The Back Nine comes at you after a wonderful Christmas, although the one thing I wished for I didn’t get – transparency in the SEC when it comes to officiating. Bah, humbug!
10. As we head down the road to the end of 2020, I think it is important to remind everybody that the virus doesn’t have a calendar. We’re still living day-to-day, including the distraction of sports because we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. It has seemed awfully strange (ooh, Moody Blues reference coming – “Isn’t life strange? A turn of the page”) that Florida is playing a football game Wednesday and also an SEC opening basketball game at the same time. Football starts at 8 p.m. and basketball at 9 and I’d bet big money that when basketball ends football will be starting the fourth quarter. I don’t sense any real excitement about this Cotton Bowl game, but I can give you three reasons why it is a big deal.
11. Starting with this one – nobody wants to end the season on a three-game losing streak. Nobody. Not even the Washington Generals. Or Vanderbilt. It would sap any momentum Florida built being a playoff contender. Instead, the Gators would be a four-loss team and out of the top 10. Secondly, Kyle Trask and the other seniors deserve to go out with a win. If those players who did so much to bring the excitement back to Florida football finished with a home loss and a bowl loss, that’s hardly a great memory. Three, Dan Mullen needs to get his Q-Factor back. It wasn’t that long ago that Mullen was being compared to Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. You lose the SEC title game and the bowl game and you start to get compared to Jim McElwain, who lost four games in all three seasons (even the one where he only coached seven games). Before you get your dander up, I would never make that comparison. But the Gator Nation can turn on you pretty fast.
12. A win would also give Mullen another victory over a top 10 team and allow the Gators to stay ahead of Georgia in the final polls. I think, most of all, it would make Gator fans feel better after such an odd season. I’m not talking about COVID-19. I’m talking about a team that might have been the most polarizing in these terms – it was one of the most fun teams to watch and it was also one of the most least fun teams to watch. When Florida had the ball, it didn’t matter if it was third-and-13, you thought they would get the first down. You expected the Gators to score on every drive. And every time they scored, you dreaded the idea of the defense coming back on the field. Stops were so rare in 2020 they were almost startling. I know there were fans who just wanted Florida to be good on offense again. But I don’t sense that they are all that happy.
13. So where is Florida as a program right now? Where has Mullen taken the Gators? Well, one thing for sure, Florida is relevant again. But there is a difference between being relevant and being in the College Football Playoffs. You could say the difference is one thrown shoe, but I don’t think there is any way Florida gets in with two losses (by a total of nine points). The point is that Florida is on the cusp of being where it wants to be, but it is a brutal final climb to the top of Everest. There are a handful of teams who are there every year or often enough that it feels as if they are there every year. And then there are the teams who are in that second tier. It sure beats the third tier, but it can be frustrating because the college football system has been damaged with the four-team playoff and we never saw it coming. College football is on this cycle with no end in sight, the five-stars going to the same teams and the same teams going to the playoffs. (Hey, you don’t even have to play a complete season.) I hope an eight-team playoff would level the playing field some, but how do we know that for sure?
14. Let’s get to Wednesday’s opponent and it is always difficult to analyze a bowl game especially in this pandemic year. Usually, the teams spend almost a week on site, participate in all kinds of events and are treated really well, especially those who make it to a New Year’s Six Bowl. This year, no swag for you. It will be interesting to see who is available for Florida (we get a list minutes before the game) to play in a game where the Gators are 3-point favorites. Oklahoma’s defense can get after a quarterback, although I know Mullen will have a plan. And I also know this – playing 11 straight SEC games is a lot tougher than playing 10 straight Big 12 games. I just don’t know where the want-to is with Florida in terms of this game. I guess they will let me know Wednesday night.
15. Perhaps the strangest thing for me is not going to a bowl game. That was always a bit of a reward for the hacks and the bigger the bowl the better the trip. I was so desperate to go to a bowl in 2013 when Florida missed a bowl game for the first time in 23 years that I convinced SEC commish Mike Slive to allow me to tag along with his traveling party to three bowl games on one day on a private plane. When I wrote in my final newspaper column about how I don’t really have a bucket list, days like that one — seeing parts of the Gator, Citrus and Outback in a five-hour stretch — days like that are a big reason why there is no list. The stories I could tell about some of the other bowl games, most notably the ones in New Orleans.
16. Let’s put that away before someone gets into trouble. Obviously, the other team that plays Wednesday is going to be a bit of a mystery as well since the basketball team practiced for the first time Sunday since the Florida State game and the Keyontae Johnson collapse that stunned the Gator Nation. (Maybe more stunning – Johnson told Mike White he was ready to practice last week. But it’s not up to either one of them.) The big issue for Florida on the court against Vanderbilt and the next few opponents will be that the Gators took so much time off to let their minds heal. I cannot imagine going through an experience like that one. And now you not only will start SEC play, but you have to get back in shape. “We’re not going to be in SEC shape,” White said during a Zoom call today. “Hopefully, we’ll be competitive in the first three or four games.” White said Johnson is all-in on working with his teammates as far as scouting goes. “Key(ontae) will become a connection to us.”
17. The Tweet of the Week comes from Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post who is as good as they get and also not a bad Twitter follow – “Just two days ago, before Harry Bailey had even toasted George yet again, there had never been a 52-33 or 26-25 NFL game. Now there have been both, and nflscorigami.com is among the greatest contributions to the deranged society of which I am a part … “ You can check that website for scores that have never happened in the NFL and stat geeks like me love it. Also love that my friend Chuck got a Harry Bailey reference into a Tweet about some crazy football games.
18. This week our Florida Four-Pack offers you the four wins in Dan Mullen’s three-year Florida career over teams ranked in the top 10 at the time. I know it’s a small sample size for what may be a long career at UF, but there are 37 games Mullen has coached at Florida.
* Florida 44, No. 5 Georgia 28, 2020: Signature win so far for Mullen.
* Florida 27, No. 5 LSU 19, 2018: You started to feel Florida was back.
* Florida 24, No. 7 Auburn 13, 2019: The place was electric from start to finish.
* Florida 41, No. 8 Michigan 15, 2018: One team wanted to be there.