Well there isn’t much to say about this game. It’s been a pleasure to watch the Florida Gators soar to massively unexpected heights all year but the inevitable finally happened Saturday. The Gators hit the wall where they were not able to compete.
But this is the game most people expected to happen against Tennessee. Even Kentucky, maybe Missouri. Certainly against LSU and Georgia. But it didn’t happen until the final game of the regular season. And if not for an untimely mid-season suspension (or if FSU had been scheduled during the first 8 games of the season), this game likely never would have happened in the regular season at all. But it did, and of course it was not fun. Not fun to end the regular season with such a thud. Especially at home. Especially against the halfway house of ill repute out west. But it happened, as expected for so long. The silver lining? Florida not only has a postseason game this year, they have two. Unthinkable in September. Utterly laughable a year ago.
What is easy to forget this year is that we are in a transition year. The expectations have shifted so far every week that it is easy to forget where they started. Transition year. The BEST transition year in history? Remains to be seen, but it is very possible. The best coaching transition year in Gator history was of course Steve Spurrier’s maiden voyage as the Florida skipper. That year, Florida was blown out by an SEC powerhouse on the road (Tennessee) after playing a very competitive first half, and was obliterated out by FSU on the road. This year, the Gators lost very close (on a very late trick play, no less) to an SEC powerhouse on the road and was beaten in a very close game by FSU at home. This year, Florida is going to the SEC Championship Game and a bowl game. In 1990, there was no SEC title game, and there was no bowl due to probation, so we can’t compare the two teams on either of those measures. The 1990 team finished first in the then-10-team SEC but could not claim the title because of probation; this year’s team can yet win the 14-team SEC crown (and take it home) by beating Alabama Saturday, but that is not a reasonable possibility, so their bowl game could provide the only real separation.
But deciding which is the best coaching transition season in program history is not the main focus here. It’s the fact that this year’s feat was done during the strongest run of SEC power in history. That this Gator team was not only expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC East and struggle to qualify for a bowl, but that they really should have. The 1990 and 2015 teams have many close, almost eerie similarities, but also some stark differences.
The 1990 team was coming off of a 4-year period of struggling on the field and probation-crippled difficulties maintaining a top flight starting lineup or any quality depth at all. The 2015 team was coming off of a 5-year period of struggling on the field and probation-like attrition and recruiting disasters that crippled the ability to maintain a top flight starting lineup or any quality depth at all. The 1990 team returned one of the most dominating defenses in the country, as did the 2015 team. The 1990 team returned only one quarterback capable of running the offense, as did the 2015 team. The 1990 team had a workhorse franchise-type running back who could rip off big runs and move the pile for the short yardage needs. So did the 2015 team. Both teams had a star quality pass-catching tight end who was aces in the clutch.
But that’s where the similarities end. The biggest difference is that the 1990 team returned a starting offensive line that was famously compared to the Great Wall of Florida in their SEC and TSN/NYT national championship year of 1984. It gave Errict Rhett nice holes and running lanes all year long and gave Shane Matthews a clean pocket and wide passing lanes all year long. Florida’s 2015 offensive line played spring practice infamously with only 8 scholarship players, not all of them healthy, and had to employ walk-ons, late transfers and volunteers from off the streets just to hold a spring game. It was a starting offensive line that began the season with a combined 10 career starts at Florida – and all of them on the resume of one player, the lone returning senior paired with a senior transfer who had never taken a snap in FBS competition.
There was also a huge difference in the skill position players. As mentioned, the running back situation was comparable, with junior Kelvin Taylor filling the role of redshirt freshman Errict Rhett, and Jordans Scarlett & Cronkrite playing the role of talented but fumble-plagued Willie McClendon, and the Kirk Kirkpatrick role being filled with Jake McGee. However, at wide receiver there was a significant divide between 1990 and 2015. Spurrier’s first group of pass catchers included all-SEC and future 3rd round pick and accomplished 9-year NFL vet Ernie Mills, future all-SEC blazer Tre Everett, future all-SEC play-maker Harrison Houston, veteran speedster Terence Barber and future all-SEC and all-American, multiple Hall of Fame member and accomplished 9-year NFL vet Willie Jackson. The 2015 team started the season with Demarcus Robinson – leader of the wasted-potential all-star team, flashes of greatness but terribly inconsistent – and a true freshman Antonio Callaway who has a knack for making huge plays….and….well….a converted running back Brandon Powell with size disadvantages against the physically stout SEC defensive backs is about it.
