Instant Analysis: Gators 17, Auburn 27

On one hand, it’s a profound shame that Florida could smother Auburn’s offense in the second half, and yet let the Tigers off the hook because of one dropped snap by a punter. On the other hand, great teams manage to overcome the mistake and get at least three second-half points.

It’s not the end of the world by any stretch, and Florida still calls the shots in the SEC East, but this is a loss that will sting for the next two weeks in Gainesville.

It will sting not because a national championship died on the Alabama Plains. It will sting not because the Gators’ defense played well enough to win. It will sting not because Florida had Auburn on the ropes at times. No, this loss will hurt because the Gators didn’t have to do that much to win this game, and yet–when presented with the path to an unbeaten regular season–couldn’t perform the minimal amount of work that lay in front of them. And among the Gators who had a minimal amount of work to do, Chris Leak was the every-down player with the lightest load of all. In the end, though, but couldn’t carry the weight of a large occasion in rural Alabama.

This will be said once, with no fanfare, and with an eye on the rest of the season… especially an Auburn rematch that could very well take place in the Georgia Dome nearly two months from now: Chris Leak needs to become a bigger man in big moments.

Notice the present-tense use of the word “needs,” dear readers. Some commentators will look at this Auburn game and think that it represents a final and damning verdict on Leak’s snake-bitten Florida career. But just as Leak has garnered too much credit in Gator wins, he doesn’t deserve all the blame in this Gator loss. Had Eric Wilbur caught a perfect punt snap, and had a run-stuffing defense been able to hold the line against Auburn’s offensive front, Leak–and his team–would be undefeated, and an SEC East that is still within reach would have been in Florida’s hip pocket. As it stands, the Gators are still in the driver’s seat for a division title and a chance to play for the whole league. If Leak enters both winner’s circles, his Gator career will still be a success. For that simple but powerful reason, post-Auburn verdicts on his years in Gainesville are very much premature.

What matters now, in the aftermath of this painful loss, is for the Gator Nation to avoid the easy temptation to be on Leak’s back, and to resist the call for more of Tim Tebow. At the end of the day, Florida is quite superior to its remaining SEC foes: Georgia, Vandy and South Carolina. If this team does what it’s supposed to do–unlike this Saturday night in Auburn–it will win the East and, quite likely, face these Tigers again in Atlanta. Then, Urban Meyer, Chris Leak, and a defensive front line can all get the sweestest piece of revenge imaginable: a bounce-back win for an SEC title Florida last won in 2000 against… yes… Auburn.

This season took a painful turn for Florida late Saturday night, but then again, if the Gators were worthy of national title consideration, they would have found a way against the Tigers. The SEC is still the thing that matters, and Florida still has the best, most comfy position of any league team, even more so than Arkansas, who will be an underdog against Tennessee and LSU.

Don’t bury the Gators, and don’t pile on Chris Leak just yet. There’s a whole lotta season left, and the most significant chapters have yet to be written. Yes, Leak was a very small man in this game’s largest moments, but No. 12–like his team–can still come up very big before this season’s stories are fully and finally told.