It was easy to get lost in the excitement surrounding Florida’s first top-4 ranking since the 2012 season. With a senior quarterback and a mismatch nightmare at tight end leading an offense lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine, it was tempting to buy into the narrative that, like LSU a season before them, an explosive offense could carry this Florida team toward a championship, and eventually a talented defense would come around. What’s more, it was hard to imagine that the Florida defense, the lone pillar of excellence that made it through a decade of mediocrity unscathed, would ever be the reason a Florida team with a chance at greatness failed.

Florida doesn’t lack talent on defense. In fact, according to the 247 team talent composite, the Gators are actually more talented on the defensive side of the ball than on offense. While coach Dan Mullen has improved the offense year-by-year, the defense has been a model of consistency. Florida finished in the top 20 in total defense and S&P+ defense in both of Mullen’s seasons at Florida. Last year, after defensive coordinator Todd Grantham received a half-million-dollar raise, his unit finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense, rushing defense, yards allowed per rush, S&P+ efficiency defense, sacks and sack percentage. The only other defenses to finish in the top 10 in each of those categories in 2019? Clemson and Ohio State. That’s the list.

This season, the Florida defense hasn’t taken a step back. It has collapsed into the earth like the Devil’s Millhopper.

Through three games, including Saturday’s 41-38 loss to Texas A&M, the defense is on pace to be one of the worst units in school history. According to Nick de la Torre, the outstanding Florida writer at Gator Country, the 100 points the Gators have allowed through three games is the most by any Florida team in a three-game span since 1917. The Gators have given up 500-plus yards in two of the three games. On third down, opponents are 27-of-45, a 60 percent conversion rate that will rank either 74th or 75th out of 75 teams playing college football at week’s end.

Florida’s proud history on defense is part of why their struggles on that side of the football are such a bitter pill for the fan base to swallow. In the past 20 years, Florida has finished outside the top 25 in total defense and S&P+ defensive efficiency (that metric began in 2005) only twice: in 2007 and 2017.

The 2017 team went 4-7, and Jim McElwain resigned after the Georgia game, paving the way for Mullen. The 2007 team was similar to this Gators team, with a fantastic quarterback in Tim Tebow leading a high-octane offense full of playmakers that spent most the season near the top of the national rankings in offense. The 2007 Gators didn’t need to be great on defense. They needed to be adequate. Most Saturdays, they were. But in three critical games — at LSU, where they couldn’t get off the field on fourth down; against Georgia, where they were gashed by Knowshon Moreno; and in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, where they had zero answer for Mike Hart and made Mario Manningham millions of dollars — they were abysmal. The Gators gave up 111 points in those three losses, and a team with a Heisman-winning quarterback went 9-4.

Mullen was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator during that up-and-down season. He and other Gators remember how the defense frustrated the team at the time, but they also remember how the growing pains of that young defense set the table for one of the country’s most dominant units a season later. Still, it was tough to waste such an electric offense, and history is at risk of repeating itself with this team, now led by Mullen. That risk is why Mullen so candidly said, “Everything is up for evaluation” on defense when he addressed the media Saturday afternoon.

The problem is that there’s no simple solution.

Florida can’t stop the run, as they’ve surrendered 100-plus yards to two consecutive running backs and more than 150 yards rushing to two of their three opponents. The interior of Florida’s defensive line is either young (five-star Gervon Dexter), out-of-shape (highly coveted Tedarrell Slaton), or very average. The best player in the group, Kyree Campbell, hasn’t played a down of football in 2020. He is expected back for LSU, but who knows how effective he’ll be after missing so much time.

Florida can’t defend the pass. The Gators have defended 116 passes in 2020. Their secondary has produced zero interceptions and single-digit pass deflections. Opposing quarterbacks have 993 yards passing against the Gators, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. You could call those “Big 12 numbers,” but that’s disrespectful to Big 12 defenses.

The Gators don’t make big plays. They have forced 3 total turnoversb  — 1 in each game. That would be fine if they could consistently get off the field on third down (they are the worst Power 5 team at doing that), or their leaders would make smart football plays. Instead, they try to make big plays and whiff, like Marco Wilson going for a pick late against A & M when a simple knockdown would have done the trick.

Schematically, Florida has tried a little of everything. Against Matt Corral, they rushed four, they blitzed the house, they played zone. Nothing worked. Against South Carolina, they kept things in front of them by dropping the safeties deep. That worked reasonably well, except the Gamecocks held the ball for 35-plus minutes and charged late. In the first half against Texas A&M, they played aggressive press coverage. Kellen Mond torched the Gators on 3 scoring drives. In the second half, Florida blitzed a bunch to speed Mond up, and at other times they backed the safeties up a bit to keep things in front. That effort was stymied by the A&M power run game, which opened things up for the deep shot late.

They don’t execute. On multiple plays against the Aggies, Florida had to burn timeouts because players in the secondary weren’t lined up right or were confused about coverages. Forget that those timeouts would be useful late in the game. Think bigger picture — those mistakes are a classic sign of players thinking too much and not playing fast and running to the ball.

It has been comprehensive and colossal failure for Florida defensively, one about execution, personnel and scheme. Maybe the common denominator for these issues is Todd Grantham. Maybe not. Those are hard questions, and ones the great head coaches ask and address. But when problems are systemic, they are also often the toughest to fix.

To Florida’s credit, their defensive personnel are accountable.

“There’s no excuse,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Moon said after the game. “Kyle (Trask) and the offense put the defense in the best situation. All we had to do is get off the field on third downs. We didn’t.”

Junior linebacker James Houston IV agreed.

“We have a very high-powered offense. We have to win a few more battles on defense and execute a bit more to win games.”

That’s a start. But it doesn’t get any easier.

With a high-flying LSU offense that has scored 34, 41 and 41 points in three games headed to Gainesville, Florida needs to be ready. And if you think it’s not a big game because LSU is 1-2 overall, just remember that LSU is 1-2 because they can’t get stops. Florida could be headed in that direction with Eli Drinkwitz’s Mizzou offense coming to town in two weeks, and you know who’s waiting around the corner in Jacksonville.

In the SEC, there’s a thin line between 2-1 and 3-3 or 2-4. Florida’s margin for error is already terrifyingly small. The Gators just lost a game in which they scored 38 points on the road, averaged 7.2 yards per play and had a 67 percent success rate on third down. That shouldn’t happen, but here we are.

Gut check time in Gainesville.