Sun Oct 16 11:42am EDT
Auburn 17, Florida 6.
Every team approaching a bye week at midseason "needs" the week off, for one reason or another: Injuries, recovering from a big game, preparing for a big game, just getting their feet back underneath them, you name it. But very, very few seem to legitimately need the bye week as much as Florida on the heels of its third consecutive loss, just to continue to field a recognizable team.
Or is it already too late for that? In the 10½ quarters since starting quarterback John Brantley was knocked out of the game against Alabama, the Gators have scored one touchdown, kicked three field goals, committed six turnovers, converted seven third-down attempts, gone three-and-out (or worse) 17 times and punted 18 times. They've connected on four plays covering at least 20 yards. Three red zone opportunities have resulted in two field goals and a turnover on downs. As passers, true freshmen quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are averaging less than five yards per attempt with six turnovers to one touchdown. Tailback Chris Rainey, an emerging star after averaging 156 yards from scrimmage on nearly nine yards per touch in September, is averaging 50 yards on barely three per touch. Backfield mate Jeff Demps has been nonexistent due to injury.
As a team, Florida is in the exact same place it was after seven games last year, heading into the bye week at 4-3 on the heels of three consecutive losses to the SEC West. As an offense, it may be even worse, if that's possible. If it's not, the depressing fact remains: Nothing has changed in the transition to Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis to reverse the Gators' descent into second-class status.
It's alarming to consider that the best hope for halting that trajectory in the short term is the same guy who was largely blamed for it in 2010: John Brantley. Before his injury, the beleaguered senior was vastly more efficient than he'd been as a junior and even delivered flashes of the big-play arm that was once touted as his greatest advantage over Tim Tebow. He did almost as much in a quarter-and-a-half at Alabama (190 yards, one touchdown pass, one sustained drive for a field goal) as his fledgling successors have done in two-and-a-half games (228 yards, one touchdown pass, two sustained drives for field goals) since.
Even when the degree of difficulty dropped against Auburn — the Tigers came into Saturday ranked dead last in the SEC in both pass efficiency and total defense after being shredded in a 38-14 loss at Arkansas — Driskel and Brissett were entirely overmatched. If Brantley's ankle isn't ready for the do-or-die date with Georgia in two weeks, there's no indication at any point over the last three weeks that either of the freshmen's brains will be.
Which leaves one prevailing, unanswerable question between now and the Cocktail Party: If Brantley hadn't gone down against Alabama, would the offense be in any better shape than it is now, three disastrous weeks later? Even if you assume losses against 'Bama and LSU, could he have made the lopsided final scores less depressing? Could he have put the ball in the end zone enough times against Auburn — that is, could he have put the ball in the end zone at all — to escape with a win? Could his arm continue to command enough respect to open up some semblance of a running game? Would the Gators still have their sights on the SEC East title rather than clawing to remain above .500?
Or has his absence just happened to coincide with an inevitable nadir against the toughest stretch of the schedule, which he would have been powerless to prevent? If the running game continues to struggle against Georgia and the defense extends its ongoing turnover drought to four games, will his presence make any significant difference? And if the alternate history of an offense led by a healthy John Brantley is their last, best hope for optimism, do Gator fans really want to know the answers?