2016 Season Preview

It’s Year 2 under Jim McElwain, and he has undoubtedly put his mark on the program in all areas – coaching, recruiting, dealing with the media, and player discipline (unfortunately given more chances than expected).  Despite having a season under his belt at Florida, it almost feels like starting over, given the roller-coaster second half of 2015.  A strong 6-0 start was followed by the Will Grier saga, then struggling on offense with Treon Harris while losing the last 3 games, including the embarrassing loss to Michigan.  Hopefully the defense will benefit from a consistent offense and kicking game through the entire 2016 season, and not wear down and finally crack as it did last year.  Coach Mac will also have a new Athletic Director to work with going forward, as Jeremy Foley has announced his retirement this fall.  There is positive momentum regarding facilities improvements (plans for additional football-specific operations, updated dorms, etc.) that the new AD and President Kent Fuchs should continue to champion.  Finally, the addition of “ambassador” Steve Spurrier should pay dividends in regards to fundraising and re-energizing the older part of the fan base.

Offense

Finally, Florida’s offense has some continuity with the same Offensive Coordinator and staff in place.  Unfortunately, many new faces will again make this unit an uncertain group until the games begin.

It all starts at quarterback, with Luke Del Rio being named the starter during fall camp and inheriting huge expectations.  He has been coached previously by Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier at Alabama, and has an advantage in being a coach’s son.  He certainly showed command of the playbook in the spring game, delivering the ball accurately and making good decisions reading the defense.  He isn’t a top physical specimen, but doesn’t have to be for the Gators to have success this fall.  He simply needs to make quick decisions, protect the football, and play efficiently.  Austin Appleby transferred in from Purdue as a senior with plenty of experience against quality teams, and is truly a qualified backup.  If he is forced into service, there won’t be the staggering dropoff in output that was seen under Treon Harris last season.  He is physically ready for SEC play as well.  Freshmen Kyle Trask and Felipe Franks have a lot of raw ability, but hopefully won’t be needed this year.

The running back position is in good shape under coach Tim Skipper, and the graduation of Kelvin Taylor should not be felt.  JUCO transfer Mark Thompson is a beast physically and also a surprisingly good pass catcher.  He will get plenty of opportunities to become the main ball carrier – as long as he protects the ball.  Jordan Cronkrite has emerged as the other lead RB during fall camp, showing toughness and also receiving ability.  Jordan Scarlett surprisingly has fallen behind on the depth chart for now, but injuries or fumbling problems by Thompson will get him back into the lineup in a hurry.  He has all of the physical attributes, but mentally has been lacking focus, to go with offseason behavior issues.  It would be a shame to see him waste his talent, but sadly this is a common theme in sports.  Finally, true freshman Lamical Perine comes out of Alabama with a maturity beyond his years, along with enough talent and effort to get into the rotation without a redshirt season.

The wide receiver group is an even larger mystery than at QB.  Other than Antonio Callaway (who is coming back from his own offseason troubles), there is no proven player.  Brandon Powell was average at best in the slot while struggling with a foot injury, Ahmad Fulwood simply plays too soft despite terrific physical size and skills, and C.J. Worton had attitude and injury issues.  JUCO transfer Dre Massey has turned heads since the spring and seems to be the starter in the slot, showing playmaking ability sorely lacking last season.  True freshmen Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond(brother of former Gator Frankie), and Rick Wells all come in with great credentials and have shown enough flashes in practice that possibly all see the field in some capacity this fall.  I expect the freshmen to make a significant contribution this season.  There are a lot of “ifs” with this unit – if Powell can stay healthy, if Fulwood can at least become an adequate threat, if Worton has finally turned his attitude around, and if the freshmen can deliver on their promise, this group could blossom into a functional, SEC-level unit.  They should benefit from consistent QB play as well.

The tight end position will again be more of a receiving threat vs. being involved in the running game.  The loss to graduation of Jake McGee is a large hole to fill.  C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return as proven threats on seam and wheel routes, which should help keep opponent LBs honest.  Camrin Knight and Moral Stephens provide depth, but are unproven as reliable backups.  Coach Mac is still looking for true two-way players at this position that can stay on the field for any down-and-distance situation.  In the meantime, he and Nuss will continue to flex out the TEs and scheme around their in-line blocking deficiencies.

Finally, while the offensive line wasn’t the most scrutinized unit in the offseason, there are still plenty of concerns.  Poor recruiting by the previous staff continues to hamper the development of a quality performing group with capable depth and proper roster numbers.  Coach Mike Summers was able to cobble together a decent group last season from, quite frankly, little talent and depth.  However, after Grier was suspended, Harris wasn’t able to mask their deficiencies with either quick decisions or his legs.  At least in 2016 the returning starters have more experience, more players are available after redshirting, and even a few freshmen are good enough to provide depth and occasionally get in to the rotation.  At tackle, David Sharpe has emerged as the leader on the unit at LT, Fred Johnson has earned the RT spot, while redshirt freshman Nick Buchanan and true freshman Jawaan Taylor will be in the rotation.  Taylor has been impressive in fall camp and could be a future star.  Martez Ivey should be the starter at RT, but is needed inside.  The interior of the line is where the main concerns lie.  At guard, Ivey again will slide inside from his natural tackle positon to fortify the position at LG, and Tyler Jordan looks to be solid as the starter at RG.  After those two, it’s unknown who can play, and play effectively.  Redshirt freshmen Brandon Sandifer, Richard Desir-Jones, and T.J McCoy, and true freshmen Brett Heggie and Stone Forsythe will all likely play.  The center position is led by Cam Dillard, but that is nothing to be comfortable with.  He is not the physical presence needed against SEC competition, and his shotgun snaps are still inconsistent.  Jordan is actually the better prospect, but is needed at guard.  McCoy is the likely backup.  The loss of Antonio Riles in fall practice to a knee injury really hurts this group.  Once again, Summers has a large task ahead of him.  The development and health of this group as the season progresses will influence the effectiveness of the entire offense, especially if they struggle.  At least he has much more to work with this season, but as a whole, this group is still not a typical SEC-level unit top to bottom.

Defense

Once again, this unit will be counted on to lead the team, and will have to carry their weight plus some until the offense can find it’s way.  Despite the loss of key talent to the NFL (Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal), there is a lot of returning quality talent to compete against anyone in the country.  There may be a little drop off in terms of elite talent, but as long as the newer players can eventually find their way and the unit is consistent and minimizes big-play breakdowns, this is a defense good enough to get back to Atlanta.  Hopefully, the offense and special teams actually carry some of their own weight as the year progresses so the defense doesn’t wear down late in games.

The defensive line again appears to be solid despite the loss of Bullard, and has plenty of experience and quality players to establish itself as one of the best units in the SEC.  CeCe Jefferson and Caleb Brantley will be the leaders at the tackle position, with Taven Bryan, Joey Ivie, and Khairi Clark in the rotation providing quality depth.  At end, there is a wealth of both experienced and young players ready to wear out opponents, led by Bryan Cox, Jr. and Jordan Sherit, with Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga ready for increased playing time.  True freshmen Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton come in with high expectations, and likely will not redshirt and see some playing time.

