GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Forget winning. No. 18 Florida might be lucky to score against second-ranked and heavily favored Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
The Gators (10-2, 7-1 SEC) have been downright dismal on offense in recent weeks, averaging a little more than 12 points a game in regulation against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Florida State. And the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) leads the league in just about every defensive category and has allowed a total of 41 points in its last four games.
Florida’s offense failed to score in a 27-2 loss at the Seminoles on Saturday. The Gators had chances, but missed a field goal, had another one blocked and came up short on two fourth-down plays in the red zone. The result was the program’s worst offensive performance at home since a 16-0 shutout to Auburn on homecoming in 1988.
It also has Florida as a 17-point underdog, the biggest in the SEC title game since the Gators were favored by 24 against Arkansas in 1995.
“Is that right? Poor buggers,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said of the Razorbacks.
McElwain has used every opportunity this week to remind people that few, if anyone, expected his team to be in this position. The Gators overachieved for sure. But they underachieved in November, at least offensively.
They needed a late field goal to beat the Vanderbilt 9-7 on homecoming. They needed a late touchdown to hold off South Carolina 24-14 on the road the following week. And they needed a touchdown in overtime and then a fourth-down stop to defeat Florida Atlantic 20-14 two weeks ago.
So nobody should have been surprised by what happened against the Seminoles. Florida managed 262 yards on 79 plays, with just one of those gaining more than 20 yards.
“We’ve just got to get back on our feet,” cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “Coach Mac said we’ve got to get back on the horse. So all we’re worried about right now is getting back on our feet and getting back on the horse and just going and attacking the next day.”
Tabor and his defense teammates have kept Florida in games and essentially won three of four in November.
The other side of the ball has been a head-scratcher, especially since the offense was competent early in the season and even after starting quarterback Will Grier was suspended for a year for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The offensive line was decent against FSU, and Kelvin Taylor finished with a season-high 136 yards rushing.
But quarterback Treon Harris struggled once again.
McElwain suggested that defenses have figured out Harris, a 5-foot-11 sophomore who looked mostly lost last month. His indecision and inaccuracy have become as common as his roll outs and runs.
McElwain also shouldered some of the blame, saying he might be asking Harris to do too much.
“You need to look a little bit at me and what I’m asking him to do as well, and trying to push the envelope a little bit,” McElwain said. “That’s how we’re going to be offensively as we continue to grow. He’s probably handled and done as good a job with his skill set as far as helping some of those things moving forward. Yet, he’s learning. He’s there, he’s engaged. He’s our quarterback and I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
McElwain closed the open portion of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, a sign he might be making tweaks. He has gushed about Alabama’s defense and coach Nick Saban’s ability to take away what every opponent does best.
Saban glossed over Florida’s numerous offensive weaknesses and even said Harris reminds him of former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims.
“This is an outstanding team that we’re playing,” Saban said. “They wouldn’t be in the SEC championship game if they weren’t. I think anybody out there that thinks this is not going to be a real challenge and a real test for our team. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I really don’t get it.”
Alabama has won four in a row in the series, outscoring Florida 143-47 in those. Given Florida’s recent struggles, this one might not even be that close.
“A lot of people doubting us,” Taylor said. “We just really can’t focus on that. We just have to focus on ourselves and our team and we’ll be fine. As long as we believe in each other, that’s all that matters.”