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More dark days ahead for Gators, Seminoles?

If misery loves company, it's a good thing the Gators and Seminoles have each other.
Kentucky players celebrate after a 27-17 win against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. [ MONICA HERNDON | TIMES ]
Kentucky players celebrate after a 27-17 win against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. [ MONICA HERNDON | TIMES ]
Published Sep. 10, 2018

GAINESVILLE — If misery loves company, then at least the Gators and Seminoles have each other.

The Sunshine State schadenfreude might have been the only positive Monday as Florida and Florida State started to move on from the duds that had both fan bases checking the return policies for their first-year coaches.

Here's another dose of reality, as the Gators try to bounce back from their first loss to Kentucky in 31 years and FSU rebounds from a near-upset loss to Samford: Things might not get much better any time soon.

The problems that plagued both schools Saturday weren't flukes or quick fixes. They're reminders of why the two top-tier jobs were open in the first place.

Start with the Gators, who look like a program recovering from their second four-win season in five years.

The surprise shouldn't have been that UF's winning streak over Kentucky ended. The surprise should have been that it didn't end sooner, because the Wildcats — as hard as it is to believe — might be the better program right now.

Since the start of 2016, UF is 14-12 (9-8 in the SEC). Kentucky is 16-12 (also 9-8 in the league).

The Wildcats recently spent $126 million to renovate Kroger Field and another $45 million to build the kind of state-of-the-art football complex wants (which is why UF toured the facility in the offseason). Kentucky outgained UF 454-360 Saturday and, most tellingly, controlled the line of scrimmage — a key sign of a program's long-term health.

Coach Dan Mullen has said his first year would be about balancing the twin goals of winning immediately with rebuilding the program for the future. It's obvious now what the bigger priority should be.

"I'll be honest with you — what if we hit a Hail Mary on the last play?" Mullen said after the game, which instead ended in a lost fumble Kentucky returned for a touchdown. "Besides us celebrating on the field, we still have the same issues and problems."

Specifically, he was referencing a lack of physicality along the lines. That problem might get slightly better if defensive lineman Cece Jefferson returns this week from an academic suspension, but Mullen said the only way to repair it fully is by practicing with more intensity. It takes more than a spring and fall camp to instill that.

"It's a learning process," Mullen said.

The Seminoles are discovering that they're in for a learning process, too.

Expectations were higher for Willie Taggart's first season because of the top-six recruiting classes Jimbo Fisher left him. But Fisher also left Taggart a program that finished 7-6 and needed to reschedule Louisiana-Monroe to make it to a bowl game.

Some of FSU's problems are personnel-related. An offensive line that has struggled for years era ranks No. 122 nationally in tackles for loss allowed.

Some of the problems are schematic, beyond the questions about Taggart's play-calling and game-planning that followed him from USF and Oregon. It takes time to change the tempo from one of the slowest in the country to one of the quickest.

"It's not where we need it to be," Taggart told reporters Monday. "I think we can all see offensively we're not where we need to be."

And some of the problems are cultural.

The team admittedly splintered last fall. The Seminoles were undisciplined at the of the Fisher era, so of course Taggart said FSU hasn't been disciplined enough in its techniques and fundamentals.

"Our guys (must) understand when we're not playing up to our expectation, then negative things will be said about us," Taggart said. "But it's on us to change that."

Maybe the change has started. But last week was a reminder — for the Seminoles and their UF rivals — that it might not show up anytime soon.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.