Why Florida vs. Arkansas is so pivotal for Gators’ future under Napier

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators’ home game against Arkansas isn’t their biggest of the season. It can’t top the win over Tennessee or the magnitude of last week’s loss to No. 1 Georgia.

It will, however, go down as one of the most important for the long-term trajectory of Billy Napier’s program. That’s because bowl eligibility might be at stake.

“I think there’s an element to that,” Napier said Monday. “Certainly that could happen this week.”

If it doesn’t happen this week, it probably won’t happen at all. The Gators’ final three games look like the toughest of any team in the nation: at No. 13 LSU, at No. 14 Missouri and home against No. 4 Florida State. It’s foolhardy to assume Florida will go 0-3 in that stretch. College football is an unpredictable, wild game. If a thrown shoe can cost the Gators a win over LSU, anything can happen.

But beyond this week, Florida’s best shot at a win is at Missouri in what could be a chilly game; ESPN Analytics give the Gators less than a 30% chance of victory.

An upset in any of those final three games would be massive for Florida’s rebuilding process. It would provide onfield momentum to fuel — or protect — an elite recruiting class. It would also be a major selling point for Napier this offseason as he tries to inspire and placate a notoriously impatient fan base.

Though a trip to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl wouldn’t salve the sting of a 6-6 season, it beats the alternative. A loss to Arkansas would boost the likelihood of the Gators suffering through three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1945-47.

The practical impact is crucial, too. Bowl games mean bowl practices, which are critical for young players’ growth. Napier has repeatedly brought up the program’s youth; more than 70% of its scholarship players are in their first or second year at Florida. Napier also stressed the importance of development as he reviewed the 23-point loss to Georgia, both in the immediate aftermath and Monday.

Given those factors, it’s easy to see why even a low-level bowl game would help the Gators build toward a brighter future.

“I do think with the team that we have in particular, that could be beneficial,” Napier said.

A benefit that likely hinges on Saturday’s outcome.

Fourth-down reviews

After reflecting on his unsuccessful fourth-and-short gamble at the Florida 34, Napier said he “can see both sides of it.” That doesn’t mean he regrets the trick play, where running back Trevor Etienne took a direct snap with the option to run or pass. It lost 3 yards and led to a Georgia touchdown.

“I think that play would have worked…” Napier said. “Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Instead of second-guessing the specific play call, Napier said he thought about whether the Gators should have punted while trailing 10-7.

That play was one of two failed fourth-down attempts Florida had against Georgia. The Gators’ conversion rate (41.2%) is tied with Florida Atlantic for 94th nationally.

Napier called Florida’s process “sound” and reiterated the fact that his staff spends “a ton of time” on its holistic approach to strategy in the offseason.

“I do think there’s some subjectiveness to it relative to the current dynamic within the game,” Napier said. “Those are the things that keep you up at night.”

Week 10 kickoffs, TV information

Most kickoff times and TV designations for next week’s games won’t be announced until Sunday. The only cemented information is a noon kickoff for Temple at USF on ESPN+ and an ABC broadcast for Miami at Florida State.

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