Whitley: Florida's loss is Florida's gain
No one was allowed to say it, or they’d have been guilty of violating the Sports Rulebook. But as the Nick Saban Express wobbled out of Florida Field on Saturday, only one term accurately captured the Gators’ mood.
Yeah, it’s a forbidden phrase. Moral victory. When you lose on the scoreboard, but have some sort of moral gain.
Just about every coach or player who’s ever lost a close game says there are no such things. But let’s be real.
The Gators’ 31-29 loss to Alabama was one of the greatest moral victories in Florida history. If you don’t think so, you must have slept through the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s game.
Funny thing, so did the Gators. They were down 21-3 after one quarter. You wondered how many of the 90,887 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium would stick around for halftime.
It’s safe to say no one dreamed that two hours later, the Gators would be lining up for Hail Mary to win the game. Or that they’d be going for two points to tie it. Or that they’d be agonizing over a missed extra point that put them in that position.
After one quarter, fans were just hoping the Gators would salvage a little dignity and maybe, just maybe, make an open-field tackle. They did a lot more than that.
“We got a lot of confidence from this game,” Emory Jones said. “I feel it’s going to keep building.”
That is the moral of this near-victory. Florida did not have to beat Alabama to keep its season afloat. A loss to the No. 1 team was almost baked into everyone’s thinking.
What the Gators could not do was suffer a soul-crushing defeat. The kind that would have fans (and maybe players) questioning how they’d do against Georgia or — gulp — even Kentucky.
Saturday was a defining game for a team in search of an identity. And in that first quarter, the Gators looked like Bemidji State.
Was it nerves? Was it Alabama?
The defense was giving everyone 2020 flashbacks, with missed tackles and disarray in the secondary. The offense was not giving anyone flashbacks to those 2020 glory days.
“Just relax,” Mullen told his players. “Make tackles. Do your job.”
They did, with a little help from their 90,000 friends.
“The crowd certainly did its part,” Mullen said.
What looked like a travesty turned into a rollicking good time at The Swamp. It’s one thing to rise from the grave against Missouri or LSU. It’s something else to do it against the Saban Death Star.
There were moral gains and revelations for Florida. Among them:
The Gators defensive front is no longer flimsy as a picket fence. Alabama managed 91 yards rushing, compared to 258 for Florida.
That’s not a typo.
“Very rarely do you see that disparity when you play Alabama,” Mullen said.
Saturday confirmed what the first two games hinted at. Florida can really run the ball. What’s more, there are the makings of a dependable passing game.
Unlike the picks he’d been throwing, Jones made a good read on his lone interception. He was hit as he released the ball, and it sailed over the receiver into a defender’s hands.
Jones is still a work in progress. But Saturday, you could actually see the progress.
“He was more relaxed and comfortable,” Mullen said. “Way more than he was the past two weeks.”
That brings us to the other QB. Anthony Richardson was “medically cleared” to play, but the Gators didn’t want to risk aggravating his hamstring injury.
They’re better off resting Richardson and having him fully healed in a week or two. But Florida fans can’t help wondering what if the super-sub had been available against Alabama.
Now they are medically cleared to look ahead and wonder what the offense will look like if Jones continues to progress and the line keeps opening lanes for the fleet of runners. Then you throw in a healthy home-run hitter like Richardson?
No doubt, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out. But Instead of leaving with its confidence in shambles, the Gators are on the track realistic fans hoped for.
They can envision rolling into Jacksonville and beating Georgia. They can see a rematch with you-know-who in the SEC Championship Game.
All that seemed hopelessly lost 15 minutes into Saturday’s defeat. That’s why it was really a victory, even if nobody wanted to put it that way.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley