Gators head into bye week with plethora of questions

COLUMBIA, Mo. — This is the way it goes at a big-time college football program like Florida.

The mood swings can fluctuate like a hormonal teenager. You lose a game, any game, and fans get upset for a day or two.

You get back up, lose your starting quarterback and star defensive tackle, and then win three in a row. Suddenly, the season is as fresh as a box of roses.

However, more trips to the surgeon follow for the Gators, causing even more holes in the lineup to plug.

Then you lose back-to-back games in ugly fashion, and Gators coach Will Muschamp knows what comes next.

Muschamp told the Gators to prepare for the storm after Florida’s 36-17 loss at No. 14-ranked Missouri on Saturday.

“Circle the wagons,” he said. “Arrows are coming in all directions.”

That’s what it felt like Saturday afternoon high above a sold-out Faurot Field in Florida’s first trip here.

Down below, the Gators at times looked overmatched against a Missouri team that few — at least those not living on the school’s campus — expected to be 7-0 and leading the SEC East in late October.

The Gators offense mustered a feeble 151 yards. The SEC-leading defense, the rock of this team, allowed 500 yards to a Tigers offense led by redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk, making his first career start.

Meanwhile, Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy, after getting beat up in a loss at LSU and unable to practice for three days during the week, got sacked six times and fumbled twice.

Nothing went right for the Gators other than Solomon Patton’s 100-yard kickoff return to open the second half — cutting Missouri’s lead to 13-10 — and a six-play, 70-yard drive late in the third quarter that trimmed the lead to 23-17.

Freshman running back Kelvin Taylor carried five times for 53 yards on the drive, and Patton added a 17-yard run. Taylor finished off the impressive march with a 20-yard touchdown run.

Otherwise, the arrows flew at the Gators all day.

If you were on social media, you saw it. You heard it. Maybe you even tossed a few, not sure what to make of it all.

Muschamp, obviously worn down by the day’s events, painted a matter-of-fact portrait of the 4-3 Gators afterward.

“We are inept offensively. We have a hard time running it, and certainly can’t protect very well,” he said. “I’m just very disappointed that we haven’t made more positive strides offensively.

“As a football team, we just didn’t do enough good things out there and that falls on my shoulders.”

The Gators have two weeks to find some answers before their annual showdown against Georgia in Jacksonville.

In a span of eight days, back-to-back losses at LSU and Missouri have dropped the Gators from the top of the SEC East to a three-way tie for second with South Carolina and Georgia.

The Gamecocks and Bulldogs both lost Saturday, too — South Carolina falling at Tennessee and Georgia tripping at Vanderbilt.

Suddenly, Missouri is in the driver’s seat toward Atlanta in only its second year in the SEC. The Tigers finished 5-7 a year ago in their SEC debut.

They made believers out of the Gators on a cool Saturday afternoon.

“They are a good team, a really good team,” Florida senior receiver Trey Burton said. “They’ve got some really good defensive linemen. Don’t be surprised if they win the SEC Championship.”

The Tigers announced they are for real on the first play, when Mauk threw a 41-yard pass to L’Damian Washington. The arrow in Florida’s side was compounded by a 15-yard targeting penalty against defensive back Cody Riggs, who was ejected.

On the next play, Mauk hit Bud Sasser for a 20-yard score and while the Gators closed the gap on three occasions, Missouri never trailed.

Big plays killed the Gators throughout the day.

After Patton’s kickoff return to open the second half, Mauk hit Jimmie Hunt two plays later for a 52-yard pass that led to a score. After Taylor’s run to cut the lead to six, Tigers running back Henry Josey broke off a 50-yard run that led to a field goal.

“Most disappointed in the run [defense],” Muschamp said. “Especially that 50-yarder; that was a huge momentum swing.”

The Gators’ goal of returning to Atlanta for the first time in four years now looks awfully bleak.

They must win and others must lose.

But first, the Gators need to move the ball effectively and give their defense a chance to get off the field occasionally. That was the formula that worked in wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas once Murphy replaced the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback.

“You never know what can happen. We just want to keep fighting,” said sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. “I don’t feel like the East is out of reach. We’re not going to let this mess up our whole season.

“We’ve still got a whole bunch of football to go. We’re going to keep playing these games. We’re not going to give up.”

Yes, the wagons have started to circle. The Gators understand the arrows are sure to keep flying their way until the offense wakes up and they win another game.

The biggest issue is the offensive line’s inability to protect Murphy.

“We are doing everything we can do. We’re shuffling guys around [on the offensive line]. It’s just a cumulative affect of a lot of different things going on right now,” Muschamp said. “We just have to get better. That’s what we’re going to do. I’m disappointed in the way we played.”

So was the Gator Nation. The tweets and Facebook posts said so.

The No. 22-ranked Gators are certain to fall from the polls on Sunday. What they want to do now is to drop further down the SEC East standings.

A momentum swing like Josey’s run provided Missouri on Saturday is what they need. It can’t some soon enough.

“We’ve got an off week to get it turned around,” Muschamp said. “It’s a down time, a time we’re all hurting. We need to take more pride in our performance and how we’re playing on the field. We are going to work and get it done.”