Florida $t. Review / Alabama Preview

In another frustrating and painful road loss, the Gator offense once again failed miserably to do it’s part to win the game. After a great opening drive that featured a quick pace and spreading the ball around the entire field, it was back to the same predictable, ineffective play calling and execution that that has been all too common in 2016. That initial promising drive ended with the very questionable (in my opinion dead wrong) decision to try and score a TD on 4th down instead of taking the points and buoying the confidence of the offense. After that, it was hit or (mostly) miss, with a beaten up O-Line and inaccurate passes killing any legitimate chance to keep the game within reach. Why the offensive scheme didn’t remain the same the entire night is something that Coach Mac needs to address immediately – continued bad offense will be his undoing and he’ll not even make it to his 5th year, and perhaps 4th. Once again the lack of a quality SEC QB was obvious, as just a few accurate deep throws to open WRs completely changes the complexion of the game. Appleby missed Antonio Callaway on a corner route near the goal line after the interception by Chauncey Gardner, and later in the 3rd quarter missed Tyrie Cleveland on a post-corner route for a gain deep into F$U territory. The Criminole defense played to stop the running game and make the Gators prove they could do damage through the air, and that strategy ultimately worked. Martez Ivey was playing hurt from the start, and it showed. David Sharpe again struggled with speed rushing off the edge, while Jawaan Taylor simply wasn’t good enough as a true freshman to control Demarcus Walker. The RBs didn’t help out in pass protection either, consistently missing assignments and making life difficult for Appleby. The O-Line could not consistently provide the same holes for Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine that they did against LSU. Finally, the offense was 0-13 on 3rd down – that is embarrassing, and another indictment against Doug Nussmeier.

The Gator defense played valiantly with limited resources and inexperience at key positions at LB and in the secondary, and kept the game within reach until the middle of the 3rd quarter, when they repeatedly allowed 3rd down conversions that eventually wore them down and allowed 2 big plays that lost the game. The long pass and run by Travis Rudolph wasn’t helped by the bad angle Chauncey Gardner took attempting the tackle, and the fullback counter play early in the 4th quarter came against a tired defense that almost always easily makes that play – as they did repeatedly against LSU when rested. All that being said, the defense in general did not do a good job of controlling Dalvin Crook, allowing him to control the game with over 100 rushing yards and not setting the edge at the LOS, allowing him to get outside. Lots of missed tackles and bad angles as well. I think the struggles of the offense again have taken their toll physically and mentally – DE Jordan Sherit left with a season-ending knee injury, backup S Jaewon Taylor incurred a shoulder injury that took him out of the game, and others like CBs Duke Dawson and Quincey Wilson started to cramp up and were noticeably limping in the second half. It’s amazing that this unit held together this long, especially losing the heart of the defense in Jarad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye to injury the past month. But……again……they did crack, and it’s déjà vu all over again, with flashbacks to the horrid end of the 2015 season.

The Gator special teams did what they could by blocking a FG at the end of the first half, controlling the F$U return game, and scoring a TD in the 4th quarter on a fumble recovery. Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro have been outstanding this season, and did their part. The only glaring mistakes were 2 shanked kickoffs by Pineiro that allowed F$U to start form their 35-yard line, but neither of those possessions wound up in points.

That makes 6 out of 7 losses to F$U, and another hit to recruiting. Zero offensive TDs in the last 2 games against your in-state rival – unacceptable. Some very basic changes are necessary, and hopefully Coach Mac is strong enough to do what is necessary – now.

Florida now moves on to a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. This is a rematch of the 2015 game against Alabama, and once again Florida is a huge underdog, and deservedly so. Bama has top talent and depth throughout it’s roster, and has had little trouble imposing it’s will on opponents all season. Despite good production on offense led by true freshman QB Jalen Hurts, the Crimson Tide defense again is the backbone of the team. The front seven is heavy with future NFL players led by DTs Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand. Their D-Line is stout against the run, but also consistently gets pressure with pass rush specialist Tim Williams. The Bama LB corps is led by Rueben Foster and Ryan Anderson, 2 more all-SEC caliber players that are smart and physical. Florida’s depleted O-Line will have trouble moving the ball with any regularity – it’s up to Coach Mac and Coach Nuss to realize this, try and spread the field with quick throws in space, and accept the fact that it will take success with low-percentage deep pass plays to make this a game. While CB Minkah Fitzpatrick is a playmaker and ball hawk, the loss of Eddie Jackson needs to be exploited, as the Tide secondary can be beaten occasionally. There really is nothing to lose, and there is no proof that the Gators can sustain a running game against this level of competition. Yes, the run game was effective in the second half at LSU, but this Bama front seven is better.

