If you know what to make of this year’s Florida football team, I would contend that you actually don’t. The team has put so much good and so much bad on the field so far that they’re a complete Rorschach test: you’ll see what you want to see.
Are they the team that beat a then-top ten, now top-15 Utah team? Or the one that almost lost to USF? What of the defense that stymied Kentucky but has been a sieve a lot of the rest of the time? Are they the team that was down three scores midway through the fourth quarter against Tennessee or the one that stormed back? When they did storm back, was it because they were great or because the Vols went soft prevent on defense and shut down their own offense?
In a transitional year, with a roster that doesn’t entirely fit what the new staff wants to do, with players moving up and down the depth chart as the new coaches find out who does what well, with holes everywhere because the old coach was fired for not recruiting well enough… they’re all of those things. The answer to every question is, “yes”.
When I first conceived of this piece, I was going to declare that the single-most important question for the rest of this season is: which is the real Anthony Richardson? The one from Weeks 1 and 4, or the one from Weeks 2 and 3?
The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to the realization that pretty much everyone on the team falls into this bucket. Not one single player on the team has been consistently great in every game. Even Montrell Johnson, perhaps the closest answer on the offense, was completely silenced by Tennessee. He finished with 2.3 yards per carry with a long of seven yards. Ventrell Miller is the only possible answer on defense, but him sustaining another injury means he’s highly variable too.
The answer for Richardson is the same for the team: yes. He’s both the superhero and the turnover-prone goat. He’s not exempt from this fact anymore than anyone else is.
It’s very easy to get swept up in his gifts, which are considerable. But also, not everyone can be Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel — or more recently, Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, or Bryce Young — and put together a Heisman-finalist or winning campaign in his first year of starting.
On Twitter after the Kentucky game, I ran through how even Vince Young wasn’t Vince Young until his second season as starter. In 2004 during his first such campaign, he put up no fewer than four dreadful performances. And Cam Newton, the other all-timer people compared AR’s potential ceiling to before the Kentucky game, got a year to start in JUCO before going supernova at Auburn.
One of the better things that can be said for this team is that it won its G5 clunker. Nick Saban famously didn’t against UL-Monroe in 2007. Ed Orgeron didn’t against Troy in his first full season as LSU head coach either. Both teams won national championships two years hence.
Of course, Jim McElwain won his G5 clunker (in overtime!) over FAU in 2015, and we all know how that turned out. If there was a way to guarantee future results based on past ones, I wouldn’t be writing for you here.
The point of bringing that up, though, is that what we’ve seen so far is just the nature of the beast in most Year 1s for new coaches.
Mullen’s Year 1 where the team won ten games was unusual because Mac’s recruiting only ascended, and his sudden disintegration meant there was no lame duck year of recruiting as Will Muschamp had. McElwain’s first season also had ten wins, but two of the ranked-on-game-day opponents came before Will Grier was suspended for PEDs. UF lost to the other three such opponents and barely beat Vandy and FAU. They needed a safety to keep the games-scored streak going in a 27-2 loss to FSU.
I would love to see this Florida team pick a direction and stick with it, specifically if that direction is more like the first and fourth performances and not the second and third. Even then, some better defense would be much appreciated. We’ll see if Jaydon Hill returning and the ascendance of more young guys like DE Justus Boone (who passed up Princely Umanmielen this week) and safety Kamari Wilson (in for the injured Trey Dean) will help.
But the squad might not pick one direction. It could just be that they’re completely up-and-down all season long. The newcomers don’t have the bad habits from the old coaching regime that the returning players do, but Johnson, Ricky Pearsall, and O’Cyrus Torrence aside, they’re all very young and untested. Those returning players might get things straightened out with more reps through the season, or it might take another entire offseason of practice to get stuff ironed out.
There’s an old college football cliche that you get a new team every week. Florida is that new team every single week so far, and a tune up against Eastern Washington won’t definitively tell us who they are. If they look great and blow the doors off of EWU? Well, they’ve looked good before, and maybe the storm disruption hurt the Eagles. If they come out flat and have a close scrape again? Well, they’ve done that too with the USF game, and maybe the storm disrupted the UF guys’ rhythm.
UF is a mystery to be worked on every week, and it may or may not actually have a solution this year.