Florida’s season stands at the crossroads

Here we are, halfway through a season that is like the intermission at a mystery dinner theater. The food has been average to disappointing so far but we haven’t had the main course or dessert yet so we still hold out hope that by the time we get to the who done it we’ll be reasonably happy.

It is hard to gauge this Florida football team because it is 0-2 against the only two decent teams it’s faced. We can blame turnovers for that loss to Miami and it’s easy to say that if Dominique Easley had been healthy, the Gators might have pulled one out against LSU. Win those two games and the Gators are easily in the top five and very much in the national championship discussion but losing those two has totally altered perceptions about this team.

If the Gators run the table on the four remaining SEC games, then the season will be an unqualified success. Another loss or two and another year without a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game and fans will not only grumble, but they’ll be saying those two magical words that have been heard all too often over the years by Florida fans – what if?

The way this season is unfolding, it’s going to be another what if kind of year, sort of like last year when five turnovers against Georgia kept the Gators from finishing the regular season 12-0. What if the Gators had protected the football? What if Jordan Reed hadn’t fumbled? What if the Gators had knocked off Georgia? What if Alabama had faced Florida’s defense in that SEC title game? What if the Gators had knocked off Alabama?

We could go on and on and on.

Halfway through the 2013 season, it’s already set up for a winter of what ifs for Florida fans who bought the hype and expected more this season. A certain amount of blame can be placed on the injuries so it’s fair to ask what if Andre Debose hadn’t been hurt? How would his presence as a kickoff returner changed field position? What if Chaz Green hadn’t been hurt? Would the offensive line be a cohesive unit, able to pound away in the running game and protect in the passing game? What if Dominique Easley had stayed healthy? Would the Gators have stuffed the LSU running game? Would Matt Jones’ presence for the entire game stabilized Florida’s offense against LSU?

Injuries have been a problem, for sure, but they aren’t the sole reason Will Muschamp and the Gators are at a crossroads as they head to Missouri for a Saturday game that could only be described as make or break.

Think about that for a second. Crossroads game. Missouri. It doesn’t sound right does it? This was supposed to be just another rung on the ladder as the Gators climbed their way to Atlanta when the season began but Saturday Missouri is the unbeaten and higher-ranked team that will still be in the SEC Eastern Division race even if the Gators go into Columbia and knock them off. As for Florida, a loss and you can forget Atlanta.

A loss and you might have to write off the rest of the season, too.

If Florida wins, the stage is set for a Georgia game in Jacksonville two weeks from now that will be billed as an SEC East elimination game. Lose to Missouri and the Gators will have to play the role of spoiler the rest of the way.

Lose Saturday and not only does Florida dip to 4-3 overall, 3-2 in the SEC East but suddenly even the Vanderbilt game looks like a potential pothole. No matter what happens Saturday, Georgia is probably going to be favored in Jacksonville on November 2. Vanderbilt could salvage what’s left of its season by beating the Gators. South Carolina? The Gamecocks seem to be playing like the team everyone expected them to be with the season began. Georgia Southern comes to town for a paycheck and it’s hard to imagine that Florida could lose that one.

Then there is that teensy matter of Florida State in the final regular season game. The way the Seminoles are playing, there is every good chance they come roaring into Gainesville unbeaten, needing a win over the Gators to keep their national championship hopes intact and with a redshirt freshman who might need one big win on the road to seal a Heisman Trophy bid. Yeah, I know … how is it that FSU can start a redshirt freshman who lights it up and Florida’s offense has struggled with a third-year, then a fourth-year quarterback running the show? Another one of those things that make you wanna go hmmm.

So six games remain including the one Saturday at Missouri and the Gators could struggle in five of them. That’s certainly not what fans want to hear and definitely not what was expected when the season began. Based on the foundation that was put in place last year, this was supposed to be a team that was ready to take that next step in the natural progression to a championship but the championship that was predicted back in the summer seems a bit of a longshot now even if the Gators are still very much in the race for the SEC East.

It is true that the Gators do control their own destiny in the SEC East, but is there anything more overrated or overstated than that tired old cliche? Of course the Gators control their own destiny but you can say the exact same thing about Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina. All the Gators have to do is go unbeaten in SEC play the rest of the way and they’ve punched a ticket to Atlanta. That’s no different for Missouri, Georgia or South Carolina.

But can the Gators do it? Maybe the better question is can they remain in the hunt by beating Missouri? A month ago this game was being discussed in laughable terms. Why it was a regular no-brainer.

It’s a no-brainer all right. You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon or a brain scientist to know that if Florida loses this game, the Gators are in big trouble. Lose to Missouri and they might struggle to break even or go 7-5. After the one step forward 11-2 in 2012, a 6-6, 7-5 or even an 8-4 is indeed two giant steps backward.

Win against Missouri and the schedule is still daunting but winning seems do-able. Lose and the doubts begin. Oh, the doubts began back at that Miami game for the Gator Nation. We’re talking about the kind of doubt that grips a team and there are few things worse than that.

Remember 1989? The Gators lost the season opener to Ole Miss then reeled off six straight wins. Then Kyle Morris got hurt, the Gators were forced to start Donald Douglas at quarterback up at Auburn and the offense was relegated to Emmitt (Smith) left, Emmitt right and Emmitt up the middle.

Florida lost that one, 10-7, and the doubts began creeping in. Winnable games were lost to Georgia and FSU, games a confident team would have won. A doubting team lost them.

Saturday, the Gators stand at the crossroads. Win and it’s a jolt of confidence moving forward for a team that is having to compensate for a lot of talent sidelined for the year. Lose to Missouri and it might take some sort of miracle to lock out the doubts.

It’s like being at the mystery dinner theater. Intermission is almost over and we wait nervously for a main course that might leave us with a bad case of heartburn by the time we know who done it.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.