In Alabama loss, Florida football knows moral victories aren't enough

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For three hours inside a packed Swamp, over 90,000 fans roared so loud and stomped so hard they became a force in the game unfolding between Alabama and Florida, and it truly felt like old times -- back when the Gators were the dominant team in the SEC.

Though it might be hard to remember because Alabama has had a vice grip on the league over the past decade, Florida dominated the 1990s and mid-2000s, and crowds inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium regularly caused mayhem for opponents. Florida won 30 straight home games under Steve Spurrier, not to mention five SEC championships. Even when the Gators were underdogs, like they were on Saturday, they won those games too.

Under Urban Meyer, when Florida won two national championships, the crowds felt electric because the teams they watched were electric. To be at Florida when Spurrier and Meyer coached there was to know definitively and without question that the Gators had a chance to win championships every single year.

That has not been the case for the past decade, sending a proud fan base toward apathy and disinterest. It had been six years since Florida had that many fans show up the way they did Saturday. It's clear why it felt so much like old times.

There was only one thing missing: a win. But even in defeat, Florida showed it is time to stop expecting and celebrating close but not enough.

It is time to start expecting championships again.

"We're at a point where we can compete," Florida coach Dan Mullen said. "We have to get to the point where we're going to win. There's legitimate disappointment we didn't win the game because we expected to, but we've got to keep building. Everybody's on board making that happen right now. There's no atmosphere like game day in the Swamp when it's rocking. Our fan base bought into what we're doing in creating that environment, so we've got to get it back to where the Gators are competing for championships every year."

That is the conundrum, of course. Florida has gone 13 years since an SEC championship, so playing unexpectedly close after being a double-digit underdog and trailing 21-3 after a quarter feels better than another blowout. But the reality is, satisfaction in playing a close game can never be a benchmark for Florida. There are still standards that must be upheld. Close losses are not one of them. Neither are moral victories.

Progress can be celebrated, and it would be foolish to overlook the progress Mullen has made in four years. The gap with Alabama has closed significantly, just not enough. Florida got crushed by the Tide in the SEC championship game twice under Jim McElwain; in the past two meetings, Florida lost by a combined eight points.

The key difference is where the Gators are offensively and specifically at quarterback, a position for which Mullen has an excellent track record of success. Florida is a vastly different team today than it was a year ago, when Kyle Trask nearly led the upset of the Crimson Tide in Atlanta.

With signal-callers Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, solid running backs and a veteran offensive line, Florida has shown it can win in a completely different way, a sign of a coach who knows how to put his players in position to succeed. Last year, Florida passed for 408 yards on Alabama and ran for 54; this year, Florida threw for 195 and ran for 245.

Though the start to the season was shaky for Jones, he played his best game against Alabama, and Mullen acknowledged some of that is getting a feel for calling games with Jones under center. Richardson provides the pop of big plays that have wowed everyone this year and led to questions about whether he should start; maybe if he played against Alabama the outcome would have been different, because he provides such a different change of pace.

Mullen and his players clearly felt good about their game plan with Richardson out because of a hamstring injury. They nearly won without him. But the praise the Gators have received for playing Alabama closer than anyone in their past two meetings is usually reserved for teams without the history or championship tradition Florida has inside its program.

While the problem might be that Alabama has been so dominant that no other team has been able to keep up, Florida is at a point now under Mullen where it has to start winning games like this one.

Then there is East Division rival Georgia, which Florida beat for the first time under Mullen a season ago in a contest that was much celebrated for getting the Gators "over the hump" and back to the SEC championship game.

"We're at a point where we can compete. We have to get to the point where we're going to win. There's legitimate disappointment we didn't win the game because we expected to, but we've got to keep building. Everybody's on board making that happen right now." Florida coach Dan Mullen

Closing the gap with Alabama is obviously important, but overtaking Georgia and reclaiming Florida's spot as the dominant program in the SEC East is perhaps more important. To get another shot at the Tide -- which Florida really wants -- the Gators have to beat Georgia. Though the Bulldogs are ranked No. 2, it is not outlandish to think that Florida is right there with them based on the way it played Alabama. The proof will come in late October.

That is why the rest of the season is so important for the Gators, starting Saturday night against visiting Tennessee. Florida has to win out to get that coveted rematch with Alabama. No embarrassing losses to stunt progress, like LSU last season. No failure to show up, like Missouri in 2018. People will want to bring up the Cotton Bowl too, but realistically, Florida played without too much of its team to be judged for that loss to Oklahoma in December.

In the end, close losses cannot just show up in a record book. Something valuable must be learned, so they lead to enough improvement to reach the ultimate goal.

"After the SEC championship game, in the locker room, I saw a hunger from our guys to put ourselves back in a position to get back to Atlanta," Mullen said. "I want to see that Monday, that hunger to say we're going to fix those couple of things, that attention to detail, the laser focus of guys communicating and picking each other up. I want to see that attitude from our guys of everybody coming together to make those plays and erase that two-point margin."

The issue for Florida is the same issue facing the rest of the SEC (Georgia too!) when it comes to Alabama. But unlike nearly every other coach in the SEC, Mullen knows what it takes to win a championship. That leaves the biggest question of all: How much closer is Florida to getting there?

To that, Mullen says Florida is closer. But for a generally impatient fan base, at some point closer is not going to be enough.