Nothing would boost the vibes around the Florida program more than a win over FSU

The term “vibes” got trendy on the Internet a year or two ago and is almost inescapable at this point. It’s to the point that even some of the most staid newspapers in the country are quoting the term “vibecession” in their normally stuffy economic reporting. It can be cloying in its ubiquity, but I suppose it’s one of those things that comes around every so often.

The vibes of the Florida football program have rarely balanced so much on a single game as they do this weekend. The gulf between defeating and losing to Florida State is bigger than the one off of the state’s west coast.

I contended ahead of time that the way Billy Napier approached the Georgia game would set the tone for years to come. The “years” part was a not-so-subtle way of prediciting that Napier wouldn’t be fired after this season, and I feel no less certain of that now despite him having taken on a few more losses.

I still think my assessment was right, as Napier was more aggressive in his approach to that contest that he had been against, say, Kentucky and Charlotte, or in the second half against Tennessee. The hopes of winning were small, but he coached in that contest in a way that indicated he was going to try for it. The team’s shortcomings reared their ugly heads and the outcome wasn’t close, but Napier didn’t play to lose close.

In the time since, the sole thread through the ensuing three games is that the team hasn’t given up. We know what that looks like from late-season games in 2017 and 2021. The players — most of them, most of the time — are giving their all. It’s just that their all hasn’t been good enough due to injuries, inexperience, and structural flaws in the program that aren’t the actual athletes’ faults. The tone was set in Jacksonville, and it has continued forward.

And now with the tone taken care of, it’s all about the vibes.

No one expects Florida State to be a real national title contender anymore without Jordan Travis, to whatever extent anyone had seen them as a real one previously. Still though, they are in real College Football Playoff contention.

There are five undefeated P5 teams at present, and FSU is one of them. Two more of them play when Michigan and Ohio State square off. The scenario in which the Seminoles are one of four undefeated P5 conference champs is very much on the table, and so there is very much a scenario where they’re one of the Playoff participants.

Knocking FSU out of Playoff contention for good is of course a tantalizing prospect, but it’s only part of it. The program really needs any shot of momentum it can find.

The Arkansas loss was a real gut punch, and watching Jayden Daniels possibly have his Heisman moment and set records was intensely frustrating. Some prized recruits began to decommit, and then the even-bigger gut punch at Missouri followed. If you want to make a fellow Gator fan wince any time in the next year, just say “4th & 17”.

Defeating a hated rival to close out the year wouldn’t erase those bad feelings, but it would be the only possible thing left to give most members of the fan base a lift heading into next year. The growing doubts about Napier are very real and not at all unfounded, and the fact he has just one win to date against any team that anyone could possibly consider a rival (Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, FSU) is a big part of that whether it’s front-of-mind or not. Most fans don’t pay close attention to signing day results, so this is it until spring practice opens for a lot of folks.

One figures a win would also help keep the recruiting class together. The one place where Napier has been doing unambiguously good work this year was recruiting, but even that began to slip with the decommitments this month. He needs everything he can to get this group over the finish line with as many present commits as possible while also trying to secure some flips. He’s been successful while still largely selling a vision, but nothing sells a vision better than results.

Winning would also get the team to bowl eligibility. It would be a crappy bowl against a team no one cares about, but the vast number of young guys who get major snaps could really use the bowl practice. So could the many projected early enrollees, who can practice once their high school work is done but not travel to or play in the bowl.

Losing meanwhile would only reinforce the bad vibes. It means the team got to five wins in mid-October and couldn’t find even one more the rest of the way. It would mean the sour taste that’s been in a lot of fans’ mouths wouldn’t go away. It would mean even more negative recruiting about the team’s performance and Napier’s potential longevity, which would put any tenuous commitments on even thinner ice and make flips that much harder.

I think a lot of fans knew it was going to be a big rebuild after the way things eroded under Dan Mullen, but Napier hasn’t exactly done everything right either and knows it. Staff changes are widely expected, and reportedly there’s a plan to have a much bigger sense of urgency with the transfer portal than last year.

Those could manufacture some hope, but there’s just no substitute for getting this win over this hated rival program to keep the boat from leaking even more. Even as college football is getting ever more corporatized by the year, rivalries still do mean something. We all watch the games because of the feelings they can evoke, not because we’re wanting to assess the progress of an improvement plan on paper.

A top five recruiting class, some quality new hires, and some splashy transfers would build support, but there’s no better foundation at this point to build it on than a win on Saturday. I won’t tell you that it’s a make-or-break for Napier’s whole career, but it is make-or-break for how you’re going to feel for the next ten months.

If Napier wants his program to have good vibes any time before next September, now’s the time to make them.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2