Show of hands: How many Gator fans thought the Florida Gators football team would be 6-1 at this point?
The movie was Quick Change, a Bill Murray vehicle that was one of his funniest comedies. To set the scene for anyone who has not seen it (spoiler alert, 25 years after the fact), he and his two cohorts rob a bank and hurry on their way to the airport to catch an escape flight to Fiji. But they encounter a day-long series of unfortunate events that prevent them from making their flight. All seems lost when he informs his partners in crime that he also booked a later flight to Martinique for just such an emergency. His dim-witted accomplice played by Randy Quaid is flabbergasted and replies, “Martinique? But I don’t know anything about Martinique!” Murray volleys back, “What did you know about Fiji?” After a thoughtful pause, Quaid says, “Well… nothing.”
That is where Gator Nation sat at the end of the night Saturday. And Sunday. And every day for at least the next two weeks before the Cocktail Party. As much as it hurts losing a rivalry game (even a secondary rivalry like LS U), as distasteful as it is to lose on yet another fake field goal-turned game changer, and as difficult as it always is to accept the first loss of a season, what did we know about Fiji? When did we ever expect to be 7-0, ranked in the top 5 with the East crown clinched before the bye week? What did any of us know about reaching the top of the SEC mountain and being a playoff favorite at least two years ahead of schedule?
Meeting and Exceeding Expectations
Expectations are tricky. Everyone has their own set of expectations, and then there are the consensus expectations that conform to a standard norm at a very high level (those are the ones the talking head parrot fifty times a day on TV and radio). Florida had blown away everyone’s individual expectations and certainly the consensus expectations that saw the Gators projected to finish in the bottom three of the SEC East. At least they had blown away those expectations through five games. However, when the Gators took to the road to face the Missouri Tigers in Game 6, expectations suddenly jumped to levels we haven’t seen since the Gators were defending national champions. Talk about a quick change.
For this game specifically, I predicted a 13-10 Gator victory. And I was so close to being right. That may sound strange for a game that ended 35-28, however when I made that prediction, I did not (because I could not) factor in any of the usual “LN” (LSU Nonsense). That is the typical insanity that accompanies every game between the Gators and the LSU Tigers. It can be expected, but not projected. Not estimated. So you work with what you have. And it’s not just LSU that gets in on the “LN” game: Florida always has its share of fluke, lucky or just plain rare plays come through in this rivalry as if they were everyday occurrences. Like the multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns from Andre Debose, who did basically nothing against anyone else his entire career; like the deep Tim Tebow pass and would-be interception that instead deflected off the cornerback’s hand into the hands of Percy Harvin who ran it the remaining 50 yards for the score; like the muffed punt and the punt return for touchdown in this year’s game. I called 13 points for the Gators. The Florida offense scored 14 (minus the cheap touchdown following the muffed punt, which still required four downs to go a matter of feet). Missed it by one point. I predicted LSU would score 10. When you subtract the points they got via the “LN” (trick play flea-flicker that led to a gimme touchdown, Hail Mary for a touchdown, fake field goal for a touchdown), LSU scored 14. Four points: missed it by that much. Maxwell Smart would be proud.
But this is LSU-Florida. Trying to predict the “LN” factor is a useless endeavor. It is part of why this loss is so much easier to accept, process and tolerate than most others. Because there is no way to prepare for it and no way to avoid it. The other reason this loss goes down much easier than most is that the Gators were playing with house money. A lot of it. House money in terms of where the program was supposed to be at this point, and house money in terms of the SEC East race. The Gators historically have always lost at least one game in the regular season (all but two seasons – 1995 and 2009 – neither of which accounted for any of Florida’s three national titles), and most often it is to a team from the SEC West. With two West juggernauts on the schedule, that was presumed to be 100% assured this season as well, and two West losses were the smart bet. That Florida came one tipped pass in the end zone from possibly going 2-0 in that column…well raise your hand if you thought that was going to happen.