Florida’s defense is depleted further this week with more key injuries. DE Jordan Sherit is done with a knee injury, S Jaewon Taylor is out with a bad shoulder, and the key pair of LB Alex Anzalone and S Marcus Maye remain out. It does look like LB Jarrad Davis will give it a go after missing the past 3 games with ankle injuries – his leadership could prove valuable. There is still enough talent and depth along the D-Line led by Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, and Taven Bryan to get a stalemate at the LOS, but will these guys (again) become worn down by another putrid performance by the Gator offense? The Bama running game is still strong led by a veteran O-Line and RBs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, but a few guys have been dinged up recently and they haven’t been gashing teams as often the past month. Hurts is threat to run as well as pass, but if the front seven can keep containment and force him to throw, he has shown he will turn the ball over. Calvin Ridley is an excellent WR and ArDarius Srewart is a deep threat, but the narrative is essentially the same as the previous 2 weeks – try to hold things in check up front, and lean on Tabor and Wilson to control the intermediate and deep passing game. Hopefully, TE OJ Howard will continue to be underutilized, as he is a tough matchup for slower LBs and smaller DBs – he could be a real threat in this game. Ultimately, the defense can’t afford to allow any easy scores, and must make Hurts prove he can move the Tide offense through the air.

Special Teams have to be just that this week – they somehow have to lead directly to a score or provide short fields for the offense at least twice. Townsend and Pineiro have answered the bell all season for the most part, and have to once again. It’s incumbent on the return game to find a way and break Callaway loose.

As much as I had hoped the end to 2016 would be different, it’s starting to feel like 2015 again. A bad loss to F$U, a difficult matchup with a strong Alabama team, and recruiting momentum stopped. I’m not sure how this game ultimately plays out, but unless Appleby is allowed to run occasionally and to take more deep shots, and the offense finds a way to give the defense a fighting chance, this will be another blow to Florida on the national stage and could cripple the 2017 recruiting class. Coach Mac is starting to hear the questions and feel the pressure that comes with being the head coach at Florida. He will need to make some difficult but necessary decisions as soon as this game is over in regards to his current staff and also hold together what was until last week a good recruiting lass. A solid showing against Alabama is the first, difficult step……he has a lot of things working against him right now.

Prediction: Alabama 37 Florida 13

LSU Review / Florida $t. Preview

Finally, some good fortune for the Gators! Despite tough odds playing with 8 missing starters and having to play a second straight year on the road at Baton Rouge, Florida gutted out a memorable 16-10 win that books a trip back to Atlanta as SEC East champions. That was a remarkable effort from the entire team and coaching staff. It wasn’t pretty at times, but timely playmaking and strong red-zone defense were enough to earn a much-deserved victory and shut up all of those corn dog fans and assclown AD Joe Alleva.

On a day defined by big plays such as the 98-yard TD pass from Austin Appleby to Tyrie Cleveland and great individual efforts such as Jordan Scarlett’s 102 yards rushing, everyone will remember the goal-line stand by the defense. That group forced 2 turnovers and allowed only 10 points on 5 trips by LSU into the red zone. The young LBs led by David Reese played very well, and the D-Line made enough individual big plays led by Caleb Brantley to turn back a physical Tiger rushing offense. How poetic that Derrius Guice, who ran his mouth all week about how Florida was scared to play LSU, fumbled in the first half at the Gator 2-yard line and was stuffed on the last play of the game. Watching the replay showed that every defender did a great job of holding their ground and not allowing any room to run. While the Gators were hurt by throws to the TEs, they weren’t going to have a repeat of 2015, when they allowed 2 long pass TDs to the WRs by simply failing to locate the ball on what should have been easy breakups or interceptions. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson were in man coverage almost all afternoon, and held up well. Tabor also made a game-saving tackle on the last LSU drive by tackling D.J. Chark after Wilson had fallen down in coverage. LSU did move the ball well between the 20s, but the defense rose up when it counted most to save the day.

The Florida O-Line found it’s rhythm in the second half, churning out 2 long, time consuming drives by running right at LSU’s front seven and dominating the LOS. T.J. McCoy did a great job at center in his first-ever start, getting the line calls made and holding the point of attack. The guards were able to get to the second level and break Scarlett free for some big runs, but he also earned a lot of yards with very tough running and second effort. The passing game was not going to be relied upon unless absolutely necessary, and the defense made sure that Appleby didn’t have to win the game by throwing every down. The WRs did a great job of blocking for the running game and not getting down about the limited pass plays. Appleby was overly cautious at times when he had open field to run, but perhaps the staff had told him to protect himself at (almost) any cost. He was able to make critical completions in the second half to extend drives and the big TD to Cleveland (the second-longest pass TD in Gator football history) that completely changed the momentum of the game.

There was so much going against Florida coming in to this game, and it was gratifying to see them team respond with such a great performance. The entire LSU athletic dept. and team disrespected the Gators……and now get no respect after losing and being ridiculed across the country for their behavior. I hope they are looking forward to 2 straight trips to the Swamp!

There’s no time to rest on it’s laurels, as Florida now travels to Taliban City to face the Criminoles. The Gators certainly should come into this game with a lot of confidence from winning at LSU, and are trying to end a 3-game losing streak in the series.

