Scott Rabalais: Is Billy Napier’s seat already warm? Florida’s 2023 looks daunting.

Scott Rabalais: Is Billy Napier's seat already warm? Florida's 2023 looks daunting.
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When you’re the football coach at Florida, it’s usually good form to throw Steve Spurrier into the conversation, as Billy Napier did here Wednesday at Southeastern Conference media days.

“You know, the ‘Head Ball Coach’ said it best when he said this is talking season,” Napier said.

Of course, when they’re talking about whether you’re going to survive as Florida’s coach because the Gators aren’t living up to the outrageous standard Spurrier set for the program, maybe it’s not so good.

One year removed from a wunderkind four-year run at UL that made him one of the hottest coaching candidates in the nation — except at LSU, which treated Napier like he was hot because he was spent uranium — there are already questions as to whether Napier’s seat is beginning to warm after an inaugural 6-7 season.

Talking to folks here who cover the Gators, such speculation is preposterous, barring some sort of out-of-left-field scandal (who thought Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald would be unemployed before August?). Napier deserves, and will get, time to turn Florida’s ship around.

Right now, though, the ship looks like it’s headed for a reef.

Overall, Florida’s athletic program is pretty strong. The Gators just came up a game short of a College World Series title against LSU and won NCAA championships in men’s outdoor track and field and men’s golf.

But as for football, these are grim days in Gainesville.

The Gators are staring down the prospect of a third straight non-winning season for the first time since 1953-55. The 2022 season ended with three straight losses, all of them galling to Gator fans: a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt, Florida’s first against the Commodores since 1988; a 45-38 loss to archrival Florida State; and a 30-3 hammering by Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

It’s a natural reaction to question Napier’s coaching acumen, but Florida’s biggest problem is talent. The Gators just don’t have enough, far from the levels Florida is accustomed to. An anonymous SEC assistant coach told one preseason magazine that in his estimation, Napier inherited the least-talented overall roster in some 20 years.

It could be worse than that, perhaps the weakest team Florida has fielded since the late 1970s. The Gators look particularly anemic up front on defense, the true foundation for all great SEC teams, and must break in a new quarterback.

Napier, naturally, took the upbeat road. Talking season is optimism season.

“We have 97% of our team that was with us in January,” he said. “We had 27 midyear players. And we have a great group of veterans that have experience and wisdom from the past.”

Perhaps, but it is a team short on starting experience. Florida brings back just three starters on offense and four on defense. The biggest missing piece is quarterback Anthony Richardson, who went with the NFL draft’s fourth overall pick to Indianapolis.

Wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, one of Florida’s few returning starters, said the current players understand the tradition they have to uphold. It certainly is a daunting one, with three national championships and eight SEC titles since 1991.

But getting back to a championship level — especially with SEC East rival Georgia sprinting away on the horizon with trophy after trophy — is difficult. It certainly won’t be easier without Richardson. Transfer quarterback Graham Mertz from Wisconsin is expected to take over. He’s a nice player, a junior with 32 starts under his belt with the Badgers. But it’s folly to think Florida is going to take a step forward at the crucial position with Richardson gone.

The schedule is an existential threat to any potential upward mobility the Gators might have.

Florida opens Aug. 31 at Utah. The Gators held off the Utes 29-26 in The Swamp last year, but Utah is expected to be a New Year’s Six bowl contender again this year.

After a home opener with McNeese State, Tennessee comes to Gainesville. The back half of the slate is a meat grinder: at South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, at LSU, at Missouri and Florida State. Even if Florida manages to get to five wins going into that final three-game stretch, getting that sixth win to secure bowl eligibility will be a huge ask.

Napier, who turns 44 on Friday, checks a lot of the résumé boxes you want to see. He apprenticed under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama. He turned UL into a nationally ranked program. And he has recruited well, with a class currently ranked No. 3 nationally by 247Sports.com.

But talking season and recruiting season hold no candles to the actual season. Napier may ultimately win big at Florida, but there’s probably another patience-testing year of piled-up losses to endure first.

Another year when the talk about Napier will be that he’s no Spurrier.

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About Mary Weyand 12337 Articles
Mary founded Scoop Tour with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research. With ample knowledge about the Automobile industry, she also contributes her knowledge for the Automobile section of the website.

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