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

No. Alabama QB Bryce Young's three first quarter TDs were enough to stop No. 11 Florida to win 31-29. (2:38).
GAINESVILLE (Fla.) -- Three hours in a packed Swamp, more than 90,000 fans roared and stomped so hard that they became a force within the game between Alabama and Florida. It felt like old times, back when the Gators were the SEC's dominant team.

Although it may be difficult to recall, Alabama has held a vice grip over the league for the past decade. However, Florida dominated in the 1990s and mid 2000s. The crowds at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium caused chaos for rivals. Under Steve Spurrier, Florida won 30 consecutive home games and five SEC championships. They won those games even though they were underdogs like Saturday.

Urban Meyer made it so electric that the crowds felt electric when Florida won the two national championships. It was a great experience to be there when Meyer and Spurrier coached Florida. You knew without a doubt that the Gators were capable of winning championships every year.

This hasn't been the case over the past decade, leading to a proud fanbase toward disinterest and apathy. It was six years since Florida saw so many people turn out as they did on Saturday. It was obvious why it felt like old times.

Only one thing was missing: a win. Florida proved that even though they lost, it was time to stop celebrating and expecting victory.

It's time to expect championships again.

Coach Dan Mullen, Florida, said that "We are at a point where it is possible to compete." "We must get to the point that we are going to win. While it's understandable that we didn't win, we have to continue building. Everyone is committed to making this happen now. When it's rocking, there's no better atmosphere than game day at the Swamp. We have to make sure that our fans are happy with what we do in creating that atmosphere.

This is the problem. Florida has been 13 years without an SEC Championship. Therefore, playing in unexpectedly close games after being a double-digit underdog feels better than another blowout. However, Florida's satisfaction in winning a close game is not a standard. Still, there are standards that must be maintained. Close losses are not one. Moral victories are not the same.

It is possible to celebrate progress, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the four-year progress made by Mullen. Although the gap has narrowed with Alabama, it is still not sufficient. Under Jim McElwain, Florida was defeated twice by the Tide at the SEC championship. In the previous two meetings, Florida lost eight points.

Mullen's success at quarterback is the key to Florida's offensive success. Florida is a completely different team than it was last year, when Kyle Trask almost led the upset of Crimson Tide at Atlanta.

Florida's signal-callers Emory and Anthony Richardson, as well as solid running backs, and an experienced offensive line, have shown that they can win in a totally different way. This is a sign of a coach who understands how to position his players to succeed. Florida ran for 54 yards and passed for 408 yards last year. This year, Florida ran for 195 yards and threw for 245.

Florida ran for 54 yards and passed for 408 yards last year. Florida ran for 54 yards and threw for 195 yards this year. James Gilbert/Getty Images

Although Jones' season started off rocky, Jones played his best game against Alabama. Mullen acknowledged that some of that was due to Jones being under center. Richardson's big plays have impressed everyone and led to many questions about his eligibility for the start. Perhaps if Richardson had played against Alabama, the outcome might have been different because of the different pace he offers.

Mullen and his team felt great about their game plan, despite Richardson's hamstring injury. They almost won without Richardson. The Gators were able to play Alabama close than any other team in their previous two meetings. This is a rare feat for a team without the championship tradition or history that Florida has.

The problem is that Alabama has been so dominant, that no other team has been capable of keeping up. However, Florida is now at a point under Mullen when it needs to win games like this.

Georgia, a rival in the East Division, is also beaten by Florida. This was a contest that Florida won for the first time under Mullen last season. It was a contest that was well-respected for helping the Gators get "over the hump", and back to the SEC championship.

"We are at a place where we can compete. We must get to the point that we can win. We are disappointed that we didn't win, but we must keep working. Everyone is committed to making this happen now. Dan Mullen, Florida coach

It is important to close the gap with Alabama, but it is even more important to overtake Georgia and restore Florida's position as the dominant program of the SEC East. The Gators must beat Georgia to have another chance at the Tide, which Florida wants. Although the Bulldogs are ranked No. 2 - It isn't unreasonable to believe that Florida is right there with them, based on how it played Alabama. Late October will be the proof.

The Gators need to win the remaining games of the season, which starts Saturday against Tennessee. To win the coveted rematch against Alabama, Florida must win. There will be no embarrassing losses that impede progress like LSU's last season. There was no failure to show up like Missouri in 2018. Many will be tempted to mention the Cotton Bowl, but it is realistic to say that Florida lost to Oklahoma in December without any of its players.

Close losses are not something that can be recorded in a record book. Learning must lead to something valuable, which can help you reach your ultimate goal.

Mullen stated, "After the SEC Championship game, I saw a hunger among our guys to put ourselves in a place to get back to Atlanta." Mullen said, "I want that Monday, that hunger to tell us we're going fix those few things, that focus on detail, that laser focus of guys communicating with each other and picking up one another up. That attitude of our guys, that everyone is working together to make those plays and eliminate that two-point margin, is what I want.

The same problem facing Florida (and Georgia too!) is the SEC. Alabama is the issue. Mullen, unlike almost every coach in the SEC knows what it takes for a team to win a championship. The biggest question is: How close is Florida to winning a championship?

Mullen believes Florida is closer to the problem. However, for an impatient fan base it is unlikely that closer will suffice.