Florida football: 10 moments that defined the decade
The 2010s weren’t the kindest decade to Florida.
For the first time since the 1970s, Florida failed to win an SEC Championship. Overall, the Gators lost 46 games in the 2010s and will head to the Orange Bowl carrying a .634 winning percentage (80-46), marking their worst decade since the 1970s. Florida also suffered 2 losing seasons and lost 6 games or more in 3 seasons.
The Gators lost at least 1 home game in all but 3 seasons (except 2012, 2016 and 2019) and lost multiple home games in The Swamp in 6 seasons. For perspective, Florida lost only 5 times in The Swamp during the 1990s under Steve Spurrier.
Losing in college football tends to be a byproduct of several factors, but one common trait among high-level programs that suffer rough patches is coaching turnover.
Florida’s had plenty of that — with 4 head coaches this decade (Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen, and 6 if you include interim spots from DJ Durkin and Randy Shannon.
But for all the bad, there were some memorable moments.
Florida’s bowl streak ended at 33, but the Gators have played in 8 bowl games this decade and close the decade headed to a 2nd consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl.
The Gators won 2 division titles outright (2015, 2016) and shared another (2012), remaining the SEC East program with the most SEC Championship game appearances. Florida also continued to churn out NFL talent, with 60 players drafted this decade (2nd in the SEC behind Alabama) and a 6-year streak with a 1st-round draft pick (2013-2018).
Here are the 10 moments, some good, some not so good, that defined the Gators’ decade.
10. The Credit Card 9 (2017)
Jim McElwain’s final, star-crossed season in Gainesville began with top 10 talking season hype and was quickly derailed by scandal.
All-American wide receiver Antonio Callaway and All-SEC running back Jordan Scarlett were 2 of 9 Florida players caught up in a credit card scheme defrauding the university. None of the Gators involved played for Florida in 2018.
Without his 2 offensive stars, McElwain threw his freshman quarterback, Feleipe Franks, to the Wolverines in the season opener in Dallas. The Gators were routed by Michigan and went on to lose 7 games.
The pressure of a losing campaign weighed on McEwain, who ultimately fabricated a story about receiving death threats from UF fans, putting him in hot water with the university. He ultimately resigned after only 7 games after Florida was thumped 42-7 by rival Georgia in Jacksonville.
9. A memorable 11-1 season in 2012
Florida’s 2012 team featured a host of future NFL players and finished the season ranked 1st in the country in total defense and S&P+ defensive efficiency. It was, quite frankly, one of the nastiest defenses any program put on the field this decade, with multiple starters earning All-American honors (Matt Elam, Sharif Floyd, Jon Bostic).
The Gators won 11 games, including a dominant 37-26 victory at No. 10 Florida State to close the regular season.
The only regular season blemish? A turnover-riddled slog of a loss to Georgia, which ultimately sent the Dawgs to the Georgia Dome and kept the Gators out of the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. The Tide nipped Georgia in an epic, and ran Notre Dame out of the building in the BCS Championship, leaving Florida and Georgia fans wondering what might have been.
Florida wondered all the way to the Sugar Bowl, where they looked disinterested and disengaged in a loss to Charlie Strong’s Louisville.
8. Goal-line stand at LSU to win back-to-back SEC East titles (2016)
The looming threat of Hurricane Matthew forced the originally scheduled game in Gainesville to be postponed. Florida offered to cancel another home game to reschedule, but former LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva refused. Eventually, the league stepped in and a deal was brokered: Florida would play a home game at Tiger Stadium in November, and LSU would visit Gainesville the following 2 seasons.
Florida’s fan base and players, many of whom had their homes threatened by the storm, felt slighted by LSU’s intransigence. “People were just trying to be safe and do what was best for their families, and they took advantage of that and stole a home game,” Florida’s All-American linebacker Jarrad Davis said afterward.
A brawl nearly broke out before the game, and on the field, a rock fight of a defensive struggle ensued.
A 98-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland and a power run game helped Florida seize a 16-10 lead late, but LSU put together a lengthy drive and threatened to win the game. It was 1st-and-goal at the Florida 6-yard line when Davis and the defense made their stand:
The victory sealed a 2nd consecutive SEC East title for the Gators, and saw Jim McElwain famously say that LSU “got what they deserved” for what he believed was playing politics with people’s lives.
7. Matt Elam’s strip of Odell Beckham Jr. (2012)
You thought I was done with that 2012 team, didn’t you?
Not even a little bit.
One of the best defensive plays y0u’ll ever see came from Florida All-American safety Matt Elam against No. 3 LSU, when Elam chased down Odell Beckham Jr. on a long reception and stripped him from behind.
The turnover didn’t just snuff out an LSU drive early in the game, it set the tone for one of Florida’s biggest victories of the decade.
