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Why this week will help define Florida’s season

If the Gators respond well to the Alabama loss, they can make the playoff. But if not...
The Florida Gators hung with No. 1 Alabama last week but lost. How will they respond against Tennessee?
The Florida Gators hung with No. 1 Alabama last week but lost. How will they respond against Tennessee? [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Sep. 20

The external expectations surrounding No. 11 Florida rose with the Gators’ two-point loss to No. 1 Alabama. By hanging with the reigning national champions, UF went from a team whose ceiling looked to be a New Year’s Six bowl game to one that should go into late October with legitimate College Football Playoff hopes.

From the outside, it looked and felt like a moral victory — a sign that Dan Mullen’s team has a chance to crack the nation’s elite.

Related: All the little things that doomed Florida in a loss to Alabama

But from the inside, it just felt like a loss.

“There wasn’t much praise or happiness or smiles (Monday) morning in the team meeting, I can tell you that much,” Mullen said.

That’s a good sign for the Gators’ long-term prospects, starting Saturday against Tennessee. It means they know that championship teams don’t accept moral victories.

It’s the same message Florida State’s McKenzie Milton tried to get his Seminoles to grasp after the Week 1 heartbreaker to Notre Dame. FSU let one loss turn into two, and now three.

Related: Can former UCF coach Josh Heupel turn Tennessee around? Don’t bet on it.

The Gators made that mistake in 2018. UF followed the Georgia loss with a 38-17 defeat to Missouri that remains the most confounding performance of Mullen’s tenure.

“I think we’re at a little different point as a program than we were right then,” Mullen said.

 Xzavier Henderson and the Gators hung tight with Alabama last week.
Xzavier Henderson and the Gators hung tight with Alabama last week. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

That was evident with how UF entered the game against the Crimson Tide. The Gators did not fear the Alabama aura, even after they fell behind by 18 points and were booed at home.

Related: Matt Baker’s AP top 25 ballot: Florida, Alabama both rise after Saturday’s thriller

They expected to win. And considering how invincible Alabama has looked under Nick Saban, that’s not something to be taken for granted.

“This team has high expectations for themselves,” Mullen said. “You wanted to win that game, and it would have put you in an even better position than we’re in now. … But I imagine we still have a lot of control over how this season’s going to be played out.”

And that’s what makes the Gators’ response so critical. In a season where the usual suspects (Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State) look vulnerable, UF is among the 15 or so teams with viable playoff hopes.

Nick Saban's Crimson Tide look shakier than usual.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide look shakier than usual. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Mullen will get a better sense of UF’s psyche as the week goes on, but a tweet Monday by cornerback Kaiir Elam was a good indication: “Losing NOT acceptable, especially in the Swamp!”

“I feel like we shouldn’t have any sympathy just because we lost by fewer points, even though we were projected to get mopped or whatever…” Elam said Monday afternoon. “I feel like our main focus should be improving and dominating, honestly.”

Given the potential UF showed last week, domination is a fair expectation. Tennessee is a rival in name only; the Gators have won 15 of the last 16 in the series.

A trip to Kentucky next week is tricky but looks less troublesome after the Wildcats squeaked by Tennessee Chattanooga. Vanderbilt is awful. LSU is shaky. That means the schedule is manageable until Halloween weekend in Jacksonville against No. 2 Georgia.

If the Gators respond the right way.

Related: Yes, Alabama is still better than Florida. But will that be true in December?

Injury update

Quarterback Anthony Richardson (hamstring) is expected to keep practicing this week after sitting out against Alabama. Mullen said Richardson’s MRI on Friday was better than UF hoped, but the medical staff was cautious with him because they hoped the rest would allow him to be fully cleared for Tennessee.

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