GAINESVILLE — With Florida’s 28-20 defeat at South Carolina last Saturday, the chances of the Gators going to a bowl game this season all but disappeared.
Just a week after a comprehensive failure of a performance at Missouri, the chance to make a bowl game by closing the season strong had been a rallying cry for a Florida team which has been through so much adversity this season. After all the suspensions, injuries and the loss of their head coach, to play in any bowl would say something about the character of the Gators who remained with the team. At South Carolina, the Gators played hard but came up short.
Florida State, trying to salvage its lengthy streak of bowls and winning seasons, rescheduled a game lost because of Hurricane Irma. Florida’s athletic department has not done so and at this late stage, in the midst of a coaching search, appears disinclined to do so. So Florida’s hopes of a bowl likely ended on Saturday unless the Gators get a surprise bid through their Academic Progress Rating score of 980. So a bid at 5-6 is theoretically possible.
Without a bowl game to rally around, it’s fair to ask how motivated Florida will be in its final two games, starting Saturday against UAB. It’s never easy to play out the string, and it’s even more difficult at the end of a tumultuous season without a head coach. It would be understandable if players and coaches had one foot out the door.
But there’s still plenty to play for too. Here’s five reasons the Gators should want to finish strong.
Defend The Swamp
Florida’s juniors and seniors have been quite good at home, losing once in Gainesville from 2015-16.
Florida’s ability to hold serve in The Swamp was a big reason season ticket sales spiked significantly entering this season, and a huge reason the Gators won back-to-back SEC East Division titles.
Florida’s trend of home dominance changed this October, with consecutive narrow defeats to LSU and Texas A &M.
The two remaining contests are a chance to finish this season strong in The Swamp and salvage some of the homefield advantage from the initial two years of the Jim McElwain era.
Film for the NFL — or the next coaching staff
Call this “pride” if you want, but, more than pride should motivate Florida’s players to finish the season strong.
Players like defensive tackle Taven Bryan and Martez Ivey are almost assured being selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Bryan has rocketed up draft boards with a monstrous junior campaign in which he often has made opposing linemen look silly. Ivey has slipped a bit in his first full season playing his natural left tackle position but remains the third-rated left tackle available according to The Sports Exchange’s NFL Draft aggregate rating.
For other Gators veterans like senior Duke Dawson, junior Cece Jefferson and tight ends C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby, these games are the last chance to put something on film which could help make them rise from a late-round draft pick or undrafted free agent to a mid-round pick with a more secure financial future.
And the Gators who remain for 2018 should consider these final two games an early positional competition, a chance to put live game reps on film for the new coaching staff to evaluate. Players only get so many chances to put live repetitions on film. Why squander them?
Not losing to UAB, which just restarted football
The Gators won’t want to be a part of a football team which finishes with the school’s worst record since 1979, when Florida finished an ignominious 0-10-1.
As much as this decade of football has worn on Gators fans’ patience and psyches, the only genuine freefall was the star-crossed 4-8 season of 2013. That team had plenty of talent, including a salty defense which finished 15th in S&P+ defensive efficiency. But the Gators were railroaded by injuries to quarterback Jeff Driskel, backup quarterback Tyler Murphy and the team’s captain, defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Things probably would have turned out differently had they remained healthy.
But hardly anyone remembers that. What people remember is the 4-8 record and a home loss to then-FCS team Georgia Southern, in a game where the Gators blocked themselves on offense and the Eagles didn’t complete a single pass.
As it stands today, most Gators and national media people will remember this failed season for the Credit Card 9, the costly Marcell Harris and Malik Davis injuries, and McElwain’s bizarre and abrupt departure. If the new staff turns the program around quickly, 2017 will be an afterthought.
That changes if Florida loses to UAB on Saturday. A loss in The Swamp against a school which just rebooted its football program would become the defining moment and lasting memory in a season gone terribly wrong.
The coaches will soon be looking for work
What’s easier to sell?
“I failed so badly at Florida that when I was a coach the program suffered its worst season in 40 years.”
Or, “Things went badly, but we coached our rear ends off, never quit and were competitive in our final three ball games and won one or two?”
At Florida, which has won more SEC championships than any other school in the past 30 years, the answer is obvious.
The Gators staff, which entering 2017 added running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, defensive backs coach Corey Bell and offensive line coach Brad Davis, is now headed for a full makeover. Aside from Seider, Davis and interim head coach Randy Shannon, it’s unlikely any assistants will be considered as candidates for the next staff — and even Shannon and Davis are unlikely to be retained. That, coupled with fidelity to the kids they coach, should be plenty motivating to Florida’s interim staff.
It’s only human to have one foot out the door, resume in hand. But the assistants would do themselves and their bank accounts a disservice if they take that attitude.
Beat Florida State, of course
With no bowl game on the horizon, Florida’s game Nov. 25 against FSU becomes the Gators’ de facto bowl.
Beating the rival Seminoles should be the priority for this football team.
Florida has beaten FSU only once this decade (2012), and hasn’t done so in The Swamp since 2009, when some guy named Tim Tebow roamed the sidelines for the Gators.
With FSU scuffling this season, this is a tremendous opportunity for Florida to reclaim momentum in the rivalry.
It’s a showcase game with huge recruiting implications as two of the state’s three flagship programs face off just before the early signing period.
But there’s also the respect factor. FSU doesn’t think much of Florida these days, and with good reason. The Gators haven’t even scored an offensive touchdown in the past two meetings. How little does FSU think of the Gators? The Noles rescheduled a hurricane-canceled home game against Louisiana-Monroe for the following week, the operational assumption being they’ll beat Florida handily in Gainesville and return home with a chance to get bowl eligible. It’s hard to make a more overt gesture of disrespect.
Florida should feed off that, especially at home.
Finally, Florida’s seniors went 3-1 against Georgia and Tennessee, outstanding marks to be sure. But they’ve never held the Gator head high and celebrated after a meeting with their in-state rivals to the west. As badly as this season has gone, a win over FSU would salvage an immense amount of pride, and send the seniors out the right way.
That’s an awfully big thing.
Source: Saturday Down South