Billy Napier's next challenge: Handling success -- and a good Kentucky team
If you are a Florida Gators fan, it would be difficult to dream up a better start to the season than what happened last Saturday night in The Swamp.
A record crowd, a sensational football game, a star turn performance by a young quarterback, and a huge win over a top-10 opponent? There’s not a better script to start the Billy Napier era at Florida than that. Or is there?
Thanks to the toughest 2-game start in the sport, many college football writers, analysts and fans pegged the Gators as having a legitimate chance of beginning the Napier era 0-2. Viewed through an objective lens, the predictions weren’t ridiculous or even unfair. Yes, it’s difficult for a visiting team to win in The Swamp. But with games against preseason No. 7 Utah and No. 20 Kentucky to open the season, the Gators were beginning the Napier era by playing ranked teams that play a taxing, physical brand of football. What’s more, both the Utes and the Wildcats are well-coached, highly-disciplined outfits that don’t beat themselves.
If you compared Mark Stoops’ program with Kyle Whittingham’s, you’d find stunning similarities, from the ability to develop 3-star recruits into NFL talent to the emphasis on toughness, physicality at the point of attack, and attention to winning at the margins by committing fewer penalties and making more special teams plays than their opponents.
For Napier’s Gators, winning 1 of those games with a team adjusting to new offensive and defensive systems and a cultural overhaul was going to be a tough ask. Losing 2 close games? That seemed just as likely, if not more likely, than winning both.
Florida, however, bucked the Vegas oddsmakers and college football experts and upset No. 7 Utah. Florida was far from perfect in the 29-26 victory, but the Gators showed outstanding toughness and character, signs that the foundation Napier is building is one that will win and win big in the long-term for Florida. The Gators also unleashed Anthony Richardson on the college football universe, and in a sensational performance that Gators fans everywhere will talk about for a long time, Richardson demonstrated why he’s the rare type of talent that can guide a team to a special season almost through his own sheer skill and will. Beating Utah doesn’t mean that the Florida became national championship contenders overnight. Richardson, however, does give Florida a chance to win every time it takes the field.
Win or lose against the Utes, the Gators were always going to have a chance to beat a ranked Kentucky team in The Swamp. The programs have played several close games over the past decade, and there was not, whether Florida was 1-0 or 0-1, any reason to think this game would be different.
The challenge for Napier now is to convince his players of that fact. Beating a top-10 Utah team that played in the Rose Bowl a season ago is great. It’s a stylish, memorable way to begin a season and a new era of Florida football. It doesn’t mean the Gators can roll out the ball and beat Kentucky.
The late Bobby Bowden, the legendary FSU coach who managed 14 consecutive top-5 finishes in the AP Poll from 1987 to 2000, told me a few summers ago that, “the biggest thing about our consistency wasn’t just the players we had or the coaches we had. It was that everyone in our football program understood that your long-term success was defined by your commitment to daily success. We just wanted to win every day. We prepared like that. If we had a bad practice, we had to have a good one the next day. If we won a game by a field goal, we wanted to win by 14 the next week. We weren’t ever going to put some sod in the sod cemetery and then celebrate that so much we forget about the next game, you know?”
After you win as long as FSU did, that process becomes cultural, like muscle memory.
At a place like Florida, where big wins have been harder to come by over the past 10 years, the process is more difficult. Napier’s goal is to build, from the ground up, a Florida program that can again contend for national championships. Step one is installing and shaping a culture where it is understood that winning one big game doesn’t mean you’ll win the next one, and losing one big game shouldn’t mean you forget to play hard and compete the following week.
Too often over the past decade, regardless of the coaching staff, the Gators have not handled pockets of success well. The problem was especially magnified in the Mullen era, where the Gators let losses to Georgia spill into the following week, or the joy of a win over a rival like Tennessee evaporate into agonizing defeat at Kentucky a week later.
For Napier to build a lasting winner, consistency and, as Bowden put it, letting long-term success be defined by the commitment to daily success, has to be the order of the day.
Kentucky is really good.
As always, Stoops’ team plays defense. They return all 3 starting linebackers, the opposite of what Richardson just exploited when he lit up a Utah defense replacing all its starters at linebacker. They also feature 4-star defensive tackle Justin Rogers in the middle of the defense, and it was Rogers, Florida fans may remember, who graded out as the top defensive linemen against the Gators a season ago, collecting 3 tackles and slowing the run game by bottling up the middle all evening. This defense will challenge the Gators even more than Utah did.
Offensively, Kentucky isn’t as good as Utah, but they are still dangerous and balanced.
Yes, they are down 3 running backs, most notably Chris Rodriguez. But Kavosiey Smoke, a senior with over 1,000 career rushing yards in the SEC and 145 career yards on 34 carries in 3 games against Florida, is plenty good enough to punish a Florida front that surrendered over 200 yards rushing to Utah’s power run game last weekend. Kentucky won’t change its commitment to offensive balance and a physical run game just because Rodriguez and other backs are out. The Wildcats also have a projected first or second-round NFL Draft pick of their own under center in Will Levis. While it’s more than fair to wonder whether Levis is really that good or he was mostly the product of the electric Wan’Dale Robinson’s magic a year ago, the early return of a 303-yard, 3-touchdown passing game against Miami of Ohio is positive for Kentucky. Put simply, there’s enough balance here to score and threaten the Gators’ new-look defense for four quarters.
The Cats are also marvelous on special teams, as usual. The difference in last year’s game was Kentucky made plays in all 3 phases and Florida did not. With return men like speedy freshman Barion Brown, the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week in week one, the Wildcats can hurt you in the return game and get after you in the punt and kicking game.
Barion Brown is going to be SPECIAL ? pic.twitter.com/pVWD3yYkWA
— Blue Chips (@UKBlueChips) September 4, 2022
If Florida doesn’t show up prepared to compete in all three phases, it could be a frustrating night in The Swamp.
The Utah win was a great night for Florida’s football program. It was also just one night.
Lose to Kentucky, and Florida not only squanders that momentum, but they fall behind in the SEC East, with no margin for error in a division that features the reigning national champions, Kentucky, and upstarts like Tennessee and South Carolina. Lose Saturday night, and the energy and optimism about what this Florida team can be in 2022 changes substantially.
Handling success by handling another terrific ranked opponent the following week?
That’s a heady challenge for a head coach in his first season at a program.
But it’s an enormous one facing Billy Napier Saturday night in The Swamp.