When looking at why the No. 22/22 Florida Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) have already taken a step back from the impressive 11-2 season they put together a year ago, start with the fact that the program is currently without 18 players that either started in 2012 or replaced last year’s starters in 2013 and has also been forced to demote two more starters due to severe lack of production.
The Gators lost 13 starters from their 2012 squad including nine seniors that graduated and four juniors that declared for the 2013 NFL Draft.
Florida entered 2013 without incumbents at left tackle, left guard, running back, wide receiver, tight end and kicker. UF also had to replace the entire interior of its defense including both defensive tackles, all three linebackers and both safeties.
The Gators have lost five more starters to season-ending injuries since Aug. 7.
Redshirt junior right tackle Chaz Green (shoulder) and redshirt senior kick returner Andre Debose (torn ACL) were both knocked out before the season began. Then, over a 22-day span from Sept. 21 to Oct. 12, Florida lost junior quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken fibula), senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley (torn ACL), and on Saturday, sophomore running back Matt Jones (torn meniscus).
Head coach Will Muschamp acknowledged Monday that he has never experienced a more injury-plagued season in more than two decades manning the sidelines.
“It is what it is. It’s unfortunate. More than anything, I hate it for the young men,” he said Monday. “They put a lot of time and effort into playing this game. For that to happen is just disappointing. I’m disappointed for them first of all.
“That’s what hurts the most, to see guys go through the struggle and having to make that phone call and tell them what’s going on or having to walk them in that training room and tell them what’s happening. That’s very frustrating for a young man as much time and effort as they put into it.”
Muschamp also lost a pair of freshmen for the season, players that were expected to contribute as reserves despite each being in his first year with the program. Linebacker Matt Rolin re-tore his surgically-repaired ACL and defensive back Nick Washington before the season, aggravated an old shoulder injury after the second week.
As if that was not enough, Muschamp has also been forced to bench two other starters, both specialists, due to each player severely underperforming all season long.
Redshirt freshman kicker Austin Hardin, the heir-apparent to Caleb Sturgis, was replaced on field goals by redshirt junior walk-on Frankie Velez. Junior punter Kyle Christy, a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2012, has been demoted to second string. He has been replaced with freshman Johnny Townsend, who will have his redshirt pulled and start the first game of his career.
Perhaps most notable of all is that Florida, despite these injuries and other setbacks, is still in control of its destiny. The Gators are 3-1 in Southeastern Conference play and face the SEC East’s lone unbeaten team Saturday when heading out on the road to face the No. 14/14 Missouri Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC).
A win over Missouri would put Florida in the driver’s seat, though two exceptionally tough games are forthcoming against No. 11/9 South Carolina and No. 15/16 Georgia.
So while the Gators have undoubtedly been handicapped by ailments and inconsistencies, shockingly there is still plenty to play for and achieve with six regular season games remaining in the 2013 campaign.