This will be the 4th straight year that Florida comes into this game with a backup QB. At least Applebly has made some big plays at both Tennessee and LSU, and won’t be fazed by the night-game atmosphere. The game plan for the offense may look similar to LSU – try and win time of possession with the running game, and occasionally go for the big play with the pass. Given all of the recent turnover on the O-Line, pass protection is usually the hardest thing to solidify. I expect McCoy to start again at center, but David Sharpe has been a turnstile at LT in pass protection. Unfortuntely, Martez Ivey has an undisclosed leg injury and may not start. Kevaris Harkless may have to start at his 4th OL position this week. F$U’s strength on defense is it’s pass rush led by DeMarcus Walker, and that’s not a good matchup for Florida. If Appleby does get time to throw, the Criminole secondary has been vulnerable all season. It’s imperative to get the ball to Callaway and Cleveland in space for the opportunity of a big play. I look for a little better mix of passes on early downs, but still a heavy dose of Scarlett and Lemical Perine to try and keep the offense on schedule. I know the staff would like to let Appleby run more often on zone reads or scramble plays, but with zero experience backing him up those plays will have to come judiciously.

The Gator defense will be tested, as F$U mixes the run and pass well. They are led on offense by RB Dalvin Crook, and must make it a priority to slow him down first to force freshman QB Deondre Francois into passing downs. The Criminole O-Line has been a sieve in pass protection – Francois has taken a beating all season and can’t be anywhere near 100% health. He has played well given his inexperience and can be an elusive runner. However, he is susceptible to turnovers and his passing accuracy is only average. If the Gator D-Line can apply pressure and get hits on him, there will be opportunities for takeaways. They should be able to physically overmatch the F$U O-Line occasionally, but have to remain disciplined in their gaps because of Crook’s cutback ability and quickness. Once again Tabor and Wilson will be relied on heavily in man coverage against Travis Rudolph and the Criminole WRs. I expect F$U to be able to move the ball well at times – the Gator defense will need to limit explosive plays and stiffen in the red zone. Dumbo Fisher will try to expose the young LBs in pass coverage with screens and swing passes to the RBs, and that could be a real problem for the defense.

Florida’s special teams were certainly that against LSU, and have to repeat that performance. Johnny Townsend needs to continue his excellent punting, including pinning the opponent inside the 20. Eddy Pineiro has been a real weapon on kickoffs by not allowing many returns, and has found a groove on FGs that hopefully continues – he will be relied on this Saturday. The coverage teams will face some good return men and need to break down and contain. Callaway can hopefully break loose on a punt return, while Tabor has stepped in to help Chris Thompson on kickoff returns. Anything that can help flip field position will be welcomed.

As always, a lot rides on this game for Florida. Can the Gators finally put 2 quality efforts together? Of course it would be great to end the losing streak, but also to continue to gain momentum on the recruiting trail as there are several big-time targets both schools are fighting for. A lot of recruits are paying close attention to how Florida ends this season and whether they look consistently competitive against the best teams. The coaching staff has done an excellent job in keeping the team together despite so many injuries and off-the-field noise. Once again the Gators have to close ranks, find the right available personnel to match up with a talented opponent, and find a way to rise up emotionally to the challenge. I’m not sure if so many younger players are ready to perform again at a high level after so much effort went into the victory at LSU. At full strength, Florida has a good chance to win. With so many starters out……not so much

Prediction: Florida $t. 27 Florida 16

S. Carolina Review / LSU Preview

So much for the doomsayers and sky-is-falling crowd. South Carolina was no match for Florida in the Swamp, in a game where the score didn’t reflect the Gators’ domination. Florida should have been up at least 30 in the 3rd quarter if not for 2 terrible fumbles in the red zone. Not surprisingly, the Gator defense completely shut down the Lamecock offense and their supposed freshman sensation QB, only allowing a garbage time TD and some late yards with the backups playing. The D-Line controlled the LOS all afternoon, while David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph played well at LB despite their inexperience. Austin Appleby played to his strengths, and made enough plays with his arm and legs to spark the offense and provide some hope. Jordan Scarlett rumbled to over 100 yards, and Ahmad Fulwood (!) came straight off the missing person’s sticker on the milk carton to make some big catches and score a TD. It was good to see Coach Nuss force the ball to Antonio Callaway and let him make plays in space. Even though Appleby can’t read defense at LDR’s level, he can make athletic plays and make the long throw.

It was a solid showing overall, and always good to see Won’t Misschump get sent packing with another loss. Its just a shame the Gators didn’t roll up a bigger score to embarrass that clown. They did put on a good show for what was a huge recruiting weekend, with an excellent list of recruits in attendance. Coach Mac and the staff have to lock some of these kids down to restock the roster for 2017 while injecting some more juice into the offense.

The dark cloud that is injuries is getting bigger. Tyler Jordan left after the first play after getting rolled up by a teammate, David Sharpe had the same thing happen to him later in the 1st quarter, and Marcus Maye, the only real leader left on the defense, was injured in the 3rd quarter and had to be carted off with a broken arm. Talk about gutted like a fish – that’s 3 starting OL from a unit that was only average at best, and the strength of the defense up the middle in Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye (Anzalone and Maye are out for the season – Davis is likely out for this week). Maybe some day good luck will return to this program, because it’s been in short supply for 7 years running.

It’s do-or-die time for Florida this week, having to travel to LSU to play the Tigers after Hurricane Matthew screwed up the scheduling. LSU AD Joe Alleva became a whiny bitch and got his way (for this season), making the Gators play in Baton Rouge for a second straight year. Win, and the Gators are SEC East champions and book a trip back to Atlanta. Lose, and it’s depend on the unlikely scenario that Tennessee loses at home to Missouri or at Vanderbilt, in which the Vols will have more fans at that game than the Commodores – pathetic.

