Into the great unknown

One of the most basic, fundamental human fears is the unknown.

C’mon, admit it. I don’t care how old you are or how brave you are. It’s always a little scary to lie down at night in a dark place with which you’re not familiar. Old, brittle pieces of wood creaking in the background that are only making noise because some haunted or ominous figure is treading upon them. Whilst headed towards your room. Distant owls telling their story of the landscape and the history of that strange lodge off the highway in a language only they understand.

Brace yourselves, faithful Gators, because we’re about to enter the great unknown. After this weekend, we should have a few answers about who we are. And where we are. And what that strange smell coming out of my bathroom is.

Florida (#17, 4-1, 3-0) travels to Baton Rouge to take on the Bayou Bengals (#10, 5-1, 2-1) of LSU Saturday at 3:30 (CBS). This will undoubtedly be the Gators’ biggest test of the season and one that will present quite a few challenges. Although this season is almost halfway over, it must be said – we don’t really know all that much about this team. We really don’t. The Gators have faced one top 25 opponent on the road thus far and lost in a turnover-laden affair. UF then lost arguably their most important players on both sides of the ball in Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley. Tyler Murphy has been splendid but the Gators have been firm favorites in all three games he’s played. UF has strung together a nice streak of wins but with so many unknowns, the question is begged. What happens if … ?

What happens if Tyler Murphy faces a double-digit deficit?

It hasn’t happened yet. There are several reasons for that. Murphy has obviously taken great care of the football and made some great plays; the defense has been stout, allowing
precious few opposing points; and the Gators have simply been much better than all three teams Tyler has faced. But the Gators are NOT clearly better than LSU. In fact, UF is a road underdog against a top 10 team that can really light up the scoreboard. Say, for instance, UF is trailing 20-10 at the half. Do Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have enough confidence in Murphy to really open up the passing game? Is Murphy a good enough passer to bring them back? Does that calm, stoic demeanor he has displayed in each game stand the test of Tiger Stadium, especially if he has to play from behind?

What happens if special teams are called upon to play a big role?

It certainly was a key factor in last year’s low-scoring victory over LSU in The Swamp. One could argue Kyle Christy was the team MVP that day. Christy has been a shell of his former self this season and the placekicking situation is a nightmare. It also bears mentioning that UF lacks a true game breaker on punt and kickoff returns. Can anyone envision a scenario in which UF wins in Baton Rouge WITHOUT at least a solid special teams effort?

What if we need a clutch field goal in the waning seconds of the game? A clutch punt to pin the Tigers back in their territory so the defense can preserve a late lead? If you’re reading this, then join the rest of Gator Nation shuddering in fear and overwhelmed with anxiety.

What happens if the Gator defense is exposed?

Zach Mettenberger and his LSU offensive mates are good. Very good. Perhaps the best offense UF will face all year. In fact, this unit may be better overall than Teddy Bridgewater and his Luhlville bunch, and we saw what happened that fateful night. And it gets no easier for this unit over the remainder of the season. Georgia, FSU, South Carolina and even a surprisingly adroit Missouri attack all await UF. Florida stood up well against Miami. The Gator defense essentially shut down Toledo, Tennessee and Kentucky. Statistically speaking, UF’s defense played well against Arkansas but the Hogs did move the ball well early on and without several self-inflicted wounds, Arkansas might have put more points on
the board. An offense like LSU’s can expose holes in even the best defenses, which would mean problems not only for tomorrow, but in laying out a future blueprint for others. This unit is probably as good as we think it is, but we’ll know a lot more around 7 p.m. Saturday.

What happens if the offensive line doesn’t improve?

The Gators have not run the ball well all year, currently the lowest average per carry in the SEC. Although it can’t be denied that Jeff Driskel did not play good football prior to his injury, likewise it cannot be argued that he was running for his life the entire time he was playing. Tyler Murphy has done a better job taking care of the ball under pressure and duress but he’s still been feeling it just the same as Jeff. This team cannot beat quality opponents unless this unit steps up and becomes at least league average. We all knew the loss of Chaz Green would hurt but we all believed the perceived depth and talent of the line could overcome. But with certain players under-performing and others out of position, it’s  been a true weakness. Can it improve? Is it possible that this group can approach preseason expectations? We shall see.

While there are certainly a lot more unknowns about this bunch, these are the questions that should concern Gator fans the most headed into Saturday and the remainder of the “tough” part of the schedule. For the first time in a long time, I truly don’t have any idea what to expect. But I suspect some answers are
coming against LSU and those revelations will give Gator fans a bit of an idea just how close this team can get to Atlanta, and possibly beyond.

Into the great unknown.

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Thor Kolnes
Sports and writing have always been passions of mine. I was unfortunate enough to be born in Cincinnati, Ohio and even more unfortunate to be born with an unwavering sense of loyalty. I chose the Gators in a Cub Scout meeting as a young boy after my parents moved us to Florida and I have never looked back. Suffice it to say the loyalty to the Gators has paid off but the Bengals and the Reds are withholding their dividends. Geographical determinism made me a Reds and Bengals fan, but God's grace made me a Gator.