by Jeff Barlis
As the saying goes, perception is reality.
After the Gators were beaten handily in the past two weeks against Alabama and LSU, there is no arguing that Florida has fallen from the elite.
That was clear last year as well, when UF slogged to an 8-5 record in Urban Meyer’s final season as head coach. There were blowouts to Alabama, South Carolina and FSU, as well as losses to LSU and Mississippi State.
This year brought hope that a fresh, new coaching staff could come in and make an immediate difference. And while it still could, there is no denying that there will be no quick fixes for Will Muschamp and Co.
The Gators are in transition, and it could take a couple of seasons to return to college football’s mountaintop.
The impact in recruiting is a mixed bag.
Florida still has the reputation of an elite program, having won national championships and played on the nation’s biggest stage. The facilities, academics, coaching staff, campus, support staff and alumni aren’t impacted by losses on the field.
The question is, are prospects?
The majority are not swayed by losses. It’s true that big wins can bolster a player’s feelings about a school. But as long as one of their top teams isn’t losing six, seven or more games, these young high school stars typically feel like they can come in and make a difference. The coaches talk about having the chance to win championships as much as they talk about the chance to earn early playing time. Sometimes after a loss, coaches even specifically point out how a particular prospect could have helped them change the outcome, how the loss only proves how much they need the young man.
Consider what the head coach of Florida’s next opponent, Auburn’s Gene Chizik, just said today (Tuesday) …
“I think they are extremely good. They are very talented. There is speed everywhere. On the defensive side of the ball, they are physical. They’re big. They have a great plan. Let’s not lose sight of who their two losses are to. Their losses are to two really good football teams. It’s a very well-coached, very talented team. There is no question about that.”
Now consider what a handful of Florida’s top wide receiver prospects think …
Before the 2011 season even began, five-star wideout Stefon Diggs visited for Friday Night Lights. He talked about how Florida had been down for a couple of years. That is exactly what is meant by perception, because the reality is that the year before Florida’s difficult 2010 season, the Gators were the SEC East’s unbeaten representative in the league championship game. Florida was 13-1 in 2009. The undefeated regular season was capped by UF’s domination of Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. For a 16-year-old, however, the lasting memory might be of Alabama crushing Florida and making Tim Tebow cry in the 2009 SEC Championship Game.
“The Swamp is a good place to be,” Diggs said on July 22, 2011 after putting on a show during Friday Night Lights. “They’re getting back into the tune of things. They had a couple off-years, but hey, gotta get back on track.”
Make no mistake that Diggs feels he can help Florida get back on track as a true freshman next year.
So do Latroy Pittman and Nelson Agholor.
The two in-state wide receivers are good friends. Pittman, a four-star prospect, was the first verbal commitment in Florida’s Class of 2012. Agholor is a five-star who, along with Diggs, is a top priority. Pittman and Agholor were in The Swamp, sitting in the south end zone bleachers to watch the Crimson Tide handle the Gators on Oct. 1. They were not discouraged. What they saw was opportunity.
Pittman said after the game he remains confident Agholor will have Florida among his top teams. As for his own commitment, Pittman would speed up the clock on his high school career if he only could.
“Yeah, I’m too excited,” Pittman said. “I can’t wait. It’s crazy. Every game I go to I would like to get some pads and just hop on the field right then.”
He will likely have that chance in less than a year.