Where, oh where, to begin?
Following the Gators first loss of the season and the first home loss under head coach Urban Meyer, Florida fans everywhere are left scratching their heads.
Just two weeks ago, the Gators were steamrolling the 24th-ranked Volunteers in the Swamp by a score of 59-20.
Florida had seemingly picked up where they left off in January, and was everyone’s pick to challenge LSU for SEC supremacy and potentially vie for another National Championship game birth.
Fast forward 14 days, and the Gators aren’t even in first place in their own division after a gut-wrenching loss to Auburn on Saturday night.
Since the 39-point victory over the Vols, the Gators have only managed to outscore two unranked opponents by three points (47-44; 1-1) and seem to have lost that swagger that was so apparent during the second half of the Tennessee game.
So what’s happened since then? Who’s to blame for this drastic performance drop-off?
I’ll tell you who’s to blame: Gator Nation is to blame for demanding perfection. The media is to blame for ranking the Gators in the top three of every poll. Public perception is to blame for thinking that Florida could hastily overcome the loss of nine defensive starters and a roster that is replete with underclassmen.
It is imperative that everyone reading this article understand the actual capabilities of the 2007 Florida Gator football team before starting to look for FireUrbanMeyer.com on their web browser.
The main point that I have tried to relay in the first few SWAMP ALERT articles is the youth of this Gator team. I’m not sure if the rest of the country has completely grasped the existence of a vast learning curve that has been prematurely endured by the majority of the Florida football team.
Forget the amount of first-year starters that suit up every game day for the Gators—and acknowledge the amount of players who were still in high school at this time last year.
Players like OG Maurkice Pouncey, RB Chris Rainey, LB Jerimy Finch, S Major Wright, DL Carlos Dunlap, DT Torrey Davis, and P Chas Henry are true freshmen that have seen significant and substantial playing time this season.
To consider a team with this many inexperienced—albeit talented—contributors as a top-five team is incredibly unrealistic, and somewhat unfair to the players and coaches.
If the sports media hadn’t created this faulty hype, and if Gator fans hadn’t bought into it, this seemingly cataclysmic loss would be much less threatening to the team’s ultimate success for the rest of the 2007 season.
Now that everyone (hopefully) understands the fact that Florida’s loss to Auburn is not as apocalyptic as the media is making it out to be, let’s take a look at how the Gators managed to suffer their first home loss under Urban Meyer.
All of the weaknesses that have been mentioned in previous SWAMP ALERT's culminated on Saturday night and led to an inevitable upset. Road games and top-25 opponents should be seen as potential losses, rather than mere speed bumps on the road to another SEC title.
The most pressing issue of the young season has been the defensive secondary. Freshmen Joe Haden and Major Wright have done their best to overcome their inexperience by utilizing their raw talent. However, they still seem to be lost in certain coverages, and have allowed numerous passing plays of 15+ yards this season.
This reoccurrence of open receivers was just as evident on Saturday night as it was last week against Ole Miss.
Brandon Cox, a quarterback being challenged for playing time by a freshman in Kodi Burns, looked like the second-coming of Pat Sullivan in the first half. Throwing to wide-open receivers for first down yardage was fairly routine throughout the first half, leading to a 14-0 halftime deficit for the Gators.
Not to berate the defense entirely—they did come out in the second half and prevent the Tigers from the end zone for the rest of the night. But their failure to halt Auburn’s rushing attack cost the Gators the victory on the game’s final drive.
Moving from the known and expected weakness of this year’s Gator team, we can now focus on the most concerning aspect of Saturday night’s loss in the Swamp: the offense.
The Gators were held to under 500 yards of total offense for the first time all season, and were outgained by a much slower, less-talented Auburn offense.
Tim Tebow and co. were only able to muster 312 yards of total offense, with most of that production coming in the second half. For the first time in recent memory, the spread offense appeared to be sluggish and stagnant.
More noticeably than the offense’s ineptitude was offensive coordinator Dan Mullen’s seeming reliance on Tebow and Harvin through conservative play calling.
Other than the duo of Harvin and Tebow, the rest of the offense only had five of the team’s 28 total rushing attempts, and only three other receivers besides Harvin caught more than one pass the entire night.
The Florida offense seemed to have strayed away from spreading the ball around and utilizing the majority of its speedy receivers, depending solely on a steady dose of Tebow and Harvin.
There is no doubt that these weapons are by far the most talented players on the Gator offense, but what makes this spread offense hard to defend is the defense’s inability to focus in on one or two players, and insteadforce them to defend all six skill positions. Mullen appeared complacent to play conservatively by his playcalling, and it came back to bite the Gators at the end of the night.
In the second half, the Gators began depending on their defense to get stops in order to allow their offense to manage the game; much like last season.
But as many of us know, depending on a young, inexperienced defense is not the proper approach for this season’s Gator football team.
If the offense continues to live or die solely by the performance of Tebow and Harvin, the weakness of the defense will only be more prevalent, and upsetting losses will continue to occur.
With a night game in Baton Rouge against the top-ranked LSU Tigers looming on the horizon, it is crucial that Florida not lose any more games to lesser opponents. The annual cocktail party is quickly becoming the most crucial game remaining on Florida’s schedule, due to the Bulldogs' resurgence as a formidable SEC team.
Not to mention the upcoming road games against Kentucky and South Carolina—which appear more and more threatening with every Andre Woodson interception-less pass and South Carolina’s recent performance against LSU.
The 2007 Florida Gators football team has truly come to a crossroads.
One road leads to a miraculous comeback, in which the Gators finish 10-2 with yet another SEC Championship birth.
On the flipside however: if the Gators choose to venture down the other road, this could quickly turn into a very “Zook-ish” season in which they could finish 7-5—and Florida fans can start packing their bags for Louisana, not for a national title shot in New Orleans, but rather to play in the prestigious PetroSun Independence Bowl just outside of Shreveport.
While Florida will most likely lose this weekend against an LSU team that has won 77% of its night home games since 1960, it is absolutely crucial for the Gators to redeem themselves and try to resemble a supreme SEC contender.
If this return to fortitude does not occur, expect a team that has yet to experience consecutive losses under Urban Meyer to unravel a bit and start looking for someone to blame for this sudden decline in performance.
With all of the concern that is surrounding the Florida football team after the first home loss under Meyer, I personally believe—and expect—that the Gators will perform well this weekend against LSU.
While I don’t believe that they will necessarily win the game (because of LSU's experience and home field advantage), I do have complete faith in Meyer and his coaching staff to make a quick turnaround and overcome the flaws that plagued the Gators mightily against Auburn on Saturday night.
SWAMP ALERT Defcon: 5 out of 5
Pertaining to: the success or failure of the 2007 season
i.e.: games that Florida should win (Kentucky and South Carolina)
games that Florida must win (UGA and FSU)