For one half under the Friday night lights in Tallahassee, Florida looked as if it would finish the first regular season in the Billy Napier era with a signature win. The Gators led No. 16 Florida State 24-21 at the break, running the ball at will and connecting on just enough plays in the passing game to keep the Seminoles’ defense honest.

Anthony Richardson, injured with a hip stinger on Florida’s third possession, led Florida on a lengthy drive to take the lead just before the half, and with Florida set to get both star linebacker Ventrell Miller and the ball back to begin the second half, the window was open for the Gators to pull away and capture a fourth consecutive victory over their bitter in-state rival.

That’s when the best player on the field changed everything.

Jordan Travis, the Seminoles’ star quarterback, was simply too good for Florida, putting in one of the best performances, in what became one of the best games, in the history of this storied rivalry.

Even when Travis wasn’t making plays in the passing game, he extended drives with his legs, making the type of eyes in the back of his head type plays that harkened to another great FSU quarterback, Charlie Ward. Travis helped FSU tie the game in the second quarter, escaping 4 tackles in one play on this magical run late in the second quarter.

Then, with the game still tied in the third quarter, Travis made another run they’ll talk about in Tallahassee for a long time, eluding Miller, reversing his field entirely, and gliding to the 1-yard line to set up the go-ahead FSU score.

As Travis shined, Richardson faltered.

Florida’s sophomore quarterback may be a more coveted NFL prospect than Travis, but he wasn’t in the FSU quarterback’s league Friday night.

Richardson, who started hot, hitting 5-of-7 with 3 touchdown passes, threw 11 consecutive incomplete passes during a stretch in the second and third quarter, missing open receivers on simple bubble screens and overshooting open receivers deep as the Gators went 3-and-out on 3 consecutive possessions, all while Florida State built a 38-24 lead. The 24-3 FSU scoring run, built by Travis with 270 yards passing and a touchdown and  83 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns, was bolstered by FSU’s aggressive defense.

The Seminoles entered the game with the top-ranked defense in the ACC, 18th in success rate defense and 21st in SP+ defensive efficiency, the program’s best numbers since the 2016 team won the Peach Bowl. But the Gators were statistically the best offense FSU faced in 2022, and for a half, it showed, as the Gators gashed FSU’s vaunted defensive front on the ground and got behind their safeties in the secondary. In the second half, all that changed. Defensive tackle Robert Cooper took over, fitting gaps and helping Florida State slow the Florida run game, and All-American candidate Jammie Robinson and the Seminoles’ secondary did the rest, using bump coverage more frequently to frustrate Florida’s young, shorthanded group of receivers.

Unlike Travis, who responded to connecting on just 2-of-9 targets to his best receiver, Johnny Wilson, by creating his own offensive magic, Richardson squandered his opportunities with errant throws and awkward decisions not to take off and run on the many occasions Florida State failed to leave a spy home to contain him.

If Richardson elects to return to Florida for his redshirt junior season — and make no mistake, he should — a year where he makes the plays Travis consistently has this season to carry the Seminoles is very possible. Florida’s coaches and fans know it is possible because they’ve seen in flashes, in game-winning drives against No. 7 Utah and 500+ yards of total offense at No. 11 Tennessee and a brilliant game against LSU at home. What the Gators haven’t seen, and you can bet NFL scouts notice, is consistency.

One NFC Playoff team front office executive summed it up perfectly: “We don’t know if he’s Josh Allen, Cam Newton, or JaMarcus Russell right now. The ceiling is incredible, but do you risk what happens to your job if he craters? We won’t. I bet someone will.”

Richardson may be betting on the “someone will” part, and that’s understandable. Life-changing money is life-changing money. But if Richardson leaves, it won’t be because he’s ready. It will be because he’s so talented that one day he may be.

He wasn’t quite ready Friday night, and nothing showed that more than the final drive, when Richardson missed huge running lanes created by his offensive line early in the drive and later, overthrew a simple out route to a wide-open Jonathan Odom on a vital 3rd down.

Whatever Richardson’s future, the Seminoles flipped the pendulum of power in the rivalry Friday night back in their direction, mostly thanks to Travis, a talented player whose story is best told as a tale of resilience.

After transferring from Louisville, Travis was used mostly as a runner in 2020, completing just 52% of his passing attempts. He put in 2 years of work becoming a quarterback, one capable of throwing downfield darts like the 44-yard pass he ripped to Malik McClain on Florida State’s drive to take a 31-24 lead in the third quarter. He finishes his second regular season as a starter with over 2,500 yards passing and 22 touchdowns, and as a result, the Seminoles swept their in-state rivals and won 9 games for the first time since 2016.

There’s a lot to be learned from Travis and his resilience and patience, even in Gainesville.

Florida finishes 6-6, with a bowl game on deck to determine whether Florida suffers consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1978 and 1979. Florida’s defense, regardless of the bowl outcome, will finish outside the top 50 in total defense nationally for the second straight campaign, the first time that has happened to the Gators since total defense was tracked as a stat (1982).

Florida, playing for the program’s fifth head coach (not including interims) since Tim Tebow’s 2009 graduation, may want to consider giving the latest new hire time.

Napier is meticulous, detail-oriented, and driven, a relentless recruiter and the first Florida coach since early in the Urban Meyer era playing with a full deck from a facilities and administrative support standpoint. Given time, Napier will win at Florida, and as his friend Kirby Smart acknowledged before the Cocktail Party, “He’s the rare guy who in our league will win big.”

Florida fans aren’t famous for patience, and to be fair to Gators fans, they haven’t been wrong about the decisions to move on from Will Muschamp, who didn’t win enough, Jim McElwain, who embarrassed the university, and Dan Mullen, who didn’t recruit.

Scorned by a decade of mediocrity and desperate to win, the waiting, as Gainesville’s favorite son Tom Petty wrote, is the hardest part.

Sometimes, though, the wait is worth it.

Just ask Jordan Travis and Florida State.