Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope to turn corner on tough visit to reeling Texas A&M

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 4, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope to turn corner on tough visit to reeling Texas A&M

Image Credit: Alexis Greaves / UAA

Through nine weeks, the 2022 season has largely been a disappointment for the Florida Gators. That’s not to say any reasonable follower of the program expected Florida to be undefeated or sitting at this point with only one loss, but it’s fair to say the Gators’ problems have been exposed more than initially expected with hopes high in Year 1 under new head coach Billy Napier.

Florida’s issues are multiple, but it largely starts with the roster. Attrition has already begun with two players leaving the program this week (one by choice, the other not so much), and more is still to come. Yet the Gators have games remaining to play, and the final third of their schedule is quite a contract from the first two-thirds.

With the first 2022 edition of the College Football Playoff Rankings released Tuesday, it became clear how difficult a schedule Florida has played to this point. Three of its four losses have come to top-10 teams: No. 1 Tennessee, No. 3 Georgia and No. 10 LSU. The lone other defeat was against then-ranked Kentucky, and if that game was played at this point in the season, it’s fair to believe the result might be different.

“It’s exactly what we signed up for. It’s what we expected,” said Napier of UF’s tough road in the SEC. “We’ve got a pulse of where we’re at and what we need to do going forward. We’ve also been in the game with all these teams as well, late in the second half. I mean, it is what it is. That gives us a good barometer of where we’re at and what we need to do to position ourselves in the future, to have better success.”

Still, the Gators are 4-4 overall and just 1-4 in SEC play, second-to-last in the division with only winless Vanderbilt behind them. Perhaps a reprieve is coming, though. Florida’s next three SEC games are Saturday at Texas A&M (3-5, 1-4 SEC) and Vandy (3-5, 0-4 SEC) with the home finale coming against South Carolina (5-3, 2-3 SEC). In other words, all games in which it is reasonable to expect the Gators to win … though it is always particularly difficult to beat the Aggies and the 12th Man in College Station, Texas.

“Jimbo [Fisher]’s got a really good team at A&M, very talented group — personnel, rosters, deep, certainly height-length, verified speed. Not many chinks in the armor when you look at the personnel match-wise,” Napier said. “… Certainly, when you go play here at their place, there’s a lot of challenges that certainly go with it. We’re going to need to be at our best.”

With playoff and conference hopes now out the window, the lone goal remaining on Florida’s board is to advance to a bowl game. It needs two more victories to become eligible, and given Florida State’s significant improvement, that means the Gators may need to win two of the three SEC games to get there.

Given the aforementioned expected roster turnover and the fact that Napier is still trying to instill a particular culture within the program, the extra practice time and off-field work that comes with bowl preparation is integral to Florida’s success next season. It’s one thing to potentially not reach the 8-4 expectation that many had for the program this campaign, but not playing in a bowl game would be quite a shock — and certainly not a help to the program in 2023.

“It’s one of the benefits of going to a bowl game is that you get additional time with the players from a development standpoint – more meetings, more walkthroughs, more practice opportunities. There’s no question this is a developmental game, and you do that in a practice setting,” said Napier. “Certainly, it’s another opportunity for your team to compete and play. So, more experience for players, opportunities for players to increase their value relative to their career. And certainly an opportunity to celebrate some of the positive things that come from the year.”

Whether the Gators earn that opportunity will be determined starting Saturday as they travel to a tough road environment seeking a win over the Aggies the first time since their initial meeting as SEC opponents in 2012.

Starting fast is key, resilience is impressive

Far too often this season, Florida has put itself in a hole to start games. Napier, who prides himself on an analytical approach to coaching, explained in no uncertain terms how integral it is for the Gators not to put themselves in similar situations down the stretch, particularly in extremely tough road environments like what the program will face this week in College Station.

“Analytics would tell you that starting fast is extremely important at any level of football. Getting off to a quick start relative to momentum in the game. It’s always a point of emphasis for us, and certainly when you go play on the road, it’s even more imperative,” he said.

Still, the most impressive attribute of Florida football this season has been its resiliency. Even in situations where the Gators have found themselves behind on the scoreboard — either early or at halftime — the team has fought back in the second half. UF created an opportunity for it to win on the road against Tennessee. It got within a touchdown of Georgia despite a three-score hole (that was really four scores) only for the deficit to be too much to overcome. And it turned a tough blowout against LSU into a respectable defeat in the final.

“Certainly really proud of the way our group responded at halftime,” said Napier of Florida’s play against Georgia. “That’s one of the things I respect the most about this group is they really care. They want to do their job for each other and certainly have showed that throughout the year.”

