Florida on the rise under Billy Napier as No. 7 Utah continues Pac-12’s confounding downturn


Somewhere amid the din of The Swamp, there had to be room for some pity. It wasn’t just a gut-wrenching, last-second 29-26 loss for No. 7 Utah to unranked Florida on Saturday night, it was something close to gosh-darn football torture.

It would be charitable to say college football has had its way with the Pac-12 lately. When it wasn’t losing teams, in Week 1, it was just losing. It happened twice in different, painful ways on the first real Saturday of the season. Over the years, it’s happened to the Pac-12 in myriad ways.

The Gators look to have found a new quarterback (Anthony Richardson) and coach (Billy Napier) for a new age in their upset over the Utes, but the Pac-12 spent Saturday finding new ways to become irrelevant early.

We already know the guts were surgically removed from the Conference of Champions this summer when USC and UCLA decided to relocate to the Big Ten in two years. Then, its two best remaining teams lost to SEC opponents within hours of each other, possibly removing the Pac-12 from the College Football Playoff race before Labor Day.

No. 3 Georgia mugged No. 11 Oregon in former defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s debut with the Ducks on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The Bulldogs scored on their first seven possessions in a 49-3 win. Then, Utah then lost with 17 seconds left when fifth-year Florida linebacker Amari Burney intercepted Cameron Rising in the end zone with the game on the line.

Utah is an emerging national power that needed something like a win at The Swamp to give it that street cred. Last season ended with a similar close loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Close isn’t good enough, especially in Year 18 under Kyle Whittingham.

Give this much to the Pac-12: This downturn has been not only lengthy but creative. Saturday’s results moved the Pac-12 to 1-8 against SEC teams in season openers over the last 11 years. Pac-12 teams were ranked in seven of those eight losses.

The league is going on seven years without a team in the College Football Playoff. We already know the conference will never be the same without its Los Angeles flagship programs, if it remains a conference at all in the future.

Back to that din and That Swamp. It revealed a tale of two trajectories. Utah and its league were trending downward. Richardson, wearing the No. 15 of one Tim Tebow, offered some magic. He posted a career-high three rushing touchdowns, escaped pressure for a thrilling 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter and led the game-winning drive. Richardson, a hometown product of Gainesville, Florida, making his first career start in The Swamp, has the wheels (104 yards rushing) and arm (168 yards passing) to honor that No. 15.

Napier has made normal cool when the Gators desperately needed normal. Dan Mullen’s crazy train has given way to an even-keel approach that was reflected in Florida’s comeback. The Gators trailed four times to a team that was a legitimate playoff contender. Then Napier (and Richardson) made all the right moves (and throws).

Remember when Napier was supposedly not recruiting well enough in the middle of summer? He was ripped for writing an open letter to fans that had actually been composed a month earlier but landed flatly when the Gators got beat on a couple of commitments.

Note to recruitniks: Everything is going to be fine. In fact, that might as well be the team slogan right now. Napier “rebounded” on the recruiting trail to push Florida up to a top 10 class before the start of the season. The Gators continued their rebound in The Swamp, the only place it counts right now, with Napier becoming the first Florida coach to beat a ranked opponent in his first game with the program. Wait ’til you see what that does for recruiting.

With its highest-ranking ever to begin a season, doing so as the reigning Pac-12 champions, favored Utah was on Florida’s 6-yard line with the game — and maybe its season — on the line. Rising dropped back, and Burney dropped back in coverage.

It wasn’t clear if Rising had anyone open, but it was clear on this night that — at least for Florida — everything was going to be fine. The Gators will likely go to Kentucky next week ranked after placing 38th in total votes in the Preseason AP Top 25.

Meanwhile, the Utes will board a long flight home not sure what happened, what’s next or when the torture will end.





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