Florida football: If Gators lose again this season, it will be Saturday against Arkansas
Florida finally got the Kirby Smart-sized gorilla off its back Saturday in a decisive win on the banks of the St. Johns River.
Kyle Trask proved his Heisman bona fides, Florida’s playmakers weathered the departure of Kyle Pitts in a 21-21 game to score 44 points on an outstanding Georgia defense, and the much-maligned Gators defense held the Dawgs to a mere 277 yards and a 2-for-13 conversion rate on 3rd downs.
There were plenty of reasons, as Dan Mullen put it Saturday, to “enjoy this win and celebrate tonight.” Amid all the joy, however, Mullen smartly issued his football team a warning.
“This win puts us in a decent position,” Mullen said. “It puts us in a decent position to play Arkansas in seven days.”
That game is now 5 days away and hopefully, while Florida still savors the flavor of soundly defeating its archrival, the Razorbacks have their attention. If they don’t, the celebrations and talks of SEC East power shifts will be short-lived.
This doom and gloom warning isn’t just a case of the Mondays.
How many times have we seen a team come off an emotional win and look flat the following week?
College football is full of examples of high-profile letdowns for teams coming off massive wins.
In 1993, Notre Dame won the “Game of the Century” over Florida State, only to lose to Boston College the following week.
In 2007, an upstart USF program found its way to No. 2 in the BCS rankings after a huge 64-12 win over archrival UCF. The Bulls lost the following week to Rutgers, and eventually lost 4 games on the season.
More recently, the 2014 Auburn Tigers appeared to have steadied their ship after upsetting No. 4 Ole Miss 35-31 in Oxford. The Tigers fell asleep against a very average Texas A&M team the following week and never recovered, losing 4 of their final 5 games.
These are but a few examples of a common phenomenon.
Mullen’s Florida program is on the cusp of winning the SEC East, breaking Smart and Georgia’s vise grip over the division and threatening to tip the scales of the balance of power long-term. To sustain the momentum, Florida must finish the job and find its way to Atlanta in December.
That brings us back to Arkansas, which travels to The Swamp Saturday night.
The Gators are flying high, they’ve finally vanquished the Georgia roadblock, and they’ll be back in front of an adoring home crowd under the lights. Sounds like a fun night, right? Mullen may be a fan of Darth Vader, but the better Star Wars reference for this game is Admiral Ackbar, because when you look at the Hogs on paper … it’s a trap!
Why? More than any other team left on Florida’s regular-season schedule, Arkansas has strengths that match up beautifully with Florida’s weaknesses. Styles make fights, and up close, this fight is much fairer than it would seem from 30,000 feet.
When Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek decided to bring Sam Pittman in as head coach, it was a calculated gamble that passion and attention to detail mattered more than brand or head-coaching experience. In truth, Yurachek and the Razorbacks administration had nothing to lose. Arkansas, which had become a national brand under Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, had become a desolate, dark wilderness of a program, winning only 4 games in its past 2 seasons (and none in the SEC), the worst run for the program since its founding in 1893. Why not take a chance on a guy like Pittman — someone who really wanted to be in Fayetteville?
Yurachek was persuaded by Pittman’s passion for the program, which Pittman was a fan of as a young man, and his track record of helping develop physical football teams with rugged, tough personalities. The move has paid off in spades after only 6 football games. The Hogs, who were dealt the most difficult schedule in the history of college football when COVID-19 forced the SEC to change the season format, are 3-3 with a 5-5 season and a bowl game very much in their sights.
With all due respect to Jimbo Fisher, Mullen, and the peerless Nick Saban, all of whom currently coach top-10 football teams, the race for SEC Head Coach of the Year is over. Sam Pittman is going to win, and he’ll become only the 3rd SEC coach to win in his first season on campus in the last 10 seasons (Kevin Sumlin, Jim McElwain).
As nice as the story is, it’s the way Arkansas plays that will trouble Florida.
The path to beating the Gators requires two things. First, you better have a quarterback who can exploit the weak back-end of the Florida defense. The Gators’ safeties simply aren’t Playoff caliber — or haven’t been this season — and the result has been a defense that ranks a pedestrian 51st in yards allowed per pass attempt out of 122 college teams. That is not good, and it is only that average because Georgia’s quarterback room looks like something out of The Longest Yard if Paul “Wrecking” Crewe opted out.
Enter Feleipe Franks. Familiar with the weaknesses of, well, about every player in the Florida secondary, the senior transfer has been terrific this season against a brutal slate. He has thrown for 1,428 yards at a 7.8 yard per attempt clip, 14 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. He’s also improved as a deep thrower, ranking behind only Mac Jones and Trask in downfield accuracy, largely thanks to his relationship with future pro Treylon Burks, a 6-3, 235-pound blend of speed and size who is a walking mismatch. Georgia missed a handful of open downfield throws due to its quarterback issues. Franks won’t.
Franks is supported by a power run game that features one of the SEC’s best 1-2 running back combinations in the shifty Trelon Smith and the future pro, Rakeem Boyd. This gives the Hogs balance — something Texas A&M used to great effect in its upset win over Florida. This balance, coupled with Franks’ knowledge of Florida’s defensive scheme and personnel, makes the offense-defense matchup in this game “Advantage, Arkansas,” at least if you take off your blue and orange tinted glasses.
Meanwhile, while Trask will obviously be the biggest test the Arkansas defense has faced this season, the strength of the Hogs defensively is the secondary, which features multiple players likely to earn All-SEC consideration at season’s end. The best of these players, tackling machine Bumper Pool and freshman ballhawk Jalen Catalon, will be the best players Florida has faced on the back end this year, with due respect to head-hunting Lewis Cine and the Georgia secondary.
Do I think Arkansas will stop Florida’s pass game? No. But it can make life difficult on anyone. Ask Matt Corral, who entered his test vs. the Hogs ranked 2nd in the country in passing efficiency and well, you know the rest.
The Razorbacks’ secondary has produced a league-high 12 interceptions, including 6 — yes, 6!! — against the high-flying Ole Miss passing attack. Barry Odom’s defenses have always shown up against Mullen, and he has the personnel to force the Gators out of their comfort zone Saturday night, especially if Kyle Pitts is held out with a concussion.
Bottom line? Florida’s toughest hurdle to a SEC Championship date with a College Football Playoff berth on the line comes this Saturday. The rest of the schedule, which features a road trip to offensively-challenged Tennessee and a home date with talented but defensively inept LSU, simply doesn’t contain a game where the matchups are so obviously problematic for the Gators. If Florida loses again this season, it will be Saturday night.
We won’t be talking about Cocktail Party joy if that happens. We’ll be talking about missed opportunities, and wondering just how high the ceiling for a Razorback revival could be under Sam Pittman.