The Florida Gators are playing for the SEC Championship today at 4pm in Atlanta. This wasn't shocking news to me when I woke up this morning, as I figured out my plans to watch the game, because Florida clinched its trip to Atlanta about a month ago. It doesn't feel weird to me that we're going to a Gators bar to watch our team play Alabama, a consistent national powerhouse, with an opportunity to become champions of the best conference in college football. Of course Florida is doing that. Florida has done it plenty times before, so here we are again. Florida plays in Atlanta all the time.
Except that's not a mindset Florida fans have had over the past five years. Since a 2008 national title, we've watched the 2009 team (a unit significantly hampered by the pressure of repeating as champions) finish the regular season undefeated before getting clocked by Alabama in the SEC Championship. That was the least fun 13 wins ever. Just ask an FSU fan about their 2014, or an Ohio State fan about their current season. Attempting to repeat isn't fun.
Urban Meyer's departure, Will Muschamp's arrival and the ensuing four years of pain on the offensive side of the ball lost Florida that championship mindset. That mindset that we should expect to win every week -- and if we don't expect it, we sure as hell have faith in our chances, and we can realistically hope to stay in the game, no matter who we're playing.
The faith, the hope, that I had for every game I watched as I experienced Gators football growing up, had completely vanished from the fanbase by 2013/14. I'll always believe in my team, and I'll always root for Florida -- even during our 4-8 season in 2013, I flew to Gainesville for the home opener, as I've done every year since I moved in New York, and I flew to Jacksonville for the Georgia game -- no matter what type of weather the Gators are fighting through. During our 12-2 season in 2012, the one bright spot during Muschamp's tenure, that hope and faith was only around because of wins that felt a bit hollow. Maybe that was the least fun 12 wins ever.
It's not easy to completely devoid a fanbase of hope and faith, but that's what happened. It's even harder to devoid this fanbase of hope and faith. Florida's success on the football field in the country's toughest conference is amazing: Today serves as their 11th appearance in the SEC Championship Game, and they've won the game seven times to date. Not bad numbers for a title game that's been played 23 times so far, in a conference amongst 12, and then 14, foes. Hell, this is Florida's eighth time in the game playing against Alabama, and those eight instances serve as more appearances than any other SEC East team has overall. My point is: Florida is accustomed to contending for SEC titles, and Florida expects to do so with regularity.
But this wasn't supposed to be a year where we did that. It's our first year under new head coach Jim McElwain. Florida is in rebuilding mode, trying to repair an offense left deflated in multiple ways -- deflated morally, due to years of incompetence on the field; deflated physically, due to years of incompetence recruiting top-tier playmakers and respectable depth at all offensive positions. We knew our defense would be solid, as it always is. We'll probably get seven wins, we said before the season. Eight wins would be really nice. Nine wins would be pretty incredible. Ten wins? Eleven or twelve wins? You were overly enthusiastic, maybe even insane. Florida did, after all, have to play only a partial spring game because it lacked enough offensive linemen to field two squads.
The Gators were expected to struggle in games that are usually chalked up as wins well before the season starts. Would they lose their 28-year winning streak against Kentucky? What about the 10-year winning streak over Tennessee? Nope. Florida's beaten Kentucky 29 years in a row, and Tennessee 11 years in a row, now.
Florida wasn't even expected to be competitive in its brutal October schedule. Ole Miss, Missouri, LSU and Georgia? Would Florida even win one of those games? Nope. It won three of those games, despite losing its starting quarterback to a year-long suspension. Its only loss in October was on the road against LSU by a touchdown that was scored on a fake field goal.
All of this to say that by October, hope and faith were common things again. It was odd to feel hopeful and faithful again at first, and I was personally careful in doing so, like wading slowly into a pool of cold water. Dip your toe in to make sure it won't kill you first. Take a step every few moments until you're used to it. But by the time Florida upset Ole Miss in a blowout, by the time October was in full swing, the fanbase was doing cannonballs into the deep end.
It helped that the schedule heated up nicely: An easy win to start off the year, followed by a too-close-for-comfort call against East Carolina, leading into Kentucky and Tennessee before a big challenge in Ole Miss. The hope and faith in fans grew in each successive week, with each successive win, as the team's confidence undoubtedly grew in itself. This renewed hope and faith is due to a remarkable coaching job by McElwain, doubtlessly one of the most impressive bodies of work in the country this year; if he doesn't win the national coach of the year award, I'd expect it to go to Jim Harbaugh, who resurrected a similarly deflated Michigan program this year.
If it seemed difficult to imagine what it would take to rob Florida's fanbase of its hope and faith over four years, it seemed even more difficult to imagine what it would take to restore that hope and faith after just one year. So even though Florida got drilled by Florida State last weekend to close the regular season, and even though Florida doesn't have a great shot of beating Alabama today -- its offense without Will Grier just cannot move the ball consistently enough to match up against good teams -- it's important for Florida fans to remember this feeling. Things are moving in the right direction. The Gators have a bright future. Florida football is heading back to a place that we're all going to be a lot more comfortable with. A place that will be fun again.
Today we get to celebrate a scrappy team that's won 10 games without the stockpile of talent and depth usually required to win 10 games in this conference. A malleable team that's overcome big losses this year to beat every team in its division on the field. A team that's inspired us to feel hopeful, and faithful, about Florida's football future once more.