Wipe Away Smiles And Consider Coral Gables

Yes, the Florida Gators beat Vanderbilt to stay alive in the SEC East race. It's always cause for happiness when a big achievement is still within reach. But beyond that obvious reality, there should be few smiles in Gainesville today... at least if this team and program want to restore what used to exist here during a certain coach's 12-year reign.

Florida football is always measured within the SEC, but the Gators must also be conscious of how they stack up against their two in-state rivals, Miami and Florida State. What was fascinating about this past Saturday of college football, then, is that one of UF's rivals decided to get angry, while the other folded the tent. And when you look at the Vanderbilt game Urban Meyer's team barely survived, you must grit your teeth and acknowledge a very uncomfortable but undeniable truth: if Florida is to climb the mountain and become an elite program once again, that process took a step back on Saturday night in Gainesville.

Sure, the East is still alive, but just as it was in the Zook era (though UF football is much, much, much better than it was the past three seasons --- that needs to be made very clear), Florida is still playing profoundly uneven games from week to week, which is precisely why the Gators are needing help to win their division, instead of controlling their own destiny. An SEC heavyweight must enter its final conference game in charge of its own fate, instead of wishing and hoping for help from an Auburn team who (Horace Willis alert!) couldn't get off the ground against Georgia three agonizing seasons ago.

Let's put a finer point on all this: if a team wants to become great in college football, it all starts between the ears. Having mental toughness and focus enables a team to find a killer instinct each week. The right attitude must complement the right plan for a program to dominate this sport. If you don't cultivate a culture of excellence in everything you do, you won't be able to snuff the life out of opponents in the first half... or even with 4:11 left in the fourth quarter, as was the case against a Vanderbilt team that battled, but which --- if Florida was really getting better as a program --- should have lost 35-21 with little drama.

On Saturday, while Florida let Vandy hang around way too long --- almost to the point of a shocking and humiliating defeat --- the Sunshine State's other high-profile teams provided instructive and contrasting snapshots of how programs either become elite, or remain mediocre. It began and ended with focus and an insistence (or lack thereof) on being great.

Miami heard a lot of doubters question their football manhood last week. The Canes had not had the S-word (we're talking about SWAGGER, ladies and gents; Florida still lacks it, and the man they face this Saturday in Columbia is the man who brought that quality to Gainesville back in 1990) since Ken Dorsey played in the Orange Bowl, and Larry Coker's team needed to play with the piss and vinegar of past Hurricane teams. By golly, they finally did so in a performance that --- regardless of how much you loathe the school --- was evocative of the days when UM crushed its opponents with a football bloodlust unmatched anywhere in America. Miami insisted on becoming excellent once again. You could tell that every 'Cane bought into total self-sacrifice, exhibiting a full emotional investment in one goal: showing Virginia Tech who's boss in the ACC. The Gators need to play with the chip on the shoulder Miami displayed in Blacksburg every night. There's no reason why Florida can't --- or shouldn't --- regain the swagger that used to exist in these parts, and there's also no reason why that swagger can't be unleashed on poor, hapless opponents every week... as was the case in 1995 and '96.

But while Miami showed how a team and program create a culture of excellence, we now turn to the scene of a delightfully nasty train wreck in Tallahassee...

Florida State had stubbed its toe against Virginia a few weeks earlier, a reminder that FS-Who still can't dominate the ACC the way it used to. But that didn't stop the Semis from rolling the helmets onto the field against an N.C. State team that entered Joke Campbell Stadium in last place. And while FSU's defense and special teams were solid, the offense went through the motions, phoning in an incredibly disinterested and immature performance against inferior opposition on home turf. Inconsistent programs frequently have games where one side of the ball is always diminishing the successes of the other unit. If the offense is up, the defense is down. If the defense rises to the occasion, the offense sags. Saturday, FSU's defense didn't get shredded the way it did against Virginia, but with Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee performing the way they did earlier in the year, the Noles crashed and burned to remind America why they haven't been the same since Chris Weinke exited stage right.

Now, here's another very unsettling and inconvenient truth to deal with: if you place Florida on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being FSU crash-and-burn and 10 being Miami butt-kicking excellence fueled by anger, you cannot place Florida above a 5 right now. In fact, you have to say this team probably rates a 3.5 or 4. The Vanderbilt game was THIS CLOSE to becoming the equivalent of Florida State's shocker against the Wolfpack, and that fact should not be lost amidst the happiness over the win against the Commodores, which kept the East in play until the final week of the SEC season.

Florida needs to find a better attitude, folks. That's not a grossly exaggerated doom-and-gloom assessment by any means --- it's simply the one piece of analysis that matters more than anything else after this escape job against a Vandy team whose lack of physical prowess should not have enabled it to compete with Florida for 60 minutes and two overtime stanzas. This game should have been over when the Gators went up 14 with just over four minutes left; instead, a program that does not yet possess a culture of excellence let an inferior opponent almost destroy its title hopes... not to mention the buildup to the South Carolina game.

Let's make it simple: Florida can choose to become what Miami became Saturday night, or the Gators can also choose to become what FS-Who remained Saturday evening.

Urban Meyer, Chris Leak and Co. need to make the right choice, the choice that demands excellence. It's an attitude thing, and nothing else.


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