Don’t give up on the Florida Gators yet

Shannon J. Owens, The Orlando Sentinel MCT

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time swallowing this prophecy from some college football analysts about the pending doomsday in Florida Gators football history.

Seriously? Even Gainesville pastor Terry Jones could find a little more optimism.

This is Florida football, one of winningest college football programs since 1990. This isn’t Northwestern.

Before you assume I worship at the Swamp shrine, just know I’m not suggesting something as extreme as the Gators winning the national title or even the SEC championship this year. Clearly, the team is thin in experience this season. But the talent is another story, the leadership is another book and one that’s worth taking a deeper look into.

Instead of projecting Florida’s failure, let’s just pretend for a moment there are at least a few reasons to believe things could go OK in this new chapter.

Reason No. 1 — Quinton Dunbar, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley.

For those of you who silently questioned who in the world are these guys, that’s exactly my point.

To most people outside of Gainesville, their names might as well be Larry, Curly and Moe.

Thanks in large part to the closed practices and overall shroud of secrecy surrounding Florida football, most of us have no idea about what Florida’s potential truly is this season.

Dunbar, a sophomore, played just a few games last season, but Florida coach Will Muschamp and players alike lauded him as one of the biggest players to watch this season.

“I definitely know Quinton Dunbar is going to be an explosive player for us this year,” said receiver Andre Debose. “I feel like we have multiple guys that can be a game changer in this offense. Coming into camp, everybody was trying to be that guy so there’s going to be a lot of competition.”

Sophomores Sharrif Floyd, ranked among the top 40 SEC players, and Dominique Easley, who was ranked the No. 11 defensive end in the country by Rivals last January, also have a lot to offer. And even with the departure of Urban Meyer in December, the Florida Gators still pulled out the No. 4 recruiting class according to ESPN. That recruiting class included the No. 6 ranked tight end in A.C. Leonard (unless he’s on injury reserve for the next three years, I’m guessing that could work out), No. 2 ranked kicker in Kyle Christy and No. 1 quarterback recruit Jeff Driskel.

Maybe the cupboard isn’t completely bare, maybe we just overlooked a few plates.

Muschamp has acknowledged that he has more athleticism than experience – which will undoubtedly bring growing pains.

He recently ranted about the team’s poor performance during its scrimmage. But think about the words Muschamp used, “immature, “not consistently performing at the level they need to perform at” and a “lack of focus.”

That’s a perfect description of a young team, not a team in crisis of losing its standing forever among the SEC elite.

Reason No. 2 – Charlie Weis.

It’s been said great leaders surround themselves with other successful leaders. Muschamp at least proved this by hiring four-time Super Bowl champion offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

John Brantley probably got the worst deal in college sports playing after Tim Tebow and in an offensive system clearly not designed to enhance his talent. But having a coach with a proven track record of developing quarterbacks should inspire some hope.

Reason No. 3 – History.

Kicker Caleb Sturgis summed up the mentality of Florida’s football team best with this quote a few weeks ago at media day.

“I think players come here to win championships, SEC titles or even go to a BCS game, that’s something the young guys want to experience. We’re so young that a lot of guys haven’t experienced that and that’s something they want to experience.”

Players go to Florida to win, not to enjoy the journey. Which, of course, creates a double edged sword.

The expectations are set so high for the Gators that anything short of championships and titles is deemed a failure. Consider this, Florida was ranked No. 22 on the USA Today preseason poll ahead of reigning national champions Auburn, former national champions USC and West Virginia.

College football is so unpredictable these days. One minute you’re No. 1, like Auburn, and the next you’re No. 23. Either way, it’s all better than being ranked No. 26.

History can be a tricky thing for teams. You don’t want to completely identify yourself with the past, but forgetting it altogether is equally ineffective.

Muschamp has been clear that he wants to maintain the integrity of Florida’s successful history. Most of us look at the titles and championships, but there’s another important memory.

Remember when the Gators and got the wind knocked out of them by losing to Ole Miss in 2008? They responded by winning the national championship.

Florida players were almost offended by the loss because they’ve always viewed themselves as better than everyone else.

A little conceit goes a long way in sports. Now is not the time to change identities. Florida isn’t a blue-collar program, it’s a blue-chip program.

The critics don’t have to believe that fact, but players should. Otherwise, they really aren’t the Florida we’ve come to know.

 

———

©2011 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services