VETTEL: Survivor: Episode X

The way this Gator football team plays each week I half expect someone to be voted off the roster after each near-disaster late in games. Saturday it took not one, not two, but three blocked kicks in order for the Gators to escape the Swamp with a 17-16 win over South Carolina.

It was a win where the Gators moved the ball at will, penetrating the South Carolina 40 yard line on all seven possessions, but managed just 17 points.

It was a game in which the Gator defense failed to get a single “three-and-out” all day long and allowed 410 total yards. And yet, it was a game that raised the Gator football team to 9-and-1 on the year and virtually guarantees a ten-win season for the first time since 2001. Had this been a survivor episode, there were many candidates for being voted off the island. However, none more so than Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen who called for the reverse pass in the fourth quarter at the South Carolina 13, a play that resulted in a loss of 16 yards. Florida also called for a shovel pass on the Carolina eleven on their opening drive when basic plays were working beautifully. The play resulted in a sack of Chris Leak soon to be followed by yet another missed field goal by Chris Hetland. Jim Tartt picked up another holding penalty, this one negating a 29-yard pass to Bubba Caldwell and Chris Leak threw a costly interception on first down to end a long drive opening the second half.

Defense Showing Holes

In the last two weeks Florida’s defense which had been so good throughout the season has been breaking down. The Gators allowed over 800 yards to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but just as importantly are allowing repeated long drives. That limits the opportunities for the Florida offense and puts that unit under more pressure to produce points every time.

The biggest change in the last two weeks is the rushing defense that was among the nation’s best after eight weeks. Vanderbilt, one of the worst running teams in the SEC picked up 93 yards on just 23 rushes, and if you factor out QB sacks, Vandy ran 20 times for 111 yards. Saturday, the Gamecocks picked up 135 yards and averaged almost five per carry. No need to factor in sack yardage here, the Gators never got close to Blake Mitchell.

The recent struggles of the Gators defense can be traced to a pair of situations. First, the absence of Marcus Thomas at tackle is a dramatic loss to Florida’s ability to clog up the middle on the run. Additionally, without Thomas providing the push up the middle, Florida’s pass rush is significantly weaker. The second issue is the sprained knee suffered by Brandon Siler. Florida’s middle linebacker was obviously limited Saturday and without Siler and Thomas, the middle of Florida’s defense is much more opponent friendly.

Worst 9-and-1 Team in UF History?

It’s not as if there is a long list of football teams in Gator lore that won at least nine of the first ten games. Still you can certainly make the case that this team would have lost to any of the others.

Florida’s 1966 squad was first Gator team to win nine of ten to start the season. The Gators of ’66 had the Heisman Trophy winner and won a stirring game against Auburn on “The Field Goal”. Their one slip up, a 27-10 loss to Georgia cost the Gators their first SEC title.

The next time the Gators started with nine wins in ten outings was 1990 when Steve Spurrier’s first unit raced to first place in the SEC. they reached the nine-win mark with consecutive wins over Auburn and Georgia by a combined score of 86-to-14.

The decade of the Gators also produced 9-and-1 starts or better in 1993 thru 1996, winning the SEC title each year. In 1998 they began another four year run of 9-and-1 starts. The ’98 and ’01 Gators ended the season with impressive bowl victories while the ’00 Gators were SEC Champs. The only one of those units to finish poorly was in 1999 when Florida ended the year with Steve Spurrier’s only three-game losing streak in a dozen seasons on the Florida sideline.

This team might, in theory be favored over the ’66 group, but certainly not any of the others. But wouldn’t you rather be a lucky, survivor-type 9-and-1 team than a wide open, high scoring 7-and-3 unit? Of course you would. This team reminds me of Alabama in 1992 and Tennessee in ’98. Neither team was the best in the country. They just kept winning and winning and winning. With a gimme against Western Carolina this week, Florida is assured of a 10-win season. It will be the tenth double-digit victory campaign in UF history, with the other nine all coming in an eleven year stretch (1991-2001).

It really doesn’t matter how. It’s ALL about how many.