GAINESVILLE — Any lingering optimism about a quick Florida Gators turnaround ended in Saturday’s 22-point loss to No. 1 Georgia. And judging by all the Bulldogs red and empty teal seats on UF’s side of TIAA Bank Field last week, the harsh reality of the rebuilding job Billy Napier faces had settled in long before kickoff.
With UF’s usual goals — a national title, a conference championship, winning the SEC East — impossible, what’s left for the Gators, starting Saturday at Texas A&M?
Start with a bowl game.
“I feel it’s very critical because you go to University of Florida, and they just automatically assume they’re going to have a championship and a bowl game,” offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence said.
But that assumption is not a given. At 4-4, UF needs two victories to clinch bowl eligibility, and Vanderbilt is the only easy win left. You can sneer at the Liberty Bowl or Gator Bowl, but qualifying for the postseason has clear benefits beyond the indignity of missing a bowl for only the third time in the last 30 years.
“More meetings, more walk-throughs, more practice opportunity,” Napier said. “There’s no question this is a developmental game, and you do that in a practice setting.”
A bowl would give the Gators 15 more of those settings.
Aside from developing the current roster, a bowl would be a boost for Napier’s future teams, too.
Florida’s 2023 recruiting class sits ninth in the 247 Sports composite. A bowl isn’t required to stay there (or climb higher), but it’d help. In the last 11 cycles, only six teams have signed top-10 recruiting classes after losing seasons. The list includes Florida after Will Muschamp’s 4-8 season and Steve Sarkisian a year ago after his 5-7 first season at Texas.
The Gators can still realistically dream higher than a bowl. Aside from Vanderbilt, it wouldn’t be a shock to see UF lose any or all of the other three remaining games (at Texas A&M, home against South Carolina and at Florida State). But it also wouldn’t be a shock to see UF win any or all of them, either.
A 4-0 finish is unlikely, but it’s not outlandish to consider. Add in a bowl game, and a nine-win campaign would be a fine accomplishment for Napier’s first season. That’s what he was probably thinking about when he said the final month is about “finding a way to win a game one week at a time to create some momentum.”
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The momentum can also show up with intangibles, which is one of Napier’s biggest points of emphasis as he tries to set the foundation.
Immediately after the Georgia loss, Napier said he felt the game “might have been a turning point to some degree relative to what is really in there, in your heart, in your soul, between your ears.” Though every coach stresses the importance of intangibles, Napier brings it up more than most, whether it’s refusing to quit down 17 at Tennessee, reiterating that better people make better players or extolling the GatorMade program, which helps players develop on and off the field.
That’s why the No. 1 long-term sign Napier is monitoring in this final month is resiliency.
“There’s a certain loyalty required in this game, and I think that I see that from some of our players,” Napier said. “We’ve got a group that really cares. They’ve showed that throughout the year. When backed in a corner, they’ve always kind of stood up and get up off the ground and kept competing and playing with effort, trying to do their best for their teammates.”
They’ve got four more games, at least, to try to keep it going and show that Florida is headed in the right direction.
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