Well that was certainly better than a sharp stick in the eye. It’s nice to play a 60-minute football game where everyone of those 60 minutes was spent not having to worry that we might lose. That’s not the top of the mountain by any stretch, but it sure beats what most of the country is dealing with this year. And it has been all year for Florida: the only two games where Florida fans ever really had to worry about losing were the two games they lost. It hasn’t been a season of blowouts, but it’s been chock-full of very comfortable wins. That sure wasn’t the case last year after (or before) losing our starting quarterback. And it is a far cry from anything we have seen since 2009. That’s something worth celebrating. Especially since the next three games (or four, if things break our way) are not likely to be so comfortable.
Signs of Things To Come
We saw some things Saturday that we have not seen much of in the last several years, and one of the last obstacles between Florida and the elite football status we have all enjoyed for most of the last quarter century. Firstly was the offensive line winning the line of scrimmage on most plays. *Most* plays. That’s how we beat Georgia. And failure to do that is a huge reason we lost to Arkansas. Very rarely was the South Carolina defense in the Florida backfield on a run or pass, they held their blocks most of the day in pass protection and got a good push on most running plays, allowing Jordan Scarlett to run for a career-high 134 yards. When you think of the offensive line as the foundation of the house that is an explosive (or even just functioning) offense, you see this leading to a lot of future success if they continue to improve this way.
Another thing that has been sorely missing the last several years – that which has contributed greatly to our offense’s inability to get first downs and score points: skill players making plays. More specifically, out-athletic the defense. Not just making a great grab for a touchdown like Ahmad Fullwood did, but receivers running past defenders for yards after the catch, running backs beating defenders to the edge, a tight end carrying a tackler five yards into the end zone, a punt returner weaving through the entire coverage team for a touchdown (or heck, even returning one at all), a receiver going up and beating a defender for a jump ball at the height of his jump, a quarterback pulling the ball and beating the entire defense down the field for 33 yards. Florida offensive players making a SEC defense look slow. Stuff we used to take for granted has started to show up on game day after years of vacation.
These things all contributed greatly to a big win Saturday, but more importantly for the program, they signal a big step in the direction of becoming an elite program again.
Getting Defensive (Again)
The poor defensive effort in the Arkansas game prevented Florida from staying in the #1 or #2 spot in national rankings for most of the major defensive metrics, but after another stellar effort against Carolina, they are still in an extremely good company on the national stat boards. Florida is still second in the FBS in passing efficiency defense, third in total defense and pass defense, and fifth in passing defense. They also remained second in the SEC in interceptions by virtue of Marcell Harris’s second pick of the season. They would have been a notch higher in most of those charts but they gave up 151 of their total surrendered 256 yards on South Carolina’s last two drives during garbage time. To that point in the fourth quarter, the Florida defense had only surrendered 105 yards.
Getting Defensive (Finally Again)
It was probably not lost on anyone that this was only the second game all year that the Gators scored a touchdown on their first possession of the game. After not scoring a single offensive touchdown the previous week, Florida left there no doubt right off the bat that this game was going to be different. The other time was against Tennessee, which didn’t work out as well as it did Saturday. While the Gamecocks threw for 12 more yards than Florida, but the Gators outrushed them by 128 yards. Last week, Florida ran for twelve yards.
In scoring four times, at least once in each of the first three-quarters, and missing two more easy scoring opportunities on turnovers, the Gators at times moved the ball at will on the stout Carolina defense. Something Florida hadn’t done since probably Tennessee, but definitely Kentucky. Bringing the “did you remember” piece full circle, it was Austin Appleby who led the Gators to that other first-possession touchdown and moving the ball at will against Tennessee. He will lead the Gators into Baton Rouge as well.
The Big Picture
I don’t have to tell you that despite winning quite easily against another SEC foe, beating the old coach who set the program back many years, and moving to within one win or on Tennessee loss in two games from winning another East division title…isn’t quite impressing or entertaining a number of Gator fans. When you cut your teeth or otherwise lived through the Spurrier dynasty or the Meyer mini-dynasty, it’s understandable to crave that elite status when we could expect to steamroll an opponent every week (even if they never did it every week), and not get ecstatic over a workmanlike win like we had Saturday. But I think we need to take stock of where we really are right now, underneath the veneer of winning without many style points.
We know where we’ve been, how we went five straight years with no championships, no big bowl wins and precious few quality wins of any kind. We know how the depth chart and the Florida brand were decimated. And that’s the context in which we appreciate that Florida is one win away from winning two-straight SEC Eastern titles since Tim Tebow’s senior year. And it would be only the second time winning consecutive East titles since Florida won its first national title in 1996.
But even without that context of recent failure and despair, Florida would still be playing for something special this Saturday. When he won the East last year, Coach McElwain became the first coach to ever win the SEC East title in his first year coaching a team. If Florida beats LSU (or Tennessee loses to Vanderbilt or Missouri), Mac will become the first coach in the history of the league to win a division title in his first two years with the team. That includes the West, too. Nick Saban didn’t do it. Urban Meyer didn’t do it. Only Les Miles and Gus Malzhan won the West in their first year with the team, and neither of them won the following year.
Given what Mac inherited, given where the program was two years ago, did anyone anticipate winning the East in his first two years? Or even being one game away from it? If when he was hired, you were asked if you would take that in exchange for not having a scoreboard-breaking offense…would you have taken that deal? I know what I would have told Monty Hall.
Here is another complaint about this year’s Gator team that has been oft-repeated by disappointed Gator fans: the only reason we are in the hunt for the title is that the East is so weak. We’d finish near the back of the West. Well, let’s check the standings.
Looks like when we eliminate divisional alignment and line up all the teams in the league, Alabama is at the top of the SEC, as it is atop the national polls (as everyone knows). But who is that team in second place? It’s Florida, sure enough. Overall, Alabama is 10-0, and Florida is next at 7-2, a half-game ahead of Auburn. If you just look at conference records, again Alabama leads at 7-0 and second place is Florida at 5-2. At least here Auburn is tied with the Gators at 5-2. But Florida owns the tie-breaker when you apply the divisional tie-breaker to the overall conference. That would be the third tie-breaker: Head-to-head competition against the team within the division with the best overall conference record. The common opponent with the best conference record is Georgia, which beat Auburn, and which Florida beat. True, Florida has only played one West opponent and lost to it, which gives strength to the argument that our division is what has us in second place in the conference…but how about we let them play the game Saturday against their second West opponent before we close the book on it.