-out would have allowed Johnny Townsend a chance to pin the Commodores deep in their own territory.
That’s what well-coached teams do. They don’t beat themselves with silly mistakes. They do whatever it takes to stay in the game and give themselves a chance to win.
Now, take a look at Florida’s last four losses. In how many of those losses can you say the Gators were at least as well coached as the other team? In how many of those losses can you say the Gators did whatever they needed to do to give themselves a chance to win?
If you look back at these last four games and say the Gators fought until the very end and were simply done in by the other team’s healthier players or superior depth, then you probably feel good about your hope and optimism for the future. If you look at the grim reality that the Gators have been out-coached for four straight games and you see how a lack of on the field discipline has taken away chances to win, then you have little reason to believe things are going to get better.
Change is necessary and it must happen soon or else the Gators will continue their downhill slide. As we’ve seen with Tennessee, once you get into that losing cycle, it’s extremely difficult to break it.
Does Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley believe Muschamp is still the best man to lead the Gators forward? If so, then he must at least demand wholesale changes within the staff starting with Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis.
Has Foley lost confidence that Muschamp is the right man for the job? If he has, then that decision must be made now. These last three weeks can’t be seen as an opportunity to salvage things.
Whatever changes Foley demands, they must be made now. Waiting isn’t going to help anything.