Florida Football Friday Final: Gators, Billy Napier face must-win vs. Arkansas in The Swamp

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 3, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators, Billy Napier face must-win vs. Arkansas in The Swamp

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

If the Florida Gators hope to become bowl-eligible for the second straight year under head coach Billy Napier, they will have no better chance to achieve that status than Saturday. That’s when the Arkansas Razorbacks come to town sitting 2-6 (0-5 SEC) with six straight losses.

However, as Napier pointed out time and again this week, Arkansas’ record may not be indicative of its upset potential. Yes, the Razorbacks changed offensive coordinators, but they did so over a bye week giving them two weeks to prepare for what has largely been an inconsistent Gators team.

Arkansas has also been notably close in five of its six losses this season, dropping games against BYU, LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State by an average of only 4.8 points. The outlier was a visit to Texas A&M on Sept. 30 that the Hogs lost by 12.

The Gators may be down both of their starting defensive tackles in this game. They enter 3-2 in SEC play, though their two home wins have been by an average of 18.5 points. However, both of those games ended in the evening, and Saturday’s kickoff is set for noon ET inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Arkansas is a must-win for Florida because the rest of the slate is immensely difficult — at least for the defense. Awaiting are consecutive road games at No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Missouri before a regular-season finale at home against No. 4 Florida State.

Six of the Gators’ 10 Power Five opponents this season were ranked among the top 18 in this week’s initial College Football Playoff Rankings, and Kentucky was also an AP Top 25-ranked team at one point this year.

Reminder: The 2024 schedule is only going to be more difficult for Florida with 11 of 13 games against Power Five teams, including Texas (as an SEC opponent) and a Sunshine State round robin against Florida State, Miami (ACC) and UCF (Big 12).

A win over the Hogs would at least provide Napier with some form of relief. Many predicted the Gators to take a step back in 2023 before (hopefully) surging forward in 2024. However, with a win Saturday, Florida could finish 6-6 (same record as 2022) or better in the regular season with bowl eligibility.

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One year later

Napier was asked this week for his evaluation of the program through eight games and how these Gators compared to the team he coached during his inaugural season. Without hesitation, Napier was quick to share praise of the 2023 squad, which he said may not be achieving the results on field that many hoped but has nonetheless developed into the team he has expected based on the principles being taught.

“The biggest difference would be the makeup of our roster relative to who’s gaining experience, who’s been productive, the leadership that we see at the player level, the level of discipline that we observe every day, the camaraderie and chemistry of the group,” he explained. “The football has improved in a lot of areas on our team; there’s areas where we have gotten better, but there’s still areas where we need to play with more consistency.

“Overall, we’re operating at a more efficient rate. There’s good processes in place. We’re getting better at what we do. We haven’t necessarily got the results we wanted a couple times this year, but there’s improvement in the big picture.”

There’s no doubt that Florida is lining up better defensively, and redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz — while certainly not an NFL prospect akin to Anthony Richardson — does have command of Napier’s system. But there is still far too much going wrong for the Gators on a weekly basis, namely when it comes to the offensive line and special teams. The defense also struggles to finish plays, and the running game has seemingly taken a step back with the changes to the offensive line.

“It’s what happens before the catch, ultimately, that contributes to that,” Napier said of the defense’s occasional struggles. “Our ability to affect the quarterback, play better coverage, and then once the ball is thrown, we got to break on the coverage and get the guy on the ground. That’s one of the areas we need to improve for sure.”

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Notes and quotes

  • Napier said Florida started slow in practice Tuesday, which is not abnormal, but finished strong and put together a positive practice from top to bottom Wednesday.
  • “We’re still searching for consistency,” Napier said this week. “We’re still trying to put the best performances together for all parts of our team.”
  • Napier called Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson a physical player who is tough to get on the ground as a runner. An athletic signal caller, Jefferson is elusive, and while he has not been as successful on the ground as he was the last two seasons, that may well change given the bye week and change in playcaller.
  • Napier on Florida’s rash of injuries: “It magnifies the importance of depth. It magnifies the importance of player retention. Having a veteran team, having players that have been in your system for multiple years [is important].”
  • Napier made a salient point that managing a college football roster used to be “Algebra 1” – in other words, basic addition and subtraction. However, between the transfer portal (in and out), NIL and the transition in coaching, it is now more like taking “Calculus.” He said, jokingly: “I miss those algebra days.”

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