For first time in 40 years, mediocrity is normal for Gators football

John Romano | After being thumped Saturday by No. 1 Georgia, the Gators are 8-13 in their last 21 games in the SEC.
Georgia defensive lineman Mykel Williams (13) and linebacker Damon Wilson Jr. (35) sack Florida quarterback Graham Mertz (15) during the first half Saturday in Jacksonville.
Georgia defensive lineman Mykel Williams (13) and linebacker Damon Wilson Jr. (35) sack Florida quarterback Graham Mertz (15) during the first half Saturday in Jacksonville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Oct. 29|Updated Oct. 29

JACKSONVILLE — Let’s get this out of the way quickly:

Florida’s fourth-down gamble in the first quarter against No. 1 Georgia was not a mistake.

It was a cry for help.

Think of it as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency moment. It was going to take something extraordinary for the Gators to beat the Bulldogs on Saturday, and coach Billy Napier was appropriately aggressive, albeit with a weirdly complex play call.

So be angry with the 43-20 final result, if you want. Stomp on your orange-and-blue coozie, if you must.

Just aim your ire in the appropriate direction.

This is an institutional failure, not a fourth-down-gamble problem. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Gators are meandering through their worst three-year stretch since the 1970s. With three of their final four games against ranked teams, a third consecutive 6-6 regular season is not out of the question.

If you include Dan Mullen’s final season in 2021, Florida is 8-13 in the SEC. Let that sink in for a moment. Florida has more SEC losses in the past 2½ years than it did during Steve Spurrier’s entire 12-year tenure as head coach.

Seriously, try to pick a lower point in the past 40 years.

The Jim McElwain era, you say? He was 16-6 in the SEC. Maybe Ron Zook? He went 16-8 in league play. Even Will Muschamp managed to go 17-15 in the SEC during his underwhelming four-year trial as head coach.

“I do think this group will respond the right way,” Napier said. “Ultimately, as a staff and as a group of (players), being a man and taking ownership of things that you can do better. Ultimately, we can compromise our character or we can choose character.”

Here’s the worst thing you can say about Saturday’s game:

It wasn’t a surprise.

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) celebrates with teammates and fans after defeating Florida.
Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) celebrates with teammates and fans after defeating Florida. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The Gators were humiliated against their oldest rival for the third year in a row, and America yawned. This is what happens to expectations when you lose three games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt in a span of 12 months.

Making it exponentially worse, Florida’s biggest rivals are on the upswing. Georgia is the two-time defending national champion and sitting atop the polls again this season. Florida State is undefeated and aiming for its first playoff berth in years. Heck, even Miami is making strides in its second season under Mario Cristobal.

The gulf between Florida and Georgia is a heck of a lot wider than the St. Johns River outside EverBank Stadium. In the past three meetings between the teams, the Bulldogs have outscored UF 78-10 in the first half, which means the final 30 minutes of each game have been entirely perfunctory.

Napier insisted he wasn’t taking more chances than usual Saturday, but that seemed disingenuous. The Gators ran flea-flickers, double reverses and whatever the heck that fourth-down wildcat disaster was.

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The coach suggested that a fumble and a blocked punt turned the tide in the first half, but Georgia scored three touchdowns and a field goal on its first four possessions. Other than UF’s impressive opening drive, the Bulldogs were able to turn the volume up or down whenever they chose.

“I think the guys are frustrated,” said quarterback Graham Mertz. “Because we know that we’re better.”

Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. At this point, there isn’t a lot of evidence.

If we’re being fair, there’s an argument that two of Florida’s three losses this season have been against ranked teams. That’s not exactly shameful, but it’s also not what the world has come to expect of the Gators the past three decades.

And none of those three losses was competitive, which suggests they didn’t occur by happenstance.

So is Napier’s job on the line less than two years after being hired?

Probably not in the short term, though the possibility is not far-fetched. The Gators would still owe him a healthy chunk of his seven-year, $51.8 million contract, which makes for an effective firewall against termination.

Florida also needs to stop the revolving door of coaches since Urban Meyer shrewdly skipped town ahead of the pending mediocrity a dozen years ago. Napier seemed to be making that argument himself when asked about big-picture takeaways from Saturday’s game.

“I think it all matters. I think every single part of what we do matters,” Napier said. “The evaluation of players matters. The recruitment of players matters. Ultimately, you need continuity in the system. You need to develop players. This is a developmental game. You need players in your system for multiple years.”

So, yeah, be angry. Be frustrated, and be disgusted.

It’s certainly better than accepting that this is the new normal for Florida.

Contact John Romano at Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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