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Mitchell: Gators Will Go 0-fer In October
New Florida Head Coach Will Muschamp
Say it 'aint so, Janoris. CFN SEC Columnist Russ Mitchell breaks down the Gators' October, and it's not pretty.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb
The Florida Gators will not win a single football game in the month of October.
There. Let the effigy burn and the hate mail flow.
Before you hit the send button though, know that this call isn't being chucked out there for the shock effect – though it is indeed a scary thought for Gator fans just getting over the pain of last year.
Still, in the event you think this column borders of football blasphemy, remember it nearly happened last season. Were it not for a thrilling OT win in the World’s Largest Outdoor you-know-what, the Gators would've done nothing in the crucial month.
The 2011 Gator team has issues, starting with the new coaches, the new schemes, questions at quarterback and consistent offensive production, the loss of several key players in the secondary, the wide receivers' apparent inability to capitalize throughout the spring, questions around durability at running back (yes you, Demps), and material roster turnover due to graduation, the NFL, suspensions and defections, and it'll all contribute to another down year.
Saturday, October 1st: vs. Alabama. Alabama arrives in the Swamp a presumptive favorite to win the national championship, having just played North Texas and Arkansas the previous two weeks – both at home in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, Florida is coming off games against Tennessee and at Kentucky. Comparatively, it's a wash.
However, there’s no hiding that this is virtually the same Bama defense that bowled over the Gator offense last season, and it’s even better today. The same can't be said for Florida, which is replacing several key pieces on offense and does not yet appear to have measurably improved.
Last season against Alabama, the Gators scored a whopping six points on two Chas Henry field goals, the first after falling behind 24-0. But it was worse than that – Florida rushed for just 79 yards, turned it over four times to Bama’s zero, and eventually lost 31-6 after the Tide appeared to shut it down in the second half.
But it was even worse than that. The Gators looked thoroughly outmatched, outclassed and outcoached in the defeat. The latter of these may or may not have been improved with the hiring of new head coach Will Muschamp, but the 2011 Gators football team is less experienced, has suffered through more turnover and is infinitely less confident than it was the night before last season’s debacle in Tuscaloosa. And so is its fan base (read: Swamp advantage).
Alabama breaking in a young quarterback might be a concern, and some will point to the fact that Muschamp, a defensive-minded coach, takes over a defense that ended the season ranked ninth in the nation.
However, the strength of Florida's defense in 2010 was predicated on pass coverage, not run, and rushing will be Alabama's bread and butter this season (particularly early on as the new Tide quarterback matures). Moreover, the Gators return fewer starters on defense than any team in the conference other than Auburn.
In 2010, Alabama was the third best team in the nation at stopping opposing offenses, allowing less than 14 points per game. Ten of those starters return, and they're likely to be better. Florida will need more than 14 points to beat the Tide on October 1st, and given all the change the Gators are absorbing, that's unlikely.
Saturday, October 8th: @ LSU. Welcome to Death Valley, and a homecoming of sorts for Muschamp.
Licking its wounds from what will no doubt be a physical affair against the Tide, Florida travels to the end of the conference to wrestle the Tigers, who will be coming off a home game against Kentucky. Advantage LSU.
These two programs are 3-3 against each other the past six years – during which time they have snared three national championships between them. This season, LSU is playing to make that four. LSU coach Les Miles and team return with enough talent, experience and depth to make such a quest credible.
Will the Gator defense be able to get to LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson and contain the Tiger short passing game?
The Gators under ex-coach Urban Meyer recruited as well as anyone in the nation these past few years, and they're stocked with young talent. However, LSU returns nine of its 10 2-deep offensive linemen, and welcome La'el Collins, who many consider to be the best OT the state of Louisiana has ever produced.
For many of Florida's young players, this will be their first trip as starters into a truly hostile environment, particularly at secondary and defensive end. As much raw talent as the Gators will have, they'll be too young to keep up with the Bengals in the bayou, who are currently a step ahead on both sides of the ball.
Florida will enter this game as a Vegas dog, and while we must love dogs as much as Diane Lane, we’re giving the nod to home cookin’, good bourbon, and the more experienced Tigers.
Saturday, October 15th: @ Auburn. So let's take stock...battered and beaten, Muschamp is shouldering a two game losing streak and the scrutiny that goes with it. Certainly there's no shame in losing to Bama and LSU, and the Gators are getting a lot of critical on the job experience.
But no rest for the wicked. Pack your bags, Gator Nation, and dosado – two-stepping out to the Plains of Alabama, and the host for game three in your own private hell that is October: the Auburn Tigers. The defending national champion Auburn Tigers.
Yes, this is a shadow of the team that carried home the crystal ball from that warm desert January – particularly at quarterback and on the defensive line. Only Auburn has fewer returning starters than the Gators; though like Florida, the Tigers have amassed several years of excellent recruiting classes.
This season, Auburn has as many issues to navigate as the Gators. Maybe more. Questions exist at nearly every position...except running back.
The Tigers have two of the conference’s best tailbacks – the bruising sophomore Michael Dyer and the explosive junior Onterio McCalebb. Good thing the Gators are rested and – Oh.
It's difficult to accurately gauge Auburn's 2010 rushing and its impact on this year's running backs, given so much of the Tigers' rushing success was based on the legs of quarterback Cam Newton.
What's easier to evaluate is Florida's defensive effort against the run. The Gators failed to crack the top 30 last year in rushing defense, and again, must replace a number of those players. Rarely is addition by subtraction a favored strategy.
This is not as easy a pick as the first two. In fact, it might be Florida’s best chance for a W, particularly given that Auburn plays at both South Carolina and Arkansas in the weeks leading up to this contest.
This game will come down to location, location, location. Auburn’s home record over the past seven seasons is 42-10, and it will be the Gators’ fifth straight conference game without a break, following on the heels of Bama AND LSU, and on the road for a second consecutive week. With Florida likely feeling the pressure of back-to-back losses, we’ll pick the home team in a physical, close match-up. Tiger loss #2 for the Gators.
Saturday, October 29th: Georgia. Typically the team with the bye week before the Florida/Georgia game wins. And good news Gator fans, Florida has just that - the magical bye.
Only, so do the Bulldogs.
Moreover, Muschamp and crew will arrive in Jacksonville after the aforementioned five tough conference games and on the coattails of an ugly three game losing streak. The pressure to beat Georgia and not go winless in the month will be overbearing.
Meanwhile, Georgia arrives in Jacksonville after playing the following college football powerhouses (in reverse order): Vandy, Tennessee, Miss State, Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina. Yes, THE Coastal Carolina.
Of course, the Dawgs will have issues of their own, particularly at running back and the offensive line. After the departures of running backs Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and Carlton Thomas seemingly unable or unwilling to follow team rules, many question how well Georgia will start the season, given a senior-laden Boise State and a stacked South Carolina are at the top of the schedule.
In fact, were this not two thirds of the way through the season, we might be hesitant to grant Georgia Most Favored Team status.
But by then freshman Isaiah Crowell should have a firm grip on the job and the running game.
At this point in the season most of Georgia’s and Florida's young talent will have some experience under their respective belts.
Part of the difference this year will be UGA's exceptionally favorable schedule. The Dawgs will enter more rested and confident than their Gator counterparts.
It might come down to another overtime nail bitter, but this year UGA's schedule and a seasoned Aaron Murray will be the difference.
And there you go. Or there you 0, as the case may be.
Still don’t agree? Well, I’m walking the floor at the SEC Media Days – come find me. I’ll be the guy dragging his heavy inbox behind him.
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb.