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

 

LSU Review

That was a great game in Death Valley against LSU. Florida gave the Tigers all they wanted and more, and were in a position to tie or win late in the game despite a few egregious mistakes.  This team has really developed well so far, and credit must be given to both the players and the coaching staff.

The offensive staff did a great job of scheming plays to score upon in the red zone, especially the 2 TD throws to Jake McGee, possibly the offensive MVP up to now.  They did a decent job of designing some rollouts for Treon Harris to get him outside the pocket so he could see the field better and possibly run.  However, the inability of the O-Line to generate any movement in running game finally cost the team, as the offense really had no balance the entire night.  Kelvin Taylor rarely had any running room, and that allowed LSU to simply pressure Harris and blitz when they wanted to.  Harris played well considering the circumstances, but his flaws were on display against a good defense.  He is painfully inaccurate on short throws, often short-arming or trying to guide them.  He struggles to check down if his first option is not available.  Finally, his situational awareness has to improve – taking sacks and not getting rid of the ball to avoid negative plays really cost the offense, especially in the 4th quarter.  The staff has to find a way to get these thoughts into his head going forward.

Antonio Callaway is still far from a polished WR, but continues to make big plays. His catch along the sideline late in the 2nd quarter leading the Florida’s second TD exhibited great concentration, and his punt return to tie the game late in the 3rd quarter was a thing of beauty.  He’s not a blazer, but seems to have the kind of game speed that makes him just fast enough to break long plays.  Not having Will Grier definitely hurts the intermediate and deep passing game, though.  Demarcus Robinson was double-covered most of the night, and Brandon Powell is not a true WR – he still looks like a former RB who now plays in the slot, and is not enough of a threat to help the other WRs gain some room.

So much for all the talk of DBU.  The secondary essentially lost the game.  Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves were beaten by the flea-flicker play, and Marcus Maye simply lost the ball at the end of the 2nd quarter – the play that pretty much gave LSU the margin it needed to win.  Even Quincy Wilson misplayed the fade route that LSU scored on 3rd down in the second quarter.  This group needs to eat some humble pie and re-focus, because they let the entire team down.  I will give some props to Neal, though, as he played well in run support, racking up 14 tackles.

The front seven played a decent game against LSU’s running game, but still had some lapses in playing their gaps which were exploited by Leonard Fournette.  That guy is a load – definitely the best RB in the SEC in many years.  The lack of LB depth really showed itself, as Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison were gassed by the 3rd quarter, and missed some tackles they usually make.

I do have some criticism for the staff.  When will Coach Mac ever challenge a dubious call by the officials?  Bryan Cox’ fumble recovery looked legit, and Callaway’s sideline catch late in the 1st quarter was in bounds.  Coach Mac made a huge tactical error not punting late in the game, eventually guaranteeing the offense would have to go 90 yards with no time outs and only 90 seconds left.  You simply have to punt the ball away in that situation, lean on the defense to get a stop, and try and obtain decent field position for a possible last drive.  Finally, I simply could not believe the staff was not ready for the fake FG that gave LSU it’s winning TD.  Les Miles has screwed over many teams during his stay in Baton Rouge, especially Florida.  Plus, a lot of the current Gator staff has coached in the SEC, and should know what to expect.  Just play a “safe” scheme on the edges, and at worst you’re only losing by a FG.  That came home to roost late in the game, as the Gators drove inside the 30, but were down 7.  Perhaps Mac was spooked by Jorge Powell’s injury, leaving only Austin Hardin as a PK, but at least Hardin made his extra points, and kicked the ball off consistently into the end zone – a pleasant surprise for coming off of a hip injury.

Florida now has a week off to rest, recuperate, and prepare for a huge game against Georgia that will likely decide the East Division winner.  It will be interesting to see how the young guys use this time.  Will they continue to work hard to improve?  Will they become too full of themselves after a very good start to the season?  The coaching staff will be out recruiting for much of the off week, but has another challenge ahead in preparing the Gators for the annual trip to Jacksonville.

I’ll be back next week with my Georgia preview.  Go Gators!

Missouri Review / LSU Preview

Another challenge, and another step forward for the Florida Gators.  Going on the road to face a tough defense with a target on your back for the first time in 3 years is no small task, and the Gators responded with a terrific defensive effort to shut down Missouri, and never allow them any real momentum.  The Gator D-Line was in the backfield all night, getting sacks and lots of pressure on the freshman QB.  The secondary allowed a few plays on the Tiger’s first drive, then settled in and closed the door.  Jalen Tabor recorded his second pick six, while Vernon Hargreaves, Quincy Wilson, and Brian Poole all made life miserable for the WRs.  Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison continue to fly around at LB and clean up plays.  This was the first time Missouri was held without a TD at home in 10 seasons – a nice way to send the message that the past 2 seasons are the exception, not the rule.

