- Florida gained just 263 total yards and failed to score an offensive touchdown as it fell to Arkansas 31–10.
Florida may remain in pole position to win the SEC East, but its Saturday performance gave fans and pundits little reason to believe the No. 11 Gators are a threat for the SEC title. Coach Jim McElwain’s squad suffered 31–10 loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Nov. 19 tilt at LSU (which moved from Gainesville after Hurricane Matthew) is now a must-win game for the Gators.
Here are three thoughts on the Razorbacks’ surprisingly easy win.
1. Florida’s offense was dreadful
McElwain was hired away from Colorado State to boost a offense that had descended from dysfunctional to downright abysmal under former head coach Will Muschamp. After logging 263 total yards and 12 (!) rushing yards Saturday, the Gators showed that an efficient offense may be at least another year away.
McElwain has had to rely on two quarterback transfers (Luke Del Rio and Austin Appelby), neither of whom has inspired more than an occasional glimmer of hope. Both have struggled to get the ball to top playmaker Antonio Callaway.
On Saturday, the Gators couldn’t establish a running game and Del Rio spent most of the contest either fleeing pressure or overthrowing receivers. The performance could be summarized in one stat: With seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Florida had run one play in Arkansas territory (an interception).
The suspension and subsequent transfer of quarterback Will Grier last season may have hampered the Gators’ offense, but their performance against the Razorbacks elicited memories of the Muschamp days that so many fans yearn to forget. McElwain is a proven offensive mind who should improve the unit in time, but Saturday was a bitter, familiar display from a program that has struggled to score reliably since Urban Meyer left the program in 2010.
2. Rawleigh Williams bowled over Florida’s esteemed defense
While most of the conference is converting to speedier, spread-style attacks (Andy Staples described Alabama’s evolution in detail), Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema remains committed to recruiting beefy offensive linemen and running backs for his pro-style offense. Bielema went into Miami to poach Alex Collins away from the hometown Hurricanes and turned him into a running back with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He also went into Dallas and signed Rawleigh Williams, who inched toward the 1,000-yard mark with a dominant 148-yard, two-touchdown outing against the Gators on Saturday.
After struggling in the Razorbacks’ 56–3 rout at the hands of Auburn, Williams bulldozed Florida behind his mammoth offensive line. Williams, Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway and Texas’s D’Onta Foreman have proven that bigger backs still have plenty of value in an era when most offenses are getting sleeker and smaller.
3. The SEC East is having (another) forgettable season
At some point, the SEC West may begin campaigning to get two teams into the conference’s championship game. Saturday’s loss aside, Florida has proven that it has the defense to limit some of the conference’s best offenses, but the SEC East has virtually nothing else to advertise. Tennessee logged exciting wins against Georgia and the Gators to in the first half of the season but has been decimated by injuries and is below .500 in conference play. Despite returning two revered running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Georgia has regressed more than any other team in the SEC under first-year head coach Kirby Smart.
The point? There are four SEC West teams (Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU) that are decidedly better than every team in the SEC East. And today, the fifth-place SEC West team (Arkansas) handily beat the SEC East favorite (Florida). The Gators are now in danger of being caught by a resurgent Kentucky team that few expected to escape the division cellar this season.
If Florida recruits and develops its talent properly, it should be a conference favorite for years to come. That doesn’t make Saturday’s loss, or the prospect of being tied with Kentucky for the division lead, any easier to endure.