GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For many fans and observers, expectations for this Florida football team changed dramatically after the Gators’ humbling 33-17 season-opening loss to Michigan.
The offensive line collapsed after a preseason of praise. The offense managed just a field goal. And somehow, Florida ended up losing by 16 points, despite returning a pair of interceptions for a touchdown and setting up good field position on another drive with a partially blocked punt.
That’s hard to do.
There’s no point in belaboring the details of the defeat, though. It happened. It was hugely disappointing. And now the Gators must move forward.
While the most vocal fans seemingly have lost hope for this season already, college football is full of recent examples of teams who have stumbled mightily out of the gate before recovering for very successful campaigns.
For instance …
2016 Southern California
It was just a year ago that Southern Cal, ranked No. 20 in the AP poll to open the season, came out flat on the same stage that Florida did last week.
Playing No. 1 Alabama in the AdvoCare Classic in Arlington, Texas, the Trojans offered little resistance on the way to a 52-6 loss. They’d later follow that with losses to No. 7 Stanford in Week 3 and No. 24 Utah in Week 4 for a 1-3 start.
But that didn’t derail the season for the Trojans. They won their final nine games, even putting themselves on the fringe of the College Football Playoff discussion. They closed with wins over Washington, UCLA, Notre Dame and Penn State on the way to a Rose Bowl championship.
When all was said and done, the Trojans finished the season ranked No. 3 in the final AP poll and No. 5 in the coaches poll.
Oklahoma opened last season ranked No. 3 in the AP poll before tripping up in its debut and taking a 33-23 loss to No. 15 Houston.
The Sooners lost to No. 3 Ohio State in Week 3 and didn’t lose again, closing the season with 10 straight wins and an impressive 35-19 Sugar Bowl victory over Auburn.
With an 11-2 overall record and a perfect 9-0 Big 12 mark, Oklahoma finished No. 5 in the final AP poll and No. 3 in the coaches poll.
2015 Washington State
In discussing deflating season openers, it doesn’t get much worse than a Power 5 program losing to an FCS-level opponent.
That happened to the 2015 Washington State team when it lost 24-17 to Portland State in Week 1.
But that didn’t doom the Cougars’ season. They went on to win nine games the rest of the way, registering a breakthrough season for coach Mike Leach after winning just three games the previous season.
Ah, another AdvoCare Classic victim.
The 2015 Badgers entered the season ranked No. 20 and opened with a 35-17 loss to No. 3 Alabama in Arlington, Texas. The game was never competitive, and only a late Wisconsin touchdown somewhat softened the optics of the final score.
From there, though, the Badgers lost only two games by a combined 10 points the rest of the way (to Iowa and No. 20 Northwestern). They closed with a Holiday Bowl victory over Southern Cal to finish with a 10-win season.
2014 Boise State
Looking to make yet another statement against a Power 5 foe, Boise State opened the 2014 season with a 35-13 loss to No. 19 Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
They regrouped from there, losing once more the rest of the way (in late September to Air Force) while closing with a 38-30 win over No. 11 Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl for a 12-win season.
Still on the climb toward its eventual national championship, Clemson came into the 2014 season ranked No. 16 and full of expectations and optimism.
Much like Florida this fall, the Tigers were dealt a decisive opening setback with a 45-21 loss at No. 12 Georgia in Week 1. The Bulldogs scored the final 31 points of the game to leave the Tigers stunned.
But they snapped out of their daze quickly and recovered for a 10-3 season, with the other losses coming in overtime to No. 1 Florida State and on the road at No. 24 Georgia Tech.
The following season, Clemson reached the national championship game.
Going further back …
Who can forget?
When it comes to season-opening letdowns, nothing tops a preseason No. 5 Michigan team losing its season opener before a home crowd of 109,218 to FCS-level Appalachian State.
App State blocked a potential game-winning field goal for the Wolverines in the final seconds to clinch the stunning 34-32 upset in The Big House.
Michigan tumbled all the way out of the Top 25 the next week and followed with a 39-7 loss to Oregon.
But that Wolverines were able to change the narrative of their season with eight straight wins before late-season losses at Wisconsin and against No. 7 Ohio State.
They closed the year on a high note with a 41-35 win over No. 9 Florida in the Capital One Bowl.
Going way back …
A pair of eventual national champions started their seasons with lopsided Week 1 losses before getting on track.
The 1983 Miami Hurricanes lost 28-3 to No. 16 Florida to start a very memorable season. They didn’t lose again and ultimately topped No. 1 Nebraska, 31-30, for the national title.
And the 1974 Southern Cal Trojans opened with a deflating 22-7 loss to a lower-ranked Arkansas team before winning out and claiming half of college football’s split national championship that season. The Trojans finished No. 1 in the UPI coaches poll, while Oklahoma finished unbeaten and tops in the AP poll, despite being on probation and barred from postseason play.
Kind of similar
It wasn’t Week 1, but Florida State’s 2016 team suffered an embarrassing 63-20 loss to No. 10 Louisville after entering that third week of the season ranked No. 2. Of course, the Seminoles finished strong for a 10-3 season and No. 8 final ranking.
And Ohio State’s 2014 national championship team took a two-touchdown loss to unranked Virginia Tech (35-21) in Week 2 before winning out from there and rolling over Oregon in the national title game.
What does it all mean?
Well, nothing, unless Florida shows significant improvement offensively and proves that dismal showing against Michigan was merely an anomaly.
But the point is that in many cases, college football fans are prone to overreaction in Week 1. These are just a few examples of unexpected season-opening stumbles proving to be a mere pothole on an otherwise smooth road to success.
And in other cases, it’s not an overreaction at all and the flaws a team reveals at the start are the same ones that undermine it the rest of the way.
As it pertains to the Gators, nobody knows yet which direction they’ll go.
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