- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch as the Florida Gators (4-6, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to the Georgia Southern Eagles (6-4, 4-4 in the Southern Conference) on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN3).
1. The level of enthusiasm: The Gators return home after completing their SEC schedule with five consecutive losses. Against an FCS opponent, there is always the possibility of a letdown in terms of the players' focus and passion. Do they just want this nightmare season to be over? Will they mail it in? There is certainly a chance the Gators will take the field only to find a half-filled stadium, as many irate fans have promised to stop attending games while their team struggles. On the other hand, Florida should motivation to end its long losing streak, and an overmatched opponent could be just the ticket to winning back some of those disappointed fans.
2. Defending the dreaded triple-option: It won't be easy. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the team "spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing and looking at different teams and how they handled this because it's so different from what we've faced." Georgia Southern totaled 341 yards against Alabama's stout defense in 2011, so the Eagles have everyone's full attention. The Gators defense, which ranks No. 15 against the run (allowing 115.1 yards a game) seems to understand its task at hand and Georgia Southern's capability of causing embarrassment. The triple-option attack forces defenses to play mistake-free and with great discipline while also defending big plays in the passing game that can come from just about anywhere on the field.
3. Who starts at quarterback? Starter Tyler Murphy (shoulder) missed last Saturday's game at South Carolina and is listed as questionable against GSU. He did get some throws in this week during practice, but Skyler Mornhinweg remains poised to make his second career start. Mornhinweg led a very conservative offense against the formidable Gamecocks defense, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week they believe the redshirt freshman can handle an expanded playbook and more of a look in the passing game. The Gators might be tempted to keep Murphy on the sideline as a Plan B vs. the Eagles, considering how much Florida wants Murphy to be healthy for the regular-season finale against No. 2 Florida State.
4. Momentum: Florida fell short of winning in Columbia, S.C., last week, but the Gators returned home with a measure of pride and confidence after nearly pulling off a surprising upset. Unlike the previous four games in its losing streak, Florida got off to a fast start against the Gamecocks. A first-quarter touchdown gave the Gators their first lead in a game since a 3-0 advantage at LSU on Oct. 12. Florida also had a 14-6 lead at halftime at South Carolina, its first advantage at the break since a 17-7 lead over Arkansas on Oct. 5. It will be interesting to see if the Gators can shake off the disappointment of their second-half collapse last week and reclaim the momentum they generated in the first half.
5. Anyone want to kick field goals? Two missed field goals against the Gamecocks might well have been the difference between winning and losing (not to mention staying home during bowl season). Florida has enough problems on offense to contend with, but when the Gators get bogged down in or near the red zone, a special kind of anxiety takes over on fourth down. After enjoying the luxury of record-breaking kicker Caleb Sturgis and his 79.5 percent field-goal accuracy for the previous four seasons, UF has struggled. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, the nation's No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012, has the strongest leg and was supposed to be the answer. However, he's made 4-of-11 field goals (36.4 percent). Senior Brad Phillips made a 28-yard field goal against Arkansas on Oct. 5 but also missed an extra point. Junior walk-on Francisco Velez has made 4-of-5 field goals but has limited range. The next time Florida is in field-goal range, the Gators might just want to go for it on fourth down.