For Florida to win on the road, it’s going to take big plays from all 3 phases. The defense will have to at least slow the rugged Tiger rushing game led by Leonard Fournette and Darius Guice, while generating a score of their own. The offense will play the fastest and toughest defense it will see in the regular season, and have to put a least 10 points together. And special teams will need to break Callaway loose on a punt return to either score or set up a short field for the offense. The O-Line is a M*A*S*H unit at this point, but perhaps for 1 game they can rise to the occasion. Martez Ivey looked good at his natural LT spot, while TJ McCoy filled in adequately at center. Jordan should be back this week, which helps the interior. Appleby’s mobility will be critical in this game, as the LSU D-Line will be after him all afternoon. Coach Nuss will have to continue to design rollouts for him, and also allow him to keep the ball on the read option – that worked very well against Carolina and can at least slow the pursuit of LSU’s front seven.

LSU’s offense is all predicated on establishing it’s power run game, as QB Danny Etling is nothing special as a passer, despite having quality weapons at WR in Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, and D.J. Chark. The secondary will be on it’s own in man coverage all day, as the front seven will have it’s hands full with LSU’s running game. It all starts with RBs Fournette and Guice, possibly the best 1-2 punch in the country. They will pound the rock all afternoon, and the Gators front seven will have to play it’s best game of the season to just slow them down – I don’t see them being able to completely stop the Tiger running game. It’s imperative that the Florida DL play sound football, holding their gaps and not allowing cutback lanes. The LBs will have to play the game of their young lives – they need to tackle well and not overpursue. The Tiger defense is led by LB Kendall Beckwith, CB Tre’Davious White, and safety Jamal Adams. All are all-SEC caliber players. Florida will have to find a way to get some modicum of a running game going with Scarlett and Lemical Perine, and those 2 will also need to help in pass blocking and in the passing game to take pressure off of Appleby and sustain some drives. If the offense can’t give the defense some rest, there’s no way they will hold up with all of the critical losses they have suffered. Hopefully CeCe Jefferson can play some this week at DE, and I think Davis will give it a go at LB. His presence would be a huge boost to the entire team, even in limited action.

I hope the Gator coaching staff throw everything they can at LSU and can keep them off-balance enough to keep the game close into the 4th quarter. If the offense sputters again, it will another bad loss on the road, and likely a bitter end to the SEC season with no trip to Atlanta. As much as is riding on the outcome, the Gators can’t get too jacked up and make early mistakes – just do your job, and play hard and physical. Florida has a lot of pride to play for after embarrassing themselves on the road this season, and this would be a monumental win. Unfortunately, I don’t see Appleby and the offense making enough happen on their own, and the defense cracking due to the inexperience it brings in at LB and getting worn down as the game progresses.

Prediction: LSU 30 Florida 13

Arkansas Review / South Carolina Preview

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. After Tennessee lost at S. Carolina last week to open the door for Florida to win the SEC East by winning 2 out it’s last 3 conference games, the Gators were barbecued in the Ozarks, embarrassing themselves in a 31-10 defeat that was not as close as the score. Another brutal performance by the offense from the first snap to the last completely took away any incentive for the defense to soldier on. The game plan by Doug Nussmeier is grounds for immediate dismissal – coming out throwing against a team that just yielded over 500 yards rushing by Auburn with a QB that simply isn’t a SEC-caliber player was unconscionable. 5 carries by Jordan Scarlett, and 2 crippling interceptions by LDR, one a pick 6 on the first offensive play. Unacceptable.

To add injury to insult, Alex Anzalone is out for the year with a broken arm, Jarrad Davis had to leave with his recurring ankle injury, Cam Dillard has a knee injury that could keep him out until the bowl game, CeCe Jefferson has a foot injury that will limit him at least the coming week, and finally LDR is gone with a shoulder injury suffered late in the first half. Coach Mac stated he should have sat him down, but respected his toughness. Well, the performance didn’t merit that respect, and now it’s Austin Appleby’s chance to save the season.

The best thing to happen for Arkansas was a week off to regroup, get angry, and take it to Florida. I predicted a Razorback win, and was pessimistic all week about the game. But the (lack of) performance was disheartening to the defense and fans. This crap has to stop.

It’s back to the Swamp for the final home game of 2016 against South Carolina, with Will Misschump coming back to the place he tore down to try and pile on to the current negative momentum for the Gators. No one thought this game would even be competitive, but with all of the injuries and roster turnover on Florida’s side, this suddenly becomes a very important game for the Gators current SEC hopes, how the entire season is remembered, and also for recruiting. After the horrid performance at Arkansas, the coaching staff has to swing for the fences with the players filling in.

