GAINESVILLE, Fla — Florida is trying to avoid history this week. If the Gators lose to Vanderbilt on homecoming Saturday, it will be the first time since 1986-88 that the program had two four-game losing streaks over a three-year period.
Florida lost four in a row in a 7-6 season in 2011, Will Muschamp's first season as head coach. Galen Hall led the Gators to four straight losses in both 1986 and 1988 before getting fired midway through the '89 year amid an NCAA investigation.
At the same time, Florida (4-4 overall, 3-3 in SEC play) is still a pair of wins shy of getting a bowl bid — last staying home in bowl season in 1990 because of an NCAA penalty. The Gators barely made it to the postseason in 2011 as well — beating Furman 54-32 in the next-to-last game to reach the mandatory six victories.
Thanks to the SEC's tie-ins to 10 different bowls, there's a oversupply of chances while teams with six wins in some leagues would find getting a bid more difficult.
With the SEC East title now out of reach, the threat of being unranked at the end of the season for the third time in four years a strong possibility and the Gators ranked among the league's worst in virtually every offensive category, fans were burning up the radio call-in shows with anger on Monday.
But at the same time, Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy — who has battled a sprained shoulder in recent weeks — vowed to push ahead on Saturday against Vandy (4-4, 1-4) , no matter how many fans show up to cheer for his team.
"Not 100 percent sure, but just talking to fans that I know personally, they're still supporting us and they're still very encouraging,'' Murphy said of how he expects the reaction to be on Saturday. "I'm sure we'll have a good show out and people will still come support us. We can't really focus on that. We have to focus on beating Vandy, whether there's nobody in the crowd or all 90,000.''
That won't be too big of a concern on homecoming but Florida travels to South Carolina next week before hosting Georgia Southern on Nov. 23. In 2011, attendance dwindled drastically below reported numbers by the school when the team went through a four-game slide.
Murphy confessed being in a lot of pain in the Gators' 36-17 loss at Missouri but says he's close to 100 percent now. He threw for 258 yards in last week's 23-20 loss to Georgia.
As for the bowl talk?
"We're definitely trying to make a bowl,'' he said. "That's definitely a goal, we want to make a bowl. But we're really focused on just beating Vanderbilt. You take things one game at a time. We're kind of in a hole right now, so we're just looking to keep fighting and find our way out.
"We expected to have a much better record this time of year, but we haven't played that way. It's just unfortunate.''
If Florida loses to Vandy, it will have to win two out of three against the Gamecocks, Georgia Southern and Florida State to get to six wins.
Part of Florida's issues have been horrible starts, trailing LSU 14-3 at halftime, Missouri 10-3 after the first quarter and 14-0 to the Bulldogs in the first six minutes of last week's game.
Florida has been outscored 62-29 in the first quarter this season. The Gators haven't scored a touchdown in the first quarter since the Sept. 28 Kentucky game.
"You know, when the defense starts slow, it doesn't help at all (for the offense) to start slow as well, so we've tried to find ways to pick them up,'' Murphy said. "We didn't do a bit of that in the first half. We got things going a little too late. We just have to pick up the urgency. You have to make plays or else you're going to lose the game, so we made some plays late but we didn't have enough time.''
Florida has scored 31 points in the second half of the last two losses.
While fans are voicing displeasure — including one that yelled at Muschamp and caused him to yell back when leaving the field after the loss to Georgia on Saturday in Jacksonville — Murphy said the team remains loyal.
"He's a high-energy guy,'' Murphy said. "He always has our backs. He takes a lot of the blame for things. As players, when somebody takes the blame for everything you want to work hard because we're the ones out there playing. To see somebody like that to really have our backs means a lot. We try to put it all on the field for a coach like that.
"Guys are just pointing fingers at themselves. Nobody is really pointing fingers at other people. Everybody is looking at themselves in the mirror and trying to fix what they're doing wrong. There's no finger pointing other than people are pointing it back at themselves.''
Vanderbilt hasn't beaten the Gators since 1988.
"Everybody is real disappointed right now. We've lost three in a row and definitely cancelled out our chances in the East,'' defensive back Jaylen Watkins said. "Now the main goal is to become bowl eligible. It's pretty weird, but back in 2011, it was kind of the same feeling. We did become bowl eligible, and we did have a lot to play for that year.''
Watkins said the defense has to play better early in games.
"The way we started the (Georgia) game was not how we wanted to start,'' he said. "We dug ourselves a hole and then the last drive, we had them stopped and had a few penalties that kind of hurt us that we could've controlled and got our offense back the ball with a decent amount of time on the clock.
"Honestly, I couldn't tell you why (the defense has struggled early). It's definitely something we have to work on for the next four or five games, or however many we've got. If we do that, we can win some games around here.''
Like Murphy, Watkins thinks players with support Muschamp through this tough time.
"Just because (of) the way he fights for us, no matter what,'' Watkins said. "He takes all the blame, and we're the ones out there playing. A lot of times, he puts in the right, we know he's got the right scheme for us. We're just, a lot of times, out of place or something. We definitely love the support he gives us, and we're going to support him right back.''
Muschamp didn't try to deflect blame on Monday.
"We had our opportunities late in the game, and we didn't get it done. That falls on my shoulders,'' he said. "We've got to get over the hump in those situations. We've had our opportunities in several games going back to Miami and LSU, some opportunities and a chance to win the game and we just didn't get it done, and that's on me. We'll get our players in finishing situations and get over the hump, and that's what we'll work to do.''
Florida hasn't been home since the 30-10 win against Arkansas on Oct. 5 — which is also the Gators' last win. Muschamp said it "seems like it's been forever.''
Some are starting to say the same thing about how long it's been since Florida played well early on defense.
"Those first two drives (against Georgia) were just extremely disappointing,'' he said of quickly falling behind by two touchdowns. "We've just got to go back and put our guys in better situations to play. And that's on us as coaches. We've got to put our guys in better situations to feel more comfortable and react as opposed to think in some situations. That's the best way I can summarize it because in every game it's been a little something different. . . . We just need to coach better.''
David Jones also writes for Florida Today.