The last time the Florida football team cracked the top 10 of the national rankings everything soon unraveled.
That was last year near the end of a 10-1 start. An already sputtering offense collapsed as the Gators needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic before finishing with three straight lopsided losses, to Florida State in the regular-season finale (27-2), Alabama in the SEC championship game (29-15) and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl (41-7).
Well, the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) jumped to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 this week and are coming off a lackluster offensive performance last weekend.
But the situation seems significantly different this time.
These Gators are surging on the strength of one of the country’s top defenses, coming off a pair of lopsided wins over Missouri (40-14) and Georgia (24-10) and hoping to push their way into the College Football Playoff after checking in at No. 11 in the initial CFP rankings.
That, and coach Jim McElwain hopes his players took some lessons from the end of last season.
“There’s things we studied in the offseason to kind of figure some of that out,” he said. “I think what it comes down to is a want and a care to define who you are. That’s what it really is.”
Added center Cam Dillard: “That’s something that we keep in the back of our minds. You want to start the season strong and finish strong. That’s what we preach all offseason, is finishing. That’s what we’re going to try to do throughout the remainder of the season, is finish.”
The Gators will get another chance to continuing defining what kind of team they are Saturday at Arkansas as they visit Fayetteville, Ark., for the first time since 2008. Florida leads the all-time series 9-1, including a 30-10 win in Gainesville in 2013 the last time the teams met.
The Razorbacks (5-3, 1-3 SEC) are coming off a bye week following a humbling 56-3 loss at Auburn and will have plenty of their own motivation for a strong showing Saturday.
Here’s a thorough look at how the teams stack up:
Florida: Luke Del Rio played the role of game manager against Georgia last weekend, shaking off a bad interception early with a conservative passing performance the rest of the way as the Gators leaned on their defense and rushing attack. The first-year starter finished 15-of-25 passing for a season-low 131 yards, 1 touchdown and that 1 pick. According to Pro Football Focus, Del Rio didn’t attempt one pass that traveled 20 yards or more in the air. With as good as Florida’s defense is, it’s understandable to want to limit turnover potential on the offensive side, but the Gators would like to get a little more out of their quarterback moving forward.
Arkansas: Austin Allen is tied for the SEC lead with 18 touchdown passes (with 7 interceptions) and ranks third in the conference with 2,051 passing yards. That included a 371-yard performance against Texas A&M and a career-high 400 yards against top-ranked Alabama. The 6-foot-1 junior was briefly forced to the sideline during the Razorbacks’ loss at Auburn with a knee injury, but he was back at practice this week and is on track to play.
Florida: Florida fans got their wish last week as Jordan Scarlett (26 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown) and Lamical Perine (15-33) split carries. It wasn’t because the coaches were ready to move on from the team’s running back by committee approach, though, but rather out of necessity as Mark Thompson was suspended for the game and Jordan Cronkrite was not with the team while pondering his future with the program. Those two are back this week, but it’s uncertain how involved they will be in the game plan. Scarlett (93-468-6) and Perine (63-333-1) have been the team’s best rushers this fall regardless.
Arkansas: Rawleigh Williams III is a load at 5-foot-10, 226 pounds and ranks four in the SEC in rushing with 807 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was held to just 22 yards on 13 attempts in that forgettable loss to Auburn, but he had rumbled for 180 yards on 27 carries the previous week against Ole Miss. Touted freshman Devwah Whaley has not been as much of a factor this fall as some expected while rushing for 317 yards on 57 carries, but he has great upside.
Florida: The receiving crew is not to blame for Florida’s slumping passing game. In Antonio Callaway (27 catches for 441 yards and 2 TDs), Brandon Powell (25-218-2) and emerging true freshman Tyrie Cleveland (7-137-1 over the last 4 games), the Gators have capable playmakers. Tight end DeAndre Goolsby (26-216-1) is still playing through a fractured finger, but fellow tight end C’yontai Lewis had a breakout performance last week with two big catches and his first touchdown of the season. There remains potential in this Florida aerial attack.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a number of notable playmakers in the receiving corps. Drew Morgan ranks fifth in the SEC with 41 receptions, tallying 420 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Keon Hatcher (28-435-5) and Jared Cornelius (24-465-4) are big-play threats. Cornelius has gone for a first down or touchdown on 16 of his last 17 touches and had a streak of three consecutive 100-yard receiving games earlier in the season. Meanwhile, 6-foot-6 tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (20-215-4) has 8 touchdown catches in his last 11 games dating back to last season.
Florida: The numbers were not great last week as Florida averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against Georgia and allowed a season-high 3 sacks, yet the coaching staff was very high on the performance of the offensive line. That had a lot to do with how the Gators closed the game, possessing the ball for 10 minutes, 30 seconds of the fourth quarter and running out the clock with clutch pick-ups on fourth-and-1 and third-and-3. And that the unit has only given up 9 sacks all season is definitely an improvement from the FBS-worst 46 Florida allowed last year. There is still room to grow here, but the Gators have something to build on with all five of their main linemen healthy.
