Coming off a second straight disappointing defeat, Florida suddenly finds itself in a very unfamiliar position.
Trying to avoid losing three straight for the first time in 11 years, the 22nd-ranked Gators hope to continue their dominance over Mississippi State in Gainesville on Saturday night.
After suffering a 31-6 loss to then-No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 2, Florida (4-2, 2-2 SEC) lost to then-No. 12 LSU 33-29 last Saturday. The two defeats dropped the Gators, who had won 27 of 28 prior to this stretch, 15 places in the rankings from No. 7. They haven’t lost three in a row since the 1999 season.
“It’s a stressful time,” linebacker Brandon Hicks said. “It’s kind of a delicate situation. For the older guys, it’s been two years since we lost an in-season game, back in ’08.”
The loss to the Tigers was especially painful.
After taking a 29-26 lead on Mike Gillislee’s 5-yard run with 3:21 left, LSU scored the winning TD with 6 seconds remaining. The Tigers’ winning drive was kept alive by a successful fake field goal with 35 seconds remaining.
“Some things just don’t fall the way you want them to,” Hicks said. “The good thing is that we still have that spark of light at the end of the tunnel and we can still succeed in some of the goals we have set. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Facing Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2) could be a good way for Florida to dig itself out of this hole.
The Gators defeated the Bulldogs 29-19 last season and have won the last two meetings since a 38-31 loss in 2004. Florida has also won 16 straight over Mississippi State in Gainesville since losing 18-13 in 1965.
Despite their struggles at Florida Field, the Bulldogs feel this is a game they can win.
“I’m not trying to be cocky, but we know we can win,” said Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, who had two interceptions in last year’s meeting. “We’ve got to go out and do what we do. I feel like we’ve got one of the best teams in the country when we’re playing well.”
The Bulldogs arrive at Florida riding a three-game winning streak - their longest since 2007 - but while the Gators have played two of the nation’s premier programs the last two weeks, Mississippi State is coming off a 49-16 victory over Alcorn State on Oct. 2 and a 47-24 win at Houston last Saturday.
The Bulldogs, seeking their first four-game winning streak since reeling off eight straight in 1999, haven’t played a conference game since beating Georgia 24-12 on Sept. 25.
“We’ve got to get back adjusted to the speed (of the SEC),” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Florida’s one of the fastest teams, if not the fastest team, in the country. They’re loaded with talent.”
Mullen should know, because he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator from 2005-08, helping the Gators win two national championships. Mullen also recruited and coached Florida quarterback John Brantley, who is expected to play despite having bruised ribs and a sprained thumb.
Brantley and the offense have had trouble getting on track this season.
The Gators are 11th in the SEC in total offense, averaging 323.7 yards, and have six turnovers in the two losses. They’ve also failed to reach 100 running yards in the last two games, and leading rusher Jeff Demps sat out last weekend with a sprained foot. Demps’ status for this game is uncertain.
“We’re struggling right now,” Meyer said. “We have to get everybody healthy and rolling.”
Florida’s rush defense is also having problems - yielding an average of 165.5 yards in the last two games - and it could have more trouble trying to stop a potent Mississippi State ground game.
The Bulldogs rolled up 409 rushing yards against Houston, their most since gaining 464 in a 1992 win over Arkansas State. Vick Ballard, the SEC leader with 12 touchdowns, ran for a career-best 134 yards and three TDs.