Florida Football Friday Final: Billy Napier sees Georgia as paradigm with Gators seeking turnaround

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 28, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Billy Napier sees Georgia as paradigm with Gators seeking turnaround

Image Credit: Kelsi Bevington / UAA

The first half of the 2022 college football season has not gone as expected for the Florida Gators, head coach Billy Napier and Gator Nation — for the better and the worse. Few would have thought Florida would open the season by defeating the reigning Pac-12 champions, yet while most had expectations of a 9-3 or 8-4 campaign entering the year, a 4-3 record at the midway point makes that goal extremely tough to achieve.

Especially given Florida will face one of its two toughest tests of the season this week as it takes on No. 1 Georgia, the reigning national champions, on Saturday in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

The Bulldogs are rolling into the rivalry game after outscoring their last two opponents (Auburn, Vanderbilt) by a combined 97-10. Given the Gators enter with a bottom third overall defense and the worst third-down stoppage rate in the nation, that’s certainly not a positive sign.

Neither is Georgia standing as a 22.5-point favorite, the largest margin on either side in series history dating back to the programs playing regularly beginning in 1915. Even crazier is that the spread is not that outlandish. Seven of the last eight meetings have been double-digit victories either way with three of those decisions coming by 24 points or more.

Last season, UF actually played UGA tough save for an all-time implosion in the second quarter by then-freshman quarterback Anthony Richardson that was the primary reason for a 34-7 Gators defeat. It was a reminder that Georgia has completely lapped Florida in the SEC East, this after UF dominated the series winning 21 of 27 meetings from 1990 to 2016.

That recent success from the Bulldogs is on the back of head coach Kirby Smart, whom Napier previously served alongside on Alabama’s staff under Nick Saban. It was Napier this week who cited Smart as the primary reason he was hired by Saban given their fathers had been high school coaches together in Georgia.

“I wouldn’t have been at Alabama if it wasn’t for Kirby,” Napier said. “There was some familiarity there, and certainly his influence on that with Coach Saban. He had a lot to do with me being there. I will always be thankful for that. Kirby is a heck of a football coach, man.”

Smart is also a heck of a recruiter, and while Gators fans may not like to hear it, much of what Napier is attempting to do at Florida is mold the program in the image of Georgia (and Alabama). UF has already run through a pair of former Saban assistants (Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain) to mixed results, but Napier carries more similar traits to Saban and Smart than any of his predecessors in Gainesville. Namely, he realizes that talent — above all else — is the greatest factor in success across college football.

“We all understand that [our talent gap with Georgia]. There’s work to be done in a lot of different areas when you’re trying to put together a football team. But personnel is part of that,” Napier said. “We all understand the value of acquiring really good players and then having a culture and a development plan, once they do arrive, there’s lots of things that contribute to this game

“So, there’s no question the evaluation and the recruitment process is pretty well-documented, not only Georgia but a lot of the teams have done a really good job in those areas. It pays off. We all understand that.”

Florida took a wholly unexpected blow in that area Thursday night but nevertheless have its Class of 2023 sitting No. 8 in the nation, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings. Those players will be of no help to the Gators on Saturday, but unlike the coach he replaced, Napier knows his success this season will be judged not just by wins and loss on the field but those off it in the recruiting game.

“I like the group that we’ve got committed. We need to finish, obviously secure the ones we have and then close on a few others, right? We worked extremely hard at it, not only the recruitment process but the evaluation process. So far so good. A lot of work left to do,” he said. “… It’s part of our organization, and we’ll continue to get better. We got a lot of people getting more familiar with the product we have here. We’re getting more efficient with our time. Got a lot of new people. And not just ’23, it’s ’24s, ’25s. You got extensive work around the clock every phase of the year, right? So those all those people are taking a lot of pride in their role and certainly have been effective so far.”

When it comes to the Georgia game, Florida will be forced to ride the horses already on its roster, and with Napier understanding that’s the one area of the team he cannot control at this juncture, the Gators will likely have to be creative if they aim to hand the Dawgs their first loss of the season — or at least get out of Jacksonville within the key number.

Defensive improvement remains a focus

Given Napier only spoke with the media once this week and there was not another game to evaluate as Florida was off last week, there’s only so much he could add to his prior comments about the Gators’ ineffective defense, a unit that could potentially wind up as the worst in program history by the time the season concludes. Still, Napier was not shy when asked to evaluate whether he got hands on with the unit and whether it had taken any steps forward given UF was in a self-evaluation phase for the better part of last week.

