Losing the Cocktail Party always hurts, and this year’s loss to Georgia stings even more as it eliminated Florida from SEC East and College Football Playoff contention.
But all is not lost.
Florida enters November a surprising 6-2, with a signature win over LSU and a decent chance to claw out an invite to you a New Year’s 6 Bowl game for the first time in the Playoff era. Florida hasn’t played in a “major” bowl game since it was embarrassed by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 season; that opportunity alone should motivate the Gators to close year one of the Dan Mullen era strong.
To have a good November, the Gators will need to clean up the execution errors that haunted the team’s final two games in October, but if they do that, a 10-win regular season is a legitimate possibility.
Today we look at Florida’s 4-game closing stretch and issue an early set of predictions for how the Gators will finish the 2018 season.
Saturday vs. Missouri
Missouri is winless in SEC play and has been one of the league’s true disappointments. Much was expected from Missouri in 2018, especially after last year’s strong finish, which saw the Tigers win 6 of their final 7 games to advance to a bowl game. Mizzou’s strong finish included a dominant 30-point win over Florida, which essentially quit on the field in Columbia.
But Barry Odom’s club hasn’t played good defense much this year (51st S&P+ defensive efficiency; 93rd total defense) and even when they have defended well, such as this past weekend against Kentucky, they’ve found ways to lose.
Missouri has dropped two conference games in the fourth quarter, with this weekend’s loss at Kentucky, which came on an untimed down on the game’s final play, easily ranking as one of the more devastating losses in recent college football memory.
The Gators talked a bit of trash about Missouri at SEC Media Days, which was odd given how they had been taken to the woodshed by Lock and the Tigers the prior November.
My guess is the Tigers will remember that, and Lock has to be salivating over the chance to play a banged-up Florida secondary that could be without both its All-SEC corners and mid-season All-American Brad Stewart.
Dan Mullen and the new coaching staff should give the Gators confidence and faith that they will turn things around after performances against Vanderbilt and Georgia that were, according to Mullen, “below the Gator standard.”
But sometimes matchups are just bad, and Florida’s depleted secondary doesn’t match up well with a Mizzou offense that ranks 21st nationally in S&P+ efficiency and is getting healthier.
Prediction: Missouri 30, Florida 24 (Confidence in winner 40%)
Nov. 10 vs. South Carolina
South Carolina was the preseason media darling, the team Paul Finebaum said would “challenge Georgia” in the SEC East this season after a strong finish to the 2018 season that included an epic Outback Bowl win over Michigan.
Instead, Georgia blew the doors off the Gamecocks and Carolina has struggled to recover.
The Gamecocks are tough, to be sure, as fourth-quarter grind-it-out wins over Missouri and Tennessee demonstrated. The offense also appears to be improving too, just in time for a final month that includes trips to Oxford, Gainesville and Clemson.
But this isn’t a football team that plays defense to a Will Muschamp standard (60th total defense, 54th S&P+ defensive efficiency) and Jake Bentley is just not consistent enough to punish Florida’s depleted secondary the way Drew Lock will.
Prediction: Florida 34, South Carolina 17 (Confidence 70%)
Nov. 17 vs. Idaho
Senior Day in The Swamp is always special, and the Gators will honor a small but strong core of seniors playing their final home game by absolutely blasting a bad Idaho team from the Big Sky conference in the FCS.
Idaho has played one game against an FBS opponent this year when they visited Fresno State in September. The Vandals lost that game by the staggering score of 79-13.
That’s not good.
Florida will roll in what is likely also the final home games for juniors Jachai Polite, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and perhaps Jordan Scarlett.
Prediction: Florida 70, Idaho 3 (Confidence 98%)
Nov. 24 at Florida State
It’s amazing how much things change in three months.
Florida State is now a trash fire — which is a bit offensive to the controlled-burning environment of a landfill fire —and the Gators should enter Tallahassee comfortable favorites.
It has gone from a game that Florida would love to win to one that this staff and team simply must have.
If Florida can’t end its program-long 5-game losing streak to Florida State this season, then when? If Florida can’t beat this Florida State team, one that just lost by 49 on its home field to Clemson, what Florida State team can they beat?
Make no mistake, this will be Florida State and new head coach Willie Taggart’s Super Bowl. Any hope of extending Florida State’s record 36-season bowl streak will ride on this game, as the Seminoles are unlikely to win two of the three games that precede it (against Notre Dame, N.C. State and Boston College). Florida State football alums have already circled the game, pointing to the streak and the home field as final chances for this Seminoles team to show some pride. Taggart will know that a victory for the Seminoles would go a long way to settling down a fan base that is already uneasy about his coaching staff.
Florida has to be ready for that.
They also must understand the value of the game. Forget the streak and that Florida State has won 7 of the 8 games between the in-state rivals this decade.
This game is epic for Mullen and the staff from a recruiting standpoint.
Dating to 2004, the winner of the Florida-Florida State game has finished with the better recruiting class every season but two.
As Mullen’s staff tries to place its imprint on this program, a critical part of the foundation has to be reversing the course of this now one-sided rivalry.
A Florida win can do that and would allow Mullen to make the Florida version argument in living rooms Jimbo Fisher effectively made against the Gators during his tenure: “You can go to FSU, but we’re going to whip you for four years if you do.”
Prediction: Florida 38, FSU 21 (Confidence 65%)