On offense, most of the attention will be on Appleby, but the O-Line will have to be revamped. Tyler Jordan will move from guard to center, Fred Johnson will start at Jordan’s spot, but expect to see an 8-man rotation with Kevaris Harkless, Richard Desir-Jones, and Brandon Sandifer getting snaps. It’s time to force the ball the Antonio Callaway, no matter if the defense is keying on him. You can put him in motion, use him on sweeps, and make sure he gets at least 8-10 targets in the passing game. No other WR seems to have the confidence of the staff, so go with your horse. To help Appleby out, make sure to feed the ball to Scarlett and Perine in the running game, and use the swing passes to the RBs more often. Appleby doesn’t have to try and do too much, but he has a much better arm than LDR and is a better runner – coach and game plan to his strengths. It also appears that Coach Mac is ready to pull the redshirt off of one of the freshmen QBs as the backup, and right now Felipe Franks has the edge over Kyle Trask. Franks is an elite athlete who could be effective in limited action with a specific script of plays. The Carolina defense is middling at best, but right now Florida’s offense makes any defense look good. Coach Nuss has to shake things up this week to inject some excitement into the players and generate points.

The defense will still have to be leaned upon, despite the myriad injuries. With both starting LBs out, freshmen Kylan Johnson, David Reese, Vosean Joseph, and Jeremiah Moon have to step into the void and perform. Jarrad Davis will likely dress out, but hopefully doesn’t need to take the field – his ankle injury needs the rest. The D-Line is still playing a lot of guys with injuries, but there’s too much on the line now to rest guys. The Gator secondary should have little problem with the Gamecock WRs – there are no game-breakers in that group. Carolina is starting true freshman Jake Bentley at QB. He has put up decent stats so far against mediocre competition, but is taking a major step up in competition. I know a lot of fans are down on the Gators right now, but I can’t wait to see Florida’s defense get after this kid – he has no idea what he’s up against Saturday, and I hope he gets punished. I expect Brandon McIlwain to get some snaps at QB as a change up because of his running ability, but he poses little threat as a passer.

It’s all hands on deck, literally, to get back some positive momentum, get the win this week, and set up a win-and-in scenario the following week at LSU. Unfortunately, this game will be another noon start, so expect far from a sellout crowd to help cheer the Gators on. With all of the strangeness that has been the 2016 season to date, now the drama of Misschump returning to Gainesville gets added to the mix. He and Trevaris Robinson have done nothing but bad-mouth Florida since they were let go (while still getting paid by UF), and need to get their asses kicked and punched in the mouth. I know Coach Mac wants this game badly, on top of it’s importance to the Gators’ SEC chances. I think the embarrassment of last week will motivate the players, and the entire coaching staff has something to prove as well. It could be another offensive grind for Florida, but I think Appleby can do enough on offense, and the home field will certainly help. Losing to MIsschump simply can’t be allowed to happen.

Prediction: Florida 23 S. Carolina 13

Mississippi Review / Missouri Preview

The Swamp was the Swamp again Saturday night, as the Gators hammered Ole Miss and reminded the nation of what they can expect in the coming years as Florida rebuilds into a SEC power again. The Rebel players, coaches, and fans looked bewildered, as they have not seen what has been possibly the best home-field advantage in the country for 30 years until the Will Miss-champ era began and mercifully ended. They won a big game at Alabama 2 weeks ago, but ran into a defense and home crowd that can intimidate anyone. The atmosphere was electric, and the recruits at the game were treated to a great show for the second week in a row.

The entire offensive coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for developing such an efficient and successful game plan. They are still keeping things relatively simple, but the players are playing quicker and reducing the number of mistakes. Will Grier made some excellent reads and got the ball where it needed to be on time and in rhythm. Jake McGee is turning in to a clutch receiver and a weapon in the red zone. Demarcus Robinson – finally – got some chances to make some plays downfield, and he delivered. He still needs to run tougher and more north-south, but if he continues to make some big plays that won’t matter as much. Kelvin Taylor was a workhorse with 27 carries, and made just enough decent runs to help balance the offense. The OL is going to struggle all season in the running game, but so far they have opened up some lanes often enough to keep drives going. That has to continue with the schedule coming up the rest of October. The return of Martez Ivey from injury should help, and provide some depth.

The Gator defense made a statement to the nation and, more importantly, themselves. They dominated Ole Miss the entire night, punished the QB, got penetration often to blow up run and pass plays, and showed great speed in the front seven. Jon Bullard is all-SEC in my opinion to date, and has been disruptive every game. A lot of guys are getting quality snaps on the DL, and this is keeping them fresh. Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison were all over the field at LB making big plays – I just hope they don’t get worn down or hurt. The coverage in the secondary was excellent – that was an explosive offense they shut down, despite the makeshift OL the Rebels had to use. There are multiple Ole Miss WRs led by Laquon Treadwell that will be playing in the NFL some day, and they controlled them all night. The tackling was cleaned up, and they laid some big hits on the QB and WRs. The only quibble is a small one – they still allowed the QB to make good gains on the counter plays, but I have to believe part of that was simply allowing for that possibility while shutting down the other playmakers.

It’s off to Columbia to try and exorcise the demons of the past two games against Missouri. This will be a huge test of the maturity and leadership on this team. I know there will be some players that will overlook the Tigers, but hopefully the upperclassmen can focus most of the guys on just getting the job done this week. Actually, I hope the team isn’t too hyped up on trying to make up for the past 2 performances against Mizzou, and make silly mistakes trying to do too much. I don’t care how ugly it is, as long as the Gators get out of there with a win and move on.

