A week ago, Florida was pummeled by archrival Georgia, 42-7.
Jim McElwain was fired the following day, reaching a buyout settlement with the university after a little over two and a half seasons as its head football coach. The McElwain era started brightly, and the program reached Atlanta in his only two full seasons, but was quickly undone in year three by a combination of his inability to fix years of Gators ineptitude on offense and a series of embarrassing incidents for the coach and the program off the field.
The parting of ways with McElwain was, in the words of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, “about more than wins and losses.”
In the end, Florida moved on from McElwain because it strives to play to a higher standard, on the field and off it.
Saturday, playing a Mizzou team that entered the game 0-4 in the SEC, was supposed to be a day to move the program forward in the aftermath of McElwain’s abrupt departure. It was to be game one in moving Florida back to the University and Florida athletic association’s lofty aspiration to provide “a championship experience with integrity.”
All week, Florida’s coaches and players said the right things, did the right things. Players bounced around at practice and talked about sending the seniors out winners. Coaches talked about character and the energy on the field and in meeting rooms. Safety Chauncey Gardner even posted an Instagram image suggesting the Gators were going to come out and go into “savage mode” Saturday in Columbia.
The Gators appeared and sounded ready to move on.
Instead, the Gators delivered a second consecutive ignominious performance, losing 45-16 and embarrassing the program on the field in the process.
To suggest the game was an embarrassment to Florida’s program isn’t an accusation that should be taken lightly. But it’s difficult to see Saturday’s blowout loss in any other light. Florida’s players seemed distracted and disinterested, too busy to be bothered putting effort into the fundamental things that go into winning, like blocking and tackling.
Maybe the Gators’ players lost heart when they lost McElwain, by almost all accounts a players’ coach who cared deeply for his guys as individuals. Maybe, sensing the season is lost, they are saving themselves for the NFL Combine (not many of them, to be fair), or a new coaching staff, or a forthcoming transfer. Who knows?
What was clear is that the Gators didn’t want to be in Columbia, Missouri, on a cold November afternoon. Mentally, physically and emotionally, this was a team that wanted to be anywhere but together in competition.
That there were glaring exceptions that did decide to show up made Florida’s lack of collective desire even more jarring. Malik Zaire didn’t execute, but he repeatedly clapped his hands, urging heads to be raised and effort be given. Lamical Perine ran hard like always, zigging and zagging and tirelessly moving his legs in the scrum despite blocks that never came. Tyrie Cleveland laid out for balls and charged into blocks. Marco Wilson fought talented receivers tooth and nail all afternoon. David Reese fit run gaps waiting for help that was always late. Eddy Piniero was ready when called upon.
But mostly, Florida just got whipped.
Florida was whipped in the opening minutes of the first quarter, when Missouri ran power and dared the Gators to stop it, and the Gators defense cowered and hid.
Florida was whipped in the coaching booth, where it took a half to fit run gaps and two quarters to move the pocket with Malik Zaire at quarterback.
And Florida was whipped late, when Missouri’s backups were pummeling Feleipe Franks on nearly every passing play.
Florida was out-blocked, out-schemed, out-tackled and thoroughly outclassed.
By a 3-5 Missouri team.
Yes, Missouri is an improving team under Barry Odom and it deserves credit for taking a reeling Gators team to the woodshed. And yes, Drew Lock and Mizzou were easily the best offense Florida’s young defense, playing under interim defensive coordinator Chris Rumph, had faced all season. But there’s no excuse for Florida being four touchdowns worse than a good Missouri team, let alone a middling one.
And yet Florida could learn a great deal from Missouri’s character. After a 1-5 start, Mizzou’s season was said to be lost and the program’s direction under Barry Odom was questioned. Rather than pout, the Tigers have played angry and desperate, eager to get better, unafraid to fail and with plenty of energy. They’ve won three straight and should reach a bowl game.
And that’s the type of turnaround that makes Florida’s collective indifference Saturday even more of a shame. The Gators entered the Missouri game with plenty to play for this season and moving into next year, when, undoubtedly, a third coaching staff in a decade will promise to fix the offense and change the culture. These four games should have been viewed as an opportunity to put something prideful on film, whether for the next staff or the next level. Beyond a handful of individuals, it’s hard to imagine what from this film the Florida players could be proud about. And with three games to play, there’s little indication anything will get better.
Florida’s program was long-feared under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer for being able to back up bold, brash talk with big wins, playing an electric brand of football with fast, physical defenses and swashbuckling offenses. As the SEC’s “nouveau riche,” no one liked the Gators, but everyone respected them. Now the respect is waning or gone altogether, and Florida’s program mostly just talks a big game, since it doesn’t win often enough to play in many.
I’ve written plenty this season that so many of Florida’s teams, even elite ones, like the 11-2 team in 2012, play two opponents always. There’s the one on the field any given Saturday and the echoes and ghosts of the Spurrier and Stoops and Meyer and Tebow and Harvin years past. That’s part of the deal at Florida, and that culture won’t change for whichever coach takes over next month.
But after Saturday’s flop at Faurot Field, you can add a third opponent and battle for the new coach to tangle with.
The battle to regain the program’s self-respect.