As a Gator fan, I try to manage expectations going into every season. I take a holistic look at the team, and without getting too far into details I decide what goal I have for the team.
It’s not like the goal I set for them really matters; Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook never called me up asking for an evaluation of things, and to date Urban Meyer has yet to do that either. For me as a fan though, I set a level of success that I’d like to see given the personnel, schedule, and circumstances and use that to grade the team at the end of the year.
My goal for the 2006 season was to win the SEC East. The Gators had not done that since 2000, but every year since except 2004 when Zook was fired, they finished one win away from going to Atlanta.
It figured to be the last transition year on offense before seeing the much ballyhooed Urban Meyer Offense™, but the team was stocked with talent and experience. With Georgia starting a freshman at quarterback and Tennessee coming off a 5-6 season, the goal seemed reasonable. Let’s just get to Atlanta and see what happens with whoever comes out of the West. Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the season.
In 2007, I set the same expectations: win the SEC East. It was different than 2006 though, in that there was an element of hope in it. In ’06, I was reasonably sure they could do it; in ’07, I was hoping they could do it to set up 2008. If they had just cracked 20 points against Auburn, they would have met that expectation thanks to the way the SEC’s divisional tiebreaker works.
In the end, the season was a mild disappointment. The team was not as good as the sum of its parts, something Meyer attributes to lax offseason effort coming off of the championship. The senior leadership was not strong, though I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made if Tony Joiner was a model citizen. The players all had won a lot, including some of the freshman as seven of them won a state title at Lakeland High, but they did not know how to win on the college level in lead roles and it showed.
I thought Tim Tebow would play fine at quarterback and put the silly “glorified fullback” talk in the dustbin of history. I did not expect him to dominate the way he did or win the Heisman. The rest of the offense was great too, though Kestahn Moore’s fumbling problem was not fun to watch.
I did not expect the defense to turn in one of the five worst statistical seasons of the past quarter century though. I suppose I should have seen it coming. You can survive with a weak secondary if you can rush the passer, and you can survive a weak pass rush with great secondary play. You cannot, however, succeed with both a weak secondary and a defensive line that gets pushed around.
I am not sure yet where to set the expectation for 2008. The secondary still figures to be the weakest part of the team, though the defensive line will be better thanks to another year to bulk up and an offseason under new assistant Dan McCarney. Emmanuel Moody appears to be the top flight running back Florida has not had since Ciatrick Fason, though we won’t know for sure until after the season gets going.
Just looking at the schedule, Florida’s weakness in the secondary may not come into play much. Hawaii, Miami, Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU, and Kentucky are all breaking in new starters. Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and FSU aren’t sure who their starters will be.
That leaves Casey Dick, who hasn’t played in a pass-oriented offense before, at Arkansas and Matthew Stafford at Georgia as the only entrenched starters on the slate. Contrast that with 2007 when three of Florida’s four losses came at the hands of senior quarterbacks (Auburn, LSU, and Michigan), and three of the four came to multi-year starters (Auburn, Georgia, and Michigan).
None of the games look as daunting now as the away game at LSU did in 2007 given where Florida is at, what the opponents bring to the table, and which stadiums they’re bringing it to. It’s just about inevitable that the Gators will lose to an SEC West opponent, something that has happened all but three seasons (’95, ’96, and ’98) since the SEC split into divisions in 1992. That probably means a loss to LSU and its stacked defense again, though I’ve noted that Arkansas looks like a potential trap game.
I can say that another 9-3 regular season would probably be a disappointment. The team is still young, but not as young as it was last year. The schedule is easier, with a bye week before Tennessee, LSU coming to the Swamp, and the trade of Auburn for transitioning Arkansas. Georgia will also be getting beat up physically, win or lose, in Baton Rouge the week before the Cocktail Party while Florida gets depleted Kentucky at home.
In other words, the expectations begin at 10-2. Go get ’em, Gators.