The Tigers are struggling on offense, with QB Maty Mauk regressing from his play the previous season. It now looks like his suspension will continue, and true freshman Drew Lock will get thrown into the fire. Hopefully he presses, and the Gator defense hits him early and often as they have done to the opposing QB all season. They have lost a lot of talent on the O-Line and at WR, and have not replaced it with the same level of play. The main threats are RB is Ish Witter, and WRs Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore. The defense has already played against better talent, and if the guys come to play, they should be able to handle anything the Tigers throw at them. No need to overpursue and get caught by misdirection or any trick plays – just play solid straight-up defense and control the action.

The Gator offense now has something to fall back on in terms of confidence, as they can see in the past 5 quarters of play that they can indeed apply pressure to defenses and make plays. The Tigers have another solid defense, but have lost a lot of NFL talent on the D-Line over the past 2 seasons. As always, it starts with the Florida OL – keep Grier upright, try to generate at least 100 yards of rushing to stay balanced, and continue to improve on pass protection and picking up blitzes. Taylor has carried a big load at RB the past 2 weeks, and it would be nice to see Jordan Cronkrite be able to spell him for a bit without a significant drop off in production. The WRs need to continue to improve, as it’s always that much more difficult on the road to move the ball. Robinson’s confidence has to be on the upswing after a big game, and that should take some attention away from the other WRs. Look for the TEs to continue to be relied upon to convert 3rd downs and be a check-down option for Grier. As long as he continues to play smart and understand that making the safe throw and settling for short gains is OK, the offense should do just enough.

After 2 such lousy seasons, it’s hard not to get too excited about how this team is developing. But that’s just the time when a young team can stumble and lose a game it should win. The coaching staff has a different challenge this week in keeping the players focused on just the next game and simply doing their job each play. This isn’t the time for bad penalties and turnovers to allow the Tigers an early lead and to get the momentum. The trip to Missouri is a strange one – not a traditional SEC location, iffy weather, and quite frankly, not an impressive stadium or noisy crowd. If the Gators can replicate the start they enjoyed at Kentucky, that should be enough to get the ball rolling to an important road win. I fully expect the Tigers to throw everything they have into this game, including trick plays. Florida’s special teams could be the equalizer – they have been less than special so far this season, and were embarrassed by Missouri last year.

Florida 20 Missouri 13

New Mexico St. Review / East Carolina Preview

It was a promising start to the Jim McElwain era with a 61-13 manhandling of New Mexico St.  There was a great turnout by the fans and some real excitement back in the Swamp.  The past 2 seasons had really sucked the life out of the fan base and the players, and it was refreshing to see how excited they were and how it was reflected in the team’s play.

There were glimpses of what may be a functional offense this season, or at least indications that the offensive coaches actually have a plan on how to use the personnel they have effectively – as long as the offensive line can stay healthy and continue to develop as the season progresses.  Both Treon Harris and Will Grier were efficient, limited mistakes, and spread the ball around to many receivers – including the RBs and TEs.  While the stats were similar, Grier definitely looks more comfortable as a passer, and showed he has good athletic ability to make plays with his legs if necessary.  The WR play was sketchy, but not a complete surprise based on reports coming out of fall camp.  Unless Demarcus Robinson learns to run tougher, and some of the other WRs can shake loose of coverage, then OC Doug Nussmeier has little choice but to try and scheme plays to the TEs and RBs.  The OL did pretty well for the first game, getting lined up properly and not committing a rash of penalties.  However, I was disappointed in the run-blocking more than the pass protection, and this may bode ill as the schedule toughens.  There is not enough experience at QB or quality at WR to have to lean on the passing game too much.  I hope to see some better running lanes opened up this week, and the RB rotation of Kelvin Taylor, Jordan Scarlett, and Jordan Cronkrite looks to be ready for SEC competition.

The Gator defense did what was expected – control the running game (less a few well-executed plays), and shut down the NMSU passing game (less a few blown coverages by the backups, which should be corrected).  The second half showed the depth in both the DL and secondary, as Florida simply wore down the Aggies and shut them out, with very few net yards allowed.  Overall a solid performance that allowed the defensive staff to substitute liberally and get valuable snaps to the younger players while experimenting with different lineups and schemes to evaluate personnel.  Veterans like Jon Bullard and Vernon Hargreaves showed their leadership by making big plays, while young players such as Taven Bryan and Cece Jefferson on the DL showed a lot of promise.

Next up for Florida is East Carolina.  Florida is very familiar with the Pirates, as they defeated them in January in the bowl game.  ECU’s offense was one of the best in the country last season, led by senior QB Shane Carden and senior WR Justin Hardy, who was drafted into the NFL.  However, their projected new QB was injured in fall camp and is out for the season, to be replaced by a JUCO transfer with only a few weeks of practice.  While this will hurt their efficiency, the coaching and scheme are still in place that could challenge the Gator defense and make this game one that won’t be decided until the second half.  Fortunately the strength of Florida’s defense lies in the secondary, and they should be able to slow down the Pirates enough to allow the Gator offense to not worry about getting into a scoring contest and staying balanced.  I expect to see both Harris and Grier at QB again, but hopefully one of them moves ahead of the other and can be considered the starter going forward.  The running game needs to show improvement and consistency.