The Linebacker corps is thin in terms of experience and proven depth, but Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone will be one of the best duos in the SEC.  Coach Randy Shannon has to develop a mix of underperforming upperclassmen and redshirt/true freshmen as the season progresses to keep the main guys fresh and healthy, while not suffering a significant dropoff in performance by the unit.  Daniel McMillian, Rayshad Jackson, and Kylan Johnson are likely first up as backups, with early-entry freshman David Reese seeing significant snaps based on a fine spring.  There are a lot of question marks behind the 2 main guys, and Shannon will have his hands full developing some depth.  Injuries at this position could be devastating.  The only saving grace is that Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins likes to play a lot of 4-2-5 schemes, so it’s infrequent to see more than 2 LBs on the field for most plays.

The secondary will again be a strong unit which will be one of the best in the SEC and country, barring injuries.  Leading the way is All-American candidate Jalen (Teez) Tabor at cornerback, who is excellent in coverage, shows toughness in supporting the run game, and also has good ball skills.  Opposite will be Quincy Wilson, who has been overshadowed by previous talent at DBU, but gets his chance to shine this season.  He’s another CB with good size and cover skills.  At safety, Marcus Maye is the leader and should be an all-SEC candidate.  Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris, and Nick Washington are experienced players, and are solid, if unspectacular.  The difference from last season is that the rotation at all positions will be filled by less-experienced players.  JUCO transfer Joseph Putu has looked good in fall camp, and will see snaps at both CB and safety.  True freshmen Chauncey Gardner, Jeawon Taylor, and C.J. McWilliams will play out of necessity.  There may be some growing pains from this group, but they have the athletic ability to play in the SEC, and the experience gained this season will pay dividends in the future.

Special Teams

This unit was boom-or-bust in 2015, both in kicking and the return game.

Johnny Townsend was a revelation as the punter, becoming one of the best in the country in terms of distance and hang time, while also showing a knack for placing kicks inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.  He is a weapon in the field position game, in which those hidden yards are so valuable, especially against tougher opponents.  The punt coverage team benefited from his performance, finishing as one of the best statistically in the nation.

The placekicking was a disaster.  Austin Hardin had one shining moment with his game-winner against Vanderbilt, but completely imploded otherwise, with accuracy and height issues leading to a horrific performance.  Jorge Powell was barely adequate in relief until his season-ending knee injury.  In comes Eddy Pineiro, one of the most-hyped recruits in the country.  He’s already become an internet legend with his long-distance FG kicks and tremendous hang time.  Now it’s all about translating that to the field in live situations.  He certainly looked good in the spring game, and already has the players and coaching staff excited about his impact on the overall team’s performance.  Last year’s debacle directly affected the possible outcome of a few games and also the mentality of both the offense and defense.  If Pineiro is simply good in 2016, Coach Mac will have that added advantage in managing the game.

Punt returns will again be handled by Antonio Callaway.  As a true freshman, the Miami native stepped right in and became a terror for opponents.  He is simply one of those players that shows a knack for reading his blocking, avoiding the initial gunners, and then turning the ball upfield quickly and decisively to become a scoring threat.  His 2 TDs came in critical times at LSU and against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game – you can’t get more clutch than that.  Kickoff returns, on the other hand, were underwhelming.  Brandon Powell was surprisingly ineffective avoiding tackles and staying upright even with minimal contact.  As of now he appears to be the first and most experienced option, but JUCO newcomer Dre Massey, Chris Thompson, or perhaps a true freshman will get their chance.  At Florida, it should be a given that there is someone capable of being a home run threat, as this is just another way to impact a game.

Schedule and Outlook

Gator fans approach 2016 with some trepidation – again.  Despite the obvious ability of Coach Mac to lead a program and also game plan on offense, another unproven QB and questions about the OL are still legitimate concerns.  The stench of horrific offensive recruiting by Won’t Misschump lingers, and it may take another season before the overall talent and depth is SEC-level.  The defense will again be relied upon to lead this team until the offense (hopefully) develops consistency and rhythm.  At least it appears that the new QBs have the mental maturity and physical ability to provide hope of that.

Massachusetts – Win

A chance to break in many new players – especially on offense, and use this as an advanced scrimmage.  Stay healthy – please!

Kentucky – Win

The last 2 games have been close, and the Mildcats still believe they are on the rise.  However, Florida now has a year in the new offensive system, and is more talented.  This one may be close at halftime, but the Gators should pull away for a comfortable win.

North Texas – Win

Another glorified scrimmage, but a chance to clean up any mistakes from the Kentucky game, and an opportunity to get extra game-planning in for the big SEC East showdown the following week.  Stay healthy – please!

@Tennessee – Loss

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Florida visits the annual preseason SEC East champs.  The hype for the Volunteers has been in full effect all offseason, and now it’s time (again) to see if they back it up.  This could be the single make-or-break game for the entire 2016 season for the Vols, and they are feeling the pressure.  They have had no reason to lose the last 2 games to the Gators, and yet have not taken advantage of all the struggles and distractions Florida has been dealing with coming into this game.  I do feel that Elevenessee has a talent advantage on offense and enough overall experience that this is finally the year they end the streak.  However, the Gators are so deep into their heads that I would not be surprised to see another dramatic win at Rocky Top.  I’ll hate it if the Gators lose, but it’s going to happen sometime.

@Vanderbilt – Win

A second consecutive road trip to Tennessee.  The Commodores almost pulled off a shocker in Gainesville last season, but no such scenario this time.  Vandy will have a stingy defense, but their offense lacks quality talent, and that’s a bad matchup against a tough Gator defense.  The only way this stays relatively close is if Florida comes in with a post-Tennessee hangover.

LSU – Win

Back home in the Swamp to welcome the Tigers, who may have enough talent to win the SEC this season.  Florida has lost 5 out of 6 in the series.  This game is usually close and often has some strange things happen, usually in LSU’s favor.  The Gators played tough at Death Valley last year, and are a match physically.  Will RB Leonard Fournette continue to be the difference?  It’s incumbent of Florida’s offense to control the clock and score early to prevent the Tigers from playing in their comfort zone and grinding out another win.  Barring a rash of turnovers by either side, this should be another classic.  Special Teams and trickeration could be the difference……are you listening, Coach Mac and Coach Nord?

Missouri (Homecoming) – Win

Missouri came back to earth last season, and had an offseason from hell on and off the field.  The Tigers still have some talent on defense, but their offense has many new faces.  A new coaching staff is in place.  Not the recipe for success on the road in the SEC.  The rest of the league still has some payback to return, and the Tigers are going to learn their place……their first 2 years in the SEC were an aberration that won’t be repeated.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Win

This is a difficult game to predict.  Georgia has a new Head Coach in Kirby Smart, who comes into this season riding the hype of Alabama’s success.  We’ll see if he was riding Nick Saban’s coattails or not as a defensive coordinator, and if he can develop an offense, unlike Misschump.  He will have a new QB, lack of playmakers at WR, and plenty of turnover on defense.  Georgia will likely rely on an excellent running game with an experienced OL and quality RBs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.  Despite all of the offseason excitement, the Puppies found a way to lose the past 2 seasons to Treon Harris.  Smart also has to overcome the mindset of the Gators winning 20 of the last 26 Cocktail Parties.

