An open letter to Florida fans: 2018 is about hope. Embrace it and enjoy the ride
Dear Florida Fans,
After a summer of talking, it’s finally here.
August. Fall camp.
Football season is so close you can taste the brisket (fat side up, of course).
Tailgate plans are in place or coming together. The drive to work is starting to feel a little less painful and methodical.
Gameday is on the horizon.
Fans across the country are hopeful and bright-eyed, as engaged as the first handshake at the year’s first tailgate. In places like Clemson, S.C., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., fans are hopeful that the good times will continue to roll. Those places are the minority. There’s only so much room on a mountain’s summit.
In Norman, Okla., and in downtown Los Angeles, the campuses are mostly still empty but there’s a palpable buzz about what almost was and what could be. In Columbus, Ohio, there’s trepidation, about the future and about whether a program’s latest stretch of glory is set to turn to gloom.
Losing can be numbing. Sometimes, it’s tougher to win plenty, be so close to glory and narrowly miss. Ask the folks in Athens, Ga., who have weathered months of hobnail boot agony about what happened on 2nd-and-26. But even in the face of crushing heartbreak, a new season is about new beginnings.
On most campuses, around most office water coolers and in the homes and hearths of the fans of the majority of schools, August represents hope, regardless of what pitfalls lurk in September and beyond.
Hope that a prized recruit or recruiting class will deliver the payload or bridge the gap between pretender and contender.
Hope that a new coach or hyped new coordinator will create the necessary culture change or be the missing schematic ingredient.
Hope that somewhere in last season’s most heart-wrenching loss will be the lesson that guides this year’s conquest. Hope last season’s weakness or youth is this season’s toughness or grizzled experience.
It’s no different in Gainesville.
Gators fans: This is a season is where y’all should be hopeful.
Hopeful that in new head coach Dan Mullen, a program on its fourth coach since 2010 has finally found the right guy to lead them out of the wilderness they’ve been in since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009.
Hopeful that Mullen, the offensive coordinator for two of Florida’s national football championships, can finally fix a broken offense that hasn’t finished in the Top 25 in S &P+ Offense since Tim Tebow graduated, and bottomed out last season at an abysmal 108th.
In the past five seasons, Florida has suffered two losing seasons, losing seven games or more twice. Before that period, Florida had not suffered a losing season since 1979. In that time period, under two coaching staffs and three offensive coordinators, the Gators have finished 100th, 74th, 88th, 88th and 108th in S & P+ offense. Those are horrifying results at Florida, where Steve Spurrier’s “Fun N Gun” Offense revolutionized the SEC and Meyer and Mullen’s offense helped pace Florida to two national championships and a four-year span from 2006-2009 where the program only lost seven games.
For perspective, Mullen’s worst offense at Mississippi State in the previous five seasons finished 63rd, and his offenses finished in the top 20 twice in that time span, advancing to a bowl game each season and holding the No. 1 ranking for a month in 2014.
I get it. It won’t be an easy fix. It’s hard not to be cynical. Florida fans have heard “this guy will fix the offense” before, and that’s before you discuss the reality that this isn’t an easy fix. But this is a coach who has proven he can do it in Gainesville.
In Mullen’s four seasons as offensive coordinator in The Swamp, the Gators never finished outside the top 25 in S&P+ offense. In his final two seasons (2007 and 2008), the Gators finished No. 1.
Still, losing is a habit. It’s easy to think brighter days aren’t on the horizon, especially when the program has spent the better part of a decade in a holding pattern of mediocrity and Florida’s most bitter rivals, Florida State and Georgia, have each played for national championships, with the hated Noles even winning one.
Here’s the thing: Mullen gets that too. This isn’t a guy who will wear loafers with no socks to a booster meeting, condescend to the press and brag loudly about an Outback Bowl win a month after losing a SEC Championship game by 37 points.
Mullen understands that the standard is different at Florida, the program that dragged the SEC kicking and screaming out of its three-yards and a cloud-of-dust Bear Bryant hangover and into the 21st century. He was a key architect on the staff that put together the program that in 2006, ushered in a near-decade of single conference dominance in college football.
