For a while, the Florida Gators exceeded expectations, and their rebuilding project appeared way ahead of schedule.
But the fat lady never sang and, instead, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ became UF’s theme music to end an odd 2015 season.
Michigan throttled Florida 41-7 in Friday’s Citrus Bowl — the Gators’ third consecutive dispiriting loss.
“We didn’t have the right mind-set going into the game,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “I don’t think they’re that much better than us, but they really had a better mind-set than we did. They took it to us from start to finish.”
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Coach Jim McElwain’s first year in Gainesville started with such promise, though.
Florida zoomed to a 6-0 start, with big wins over Tennessee and then-No. 3 Mississippi. Its offense showed signs of life, and its defense was as dominant as ever.
But after starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs on Oct. 12, Florida fumbled its momentum. The Gators lost to LSU but rallied to blow out Georgia.
Then it all fell apart.
Despite clinching the Southeastern Conference East title for the first time since 2009, the Gators played — and sometimes coached — as if they had arrived.
“You can’t ever take a step back,” Tabor said. “We were pedal to the metal for like the first six weeks, seven weeks, eight weeks. But after that Georgia game, it just went downhill from there.”
McElwain spoke of a complacency festering following Florida’s new-found success.
Tabor agreed, rambling through a laundry list of examples on exactly what McElwain was talking about.
“The 9-7 [win over] Vandy, that’s not supposed to happen,” Tabor said. “The 20-14 overtime at FAU, that’s not supposed to happen. Get blown out at home against FSU, that’s not supposed to happen.”
But it did happen, and it only got worse in the month of December.
Alabama bludgeoned Florida 29-15 in the SEC Championship Game, and then Michigan handed UF its worst loss in 20 years.
The Gators (10-4) were outscored a combined 97-24 during their three-game skid to end the year.
No doubt, the Grier suspension and a lack of depth crippled Florida, but the Gators also lacked the maturity and mental toughness to overcome adversity.
“You can never take your foot off the gas pedal,” McElwain said. “I think we had some guys satisfied when we first won the SEC East. I think they got a taste now of what you really have to do in preparation, in personal preparation moving forward.”
Although Florida’s offense regressed dramatically without Grier, and the defense simply ran out of gas until no-showing in the Citrus Bowl (allowing a season-high 503 yards), McElwain wasn’t stewing over the latest blowout loss.
Instead, UF’s first-year coach acknowledged disappointment with the way the season ended but sees a bright future for the program.
“We’ve got a ways to go, as I’ve said from the start,” McElwain explained. “And yet, we’re on our way to building something special. I’m really looking forward to hitting the offseason and really getting a full year behind us, as we now know the expectations. There’s a lot we can learn from.”