@Arkansas – Loss

Trap game between 2 emotional East Division games.  The Razorbacks lost a lot on offense after last season, but will still have a solid running game and be coming off of a bye week.  Florida has not lost to Arkansas since the Hogs joined the SEC in 1992, but I have a feeling they could be tripped up in this one.  This is only the 3rd trip to Fayetteville for the Gators – not a venue they are familiar with.

South Carolina – Win

The Big Payback.  The gloves are off after Won’t Misschump petulantly trashed Florida when his ass was deservedly kicked out.  Then he negatively recruited against Florida while at Auburn in 2015, many kids of which he had also attempted to recruit for the Gators.  His poor coaching, egregious offensive recruiting, and terrible roster management created a hot mess for Jim McElwain to clean up.  No prisoners – no mercy.

Presbyterian – Win

A relaxing scrimmage to rest up after another brutal SEC season.  This should give the staff the opportunity to empty the roster and extra preparation time for the road trip the following week to Taliban City.  Stay healthy – please!

@Florida State – Loss

Florida has lost 5 out of 6 to the Criminoles, and the Gator fan base is getting restless.  Sadly, F$U has been able to take advantage of the bumbling Misschump era on the field and in recruiting.  They have the edge in quality depth, and home-field advantage at Ron Zook Field.  The Gators are capable of winning this game, but I’m not confident that the offense or defense by the end of the SEC grind will have enough left in the tank to pull it off.  The health of each team coming into this game could be a major factor.

Predictions:
Overall Record          9-3
SEC Record              6-2

It seems I can copy and paste a majority of the 2015 Season Preview.  The perception of the Gator program is one of skepticism – again, especially on the offensive side of the ball – again, from knowledgeable observers and recruits.  Everyone outside of the players and coaches is in wait-and-see mode – again.  I saw enough from the first half of last season on offense to be confident that Coach Mac can build a sustainable and effective offense.  Sadly, he has to prove it again starting with another new QB, plenty of new faces at the skill positions, and a still-developing OL.  The defense will again be capable of winning a championship with support from the offense and special teams.  The 2016 edition of the Florida Gators could very well end the season as a better overall team than in 2015, despite a lesser win/loss record.  The signs are there that Coach Mac is rebuilding the program the right way, and I’m excited about the future.

It’s time for good things to happen to Florida Football – again.

It’s that time - again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

Michigan Preview

The Gators were rewarded for their surprisingly good 2015 season with an invitation to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando to face Michigan. The Wolverines staged their own surprising turnaround season under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, going 9-3 in the Big 10/11/12/whatever Eastern division. They opened the year at a very good Utah team and lost by 3 points, then gave away a bitter home loss late in the season to Michigan St. on a last-play fumble by their punter that was returned for a touchdown – one of the memorable plays of 2015 that directly affected the playoffs. Finally, they were blown out at home by their main rival, Ohio $t. Eerily similar the Florida’s season. These teams are also very similar in that they are led by very good defenses, while the offenses are steady but unspectacular. Of course, Florida’s offense the last month of the regular season was a miserable display of QB play that prevented possible victories in their last 2 games that could have led to an even bigger prize.

Michigan’s offense is usually a balanced attack led by QB Jake Rudock, RB De’Veon Smith, TE Jake Butt (one of the best in the country), and 2 big WRs – Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. The running game led the way the first 7-8 games, but faded in November. The passing game took over more of the load the last 4 games, but I think coach Harbaugh has seen enough of the tape of Florida’s secondary to know that this isn’t as viable an option as a consistent attack. I would expect more emphasis on the running game early, with a wait-and see approach to see if Florida’s offense can pose any consistent threat to score. The additional wild card is Jabrill Peppers, a starting CB and an explosive athlete who will occasionally be brought in for wildcat plays or the occasional pass play. However, he is questionable for the game with a hand injury, and if he is less than 100% that is a big help to Florida on both sides of the ball.

The Gator defense will be challenged by the TE, big WRs, and excellent play-calling of Harbaugh. VH3, Jalen Tabor, and Quincy Wilson all need to be on their game and expect a physical afternoon. Geoff Collins needs to determine how he will cover Butt – either with another CB or safety, in order to force Rudock into some bad throws or sacks. The D-Line should be healthy and be able to slow down the running game, and should be able to get pressure on the QB, as Michigan’s OL is solid but not great. If Jon Bullard, Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox, and co. are playing at the level they did during the regular season, they should be able to control the LOS more often than not. I hope to see LBs Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis play the same way they did all season – flying all over the field to the ball, with the occasional blitz to disrupt the run or pass.

The formula for the Gators’ opponents has been to stay conservative while the offense implodes, and to wear down the defense with the running game in the 4th quarter to pull away. This has been especially frustrating to the defensive players, and Coach McElwain has to be sick of it as well. Michigan’s defense is solid and led by many upperclassmen, and usually doesn’t beat itself. Their Defensive Coordinator, former Florida position coach DJ Durkin, has left to become head coach at Maryland, but D-Line coach (and also former Florida position coach) Greg Mattison is one of the best in football, and will have a solid game plan ready. Sadly, unless Treon Harris magically rediscovers his form against LSU or is allowed to throw care aside and be allowed to run more often, I don’t see much hope. There really isn’t much to lose at this point, and Harris will not play another snap at QB after this game, so perhaps Coach McElwain and Coach Nuss have some surprises in store. Kelvin Taylor’s last game at Florida will hopefully be a good one, as he will need to establish some sort of run threat to allow Harris any chance of throwing the ball with effectiveness. Jordan Scarlett is suspended for this game, so Jordan Cronkrite will spell Taylor. I hope the staff throws the ball to the RBs more in the flats on quick swing passes to help Harris out and loosen up the Michigan defense somewhat. There were WRs open against both F$U and Alabama, but Harris simply held the ball too long or was inaccurate.

Both teams have solid special teams play. Florida has an edge with Antonio Callaway returning punts and with punter Johnny Townsend, but has perhaps the worst FG kicker in the country right now in Austin Hardin, who has completely imploded and has zero confidence. Michigan has a good kick returner in Peppers (if he plays), and a very good PK in Kenny Allen.

The weather could play a role, as it has been unseasonably warm and humid, and if Florida can somehow win time-of-possession, the Wolverine defense could wear down in the second half. The Gator defense, I believe, will have to generate some turnovers to give the Gator offense the extra opportunities it needs to scrape together enough points to win. Florida also has the advantage of not having to travel far, and is acclimated to the weather. The Gators should also have a distinct advantage in the number of their fans in the stands.

