Can the Gators run the table and make it to Atlanta?
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For No. 14 Florida, the next four Saturdays are do or die.
By sweeping three of the weaker teams in the SEC East, the Gators are on top of the division and in the driver’s seat to go back to Atlanta. However, Tennessee has the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida thanks to the epic 21-point comeback in the second half. The Volunteers are 2-2 in conference play after facing UF, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama.
From here on, it should be smooth sailing for UT against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. For the Gators, that means lose once in the next four weeks and playing in the SEC Championship Game becomes highly unlikely.
ESPN has Florida ranked No. 17 in its Football Power Index, which “measures a team’s true strength on net points scale; expected point margin vs. average opponent on neutral field.” The FPI also gives teams a win probability for each game. Here’s how the Gators’ upcoming four-game stretch breaks down by FPI:
Oct. 29 – Georgia (73.2 percent UF win probability):
With three conference losses, including one to Tennessee, the Bulldogs are off most peoples’ radar for winning the SEC East. Georgia’s defense has struggled to contain high-powered offenses, falling 45-14 to Ole Miss and 34-31 to Tennessee. UGA’s last loss, 17-16 to Vanderbilt, is a real head-scratcher considering freshman QB Jacob Eason threw for 346 yards.
With two weeks to prepare, UGA probably stands a better chance on the field than ESPN’s calculated 26.8 percent. The only time this season that Florida faced an offense that could both run and pass effectively was against Tennessee, and the Volunteers put up 35 points in the second half, running and throwing with ease. Eason, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the the most talented backfield UF has faced since Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and it could be difficult to contain after Georgia has had two weeks of practice to work on its issues.
Nov. 5 – at Arkansas (64. 1 percent):
Last week, this looked like Florida’s most difficult game left on the schedule. After Auburn ran for 543 yards on the Razorbacks, Bret Bielema’s team is looking a little less worrisome.
However, the Gators will have to prove they can run on the road. At home, UF averages 5.6 yards per carry (893 yards on 161 rushes). Against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, UF ran averaged 3.0 yards per carry (only 198 yards on 66 rushes). The Gators have employed four running backs in a committee approach, but that has sometimes overcomplicated things as was demonstrated by Jordan Scarlett’s quarter without a carry against Vanderbilt, even after having led the team to its only touchdown.
If Arkansas tries to pass on the Gators, it could get ugly. The Razorbacks are the worst SEC team in sacks allowed (21), while Florida’s defense is No. 4 in the conference in sacks (19).
Nov. 12 – South Carolina (90.6 percent):
This one was counted as a win in preseason predictions around the country. After eight weeks of football, there’s no reason to think otherwise.
In the least surprising news ever to Gators fans, Will Muschamp’s team is struggling on offense. The Gamecocks recently burned freshman Jake Bentley’s redshirt. By leading South Carolina to its first 30-point game of the season, it’s safe to assume Bentley will hold onto the starting job as long as he’s healthy.
Even if Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have found their quarterback, Bentley is highly unlikely to survive going up against the Florida secondary in The Swamp.
Nov. 19 – at LSU (23 percent):
If the probability numbers play out, the Gators will enter this game 8-1 with a chance to clinch the division title. It’s here, in Week 12, that the FPI suggests Florida’s winning streak comes to a close.
The FPI is basically margin of victory combined with strength of schedule. What it cannot account for is x-factors. After all the drama in the press and on social media, both teams will enter this game ticked off and ready to take out those frustrations on the team on the other side of the ball.
The Gators aren’t happy about a media narrative that they were scared to play the Tigers. In the days following the announcement of the game’s postponement due to Hurricane Matthew, many fans (LSU and others) pointed to the Florida injury report as the reason behind the announcement, made by the SEC office, that the game would not be played as originally scheduled on Oct. 8. (A key component to this theory was that UF athletic director Jeremy Foley strong-armed the SEC into making this decision).
The Tigers certainly aren’t pleased about the Gators celebrating with a fan’s cat skeleton, which had purple and gold beads around it, only days after the passing of mascot Mike the Tiger.
— Shea Dixon (@Sheadixon) October 16, 2016
— Chance Hester (@CoachHesterSMHS) October 16, 2016
The Halloween cat seen on the field after last nights game was thrown onto the field by a fan. It has no significance within our program.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) October 16, 2016
Chatter and drama aside, this could be a showdown of the SEC’s division leaders. After Leonard Fournette’s 284-yard performance against Ole Miss, the college football media has been reminded to not count the Tigers out of the SEC West race. When it comes to trying to stop Fournette, the Gators have not had an answer. In two games against Florida, Fournette has run for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns on 58 carries.
Instead of having the advantage of The Swamp, the Gators will have to try for their first win in Death Valley since 2009. All four of Luke Del Rio’s starts have been at home, but he will presumably get the start on Nov. 5 at Arkansas and was at least on the sidelines for Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
There’s no way around it – if the Gators trip up, it’s most likely to come in Baton Rouge. And with the finger-pointing behind this year’s game, it could certainly add some bitterness to an overlooked rivalry.