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Florida Gators can’t let LSU loss turn into another

UF followed the Georgia loss last year with a bad defeat against Mizzou. It can’t do the same this time.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Florida’s 42-28 loss at LSU on Saturday night was still fresh when Gators coach Dan Mullen began to downplay its significance.

“Next week is a much bigger game than (last) week for us…” Mullen said. “For Florida, next week is always going to be bigger.”

From the national perspective, Mullen is clearly wrong.

The Gators’ trip to South Carolina won’t have the same buzz as a matchup of top-10, unbeaten rivals in one of the sport’s most electric environments. A win over LSU would have given the Gators the two best victories in the country and solidified them as College Football Playoff contenders. Beating Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks probably won’t get UF in the top five, and the Gators would still be a few weeks away from returning to the forefront of the Playoff conversation.

But zoom in, and Mullen’s right.

The Gators’ first goal every year is to win the SEC East. It’s almost impossible to see them doing that with a loss at Williams-Brice Stadium.

The end of UF’s 10-game winning streak didn’t kill the Gators hopes of winning the division, conference or national title. It just eliminated any margin for error.

That means UF can’t suffer a letdown the way it did last year.

The Gators’ worst loss last season wasn’t the streak-ender against Kentucky or the 36-17 beat-down by Georgia. It was what happened the week after the Cocktail Party.

UF fell into the coaching-cliche trap of allowing one loss to turn into two, following the defeat in Jacksonville with a head-scratching 38-17 home loss to unranked Missouri.

“There’s no telling about how a loss bleeds into another one,” center Nick Buchanan said.

There were some explanations for what happened last year. The Tigers had an NFL quarterback (Drew Lock, now with the Broncos). Despite their 8-5 final record, advanced metrics considered Mizzou a top-20 team. UF quarterback Feleipe Franks struggled and was, deservedly, benched.

But UF’s biggest issue was that it didn’t recover quickly enough from Georgia. The Gators took too long to move on from a second consecutive demoralizing loss in Jacksonville. And given the depth of the SEC, that’s a problem.

“Don’t let this one loss defeat us,” receiver Van Jefferson said.

South Carolina is good enough to do that without any help. Just ask Georgia, which lost Saturday to the Gamecocks at home despite a handful of questionable decisions by Muschamp that looked familiar to UF fans.

Saturday night’s loss exposed some fatal flaws UF will have to fix if it wants to have a chance to win the East, either this year or next.

The offense is better than last year and light years ahead of where it was under Muschamp and Jim McElwain, but it’s not good enough to win a shootout against an elite team. An off-season of attrition in the secondary left too many holes that probably can’t be patched this year. As strong as the defense is, it doesn’t yet have the depth along the line to withstand injuries to starters Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard.

But UF has shown that it can beat a very good team (Auburn) and hang with another (LSU). The Gators are good enough to win the division and, maybe, challenge for more than that.

If they learn their lesson from last year and make sure one loss doesn’t bleed into another.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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