But expectations remain very high, despite the loss to LSU, and with good reason. The East competition continues to degrade and Florida continues to mature and develop new ways to succeed on the field, even without their starting quarterback. Even without their defense for half of a game. The question of whether expectations and reality will meet is an issue that will be largely played out in two weeks in Jacksonville in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
At this point, however, on paper the gulf between expectations and reality is a very wide one.
The reason for significantly restrained expectations at this juncture is that the closeness of the LSU game and the elite quality of the opponent might have been hiding some very disquieting realities Saturday night. Realities like the Gator offense only generating two scoring drives the entire game. The overriding impression after the game was that the defense was largely to blame for the loss for being a no-show in the first half. And upon further review, that is a valid conclusion. But the offense was far more ineffective than real time impressions.
The Gators finished with a season low in first downs and had one of the worst days rushing in many years. Only managing 55 net yards on the ground, 64 if you take out the sack yardage, the Gators averaged less than two yards per carry. The running game rang up a full 35% less production than the next-worst rushing game Florida has had this year: 84 yards against Ole Miss. But against those Bears, the Gator passing game countered with 271 yards through the air. Coincidentally, Florida notched 271 yards passing against LSU as well, but a good bit of it came on a few long ball prayers that were answered. While against Ole Miss, Florida connected on 83% of its passes, that number plummeted to just 53% against LSU – just one completion over 50%. It was the low-water mark for the season.
This led to an inability to sustain drives throughout the game. In particular, the Gators only had the ball for 5 minutes in the second quarter and 5:47 in the fourth quarter. You simply can’t win games in the SEC, let alone against probably the best team in the SEC in their own stadium, when you only have the ball a third of the time in the final quarter of both halves.
Of course the defensive failures showed up glaringly in the stat sheet as well. But not nearly as badly as we would have thought. They held the Tigers to 18 first downs, only three more than the sputtering Florida offense earned, which was actually a smaller total than they allowed against Ole Miss, Tennessee or ECU. However when they did give up the yards, they gave it up in chunks. The 5.4 yards per rush surrendered was nearly half a yard more than any other game this year, and the 16 yards of tackles for loss was by far the fewest on the year. The pass defense as we saw was abysmal, allowing nearly a 70% completion rate (68%), the worst of the season, and 10.6 yards per completion, by far the low mark on the year. The 423 total yards was the worst effort of the season and only the second time they surrendered over 400 yards, and they allowed LSU to rip off an average of 7.1 yards per play.
Per PLAY. Ouch!
It is stunning they only scored 35. After not allowing a single touchdown in two road games against good SEC teams, raise your hand if you saw this kind of defensive collapse coming?
But if you want to know where the game was lost, and by what statistics this is glaringly represented, the game was lost on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. In addition to the running disparity (221 yards to 55 yards), there is the sack line. Florida registered zero sacks (and only pressured LSU’s quarterback a handful of times…mildly), while LSU took down Treon Harris 5 times and chased and harassed him all night. This is the second straight week that the Florida line has given up 5 sacks. Those totals were against the two best defensive lines Florida will face in the regular season, but still 10 sacks in two weeks is simply abysmal. It is no way to keep your quarterback healthy, a critical factor for a team with no backup.
The Good Stuff
Given all that – given all the indigestion created by reviewing the cold, hard statistical facts of Saturday night’s game – the Gators only lost by a single score. And they were a mere inch or two from catching the tying score in the waning moments and sending this game to overtime. And as noted above, if not for 21 points of “LSU Nonsense”, even with all of that horrible defense in the first half, the Gators still hold them to 14 point (17 if they kick the field goal and skip the fake).
How did that happen?
It happened because this coaching staff has attacked all the program’s deficiencies with dogged determination and very smart and sound plans. That includes most of all changing the culture from that of sad sacks for whom few things go right to winners who rise above bad fortune and make their own good luck. From a team mindset that expects to lose to one that expects to win. This element of the new culture manifested itself Saturday night in a refusal to give up, a refusal to be put away and a refusal to let anything daunt them. This team will not lose; they will have to be beaten, and it will take a relentless opponent to do it.