While the goal is to win games, not lose close to promote a moral victory, it’s clear that Napier and the coaching staff has instilled a significant level of fight in the players, which is certainly contrary to the way the team operated in the past — particularly last season.

“The resiliency that I see [is impressive],” he added. “The main thing that I would say that I respect is we’ve got a lot of people that care about doing their job for the people around them. So, there’s a certain loyalty required in this game, and I see that from some of our players. We’ve got a group that really cares. They’ve showed that throughout the year. When backed in a corner, they’ve always kind of stood up and got up off the ground and kept competing and playing with effort, trying to do their best for their teammates.”

For Napier, “effort is non-negotiable.” He demands the Gators put forth the best attitude they can on a weekly basis and focus on what’s next. Well, what’s next this week is a Texas A&M team that has similarly performed far below expectations this season. The Aggies have lost four straight games, including a pair to unranked opponents. This as Florida enters having dropped consecutive contests, both to now-top 10 teams. Napier is excited to see how the Gators bounce back from their defeats.

“Truth be known, these present the best opportunities because the players’ awareness level is heightened. They’re much more in tune to the impact of making a mistake,” he explained. “… It really causes you to evaluate the game closely, and it presents opportunities to learn, to grow, to adapt. They’ve taken the right approach in that regard. It goes back to what I said earlier: We got to focus on what’s next and maximize all these experiences we have for the better.”

Turnarounds take time

If Year 1 under Napier seems familiar at Florida, perhaps that’s because it’s not that dissimilar from what happened at Louisiana in 2018. Those Ragin’ Cajuns started 4-4 only to win three of their last four regular-season games. Though they dropped the Sun Belt Championship Game and Cure Bowl to end the season, they were actually playing in both games. Louisiana then made huge gains going 11-3 in Year 2 and 22-2 over Napier’s final two seasons.

In other words, progress that Gators fans would certainly accept if offered the possibility. The SEC is not the Sun Belt, and Florida is not Louisiana. Still, Napier seems some similarities between the rebuild in Gainesville, Florida, and the one he completed in Lafayette, Louisiana.

“The challenges that come with starting over — new group of people, staff, players, administration, community. Typically, when you get one of these jobs, you’re there for a reason. There’s things that need to improve. It was that way at Louisiana; it was that way here,” he explained.

“Ultimately, these are great opportunities. These are challenges that you embrace, that you take on, that you look forward to. And there’s no shortcuts. These are things that you’ve got to go through and that you’ve got to do.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got an incredible administration here, that we have an unbelievable experience to offer the student-athlete here. This is one of the iconic places in all of college football. We have a top five university. We have history. We have tradition. We have a passionate fan base. This is a place you can do it.

“This is a page in the chapter in the book. Struggle is healthy, right? Majority of the growth in my life, and probably in yours, too, if you thought about it, comes from adversity, comes from challenge. There’s failure along the way, right? The key is that you capitalize off of those things. You learn your lessons from those things, and you adjust, you adapt, you grow.

“Certainly, that’s what we’re doing. You don’t just flip a coin and get this thing going the right direction. It takes lots of people, lots of hard days’ work, lots of tough decisions. And we’re right in the middle of it.”

Clearing out the notebook

Napier on what Fisher has meant to him as a peer: “Jimbo gave me an opportunity. I was actually with him for 5-6 weeks there before accepting the job at Alabama. He had tremendous success at Florida State, won a national championship, evaluated, recruited well. He had some fantastic coaches there and did something there that hadn’t been done in a long time. Very thankful for that opportunity. It’s pretty well documented what Jimbo has been able to accomplish in his career.”

Napier on senior linebacker Amari Burney, who continues to flash this season: “Amari is one of the best players that we have, big picture-wise, relative to his attitude, his energy every day, the consistency in which he shows up and works. He’s playing injured to some degree, too. He’s managing an injury. So, this is a guy that has the respect of his peers. He’s a smart player. He’s a really good communicator, and he’s really a versatile player. He’s been very productive for us. Nothing but respect for Amari in his overall approach.”

Redshirt sophomore safety Kamar Wilcoxson has decided to enter the transfer portal. Wilcoxson was not on Florida’s depth chart for the Texas A&M game and subsequently announced his decision on Twitter. A former four-star prospect, he struggled to get on the field during his career due to a mixture of performance and injury. Wilcoxson appeared in just two games this season and had not played since Week 2 against Kentucky. He is the second player to depart the program this week as Napier dismissed Gators redshirt junior starting linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. Sources confirmed to OnlyGators.com that Cox’s dismissal was not over a single incident but rather a continuous stream of frustrations that reached a breaking point for the program.

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