It’s Tennessee week. There was a time when I would drive the seven hours to Gainesville to be in the stadium for what was always the best game in the nation in the month of September. For the games I did not attend, I would throw a Florida-Tennessee viewing party that would end with a dozen or so people sleeping whereever they could find a spot in my house. Florida-Tennessee was bigger than life. It had names like Wuerffel, Manning, Reidel and Peerless. You had Steve Spurrier and Phil Fulmer on the sidelines. In terms of national importance it was even bigger than Florida-Georgia. Georgia had a lot to do with that. They only beat Spurrier once in 12 years.
Now, the Georgia game is suddenly the biggest game of the Gator season and Tennessee has become almost an afterthought. Maybe that changes this year but not because the Gators and the Vols come in either top 10 or top 20 like they were every year during Spurrier’s 12-year run. So what changed to make it so important again? It’s because Tennessee has lost eight straight games to the Gators and has a new coach who wants to make his mark. It’s because for the Gators it well may be the defining moment of the season.
I have been doing a little reading and listening in the 11 days since the Gators lost to Miami and here is what I have discovered: (1) The Gators are toast and will probably lose four or five games this season; (2) The offense is beyond repair; and (3) Will Muschamp is on the hot seat. At least you might figure that’s the prevailing wisdom if you listen or read some of the most vocal fans. It’s even worse if you listen to the Georgia fans up here behind enemy lines. Bulldog fans are already discussing how their offense is going to run rampant on Alabama’s suddenly suspect defense. Of course, as is always the case with the delusional, UGA fans are ignoring some key issues. They seem to be blissfully ignorant of their own defensive deficiencies. They are forgetting that Aaron Murray played the best game of his entire career in the SEC Championship Game last year and still lost to Alabama. But, most importantly, UGA fans are forgetting that their beloved Doggies haven’t actually won the SEC East yet.
The Gators haven’t even played a single SEC game yet it seems that nearly everyone has already written them off as a real contender for a spot in the SEC Championship Game. Personally, I believe that is foolish and yes, I have indeed seen the Gator offense and yes, I will be the first to admit that Florida lost to an inferior Miami team. If the Gators were not the superior team in Miami I would not be writing that they have a chance to win the SEC East. But they do have a chance and to write them off is neither logical nor a very bright conclusion.
The Florida Gators are a very talented football team, just one that has failed to play up to their talent level through the first two games of the season. The one absolute truth about talent is the more you have the more potential you have and the more that’s expected. If Florida was not talented enough to beat Miami then the rest of the SEC East could breathe easily and never worry that the Gators will mount a challenge. Georgia and South Carolina are not the least bit concerned about Kentucky nor do they worry that Vandy might win the East because the Commodores simply do not have the depth of talent to make it to Atlanta. Vandy might upset one of the top three in the division but win the East? That’s not going to happen.
Florida, on the other hand, does have the talent and therefore the potential to win the division. Deep in the recesses of their minds Georgia and South Carolina fans know this as do even the most negative among Gator fans.
So the only real question is can the Gators put it all together and play to the level of their talent? We should start finding this out Saturday against Tennessee. Muschamp and his staff benefit from having a bye week to pick up the pieces from the loss to Miami. The bye week gave them a chance to work through the issues of that game and allowed an opportunity to make some much-needed tweaks to the offense, perhaps even finding some ways to get some of these young playmakers ready to contribute
The Gators have one of the best – if not THE best – defenses in the country and that means they should be in every game they play. In most games, the offense simply needs to avoid giving the game away, unlike Miami. Then there are games like LSU, UGA and FSU, where the offense will have to be more than just mistake free because those three teams have offenses that even a great defense will struggle to keep off the scoreboard. Rest assured that at some point Muschamp will need his offense to win the game for him. It is not unthinkable that Brent Pease’s squad will be up to the task. The offense did step up when it was required to defeat FSU last season.
Which brings me back to Saturday’s game in the Swamp against Tennessee. This game should provide evidence one way or the other about Florida’s chances of winning the East. A week after having absolutely no answers for the Oregon offense, Tennessee will be on the road again, this time to Gainesville, a place that hasn’t been too kind to the Vols over the years (2-9 since 1991). This is a team that should be ripe for a whipping. Meanwhile the Gators are coming off the bye week. If Florida’s offense cannot find itself Saturday in The Swamp, it will not bode well for the remainder of the season and a trip to the SEC Championship Game will be very unlikely. I do not believe that Muschamp and Pease have the luxury of just playing to win the game. Not this game.
First let me state emphatically that I in no way feel that the coaches need to prove anything to the fans or the talking heads or keyboard cowboys like me. This is not about style points or making anyone feel better about the team or the offense. This is about preparing for the future. The coaches have to know that they will need the offense to rise up at some critical point in the season and it is simply not realistic to think that will happen without building some experience and confidence in a game like this one. In my opinion, if Muschamp sticks with his tendency for conservative offense – doing only what he must to get the win – he will do so at his own peril in future games. You cannot just turn an offense on when you need it. Saturdayshould be an opportunity to let Jeff Driskel and company spread their wings a little to see if they can indeed fly. It is time to push the fledglings out of the nest and let them build the strength in those wings for the long flights that will be needed later. Yes, it will mean risking a mistake-caused loss like the Miami game, but I think it has reached the “no risk, no reward” point with this team.
While nobody is going to mistake the Gator offense for the Oregon offense that lit up Tennessee last week it doesn’t need to be. The offensive line will be as healthy as it is probably going to be in any game this season and the return of Jon Halapio should make the running game effective. All of the running backs should be 100%. The question is, as it has been, whether Driskel and the passing game can take the next step. In my opinion, that means getting the young receivers involved. Quinton Dunbar, Trey Burton and Solomon Patton can be dependable but none of them have proven to be big play receivers so far. If this offense is going to grow into the explosive plays that win tough football games then Ahmad Fullwood and Demarcus Robinson will have to participate, and perhaps Kent Taylor, also.
I tend to be one of the “trust the coaches” crowd. However, this is Muschamp’s first stint as a head coach and he is learning this as he goes. As such, it may be difficult for him to determine when it is the right time to step out of his comfort zone. Championships are not given. You must take them from others that want them just as badly as you. This means imposing your will over your opponent’s will. That can be done with defense but there will be times when it must be done on offense as well. Saturday is one of the few opportunities left to condition that offense for the task before it becomes required. If the Gators cannot take advantage of Tennessee in this game, those tough games down the road will be very difficult to win.
Therefore, this game against the Vols, a game that the Gators should win handily, becomes perhaps the most critical game of the Florida season. Saturday it is time for the Gators to flex their muscles and show that they belong in the SEC title conversation. Otherwise, the discussion and attention will justifiably go to Alabama, UGA, LSU and South Carolina. It is not important from a championship standpoint for a team to be in the discussion but it is important from a recruiting perspective. Recruits want to be relevant and being relevant as a team certainly helps. Saturday is a great opportunity for the Florida Gators to showcase where they are where they are going. Hopefully, they will take advantage of it.