Mike Bianchi: Gators lose to Arkansas because, sadly, Arkansas has more talent

The text came late in the fourth quarter after big, burly Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson had just run for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Razorbacks a 4-point lead on Florida.

“The Gators better get their s–t together,” said the message from a longtime friend and UF fan. “How can we be losing to Arkansas?”

My response was short and not so sweet.

“Because the Gators are Arkansas.”

Or at least they are in the same weight class as Arkansas.

As much as Florida fans don’t want to hear or accept the ugly reality, it really shouldn’t be so surprising that embattled coach Billy Napier’s Gators lost 39-36 in overtime at home to a bunch of Hogs that, until Saturday, had lost six straight games and been winless in the SEC.

Yes, the Gators have more tradition, more potential and a better recruiting base than Arkansas, but right now they are much closer to Arkansas than Alabama. They are just another mid- to low-level SEC program that is good enough to rise up and win an occasional big game but bad enough to lose against virtually any team they play.

We saw it last year when they beat highly ranked Utah early in the season and then lost to lowly Vanderbilt near the end of the season. And now we’re seeing it again this year. The Gators beat Tennessee earlier this season at home and then they came out Saturday and lost at the Swamp to Arkansas.

The Razorbacks may have been winless in the SEC, but when you watched the game did it really feel like Florida was defeated by a less-talented team? Arkansas lost to Alabama and LSU by 3 points apiece and lost to Ole Miss by 7. If you ask me, Arkansas actually looked more talented than Florida on Saturday.

Florida’s banged-up defense simply could not tackle Jefferson, the Razorbacks’ 6-foot-3, 247-pound dual-threat quarterback. Not only did Jefferson throw for 255 yards and two touchdowns, he ran for 92 yards and a score and set up the game-winning touchdown in OT with a 20-yard run in which he knocked several UF defenders on their derrières.

It should tell you something about Florida’s talent level and quality of defensive depth when Arkansas — with an offense ranked last in the SEC and 122nd in the country — can compile a season-high 481 yards against UF. In Arkansas’ last game — a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State — the Razorbacks had four first downs and 78 yards in the first half and fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos after the game..

Of course, many Gators fans are obviously upset. They booed Napier during the game and the social media mob is once again calling for the coach to be fired.

In today’s hot-take, hits-and-clicks, fire-the-coach world, I feel almost out-of-step for continuously saying Napier is going to need some time and patience if he is to succeed at Florida. I feel like a lone troubadour being drowned out by a chorus of clanging cymbals when I say it would be nonsensical to hire a coach and give him a seven-year, $52 million contract — and then fire him after his second season.

Napier is going to have to keep his upcoming No. 3-ranked class of recruiting commitments together and continue to stack highly ranked recruiting classes together (see Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban.) in the future. I believe UF’s administration is smart enough to realize this. In fact, I don’t think UF’s struggles this season are totally unexpected within the program. Before the season, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin told me flat-out: “I don’t see any way that Billy won’t be successful. It just may take a little longer than some people want it to take.”

Translation: This could be another subpar year.

Napier, when asked Saturday how he preaches patience to Gator Nation after losing to Arkansas, replied: “It’s not my job to preach patience. It’s my job to coach the team and lead those young men in the locker room. When you lose games, there’s going to be criticism. It comes with the territory.”

Not that Napier doesn’t deserve some criticism. The Gators continue to make inexplicable blunders on special teams. They muffed an extra point in the third quarter that could have been the difference in the game. And then kicker Trey Smack missed a potential game-winning 44-yard field goal at the end of the regulation that would have been 5 yards closer if not for an illegal-substitution penalty when UF’s Keystone Cops kicking team scurried onto the field as the offense was still trying to line up to spike the ball with a few seconds left.

Unfortunately for Napier (and Stricklin), the criticism will likely increase in the coming weeks if Florida, as expected, loses its final three games — at No. 13 LSU, at No. 14 Missouri and at home against No. 4 Florida State — and fails to qualify for a bowl.

After losing to Arkansas at home for the first time in school history, Stricklin’s summertime quote about Napier’s rebuild — “It may take a little longer than some people want it to take” — couldn’t have been more eerily prophetic.