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Florida Gators title expectations meet reality vs. Utah. Reality is favored

Expectations should be measured for Billy Napier’s first year, starting Saturday against No. 7 Utah.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier was hired to win championships at UF. Don't expect them in Year 1.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier was hired to win championships at UF. Don't expect them in Year 1. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Sep. 1|Updated Sep. 2

GAINESVILLE — Florida spent the first nine months of new coach Billy Napier’s tenure building a foundation geared toward championships.

The Gators hired the “unprecedented” army Napier commanded, boosting the support staff by 20% with analysts, recruiting directors and a director of speed improvement and skill development. They opened a long-awaited $85 million training center to woo recruits and eliminate inefficiencies that Alabama, Kentucky and Clemson don’t face. Napier won heavyweight recruiting battles against Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M in a class that sits 10th in the country.

Put them together and you can envision the glory days returning to Gainesville.

Eventually.

When UF opens the Napier era today against No. 7 Utah, rosy expectations will meet a sober reality. Reality is a 2½ point favorite.

Related: Florida vs. Utah is big for the Gators. It’s monumental for the Utes

“We’ve worked here to kind of inform our players that life’s not designed to give you what you want or what you need,” Napier said Monday. “Life’s designed to give you what you deserve.”

Billy Napier and the Gators are projected as a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC East.
Billy Napier and the Gators are projected as a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC East. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]

If prognosticators are correct and UF finishes 7-5 and fourth in the SEC East, the Gators will deserve it.

Napier’s immediate predecessor, Dan Mullen, failed to build enough recruiting momentum after his 21-5 start. None of the five recruiting classes that make up this roster ranked higher than ninth in the country. UF routinely lagged behind LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M, three teams it faces in consecutive games this season.

Napier never bashed his roster but said he would be “very aggressive” in the transfer portal because “we need players.” That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement; it sounds like an acknowledgment that UF is a year or more away from contending.

Napier inherited other issues, too, including a lack of accountability and attention to detail. He addressed them by stressing everything from uniformity in sock color to clean lockers.

Related: The Florida Gators built Billy Napier’s army. What will it actually do?

“If you see trash,” linebacker Amari Burney said, “you pick it up.”

If you do the little things right off the field (pick up trash), you’ll do the little things right on the field (go at the snap, not a moment before). It sounds great. Maybe it will be.

But lining up correctly won’t be enough to beat the reigning Pac-12 champions this weekend.

“I am all about Utah,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.

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Related: Are things different with Florida Gators, Florida State? We’ll see this weekend

Some of Herbstreit’s appreciation is because of the Utes’ returning talent, but some of it comes from the type of stability UF can’t fathom. Since Kyle Whittingham took over Utah when Urban Meyer left for the Gators after the 2004 season, UF has gone from Meyer to Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain to Dan Mullen to Napier.

Whittingham has had 18 years to build his winning culture. Napier has had nine months.

If you expect Florida to overachieve this year, Anthony Richardson will be the reason why.
If you expect Florida to overachieve this year, Anthony Richardson will be the reason why. [ MATTHEW HINTON | AP ]

That doesn’t mean Florida’s season is already lost, nor does it absolve Napier of blame if his team tanks. The backfield should be strong with Nay’Quan Wright and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson. The defense is due to improve after two dismal seasons. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is talented enough to steal a win or two by himself.

Related: Why Florida Gators’ Anthony Richardson is the state’s biggest unknown

It should, however, frame how we view Florida’s short-term and long-term futures. Nick Saban went 7-6 in his first season at Alabama. Sabanite Kirby Smart went 8-5 in Year One at Georgia.

Like them, Napier, a former Saban assistant, has a championship pedigree. He was hired to remake UF in the Alabama image, and he appears to be doing so.

Related: What a Nick Saban bestseller taught us about Florida Gators’ Billy Napier

Eventually, UF fans can start realistically dreaming about titles, and Napier will judged on those expectations. For now, the smart play is to bet on reality — to win and cover.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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