“With the way we’re built and the way we’re put together, the way we operate the entire year, I’m getting dirty over there all the time, if that makes sense. We’re very intentional about how we put our team together. This is not like, ‘Hey, you guys handle the defense, we’ll handle the offense, you handle the special teams.’ We’re very much a team approach relative to playing complementary, winning football,” he explained.

“We understand what the issues are. Throughout the year, we’ve played really good at times, and then we’ve played very inconsistent at times. … We’re looking for all the things that we can control. We’re going to continue to focus on improvement. … It’s a combination of a lot of areas, and certainly our guys are working hard. … We’ve got a lot of football left here, and we’re going to do our best to help the players improve and help the staff improve.”

Napier added that he is not particularly surprised how poor the defense has played, again clarifying that there is no one more committed to turning it around than himself, co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, the rest of the staff and the players themselves. “We’ve got a group of people that really care about doing their job better, and that’s what they’re going to try to do,” he said.

Georgia put forward a historic defense last season, and while it has held its last two opponents to a combined 10 points, it is not the same impenetrable force. The Dawgs allowed more points to Missouri (22) than the Gators did (17) and had to fight tooth and nail until the final whistle to avoid an upset back on Oct. 1. One week prior against Kent State, Georgia gave up 22 points. Whether Florida can find holes in the defense and take advantage of them remains to be seen, but the primary point is that UGA is not as impervious as it was previously.

Penultimate chance at a rivalry win

Napier would be the first coach in program history to lose to Tennessee, LSU and Georgia in his first season if he drops Saturday’s contest, and given Florida State appears to have at least improved this season, there’s at least a chance Napier puts a blemish on his resume this year that would be particularly difficult to erase — defeats at the hands of every primary rival. But while those other programs are indeed adversaries, there’s something different about kickoff of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. And while Napier has yet to be involved in the rivalry game, he understands the contingencies.

“Anybody that’s walking the halls in this building, most everybody understands the things that come with this game. I grew up in the state of Georgia, grew up watching this game. Our players are well aware,” he said. “We’ve got a good percentage that have played in this game. We got another percentage that grew up watching the game. So, we all understand the history and tradition behind this game.”

Napier repeated that games like this are why coaches want to lead teams like Florida. Still, the game’s future is uncertain. Smart has been pushing for changes to its location, expressing disappointment that his program loses a top-tier recruiting weekend against a prominent opponent to play a neutral-site game. For the first time in 2022, the home team in the game will be allowed to host recruits, which means the Dawgs will have high school prospects around the program with the Gators receiving the same benefit next year.

While Georgia seems to be perhaps more accepting of a location change, Florida’s administration — and the vast majority of fans on both sides — love the pageantry of playing the game in Jacksonville. Napier this week offered a simple solution that should have been implemented long ago: let both programs host recruits every year.

“Maybe this game is the one that provides precedent for neutral site both teams to get tickets. Maybe that’s the case. There is no question that game day, and in particular these type of games, create recruiting opportunities. So this environment, this experience for a player, can have a significant impact on a player’s decision. I completely understand what Kirby is saying. Every other year he’s missing out on what he knows will be a fantastic venue and game day experience,” he said.

“It being right down the road, it’s really for both teams to some degree there is some advantages and disadvantages here. But I think we’ll continue to put our heads together, not only the coaching staff, but the administrations. But I think since 1933 the game has been played in Jacksonville, so a lot of history and tradition there.”

Clearing out the notebook

Richardson likely wants to forget his first Florida-Georgia game. Starting for the Gators, he completed just 12 of 20 passes for a paltry 82 yards with two interceptions, one fumble and 26 yards rushing. Due to his miscues, the Dawgs scored 21 points in the final 2:16 of the first half, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 24-0 bludgeoning from which the Gators were never able to recover. Shades of that AR have reared their ugly heads this season, but he’s also had breakthrough moments and performances that give Florida more hope this time around.

“There is no doubt the comfort level with all the things that contribute to quarterback play, not only our system, but what the other side of the ball is doing, being able to speak that language. Just a ton of growth relative to where he’s at and the level he’s processing at,” Napier said. “He still working hard on mastering what that process looks like Sunday to Saturday – unwavering commitment to what’s required to play and win.”

Napier on whether there’s been a common theme in this year’s losses: “It’s the same things we talk about up here every week … turnover margin, explosive plays, minimizing negatives on the offense, conversion downs, red zone touchdowns, you know, covering kicks, creating game changing plays in the return game. Football is football. … We know what winning football looks like. When we have been beat this year, it’s pretty evident … why we got to beat. It’s not complicated.”

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