6. That L vs. Georgia Southern in The Swamp (2013)
I don’t know if this was rock bottom — Florida’s flop at Missouri in 2017 where the team more or less quit on the field was probably worse from an effort standpoint — but it was certainly the most humbling moment.
Georgia Southern hadn’t moved to FBS yet and the Eagles didn’t even complete a pass — but they did run for 429 yards with their midline option offense and beat the Gators in the once invincible Swamp, 26-20.
The loss was the beginning of the end for Muschamp at Florida, and became an early 2010s meme sensation thanks to 2 Florida offensive linemen caught on film blocking each other in the defeat.
5. Muschamp and Florida run over Georgia (2014)
Speaking of running for 400 yards — Florida did this to arch-rival and No. 10 Georgia in Jacksonville in 2014.
With limited freshman Treon Harris (2-0 in his career as a starter against Georgia) starting at quarterback on a blustery, cold Jacksonville day — the Gators kept the ball on the ground. Florida completed only 3 passes but didn’t need anything beyond the power run game as Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones ran wild en route to 418 yards on 60 attempts. The Gators poured in 5 rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, walloping the Dawgs 38-20 in a game far less close than the final score.
4. Struggles in the Cocktail Party (2010-2019)
A defining and lasting memory of this decade for Florida?
The 2010s marked the first time since the 1980s that Florida suffered a losing decade to Georgia. The Dawgs won 6 of the 10 Cocktail Parties, and worse, Georgia won all 3 when both were ranked in the top 10.
In fact, if you break down the early tenure of Mark Richt vs. the early tenure of Kirby Smart, Richt compares favorably or equally in every respect — except one.
Smart wins in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs alum is 3-1 vs. the Gators, and after this season’s 24-17 victory, 3-0 against Dan Mullen as a head coach.
That’s a problem Florida must remedy next decade — and a trend that defined this one.
3. Urban Meyer resigns … again (2010)
If it seems a bit high on the list, think of it this way: What singular event changed the trajectory of Florida’s decade more than Urban Meyer resigning to “spend more time with his family” in 2010?
Imagine Urban with Jeff Driskel running the offense he was born to run. Imagine a rejuvenated Urban recruiting at the level he did at Ohio State for the better part of this decade. Imagine Urban’s offensive acumen with that defense in 2012.
After Tim Tebow and Florida’s bid for back-to-back national championships came up short in 2009, Meyer tried to resign, only to be talked out of it by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
What transpired next- – a messy 2010 season with a disengaged, disinterested Meyer at the helm — didn’t help the program’s health. That Meyer team even lost to FSU- beginning an 8-year span where the Gators only beat FSU once and lost 4 times in The Swamp by an average of 21 points. Long term, Meyer leaving without fixing what he admitted he left broken did the program much more harm than good, and defined the decade to come.
2. The Swamp is back (LSU, 2018) … no, really (2019)
If there are 2 games that define Florida’s late-decade resurgence more than any others, they are 2 huge wins over top 5 opponents in The Swamp.
The first came in 2018, when Florida blitzed and bullied Joe Burrow and LSU in a 27-19 thriller. For once, Burrow didn’t make the big play in the end — Florida did.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 6, 2018
That was as loud as The Swamp had been in years, a sign the sleeping giant in Gainesville was stirring and coming back to life. But Florida ended up losing 2 home games in 2018.
The Swamp wasn’t “back.”
Florida went undefeated at home in 2019, including a 24-13 roaring cauldron of heat and sound win over a top 5 Auburn team this past October, defined by a special defensive effort that humbled Gus Malzahn and Auburn, defending their home Swamp with a ferocity not seen much this decade.
But Florida is defined by electric offense, you say?
Freddie Swain’s house call answered the bell.
1. The Mullen Renaissance
From a 4-win program with hellscape, toxic fire culture off the field to back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl appearances, including a Peach Bowl rout of Michigan a year ago and the prestigious Orange Bowl in 2 weeks.
That’s an epic turnaround, and probably not one we’re talking about enough nationally, as I wrote in this space last month.
Mullen’s 20-win start trails only his mentor Urban Meyer among 2-year win totals at Florida — and if Florida wins the Orange Bowl as expected, he’ll get to 21, only 1 shy of Meyer’s 2-year total of 22.
That’s even more impressive when you consider he didn’t inherit nearly the talent Meyer did, and Mullen managed to stitch together 10 regular-season victories in 2019 despite losing his starting quarterback in the SEC opener and playing the bulk of the SEC schedule without his preseason All-American defensive end, Jabari Zuniga.
Lately, Florida’s recruiting has also picked up, a necessary development but one that suggests Florida might be just scratching the surface of what it is capable of under the Mullen regime.