The Gators’ possible bowl destinations range from Birmingham to Memphis to Jacksonville to Tampa to Nashville and Las Vegas, which might become my actual postseason flight itinerary if I’m game for saving a few bucks on a Travelocity special and don’t mind the 36 -hour travel duration.
With no disrespect to all the bowl lobbyists, corporate sponsors and TV execs who arrange college football’s holiday schedule, the only destination that currently matters to Billy Napier’s team is Tallahassee — site of Black Friday’s regular-season finale against No. 16 Florida State.
It’s about winning the state and, yes, saving face, because the Gators surely felt like hiding theirs after a loss to Vanderbilt. “The laundry list of things that contributed to not playing winning football was way too long, and certainly as the head coach, all those things are my responsibility,” Napier said. “We certainly can do a lot of things better.”
No better way to regenerate momentum than stealing a win at sold-out Doak Campbell, though everyone is justified in doubting whether Napier’s bunch has any bounce-back juice left.
The injury list is problematic, and morale could dip further if middle linebacker Ventrell Miller isn’t liberated from first-half targeting purgatory. His appeal may be pending, or then again, it may not be. That’s up to the SEC and national director of officiating Steve Shaw and, based on the NCAA’s mysterious process, perhaps the Illuminati too. “I think all those things are done behind closed doors with the league office and different people,” Napier said Monday.
Miller’s disqualification for a crushing knockdown on Vanderbilt tight end Ben Bresnahan was borderline — not flagged on the field in real time but signaled from the replay booth. My guess? It won’t be overturned, because there were enough elements of targeting to confirm the suspension. If he’s unavailable until the third quarter, the mind runs wild with doomsday scenarios. As cornerback Jason Marshall noted about Miller, “He basically holds the defense together.”
With free safety Rashad Torrence (upper-body injury) also questionable, the Gators could be missing their top two tacklers against a Florida State offense that’s averaging 43.2 points during a four-game winning streak. Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis has grown more refined — his 21 touchdown passes nearly doubling the career output from his previous four seasons — and offers an example of what progress Anthony Richardson can achieve if he stays in school another year.
While we’re entertaining comparisons, Norvell’s climb to success in Year 3 at FSU could be useful for Gators fans who are fervently second-guessing Napier during Year 1 at Florida. Norvell started 8-13 in his first two seasons and last summer found himself keeping hot-seat company with the likes of Scott Frost, Geoff Collins and Bryan Harsin. Now that the Seminoles are 8-3 and on pace to close the season ranked for the first time since 2016, Norvell’s position is fortified and you can envision him competing for an ACC title in 2023.
Though the Vanderbilt debacle created a tailspin, Napier has otherwise managed to keep this team between the ditches during a transition year by reaching a bowl game and enacting recruiting upgrades. There’s smoke the Gators — projected to land the No. 8 class — will make more noise heading into the December early signing period. That’s the hopeful part he reiterates to players, staff and media, relying on the lessons of a four-year ascension he authored at Louisiana.
“You’ve got to get consumed with improvement, efficiency, refining every part of the systems that you run, what you do with your time,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. This is a process. You don’t just flip a light switch and the house is built.
“It is truly one day at a time and it’s one person at a time. I think that there’s lots of things that contribute here, but we’ve been here before. I’ve got a ton of confidence in what we do and how we do it.”
It’s a confidence that infuses players like redshirt freshman Daejon Reynolds, who was buried on the depth chart before catching two touchdowns against Vandy and now may be counted upon for an encore this week given Florida’s receiver injuries. Reynolds describes Napier as “a patience guy” who laid out a protracted plan, one that didn’t mesh with the instant-gratification crowd expecting the new coach’s arrival “was just gonna be rainbows and stuff.”
There was one rainbow, a Week 1 win over then-No. 7 Utah, which incentivized the fan base to dream big. Now that the Gators (6-5) are scrambling to stay north of .500, it’s clear the rainbow emptied into nothing more than a pot of pyrite.
Richardson, who dazzled against Utah only to fizzle in a Week 2 loss against Kentucky, has remained uneven. Even his 400-yard passing day at Vanderbilt was tainted by regrets over not running the ball enough in certain situations. “I know there were times I could have pulled the ball and probably ran backward into the end zone,” he said. “I didn’t realize until after I handed the ball off.”
Richardson and Napier, the first-year starting quarterback and the first-year head coach, are uniquely entwined in this up-and-down season. Some of the offensive play calling is limited by Richardson’s struggles. Some of his biggest moments have bailed the Gators out of ill-timed play calls. Perhaps there’s a sweet spot on the horizon — sometime next season, should Richardson remain at Florida — where their competencies overlap. As of now, the Gators are lamenting scoring just 24 points against a Vandy defense that Wake Forest, Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia scorched for 45, 55, 52 and 55.
Richardson’s record dropped to 6-6 as a starter as he became the first Florida quarterback since Herbert Perry to lose a game at Vandy. Cue the deflation and despair from Gator Nation, with a dash of seething.
“I don’t blame the fans and the supporters for the way they feel because the University of Florida once was a great program,” Richardson said. “They’re holding us to a higher standard, so we’ve got to hold ourselves to that standard as well. With coach Napier, I feel like everything will get back on course.”
Why? This team just left Nashville hobbling like a bachelorette party who line-danced too long to “Achy Breaky Heart” in boots that were too tight. Amid the throes of such a disappointing performance, with Napier re-evaluating his staff’s plan and his players’ maturity, what is the source of such optimism?
“I feel like he’s on point with everything. He knows what he wants. He knows what he’s going to get,” Richardson replied. “So trust in him and understand he’s going to have great people around here. It’s just so much time until great things start to happen.”
A nice start would involve the Gators showing up in Tallahassee as 9 1/2-point underdogs and playing with all the verve and sharpness they lacked a week ago. Perhaps the vitriol spewed toward and reciprocated from FSU will ignite a memorable matchup. “I think on Friday, all the noise will be handled,” vowed Gators safety Trey Dean.
Napier came of age when Florida-Florida State represented must-see college football with swagger overload. Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden faced off 14 times from 1990 through 2001, with both teams sporting top-10 rankings in 13 of those meetings.
Now Norvell has the Seminoles rising again. Even if Napier can’t flip a switch to instantly rebuild the Gators’ program, he’d like a performance that broadens faith in the blueprint.
(Photo of Florida coach Billy Napier talking with Anthony Richardson: Kim Klement / USA Today)