Arkansas: Senior Dan Skipper has made 42 consecutive starts and presents a unique matchup challenge as a 6-foot-10, 319-pound left tackle. Junior center Frank Ragnow (6-5, 319) is another veteran with 21 consecutive starts. They are jointed by sophomore left guard Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 318), junior right guard Jake Raulerson (6-4, 301) and sophomore right tackle Brian Wallace (6-6, 335). The line has been vulnerable to pressure, though. Arkansas has given up 21 sacks already, and Pro Football Focus’ data show that Allen has been the most pressured quarterback in the country.
Florida: The Gators seem committed to rotating a number of players through the defensive line. Part of that has to do with the fact that starting nose tackle Joey Ivie and starting defensive ends Jordan Sherit and Bryan Cox Jr. all returned from injury last game after missing time. Sherit and Cox, in particular, may continue to have their snaps limited, but the group certainly did its job in helping to shut down Georgia’s respected rushing attack last week, holding the Bulldogs to just 21 yards on 19 carries. Veteran defensive tackle Caleb Brantley is one of the league’s most disruptive interior linemen even if his season stats are modest (13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hurry) and redshirt-freshman end Jabari Zuniga (team-high 5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 6 quarterback hurries) is having a breakout season.
Arkansas: Arkansas is experienced on this side of the line, starting three seniors and one junior. Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. has 10 sacks in his last 13 games. Overall this fall, he has 36 tackles, 3 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Fellow senior Taiwan Johnson has started 34 straight games and has 16 career tackles for loss, including 3 in 2016. And senior defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter has a team-high 3.5 sacks.
Florida: Jarrad Davis put on quite a performance last week despite being a game-time decision with a significant ankle sprain. He led the Gators with 7 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, and there are any number of adjectives one could use to describe his value to this defense. Overall he has 55 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 pass break-ups and 4 quarterback hurries this fall and has formed a formidable duo with Alex Anzalone (45 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 6 quarterback hurries, 2 pass break-ups).
Arkansas: Brooks Ellis, a senior, leads the Razorbacks with 57 total tackles and has 4 tackles for loss, an interception, 3 pass break-ups and 2 quarterback hurries. The Razorbacks list junior Khalia Hackett atop the depth chart at strong-side linebacker this week, though he has not made a start this season. They are still trying to fill the void of injured starter Dre Greenlaw, who remains out with a foot injury. Linebacker is one of the team’s thinnest positions, and obviously, the Razorbacks were exposed a bit with no answers against Auburn’s rushing attack two weekends ago.
Florida: Speaking of dynamic duos, they don’t get any better than Florida cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. The pair has combined for 7 interceptions and 2 touchdowns this season and helped hold promising Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason to 15-of-33 passing for 143 yards and a touchdown last weekend. Meanwhile, nickelback Duke Dawson is coming off his best game of the season and veteran safety Marcus Maye (38 tackles, 1 interception, 5 pass break-ups) is ever dependable. Between the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary, it is no secret how Florida has been so dominant defensively.
Arkansas: Jared Collins (4 pass break-ups) and Henre’ Toliver (2 interceptions, 5 pass break-ups) start at corner for the Razorbacks, while free safety Josh Liddell (41 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble) has been a steady playmaker this fall. Arkansas has been respectable against the pass this year, giving up 206.2 passing yards per game.
Florida: Johnny Townsend enters the weekend third in the country in punting, averaging 47.6 yards per attempt. It’s not just the booming leg, though. His touch in pinning opponents deep in their own territory (15 punts inside the 20) has been a real asset for Florida in the field position battle. Rookie kicker Eddy Pineiro is 10-of-14 on field goals. And senior Chris Thompson is now getting a look as the Gators’ kick returner after impressing coaches with a 32-yard return last week.
Arkansas: Adam McFain, one of two kickers the team has used this season, is 4-of-4 on field goals. Punter Toby Baker is averaging a solid 45.6 yards per punt. Cornelius (6.5 yards per return) and Morgan (11.3) have handled punt returns while Dominique Reed (17.9) and Deon Stewart (19.6) have manned kickoff returns. The special teams unit has not produced a return touchdown this fall.
While they are coming off a dismal performance in their last game, the Razorbacks are a capable SEC West opponent that could certainly cause Florida trouble with the right breaks.
Arkansas’ offensive playmakers pose an intriguing matchup for Florida’s vaunted defense — they racked up 473 yards and 25 first downs against Alabama — but ultimately, the edge remains with the Gators.
The key, as always, is whether Florida’s offense can do its part. As evidenced by the blowout loss to Auburn, the Razorbacks are no juggernaut defensively.
Look for Del Rio and company to be a little more productive than they were a week ago, try to follow Auburn’s lead and attack Arkansas on the ground and ultimately get the job done in Fayetteville.
Overall, Arkansas comes into the game ranked 60th nationally in total offense (416.8 yards per game), 54th in scoring (30.9 points per game), 88th in total defense (428 YPG) and 92nd in scoring defense (31.4 PPG).
Florida is 2nd nationally in total defense (239.9 YPG) and scoring defense (11.7 PPG), 75th in total offense (398.6 YPG) and 67th in scoring (29.4 PPG).
The Gators can continue to boost their national profile with a solid win this weekend. A loss, of course, would end the team’s hopes for a College Football Playoff berth.