Florida Gators drop from ranks of college football elite

Published Oct. 17, 2013

It's a nice program. A good program.

They win more than they lose. They go to bowl games. From what we know, they do it fairly. And cleanly. They seem to have good kids, and their coach seems like a good man.

Yep, there's a whole lot to like about the University of Florida football program.

Like I said, it's a good program.

Know what it isn't? An elite program. Not at this moment.

No longer is Florida up there with the likes of Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State. Or even LSU and Stanford.

When it comes to college football, you have elite teams and then a few teams hovering near the top. Keep going if you hope to find Florida on that list. It's now in that kinda-good category with programs such as Wisconsin, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Programs in that category win a big game every now and again, and maybe have a cup of coffee in the Top 10. But mostly they just beat mediocre teams and lose to really good teams. As far as national championships, forget it.

Florida isn't the best team in the SEC anymore. Not even close.

Actually, it's worse than that. The Gators aren't the best team, or even the second-best team, in the state. At this very moment, they are running third, behind Florida State and Miami, which knocked off the Gators this season.

The Gators are 4-2 and have games left against ranked opponents Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State, plus whatever second-tier bowl game they get to. This season has 8-5 or 7-6 written all over it.

Still, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit isn't ready to throw dirt on the Gators just yet.

"I still think they are an elite program,'' he said.

It's true Florida went 11-2 last season, but the trend overall is the Gators are sliding back. Even Herbstreit said, "I think they've had a few lean years by their own standards.''

Indeed they have. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Gators are a rather ordinary 30-15. But that doesn't begin to tell the whole story of Florida's slip into second class. The Gators are 17-11 in the SEC in that span and have been passed in the conference hierarchy by Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia.

There's more.

In that span, the Gators are 3-9 against big boys Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida State, and are a mere 4-12 against teams that were ranked at the time Florida played them.

What makes it even worse, what makes the fall even more depressing, is this: The reason Florida has hit hard times is because it has forgotten how to play offense. The Gators can't pitch and catch it like they did in the good ol' days under the ol' ball coach, Steve Spurrier. They can't zip up and down the field like they did with Urban Meyer.

A Florida team without an offense is like a Florida day without sunshine.

This week the Gators are 101st in the nation in passing. They are 102nd in scoring. Who cares that they are third in defense under defensive-minded coach Will Muschamp?

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Sometimes you get the feeling Florida fans would rather lose games 45-44 than win them 10-7. But now the Gators aren't winning even low-scoring games. Case in point: Saturday's 17-6 loss at LSU.

When did things start to go wrong?

Well, you could blame Meyer for his Hokey Pokey routine of quitting, coming back and quitting again. However, you can trace Florida's downfall to the exact moment Tim Tebow left campus after the 2009 season.

"To me, they've just never been able to replace the quarterback,'' Herbstreit said. "I just don't feel like we've seen consistency at either the quarterback position or the wide receiver position."

Once known as Wide Receiver U, the Gators now can't recruit a wideout. Who was the last great pass catcher they had? Tight end Aaron Hernandez in 2009? Maybe receiver Riley Cooper the same year? Percy Harvin before he was switched from receiver to a dual role that included running back in 2008?

It's stunning that in the state of Florida alone, the Gators can't find elite quarterbacks and receivers. And until they find those skilled players, it doesn't matter how good the defense is.

"Let's face it, as much as defense still matters, the trend of college football and the direction that it is going is you've got to be able to score points,'' Herbstreit said. "And you've got to have a quarterback who is a dual-threat guy. And you've got to have receivers who can win one-on-one coverage and can make people miss and can turn a 10-yard play into an 80-yard play. And (Florida has) just not been able to do that consistently.''

College football is cyclical. Maybe this is just a hiccup for the Gators. No program can win year after year after year. All programs go through fits and starts. Look at Texas. Look at Southern Cal. Someday Alabama will take a fall. That's how college football works.

Elite programs find a way to restock, reload and rebuild so their slide lasts only a couple of years instead of a couple of decades. And all things considered, things could be much worse in Gainesville.

But be careful, Florida. This is a critical time. You can fall further back or begin the climb up.

Which way you go will depend how soon you can find players who can throw and catch the football.