All that being said, I have a ton of respect for Coach Harbaugh and Coach Mattison, and would be very surprised if they didn’t have the Wolverines ready to play a smart, effective game. Again, if Florida has a functional offense with balance in the passing game, I feel they can win, but there is no evidence to this point that shows Harris can be effective enough as a passer to give the offense that opportunity. At the end of the day, I see another painful rerun of the same script – a close, hard-fought defensive struggle most of the game, with the Gator opponent being able to pull away late to get the win.

Prediction: Michigan 20 Florida 17

Alabama Review

Florida made it’s return to Atlanta for the first time since 2009, hoping to shock the college football world with an upset of Alabama.  Despite another great performance by the defense, the Gators came up short in a performance painfully familiar for the last month of the season.

The offense was offensive once again, generating only a paltry 15 yards on 21 carries, and gaining only 3 net yards in the 2nd and 3rd quarters combined – another dreadful exhibition that hopefully will be changed starting next season with improved play at the QB and O-Line positions.  Treon Harris did not improve, missing lots of open receivers all afternoon and missing on scoring chances in the first half that definitely could have changed the outcome.  The O-Line knew going in that running the ball would be difficult against a strong Bama D-Line, and unfortunately that scenario played out.  Kelvin Taylor never had a chance to find some open space, and Harris only had a few scrambles for decent yardage.  Coach Nussmeier schemed up some potentially big plays in the passing game, but again Harris failed to deliver the ball on time and accurately, killing any real chance at victory.  The pass blocking actually was decent again, but poor QB play doomed the offense.  If asked about the execution of the offense, I’m sure Coach Mac could easily respond with the old John McKay line, “I’m all for it”.

The Gator defense again played hard for almost 60 minutes until it ran out of gas.  The D-Line and LBs laid the wood to Derrick Henry all afternoon, made him earn each of his 189 rushing yards on 44 attempts, and caused a fumble for a turnover.  Jon Bullard led an inspired effort by the entire D-Line, while Jarrad Davis was all over the field, disrupting the run and pass.  Sadly, the secondary gave up 2 TDs and another long pass that could have been prevented by better ball-awareness by the safeties, especially Marcus Maye.  Maye has struggled all season with locating the ball and making a play on it going back to the LSU game, and was victimized again in the second half.  The cornerbacks had decent coverage most of the day, but allowed some completions where the ball should have been knocked down, including one TD.  Even Vernon Hargreaves had a few opportunities to make some big plays in coverage on some key throws and didn’t do it.

The special teams were right where they’ve been all season.  Great kick coverage, another punt return TD by Antonio Callaway, terrific punting by Johnny Townsend, and terrible FG kicking by Austin Hardin.  Florida allowed it’s only blocked punt of the season which gave Bama momentum and an early 2-0 lead, and Hardin had another FG blocked – both in the 1st quarter……not the best way to inspire confidence from the rest of the team.

The script didn’t change from the past month, but hopefully recruits see that this staff can put the players in position to win, even with limited depth and talent.  Overall it was a great season – much better than most expected, and the opportunity to play for a championship can never be discounted.  The coaching staff will be working especially hard on recruiting between now and National Signing Day – there are plenty of holes to fill on the roster, especially at WR, OL, LB, and QB.  There will be some early entries into the NFL – VH3 for sure, with Keanu Neal a likely candidate as well, and the loss of key seniors like Bullard and Antonio Morrison will be felt on the field and in the locker room.   There is sufficient underclass depth to absorb these losses without a huge dropoff in performance, but those are big shoes to fill.

Florida has been rewarded with a trip to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl against Michigan.  This will be a matchup of 2 similar teams – both were lightly regarded going into the season, had new head coaches, and were led by very tough defenses.  I’ll be back in a few weeks with the bowl matchup analysis – it should be a good game.

Go Gators!

 

 

 

 

Florida $tate Review / Alabama Preview

Another soul-crushing “offensive” performance, another loss to F$U, and the late-season regression continues.  A great crowd, great defensive effort, good running game, and decent play from the O-Line weren’t enough to make up for a terrible passing game and lack of performance by QB Treon Harris, to go with more missed FGs from Austin Hardin.  I really feel bad for Harris, as he’s doing his best after being thrown into a bad situation, and his play is so limited that it’s easy for defenses to stop the few things he’s capable of.  He again missed wide open receivers that could have led to scores, could not check down quickly, and had multiple passes batted down.  He continues to be excoriated by the fans and media, but has been a great Gator in the face of a difficult situation.

The O-Line actually held up and played well, considering they played with no passing threat and a QB that will be at WR or possibly at another school next year.  There were occasional holes opened for Kelvin Taylor, and he ran hard through some nagging injuries.  He has really developed and improved as the season has progressed, and has shown toughness while going through a ton of punishment.  Taylor needs 23 yards this week to get to 1,000 for the season, and has already tied his dad’s record for rushing TDs by a RB at Florida with 13.  The pass protection broke down a few times, but, again, they had no help from the QB and WRs.  Trip Thurman had to play at center due to an injury to Cam Dillard, and he made quite a few bad snaps, some of which really killed some decent drives.  Freshman Tyler Jordan had to fill in at guard, while Martez Ivey and David Sharpe continued to play through nagging injuries.  There’s no questioning that this group (including Mason Halter) played hard and played close to their maximum capability.

The suspension of Demarcus Robinson really hurt, and the WRs that were left struggled.  Even when they did break open, Harris was (again) painfully slow in delivering the ball and often inaccurate.  Antonio Callaway had at least two opportunities to score if the ball was delivered accurately and on time.  Chris Thompson did his best to fill in for Robinson, but his lack of playing time and experience was obvious.  Brandon Powell’s output has fallen off dramatically this month – he is battling through a painful foot injury, but his limitations are apparent.  I hoped Ahmad Fulwood would contribute, but he was hardly targeted all night.  This is a group that desperately needs an upgrade next season.

The Gator defense made another heroic effort, an dominated for 50 minutes before finally showing some cracks after tiring.  They allowed no consistent passing game, and completely shut down Dalvin Crook until the middle of the 4th quarter.  It has to be hard for those guys not to flash back to the past 2 seasons, as the offense dies on the vine.  Jon Bullard and Joey Ivie played well even through injuries, and the entire D-Line was disruptive most of the evening.  Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison flew around the field to make tackles.  Morrison really earned his nickname of Tank playing through a lot of injuries, but what a season after coming back from ACL surgery in less than 8 months to play in every game – a real inspiration and show of toughness.  VH3 and the secondary were tough all evening, allowing only a few decent completions despite knowing they were fighting an uphill battle.  Props to Keanu Neal for playing the flats so well on swing passes to Crook.

Finally, the special teams did what they’ve done all season.  Great punting form Johnny Townsend, solid kick coverage, and……lousy FG kicking.  Hardin may keep his scholarship next season, but it will be only for kickoffs.  His confidence is completely gone, and those missed FGs directly contributed to this loss.  Yeah, it’s a team game, but sometimes a lack of performance is so apparent it can’t be glossed over.