Then there is the quarterback spot. Shane Matthews was named the SEC Player of the Year in 1990, and again in 1991, but he was a complete unknown coming into the season. Will Grier and Treon Harris were both very well known, but as equally as unproven as Shane was to start the 1990 season. While this situation seems very comparable, the stark difference comes in the suspension of Will Grier. This forced Treon Harris into the starting role for the last 6 games. Can you imagine what would have happened to the 1990 team if Shane Matthews had been lost after Game 6? How do you think they would have fared against a stout Georgia team and Pat Dye’s #4-ranked Auburn team if they had to go with Brian Fox behind center? How about Lex Smith or Donald Douglas? Or Kyle Morris, who could hand off to Emmitt Smith and throw the occasional deep ball very well in Galen Hall’s offense but was completely lost in Spurrier’s system? Or true freshman Terry Dean?
So maybe, just maybe this year’s transition year is the best in Gator history. At worst, it is tied with 1990. And regardless of which you view as the best, the 7 SEC wins and 10 overall wins set new records for first-year Florida coaches (that will likely never be broken), and Coach Mac set an SEC East record and tied an SEC record for the fastest path for a new head coach taking his team to the SCE Championship Game the fastest – in Year 1 (neither of which will ever be broken). Some of those accomplishments were more difficult to attain or not even possible in 1990 because of the scheduling differences, but nonetheless, they are records.
Commanding the Huddle of Perspective
And with that I feel I need to address the criticism of Will Grier. Most Gator fans have expressed disappointment in Will’s bad decision making, his mistake, his lack of maturity. That is certainly fair, and he was the first to express having those same feelings about himself at the announcement presser. However, some fans have been overly harsh on him, speaking of his selfish behavior as an offense worthy of dismissal. They have repeatedly made comments that they don’t care if he ever comes back, and some even want him expelled from the program for his mistake.
It should suffice just to opine that those positions are far too harsh to take, especially since the quarterback who took over the starting position after Will’s 12-month suspension for a *legal* substance that is against NCAA rules, was just a matter of days previously suspended for just one week for an *illegal* substance that is against NCAA rules. However, there is a much better comparison when discussing the similarities and differences between the 1990 team and the 2015 team.
But the starting quarterback of the 1990 team, who went on to garner accolades from multiple all-SEC designations, multiple SEC Player of the Year awards, all-American recognition, multiple Hall of Fame inductions and a 14-year NFL career, got suspended in mid-season just like Will Grier did. He was suspended indefinitely, but UF petitioned the NCAA the following February to end his suspension after missing half a season, and the request was granted.
The offense of course was gambling on college and pro football games. Like Will’s offense, it is against NCAA rules. Unlike Will’s offense, however, it is also against the LAW. Shane, Kyle Morris and four other players sweat it out for four months before finding out whether the State Attorney’s office would press misdemeanor and felony charges against the players. Because they were not making friendly wagers between friends: they were betting through a bookie. Shane and Co were very fortunate that they could not find enough evidence that they ever bet on Florida games, or they could have faced jail time if found guilty. Instead they served between 30 and 50 hours of community service.
To make things worse, Shane and the other players could have landed Florida on probation! Because several days before they outed to Athletics Director Bill Ansparger by an anonymous letter (likely from a teammate), two assistant coaches were informed of the betting and had a sit-down with the players, telling them to stop all the betting activity immediately (if you are curios, the coaches were offensive line coach Phil Maggio and quarterbacks coach Bill Cubit (“…uh, what’s a cubit?”…)). However, they did not then inform the Athletics Director, UF or the NCAA of the discovery, which is a major NCAA rules violation.
