Two down, one to go.
The Swamp Reclaimed
Nothing that happened this year means more than sweeping the home schedule. The Swamp had gone from a place opponents feared to one they enjoyed in recent years. Five home losses in twelve years had given way to six in three. Florida had not beaten a ranked team at home since a 37-13 win over # 20 FSU late in the 2001 campaign. The Gators had a 13-and-7 record in The Swamp over the previous 20 games but they were 13-and-1 against unranked teams and 0-and-6 against ranked ones. Step one was taking care of then # 4 Tennessee 16-7. Then came surviving a late rally by Vanderbilt. But Saturday made it official. The joint was jumping, the performance was impressive and the Swamp had been reclaimed.
Five Loss Seasons a Thing of the Past
The Florida Gators were 7-and-5 in 1989, the fourth consecutive year the Gators had suffered five or more defeats in a season after losing just four games in the previous three years (1983-85) combined. In the twelve years that followed, not one Gator team experienced five losses. However the last three years have seen Florida lose five games each year, twice ending the seasons with consecutive losses. And in each of those three years the Orange and Blue ended the season by losing in a bowel game. Putting an end to that run was a major priority for Florida, and the win over FSU ensures that streak is over with.
It didn't come easily. Florida played seven games against teams that earned some national ranking during (or prior to) the season, five that cracked the top five at some point during the campaign. While Tennessee had a most disappointing season, the Vols were a much better team back in September. Alabama struggled offensively in the final month, but the Gators had to play the Tide with Tyrone Prothro.
The last three Florida teams managed to just barely maintain a record of ending the season ranked, finishing 24th or 25th in one poll or the other. This team will easily remain ranked regardless of how a bowl game turns out.
Nine Wins is the Big Prize Remaining
Sure, the Gators ought to be packing for Atlanta and the SEC Championship game instead of lobbying to stay out of Shreveport, but that doesn't change one significant fact. The Gators' upcoming bowl game is huge. A nine-win season is more significant than simply winning one more than eight. A nine-win season will put Florida on the same track it was on in 1990 when it pout an end to five-loss campaigns. A nine-win season will show undeniable progress in year one under a new coach.
But on top of that, a ninth win would send Florida into the off-season with serious momentum for the first time in eight years. Sure the Gators ended 2001 with a big win over Maryland and a number-three national ranking, but that momentum died with Steve Spurrier's resignation. Florida ended 1998 with an impressive win over Donovan McNabb and Syracuse, but that just reminded everyone of what got away when they lost to FSU and Marcus Outzen. In 1997, Florida bounced back from losing to Georgia to win four straight including an exhilarating win over then # 2 FSU in The Swamp. They followed that up by beating # 11 Penn State in the Citrus Bowl to enter the off-season with a four-game winning streak and the school's fifth straight ten win season.
Bowl Tie-ins Not Helpful This Year
Now the fun begins with regards to the SEC Bowl selections. Because the conference has just six bowl-eligible teams, the Music City Bowl in Nashville will choose an ACC team. That means the Independence Bowl in Shreveport will get the best team it's ever gotten. It's entirely possible that the Gators will head to Shreveport ranked around 15 or 16 while unranked teams get better opportunities elsewhere. Meanwhile Gators inside the Outback Bowl power structure will be lobbying big-time to bring Florida back. You gotta figure Gator fans will be more enthusiastic about the game than they were in 2002 and 2003 after losses in the season finale'.
It's another example of why all these conference bowl contracts are counter-productive. Think how interesting it would be if there was a draft, with bowls choosing based on their pay out from the previous years. Fans all over the country would be on the edge of their seats as each bowl made its pick. And think of the different matchup possibilities. Perhaps the Gator Bowl grabs a Florida/Oklahoma game. Or the Outback gets Florida and Louisville. Those would both be great games, but they ain't happening.
Later this week, more on the Bowl possibilities and matchups for a mythical 16-team national tournament.
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