KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When first-year coach Billy Napier breaks down the No. 20 Florida Gators’ 38-33 loss at No. 11 Tennessee on Sunday, he expects to see a dozen or so plays where the Gators beat themselves.
“When you think about that, you think about coaching, right?” Napier said. “That’s my responsibility.”
In that case, Napier failed. His defense was ill-prepared, and his offense made too many mistakes.
That left Florida (2-2, 0-2 SEC) in a rare position: stewing over a loss to Tennessee (4-0, 1-0) for only the second time in their last 18 meetings. The Gators are 0-2 in the conference for the first time since 1986, and Napier is the first coach since Bob Woodruff in 1955 to lose to Kentucky and Tennessee in the same season.
All because of a dozen or so plays, starting with inexplicable defensive breakdowns. No defender was close to Bru McCoy on a 70-yard pass in the second quarter. Or Jabari Small on a 16-yarder in the third quarter. Or Jacob Warren on a 45-yarder in the fourth.
That’s three big pass plays that scored or led to touchdowns in a one-possession game.
Napier also called timeout to stop the clock as Tennessee faced third and 10 in the closing minutes of the first half. The Volunteers converted and scored seven plays later to take the lead.
Give some credit to Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, who lit up plenty of opponents at UCF, and star quarterback Hendon Hooker. But put some of the blame on Napier and his staff.
The 576 yards UF surrendered were the third-most Napier has ever allowed; the other two were against SEC teams (Mississippi State and Alabama) when he was at Louisiana Lafayette. The Gators’ defense was also shaky in the second half against Utah and all last week against USF. This is a trend.
Fans will question his “scared money don’t make money” philosophy, too. His decision to go for it on fourth down at the 20 in the first failed; a field goal would have been huge. Trying an unsuccessful two-point conversion in the final five minutes when an extra point would have cut the deficit to 38-28 was controversial, too. But if it had worked, UF could have won it on a field goal on its last-gasp drive instead of playing for overtime.
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Instead, question Napier’s decision to erupt at officials over a replay review in the third . His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave Tennessee a new set of downs and led to a score. Considering how strongly Napier has stressed undisciplined penalties since his arrival — and the 10 penalties UF committed Saturday — it was shocking.
“I lost my poise…” Napier said. “I need to do better, and I apologize for that.”
He does not, however, need to apologize for how things ended and where things stand.
A 2-2 start to the season shouldn’t be good enough at Florida, but it would have been a pleasant surprise in July, given the roster Napier inherited. Quarterback Anthony Richardson took a major step forward with two more rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns (UF’s first since last year’s Florida State game).
It’s worth remembering, too, that Saturday’s score could have been worse. The Gators trailed 38-21 with 7:55 to go but scored once, forced a stop and scored again. Then they recovered the onside kick to have a prayer at adding another miraculous ending to this series’ recent history (63-yard winning touchdowns by Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland in 2015 and 2017).
Richardson’s last-gasp lob was intercepted. But Florida still put itself in position to beat a very good team on the road despite an awful defense performance and a litany of self-inflicted mistakes, from Napier on down.
“Although we lost the game,” Napier said, “I think we grew up a little bit today.”
Maybe that sounds like positive spin from a losing coach. But maybe it’s true.
A year ago, a different first-year SEC coach saw his team make a series of head-scratching mistakes to lose on the road to the No. 11 team. A year later, Heupel called that loss to Florida a turning point for his program — one that led them to Saturday’s milestone triumph.
Will the Gators make a similar transformation? That’s up to them. Starting with Napier.
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