Now this is not to say that the Gators will never lose again to an inferior opponent, or won’t have any more growing pains this year or next. We still have an offensive line that is a work in progress, radiating issues to both the run game and passing game. We still have myriad issues on special teams. We still are wafer thin at linebacker and one serious injury away from a serious problem there. Treon is still a one-read quarterback with clear limitations in the short and intermediate passing games. But the buy-in and resolve, the understanding of and dedication to the coaches’ plan, and the practice and game ethic that is necessary to be a champion are all here. Stability is not coming; it’s here. Vision is here. Purpose is here. Fire is here. And one of the best coaching staffs, top to bottom, is here and doing work. This is a team and staff that evoked that old adage, “You better get them early”. Well, LSU was able to scratch out a win while we are still early in the rebuilding process. But it doesn’t feel early anymore, does it? It feels like going into Jacksonville in two weeks, Georgia may have already missed its chance to “get them early.”
It is rare that the Gators suffer a loss and I find myself with a bounce in my step and thinking about something I genuinely loved about the game. But thus is the reality of a program so quickly on the rise and so fundamentally sound in its ascent. What I really loved about watching this game, even when we were down 14 points – twice – even when we ultimately were going to lose the game, is that this was a game of big, explosive, exciting plays. LSU got one more of those plays that Florida did, unfortunately, but they always get their big plays in this game. Over the last five years, Florida has almost never gotten them – certainly not over the course of an entire game. Not in this game or any game.
But this game signaled that that time is over. Order is being restored here. Since 1990, Florida has been one of those few elite teams in the nation that always puts on a big show, win or lose. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were hated by most, but nobody ever missed a Gator game on TV because you never knew what amazing thing would happen next. It makes Gator fans love them, it makes generic college football fans enjoy watching them, and makes rival fans respect and/or hate them.
This was not just another harbinger that Florida was once again going to be competitive every week. It was an announcement that the new culture has completely arrived. Same as the old culture. Florida will be following the Conservative Coach’s Handbook no longer. The Gators will not be predictable on offense or defense anymore. They will not respond to personnel deficiencies or matchup problems by contracting the playbook and trying to sneak one past the goalie. They are going to improvise, adapt and overcome. They are going to hide from what they cannot do, but scheme to what they can do. And they will scheme big, not small.
For the third week in a row, I had an earworm from The Who buzzing my head like Maverick and Goose buzzing the tower in Top Gun. The last two weeks were before the game, foreshadowing elements of the games’ outcomes. This week, the line didn’t start circling my brainpan until after the game. Maybe it was the power of suggestion watching Les Miles giving his post-game interview, but while reflecting on what a huge step up this game was for the Gators, even in defeat, I thought to myself “I can see the future of the program”. And still can. Not just a couple of weeks, not just this season or next. No, “I Can See for Miles and Miles.” And when we beat LSU next year, it will be less Miles and more miles. That song was released in 1967, the year after Steve Spurrier won the Heisman and graduated. Little did we know that the Spurs had set in motion what would be the return of the favorite son and the creation of the Gator football dynasty. If only Gator fans could have seen for miles and miles back then and understood what lay ahead. A quarter of a century later in 1990, Quick Change hit theaters and the Bill Murray punch lines were a box office knockout. That same year, Spurrier hit Gainesville and the program underwent a quick change from SEC punch line to SEC knockout. A quarter of a century later, Jim McElwain hits Gainesville and another quick change is underway. Half of the conference competition has already been knocked out and nobody else in the SEC is laughing anymore.
It was a good feeling, even in defeat. With only seven games in the books, the Gators are already where I anticipated they would be by the end of Year 2 as a best case scenario.
Raise your hands if you saw that coming.