Angry and embarrassed, will Florida be at its best against Alabama?
Steve Spurrier used to love to quote the great Vince Lombardi, who said “winning is a habit.” Winning is something programs and teams learn do over time and repetition. Greatness doesn’t happen overnight and bad habits often have to be pried and chipped away, rather than ripped off like Band-aids. “The best programs,” Spurrier said, “don’t just dislike losing. They coach and practice as a group to make a habit of winning.”
Florida appeared to have developed the habit of winning over much of the past 3 seasons. Dan Mullen won 29 of his first 35 games as Florida’s head coach, despite inheriting a program with as many losing seasons as SEC Championship game appearances since 2009. Mullen was, including interim coaches, Florida’s fifth head coach in a decade, and until him, no one seemed to have figured out the “habit of winning” formula.
Mullen’s 36th game as Florida’s head football coach proved that his Florida program hasn’t quite mastered the “habit of winning” just yet. If they had, they wouldn’t have lost at home on Senior night in The Swamp to a 3-5 LSU team starting a true freshman quarterback and playing with just 54 available scholarship players. That’s not the type of thing that teams that have developed a “habit of winning” do, and the loss wasn’t just about Marco Wilson throwing a shoe. Wilson’s mental lapse was but one is a sequence of team mistakes that made Florida’s Senior night defeat a complete team loss, one where no one, outside of Kadarius Toney and Malik Davis, really showed up for four quarters.
A home loss to a 3-5 LSU, regardless of the Tigers’ substantial talent level, is not the type of game a national championship contender loses, and it isn’t the kind of game a championship culture loses.
Take Spurrier, for example. In his tenure at Florida, which spanned from 1990-2001, the Gators never lost to an unranked opponent in The Swamp. Never. Winning was a habit, and even on days the Gators were flat, they found a way to secure a victory. In fact, Florida didn’t lose to an unranked SEC opponent under Spurrier until 2000, when they were blasted by what ended up being a pretty darn good Mississippi State team in Starkville.
Mullen’s setback happened much sooner, and at what seems to be the worst possible moment.
On the verge of what would have been the biggest football game Florida has played since the 2009 SEC Championship, the Gators lost focus and lost a football game. Now, while Florida’s hopes of a College Football Playoff berth aren’t officially “DOA” in Atlanta, the Gators won’t just have a “win and you’re in” situation. Instead, there are reasonable scenarios where Florida beats Alabama and is left out of the Playoff anyway. If that happens, the Gators will have no one to blame but themselves.
That should make Florida angry. The Gators ought to be embarrassed by their performance against LSU. They should be immensely motivated to play their best football game of the 2020 season on Saturday against the No. 1 Crimson Tide. To win, they were going to have to do that anyway; now, they should have the added benefit of showing up with a festering fury and Swamp-sized chip on their shoulder. Everyone in Florida’s football facility — from the coaches to the players to the support staff — should be upset and ready to atone for what happend Saturday in the Swamp.
Will that happen?
Mullen’s immediate reaction was less than encouraging.
Mullen’s snarky postgame comment that “the best thing to do to would’ve been to play less games, because you seem to be rewarded for this year for not playing,” struck the wrong chord. Sorry, Coach. As a head coach in this league for over a decade, Mullen knows that all you can do is control what is controllable. He knows his football team couild have just approached a date with a 3-5 LSU team missing 3 starting defensive backs a bit more seriously and there would be no need for bitter snark.
How about a little accountability? How about not blaming things happening elsewhere, due to COVID-19, poor administrative foresight in other conferences, scheduling quirks — and focusing on yourself, what you did wrong and how your operation can get better?
One of the more refreshing things about Spurrier in the rare instances he did lose at Florida was how accountable he was after defeats. “We have to play better and it starts with us coaches needing to coach them better,” the Ol’ Ball Coach used to say. Mullen, who has openly professed his admiration for Spurrier, may want to go to Spurrier’s office down the hall and ask a question or two about that.
Mullen’s initial response may have just been a case of a frustrated coach eagerly trying to turn the page to the next big challenge in Alabama. On paper, this looks like one of the mightiest versions of the Crimson Tide fielded in the Saban dynasty. “They don’t have any weaknesses,” Mullen said Sunday, showing he’s quite capable at having focus and foresight.
The thing is, Mullen has a pretty good football team too.
The defense was terrible Saturday, giving up 30 points at home to a LSU offense missing the 3 best playmakers on its roster. But the Gators had played better over the season’s final month, and if they clean up silly mistakes — like the Kaiir Elam blitz from the wrong side when he shouild have been coverage, which resulted in an LSU touchdown — Florida has the personnel to at least make Alabama punt a few times.
Meanwhile, Kyle Trask was mortal Saturday. He can’t be in Atlanta, but if the guy who entered the LSU game with 38 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions shows up, the Gators have a senior quarterback playing for a championship. Kyle Trask with a chip on his shoulder has been a remarkable story. Could an angry Kyle Trask be even more special?
The return of Kyle Pitts will certainly help. Pitts’s absence from the LSU game begs a whole different set of questions. But let’s say we simply trust that the Florida medical staff didn’t feel like he could play, and that the decision to sit him wasn’t about Florida believing it could beat LSU without him. If Trask has all his weapons at his disposal, there’s no reason Florida can’t post a big number on the scoreboard, even if it isn’t the 48 points the only other top 10 offense Alabama has faced this season managed.
Alabama will be motivated too, of course.
The Tide will be in the College Football Playoff regardless, but Nick Saban’s culture is a championship culture because it is self-motivating. The Tide don’t need to lose a football game to a bad LSU team to play angry or inspired. They simply want to be the best version of Alabama they can be.
It’s a place all programs aspire to be. It’s just not one Florida is at yet. An outstanding, angry, motivated performance from the Gators Saturday might not be enough to win a championship. But it would go a long way in showing Florida’s loss to LSU was just a blip on the radar, a tough learning moment for a program that is very much still on the rise.