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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Playing for Pride: UF's senior class will exit Gainesville in a losing way

For three years, wins were easy to come by.

Florida’s 2010 senior class lost two games in two seasons after a rocky 2007 season that ended with a 9-4 record and a Capitol One Bowl loss.

Add in the redshirt seniors that will be honored on Florida Field before Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. game with Appalachian State on Senior Day, and the class of 23 has won two BCS National Championships, two Southeastern Conference titles and a Sugar Bowl.

It doesn’t seem fitting that such a successful class will finish its time at UF amid the worst season in coach Urban Meyer’s tenure.

The Gators slipped out of the top 25 for the first time since Meyer took over six years ago. The senior class lost as many regular season games this season as it did in the previous three combined.

And Gators fans have watched three consecutive losses in The Swamp with three former UF coaches on the opposing sidelines — Billy Gonzales, Dan Mullen and Steve Spurrier.

All that’s left is a chance to play for pride and finish the season  on a high note.

That all starts with a win against FCS title-contender Appalachian State, something that quarterback John Brantley wouldn’t guarantee  this week.

For such a proud and decorated class, what used to be a sure thing — winning — is now an every-week struggle no matter the opponent.

“It will obviously be an emotional day this weekend. It’s tough for me because I feel like I gave it my all for this program,” senior Mike Pouncey said.

“It just sucks ending on a note like this, but I just want to finish the season out strong with a couple more wins.”

Losing talent

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Five forgone Senior Days will cast a long shadow over Ben Hill Griffin Stadium from five NFL cities this weekend.

Florida’s senior class is not devoid of talent with players like Ahmad Black, Chas Henry and Pouncey set to run out of the tunnel for the final time.

But who knows what could have been if even a few of the juniors from a season ago wouldn’t have traded in Gainesville for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New England and Chicago.

Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, Carlos Dunlap, Aaron Hernandez and Major Wright were all key contributors to this class’ success. Only Hernandez, last season’s leading pass-catcher, wasn’t a three-year starter out of the group.

“I said that about a lot of players. You kind of wish that you had energy-givers on your team, people that you want to be around,” Pouncey said.

This week, Meyer pointed to a lack of energy as one of the team’s biggest problems this season but went to bat for his senior class, which has helped bring him so many wins.

But even he made sure to include the five that left when breaking down the class and their accomplishments.

“There’s a bunch of Gator greats and a bunch of guys we’re awful proud that they came to Florida and we want to send them out winners,” Meyer said.

Losing chemistry

When the 2007 class came in, it meshed immediately with the legendary 2006 group that included Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes.

By their sophomore seasons, 13 of the starters in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game were members of those two classes.

A few veterans contributed to Florida’s success early in their careers, but the talented ones played right away and became the identity of the team — an opportunity that was not afforded to the highly touted recruiting class that came in this season.

Now veterans, several seniors expressed regret in failing to form relationships with this season’s young players.

“We’re a very talented team on both sides of the ball. I wish camaraderie would’ve come a whole lot sooner,” senior linebacker Brandon Hicks said.

The players say they have come together lately and formed a stronger bond, but a division between the seniors and freshmen permeated through much of the season.

Few freshmen made an impact this year, despite their No. 2 ranking as a recruiting class by and the team’s obvious need for playmakers on both sides of the ball.

“Everyone says the first year is used to get adjusted to college and the speed and everything. ... We needed it to happen very fast for the younger guys,” Hicks said.

“(Defensive end) Ronald Powell is coming along fast, but we needed more guys to step up and play. It was challenging. It didn’t happen as fast as we wanted to, but it did happen.”

Losing The Swamp

Florida lost three in a row at home for the first time since 1986, and suffered its worst home loss since 2002 in a 36-14 defeat to South Carolina.

Prior to this season, UF lost two games at home in the previous four seasons, dating back to Meyer’s first national championship team in 2006.

“I think the toughest part [of the season] is losing at home because our fan base has been amazing in my four-year career here,” Pouncey said. “It just sucks sending them out like that, and I know it’s hard on us for going out like that. I think that’s the toughest part is just losing at home, especially for all the fans who stuck behind us through the good and the bad.”

If Appalachian State pulls off an upset this weekend, the bad from this season will cloud the good from one of the best classes in recent UF history.

But with three games left, including a bowl game, the seniors have a chance to remind people just how good they have been.

“The thing that would make me most proud is just finish,” Black said. “As much as we’ve been up and down — people were throwing darts at us at the early part of the season, we got back on people’s good side and now they’re throwing darts at us again. I just want to make sure everybody finishes.”

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