Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

New-look Gators arrive at a very familiar crossroads

In retrospect, it was easy to see the cracks in Florida's facade last year well before Alabama brought the whole thing crashing down on the first weekend of October. They go all the way back to the first snap of the season, in fact, which went sailing over new quarterback John Brantley's head in a too-close-for-comfort escape against Miami of Ohio. The 2010 Gators were out of sync and doomed from the start.

The fact is, on the heels of a 30-2 run that included back-to-back SEC East titles, a national title and two BCS bowl wins, Florida was still considered every bit Alabama's equal when that game kicked off. And from just about that point on, the entire program seemed to go into a tailspin that didn't stop until the Gators had lost five of their last eight, dropped three straight SEC games in Gainesville and been trounced by South Carolina and Florida State and forced to replace the entire coaching staff.

New-look Gators arrive at a very familiar crossroadsSo forgive Gator fans if they're not quite convinced by the last month that the ground is any safer at 4-0 now than it was twelve months ago. Not that the early returns aren't encouraging. Brantley is no longer being shoehorned into a spread-option scheme tailor-made for Tim Tebow. Chris Rainey, who missed last year's game, is not only healthy again but thriving as one of the most productive "dual-threat" weapons in the country, inviting comparisons to Percy Harvin; fellow senior Jeff Demps, who was gimpy last year, looks like he's reclaimed his status as the fastest man in college football. The defense is young, but so far ranks ride alongside Alabama's on paper and can still match the Crimson Tide recruiting star for recruiting star. At no point in the first four games has a Florida victory been in doubt, including a 33-23 win over Tennessee that the Gators controlled from the opening possession.

But why get carried away? The Alabama defense coming into the Swamp Saturday night is essentially the same suffocating group that held the Gators to six points last year — and probably could have kept them off the board entirely if necessary —¬†only a year older. 'Bama already has a convincing win in a loud, hostile road environment (over the same team that took Florida wire-to-wire back in January's Outback Bowl. no less), and an even more convincing rout over a more accomplished division rival than Tennessee. By almost any measure, 'Bama still looks like the better team.

Because of that, though, the Crimson Tide are also a perfect gauge for just how far Florida has come from last year's collapse, and just how close it is to reasserting itself among the SEC's upper crust. The consensus today, when the Gators are ranked 12th in both mainstream polls and listed as four-point underdogs at home, is clearly that they're not quite there yet. But they can be by Sunday morning, in large part simply by going the distance where last year's edition went down for the count.

That may fall under the category of "moral victory," but if UF comes out of Saturday night looking like a serious contender to retake the SEC East — with a possible rematch in Atlanta looming in December — it can still get the Gators that much closer to where they want to be. If they come back licking their wounds at the end of another one-sided blowout, "rebuilding mode" is back for the long haul.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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