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Florida can only rewrite some of its 2021 narrative in November

Florida will be heavily favored to finish its regular season on a four-game winning streak. Stacking those Ws may not matter much this year, though.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators of the gridiron stumbled only once in September, and that game — a 31-29 loss that came despite a thrilling comeback attempt against Alabama — was close enough to spark a week of talk about moral victories.

In October, they only won once — over Vanderbilt — and took three losses that each left Gator Nation somewhere between fuming and running on fumes about this team’s trajectory.

Now, well removed from any sort of championship contention at 4-4, Florida faces a November slate that looks — on paper — like it might be a whole lot kinder than the previous month proved to be.

But that’s not entirely a good thing.

Every opponent remaining on Florida’s schedule is no better than 4-4, and while three of the four foes are Power Five teams, the Gators would appear to match up well with all three of them.

The Gators travel to South Carolina this Saturday, where they will meet a team that has not scored more than 23 points since its season opener against FCS Eastern Illinois. The Gamecocks have been slightly worse than that against SEC competition, too, only mustering 20 points twice: First against Tennessee — which currently sits at No. 71 nationally in scoring defense — by scoring 13 second-half points after the Vols opened up 28-0 and 38-7 leads in the first half, and then against Vanderbilt, while also committing four turnovers.

South Carolina still has what remains of a Will Muschamp-built defense, and has been better on that side of the ball than on offense. But the Gamecocks have also given up 40 or more points to Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, and even this version of Florida is closer to those teams on offense than it is to the Kentucky and Vanderbilt squads Carolina largely kept in check.

A night game in Columbia is sure to be a somewhat hostile environment, but it’s not hard to imagine Florida draining the vigor out of the crowd by taking an early lead and either cruising to victory or fending off a Gamecocks passing game that has yet to produce more than one touchdown in a game against a team other than Eastern Illinois or Vanderbilt.

Florida then returns home to play Samford, an FCS team that has been potent on offense and putrid on defense in 2021. The Bulldogs have only been held under 27 points once, but have only kept opponents under 33 twice — and while their current 3-5 record includes a 2-4 record in one-possession games, conceivably convertible to a better mark by only a few altered plays, their last game against an FBS opponent was a 52-0 loss to Auburn in 2019 in which they crossed midfield three times.

Florida’s 2013 loss to Georgia Southern obviously stands as a reminder that “has never happened” does not mean “will never happen,” but the Gators should rout Samford easily.

Then comes what will be Florida’s latest-in-the-year trip to Missouri to date, with the November 20 meeting in the SEC’s other Columbia barely surpassing the 2019 team’s November 16 trip. Cold weather — the kind that might bring the first experience with snow of some Gators’ lives — could play a role in that contest.

More likely to play a role? Missouri’s historically atrocious run defense. The Tigers are dead last nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up almost 284 yards on the ground per game, and not only have they not played any of the three SEC teams in the top 10 nationally — Ole Miss, Arkansas, or Florida — in that category, they have only seen two top-40 teams (No. 13 Tennessee and No. 18 North Texas) to date.

The Tigers’ performance against North Texas is probably their best against any running game this year — and the Mean Green still managed 188 rushing yards despite trailing 31-7 at halftime and needing to turn to the air. Naturally, North Texas also threw for 305 yards and four scores in that game, whittling the margin of victory down to just 13 points despite Missouri being +4 in turnover margin.

Missouri’s four wins are over Central Michigan (hi, Mac!), Southeast Missouri State (which had 294 rushing yards on just 39 carries despite trailing 38-0 at halftime), North Texas, and Vanderbilt — none of which has beaten an FBS team by more than a touchdown this fall.

If it’s cold in CoMo, so be it. Florida’s running game should still roll Missouri.

And then there’s the Gators’ regular season finale against Florida State, which has gamely rallied from its historically poor 0-4 start to sit at 3-5 entering November.

The Seminoles have improved on their awful early-season performances — they probably wouldn’t lose to Jacksonville State today, which is both good and damning with faint praise — and staged a road upset of North Carolina in October that helped condemn the Tar Heels to a massively disappointing season and continue their bizarre, decades-spanning dominance of Mack Brown.

They also became the first FBS team to give up more than 21 points to the infamously punchless 2021 Clemson offense, and executed one of history’s worst end-of-clock lateral-to-glory attempts at the close of the game.

The Seminoles player who got upended in mid-air while trying to catch a horrific desperation lateral at his own 12 and then appeared to land awkwardly was running back Lawrence Toafili, who had made one of the great shows balance ever on a football field earlier in the game...

...and has dealt with injuries throughout his FSU career. If he was seriously hurt, one of the most amusing failures of the 2021 season adds injury to insult.

The Seminoles play NC State, Miami, and Boston College before making their way to Gainesville over Thanksgiving weekend, and will need to win at least two of those games to keep their hopes of six-win bowl eligibility alive until that Saturday. And with the last two games of its series with Florida going the Gators’ way by lopsided margins, FSU is sure to be playing for pride even if it does not have a bowl game on the horizon.

But there is little to suggest right now that FSU — currently No. 37 in SP+, and about nine points back of where No. 9 Florida sits — should be anything but a double-digit underdog when it steps into The Swamp.

And therein lies part of the problem facing Florida: Even the renewal of its season-ending clash with its in-state rival does not currently look like a big enough game on paper for a win in the game to materially change Florida’s fortunes.

Florida could go 4-0 and win each of these games by double digits — which it will be favored to do, if the three-touchdown line for its trip to South Carolina is any indication — without moving the needle much with fans. Anthony Richardson could keep the QB1 role he assumed against Georgia and look like the second coming of Cam Newton for a month straight and it would mostly serve to reheat the debate about whether Dan Mullen waited too long to toggle to him from Emory Jones. And Florida’s defense, beleaguered and often cast as befuddling, could be beastly against underwhelming competition, only for most to downplay its successes by pointing to its prior failures as more important.

These are, like Florida’s game against Vanderbilt earlier this season or the Gators’ November slate last year, going to be “must-win” games in a sense divergent from the usual, which is that a loss in any of them would be treated as a sky falling even if a win holds little value. This is the pressure of being the Florida Gators, or responsible for them; these are the stakes.

And I think that’s a shame, because I think a team and program that has taken a ton of lumps in the last 18 months — while fighting valiantly, to my eye — deserves better than thousands of fans setting themselves to unmoved and their phasers to disintegrate. It is natural and human and totally healthy for Florida players — or any — to be fatigued, physically or emotionally, as long, grueling football seasons come to a close, and most of the football seasons played in human memory were played with less dramatic backdrops than the last two years of American life.

But I am but one man, if one with a smallish soapbox to stand on and speak from; I am not under the delusion that this piece on Florida’s November will lead to savoring a third down stop against Samford, or something.

I am also not under the delusion that a 4-0 stretch will compensate in the Gator Nation psyche for whatever the surely “disappointing” finish to this recruiting cycle will be, or for the growing disappointment in Mullen’s inability to be all things to all Gators at podiums.

And while I know in my heart that a fine finish to this year will do some good for me, I can see with clear eyes that it will not do the same for many others.

The story of these Florida Gators is, for the most part, already ink on paper — and there won’t be many edits coming over this last month of the regular season.