Southeastern Conference teams with one loss this late in the season are usually regarded as national championship contenders.
But Florida currently sits on the periphery of that conversation despite its 10-1 record and current four-game winning streak. The Gators dropped four spots to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week.
An underwhelming three-game stretch is to blame. The Gators have outscored their past three opponents by a combined score of 53-35 against teams with a combined record of 9-23, including a 20-14 overtime win against 31-point underdog Florida Atlantic last week.
“I don’t know why we do that,” cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “We let inferior opponents stick around, which isn’t a good trait. But we always find a way to come out with the win.”
The Gators will need to turn in a more inspired performance against No. 13 Florida State (9-2) in the Swamp on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN). It marks Florida’s first game against a ranked opponent since taking on then-No. 6 LSU on Oct. 17 and its third game against a ranked opponent this season.
“At the end of the day, winning is winning,” Gators running back Kelvin Taylor said. “We just have to be ready 10 times more this week, and we are going to be ready for them. It can’t get to that point it was last week.”
Florida hopes a tougher opponent is enough to wake up its offense. The unit has been struggling, scoring 18 points per game over the past three contests — down from season average of 27.4 points per game.
A lot of those points have come with the help of the Gators’ defense. Of the offense’s seven touchdown drives over the past three games, three have traveled less than 45 yards.
A struggling offensive line and an inefficient quarterback have proven to be the offense’s biggest problems.
After entering the Vanderbilt game ranked second nationally with a plus-13 turnover margin, the Gators hold a turnover margin of minus-three over the past three weeks. Quarterback Treon Harris, who took over after Will Grier’s suspension for violating the NCAA’s performance-enhancing drug policy, has accounted for six turnovers with four interceptions and two lost fumbles during that time.
“Just really play our game,” Taylor said of the remedy to the offense’s struggles. “ Everything else will just work itself out. I feel like we could be a very great offense.”
The Gators better hope it’s that easy, as they begin a two-game stretch that will define their season. Wins over FSU and Alabama or Ole Miss in the SEC championship game over the next two weeks could lift Florida back into the national championship discussion.
“We’re excited,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “We’re a 10-win football team that’s still got a long way to go in a lot of areas. But part of the key is figuring out how to get wins, even through deficiencies.”
For now, the Gators’ obvious deficiencies have them behind two two-loss teams — No. 9 Stanford and No. 10 Michigan — in the College Football Playoff rankings.
If being behind a pair of two-loss teams isn’t enough motivation to wake up Florida, in-state rival FSU should do it.
The Seminoles have dominated the Gators recently, winning four of their past five meetings. Those four wins have been lopsided, too, coming by a combined score of 113-40.
“The game speaks for itself,” Gators safety Keanu Neal said. “Florida-Florida State, best in the state, who’s going to take it? We’re in the Swamp. We don’t lose in the Swamp. Let’s get it.”