This is a step up in competition, and that will continue each week into October.  As long as Florida doesn’t suffer a key injury at QB or in the OL, the schedule sets up well to keep the team focused each week on the task at hand, and not to look ahead.  There should be another good crowd in the Swamp Saturday night, as the Gators try to continue to build momentum.

Prediction:  Florida 31      East Carolina 13

 

 

 

Gators Get Their Guy, Reach Deal with McElwain

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jim McElwain is returning to the Southeastern Conference after three seasons as head coach at Colorado State.

The 52-year-old McElwain, who as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Alabama from 2008-11 helped the Crimson Tide win two national titles, has been hired to replace Will Muschamp.

Florida Athletics Director Jeremy Foley finalized an agreement with McElwain on Thursday and a press conference to introduce McElwain as the 24th head coach in Florida football history is scheduled for Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

“Coach McElwain was someone we targeted from the beginning of the search,’’ Foley said. “The more we worked through the process and did our due diligence, coupled with our meeting and conversations with him and those around him, it was obvious he is the right person to lead the Florida Gator football program.”

More at Gatorzone.com

Kentucky Review / Alabama Preview

Whew!  What could have been a comfortable win turned in a death struggle at the Swamp, with potentially the season and Will Muschamp’s future hanging in the balance.  While much is being made of the improvement of the Wildcats, not enough credit is being given to the Gators for not throwing in the towel like they likely would have last season, and to an offense that actually is showing signs of becoming SEC-level as the season progresses.

The youth and inexperience of the secondary showed it’s ugly side, as total breakdowns led to 2 long TD passes, allowing the Mildcats to stay in the game and give them hope for the upset.  Talk about fighting through your own mistakes – dropped interceptions, crazy penalties (the facemask in the 2nd OT period), and missed tackles almost lost this game.  And yet, the defense rose up in overtime, fought through the fatigue, and really showed mental toughness.  Despite allowing 300+ passing yards mostly due to 6 pass plays totaling 173 yards, the run defense really made Kentucky one-dimensional most of the night.  The D-Line played well, but only Dante Fowler provided consistent pressure on the QB – other DL have to improve in this area against the improved quality of opposition to come.  The linebackers has a solid game led by Tank Morrison’s 10 tackles, but weren’t challenged by the UK offense as they will be later, so the jury is still out.  It was the secondary that unfortunately received the most attention – both good and bad.  The CBs opposite Vernon Hargreaves had some struggles, and the new safeties suffered from some completely busted coverages.  At least the secondary recovered with 3 interceptions led by Keanu Neal’s 2, a pleasant change from last season.  Still, there is a lot of work to be done on the pass defense.

About the Gator offense.  Yes, the offense, which rolled up over 500 yards, featured a RB (Matt Jones) who rumbled for 159 yards, and featured an emerging star in WR Demarcus Robinson, who tied the Florida reception record of 15 catches (shared by Carlos Alvarez), had 215 receiving yards, and 2 TDs – a monster game.  Yet despite the gaudy stats, there is a lot of work still to do and areas to clean up.  Jeff Driskel looked tentative keeping the ball on the zone read all night, which cost the offense the chance to extend some drives.  Of larger concern is that he is still slow in getting rid of the ball to an open receiver occasionally, and still struggles picking up blitz packages.  He did show maturity on the play of the game – his TD pass to Robinson on 4th down in the 1st OT.  Perhaps the fact that this is the 3rd offense he’s had to learn in 4 years accounts for some issues, but his reluctance to run is still surprising unless he is under orders from the staff to protect himself and not force 2 true freshmen to take over – just like in 2011 when he was one of those freshmen (along with the departed Jacoby Brissett).  The O-Line was able to pound the inside running game when needed against a smaller Mildcat D-Line, and got a lot of work against pressure and blitzes as Kentucky came after Driskel early and often.  There are still issues with the guard play, especially in pass-protection against blitz packages.

Now it’s on to Alabama, which will be a huge road test and a very tough environment in which to pull off an upset.  While many of these Gators have big game experience from 2012, there are just as many newcomers who are contributors in 2014 that haven’t been in this environment before.

The Crimson Tide has lost a lot of quality personnel the past 2 seasons, and while still very talented, is not the same juggernaut as it was from 2008-2012.  Bama is breaking in 2 new QBs of their own, and it will be crucial to the Gators’ chances to see if they can rattle and confuse either Blake Sims or Jacob Coker (who transferred from F$U).  Make no mistake – the arrival of the biggest tool in football in Lame Kiffen won’t change Nick Satan’s ultimate preference of pounding the rock with a power running game, featuring the best RB rotation in the country.  TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyon Drake make for a great group, even in a conference full of outstanding RBs.  Bama does have the luxury of also having an outstanding WR in Amari Cooper and a stud TE in OJ Howard to provide balance to the offense and not allow opponents to load up against the run……so far.  Sadly, the Gator front seven had not shown it can stand strong against a power running game since 2012, and this likely will tell the tale of this game.  If the Gators had the secondary of the previous 2 seasons, it could roll the dice and crowd the LOS – but with the mistakes shown last week, I don’t see this as a viable option unless the Gator staff decides to go down swinging and let the young guys try and survive on their own against the pass.  I expect to see more of the experienced Brian Poole at both CB and defending the slot.  Of larger concern is the coverage of the safeties, who were exposed last week.  Neal showed some flashes of becoming an excellent player in the future, but he, Jabari Gorman, and Marcus Maye have to improve in coverage – and quickly.  They have 2 great secondary coaches in Travaris Robinson and Will Muschamp to coach them up and clean up mistakes, but it takes time.

