Every road trip is the same.
There’s the beginning, when it’s fun and exciting. You have a world of experiences in front of you and don’t know what’s going to happen.
Then there’s the settling phase. When the conversation and feverishness die down. You put your headphones in and try to fall asleep. This is where you settle in for the long haul.
But then there’s the end. The homestretch. This is the longest phase. After you’ve slept every possible wink, and you're on the fifth loop of your favorite playlist.
After an exciting start to the season with comeback wins, national attention and backup quarterback Kyle Trask’s coming out party, Florida settled in for back-to-back top-10 matchups. It played well and maintained a top-10 ranking. But its third ranked matchup against Georgia on Nov. 2 will mark the beginning of the end. The homestretch of the 2019 season. And it needs to be healthy if it’s going to finish strong.
The Gators have been without two of their best defensive linemen in edge rusher Jonathan Greenard and tackle Jabari Zuniga. Coach Dan Mullen said after Saturday’s game that they're on track to make their return the week leading up to the matchup with Georgia.
The game against South Carolina also saw star cornerback C.J. Henderson and defensive tackle Marlon Dunlap Jr. go down with injuries. They should all be back — and they better be — because it will be a long rest of the season if the injuries continue to linger.
“We’ve got a bye week. A chance to hopefully get some guys healthy," Mullen said. "We’ve got a big break and have got a big three-game stretch after the bye to try to win the SEC East."
When healthy, UF’s defense stacks up with any in the country. It showed that with a 10-sack performance against Miami in Week 0 and holding then-No. 7 Auburn to 13 points.
But if the injuries continue, this team is in some trouble.
We saw a sneak peak of how a shorthanded UFs’ defense looked up against LSU when it gave up 42 points and 511 yards of total offense.
Not good enough. Not good enough to beat Georgia. Not good enough to make the SEC Championship. Not good enough to make the College Football Playoff, and if that’s not where this team has its sights set, then why even suit up?
“I think that’s what we build this defense on: fighting and never giving up and relentless effort,” defensive end Zach Carter said. “It was a rough little stretch, but I think we handled it well. We’ll continue to build off of this, because we know we’re in control of our own destiny, so we know what we have ahead of us.”
The Gators are in the home stretch. And this team, if it can hold on and stay healthy, is good enough to do what it set out to do. But they need all hands on the wheel, because it’s still a long way until they get to their destination.
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edge rusher Jonathan Greenard has missed Florida's last two games, and its defense has struggled without him.