- By Dave George Palm Beach Post Sports Columnist
Another giggly play date in the Swamp for the Florida State Seminoles, who have won their past four trips here by an average score of 28-9.
Another stiff-arm delivered to the Florida Gators, and from clear across the country this time, as Chip Kelly is announced as the new coach at UCLA. Now starts the process of fighting off Nebraska and possibly others in the pursuit of UCF’s Scott Frost, a process that will take another week of wondering and waiting even if it goes well.
Saturday was a good day for the Gators for one reason and one reason only. It brought to an end a lousy 4-7 season that was sour from the start and continued curdling until coach Jim McElwain had lost his job and the roster of scholarship players was down 40 percent because of suspensions and injuries.
The situation is marginally better at FSU. I mean, a 5-6 record and the likelihood of a minor bowl assignment warrants no fireworks in Tallahassee, not when the Seminoles started the season No. 3 in the AP poll.
All the same, with a 38-22 victory extending the Seminoles’ win streak over Florida to an all-time high of five in a row, there is nothing truly to fear but, what, Jimbo Fisher leaving for Texas A&M or some other new adventure?
“Don’t start that,” Jimbo said when asked if this might have been his last Florida-FSU game. “I love this rivalry. That’s for sure. I ain’t talking about a job. I ain’t getting into all that.”
The speculation won’t stop, however, for either of these teams.
That’s because there are no more certainties in this football-crazy state, where Miami and UCF are writing all the freshest headlines, or in this threadbare Florida-FSU rivalry, which on Saturday featured for the first time since 1959 two teams with losing records.
The result was a sloppy performance in which FSU totaled just 216 yards in offense, which is about what the Seminoles mustered in a 35-3 loss at Boston College, and in which the Gators gifted to FSU two defensive touchdowns and what should have been a third if not for a premature celebration just short of the goal line.
“We’re definitely gonna rise,” said Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, who played all the way through an awful three-interception, five-sack day because interim head coach Randy Shannon had nowhere else to turn. “Can’t go any lower.”
Well, actually, there is another potential swirl or two toward the bottom of the bowl.
The Gators could burn the last bit of patience in a fan base that even at this dead-end point put an announced crowd of 89,066 in the seats and skyboxes of Steve Spurrier Field. It’s mostly muscle memory now, of course, the loading up of the RV’s, the swarming of the overpriced motel rooms, the cheering and the chanting learned in SEC championship and national title seasons past.
All it would take to make it fun again, though, is a coach who isn’t afraid to trade elbows with Nick Saban and the rest of the SEC, who brings a creative offensive playbook with him and not just “Touchdowns for Dummies,” who understands the rare personal reward of winning big here, and not just of cashing big paychecks.
Kelly wasn’t ready for all of that, so he chose the easier path of coaching at UCLA. Frost, who has UCF on a major unbeaten roll, appears to fit the criteria very well.
He’s not scared of hard work or he wouldn’t have gone to UCF when the Knights were coming off an 0-12 season. Neither does he represent a huge drop off the cliff in comparison to Kelly’s offensive sparkle, since Frost was Kelly’s offensive coordinator on some very flashy Oregon teams.
Then there is the energy of a young coach just coming into his own. Frost, 42, has that, too, and so does Willie Taggart, plus a few other candidates that Stricklin’s probably vetting. The AD either wasn’t at the Swamp on Saturday or he was making himself very scarce. Everybody figured he was with Frost’s representatives instead, but everybody has been guessing from the start of this process.
If you had asked me on Thanksgiving morning for the opinion of this particular “so-called expert,” it would have been that Florida and FSU would glumly play out the string Saturday and then, with a thunderclap of promise, Kelly would be introduced as Florida’s coach on Sunday afternoon.
“This is a very talented football team,” Shannon said. “The sky’s the limit. Whoever inherits this team is going to be really, really excited about it.”
When it becomes a chore to get candidates to agree with Shannon’s assessment, it’s time to start worrying about how much damage has been done to the Gators’ brand.
Jimbo and FSU have put as many dents in it as anyone. On Saturday, the worst team he has ever brought to Gainesville won easily, even with freshman quarterback James Blackman from Glades Central running hot and cold (10-of-21 passing for 128 yards, two touchdowns and a pick).
Georgia has wrested control of the SEC East from Florida, too, and other division rivals have leapfrogged the Gators as well. Overall, it’s the lowest ebb for the program since the 4-8 pothole of 2013, when Will Muschamp’s third Gator team ended the season with seven consecutive losses and one of them was to Georgia Southern.
Stricklin is selling a chance to scrub all that and to start something new. All he needs is a signature on a contract, and it can’t be the invisible ink that Chip Kelly uses.
This time, it has to be written in blood.