After the Navy moved my wife and I to Illinois in the summer of last year, I wasn't able to make it to a single Florida football game for the first time since 1988 when I was three-years-old. All in all, it wasn't a bad year for such a streak to end. Given our upcoming move to Italy, I wanted to get to one more home game before being overseas for at least three years. Months ago, I picked the LSU game to be the one.
It was my first game in the Swamp since the LSU game of 2012. A lot has changed since then. At the time, that game was taken as basically the proof on concept that Will Muschamp football was a thing that could work in Gainesville. The mighty Tigers hadn't lost a regular season game since 2010, and they had blown out the Gators 41-11 in a hilariously mismatched game the previous season. LSU had a 6-0 lead at halftime, but Mike Gillislee and the UF offensive line wore down LSU's defense in the second half.
Florida won that game 14-6, having taken down the No. 4 team in exactly the style that Muschamp desired for his team. However reluctantly, fans were beginning to buy into what this new coach was selling. Sure, it wasn't what we're used to, but hey, it worked.
It was an altogether different experience this year. Plenty of people showed up to campus, but it didn't feel like a party. The Swamp was almost full, except for the now-customary empty seats in the upper north end zone, and it got plenty loud at the key points. Even so, it seemed like the confidence that so long defined that building is gone. Ever felt an entire stadium cringe at once? Every time a deep pass left Jeff Driskel's hand on Saturday, I did.
This all may be old news, something that happened—and probably was a lot worse—towards the end of the 2013 disaster. But 2014 was supposed to be something of a new beginning for the team with the brand new offensive scheme that actually would feel out of place in 1972. Needing three overtimes to beat Kentucky and getting smoked by Alabama will deflate the sails for Florida fans pretty quickly, though. So will being stuck in the cognitive dissonance zone of rooting for a win for the players' sake while hoping the coaching staff gets fired, two completely incongruous goals.
I scarcely could have asked for a more memorable one-last-game, even if the outcome wasn't what I had hoped for. In the end, two plays doomed the Gators. One you know. The other is one you wouldn't expect.
The one you know was Driskel's final interception. I put that play entirely on Kurt Roper. Driskel recognized pre-snap that a blitz was coming and made a quick throw to Latroy Pittman on a short slant over the middle. In a vacuum, that's not the worst decision in that situation, particularly since an accurate throw likely would have been complete.
In that situation, it made no sense whatsoever. The ball snapped at 34 seconds to go, and the Gators had no timeouts. They weren't in field goal range either. The only acceptable options there are throwing to the sideline or throwing over the middle beyond the first down line. There should not have been an option short and over the middle, even as some kind of ploy to draw defenders, because Driskel can't be trusted not to go for it. As a coach, you have to be aware not just of your players' strengths but their weaknesses as well. Decision making is not one of Driskel's strengths. Don't tell your kid he must eat vegetables and then leave a bowl of M&Ms out.
The other play was Driskel's bomb to Demarcus Robinson with 2:40 to go that set up the game-tying field goal. As we saw, even if that play works, it leaves far too much time on the clock for LSU. There are two rules when it comes to Les Miles: you don't try to diagram his sentences, and you don't leave him time at the end of a close game. Something crazy will happen and he'll win. That's just how it works. And anyway, it was much more likely to be incomplete or intercepted given Driskel's tendency to underthrow the deep ball that night. The probable outcome wasn't a completion but rather a back breaking turnover at worst or a second-and-long at best. There were three things that could happen with that play, and all were bad.
That decision is on Roper too, who is looking more and more like an ironic hire. Muschamp wasn't a head coach before coming to Florida, and he made plenty of rookie mistakes. In order to save his job, he went with an offensive coordinator who had never been fully in control of an offense before. Sure he was offensive coordinator at Duke, but David Cutcliffe is the head boss of offense there. Those two huge miscues—particularly the first one I outlined about the short middle route—smack of rookie mistakes for Roper.
Muschamp still yet can save his job. As long as you assume Kentucky will pick up another SEC loss—and it has at least three more coming—then Florida still controls its own destiny in the East. If, say, Treon Harris can provide similar levels of production as Driskel does but without the turnovers, then every SEC game except Georgia from here on out looks totally winnable thanks to the improving defense. Even the game against the Bulldogs might be if Todd Gurley remains sidelined. It's not likely by any stretch, but it's not unthinkable that Florida could finish the regular season at 8-4 with the additional losses being to FSU and to the West champ in Atlanta. That would be enough to save the head coach's job.
As I shuffled out of the stadium Saturday night, I couldn't help but wonder how things will be the next time I'll be there. It'll be four years from now in the 2018 season at the earliest that I'll next take in a game there. Four years ago Urban Meyer was still the Gators' head coach, the SEC had 12 teams and no immediate plans to expand, and a playoff of any kind for college football was still something that some people wondered if they'd ever see it in their lifetimes. In the next few years, at the least the NCAA will see enormous changes both due to its own volition and outside lawsuits.
It's been hard being a college football expat, living in Illinois for these two seasons and being so disconnected from the fan base I had been so plugged into for all of my life. It'll be even harder being half a world away where prime time games kick off after 1 a.m.
I hope the Gators make a bowl, and specifically a bowl in the state of Florida, where we'll be in the time leading up to our move in January. My wife wasn't able to come down for this one, and I want to go to one more game with her even if it's a noon kick in a half empty NFL stadium against Minnesota.
Even now, just days after having my heart ripped out in person, I affirm that college football is better than not-college football. Don't take it for granted.