To borrow outright from Gainesville’s gone-too-soon native son Tom Petty, Mullen won’t back down from what it means to be a Gator. He knows on Gale Lemerand Drive the head coaching job and parking space comes with one of the nation’s best home recruiting bases, a 90,000 seat mosh-pit heat chamber of a homefield advantage and a wall painted with more success than any SEC program outside of Alabama over the last three decades.
Nevertheless, there was noise in the system this summer, and I’m not talking about the nothing-burger involving Gainesville ne’er-to-do Tay Bang, gambling, BB guns and a skillet reported late last month.
After signing the best transition class in school history (on paper, where this is not a debate), Mullen and his staff started slowly on the critical “bump class.” In between legitimate questions about recruiting strategy, folks began to criticize Mullen and the recruiters on staff before they even coached their first game, with the noise growing louder every time Georgia received a commitment from another five-star, which, to be fair, seems to happen every day.
In the last week, however, there have been signs of hope.
Following Florida’s annual Friday Night Lights recruiting showcase, 2020 quarterback Anthony Richardson committed to Florida. Days later, Diwun Black, one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects, flipped to Florida from Ole Miss. Coveted in-state blue-chips Keon Zipperer and Lloyd Summerall are expected to be next. The Gators have momentum.
This week, the Gators received another shot-in-the-arm just before the opening of fall camp. Highly-touted transfer wide receivers Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson were cleared to play immediately by the NCAA. While Jefferson, who transferred from Ole Miss, will still need a waiver from the SEC to play this year, he’s expected to receive one, and the addition of these two explosive players will give Florida a wide receiver corps that is one of the most talented groups in the country.
That group should give Gators fans about the offense before you get to the fact that the offensive line returns all five starters and has a SEC high collective 112 starts returning. Or the fact Florida returns a stable of running backs that includes former blue-chip Jordan Scarlett, Malik Davis, who was an All-SEC freshman last season, Adarius Lemons, who tallied 110 yards on 13 carries against FSU and UAB last November, and Lamical Perine, who is a powerful runner with great leg turnover that’s a perfect fit for Mullen’s zone blocking schemes.
This is a roster with potential difference makers, and as Florida continues to operate under a veil of uncertainty as it relates to the quarterback position, that’s a reason for hope.
Amid the continued veil of uncertainty at the QB position, hope remains.
On defense, the bulk of what was a young unit returns, under new coordinator Todd Grantham. The linebackers aren’t great, but Florida has plenty of high-rent talent up front and in Grantham’s aggressive Steelers 3-4, Cece Jefferson, one of the last 5-star players on the roster, should shine as a senior.
DBU should be DBU, too, with a lockdown corner in Marco Wilson on one side, an All-SEC freshman team performer in C.J. Henderson on the other, and an early round draft pick in junior Chauncey Gardner-Johnson at the nickel.
All told, there’s plenty on defense that suggests Florida should be far better than last year’s unit, which was the first Gators defense since 2007 to finish outside the top 25 in S&P+ defense.
In other words, be hopeful.
But manage expectations. Be patient. This is Florida, but Florida in 2018 isn’t a fast rebuild. It is, as one longtime SEC assistant told me last month, a “long rebuild, similar to the one Dabo (Swinney) had at Clemson,” before adding, “but Dan will build it, if the fan base lets him.”
In the “What have you done for me lately” world of college football, the Gators have spent a long time as a conference and national afterthought. The road back is long and with Georgia still ascendant, and FSU having beaten Florida in seven of the last eight meetings, it’s one paved with immediate roadblocks.
Gators fans should understand this year is about laying the foundation for the future and be glad that there are pieces in place to lay a strong one.
Most of all, enjoy the college football season.
It’s a great tragedy of life that it only lasts 13 or 14 Saturdays every autumn. Make it fun and hopeful. Make it about the friends and family you love to share it with and the stories you’ll have to tell in the offseason. Stay an extra hour at the tailgate. Pick up your Dad and fire up the grill before the sun comes up and watch football until it goes down again. Head to the Cocktail Party a day early in late October. Go to a road game — maybe the Vol Navy in Knoxville if you want to see Florida win or Starkville if you just want to see an incredible environment, even if the Gators get their cowbells rung. Fill the Swamp and make it loud and fun and hell again. Sing the alma mater after a loss. Soak it in. And believe it will be better this year.