After Florida, USF and Miami slogged through the college football’s first six weekends, all three begin season-defining two-game stretches Saturday.
The No. 20 Gators travel to LSU and take a week off before playing No. 1 Georgia. USF hosts a pair of middling AAC opponents (Tulsa and Tulane), while the Hurricanes face North Carolina and North Carolina State.
They feasibly could go 6-0, 0-6 or somewhere in the middle. The results, whatever they are, will shape how we view a season that has been a statewide disappointment.
Because the Gators reasonably expect to compete for titles, this season (barring SEC East chaos) will not be a success. But it won’t be a failure, either, if they can win in Tiger Stadium and Jacksonville.
LSU is reeling after back-to-back losses that put coach Ed Orgeron on one of the hottest seats in the country. Then again, the Tigers also were stumbling and injured last year when they knocked off the Gators in Gainesville.
UF hung with one of the sport’s superpowers (Alabama) last month, so it’s not outlandish to think they can contend with Georgia, too, though the Gators will rightfully be underdogs.
If the Gators win both, they’ll have a good shot at beating their four rivals (Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State) in the same year for the first time since 2009. A 3-2 start could turn into a 10-2 mark and another New Year’s Six bowl game. Those are nice consolation prizes and long-term building blocks for a rebuilding year.
But if the Gators lose both, they’re staring at a second straight 8-4 season. A trip to the Outback Bowl — or worse — would cause the pressure, if not heat, to increase around Dan Mullen, especially if his recruiting class doesn’t improve from its current standing (15th).
The next two games are vital for USF, too; if the Bulls don’t win at least one, there’s a decent chance they don’t win again this fall.
Tulsa is the nation’s 73rd team, according to ESPN’s SP+; Temple ranks 105th — 13 spots ahead of USF. Neither the Golden Hurricane nor the Owls are higher than 95th nationally in scoring offense or defense.
If USF can’t beat either team at home, it will be fair to wonder if another win will come. East Carolina has improved, so that Thursday night trip looks tougher. Houston is undefeated in the AAC. Cincinnati is a playoff contender. Tulane on Nov. 20 is winnable but on the road. UCF has won the War on I-4 four times in a row and might be healthy by then.
The next two games, then, mark USF’s best shots at victory. Win one or both, and Jeff Scott will have something positive to sell to players, recruits and fans. Lose both, and USF will be in danger of going back-to-back seasons without a Division I-A win.
The stakes are higher in Coral Gables. Despite a 2-3 start that has coach Manny Diaz’s job in jeopardy, Miami can still make a run in a mediocre division of a mediocre conference. But if the Hurricanes are going to do that, they need to start now, off an open date that gave them time to plan around new starting quarterback Tyler Van Dyke.
North Carolina, as Florida State showed last week, is vulnerable. North Carolina State held on for a one-score win over Skip Holtz’s Louisiana Tech team, so the Wolfpack isn’t a juggernaut, either. Beat both, and Miami can build momentum and, perhaps, develop into a Coastal Division contender. Lose both, and Miami will be 2-5 for the first time since 1975. Calls for Diaz’s job will intensify.
In a wild season filled with upsets and uncertainty, both extremes are possible for Miami, UF and USF. Whatever happens these next two games will go a long way in determining the success or failure of all three.
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