GAINESVILLE There may not be a college football program in America that can defeat LSU and Alabama, the nation's two top-ranked teams, on successive weekends.
There are probably just a handful of programs capable of even beating one of those teams.
On paper, at least, the worst should be over for the freshly unranked Florida Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC).
But as the Gators prepare for Saturday night's trip to Auburn (4-2, 2-1), a place where UF hasn't won since 1999, even as first-year coach Will Muschamp said he can't see beyond the next game, there are big-picture questions.
Senior quarterback John Brantley remains sidelined with an ankle injury, leaving the offensive leadership to very inexperienced players – either true freshman Jacoby Brissett, who played against LSU, or true freshman Jeff Driskel, who relieved Brantley against Alabama. Muschamp said Monday he was uncertain who would start at Auburn.
The reliance on smallish running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps has called into question their durability at the season's mid-point, although Muschamp said Mike Gillislee will be more of a factor. Meanwhile, the Gators suddenly can't stop the run, the biggest factor in being outscored 79-21 by the Tigers and Crimson Tide. In fact, the Gators are being dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Is the sky falling?
"We've got to become a more mentally tough team,'' Muschamp said. "We've got to manage these situations better because the adverse situations will keep coming up.
"We've got a lot of guys who want to be a leader one day, then the next day they want to step off the podium and let somebody else do it. That's not part of the deal.''
Very few people picked Florida to win the SEC East (although the Gators still could reach Atlanta by sweeping their four remaining conference games). But no one predicted a slide to 6-6 and Birmingham's BBVA Compass Bowl, either.
Considering UF's recent trend, and a killer October schedule that finishes with Auburn and revived Georgia, that worst-case scenario can't be dismissed.
"We don't want to lose any of them,'' Rainey said. "We've lost two and now we've got to push on. This is a time when leaders step up.''
It's all about Auburn, not excuses or explanations.
But clearly, some things are crying for examination.
Injuries, suspensions and mismatched parts haunted UF's offense in Urban Meyer's final season.
"Coming into (SEC play) last year, Florida was a mess,'' CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "They couldn't snap the ball to the quarterback. The coach didn't know if he wanted to be there or not. The freshmen didn't like the seniors. The seniors didn't like the freshmen.
"They had tight ends playing quarterback. They had an offensive line coach (Steve Addazio) calling plays. In my 20 years of broadcasting, it was the biggest mess I've seen for a talented football team coming into their third game. They have plenty of talent. Urban hasn't left the cupboard bare. But it's a long way to go from an option team to a pro-style passing team.''
UF offensive coordinator Charlie Weis won't suggest that anything has been lost in translation.
"Let's not slight all the good things that happened here offensively,'' Weis said. "It wasn't like they had a bunch of garbage here.''
By all accounts, Muschamp wants to craft UF in the image of a classic SEC powerhouse – with an athletic defense and a powerful running game. Alabama coach Nick Saban, Muschamp's mentor, hinted that it will take some time.
"Will has a team that's not necessarily a team he assembled,'' Saban said. "He's not able to do things exactly like he wants to do it. But I think he's making his mark on the intangible things he can affect: their effort, their toughness, their discipline.''
Through four weeks, the Gators were the SEC's No. 1-ranked rushing team, but those statistics came against Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee and Kentucky, all with flimsy defenses. Against Alabama and LSU, the Gators rushed 47 times for 142 yards (3.02 yards per carry).
Rainey (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) and Demps (5-8, 188) have done most of the work because Muschamp said "every time they touch the ball, they can take it the distance.''
Muschamp said he's "certainly mindful'' of the pounding absorbed by Rainey and Demps. They generally wear non-contact jerseys in practice. Inside running, Muschamp said, is essential to establish an attitude of toughness and will continue "regardless of the size of the backs.''
"The foundation of our offense starts through the middle,'' Weis said.
Moving forward, it bears watching what type of runners will be recruited by UF for next season and beyond.
How the Gators approach each week could determine the program's direction. Players wear wristbands with one word – "grind.'' At Muschamp's insistence, the Gators view each opponent as "nameless and faceless.''
Muschamp won't offer a big-picture view – not yet, at least.
"It's a series of one-game seasons,'' Muschamp said. "Our season is the next game. My evaluation will be done when the season is over as far as where we are.''
Many evaluators believe this October is the toughest slate faced by a Gator team – ever.
"That's just how this conference is, week in and week out,'' Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "You're forced to grow up pretty quickly.''
The Gators can relate to that.