The start of the game was everything you could hope for, as the offense put together 2 long scoring drives to quiet the crowd and give the defense the leverage it needed to crush Mizzou – finally getting some payback for the past two dreadful games against them.  The O-Line did a solid job of opening enough running lanes to allow Kelvin Taylor to gash the Tigers early, and take pressure off of Will Grier and the passing game.  Again, that’s been the formula for success this season – establishing just enough running game and balance to give the passing game the chance to make some plays.

After the first quarter, the rest of the game became the ugly affair I thought it might be – 2 strong defenses making things difficult on two offenses still searching for their identity.  Fortunately, Florida’s offense was led by the better QB and a game plan that was good enough.  Once the Gators took the lead, it appeared the staff was content to play things very safe and allow the defense to choke the life out of the Tigers – which they did to great effect.

So much for the good news……

Instead of a Saturday night showdown with LSU in Death Valley between two Top 10 teams preparing to rumble, all the talk is about Florida losing Will Grier for the rest of the season due to an NCAA suspension for violating the PED rules.  Apparently he failed a drug test by taking a supplement that contained a banned substance.  Grier fell on his sword and admitted he didn’t tell the nutritional staff about it so it could be vetted, and now he’s paying a terrible price.  Discussing Grier’s decision-making and it’s ramifications on this will have to wait for another time, as that is an entire subject of it’s own.

What a bitter pill to swallow after a magical run so far.

I am confident that the coaching staff will handle things as well as possible in getting the team ready.  But there is a dearth of upperclassmen leadership on this team, and this could have a devastating effect if the offense struggles like it did last year.  Treon Harris is the default starter now, and has to find a way to shake off the disappointment of losing the starting job and lead the offense.  Unfortunately there’s no time for a slow acclimation, as I can already smell the corn dogs in the parking lot outside Tiger Stadium – those crazed, drunken Cajuns all excited about a night game, against a team that has to be distracted.  This will be another level of intensity that the Gators have not experienced yet, and the coaching staff has another huge challenge ahead in preparing the team to play fast and efficiently, despite the noise and adversity it will face.

Harris hasn’t been the QB during the positive development of the offense the past month.  He is behind in practice reps, and became the backup for a reason – the staff determined Grier was better.  Harris did show occasionally last year he could throw a decent deep ball, but really struggled with short and intermediate throws.  He also simply doesn’t not read coverages as well as Grier.  Look for a painfully-reduced playcall sheet this Saturday, with maybe the occasional surprise schemed up to hopefully make a big play.  The O-Line has struggled in establishing a consistent running game all season, and now defenses will start to crowd the box like the past 2 seasons until Florida proves it can pass downfield effectively with Harris at QB.  Kelvin Taylor is gonna need some Advil, as he will take a lot of punishment going forward trying to keep the offense somewhat balanced.  Jordan Cronkrite is not getting too many touches in a backup role, and Jordan Scarlett is in the doghouse and may not play again this week.  There’s no way Taylor makes it through the rest of the season healthy with his current workload.

It’s time to really try and take advantage of Demarcus Robinson on fade routes, deep balls, and jump balls to try and get a few big plays in the passing game.  The staff needs to get Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway more involved.  The TEs, led by Jake McGee, have to find a way to get open and help take some pressure off of Harris.  If the running game is stuffed, that really hurts the screen game as well, as the defense will crowd the LOS, daring the Gators to go deep.  Florida has to try and utilize the middle of the field in the passing game to try and loosen up what should be a crowded box to start the game.

The Gator defense will have to play even better than it has going forward…..and that’s saying something.  The real test will be the players not trying to do too much, and overpursuing and taking bad angles on tackles.  That would be death going against LSU’s running game, which is centered around Leonard Fournette, the likely Heisman frontrunner and a once-in-a-generation talent at RB.  He has size, speed, and power, and can even do damage as a receiver.  No matter how the Tigers may scheme up some trick plays or break tendencies early to try for some big plays, their attack will eventually be focused on getting Fournette 25-30 touches.  He’s good enough that even if he is stopped often, he will likely break a long run for a TD no matter how good the defense is.  Of course, the best way to neutralize Fournette is to either have a strong offense of your own that can eat the clock to shorten the game, or get a big early lead to force LSU to try and win with it’s passing game.  That would be a real advantage for Florida, as Brandon Harris is simply not a quality passer, and can make mistakes if forced to make plays on his own.  The Gator secondary can’t sleep on WRs Travin Dural or Malachi Dupree - those guys are very talented and were recruited by every major program.  They just haven’t had the QBs to help them make more big plays than they have so far – I can only hope that continues for another week.

