Florida football: Gators face big challenges returning from COVID-19 pause
Florida’s two-week program pause is set to end Monday, with seven games remaining to define a season that began with championship ambitions in Gainesville. The good news is that according to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, the Gators expect to reconvene for practice with only five players remaining in quarantine.
The bad news? Florida’s two-week hiatus is not something their next two opponents have had to deal with.
While Missouri, scheduled to visit the Gators next week, has been stuck in the SEC’s COVID-19 scheduling issues, seeing two games this season already postponed, the postponements have not been the Tigers’ fault. They did suffer seven positive tests ahead of their tilt with LSU, but they were able to play. Then, as Missouri began to heal, a rash of positive tests from Vanderbilt caused the Commodores to fall below the SEC-mandated 53 scholarship player limit. That forced the Oct. 17 Mizzou-Vanderbilt game to be rescheduled. Then, the Gators were hit with their outbreak, leading to the one-week postponement of Missouri’s tilt with Florida.
“That’s kind of what COVID, 2020, has taught, is that every day, there’s a new challenge,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said on the SEC’s weekly teleconference last week. “The only thing you can control is your mental toughness and how you’re going to respond to that challenge. We have no control of what’s happening down in Florida and wish them the best. We have to worry about Kentucky now.”
Missouri did a good job “worrying about Kentucky,” playing their finest game in a long while in beating a physical Wildcats team 20-10 on Saturday. Missouri held the ball nearly 45 minutes, led by a power running game that didn’t break off huge chunks of yardage but tallied 220 tough yards and helped the Tigers offense collect 26 first downs all the same.
Making things more difficult for Florida, Missouri will face the Gators with what essentially is a second week to prepare. The Tigers, after all, began preparing for Florida as soon as their date with Vanderbilt was canceled. They didn’t stop until their game with Kentucky was moved to Saturday by the SEC. Now, they get another week to get ready for the Gators.
Meanwhile, just because Florida has a roster leaving quarantine doesn’t necessarily mean it has a roster ready to play football. Stricklin said that leaving quarantine is just a first step for any player hoping to see the field next Saturday in The Swamp.
“Before our student-athletes who are infected return to activity, they will complete a cardiac evaluation that includes a troponin level test, an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram,” Stricklin said. “The student-athletes will also have a complete medical evaluation by UF Health medical physicians.”
While the COVID-19 outbreak likely insulates the Gators roster from outbreaks later in the season, Florida still is basically facing a season reset come Monday. They’ll do it against a confident Missouri team that has had two weeks of practice to prepare for Florida. The Tigers appear to have found themselves offensively behind quarterback Connor Bazelak, and their defense, a real problem in the season’s first three weeks, looked to have made the most of the extra practice time in stuffing Kentucky.
The return from COVID-19 and Missouri will be a tough challenge for Florida, both from a preparation and physicality standpoint and from a mental one. The physical and preparation reasons are obvious. For that matter, the mental one is, too, because even if the Gators don’t talk about it, they all know who’s waiting for them on the other side of Halloween.
Call this Missouri game what you want: a challenge, a trap game, the latest strange chapter in the strangest of college football seasons.
I’ll call it the beginning of “championship corner.” Missouri. Georgia. An upstart Arkansas team whose strengths — a strong secondary and steady quarterback — are a good match for Florida’s weaknesses.
If the Gators want to compete for a championship of any kind in 2020, they have to start turning the corner against Missouri. Then comes the Cocktail Party. Then, in the event — and at this point it’s a huge and shaky if — they get past Georgia, Feleipe Franks and a Kirby Smart disciple will be waiting to ruin the party. With the LSU game postponed to mid-December, it’s tough to suggest Florida’s schedule softens after Georgia. But we’ll know how meaningful Florida’s December football games will be by mid-November. The stretch run isn’t in sight yet, but “championship corner” begins next weekend.
One of the more impressive things Dan Mullen has done in his short time at Florida is rescue and rebuild Florida’s program culture. The Gators went from a cultural tire fire off the field in the final season of the Jim McElwain regime to the first program in college football to win two BCS/New Year’s 6 bowl games in a head coach’s first two seasons on campus. Mullen’s Florida expect to compete for championships, and the staff has never shied away from saying so.
But for the first time in the Mullen era, there’s noise in the system, and the machinery is a bit creaky. The defense hasn’t been championship-caliber, and the fan base has been loud about saying that it thinks coaching — not talent — is the biggest reason why. Instead of fixing things for the three weeks ahead of the Georgia game, the Gators have focused on getting healthy. On Monday, they can finally get back to football. Missouri will be confident and ready. Their players have beaten Florida two of the past three seasons, winning handily both times. They won’t, to turn the Tom Petty lyric, back down. Will Florida?