2006: Making Contact With Atlanta

One thing that made this just-ended regular season so difficult to assess is that the standard for success was, in the eyes of many, quite difficult to pin down at any point in time.

Eight wins? Nine wins? A league title? A division title? Wins in the rivalry games?

Because of all the buzz surrounding Urban Meyer's arrival in Gainesvile, whispers of the other M-word ("messiah," not "Meyer") suggested that the Gators, ranked highly in preseason publications, would be in for a big year. But away from the hype, many sensible folks knew that this year's many transitions would not make for a smooth or easy ride, and when the Gators lost to Alabama and LSU, the perspective necessarily changed after the giddy glide through an unblemished September. Throughout the course of an up-and-down season, the goalposts have constantly shifted for the Gators, partly because of the team's learning curve, but also because of outside factors that shaped the SEC East and, for that matter, the whole conference. Tennessee's free-fall into oblivion and D.J. Shockley's injury affected the way the wins over the Vols and Puppies were perceived, but the loss at Alabama didn't look so bad when one considers that the Tide, with a healthy Ty Prothro, just might have created a BCS title game controversy this season. The 34-7 win over Florida State looks a hundred times better than it did at the time (and at the time, it looked pretty awesome in its own right), all because of the Noles' win over Virginia Tech this past weekend. On the other hand, the loss at South Carolina became worse when Georgia proceeded to lose to Auburn that same day.

In the end, there are a lot of arguments that can be made about the nature of the 2005 Florida football season, and the level of success enjoyed by the Gators. Those with a positive outlook would rightly cite the wins over the evil triumverate from Knoxville, Athens and Tally. The nattering nabobs of negativism --- while being undeniably excessive in their criticism of a coach who wasn't going to snap his fingers and make three years of struggles magically vanish --- do have a point when they say, "it's not 8-3, but how UF arrived at 8-3." Those with a "glass half-full" perspective would strongly promote the re-emergence of the Swamp as a huge step forward for the program, and they'd be correct. The "nabobs" would counter by saying hat the glass is half-empty, based on a road record (1-3, with the one win coming at Kentucky) that just doesn't cut it.

At the end of the day, the 2005 season isn't easy to analyze or summarize in a neat, tidy way. There were too many competing tensions, too many X-factors, too many transitions to get a clear fix on the nature of this Autumnal sojourn. All in all, it wasn't that bad, and the momentum gained from the FSU win is proving to be of extraordinary value to this program. For a first season that was accompanied by a heckuva lot of learning, Urban Meyer turned in a solid performance.

But that was 2005. In 2006, the standard for a successful season is achingly and overwhelmingly clear: just get to that game in Atlanta, dadgummit.

Steve Spurrier always said that the one thing the Gators could control was their SEC fate. National titles (as Auburn found out in 2004) are partly dependent on outside variables, and rivalry games --- particularly the non-conference clash with FSU-have their own intensely personal subculture. But 72 percent of an 11-game regular season is spent playing SEC football. Take away the two early-season home tune-ups, and the Gators play 88 percent of their games against SEC opponents. This should be enough to make SEC success Florida's foremost aim each season.

But let's go a little deeper with this discussion: unlike Pac-10, Big Ten and Big East teams, the Gators --- along with their brethren in the ACC and Big XII --- hail from a conference with a championship game. On Saturday night, a Georgia team that, before 1992, would have had zero chance to win the SEC got a get-out-of-jail free card. And a few hours later in the same stadium where Urban Meyer ruled Georgia, the Semis got the mother of all mulligans, a "championship" game despite having the fourth-best overall record in their clearly and vastly overrated conference. One could say with considerable legitimacy that both Georgia and FS-Who were the fourth-best teams in their conferences this season. Yet, because they won their weak-sister divisions, they got a chance to win their league in a one-shot proposition, and both teams cashed in, BCS bowl-style.

So the picture is clear for the Gators in 2006. Contending for a national title would be great, and taking down Auburn or LSU (the two teams that will compete for the West next year) in the Georgia Dome would be awesome. But for either one of those realities to unfold, the East has to be won first. In the SEC and other conferences with a title game, the first eleven games don't have to be perfect ---they just have to lead to a division title, because as folks in Athens and Tallahassee are realizing this week, weak schedules or big loss totals really don't seem to matter much when you have the label of "conference champions" next to your name, and you're playing in a January bowl game in prime time on ABC.

Next year, D.J. Shockley will be gone. Next year, Tennessee is likely to have a hellacious time digging out of the huge hole crated by this disastrous 2005 campaign. Next year, South Carolina will get even more attention from other SEC opponents, and a certain head ball coach will have to face a day of reckoning in Gainesville on November 11, 2006. Auburn and LSU will field very formidable squads, and they will challenge the Gators for SEC supremacy. But it's not unreasonable at all to demand that the East be won next year. That's certainly not an excessive expectation, and it's not an insufficiently lofty expectation either. Getting to Atlanta enables Florida's biggest goals to be fulfilled on a yearly basis, and after seeing two conference title games lift lucky rivals to a pair of somewhat dubious conference championships that wouldn't have been possible 14 years ago (in the SEC) or one year ago (in the ACC), the message should be clear in and around the Florida program: in 2006, the East needs to be won.

After all, if the sky is Blue and the sun is Orange, that rising sun looks down on the rest of the SEC from the Eas. For Florida to rise to new heights, the call of Manifest Destiny needs to be turned on its head.

"Go West, young man?" No, the young men wearing Orange and Blue need to go in the opposite direction in 2006.

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