It’s been a wonderful rise back to prominence for Florida, and I do believe this staff can develop a game plan good enough to win in such a tough environment.  However, I simply don’t see enough consistency and balance on offense to score enough points, or see the Gator O-Line doing enough to allow Harris and the WRs the chance to win the game.  The great equalizer can be turnovers or a few big returns by the special teams.  The defense is capable of generating those turnovers, but they are less likely when the opponent can play a more conservative game knowing the Gator offense is struggling.  Also, there has been no evidence to date that Florida has the return game to either flip the field or get some momentum-changing scores.  It is really tough to predict what will happen with so much sudden change, but it’s even harder to think that a special season could become only a good one.

Prediction:  LSU 27        Florida 17

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

Tennessee Review/Mississippi Preview

Things are rocky indeed in Knoxville, as the Gators stole a 28-27 soul-crushing win at the Swamp that won’t be forgotten by either team or fan base for many years to come.  So much for all the talk from the Inbreds,  Just when they had the chance to end a 10-game losing streak to Florida, they collapsed in the clutch – again – and have to slink back to Rocky Top and take that stupid song with them.  It’s all they really know anymore……that song, and losing to the Gators.  For icing on the cake, watching those dumbass players and head coach Butch Jones run onto the field thinking the FG was good was priceless.  So much for that rabble……back to reality.

It certainly wasn’t pretty, and Florida didn’t make it easy on itself with it’s worst tackling performance in years, on top of allowing 2 trick plays that led to 10 points for the Inbreds.  Tennessee, er Elevenessee, threw the trailer sink at Florida from the start, and a lot of it worked.  Hard to believe that the Gator defense allowed over 250 yards rushing, two 100 yard rushers including QB Josh Dobbs, a double-pass for a TD, and a jump pass to extend another drive for a FG……and yet kept fighting until the end and found a way to win.  Despite a lot of negative plays, the defense never really set the edge, allowing multiple long runs by Dobbs, with the help of horrendous tackling.  Back to basics – wrap up the ball carrier, and stop trying to tackle the ball and strip it so much.  Jon Bullard continues to play at an all-SEC level on the DL, but the lack of numbers in the LB corps is being exploited.  DC Geoff Collins really has little choice other than to play mostly nickel and dime defenses, even against run-heavy teams.  Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison have to somehow hold up through the year.

The Gator offense still wasn’t efficient, but it was opportunistic, and quite frankly, lucky to succeed on all 5 4th down attempts to stay alive.  While it’s nice to see the execution in the clutch, there’s a lot of work to do to stay out of those situations to begin with.  Will Grier showed a lot of guts and moxie, coming up with enough big plays despite taking a beating most of the afternoon.  The OL is going to struggle against better defenses all season, but at least it held up during the last 10 minutes of the game, allowing Grier and the WRs the time to make just enough plays.  Kelvin Taylor was able to provide some balance by gaining 102 yards and scoring 2 TDs, but half of those yards came on one play, and the running game is still a work in progress.  At least Grier had the steadying influence of solid TE play from Jake McGee.  Demarcus Robinson remains an afterthought at WR, and underutilized on longer throws.  Brandon Powell was used as he should be – on short drag routes, quick slants, and as a check-down to utilize his quickness and elusiveness in space.  Finally, Antonio Calloway made the biggest play of the season, turning the last 4th down conversion into the 63-yard TD that won the game.  He’s still a raw talent as a true freshman, but will only improve and be an important target for the next few years.

Now it’s time to shift the focus to the Ole Miss rebels, who come to the Swamp ranked in the top 5 and are looking to win the SEC West and reach their first SEC Championship Game.  They won’t be intimidated after playing at Bama and LSU each season, but perhaps there’s enough unfamiliarity and some disregard for Florida based on it’s struggles the past few seasons that may allow the Gators to surprise them.

Florida’s defense will be tested by perhaps the best offense it will face all season.  QB Chad Kelly (a transfer from Clemson), RB Jaylen Walton, and WR Laquon Treadwell are all capable of making big plays at any time, and coach Hugh Freeze runs a fast-tempo offense that can be hard to stop.  Fortunately, Florida has the talent in the secondary to allow the front seven to focus on slowing down the running game and forcing some bad throws, which Kelly has shown a propensity for.  The Rebel OL is in flux, suffering some injuries and the season-long holding out of OT Laremy Tunsil while under NCAA investigation – here’s hoping that he’s held out at least one more week.  This could be a huge deal in allowing the Gators the chance to disrupt the timing of the passing game and hopefully do a better job at stopping the run this week.  The Gator DL has done a good job so far of generating negative plays and getting penetration into the backfield, despite continued holding by opposing O-Lines.

