Well, that wasn’t much fun. Can’t imagine it held any joy for the coaches and players, either. And though it was disappointing, painful to watch and even embarrassing on a strictly superficial level, I was not overly bothered by the loss or the manner of the loss. Reason being that it didn’t mean anything. And I mean that on every level you can imagine. The game meant nothing to the program or team in terms of accomplishment except for a slightly higher final poll ranking. And we all know there is only one school in the country that awards itself championships and dynasty status based on being ranked in the top four, while not winning any titles — and no Gator ever wants to emulate anything done by the folks over at that institute of higher theater and rodeo clown education. But there were several other major categories in which it meant nothing, although plenty of talking heads in the media will speculate that it made an impact.
The Future, Historically Speaking
The most important thing to consider when judging the effect of a bowl game’s outcome on a program is how it will alter the future of the team, if at all. We know it will affect the record book in that there will be an “L” next to this game rather than a “W,” but not all losses are created equal. This loss did not cost us an SEC title. It did not cost us a national title. It did not cost us an Eastern Division title. It was not a loss to an SEC rival or a hated in-state rival. Look around The Swamp and try to find the banners for bowl game champions. You won’t find any. I am of the thinking that if it isn’t the national championship game and it is not a matchup with a rival team like FSU or Miami, or a team against which there is some powerful ancillary need to win (or perhaps more importantly, not to lose), such as Ohio State last year with Urban Meyer on the sidelines watching, bowl games are pretty close to meaningless. Like media members picking against the spread, these bowls are for entertainment purposes only.
Would any Gators fan trade a win against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl for a loss to any of the seven SEC teams Florida beat this year? Would they trade it for a loss to Florida State in Tallahassee? Sure it was embarrassing to lose to a team from the Big East, with the level of criticism that league has received for being so weak, but it was the Big East champion and coached by one of the most respected coaches in the country. It would have been far more embarrassing to lose this year to Bowling Green, Louisiana Lafayette or Jacksonville State. And it softens the blow considerably that the loss was to Charlie Strong, one of our own, co-defensive coordinator and defensive coordinator of Florida’s last two national titles.
Getting back to the most critical aspect of any loss: the impact it will have on the future of the program. As I have yet to receive my mail-order ACME Fortune Telling Crystal Ball, I must rely on historical evidence to project what impact this loss will or could have on the program. Theoretically speaking, I believe that the only way a non-national title bowl game matters is if it is a huge momentum-creating win or a grotesquely embarrassing loss. The former is something that is important, even necessary for programs building from nothing or very close to it, and it is important for the mental state of that kind of team to head into spring on a high note to carry over the momentum of the improvement. Such was the case in 2005 for Meyer’s first team when it was fighting its way out of the Zook Vortex, and had finally achieved a level of team buy-in and rewarding success at the end of the season with the landslide win over FSU. The big bowl win over Iowa was critical to preserving the still-fragile mentality of the program and ensure the buy-in carried over into the most important spring practice of the Meyer era. A loss there could have been a significant setback. But as it is, it led to Meyer’s first national championship the following year.
A good example of a full-scale bowl humiliation that was good for a program was the 1995 Fiasco Bowl in which the No. 1 and undefeated Gators were beaten by 400 points by Nebraska, or so it may as well have been. That physical beating drove the team that spring to elevate its strength and conditioning and continued to drive it on the field in 1996, when they won the first national title in program history under Steve Spurrier.
Given that it was a foregone conclusion that the Gators would beat Louisville, this could not have been any sort of momentum bowl win for the Gators; and given it was just a 10-point loss to a ranked conference champion, the egg on Florida’s face is only a couple of eggs over easy rather than a fully loaded western omelet. And fact is, this program had already reached and exceeded the critical mass needed as far as insuring program-wide buy-in and full momentum for the future. Much like the 2009 season, this team fully believed the season was over, and their mountain top reached, when they dispatched FSU. They were on cruise control, and this time it caused an I-10 pileup.
But again, understanding the impact of bowl performance can be gleaned through a simple historical perspective. Here is a look at bowl results and how the team fared the following season, since 1991:
1991: Big, embarrassing Sugar Bowl loss; 1992 SEC East Champions 9-4.
1992: Easy Gator Bowl win over lowly NC State; 1993 SEC Champions 11-2.
1993: Landslide Sugar Bowl win over West Virginia; 1994 SEC Champions 10-2-1.
1994: Close Sugar Bowl loss to hated FSU; 1995 SEC Champions, NC Game appearance 12-1.
1995: Humiliating 62-24 Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska; 1996 SEC & National Champions 12-1.
1996: Dominating 52-20 Sugar Bowl win over hated FSU; 1997 no titles, 10-2.
1997: Easy 21-6 Citrus Bowl win over Penn State; 1998 no titles, 10-2.
1998: Easy 31-10 Orange Bowl win over Syracuse; 1999 SEC East Champions, 9-4.
1999: Close 37-34 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan State; 2000 SEC Champions 10-3.
2000: Embarrassing 37-20 Sugar Bowl loss to Miami; 2001 no titles 10-2.
2001: Crushing 56-23 Orange Bowl win over Maryland; 2002 no titles 8-5.
2002: Close 38-30 Outback Bowl loss to Michigan; 2003 no titles 8-5.
2003: Embarrassing 37-17 Outback Bowl loss to Iowa; 2004 no titles 7-5.
2004: Embarrassing 27-10 Peach Bowl loss to Miami; 2005 no titles 9-3.
2005: Big 31-24 Outback Bowl win over Iowa; 2006 SEC & National Champions 13-1.
