Tigers again expose UF's soft spots

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

GAINESVILLE - Relax, the season is not yet over for Florida.

Just the illusion.

The illusion that this team, somehow, was a new and improved version of the outfit that won the 2006 national championship. The illusion that next weekend's game at LSU was certain to be a preview of the SEC Championship Game.

The illusion that all the world's ills could be solved by Tim Tebow.

Florida fell Saturday night, and it fell hard.

The temptation is to say this was like last season. The temptation is to look at Auburn's 20-17 upset of Florida, and say it was a carbon copy of 2006 when the Tigers sneaked past the Gators.

But this was worse. This was far worse.

To begin with, this was at Florida Field, where the Gators had not lost during the Urban Meyer era. And, instead of simply knocking the Gators from the unbeaten ranks, this one laid bare some serious flaws on UF's roster.

"We're supposed to be a pretty good offense but we couldn't get first downs, we couldn't keep the defense off the field," Meyer said. "That's a concern of mine. That's the first time this year we were put in that situation and we didn't handle it very well."

For a moment, forget the polls. Forget the SEC standings.

Forget that, on the eve of October, USF is looking like the best college football team in the state.

The real issue today is whether the Gators have enough talent - and time - to recover and play meaningful games in November and beyond. Because, today, that is certainly in doubt.

For instance, the Gators have essentially become a two-person offense with Tebow and Percy Harvin. Between rushing and passing, Tebow accounted for 276 of Florida's 312 offensive yards. And Harvin's leaping catch over a defender in the fourth quarter set up UF's tying touchdown.

But when the Gators were handed a chance to take a lead in the game's final minutes, Harvin and Tebow came up short. A screen to Harvin on first down was turned into a 6-yard loss and Florida went three and out from its 42.

"It's heartbreaking. It's hard to even put in words," Tebow said. "We had opportunities to win the game."

Instead, Auburn continues to haunt Florida's dreams. Georgia has not been a factor for more than a decade. Tennessee has tumbled and Florida State has dropped several notches. Only Auburn has remained constant as a true thorn in the side of the Gators. This was the fifth time since 1993 that Auburn has upset Florida when the Gators were ranked in the Top 5.

"You feel like you're not just letting the team down but the fans and Gator Nation down too," Tebow said. "It's a bad feeling. It's tough."

If the UF offense is limited to two playmakers, the defense has even fewer. Particularly in the secondary, where the Gators were carved up by Brandon Cox, a quarterback who was near the bottom of the SEC standings in pass efficiency.

If you're not convinced of the urgency of the matter, think of it this way:

Half of Florida's first four games were against Troy and Western Kentucky, and the Gators were still 82nd in the nation in pass defense. Just wondering aloud, but do you suppose LSU, Georgia and South Carolina might be tougher tests?

In some ways, this dilemma makes perfect sense.

The Gators lost nine defensive starters from last season. Five of them are now in the NFL. Florida should have expected a big dropoff on defense, but the Gators managed to overcome it fairly well for several weeks.

It's not like they were atrocious on Saturday. Even with two freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary, they did not give up as many big plays as they did against Mississippi. But the Tigers were able to slowly, methodically, move down the field because the defensive backs had too many blown coverages.

The scary part is there wasn't an offensive guru standing on the other sideline. And there wasn't a hot-shot NFL prospect firing passes to Auburn receivers. This was a mediocre offensive team that came into Florida Field and won the battle for possession time, failed to turn the ball over and gained more total yards than the supposedly potent Gators.

In other words, this might happen again.

And again.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.