More importantly, this is a violation of the magnitude of demonstrating the infamous LOIC: Lack Of Institutional Control. That would have landed them on their third probation in 5 years, making them eligible for the dreaded “Death Penalty” that destroyed the SMU program for…ever. And the NCAA proved in 1984 and again in 1989 that they really enjoyed making an example of Florida, with significant contrast in punishment fitting the crime when compared to most other college programs.
But fortunately the anonymous letter was sent to Arnsparger soon enough after the coaches’ discussion with the players that it fell just within the NCAA’s window for reasonable notice, since they allow a certain frame of time for the schools to conduct internal investigations before self-reporting to the NCAA. David Berst, then-Director of Enforcement for the NCAA, even stated in the NCAA’s response that had there been a period of months or weeks without proper investigation and notification of the NCAA, there would have been a compliance action taken against Florida. It should be noted that no such internal investigation or internal escalation was done; the coaches were going to just let it blow over. The only thing that saved the school’s bacon was the timing of the anonymous letter to Arnsparger.
Biggest dodged bullet in the history of the athletics program.
So that’s what Shane Matthews did. Repeatedly broke NCAA rules and repeatedly broke the law, committing first degree misdemeanors (and possibly second degree felonies, although those were only ever proven against teammates George Mangus and Brady Ackerman). Forget what terrible shape the team and program would have been with no serviceable quarterback for at least two years, and how the instant Florida dynasty would have taken much longer for Spurrier to build, reshaping the entire history of Florida football. He risked putting the program on probation and even being hit with the “Death Penalty” and termination of the football program for two years. And he is one of the most fondly remembered players in Gator history, a legend, a UF demigod. One of the favorite Gators of any Florida fan who watched him play. But also was almost a jailbird who destroyed the program.
So when we judge Will Grier for making a non-compliant but completely legal mistake, let’s keep it in perspective exactly what happened. It is in all likelihood that in 20 years, Gator Nation will little note, nor long remember the results or repercussions of a certain drug test in the middle of the 2015 football season.
The Coaching Carousel
What makes this such an interesting year is that there are so many key openings, and the #1 candidate for any head coaching position – Tom Herman – I don’t think will take any of them.
I think the fact that he’s only been at Houston one year and that only one of the open jobs is a truly elite program (USC, and it’s already been filled) builds on top of the biggest reason he is staying put: Texas and Texas A&M.
Strong might leave Texas of his own volition this year or next, or he might get fired next year. Sumlin is always a top candidate for NFL jobs, and a lot of them are going to be filled this off-season. Herman is recruiting the heck out of Texas and he would love to keep those pipelines and widen them by about 500% by going to one of the two premiere/elite in-state programs.
Another of the great developments in this year’s overly large silly season is that none of the jobs are being filled with candidates that should give Florida fans any reason for disquiet. First and foremost among them is the Georgia job. By this time next week, Kirby Smart should already be named the new head coach of the Dawgs. And there was much rejoicing in Athens…but far more in Gainesville. I have never understood the fascination with the defensive coordinator in name only at Alabama, but I am glad Georgia has that fascination. They seem to be driven by two major factors here: (1) Kirby’s being a “Georgia guy”, which is always the absolute worst reason to hire someone – go ask USC or Alabama that (Spurrier and Florida being the rare exception), and (2) Kirby’s being a Saban disciple. As we saw with Will Muschamp, that is no guarantee of future head coaching success. However, Jim McElwain has proven to be a great head coach in his early career in the position. And that’s the fortune of the Nick Saban coaching tree when they take head coaching jobs. McElwain, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Dantonio have been successful head coaches; Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley, Bobby Williams, Pat Shurmur and Josh McDaniels were all unmitigated disasters as head coaches. Interestingly, all but two of them have been offensive assistants under Saban. Only Muschamp and Dantonio were defensive mentees like Kirby Smart. This might tell us something: that Saban has a very good eye for offensive coaching talent, but pays much less attention to his defensive coaching hires because Saban is in fact in charge of every aspect of his defense.
There are no other real patterns within his coaching tree. One of his two defensive assistants was successful as a head coach; two of his five offensive assistants. One of two assistants from his LSU days was successful as a head coach; one of four from his Michigan State days. He is one-for-one with his Alabama branches, so if the pattern of equal time persist, Kirby Smart will be the unmitigated disaster to pair up with the Jim McElwain success.