It’s on to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.  Despite the depressing “offensive” effort against F$U, what a great reward for this team, especially looking back just 4 months to most of the preseason projections from the media and most of the fans expecting 6-8 wins.  I hope the staff and the seniors can lift the spirits of the team and try to coax one more total effort, because it will be needed to have any chance of winning or even keeping the game close against an excellent Alabama team.

It’s usually about matchups, and this one is especially bad on paper for the Gators.  Bama’s strength is on the D-Line, led by DTs A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed who head one of the best rush defenses in the nation.  LB Reggie Ragland leads a solid group.  The weakest unit is the secondary, but Florida is showing no real threat in the passing game.  This is house money for the Gators, and Coach Mac and Coach Nuss should take some chances with long throws, jump balls, and fade routes to the WRs to try and generate a few big plays.  There’s nothing to lose, as Treon Harris is struggling so badly right now to complete any passes let alone get them past the LOS without being batted down.  If that means going to low-percentage throws that aren’t as risk-adverse, so be it.  Robinson has been reinstated, and could be a huge boost to the WR corps.  Callaway and Powell need some help……I hope Fulwood can shock Bama and make a few plays.  The Florida O-Line actually played pretty well against F$U, considering the passing game was of such little consequence and they had to block so many opponents in the box.  I’m not sure they can open the same holes for Taylor again against a better D-Line, but they have to try and open some cracks at least occasionally.  One thing that seemed to work against F$U was when the offense went up-tempo on occasion – perhaps that helps Harris by keeping the defense simple, and allows his to use his legs more.

I’m not sure how much gas is left in the tank for the Gator defense.  They were fantastic against the Criminoles before cracking, and it is starting to become eerily similar to what Gator fans have witnessed the previous 2 seasons.  Hopefully the staff can pump the guys up for 60 more minutes, as the bowl game isn’t for another 3 1/2 weeks – plenty of time to rest and recoup their physical and mental energy.  Alabama is led by Heisman candidate Derrick Henry at RB, who is a unique player with size, power, and deceptive speed, as well as a decent receiver in the screen game.  I expect a heavy dose all afternoon, even if the Gators can slow him down early.  I’m sure Lane Kitten will take some long shots to WR Calvin Ridley in specific situations to try and fool Florida’s secondary, but VH3, Jalen Tabor, or Quincy Wilson will have to be relied upon to play solid man coverage while the front seven (or eight) try and contain Bama’s running game.  Davis and Morrison are beaten up at LB, but have to go to the well one more time to try and slow Henry.  If Florida does slow down the Tide’s running game, I would not be surprised to see underutilized TE O.J. Howard get some targets – he’s a real threat and can be a dangerous weapon.  QB Jake Coker has managed their offense well this season.  He isn’t the most accurate passer, but does a nice job of keeping plays alive with his legs and is a better runner than many realize.  Hopefully the Gator secondary remembers their performance at Alabama last season – and atones for it.

Going off of recent performances, this game likely won’t be close at the end.  If Bama follows the defensive script that teams have employed against Harris and the Gator offense the past month, Florida will again struggle to move the ball consistently, let alone score many points.  I really think that other than the Gators having a +3 or better turnover margin, the only scenario to play out that gives Florida a chance to win is for Bama to sleep-walk through the first half which keeps the score close, then they start to tighten up in the second half as they realize what’s as stake and perhaps start to press.  I fully expect an early onslaught from the Crimson Tide to try and get a double-digit lead and force Florida out of any balance on offense, and into that “here we go again” mentality on the Gator defense.

No matter the outcome, congratulation to the Gators for a great season.  They have accomplished so much more than expected, and (hopefully) have laid a foundation for the new coaching staff to build upon to reclaim dominance in the SEC East on a regular basis and to eventually have the talent level in “reload” vs. “rebuild” mode.

 

Prediction:  Alabama 31      Florida 10

 

Florida Atlantic Review / Florida $tate Preview

Florida tempted fate again against an outmanned FAU team, and was fortunate to survive overtime with a desultory effort.  As bad as it was going into halftime tied at 0-0, blowing a 14-0 lead in the 4th quarter was worse.  It’s easy to just go ahead and bash the players for a lack of effort and focus – especially on offense, but perhaps the smoke-and-mirrors it’s taken the staff to hold the offense together through 11 games is finally taking it’s toll on the emotional level of the entire team.  Even the defense has started to show cracks in concentration and execution the past 2 weeks.  It also didn’t help that the FAU was playing dirty by cut-blocking the Gator DL all afternoon, leading to a few injuries, including Jon Bullard.

The Gator offense regressed (again) from last week, with another Misschump-era performance.  The O-Line was brutal, never allowing the running game any consistency, and having Treon Harris run for his life for most of the day.  The starting lineup was back in place, but their play was a painful reminder of what many believed would be the case at the start of the season.  It’s hard to say if this unit just mentally checked out for this game, or if deeper problems have developed behind the scenes.  Harris was pressured all afternoon, but occasionally was his own enemy as well, missing open receivers.  Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett had little room to run all day.  It’s hard to believe the WRs couldn’t work free more often, but to be fair, Harris didn’t have much time to throw.

Florida’s defense allowed only 1 TD, but certainly didn’t distinguish themselves.  They allowed too many sustained drives, and the secondary played way to softly in coverage, giving up a lot of easy throws in the second half.  Even the run defense was gashed.  The lack of depth on the D-Line due to injuries really showed itself in the 4th quarter.  To their credit, they generated the first Gator TD with a QB sack and fumble returned to the FAU 1-yard line, and the oft-maligned Brian Poole made the play on the ball on the last 2 plays in OT.

At this point I don’t know what to say or even think about Austin Hardin’s placekicking.  He hit the upright on one FG attempt and them overcorrected on the other, both from under 40 yards, and had another XP blocked due to a low kick.  Somehow the staff has to find a more reliable option next season, as Hardin’s mental makeup is simply not getting the job done.  Florida will have to live and die with him the rest of this season, though.

The final regular-season game is at the Swamp this week, as Florida $t. comes to Gainesville to try and continue their recent run of success against the Gators.  Dalvin Crook and the Criminoles would love nothing better than to take advantage of Florida’s recent struggles and sneak out with a win.

