ATLANTA, GA — The Florida Gators are right where they wanted to be back in August when two-a-days began. They’re 11-1, kingpins of the East Division of the Southeastern Conference and playing in the Georgia Dome for the SEC championship. Back in August, the thought of getting to Atlanta seemed like such an accomplishment. Here it is December and just being here is not nearly enough.
Back in August Atlanta seemed like a rather ambitious goal considering the difficulty factor of Florida’s schedule, which is rated the toughest in the nation by the NCAA. Now that the Gators have gone undefeated (5-0) against their SEC East rivals and 7-1 overall in SEC play, just being here doesn’t seem good enough. If the Gators leave Atlanta Saturday night with anything less than the school’s seventh SEC championship there is going to be a widespread unfulfilled feeling that permeates through the team and through the entire Gator Nation. It won’t be like those years past when the rallying cry for Gator fans everywhere was “wait until next year” but it will be in the same vicinity.
Isn’t it strange that there is talk of unfinished business for the Gators this week and isn’t it even stranger that folks might consider this remarkable 11-1 season somewhat of a disappointment if the fourth-ranked Gators can’t find a way to polish off eighth-ranked Arkansas (6 p.m., CBS TV)? You would think that the accomplishment of a one-loss regular season against a schedule rated the nation’s most difficult by the NCAA would have a satisfying feel to it, but anything less than a win over the Razorbacks and large portion of Gator fans will look on this as a season that didn’t meet expectations.
What makes all this 11-1 record remarkable and one to be savored by fans and media is the way Florida has gone about its business. This hasn’t been a football season. It has been a script for “Survivor.” Yes, there is a football game each week but it doesn’t always seem like the Gators win the game as much as it seems like their opponent gets voted off the island.
The national media keeps demanding that the Gators blow somebody out, claiming that a decisive victory is a requirement to validate all that Florida has accomplished so far. Florida fans keep complaining that the Gators have so much talent that they should be racking up Star Wars numbers in points and yardage every week and they tend to blame Coach Urban Meyer for staying loyal to offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. Very few take into account that the Gators have faced five defenses ranked in the top 25 and even fewer take into consideration just how razor thin the Gators are at some critical positions.
The Gators do have some star power on this team and that’s a good thing but what they don’t have is the kind of quality depth that you typically associate with teams that are so highly ranked. It will take at least two more recruiting classes before you’ll see the Gators fielding teams that can match Ohio State, Southern Cal and Michigan in terms of quality depth all the way across the board.
For all the talk about Florida’s tenth-ranked defense, nobody seems to take into consideration that the Gators have consistently shut down opponents with only two experienced linebackers and only three cornerbacks, none taller than 5-10. Entering the season, Florida’s corners had ZERO starts against SEC opponents.
On offense, people complain that the offensive line isn’t consistent enough yet Chris Leak has been sacked 16 fewer times this year than last and the running game is producing more yardage for higher yards per carry than any Florida team in years. The Gators have six serviceable offensive linemen and only two of them have any kind of experience. It’s not like they’re blocking for Secretariat, either. There have been times [see second half, Florida State] when the Gators didn’t have one serviceable tailback because of injuries yet somehow the Gators keep outrushing their opponents.
A team that can find a way to still win 11 games in spite of all these obstacles is one that should be celebrated but there will be no celebrating in the Gator camp unless Arkansas gets voted off the island and Florida gets its twelfth win.
Florida’s defensive game plan should center around wide receiver Marcus Monk. Eliminate him as a threat and the Razorbacks become very one-dimensional and very beatable. If the Gators have to devote too much manpower to stopping Monk, then the game’s over and Arkansas wins. If the Gators can neutralize him with Ryan Smith at corner and free safety Reggie Nelson ready to erase any mistakes, then Florida can put enough people in the box to stop or at least significantly slow down the Arkansas running game. Defensively, Florida’s game plan has to be making the Razorbacks one-dimensional. Take away the pass threat and Arkansas is very beatable.
Offensively, the Gators have to take some shots downfield against the Arkansas corners. If Florida can force the corners to cover deep, then the underneath stuff to Percy Harvin and Cornelius Ingram will open up against the Arkansas linebackers. Those linebackers are fast but no that fast.
That’s what Florida has to do to win but we all know that no matter how well the Gators game plan for Arkansas the nature of this team is to play it close. At some point, this game will probably take on a few ugly proportions and that should make it a game that is right up Florida’s alley. The Gators are used to these non-artistic wins that border on ugly.
Just because the Gator Nation is used to ugly wins doesn’t mean that winning ugly has been embraced. The media says ugly wins are proof that the Gators are doing it all with smoke and mirrors. Another ugly win and the fans will complain that there are no excuses for the Gators winning by anything less than four touchdowns. Of course, if the Gators lose, the media and the fans will say, “I told you so” and claim that the Gators weren’t all that good to begin with.
So here are Saturday’s options: (1) Win big and maybe the media and the fans who can only complain that the Gators don’t win with enough style might come around; (2) win ugly and the same media and fans stay on this kick that the Gators are over-rated; and (3) lose, and we’ll hear one chorus after another of “I told you so” by media and fans alike.
Should the Gators win, don’t expect the media or a good many Florida fans to embrace 12-1 but it does beat the alternative by a wide margin. Consider this, if the Gators win, they have as many wins this season as Florida State and Miami COMBINED. Maybe you aren’t satisfied with the way the Gators have been winning, but Florida with 12 wins and FSU and Miami with just six apiece should tell you that artistry is vastly over-rated.
The thought here is that the Gators defy artistry one more time. I believe the Gators win ugly again and Arkansas will be voted off the island by something like 21-17. This may indeed be an ugly duckling type of season for the Gators, but 12-1 could look extremely beautiful by late Saturday night. Very beautiful indeed.