Florida made a ton of mistakes, but who throws a shoe? A team not ready for the big time
The second that Marco Wilson sent a cleat flying into the foggy haze of The Swamp, Florida’s 2020 destiny was fulfilled.
A good, but imperfect, undisciplined team missed out on a shot at being great. If you were able to not only see but process what happened amidst minimal visibility in the second half of Saturday night’s stunner in Gainesville, that should’ve been crystal clear by game’s end.
Florida wasn’t winning a national title with this team, but it took a player throwing a shoe to make that sliver of hope vanish into the night.
In case you somehow missed it and are wondering why a player throwing a shoe was the first 3 paragraphs of a column following an SEC football game, well, here’s the rundown.
Florida entered the night at 8-1 with its SEC Championship ticket punched and Playoff hopes alive. A date with Alabama was set and all that was needed to get there as a 1-loss team was a win against an LSU squad who had a true freshman starting quarterback and was down to 54 scholarship players available because of opt-outs, COVID and injuries. All Florida had to do was not lose as a 24-point favorite to 3-5 LSU, and at the very least, it would be a daunting uphill climb against Alabama from earning its first Playoff berth.
But like we’ve seen the Gators do throughout 2020, playing a complete game wasn’t in the cards. Instead of keeping its head down and rolling to a feel-good win in front of the home crowd, Florida got the boot.
OK, last foot-related joke. At least for a little bit.
In a tie game with 1:51 to play, Florida stuffed Kole Taylor on a 3rd-and-10 pass well short of the line to gain. Job accomplished. Give the ball back to Kyle Trask, arguably the best quarterback in college football, and get into field goal range to avoid the upset. Easy enough, right?
Well, it’s not a celebration unless you take the shoe of the ball-carrier and launch it downfield. Twenty yards downfield, as the ref said afterward upon the smattering of unsportsmanlike conduct flags that Wilson’s toss was met with to resurrect the LSU drive:
— Darren Heitner (@DarrenHeitner) December 13, 2020
Yes, I had to type that out and watch that video another 65 times to convince myself that it actually happened.
Never has a team spoiled late-season Playoff chances on anything like that. I mean, if Elijah Moore’s fake dog pee celebration was the most infamous moment of 2019, is it too early to declare Wilson’s shoe heave the most infamous moment of 2020?
Reality is that moment will be a punchline for opposing fan bases for years. It’ll forever be one of the biggest “what-ifs” in Florida history, though let’s be honest. That was a very good Florida team, but the mistakes made leading up to that play were the reason a tossed shoe became so pivotal (I just can’t help the foot puns).
As Dan Mullen said, 3 turnovers from the offense didn’t help. Mullen actually put the loss on the offense, despite the fact that Florida had over 600 yards. Red-zone issues surfaced without Kyle Pitts, who sat because of a lingering injury from the Tennessee game, plagued a normally prolific offense.
It didn’t matter that LSU was without star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., who sat with a quad injury. LSU played with 4 scholarship linebackers, yet when push came to shove, Florida’s offense couldn’t do all the heavy lifting.
It was the Gators’ defense that somehow couldn’t stop a true freshman quarterback in his first career start. Corner blitzes had as much success for Florida as the forward pass did during the Will Muschamp era. Wilson had several instances in which he gave up significant separation to lead to first downs.
Of course, though, throwing an opponent’s shoe after your defense forced a 3-and-out will be a more lasting memory than getting burned by a true freshman receiver.
Wilson’s place in Florida history is locked in, whether that’s fair or not. He’ll be the answer to a trivia question. For some Floridians, that moment probably brought them flashbacks of Nick Anderson missing 4 free throws in the closing seconds in the Orlando Magic’s Game 1 loss in the 1995 NBA Finals. Just make 1 free throw! Just don’t throw a shoe! That moment admittedly scarred Anderson for years. It also proved to be a microcosm of Orlando’s championship window.
Who knows how Saturday night’s debacle will impact Wilson or the Gators moving forward. Maybe we won’t look back on it as such a wasted opportunity if Alabama steamrolls the Playoff field en route to a national title. After all, Florida is in no position to last 60 minutes with the Crimson Tide. Alabama is the team that hasn’t lost to a non-top-15 team since 2010. Alabama is the team who hasn’t lost to a non-top 15 team at home since 2007. Florida did both of those things in the regular-season finale.
Great teams show up like Alabama did earlier in the day. It went into Arkansas and lit up the Hogs for a 52-3 win to clinch a 10-0 season. In the final 3 minutes of that game up 45-3, Nick Saban chewed out defensive players. His team reacted by forcing a turnover and then scoring a touchdown to close the game. That’s what champions do.
Florida isn’t on that level. Maybe it would’ve taken 60 minutes sharing the field with Alabama for that reality to truly sink in. Between the defensive inconsistency and the slow starts — Florida was only +13 in the 7 first quarters after the Texas A&M loss — this wasn’t a complete team. Perhaps that’s why it had yet to truly play a complete game against a quality team.
The 2020 Gators kissed their Playoff chances goodbye, despite what Mullen apparently told the broadcast crew before the game about believing his team would be worthy with that all-important Alabama win. Nope. You don’t get a do-over for an embarrassing loss like that.
You get the boot.