F$U sadly has figured out that Sean Maguire is the better of their 2 QBs, as I was hoping that Everett Golson would be the starter and ready to turn the ball over multiple times.  Maguire is not the running threat that Golson is, which should help the Gator front seven contain him in the pocket and force him to find open receivers.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see them break tendencies and take some deep shots early to try and loosen up the Florida secondary so they can work their short passing game.  Travis Rudolph and Kermit Whitfield are the main receiving threats, but neither is a burner and true deep threat.  If the Gator cornerbacks are on their game, there’s no real strategy F$U can expect continued success with – their WRs and TEs are simply not as good as the Gator secondary.  Most of the Criminoles’ success on offense is predicated on their strong running game with Crook, which sets up play-action passes.  The Gator defensive front seven has to refocus itself and play hard for 60 minutes.  Many of the linemen are dinged up, so expect a heavy rotation all along the line to try and maximize their performance and keep them fresh.  Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Taven Bryan, and Alex Macalister all may be limited in the number of snaps they get.  The long season is also starting to catch up to Tank Morrison and Jarrad Davis at LB.  They continue to soldier on valiantly, but neither of them is close to 100% at this point, with little relief in sight form the backups, who simply aren’t good enough yet.  The defense can’t afford to crack against the running game and allow long, time-consuming drives.  The Gator offense is going to need as many chances as they can get to try and generate points, which leads me to……

……the Gator offense.  The pressure lies squarely on the shoulders of the entire unit this week, and every man has to raise his level of play from recent weeks.  The O-Line has been a sieve lately due to injuries and lack of focus, and that has to change.  Only 8 OL will likely play barring injuries, and the communication and effort have to be on point to give the RBs and Harris any chance of sustaining a few drives and scoring some points.  David Sharpe and Martez Ivey have to play through injuries, while Trip Thurman, Can Dillard, Tyler Jordan, and Mason Halter need to step up their performance.  The staff will hopefully have some new formations and schemes in order to break free the TEs and WRs.  The middle of the field between the numbers has to be utilized – Harris needs to make quick reads and simply cut it loose.  Hopefully Jake McGee and Deondre Goolsby can hit some seam routes or wheel routes.  Demarcus Robinson needs to break out of his recent funk and show 100% effort every play.  He has great physical skills, but his mental game continues to hold him back.  Antonio Callaway continues to impress as a true freshman, but still lacks polish at route-running.  Somehow he needs to generate 1 or 2 of the big plays he’s contributed throughout the season.  The recent play of the offense will almost surely guarantee a loss unless they show massive improvement.

The Criminole defense is lead by DL Derrick Nnadi, DeMarcus Walker, and Josh Sweat, LBs Reggie Northrup and Lamarcus Brutus, and DBs Derwin James and Jaylen Ramsey.  This is a solid unit overall, but lacks the big-time playmakers.  They have not allowed many long plays, but have been gashed more often than recent years by both the run and pass.  Of course, given the current struggles of Florida’s offense, almost any defense can look formidable.  I expect the same look from the F$U defense as Florida has seen against most of it’s better opponents – 8 or 9 men in the box, and single coverage on the WRs.  There will be opportunities for some big plays, but can the Gators rise to the challenge?  It’s all about effort, determination, and competing hard every play.

The national media has savaged the Gator offense all week, and belittled the team’s accomplishments to date.  Florida has fallen to #12 in the Playoff standings, behind even some 2-loss teams.  Talk about a slap in the face – the collective pride of the team has to be hurt, and this should serve as more than enough motivation to play their best game of the season.  I believe the defense will play well enough to win, but the offense has been so horrid recently that it is difficult to look past that and predict success against a quality opponent.  I am worried that their recent struggles are affecting their confidence, and that they can’t simply relax and play loose.  It pains me to make this pick, as a healthy Gator team with Will Grier at QB would likely win this game.

Prediction:  F$U 20        Florida 17

 

S. Carolina Review / Florida Atlantic Preview

Florida took care of it’s business in Columbia with a workmanlike 24-14 win over South Carolina.  The defense was dominant for 55 minutes with just one lapse that gave the Lamecocks false hope, while the offense improved over it’s dreadful performance against Vanderbilt with an improved passing game and some timely runs to keep a comfortable lead until the brief tension late in the game.

On offense, Treon Harris improved his passing from the past few weeks, making some nice downfield throws and some clutch 3rd down plays to keep some long drives alive.  The TEs were rediscovered, which really helped Harris in some tight spots and made the Carolina defense stay honest and not load the box every snap.  Jake McGee and Deondre Goolsby made some nice catches in traffic and Goolsby in particular some runs after the catch for big plays.  The WRs got some more opportunities as well – Brandon Powell converted some 3rd downs out of the slot, Antonio Callaway made a few grabs over the middle, and Demarcus Robinson made a great catch of a low throw late in the 4th quarter that continued the drive that iced the game.  Harris made a few mistakes that have to be corrected – his interception at the goal line at the end of the first half was inexcusable when the Gators could have put the game away, he took a few sacks where he could have thrown the ball away, and he continues to miss open receivers due to slow progressions.  He has 2 weeks to get better before the competition ramps up dramatically.  The running game was a tough go most of the afternoon, as Carolina did a lot of run blitzing while daring Florida to throw.  Kelvin Taylor earned a lot of tough yards, and his clutch run on the last possession on 3rd and 8 from midfield essentially ended the game.  Jordan Scarlett did not get many touches, and that is disappointing.  Jordan Cronkrite, however, showed some nice receiving skills, including coming back for the ball on the long TD that made it 14-0.  That could be a skill utilized in the coming weeks.  The O-line performed better with David Sharpe and Martez Ivey back in the starting lineup, but at this point it is what it is as far as overall ability – just an average unit at best.  It’s all about being opportunistic and efficient – this unit simply is not good enough to dominate games against stronger opponents.

The Gator defense completely shut down Carolina for the first 50 minutes, holding them to under 60 yards of offense.  Then they seemed to lose focus, allowing a throwback pass to the QB for a TD, then letting Carolina drive the field for their second TD, mainly through the air.  That was really the only disappointing moment for the defense.  It was good to see Jon Bullard play so much despite being less than 100%, and he again wreaked havoc along the LOS.  Caleb Brantley stepped up to the task of getting more reps than usual by stuffing the running lanes.  Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison did their usual damage from the LB position, and the secondary had their way with 3 interceptions, offsetting the one breakdown late in the game.  The entire defense seemed to relish the opportunity to pick the offense up after last week and lead the way – another example that great defense travels for road games.

This week Florida Atlantic comes to the Swamp for a big paycheck and (hopefully) a big beatdown.  Any time a smaller Florida school plays a larger state school, those players are hyped for the occasion and want to pull off the major upset.  The Gators will be down 3 D-Linemen – Alex McCalister, Joey Ivie, and Jordan Sherit.  This will be a great opportunity for Ce Ce Jefferson, Khairi Clark, and Taven Bryan to get extended playing time and develop more depth along the line.  The mantra for this type of game is always for the offense to get a comfortable lead early, allowing the staff to liberally substitute in the backups on both sides of the ball to rest the starters and lessen the chance of injuries.  This will be a difficult challenge for the staff to get the players focused on this game, with 2 huge games to come.   We’ll see if the sluggish effort from the offense against Vanderbilt is repeated at home again, or if the O-Line can build on it’s performance against South Carolina and the entire offense can play with an edge.  I expect a vanilla game plan on both sides of the ball in order to save up special formations, plays, and coverages for F$U and Alabama.  Florida needs to put this game away early and then set it’s sight on bigger prizes.