And the aftermath of the coaching transition at Georgia will have an even greater positive impact on the mood of Florida Gator fans if Jeremy Pruitt takes the South Carolina job, Mark Richt takes the Miami job and Will Muschamp takes the defensive coordinator position at Georgia. Or even better, if Pruitt stays at Georgia and Muschamp takes the South Carolina job. If that isn’t a stocking full of early Christmas gifts for Florida fans, I don’t know what is. And then you look wider across the national landscape and you see USC hiring the most underwhelming candidate possible, Missouri facing an almost impossible task of filling their vacancy because of all the power keg unrest on campus, and the two top candidates on the market – Tom Herman and Justin Fuente – resolved to stay put and taking the dead end Virginia Tech job, respectively, thus insulating Florida from any recurring future obstacles from them…and this coaching carousel is going as smoothly and as perfectly as possible for Florida fans. And the cherry on top of it is the fact that Florida through prudence and the good fortune of fortuitous timing, was able to land one of the next elite head coaches last year when only Michigan stood to challenge the Gators’ bid, and they had an alumnus already lined up for their open spot.
There really is not much to celebrate here, and I am in no mood to dwell on the negative.
*The Gator defense allowed Florida State to convert just 2 of 13 3rd downs (15%), the worst conversion rate in 4 years when the Gators held them to 13% in a 2011 loss.
* Florida’s defense held Florida State to a mere 30 yards in the first quarter
*The Gators’ 14th 4th down conversion of the season Saturday was the second-most by any Florida squad since the 1995 season.
*Kelvin Taylor became the first Gator back to ever top the 100 yard mark against Tennessee, Georgia and FSU in the same season.
And that’s pretty much it for positive statistics Saturday.
Closing Argument: The Quarterback Thing
I suppose in an FSU game review I should talk a little bit about the FSU game. But as mentioned in the opener, what is there to say? We knew going into this season that it would be filled with trials, obstacles, losses, near misses and frustrations, and that all the losses and setbacks are just not about winning this season: they are all about setting the ship right, putting the program back on the path, progress. And to our shock and giddy pleasure, we have had precious few moments where we were made to suffer through anything but a little discomfort this year. But in this game, where we finally played like the team we thought we’d have to suffer with all year, we can see that theme clear as day:
This game was not about this year; it was about next year and the years beyond.
For those so down and disappointed, even inexplicably angry or outraged, the takeaway from the FSU game is clear and multifaceted.
Firstly, it is clear that Florida has one of the very best head coaches and coaching staffs in the country and very well could be the next dominant staff and dominant national program, just as it used to be for so many years. And they are ace recruiters. And best of all: they’re just getting warmed up.
Other than the obvious sting of losing to those detestable rubes, I don’t know why so may are so down about Saturday night’s game. Sure it was painful to lose, but did anyone notice that outside of maybe 3-4 guys, that FSU team basically stinks? Or at best are very average, or shall we say “ACC quality”. That FSU team whose head coach and systems have been in place for nearly a decade, and the entire staff and recruiting machinery has been a beacon of continuity for 6 years. If we had Grier at the helm of the offense, we would have BURIED them. Buried a decade-long united program with a first year staff and depth chart leftovers from a twice-broken program. Many fans and media members harped on the talent and depth disparity Saturday, but what jumped out to me is the incredibly stagnant position of the FSU program and the dynamic and rapidly ascending direction of the Florida program. After the last 5 years, FSU should have been in position to bury Florida almost effortlessly. Instead it struggled mightily to score for most of the game and if not for Florida’s lack of a quarterback and place kicker, would have lost. Probably in a blowout.
Glum? Why there isn’t a cloud in the Gator sky.
Well it’s not quite that perfect, but Florida is about to sign a top-5 level class after a 10- or 11-win transition year coming off the worst 5-year stretch of Gator football in more than a quarter century…to find a worse run of Gator seasons lasting that long, you have to go back to a stretch that started when Jimmy Carter was President.
We’ve got one more year of being the underdog and then, in fact at some point in the second half of next season, Florida will be dominating again. Every. Single. Week.