BATON ROUGE, La. — The Gators are moving in an opposite direction after a promising start to the season.
Florida sat at 5-2 heading into an Oct. 28 matchup with the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs. The matchup resulted in a 20-point drubbing in Jacksonville. Next, the Gators returned home and lost in overtime to an Arkansas team that was 0-5 in the SEC heading into the game.
Already licking its wounds, UF headed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take on the rival then-No. 18 LSU Tigers.
Florida competed in the offensive shootout for as long as it could, but LSU quarterback Jayden Daniel’s Heisman moment ended in the Gators’ third straight loss. The Gators (5-5, 3-4 SEC) lost 52-35 against the Tigers (7-3, 5-2 SEC) in Tiger Stadium Nov. 11.
Daniels ran for 241 yards and passed for another 372, making him the first SEC quarterback since Johnny Manziel to have more than 200 yards passing and rushing the ball in a game.
Florida surrendered 701 yards of offense against LSU, a new program record. The Gators’ failure to contain Daniels doomed them in a game where the UF offense needed to keep up with the Bayou Bengals.
Florida head coach Billy Napier emphasized the growing pains defensively with the number of true freshmen and young players getting significant playing time.
“We’re probably playing more young players than anybody in America,” Napier said. “There’s some issues that come with that.”
The direction the Gators go from here is unclear. With No. 11 Missouri and undefeated No. 4 Florida State on the horizon, Florida has a real chance of finishing the season on a five-game losing streak and going 5-7.
“We have to be relentless in finding an edge, relentless in seeking improvement, right, and taking experience and learning and growing from that, knowing that there’s going to be other opportunities,” Napier said.
If UF were to finish with a losing record for the third season in a row, it would be the first time since Florida achieved three consecutive losing seasons since 1945-1947.
The Gators can end their season on a high note with a win against either Missouri or the rival Seminoles to secure bowl eligibility and end the season with a signature win over a top-ranked team.
However, that is easier said than done. The Gators' defense will have to fix itself quickly. Florida surrendered at least 35 points or more in its last four games. Opposing offenses are getting almost whatever they want against UF, and the bleeding doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.
Florida’s offense has worked to keep the team in games. But even UF’s 488 yards of total offense wasn’t enough to stave off a double-digit loss to LSU.
To make matters worse for a reeling Florida program, the team’s 2024 recruiting class — UF’s beacon of hope — took a hit. During the game, edge rusher Jamonta Waller, a top 100 four-star, announced on Twitter that he flipped his commitment from UF to Auburn.
Florida may be in freefall, but there is still time to save the season. An upset win over a top-ranked team to secure a bowl game would be big in year two of Napier. The Gators stumbled in recruiting after Waller flipped, but there are still prized players who are uncommitted.
The Gators' path to getting back where they can compete with the elite in the SEC is still possible, but with each loss, the team feels further from the program that was once a perennial contender under Urban Meyer.
Many great college football programs have been lost in the wilderness before turning things around.
FSU suffered several losing seasons, including two under current head coach Mike Norvell. The Noles have righted the ship, however, and after a 10-win season last year, are currently 10-0 and look poised for the College Football Playoff.
On the flip side, programs like Southern California and Miami have seen glimpses of success but have failed to regain the prominence the two programs held when they were annual contenders in the early 2000s.
The Gators will need to decide which path they want to take soon. Patience is needed when relying on recruits a head coach brings in to be the difference makers. But in the top-heavy SEC, too many, though, can set a program back to the middle of the pack.
“We have work to do, OK, and we’re up for the challenge,” Napier said. “For us to go where we want to go here, as an organization, as a program, as a team, every single part of our organization is going to have to work their tail off.”
Florida will stay on the road and head to Columbia, Missouri, to take on Missouri in its next game. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. and be broadcast on ESPN.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.