The Florida Gators are in an eerily similar position right now compared to where they were at this point last season.
With four regular-season games to go, the Gators have one loss, are in the driver’s seat of the SEC East and have an outside chance of a College Football Playoff berth should the cards fall in their favor.
But when placed in this predicament last year, Florida folded. It barely scraped by to win the East and then dropped its final three games -- a 27-2 regular-season finale loss to Florida State, a 29-15 defeat by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and a 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss against Michigan.
Second-year UF head coach Jim McElwain knows what’s at stake. His players do, too.
“You should always have a short-term memory,” defensive lineman Jordan Sherit said, “but you should definitely have a memory because, especially in this league, you could lose any given Saturday if you don’t bring it. So I think the fact that we do have that is going to help us go forward.”
That will be put to the test Saturday when No. 11 Florida faces Arkansas in a road matchup of almost polar opposites.
The Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) head into the 3:30 p.m. game in Fayetteville on a three-game win streak, while the Razorbacks (5-3, 1-3 SEC) are coming off a 56-3 thrashing against Auburn and haven’t strung together consecutive wins since opening the year 3-0.
Florida prides itself on its defense, leading the SEC and ranking second nationally in average yards allowed (239.4), average passing yards allowed (134.3) and average points allowed (11.7). Arkansas’ team, led by fourth-year head coach Bret Bielema, funnels through its offense, ranking third nationally in average time of possession (35:18.63) and boasting one of the top quarterback-running back duos in Austin Allen and Rawleigh Williams III.
Arkansas is looking to keep its perfect home record intact, while Florida is eyeing a statement road victory.
“To be considered and be relevant, you’ve got to be able to go do that on someone else’s turf and you have to go play well,” McElwain said. “You can’t let the things that are going to happen to you on the road affect your performance.”
That will be the biggest test for Florida’s offense.
While the Gators have struggled to cap drives as of late-- UF has scored offensive touchdowns on just six of its 38 drives over the last three games -- they have figured out ways to move the chains.
UF leads the SEC and is sixth nationally in third-down conversion rate (50.4 percent).
“Good teams convert on third down and good teams get the other team's offense off the field,” quarterback Luke Del Rio said. “Being able to extend drives is big. It's demoralizing for a defense when you get to third and long and convert. It's like 'man, what do we have to do to get them off the field?' ... It's definitely a focal point of our offense. We need to continue to do well in that area."
And if Florida does well, it will keep itself in contention for a prime postseason position.
But for now, McElwain is stressing the importance of one game at a time, starting with Arkansas.
“The big picture is we've got to take care of business and there's no guarantees in life,” McElwain said. “So are they aware that we don't rely on anybody else? Yeah. We talk about it. And yet, it's all for naught if you don't take care of the now.”
Saturday: No. 11 Florida @ Arkansas
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, Ark.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 4.
Records: Florida 6-1 (4-1 SEC); Arkansas 5-3 (1-3 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 9-1.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR C.J. Worton (ankle); DB Kylan Johnson (undisclosed); TE DeAndre Goolsby (hand); LB Jeremiah Moon (thumb). Out — WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).
Arkansas injuries: Questionable — OL Brian Wallace (toe). Out — LB Dre Greenlaw (foot); DB Britto Tutt (ACL); DB Kevin Richardson II (pectoral); RB T.J. Hammonds (knee).