2006: Dominating 41-14 BCSCG win over aOSU; 2007 no titles 9-4.
2007: Close but bad 41-35 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan; 2008 SEC & National Champions 13-1.
2008: Big 24-14 BCSCG win over Oklahoma; 2009 SEC East Champions 13-1.
2009: Crushing 51-24 Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati; 2010 no titles 8-5.
2010: Close 37-24 Outback Bowl win over Penn State; 2011 no titles 7-6.
2011: Close 24-17 Gator Bowl win over aOSU; 2012 no titles 11-2.
We have to disregard the three Zook years because nothing that happened during those three years had any relevance to anything we know as college football. Since 1991, the Gators have logged ten seasons in which they won championships, either East Division, SEC and/or national titles; five of those seasons were preceded by bowl wins, five of them preceded by bowl losses. Of the three national championships over that time, two of them were in seasons preceded by bowl losses, one of them by a bowl win. Of their four national title game appearances, three came in seasons preceded by a bowl loss. Of the eight non-Zook seasons in which no titles were won, seven were preceded by bowl wins. Clearly at Florida, there is no significance to winning a bowl game in pursuing a championship the following year. And if anything, the historical data would suggest that losing a bowl game foreshadows a championship the next year more often than a bowl win.
Impact on Recruiting
How about an impact on recruiting? Since I started following recruiting closely in the early 1990s, there have been five Florida football recruiting classes ranked consensus Number 1 in the nation: 1992, 1995, 2000, 2007 and 2010. Three of those signing classes were immediately preceded by a bowl loss, two of them by a bowl win. Incidentally, three of them followed an SEC title season, and the two others followed an SEC East title season, so clearly the performance of the entire season appears to be a significant factor in immediate recruiting success (or at least securing a #1 class), whereas winning a bowl game does not.
Of the nine classes over that time that have been ranked in the consensus top 5, five of them followed bowl losses and four followed bowl wins. More evidence of the insignificance of bowl outcomes on recruiting. Given that Florida always has a relatively highly ranked class, the bowl wins and losses historically have no statistically significant effect on the strength of class. As for whether it affects any individuals in any given year, I have never read, heard or heard of any high school prospect say that he chose his school or chose against another school based on the outcome of any one game — certainly not any bowl game. If any of the readers have ever heard or heard of a player saying he based his school of choice on the outcome of a bowl game, I would love to know who and when it was. It would be the first I’ve ever heard of, and I seriously doubt anyone can cite an example.
Impact on Team Psyche
As stated earlier, this team had already reached the point of complete buy-in and surpassed the summit of program resolve and knowing it has in fact returned to the ranks of college football elite. This bowl game was not needed for any sort of carry-over to spring practice or next season. If anything, it is a wake-up call to the players that they cannot simply show up and be given a victory. It was clear to anyone observing the team bench that the players were not emotionally invested in the game. It was clear on the field that everyone was giving 100 percent effort, but that will never be enough when the game preparation has already been completed and the players are simply not incented to invest their full heart and soul into the matchup because they simply do not take the opponent seriously. Ending a season in which they could have and probably should have played in the national title game, a fall-back game against lowly Louisville was a major deflation. Check the history of every team in the country for evidence of the same thing. Florida vs undeserving Notre Dame in 1991 when they felt they were shafted out of a shot at Number 1 Miami for the national title; Bama vs Utah in 2008 when they felt they should have beaten Florida in the SEC title game and played Ohio State for all the marbles; Oklahoma in 2006 when their BCS bowl opponent was a then-Northern Illinois-esque Boise State; etc. Look at how most of the top SEC teams have played down to their opponents’ level this bowl season, as they all thought throughout the season that they were on the path to SEC and national titles, only to come up just short.
From the coaches’ perspective, this is a big hint as to what they need to do to transition to a championship program once again. This was only the second time all year that the Gators were the clear favorites to beat a ranked opponent (the first time was against Georgia). And both times, the staff and the team did not handle being the targeted favorite in a productive manner. All year they handled the role of underdog and under-rated team in incredible fashion. But both times playing as the heavy favorite against legitimate competition, they took their eye off the ball. Off the whole stadium. This is the next progression they must execute as a coaching staff and as a program. It is a new paradigm that almost all coaches have to learn. It is a transition that Spurrier made seamlessly, but one that Meyer had to learn and overcome in 2007 and 2008. Muschamp and staff must make the move in 2013, because they will be favored to win most of their games, perhaps even all of them.
Regardless of what happened in New Orleans Wednesday night, the Gator train is moving forward at a strong pace. Some big, experienced linemen arrived at school a week ago to go with another transfer that will be eligible this fall, and the rest of the class of 2013 will be hard pressed to miss being the best college football signing class in the nation. And the class will boast some incredible talent that will be filling some big need areas like wide receiver, both lines, running back and linebacker. Perhaps most importantly, the Gators will welcome a prime candidate to replace the team leadership, big plays and lock down pass and run defense from the secondary that will be lost when Matt Elam departs early for the NFL draft. This impact will come in the form of cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who demonstrated his very advanced pass defense skills, bang-on open field tackling ability, speed and amazing athletic ability in winning the MVP award in the UA all-star game this past weekend. More than that, he demonstrated in his in-game interviews that he is a student of the game and a cerebral tactician as a player, as well as a very bright and engaging young man. Just the kind of player that becomes the backbone of a championship team, the likes of which the Gators have been fortunate enough to have many times in the past. There are many other big time players who will double as on- and off-field team leaders and ambassadors for the Gators program, but VH3 will likely be the cornerstone of this very deep, extremely talented class. It will be fun watching them develop over the next three to five years. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.