As Caleb Sturgis’s field goal split the uprights to increase the Gators’ lead to 10-3, the Swamp was going crazy.
So was I.
But in a different fashion.
I was screaming at the TV, here we go again, not being able to convert touchdowns in the red zone. And I knew the Gators had to play a perfect game in order to beat Alabama, which was gone the instant they had to bring in Sturgis.
What I didn’t know is just how bad it would be.
Simply put, the Gators are not there yet.
Where to start? The red zone issues were sad, true, but there was a lot more to Florida’s worst home loss since 2002. And shockingly, it wasn’t penalties, either. No, those disappeared, and hats off to Muschamp for that. But there was a new, equally embarrassing issue.
The Gators got manhandled in the trenches like I’ve never seen before, on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Last week, Kentucky the drug got us Gator fans high, saying stupid things like watch out Alabama. I was admittedly among them. But the effects of drugs does eventually wear off and people who took them fall back to earth. And last night we got a scary sight of how real our team is- how really inept we are up front.
My deepest thoughts go out to Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. They are two of the most explosive players in Gators history, who will have to watch both their junior and senior seasons as the Gators rebuild. They didn’t have great games last night, but then they had nowhere to go. Rainey did break off a nice run, but that was the lone highlight for the two of them combined.
Seriously, I wondered at times if the Gators were even trying. It’s understandable when you’re down 38-10, but it was 24-10 for the entire third quarter, and there was absolutely no push then. In fact, aside from a few select plays in the first quarter, there was no push at all.
The real shame is John Brantley. Just when he showed that maybe he can be a legitimate QB, he got injured. Why? Oh, right, because he was under more pressure than a Middle Eastern president. His secret service did a horrible job blocking for him, and that’s what led to his 48 yard TD pass to Courtney Upshaw.
OK, so you get it the blocking was bad, the front 7 was bad, what else?
That’s all that needs to go wrong, because when you can’t tackle an opposing running back, the doors to play-action are kicked open, now the defense is really scrambling, it sets up the one on one mismatches that Charlie Weis is so fond of but Dan Quinn is not, and so on. Now combine that with not being able to block… your running game has been powered off… meaning your QB, despite having those sacred one on one matchups, CANNOT GET RID OF THE BALL, meaning sacks and turnovers are just bound to happen, and maybe injuries as well. And that’s exactly what happened.
This is an issue that needs to get better quick, because if it doesn’t, it will become the Gators’ achilles heel. It’s also an issue that hides the rest of your team. Alabama never knew how good Rainey and Demps were, because they never got in space. Three beautiful passes aside, John Brantley never had a chance to prove how good he really is. Had the line been a lot more dominant, he might have thrown for 500 yards- who knows?
But let’s keep things in perspective. This was Alabama, a team that now controls its own destiny to the BCS Championship and was in the talk since the preseason. Because of the messed up world the Gators live in, they do too- not for the BCS Title (not that you give up on that) but for an SEC East Title with a loss next week at LSU.
At this point, I’m almost conceding another ugly loss next week in Death Valley. I honestly couldn’t care less about the final score, as long as it’s not disgusting like last night. Because Georgia and South Carolina both have a loss, the Gators can lose next week and then run the table, meaning all three teams would now have two losses but Florida would have the tiebreaker over both of them.
And if Florida can somehow pull the shocker next week? Incredibly, they control their own destiny to the national championship. A victory in the house of the best team in the nation should put them back in the top 15, and if they run the table as other teams go down one by one, they’re almost certain to be in the top 5 come the SEC Championship. A win against the West champion (probably Alabama) would prove that it was just a fluke last night. Think about that- 12-1 in the SEC, with Alabama, LSU and Auburn from the West in your schedule, and getting payback shows that you’re hot at the right time.
Is that going to happen? Probably not.
But please remember that teams do get better as the season goes on, remember that Will Muschamp and Mickey Marotti do not take too kindly for such foolishness as losing this badly in the Swamp. If any coach can get this team back on the right track, it’s Nick Saban. Or any of his disciples.
And before you groan and say that’s not going to happen in one week, please remember that LSU has a history of losing big games at home to Florida. See 2003, as the most recent example, although Steve Spurrier also went 5-1 there. In fact, until Urban Meyer’s arrival, Florida had lost just two games there since 1979- which was the year the Gators had a perfect record (the wrong kind of perfect).
The Tigers also have a history of putting on choke jobs at home. See Tennessee 2010, where the Vols gift wrapped LSU a win that they had earned, Troy 2008, where LSU trailed 31-3 late in the third quarter until they woke up, calmed down, and took advantage of a few missed opportunities by Troy to close it out and won.
And then there was the Florida game in 2003, when LSU inexplicably did nothing right at all, and lost 19-7.
So, weird things do happen in Death Valley.
Can next week provide another one?
More importantly: can the Gators take a big step forward?
That will depend on the play of the offensive and defensive lines… and the QB.
Through little fault of his own, and this is hard to say, but it’s time to bench Brantley even if he’s fully healthy. We’re going to have a hard enough time next year replacing Rainey and Demps, but to add a QB transition to that is just going to be impossible to do, and next year is the year I expect Florida to be back in the national championship hunt. I’d been saying ever since Tebow left, three years and we’re back in the hunt. I’m not saying we have to win it or be a bust, just make a serious run at it. Our chances increase if we make the switch to Driskel now, as he’s going to take his lumps sometime or another, why not be now, when we’re clearly rebuilding?
Doing this would be kissing our BCS dreams of this year goodbye, but that’s OK. I’m not that impatient. I just feel so bad for Brantley, after starting out with what looked like it would be his best game ever end with a serious injury. And I feel just as bad for Rainey and Demps, and even Deonte Thompson, for watching us rebuild for the second straight year.
Our goals for the season have obviously been lowered, but they’re still pretty respectable: sweep the three SEC East teams and split the next two games against the West teams. I don’t think Furman will be much of a problem, and then beat FSU. Then, if Brantley’s healthy, I would play him in the bowl game as a thank you for being loyal, because Driskel will have already had the better part of an SEC season to take his lumps (although I’d still like to win the bowl game so if he’s doing terrible then I would bench him before the game gets out of hand).
Doing all this will mean the Gators won 10 games, something even an underachieving team can be proud of, the SEC East, which is always our goal every year, Driskel will be ready for next year and Brantley will have played one last time for the team he loves. And let’s all be honest here, there’s nothing sweeter than watching a loyal senior clinch your bowl win. Raise your hand if Ahmad Black was not the perfect man to seal the Outback Bowl victory.
I thought so.
So all is not lost. The Gators do have their work cut out for them, but if they improve enough quick enough, the SEC East is theirs.
And if they improve tons by next week, and stay there the rest of the season, from the top ranked team’s house through an SEC Championship Game? The BCS Championship is theirs.