Had you polled Florida fans before the season, they probably would have been thrilled to know the Gators would finish with 10 wins. Poll them after the Gators’ 27–2 loss to Florida State on Saturday night and they’ll likely lament what the season could have been with decent quarterback play.
Despite another staunch defensive performance and a gutty outing from running back Kelvin Taylor, who finished with 136 yards on 24 carries, the Gators’ inability to find any rhythm in their passing game cost them their rivalry game against the Seminoles and any outside chance at making the College Football Playoff. Having clinched the SEC East after its win over Vanderbilt earlier in the month, the Gators will face Alabama in the conference championship game next week.
Most of the blame falls on quarterback Treon Harris, whose longstanding accuracy and indecision issues plagued him for a third consecutive game. Harris finished an underwhelming 19-of-38 for 134 yards, failing to convert any notable throws and rarely using his speed to keep the Seminoles defense off-balance. With top receiver Demarcus Robinson sitting out due to suspension, Florida’s offense lacked a feasible deep threat and reduced coach Jim McElwain’s gameplan to a power run attack that Florida State limited with relative ease.
After surviving significant scares from both Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic earlier this month, the Gators struggled with Florida State’s defensive speed, most notably freshman safety Derwin James, who will likely project as a first-round pick once he’s eligible.
It wasn’t a dominant showing from Florida State, who failed to convert its first eight third-down conversions and didn’t get much production early on from star running back Dalvin Cook, who finished with 183 rushing yards. Cook was mostly ineffective through the first three quarters, but exploded for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter at the expense of an exhausted Gator defense. Quarterback Sean Maguire spent most of the night scrambling from Florida’s defensive line and finished 14-for-27 with one touchdown, which came on a wild one-footed throw on fourth-and-goal to a tight end (Jeremy Kerr) who hadn’t caught a pass all season.
With Florida’s offense hitching, stalling, then hitching again, the circus TD was all the Seminoles would need to win their third consecutive game against their in-state rival. The Gators faced a second-and-7 at the Florida State nine-yard-line and a chance to pull within one touchdown, but Harris was subsequently flagged for intentional grounding before kicker Austin Hardin had a 37-yard field goal blocked early in the fourth quarter.
It’s difficult to fathom where the Gators would have finished had emerging freshman quarterback Will Grier not been suspended after the sixth game of the season for a violation of NCAA rules. Grier led Florida to a stunning 38–10 upset of Ole Miss on Oct. 5 with four touchdown passes and, at the very least, forced opposing defenses to spread out their coverages. After the suspension, those defenses routinely loaded up their defensive fronts to stop Taylor, who was the only serious scoring threat on the field besides Robinson.
It’s even crueler for the Florida defense, which entered Saturday’s game ranked sixth in the country in total defense and held the Seminoles to 304 total yards. It limited Cook, one of the nation’s most prolific backs, to 27 yards on his first 12 carries and 35 yards through the first three quarters while suffocating Maguire with constant pressure. Freshman defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson could develop into a star, but the Gators will likely lose star defensive back Vernon Hargreaves to the NFL draft.
It’s a unit that could have anchored a championship team in 2015, but the ineptitude of Florida’s offense will leave its fans pondering what could have been.