The Tide defense started showing cracks last season, and, while still very good at times. was overrated.  This year, West Virginia exposed even more weaknesses against both the run and pass, despite the perception that it’s a Nick Satan defense and that they can’t be beat – not true by a long shot.  The only way this can happen Saturday, though, is for the Florida O-Line to somehow find it’s footing and play better than it has in almost 2 seasons.  The play at the tackle positions and at center has been solid, but the guard play has left a lot to be desired.  Blitz pickups are a weakness, and Driskel hasn’t shown he can make adjustments well enough on his own to offset them yet.  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of new looks and some wrinkles in the base sets that OC Kurt Roper has yet to reveal.  One area that has to be used in the passing game is the middle of the field and down the seams.  The loss of TE Jake McGee really hurts here, and someone will have to step into this role.  Quinton Dunbar and Robinson have the size to make tough catches, and TEs Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook have to elevate their play in this game.  At least the performance of Jones will make the Tide defense pay attention to the running game – actually showing some balance in the offensive attack for the first time in years has to make the job of the offense easier.

I believe that Florida has enough talent to stay with Alabama, but can they sustain a high level of play for 4 quarters in a hostile environment?  My feeling is that the weakness of the guard play on offense and the inexperience in the defensive secondary will be too much to overcome right now, but I really hope for a competitive effort, and perhaps a few surprises on offense that could make the game interesting well into the second half.  This game can be a huge building block going into the bye week, heading into the most important part of the schedule with Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, and Georgia coming up.

Prediction:  Alabama 34      Florida 17

 

S. Carolina Review / Ga. Southern Preview

The Gators gave a spirited effort at South Carolina, but the undermanned offense couldn’t generate the points needed in the second half as the losing streak reached 5 games.  It certainly looked like the players had not mailed it in for the rest of the season, as they played hard for 60 minutes.  The game plans for both offense and defense were good enough to win the game, but the lack of talent and having to go far into the depth chart on offense were too much to overcome.

The first half performance of the offense was impressive, albeit they had an element of surprise with a QB who had never taken a college snap (and therefore no film to scout).  The unbalanced O-Line formation opened some holes even against a front stacked to stop them.  It seemed like those guys were pissed off at all of the ripping they’ve received (much of it deserved), and came out with an attitude I hope to see the last 2 games.  The direct snaps to the RBs were another wrinkle that yielded some big results.  Kelvin Taylor again showed why he’s the best RB on the team right now, breaking off some long runs and scoring 2 TDs.  The thing that prevented the offense from getting any points in the second half to possibly win the game was the painfully weak arm of Skyler Mornhinweg.  It’s hard to understand how he received a scholarship offer to a school like Florida with such a limited skill set – perhaps the fact that no one at the time wanted to sit as a backup to Jeff Driskel plus Brent Pease knowing his dad (NFL OC Marty) was enough to tip the scales.  The WRs were absolutely no factor, though no fault of their own – that game plan was more bland than vanilla, if such a thing exists.  And yet the Gators were right there at the end with a shot at the win.

The defense improved against the run, holding SEC leading rusher Mike Davis to only 58 yards – less than half his average for the season.  However, the long run from Davis’ backup from deep in Carolina territory that set up a FG seemed to turn the momentum in the 3rd quarter.  Overall the defense did an excellent job of containing the running of QB Connor Shaw, and did not allow the WRs to really do much.  The 4th down stand was gutsy – Jarrad Davis looks like a future stud at LB.  It was nice to see some penetration from the D-Line without having to resort to constant blitzing.  Enough was done to win this game with a functional offense doing it’s part.

This week Georgia Southern comes in with it’s triple-option attack, which is difficult for any defense to completely prepare for in one week.  I expect them to have some success running the ball, which makes it imperative that the defense firm up if the Eagles get near scoring territory, to take pressure off of the Gator offense.  I’m torn between wanting Tyler Murphy to get another full week of rest vs. getting some live reps before the last game of the season.  Ultimately it’s probably best if he dresses out, but doesn’t have to play.

It will be a difficult task to focus on this game, as the game vs. Florida $tate looms.  If the players show the same energy and focus they exhibited at South Carolina, things should be fine.  But when you’re dealing with young kids and the added distractions surrounding a coaching staff under siege and a hugely disappointing season, anything can happen (and has happened so far).  It’s another challenge for the staff this week to prepare these guys well, get the win, and then put everything into beating the Criminoles.

Prediction:  Florida 27        Ga. Southern 17