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Florida aims to tighten grip on SEC East against Arkansas

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

For all intents and purposes, Florida can wrap up the SEC East with a win over Arkansas this weekend. The Gators can’t clinch the division mathematically because Tennessee doesn’t play an SEC opponent this week, but beating the Hogs will likely get the job done.

UF has to win two of its last three conference games to leave no doubt about the East crown, and it’ll probably beat South Carolina at home next week. I mean no disrespect to the Gamecocks, who put Florida back in control of the division by beating the Vols last Saturday, but a rebuilding team led by a freshman quarterback is almost certainly not going to get the better of this year’s Gator defense in Gainesville.

Florida has a good chance at getting the win over the Razorbacks. For starters, Arkansas has never defeated UF as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Its only win in the series came in the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl, when the Hogs were representing the Southwest Conference.

Furthermore, the Arkansas defense has fallen off a cliff this year. The Razorbacks are last in the SEC in yards per rush allowed and are tied with Georgia for last in yards per pass attempt allowed. If you prefer advanced stats, they’re last among SEC teams in S&P+ defense too.

Florida sometimes struggles running the ball, but the Hogs are 125th out of 128 teams in S&P+ rushing defense. Three of the Gators’ past opponents are ranked worse than 90th in that category, and UF has gotten progressively better against them. First came No. 93 Kentucky, against whom the Gators ran for 4.9 yards per carry. Then came No. 101 North Texas, and Florida pushed that up to 5.9 yards per carry. Most recently was No. 98 Missouri, and there UF ran for 7.7 yards per carry (counting Mizzou’s sack as a pass).

The Gators may have struggled to run against UGA last weekend, but the Bulldogs have the No. 24 rush defense. Arkansas will be hard pressed to come up with a similar result given its performance so far this season.

On the other side of the ball, Austin Allen is second among regular SEC starters in passing efficiency, but he’s third from last in interception percentage. He has thrown a pick on 2.8 percent of his passes, and with an average of 31 attempts per game, he’s more likely to have an interception than not in any given contest based solely on math.

Now put him against the ball-hawking Florida defense, and a repeat of his three-interception performance against Alabama is not out of the question. Allen does a lot of good things, and he’ll rack up plenty of yardage on Saturday, but he too often tries to be a hero rather than make the safe play.

The game might be a tricky one for the Gators given where it falls on the schedule. They’re going on the road to a relatively unfamiliar place a week after winning one of the team’s big rivalry games. Jim McElwain even said the team experienced a bit of a hangover from the victory over Georgia in a lackluster practice on Tuesday. He was happier with the effort on Wednesday, and perhaps the importance of the game on the divisional race will keep the team focused on Saturday.

Arkansas, for its part, is coming off a bye it sorely needed. The Hogs had their doors blown off by Auburn, 56-3, in their eighth straight game to start the season. The defense in particular appeared to have run out of gas in that one. Florida shouldn’t be feeling much fatigue after having played only two games in the last four weeks thanks to Hurricane Matthew and the team’s scheduled off week, but the Razorbacks should be able to come out with much more energy than they did in their last outing.

Florida is the betting favorite, and it is the better team by any ranking or rating system that’s out there. Arkansas may have the better offense of the two teams, but no margin in this game is as great as UF’s defense over the Razorbacks’ defense.

As long as the Gators don’t turn the ball over too much, they should be able to leave Fayetteville with a win. Doing so would give them a chance secure their second straight SEC East title at home in their next game.

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