UF downfall started a year ago
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 10:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 at 10:55 p.m.
One play said it all about Florida's 2013 football season, a play so comical and mind-boggling it was ESPN's No. 1 choice for the Not Top 10 for the year.
Forget the result, a seven-yard gain by Solomon Patton for a first down that set up a touchdown. It got in the way of the illustration of incompetence.
Quinton Dunbar and Jon Harrison were blocking each other. That's all you need to know.
That it happened during the low point of Florida's season — a 26-20 loss to FCS school Georgia Southern — brought the point home with all of the subtlety of a hammer to the teeth. Every time it seemed that the 2013 football team had bottomed out, it found a way to dig deeper.
When the calendar flipped over to 2014, the giant whooshing sound you heard was the Gator Nation letting out a sigh of relief. You didn't have to be superstitious to understand that '13 was an unlucky number for UF.
It started right away, just two days into the year (and a year ago today) when the Gators should have been celebrating a 2012 season that saw them come this close to playing for the national championship. In New Orleans, a place that had been good to Florida fans over the years, a veritable who's who of Gator greats were on hand for the Sugar Bowl.
Among the former players in attendance were three of the five members of the Ring of Honor — Emmitt Smith, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow. If that wasn't enough royalty, Muhammad Ali was there to represent Louisville.
Not there? Florida fans.
It was an embarrassing night for the Gator Nation before the game ever kicked off. UF ended up eating $840,000 worth of tickets and the Sugar Bowl was almost a home game for Louisville.
It wasn't any better on the field where Florida fell behind 14-0 and 24-3. The second half began with an onside kick by Florida. Not only did Louisville recover it, but Florida was assessed a pair of personal foul penalties to set the Cardinals up at the UF 19-yard line.
Florida had 98 yards of penalties in the game and Jeff Driskel had three turnovers. After telling the media all week how they wanted to end the season on a high note, the Gator players laid an egg instead. Tight end Jordan Reed was basically benched after he lined up wrong on the first play of the game. After the game, Louisville coach Charlie Strong, a longtime UF assistant, hugged a member of the national media and said, “That'll teach them for not hiring me.”
It was hardly the right way to start the year. It would get worse.
The spring was a portent of things to come. Because of injuries, Florida coach Will Muschamp announced that the spring game would be more of a practice than a game. The crowd was estimated at 15,000, the second-lowest spring game crowd in the football-crazy SEC.
Summer was hardly a relief for Gator fans. They watched two major stories unravel nationally that put two heroes of the 2008 national championship team in the news for the wrong reasons.
The most serious came on June 26 when former UF tight end Aaron Hernandez, probably the best to ever play the position for the Gators, was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Nine days earlier, Lloyd's body was found in an industrial park a mile from Hernandez's house. Ninety minutes after he was arrested, Hernandez was released by the New England Patriots.
If that wasn't bad enough, stories began to surface about other examples of violent behavior by Hernandez, including a pair of incidents in Gainesville. The questions about Hernandez being enabled at UF caused former coach Urban Meyer to send a release in the form of a text to The Gainesville Sun and Columbus Dispatch.
In his message, Meyer said, "I just received an email from a friend where there is an accusation of multiple failed drug tests by Hernandez covered up by University of Florida or the coaching staff. This is absolutely not true. Hernandez was held to the same drug testing policy as every other player. He was an athlete at Florida 4-7 yrs ago and there are some comments being made that are not correct. Our staff, myself and our families worked very hard to mentor and guide him."
Hernandez is still awaiting trial on multiple charges.
On July 31, a website called CrossingBoard.com released a video that showed former UF wide receiver Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a concert more than a month earlier. The video was captured by a phone camera and became a big national story. Cooper apologized profusely, some of his teammates responded with anger and the story had legs for two weeks. Two more weeks of negative publicity for UF.
Ah, but August meant the start of practice and Florida had high expectations for a team that was loaded with talent.
Except Driskel had to have an emergency appendectomy and would miss the first few weeks of practice. And starting tailback Matt Jones had a viral infection that would keep him out of camp and cause him to miss the opener. And starting right tackle Chaz Green suffered a torn labrum and was out for the season, And starting wide receiver Andre Debose suffered a torn ACL and was out for the season.
And all of this happened before the first practice of the summer.
Oh, did we mention that starting linebacker Antonio Morrison would be suspended for the start of the season because he was arrested for barking at a police dog?
That story went viral as well and became a summer punch line. Morrison was one of seven players who were suspended for games in 2013.
But suspensions were the least of Muschamp's problems.
It was almost as if Florida had angered a voodoo queen during their trip to New Orleans.
In all, Florida lost 72 starts to injuries. Every time you thought they had reached some new record for injured players, another one popped up. It almost became a Monday ritual to find out who would be lost for the season.
Driskel suffered a broken leg early in the third game of the season and Dominique Easley, the leader of the defense, suffered a torn ACL a few days later in practice.
Driskel's replacement, Tyler Murphy, played well as Florida went through the lightest part of its schedule, but when the opposition toughened and Murphy suffered a shoulder injury, the losses mounted and eventually Murphy was sidelined.
Before the season was over, Florida lost two quarterbacks, three offensive tackles, two linebackers and its top tailback to injuries.
UF started the season ranked No.10 despite losing six defensive starters to the NFL. On the day of the opener, the bad news kept coming — Tebow was cut by the New England Patriots.
Florida won its opener but turnovers killed the Gators the next week at Miami in a loss that was made that much more deflating because it was the last time the two teams would play for a long time.
Murphy led the Gators to wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas — three teams who would combine to win two conference games. The Gators then ran into a stretch where they would play one home game in 47 days.
Losses at LSU and Missouri virtually eliminated the team from playing for an SEC title and a loss to Georgia in Jacksonville cemented it.
OK, beat Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern and at least you go to a bowl game. But Murphy had his worst game against the Commodores throwing three picks. Vandy won by 17 points despite only gaining 183 yards of offense.
Muschamp's team finally came to play in Columbia, S.C., the following week and led throughout much of the game before the Gamecocks pulled it out.
Then came Georgia Southern.
Florida had never lost to an FCS team, but the Gators allowed 429 rushing yards in the 26-20 loss. Again, Florida made national news for the wrong reason. And days later, when the video surfaced of the two Florida players blocking each other, well, the once-proud program had become a laughing stock.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley professed his confidence that Muschamp would turn it around, first after the Missouri loss and again after the loss to Vandy. And then again after the loss to Georgia Southern. And then again in an impromptu news conference before the inevitable loss to Florida State.
When the 4-8 season was over, the purge began. Two coaches were let go, another left for Washington and seven players announced they would transfer. Murphy was among them, angering Muschamp because he had been told all week by Murphy and his family he was coming back.
For the first time since 1990, Florida had no bowl to prepare for in December. In a way, it was a relief for Florida fans who had grown so tired of watching their team play that thousands sold their tickets to FSU fans for the finale at The Swamp.
The only question when it was over — was it the worst year ever for Florida football? Even for those Florida fans who lived through 0-10-1 in 1979, it would be hard to argue any differently.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.