Florida football: 2019 Gators need to reclaim The Swamp
After a hard-fought Week 0 victory over Miami, the Gators will open their 2019 home slate Saturday night in The Swamp when they host the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks.
Home openers are always special, even if Florida’s Week 2 opponent is hardly anything to write home about.
For the fans, it’s special because of the memories evoked and the friendships renewed. A Friday or Saturday drive to a college town in the South is more road trip than pilgrimage, the memories of journeys past as thick as the lingering swelter in the September air. The season’s first home tailgate is usually one of the sweetest. As fans reunite with friends of autumn past, the grips on the season’s first handshakes are a little stronger, the conversations a little warmer, the music louder, the grill stays on a little bit longer. It’s football time again, and often, regardless of what challenges you’ve left behind, the world feels a little brighter.
For the players, it’s a chance to shine brightly at home, to run out of the tunnel and be greeted by adoring fans who’ve suffered through the most agonizingly long offseason in sports. It’s one of the moments you sold in recruiting: a home game in a primetime environment. There’s only so many of those opportunities in a 3-to-5 year career. Players learn to savor and make the most of them. It doesn’t matter that for one week, at least, only Tennessee-Martin awaits. And after last week’s bloody opening week in the SEC, can teams really afford to overlook anyone?
Of course, as we also saw this past weekend, not all home venues are created equal.
The SEC Network started its season-long tour in Nashville, but don’t tell that to Commodores fans, who couldn’t be bothered to show up. Georgia fans painted Nashville red and black and by the 3rd quarter, the broadcast crew was asking whether Vanderbilt and new QB Riley Neal should be using hand signals due to crowd noise. At home!! That’s hardly the type of environment a player or fan dreams of, no matter how fun the tailgate.
At other institutions, once fearsome home venues have become feckless.
Take Neyland Stadium, where, to quote a Head Ball Coach from around those parts, Rocky Top became Rocky Bottom Saturday evening as lowly Georgia State waltzed into General Neyland’s stadium and left with a 38-30 victory, having pushed the Vols all around the park and made some Vols media ask hard questions: not just about whether Jeremy Pruitt is in over his head and forced Vols fans to question to measure the human costs of continued Vols fandom itself.
I’m officially entering the college football fan transfer portal. This has been a tough time. Plz respect my decision. Thank you. pic.twitter.com/91yiuMnlRO
— Greg Butcher (@GregButcher_) September 1, 2019
That type of loss doesn’t just bring ridicule, it brings a pain that festers, and without a cultural shift, the decay can infect a place.
Neyland will never be Nashville, but if Georgia State can win on Rocky Top, how long will it be until Neyland is once again ferocious?
Gators fans have been where Tennessee fans are, of course, and not in the distant past. They know what it is like to have a once fearsome home venue reduced to a national punchline.
It was 2013 when a Florida program a year removed from a Sugar Bowl berth fell flat on its face in The Swamp, losing to a (then-FCS) Georgia Southern team that didn’t even need to complete a forward pass to beat the Gators. The loss put a bow on a 4-8 campaign for Florida that was the beginning of the end for Gainesville native Will Muschamp at Florida.
That game was a bottoming out for Florida’s season but also marked the official end of what was left of The Swamp’s veneer of invincibility.
From 1990-2009, no program in the Power 5 was better at home than the Gators in The Swamp. In 12 years under Steve Spurrier, Florida lost only 5 times at home. Urban Meyer’s track record was also strong, as Florida lost only 2 home games in Meyer’s first 5 years. All told, Florida lost only 13 times in 20 seasons in that span, with 6 of those losses coming in Ron Zook’s decidedly mediocre 3 years on campus.
But beginning in 2010, something changed.
The Swamp, a place Tim Tebow called “ferocious” and Steve Spurrier promised “only Gators get out alive” became a place where fans too often left disappointed and only ranked opponents got out alive.
Meyer’s final team dropped 3 games in Gainesville, and between 2010 and 2014, the Gators lost an unthinkable 8 home games, including a numbing home loss to Vanderbilt and the mystique-draining defeat to Georgia Southern under Muschamp. Things improved slightly under Jim McElwain, with the Gators even finishing undefeated at home for only the second time in the decade in 2016, but McElwain’s final season was filled with soul crushing defeats, including a 17-16 home loss to a pedestrian Texas A&M team that marked the beginning of the end for McElwain in Gainesville.
Dan Mullen arrived and quickly promised to restore The Swamp’s mystique, but he knew there was work to be done. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and mystique doesn’t return because a head coach says the right things at the opening press conference.
Florida dropped an early home game to Kentucky, ending a 31-game winning streak over the Cats in the process.
The loss grinded Mullen’s gears, and the team made rallying behind The Swamp a rallying cry ahead of a huge home tilt against LSU.
“A lot of the people who were around when the place was a madhouse, when it was so juiced, like before the LSU game in 2008, that you knew it would be incredibly hard to be the Gators, those people aren’t students or around now,” Mullen said last season before the LSU game. “We need to show the new students and fans that the Gator standard involves competitive excellence at home. The Swamp is to get up on your feet and go crazy and a place to protect.”
Florida did that against LSU, capturing a huge home victory for the first time since Year 1 of the McElwain era. The place was electric, and afterward, there was a sense that maybe — finally — The Swamp was back.
But here’s the thing: It wasn’t.
Florida was blown out on its home field (for the second time this decade) by Missouri a month later, and needed a furious second-half rally to beat South Carolina the following week. The latter game is now remembered more for being the game Feleipe Franks “shushed” the home fans who booed him a week prior than it is for being a game where the environment in the building was the difference.
The Swamp isn’t back.
You can’t get blown off the field by an unranked Mizzou on Homecoming and “be back.” You can’t lose 2 home games in a season to then-unranked teams and “be back.” Maybe you can have tensions boil over between the starting QB and the home crowd and “be back,” but this too seems less than optimal.
This season presents a unique opportunity for Florida to truly reclaim The Swamp.
Rebuilding The Swamp’s swagger is a critical piece of Florida’s push to rejoin the upper echelon of college football.
“Winning is a habit and the habit of winning starts at home in The Swamp,” Steve Spurrier said this offseason.
As usual, the HBC is right.
Want to catch Georgia and Alabama? Start by winning at home. Want to go to Atlanta? Hold serve at home and your margin for error expands. If you get to Atlanta, every big goal is in front of you — on the field — no worrying about style points or waiting on committees.
This year, the Gators’ home slate is 6 games instead of their traditional 7, but the ledger is highly manageable. Only Auburn (Oct. 5) seems likely to roll into Gainesville ranked. There are 2 rivalry games (Tennessee, Florida State), but both programs are in rebuilds or downturns — precisely the types of contests programs with elite home cultures win. A perfect 6-0 home slate, then, is firmly within Florida’s reach, and accomplishing that should be an expectation, not a goal.
At its pinnacle, The Swamp was consistently electric, a roaring cauldron of heat and sound that intimidated and wore down opponents.
“You just can’t get used to or simulate that kind of heat,” former Tennessee All-American and national champion Peerless Price said last summer. “You’d get into the 4th quarter and between the noise and heat, you’d be ready to fall over. It was a brutal place to play.”
It can be again.
Even with all the losses this decade, Florida remains one of the 5 best home teams in college football since 1990, per Boyd’s Bets, and the best in the SEC narrowly, ahead of Alabama and LSU. But the magic of seasons past doesn’t assure a culture of excellence in the present. It just presents a history that suggests an opportunity.
The Gators get another chance to experience the magic Saturday night. The opponent doesn’t matter. What matters is playing to Florida’s standard of excellence in the once mighty Swamp.