Prediction: Florida 34      FAU 13

 

The Great Escape

So much for a fun-filled, relaxed Homecoming.  The Florida offense completely imploded on Saturday, playing a sloppy, mistake-filled game that almost ruined all of the hard work and good fortune earned until now.  Fumbles, penalties, lack of focus, and the lack of depth on the O-Line came together in an almost perfect storm to derail a great season to date.  The O-line had 2 new starters on the left side due to injuries, and the lack of cohesiveness and, frankly, talent-level of the backups killed the running game and really affected Treon Harris.  The O-Line play was so bad that a hobbled David Sharpe and Martez Ivey were pressed into service to try and shore things up, but only with marginal success.  Harris already has enough challenges of his own, but all of them were magnified – slow check-downs, not seeing the middle of the field, and inaccurate short passes.  On top of that, he lost a fumble for the second week in a row, and that will not be tolerated by Coach Mac and Coach Nuss.  Harris is not the only culprit, though – Demarcus Robinson’s propensity for carrying the ball very loosely finally caught up to him, as he fumbled deep in Vandy territory midway through the 4th quarter on a drive that really could have made the rest of the game much easier to manage.  That performance overall brought back bad memories of the 2014 Misschump offense…….absolutely brutal.

I have one criticism of Coach Mac, and it’s his handling of Austin Hardin as the PK.  Hardin has struggled with confidence and injury most of the season, but he is far and away the best PK on the roster.  It’s time to stop beating him up in the press and support him.  Letting the walkon kicker try (and miss) the extra point almost cost Florida the game.  Plus, Hardin saved the Gators with his clutch FG that turned out to be the game-winner, and that’s not his first – he also won the game last season at Elevenessee with a 50+ yard FG late.  Also, Mac needs to stop going for it inside the 10 on 4th down and simply take the points – that decision again almost cost the Gators the win.  Stick with Hardin and stop the games – just hope for the best with him going forward.

The special teams return units were great, consistently starting the offense in Commodore territory.  That just magnified the ineptitude of the offense all afternoon, where simply putting a few first downs together would have practically guaranteed 17 or more additional points and not left the game in doubt until very late.  Antonio Callaway really has come on as a threat as a PR.  Johnny Townsend had another solid game, continually pinning the Commodores inside their own 20.

It’s now on to South Carolina for the final SEC game of the season.  The Gamecocks have actually played much better since the Pariah resigned/retired/quit a few weeks ago, and with the Florida offense regressing weekly, almost any game is a potential loss.  USCe really is mediocre on both sides of the ball, but playing hard makes up for a lot.  On offense they are led by QB Perry Orth, who started the season as the 3rd-string QB until early season injuries elevated him to the starter’s role.  He is a decent passer with some mobility, but his completion percentage is only average and he is susceptible to turnovers – something the defense may have to generate to help the offense score.  They have a quality RB in Brandon Wilds, but their O-Line has struggled most of the season, and this is the most favorable matchup for the Gator defense, as the D-Line has been one of the best in the country this year.  Normally, they would be able to control the Lamecocks for most of the afternoon, allowing the Florida offense enough possessions to (hopefully) scrape together enough points and time-of-possession to get out of Columbia with a win.  However, Jordan Sherit has to sit out the first half due to the ridiculous targeting call against him, Joey Ivie is out with an abdominal tear, and Jon Bullard may be very limited with an arm injury.  Bullard’s leadership on the field would be sorely missed.  Pharoh Cooper is a quality WR and kick returner, and I would expect VH3 to be assigned to him most of the day.  The rest of the secondary should have the advantage as well, but Keanu Neal is fighting through an ankle injury.  Of course, if the Gator offense lays another egg, it only takes a few big plays to win, and no defense is immune to at least a few missed assignments or letdowns.

On offense, the Gators should get LT Sharpe and LG Ivey back in the starting lineup, and that should allow Coach Summers to use his regular lineup and rotation again.  The running game has to take some pressure off of Harris, and Coach Nuss really needs to find a way to get the TEs back into the game plan to help out.  The passing game has to utilize the middle of the field between the numbers more – Harris needs to find some lanes in order to make throws there and step up in the pocket more often.  He is scrambling way too quickly without going through his progressions.  I can only hope the dismal performance against Vanderbilt wakes the offense up and reminds them of how hard they have to practice and play to be successful.  It may be time for the coaches to get after Harris and not coddle him – perhaps that will get him to re-focus on what he needs to do to help the team win.   Jordan Scarlett should continue to see more carries to keep Taylor fresh.  All of the WRs need to step up this week as well.  The defense allowed the offense it’s one mulligan for the season.

Congratulations to the entire team and coaching staff for a minor miracle in winning the East and going back to Atlanta for the first time since 2009 – too long of an absence.  No matter what happens going forward, that should not be lost on anyone who follows the Gators.  There were tremendous obstacles in their path, many left behind by the previous staff.  Of course the defense is championship-caliber, but the offensive staff has somehow managed the players and talent at their disposal to develop a functional unit.  It’s funny how such a close call can quickly make many forget what this team has accomplished and far it has had to come on offense to get to this point.

There are still some huge goals attainable for this team, starting with finding a way to win this coming Saturday.  Burn the game film from last week, and move on.

Prediction:  Florida 20      S. Carolina 17

 

 

 

Georgia Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida got back on track with a solid victory over Georgia in Jacksonville.  This was a much-needed win to keep the positive momentum created by a great start to the season, and also for recruiting.   Georgia had it’s chance to really swing the series back in it’s favor the past 2 years, but now Florida is rebuilding and reasserting it’s dominance.  Coach Helen Hunt now hears the howls for his head, while Puppy Nation takes the I-75 Trail of Tears back to Athens……AGAIN.  That’s 20 out of 26 for the Gators since 1990 – nice to see more than a generation of Puppy fans being indoctrinated into the series the right way.  Yes, the St. John’s River still flows north for a reason.

The Gator defense again led the way, generating 5 turnovers and dominating the Puppy offense most of the afternoon.  The run defense was as good as it’s been all season, holding Georgia to 77 yards rushing, and never letting them get into any comfortable flow to help out a first-time starter at QB.  Faton Bauta was overmatched, but I will say that the game plan put together by Helen Hunt and Brian Schottenheimer sucked.  They should have leaned on the run game and allowed Bauta to run more read-option stuff, and then go to play-action passes.  Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but that was simply a panic move.  The Florida front seven played very well, and the rotation along the D-Line is really paying off now – those guys are fresh in the second half, and are winning the battle on the LOS.  Georgia has a solid O-Line, but the Gators more often than not had their way.  Tank Morrison and Jarrad Davis continue to wreak havoc at LB, while the secondary simply outclassed the Puppy receivers.  Marcus Maye had another diving interception, and Jalen Tabor’s effort to tip an end zone pass at the last second to Keanu Neal was a great play and the final nail in the doghouse.

