For most SEC teams, Week 12 set up nicely as a glorified bye week. Florida didn’t seem to get the memo.
The eighth-ranked Gators needed overtime to escape visiting Florida Atlantic 20–14 in Gainesville. For most of the afternoon coach Jim McElwain’s roster looked little like the team that still has a shot at making the College Football Playoff and more like the anemic offenses of McElwain’s predecessor, Will Muschamp.
Florida survived, but anyone who watched McElwain’s program Saturday knows the Gators must turn things around to have chance the next few weeks. Otherwise a remarkable season in Gainesville will end on a very disappointing note.
Florida ended regulation tied 14–14 with Florida Atlantic, and the Gators nearly gave the game away after its first series in overtime. Quarterback Treon Harris hit Jake McGee with a 13-yard pass for a go-ahead touchdown to begin the extra period. But Florida Atlantic defensive end Trey Hendrickson blocked Austin Hardin’s extra point attempt. That left McElwain wincing on the sideline and the Owls just a touchdown and an made extra point away from winning the game.
But the Gators’ defense came up big—as it had for most of the game—during Florida Atlantic’s overtime possession. Facing a fourth-and-goal at the Florida 12, Owls quarterback Jaquez Johnson threw an incomplete pass intended for Jenson Stoshak in the end zone, sealing the Gators’ tight win.
Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t mince words in his postgame interview with the SEC Network’s Laura Rutledge. “They took it to us,” McElwain told Rutledge. “They probably deserved to win." But McElwain quickly added, “We still have 10 wins, don’t we?”
McElwain’s point is this: Every win looks the same in the standings. Florida had already clinched the SEC East, and now McElwain has the most wins (10) of any first-year Gators coach. But the standings aren’t what matter now for Florida, and every win doesn’t look the same in the eyes of the playoff selection committee.
The Gators can still hypothetically contend for a spot in the four-team bracket, but they’d need a few breaks to fall their way. First, they must beat Florida State next week in the Swamp and upset a dangerous Alabama squad in the SEC title game on Dec. 5. Those two wins would likely cause voters to forget Saturday’s dismal performance, but a dominant victory over a near-40-point underdog still would have helped. Instead, the Gators made viewers question just how good they really are.
But with two major tests on the horizon, now is no longer to time to worry about impressing the selection committee. A different Florida team must show up to survive the Seminoles and Crimson Tide. On Saturday, Florida Atlantic outgained Florida 299 yards to 252—the Gators managed just 69 yards by halftime—and frustrated Harris and the rest of the Gators’ offense to two of 13 on third downs. Harris faced consistent pressure and completed just eight of 17 passes for 122 yards with two touchdowns. Florida’s offensive ineptitude allowed the Owls to stick around despite committing three turnovers. In reality, Florida was lucky to earn a win Saturday.
That kind of performance won’t be enough the next two weeks. The Crimson Tide, for instance, boast the nation’s most imposing front seven and rank third nationally in yards allowed per play at 4.2. Their defensive line could very well eat this Florida offensive line for lunch. Even on its best day, Florida might not survive going toe-to-toe with Alabama
McElwain knows his team’s margin for error is thin. The Gators already dropped one loss this season, a 35–28 setback at LSU in October. That result doesn’t look nearly as impressive as it once did now that the Tigers have dropped two straight games. That’s why Florida’s playoff hopes rest on avoiding more performances like the one it produced Saturday. If that bungling Gators squad faces off against the ‘Noles or the Tide, McElwain can kiss his playoff hopes goodbye.