FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A couple weeks ago, this trip to Arkansas looked especially daunting for Florida.
The Razorbacks boast one of the top quarterbacks and running backs in the SEC, had looked spunky through the early part of the season and had a noted reputation of shaking up the league standings in recent Novembers.
And then … Auburn 56, Arkansas 3.
That was two weeks ago. The Razorbacks allowed 632 yards, including 543 rushing yards to the host Tigers.
Auburn rushed for touchdowns of 78, 51 and 31 yards (along with others) and a 45-yard touchdown pass. Arkansas mustered 215 yards of offense.
While one game doesn’t define a team’s season, it’s hard to ignore that result.
It’s hard to look at this game Saturday now and not wonder what Florida’s dominant defense — which ranks second in the country in fewest yards (239.9) and points (11.7) allowed per game — will be able to do. It’s hard to look at that last box score and not see a prime opportunity for the Gators’ sluggish offense to get going against the Razorbacks.
Florida coach Jim McElwain would prefer that his team not draw any conclusions from that Arkansas loss.
“Everybody points at, obviously, what happened in the Auburn game. I think that was kind of an anomaly a little bit,” McElwain said. “It got out of hand. They became a little uncomfortable in what they had to do offensively once they got thundered early. It took them out of their normal game. But, I will say this, they’re physical, they understand what they want to do and how to do it, they’re very sound on both sides of the football.”
The Razorbacks (5-3, 1-3 SEC) climbed as high as No. 16 in the AP Top 25 earlier this season before falling out of the rankings after that debacle against Auburn.
They earned some national attention for their wins over then-ranked TCU (41-38 in Week 2) and Ole Miss (34-30 Week 7). But those wins look a little different now that the Horned Frogs are 4-4 and the Rebels are 3-5.
Against its top competition, Arkansas has struggled.
The Razorbacks lost 45-24 against Texas A&M in Week 4, surrendering 591 offensive yards (including 366 rushing yards). The Aggies ripped off four straight touchdowns from late in the second quarter to the start of the fourth to seize total control of that one.
Against top-ranked Alabama, the Razorbacks fell behind by two early touchdowns and never closed the gap on the way to a 49-30 loss. They gave up 517 yards (including 264 on the ground), but it’s hard to fault any team for stumbling against the Crimson Tide.
And then there was the dismantling against Auburn. The Tigers averaged 9.5 yards per carry for the game in that total evisceration.
“I mean, you can’t really take that much into account just because it’s a new game,” Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “You know, they had a bye week, so they’re gonna come out hard.”
Said defensive end Bryan Cox Jr.: “I really don’t take that into perspective too much because I feel like we’re the Florida Gators and everybody gives us their best shot no matter what. So you can’t really take their last game as what we’re going to see, because we’re going to see something completely different.”
The Gators mostly stuck to the party line this week, and McElwain did raise another good point.
A few good points, actually.
Arkansas had a well-time bye last week to regroup, look at what went wrong and try to fix it before this game. Florida linebackers coach Randy Shannon spent the 2013-14 seasons as an assistant under Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema, and McElwain said Shannon was able to share some insight on how that program would approach its bye week.
“It gives us a little bit of a perspective on what their mindset was during a bye week, how they go about their preparation during that week and obviously the old back to basics thing. Which they’ll come in with that mindset of, ‘Look, we’re going to take this to them,'” McElwain said. “They worked hard on the turnovers circuit, all those type of things. And I think their bye probably came at a good time. I know what kind of pride they have in their program and their organization to come back and prove that, ‘Hey, that was one of those one-hit deals that happened.’
“And at the same time I’m really more concerned about us and how we go about the week of preparation. That’s really what it’s all about.”
The point could be made that Florida (6-1, 4-1) hasn’t been tested all that much yet and still has plenty to prove. The Gators rolled over both Kentucky (before it got hot) and a bad Missouri team, lost on the road at Tennessee, snuck past Vanderbilt and picked up a good neutral-site win over Georgia last week.
As for Arkansas, McElwain highlighted the team’s offensive playmakers — quarterback Austin Allen (2,048 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) and running back Rawleigh Williams III (807 rushing yards, 5 TDS) rank among the SEC’s leaders.
He talked about the Razorbacks’ success in November the last two years when they posted big back-to-back shutout wins at home over ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams in 2014 and then went 3-1 in the month overall in 2015, again with notable wins over Ole Miss and LSU.
Finally, he mentioned how none of his Florida players have ever played in Fayetteville and the environment here.
Those are all valid points and the ones he’d like his team to focus on heading into this game.
Somewhere in their back of their mind, though, they also know they are playing a team that lost 56-3 in its last game. That’s no indicator of what will happen Saturday, but it’s hard to forget.
“As players, as students of the game, we watched a lot of film on that, and the way our confidence is and what we believe, we’re the best defense in the country,” Gators defensive end Jordan Sherit said. “So if Auburn is able to play like that, we should be able to play like that and play even better. So we’re going to study that game and try to have the same effect that they had.”