Florida’s offense was occasionally painful to watch.  Treon Harris struggled again in the short passing game, but was able to make enough big plays on 3rd down or in a scramble situation to offset his inaccuracy.  His TD throw to Antonio Callaway that stretched the lead to 13-0 allowed the offense to relax somewhat.  I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the running game.  Kelvin Taylor had another good game, and Jordan Scarlett provided some fresh legs and big runs in the second half as the Puppy defense started to wear down.  Taylor’s game has really improved as the season has progressed – he is running more north and south, and is firmly planting his foot and making quick cuts upfield.  Scarlett should get more snaps going forward, and will be a good complement to Taylor.  The play of the O-Line and coaching of Mike Summers have to be recognized.  This group will never be considered even very good, but they have fought hard all season, and have shown marked improvement.  It’s good that Harris is mobile, as the pass-blocking will continue to struggle against better defenses, but Summers has worked a minor miracle with this unit.

Special teams are still a mixed bag.  The kick coverage units were solid less one kickoff return set up by a penalty forcing a kickoff from the 20.  Florida received a gift on it’s first score when Reggie Davis fumbled a punt inside his own 5-yard line into the end zone for a Gator TD – another example of bad coaching.  Austin Hardin continues to excel on kickoffs, but his FG kicking is simply awful.  His head is so screwed up right now that he may be a basket case the rest of the season…..and it could cost Florida eventually.  Johnny Townsend punted very well all day – he pinned UGA inside it’s own 20 repeatedly, putting even more pressure on a young QB and helping his defense by forcing a long field on the Puppies.

Now it’s finally back to the Swamp for Homecoming against Vanderbilt.  The Commodores have taken a huge step back to where they traditionally are – at or near the bottom of the standings.  Their defense has played very well under Head Coach Derek Mason, but their offense has been horrendous……Will Misschump-level horrendous.  They will hope to make this an ugly, low-scoring game, and somehow try to steal a win late.  However, the current Gator staff has done a fine job of limiting penalties and turnovers, which are really the only chance Vandy has.  I expect a vanilla offensive game plan, and not much scoring.  The Florida O-Line has a few guys banged up who may not play much if at all this week – LT David Sharpe and LG Martez Ivey, so we’ll see how Coach Summers handles the thin depth chart and cobbles together a lineup.  This will hamper the offense, so I would not be surprised at all with a close score going into the second half.

Here’s what you’re gonna get with Harris at QB:

1) The staff will hopefully have about 6 scripted pass plays that he is comfortable with and executes well in practice.

2) There will be about 12 “bread-and-butter” plays that the staff can go to throughout the game (maybe with various formations, but the same basic plays).

3) The rest?  Pure sandlot……just hope for the best.

That’s it.  Just hope the defense doesn’t break down like at LSU, and that Hardin gets his mind right and starts making some FGs.  Essentially, the term I’d use for the offense the rest of 2015 is “limited”.

The Gator defense should control the flow of the game, and the ‘Dores should wear down in the second half.  We’ll see how the team reacts to success and if they can keep their edge mentally, play hard this week against an outmanned opponent, and not think about the stakes in play for what could turn out to be a big season.

Prediction:  Florida 24      Vanderbilt 7

Georgia Preview

After a week off to rest and work on fundamentals, the biggest game of the season so far now looms in Jacksonville, as Florida takes on Georgia.  The Puppies will be bent on revenge after getting run over all day long in last year’s beatdown loss to the Gators.  We’ll see how well the players have used the bye week, and if the coaching staff has developed an effective game plan and has the team sharp from the start.

Georgia’s strength on offense is still it’s running game, despite the loss of Nick Chubb.  Sony Michel is a threat as a runner and receiver, and the Gator defense will have to account for him every play.  The Puppies have been inconsistent all season throwing the ball, but this is a desperate time for Coach Helen Hunt, and I expect more throws on first down to break tendencies.  TE Jay Rome is a big target, WR Malcolm Mitchell is QB Greyson Lambert’s favorite target and has seemingly been in school for 6 years (probably still only a sophomore in credits earned), WR Reggie Davis isn’t a burner but has size, and Michel is a weapon on screens and wheel routes.  The best unit on this side of the ball, though, is the O-Line, one of the best run-blocking groups in the SEC.

This will another tough challenge for Florida’s D-Line, which did not distinguish itself against LSU, and needs to play the run better this week.  Jon Bullard and Caleb Brantley must be stout and hold their gaps, allowing LBs Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison better lanes to the ball carriers.  DBU was embarrassed by breakdowns in coverage at LSU, and needs to respond with a dominant performance this week.  Georgia does not have any real game-breaker at WR, so the DBs should have an advantage.  The safeties need to account for the TE and not be overly focused on supporting the run defense.  Coach Pricht uses play-action often to exploit the seam routes and the middle of the field, and uses the screen pass extensively on 3rd and long.  These tendencies have to be known by the Gator staff, so those plays should not come as any surprise and be well-defended.

Florida has to run the ball much better than at LSU, because Treon Harris can’t be relied on to carry the day having to throw the ball exclusively.  Kelvin Taylor needs some help, as he has carried a heavy load of carries so far this season.  Hopefully Jordan Scarlett or Jordan Cronkrite are ready to step up and provide some carries to keep a fresh rotation.  Once again the TEs, starting with Jake McGee, will be relied upon to help Harris out and keep the chains moving.  Here’s hoping that WR Demarcus Robinson has another game like he did against Ole Miss, providing enough of a threat the keep the secondary honest and allowing Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway room underneath.  If the offense can’t stay on schedule on early downs, it could be a long day.

Georgia’s defense is led by DE Leonard Floyd, and LBs Jordan Jenkins and Jake Ganus.  While their front seven has been solid most of the season, their secondary has struggled in coverage, and they were shredded by both Alabama and Tennessee, two offenses that have not been especially prolific this year.  They will be primed to stop the run after last year’s debacle, but Florida has struggled to run the ball all season, so we will see if the Gators can exploit a weak pass defense often enough to move the ball and score TDs in the red zone.

Florida’s special teams are starting to gel.  Callaway has been solid on punt returns, and the kick coverage units have improved.  A big key will be the performance of PK Austin Hardin, who did well at LSU despite still not being 100% healthy.  Coach Mac has shown little confidence in Hardin making FGs, and this could become a game-changing problem soon.  With the season-ending injury to Jorge Powell, the staff actually had to have open tryouts for a walk-on kicker……something that should never have to happen at Florida.

The winner of this game essentially wins the East Division, so the stakes are high.  It’s hard to say how Harris will perform with a lot of pressure to win this game, and the Puppies will have extra motivation after last year’s big loss, getting physically manhandled the entire game.  Florida (sadly) has not been in a big game like this since 2012, and It will be interesting to see how the players react to the pressure.  A win puts the Gators in Atlanta barring a rash of key injuries or a Misschump-like implosion.  Losing this game would dampen a lot of the good feelings the team has generated through 7 games, and make the Gators rely on other teams to help them win the East.

It’s my 36th consecutive Florida-Georgia game, and this one will be interesting with all of the unique subplots surrounding it.  Here’s hoping for a Gator victory and the chance to build on a very good season to date, and keep up the positive recruiting momentum.

Prediction:  Florida 24        Georgia 20