GatorZone.com Senior Writer
AUBURN, Ala. – They looked tired as they walked off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium. They sounded tired during their interview session with reporters. The Gators possess all the signs of a team that needs a break.
The reality is starting to get much clearer for the orange and blue. Remember when the schedule first came out earlier this year and everyone looked at October and thought maybe there was a misprint.
Under October it read: Alabama, at LSU, at Auburn, and Georgia in Jacksonville. All in 29 days. I can imagine Mick Hubert letting out one of his loudest “Oh Mys’’ of the season when he first read that lineup.
Three games into October and the Gators are still looking for their first win. They came up short again Saturday night at Auburn, losing 17-6 in what on paper looks like perhaps their best shot to avoid O-for-October.
Georgia is suddenly rolling, winners of five consecutive games following back-to-back losses to open the season.
The Gators have now lost three consecutive regular-season games for the second straight year after a 4-0 start. Remember last year?
The Gators got beat at Alabama, lost at home to LSU, and then in perhaps the worst loss of all, suffered a 10-7 defeat to Mississippi State on Homecoming. They walked off the field that night at The Swamp with the same look as they had Saturday at Auburn.
They had a bye week before facing Georgia and then played one of their better games of the season, beating the Bulldogs in overtime to snap their skid.
That might be a more difficult task this season considering the way the Bulldogs are playing. Still, after watching the Gators commit three turnovers, muff four punts, fail to force a turnover for the third consecutive game, rack up a season-low 194 yards of offense and see more key players (Caleb Sturgis, Andre Debose) get injured, Florida head coach Will Muschamp sounded pleased that there will be no chance at a loss next Saturday.
“The open week is coming at a good time from the standpoint of we’ve got some guys banged up,’’ Muschamp said. “We need to go back and work on fundamentals of what we’re trying to do. We need to improve. We need to get better. We have an off week. We’ll re-evaluate where we are and where we need to go.’’
As their teammates packed and headed to the buses, Gators Frankie Hammond, Jon Bostic, Jon Halapio and Jaye Howard faced a room of reporters asking some tough questions.
They wanted to know about penalties and missed assignments and young quarterbacks and blown coverage and a whole lot more.
The players didn’t always have insightful answers. When you play at Florida, you hear about three consecutive losses from your family, your friends, you classmates and the guy next door. They haven’t had much fun of late talking football.
While the result was the same as the Alabama and LSU games, this one had a different feel.
“We made tremendous strides and until the end of the game, there was still a chance for us to come out with the win,’’ Hammond said. “To me that is a positive coming out of this game.”
Muschamp also said there were positives to build on. Muschamp praised the Gators’ effort – he just didn’t like six points and another loss to show for it.
Despite the midseason slump, Muschamp doesn’t plan to waver from his plan to build a program built on a balanced offense and a tough, hard-nosed defense that thrives off discipline and creating turnovers.
“We’ve got to create some positive momentum for our football team and our offense,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s something we’ve got to be able to do. We didn’t win the game and that’s what everyone wants to see, but I see a lot more than that. I see things we’ve got to do as a program to take steps forward and I thought we did some of those things tonight.’’
Saturday’s loss is the kind that turns up the noise to a point that not even those Bose noise-canceling headphones can quiet the storm. Gator fans have high expectations and they reminded me constantly on Twitter as the game wore on.
I go back to when I first saw the 2011 schedule. I know I did a double-take and figured a split would be a win and not to rule out the Gators getting swept. If you take a step back and analyze the situation reasonably, the Gators just lost to the No. 1 ranked team in the country, the No. 2-ranked team and the defending national champion.
And we can’t forget the first-year factor. First-year coaches often struggle when taking over a program. Nick Saban was 8-4 his first season at LSU and 7-6 at Alabama. Gene Chizik, after a 5-19 stint in two seasons at Iowa State, was 8-5 in his first season at Auburn in 2009. The Tigers then won the 2010 national title.
What surprised many of us is that the Gators lost the last three games ugly, but when you consider that in 10 of the last 12 quarters Florida has used a true freshman quarterback against three strong SEC West teams, it starts to add up.
Will the bleeding stop against Georgia? There is certainly no guarantee of that. The Bulldogs have visions of an SEC East title and are playing like they are capable of making it to Atlanta.
Will the Gators play better than they have the past three weeks with the extra week to prepare? There is no guarantee of that either, but it would be very surprising if they didn’t.
Here is not what’s surprising at all.
“Turnovers killed us -- three turnovers leading to 10 points and really cost you the football game,’’ Muschamp said. “I told them, ‘Losing is hard. Losing is tough. It’s not fun, but we’re going to stay the course here.”
In time, that course will yield more wins. The ride is bumpy now, but would you really want him to say anything else?