GAINESVILLE — The proclamations came quickly after a big weekend from Florida’s Big Three.
The Gators upset No. 7 Utah in a thriller at The Swamp. No. 16 Miami scored 70 in Mario Cristobal’s debut. The Seminoles held on for a one-point win over LSU in arguably the most important win of the Mike Norvell era.
“This,” FSU receiver Ontaria Wilson told reporters afterward, “means Florida State is back.”
Not quite. Despite a weekend that was encouraging as it was entertaining, neither Florida State nor the state of Florida is truly back. But if they get there soon — this year or soon after — we’ll look back on Week 1 as the two-day stretch where a renaissance first started to look possible.
Florida showed the most promise by beating the reigning Pac-12 champions. The Utes may not be the College Football Playoff contender we expected, but they had an experienced roster, an all-conference quarterback and a program built on strength and stability. And the Gators beat them with a first-year staff and a transcendent quarterback (Anthony Richardson) making his first career home start.
“The great thing is the effort was there, the physicality was there, the toughness was there, the passion,” coach Billy Napier said Monday. “I thought the chemistry and morale of the team was good. I thought we saw some leadership emerge.”
All of those things were, at times, lacking last season. That means UF enters Saturday’s SEC opener against No. 20 Kentucky with clear on-field progress to back up its off-field gains in recruiting and facilities.
FSU’s progress was just as obvious after the Seminoles persevered against a big-name opponent. It wasn’t the first time FSU has done so under Norvell — the fourth-and-14 win over Miami jumps out — but it was another step in the climb.
So, too, was how it happened: a blocked extra point (to go along with a fumble recovery on a muffed punt and a blocked field goal). Norvell believes special teams are the best indicator of a program’s culture. By that measure, FSU finally looks like it’s back in a good place.
Things aren’t as clear in Miami after the rout of Bethune-Cookman. The Hurricanes did what they were supposed to do against an overmatched team. But they have teased us with similar performances before (like a shutout of Bethune-Cookman in the opener of Al Golden’s final season).
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The last time the Big Three all started with wins was in 2016 (which featured FSU’s rally against Mississippi in Orlando). It ended up being a fine season; all three finished in the top 20, with UF winning the SEC East and FSU beating Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
By the next December, the Gators had fired Jim McElwain, and Jimbo Fisher was at Texas A&M as the Seminoles began a years-long slide.
Maybe it’s nitpicking, but FSU and UF both showed issues that could make their Week 1 triumphs look like false alarms. The Seminoles won’t be a factor in the ACC if they keep stumbling in the red zone, or if their defense continues to leak late, or if their running backs only average 2.8 yards per carry again.
Though Florida’s defense didn’t break the way it would have last year, it bent too much in the second half. Napier’s film review found “a lot of good, a lot of bad, some ugly.”
“I know we’re ready to put the crown on the Gators,” Napier said, “but the Gators got a lot of work to do to play at our expectation and our standard.”
Florida State and Miami do, too, before we can start thinking about crowning them, either.
But none of this should trivialize the progress. In the second game last year, FSU lost at home to Jacksonville State. In the second game this year, FSU beat LSU in New Orleans.
That victory isn’t enough to say that Florida State or the state of Florida is back. But it’s enough to make you believe they’re on their way there.
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