Friday, April 20, 2018
Colleges

A year makes big difference for UF, FSU

In the last moment that Florida football mattered, Will Muschamp sat at a podium at a news conference, his face flushed with victory. He might as well have been sitting on top of the world.

It doesn't seem that long ago.

This was a fine moment for Muschamp, a conqueror's moment. His team had just played like a bunch of tough guys, grinding FSU's vaunted defense into dust with a 24-point fourth quarter for a 37-26 win last year. It was the kind of victory that suggests one program has all the momentum, all the muscle, in the state.

Surely, good days were ahead.

Weren't they?

Frozen in time, that moment also served as the last moment FSU football didn't matter. As Jimbo Fisher walked off the field past his glassy-eyed fans, no one would have given a nickel for his future. He would survive, sure, but would he ever thrive?

Fisher's 10th-ranked Seminoles had been embarrassed at home. They had led going into the fourth quarter, but for that last 15 minutes, it had been big kids versus little kids. Florida did what it wanted when it wanted, and the Seminoles did little about it.

Surely, a bumpy ride was ahead for FSU.

Wasn't it?

As it turns out, every game isn't a glimpse into the future. Sometimes we act as if it is. We hold our finger in the air, and we decide which way the wind is blowing, and we decide it affects the future, not just that night. It feels as if good times, and bad ones, are lasting.

It was that way last November.

Most of us believed Florida was about to start one of those runs where it would control the state. That didn't last.

Most of us thought FSU was playing chase. That didn't last, either.

Looking back, there has rarely been a moment that told you less about what was going to happen in the year ahead. There has never been less of a message delivered.

No one could have foreseen that FSU was on the verge of becoming one of the finest teams in college football. Looking back, no one could have foreseen that Florida would fall off a cliff and a year later it would be Muschamp's job being discussed in heated conversations around the state.

That leads us to Saturday, when FSU attempts to complete its body swap by going into Gainesville as a heavy favorite.

In this series there have been dominating wins by each side, and there have been upsets, and there have been great games. But from one season to the next, there has never been turnarounds by the programs quite like these.

Since that late November night of 2012, FSU has not lost a game. It followed its loss to Florida by winning the ACC title game and the Orange Bowl, not that there was any consolation in either. This year it is 11-0, and all signs seem to point to the national championship game. Legal problems aside, it has one of the most dynamic players in the history of its program in quarterback Jameis Winston. Fisher seems to be clearly in charge.

On the other hand, not much has gone right for the Gators since that beat-your-chest victory. They were drubbed by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, and this year they have struggled to a 4-7 record, beating only Toledo, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. Those last three teams have combined for one SEC victory.

Six straight times Florida has lost this season. Granted, injuries probably helped make the difference against South Carolina, and maybe against Georgia.

On the other hand, injuries don't explain a loss to Georgia Southern. What recruit can you ever imagine picking Georgia Southern over Florida? A loss like that is an open invitation to every critic who has the lungs to yell about it. If the critics want to call for the head of Muschamp, or offensive coordinator Brent Pease, then they might as well sing harmony.

For an FSU fan, of course, all this is delicious fun. There is nothing quite like having one of your greatest seasons at precisely the moment your biggest rival is trying to stay above water. It's like winning a doubleheader every week.

So what happened?

At Florida, the easy answer is injuries. Yes, I know Gator fans are weary of hearing about them, but the Gators do have a staggering number of players hurt. No one can argue that. No one can argue that isn't the primary reason the season has caved in on Florida.

But is that all of it? Or can you also conclude that the awful offense the Gators have fielded for three years has finally caught up to them? Over the past three seasons the Gators have ranked 109th, 103rd and 111th.

At Florida, birthplace of the Fun 'n' Gun, it is a slow, agonizing offense to watch even when a team is successful. When it isn't, however, it's torture.

As offenses go, Florida's also is one that brings injury with it. Quarterbacks carry the ball. Running backs carry it a lot. Ask yourself: Even if the Gators had stayed healthy, where would they rank on offense?

FSU? Under Fisher, FSU is a fireworks show, a constant sprint toward the end zone. It was hard to believe Winston would be that much of an improvement on EJ Manuel, the top quarterback taken in last year's NFL draft, but he is.

Yes, Winston has his own controversy going on, a sexual assault case. Yes, the allegations are quite serious. A football game doesn't change any of that.

The football game does come before the case's resolution, however, and it seems fair to point out that the accusations have not slowed Winston. They do not seem likely to do so Saturday. Winston should own the field.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that momentum is a fickle thing. Even in defeat, it is hard to suggest a program has run out of it. Even in victory, it is hard to say momentum is wearing your team's colors.

This year the momentum belongs to FSU.

Next year?

We'll see. Isn't that why they play the games?

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