Florida football: Gators, Billy Napier staying the course after UK loss

“We know what winning football looks like. Certainly Saturday was not that.”
Florida football coach Billy Napier isn't making major changes for the Gators after a lopsided loss at Kentucky.
Florida football coach Billy Napier isn't making major changes for the Gators after a lopsided loss at Kentucky. [ MICHELLE HAAS HUTCHINS | AP ]
Published Oct. 2|Updated Oct. 3

GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators coach Billy Napier boiled his 9-9 past, tenuous present and increasingly uncertain future into one phrase Monday:

“Nothing’s changed here.”

Whether you believe that’s good, bad or ugly after Saturday’s 33-14 loss at Kentucky is up to you. But after an unusually defensive news conference to kick off Vanderbilt week, Napier is staying the course.

In some ways, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Napier could have made substantial changes after his 6-7 first season. He chose not to, for better and worse.

Billy Napier doubles down

After fielding a historically bad defense last season, Napier doubled down on his system. He replaced one wunderkind mid-major coordinator (Patrick Toney) with another from the same tree (Austin Armstrong). Aside from Saturday’s showing at Kentucky, the decision has paid off; Florida has the nation’s No. 25 scoring defense and has allowed 38 fewer points through its first four Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) games compared to last year.

Napier decided not to bring fresh blood to his onfield staff. His other two hires were a receivers coach who had two previous stints at UF (Billy Gonzales) and the promotion of defensive intern Russ Callaway.

Napier also could have followed UCF’s Gus Malzahn, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz by delegating some, if not all, of his offensive play-calling duties to focus more of his attention elsewhere. He did not.

He said Monday he isn’t changing now, either, despite an offense that’s No. 108 nationally in scoring against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.

Florida's offense struggled to get things going at Kentucky.
Florida's offense struggled to get things going at Kentucky. [ SILAS WALKER | Lexington Herald-Leader ]

“I think one of the things that’s challenging as a leader when you have a core responsibility, if there’s things in that area that can be done better, you’ve got to be able to tell yourself the truth…” Napier said. “I would tell you I’m a lot more critical of myself than anybody on the outside is. And I said it — I’ve said it publicly — there’s no sugarcoating this thing. We have no excuse.”

How, then, does Florida explain its worst loss to Kentucky since 1979 or Saturday’s 2.4 rushing average (including sacks)?

Napier said the Gators were “lethargic,” then lost the turnover battle (4-0, including a special teams blunder and turnover on downs), the explosive plays battle (9-5), the penalties battle (10-3) and the battle in hidden yardage.

“We know what winning football looks like,” Napier said. “Certainly Saturday was not that.”

Napier cautioned against making too much of one performance. He said four times Monday that the questions he faced weren’t being asked two weeks ago after his statement win over Tennessee.

But that doesn’t mean the concerns aren’t valid.

Florida Gators’ rocky run game

Napier’s program is built to dominate the ground game but has averaged fewer than 2.4 yards per carry in four of its last six games against Power Five competition (including this season’s losses to Kentucky and Utah). Florida stressed one specific special-teams penalty last week but did it, anyway, with a leap over a blocker that gave Kentucky a fresh set of downs. After failing to have 11 men on the field against Utah and Charlotte, the Gators had too many on defense during a goal-line play — and still allowed a touchdown.

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The Gators couldn't stop Kentucky's Ray Davis on Saturday.
The Gators couldn't stop Kentucky's Ray Davis on Saturday. [ SILAS WALKER | Lexington Herald-Leader ]

“Listen, the level of detail that we put into evaluating a football game every week, that process doesn’t change,” Napier said. “I know we all like to think that it does change according to the result or the outcome that we get, but that’s not necessarily true. I think there’s got to be some consistency and some continuity in how you do that.”

Everything, Napier said, remains under evaluation. But he’s an even-keeled, methodical thinker. Nothing about his demeanor, approach or history suggests he’s willing to scrap his process or philosophies because of one game or even a tepid 3-2 start to Year 2 — if he even should.

Instead, Napier expects he, his staff and his team to evolve, the same way they did when he turned Louisiana into a perennial Sun Belt Conference contender.

“We didn’t play well Saturday,” Napier said, “but that doesn’t change my belief in what we do and how we do it.”

Which leads to the biggest question in Gainesville: When will that belief start changing the SEC standings?

Week 7 kickoff, TV information

USF will host Florida Atlantic next week at 3:30.
USF will host Florida Atlantic next week at 3:30. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Some game details for the Oct. 14 contests were announced Monday:

Florida Atlantic at USF: 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

Florida at South Carolina: 3:30 p.m., SEC Network

ESPN has not yet decided the kickoff time for Syracuse at Florida State or Miami at North Carolina. Both will air on ABC, either at noon or 7:30 p.m.

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