The Rebel defense is led by DT Robert Nkemdiche, one of the best in the country, with great size and speed.  The Gator OL will have to account for him every down, which puts that much more stress on a shaky unit.  Their secondary can be beaten if Grier is given time to throw – I just hope he doesn’t have to take the same punishment he’s suffered the past 2 weeks, or he won’t survive the season.  Treon Harris is back from suspension, and something tells me he will get at least some snaps Saturday night – hopefully in situations set up for something special.  Maybe it’s finally time that Robinson awakens and starts making some big plays downfield.  If the OL can somehow open some space for Taylor to at least keep the defense honest, the Gators could make something happen.  The stellar TE play has to continue to provide a comfort zone to Grier, and to keep drives alive.

As I said in the season preview, the level of competition would only increase through the first 5 games, and this one will be a tough challenge for a young team to win.  The staff will need to re-focus the players after an emotional win over a rival, and that can be a tough chore.  Ole Miss won’t be fazed by playing in the Swamp, but perhaps an early Florida lead can get the home crowd even more revved up and cause doubt to creep into the Rebel player’s heads.  This is a winnable game, but can the Gators put two great efforts together in a row?  I think there are simply too many question marks still on offense to expect it, plus a level of maturity that this team hasn’t gained from experience yet.

Prediction:  Mississippi 27        Florida 20

Kentucky Review / Tennessee Preview

As hoped, the Gator defense came up big on the road, leading Florida to a 14-9 win at Lexington.  The score was closer than the game itself, as a young Gator offense with a freshman QB and middling OL kept this one from being a fairly easy win.  What is important, though, is the confidence gained with the win, the toughness shown by Will Grier with little protection most of the night, and the signs that this staff does have a plan on offense, despite the small number of points.  The TEs played well again, and there were some tough receptions made by the WRs.  However, there is still no deep threat, and defenses are going to start squeezing down towards the LOS.

Other than a few missed tackles and some untimely breakdowns allowing the Mildcats to gain a few first downs on long down-and-distance plays, the entire defense shut down Kentucky, never losing control of the game.  The DL was able to pressure the pocket most of the night, and did not let UK establish a consistent running game.  Jon Bullard again was a force on the inside, making plays and taking up so much attention that the other linemen were able to create havoc.  The secondary looked very good, with the return of starters VH3 and Keanu Neal solidifying things.  This unit can be one of the best in the country if it stays healthy, and will be heavily relied upon going forward.

The special teams aren’t so special right now.  Another blocked FG for Austin Hardin, poor punting by Johnny Townsend, so-so-kick coverage, and even a couple of penalties, one of which cost the Gators 3 points.  There’s a lot to be desired right now, and this unit will contribute to a few looses against the quality opponents coming up unless they turn things around.

The Gator offense was what I’m afraid it will be in the SEC this season – only occasionally effective, with the OL performance pretty much determining the overall success.  The offense will need to improve it’s efficiency, and take advantage of any trips inside the red zone.  This unit simply isn’t good enough to overcome mistakes, whether they are turnovers or penalties, against quality opponents.  Tennessee’s defensive strength lies in it’s D-Line, which presents to toughest matchup for Florida’s offense.  The OL has to figure out how to protect Grier better.  He won’t last the season taking the beating he took at Kentucky, especially having to run so often when the pocket broke down.  The passing game has shown some flashes, but no consistent threat downfield can be established yet due to the shaky pass protection.  Getting Martez Ivey back from injury should help the rotation at tackle, but the interior of the OL has to improve it’s run blocking to give the offense some balance and not cause Grier to force the issue in the passing game.  The TEs have done a fine job so far helping out the QBs, but it’s time for the WRs to do their part.  Demarcus Robinson needs to be used as a downfield and red zone weapon, taking advantage of his size and athleticism.  Antonio Calloway looks like a real find as a true freshman, and hopefully he can continue to make some plays in the middle of the field.  He also looks to be the punt returner for now, and had a big return to set up a short field last week.  Brandon Powell and Ahmad Fulwood need to step up their game and become more reliable options.  I believe the Vol front seven is only average, and the Gators can find some success – but can they consistently find that success?  The offense has to be very opportunistic and make clutch plays in plus territory going forward.  The ability is there to be an adequate unit, but now it may be a question of confidence, and showing themselves they can perform in a big game against better competition.

The Gator defense will face it’s toughest challenge by far this season.  The Volunteers have playmakers with RB Jalen Hurd and WRs Josh Malone and Preston Williams.  QB Joshua Dobbs is a dual-threat player who can hurt defenses with his running.  The Florida DL has to maintain discipline in setting the edges and not allowing too many scramble opportunities.  If they can force Dobbs into becoming a passer, then that plays into the strength of the defense overall and can lead to some turnovers.  The DL is establishing some quality depth, keeping the players fresh, and that will be very important now.  Bullard continues to make big plays, and has to continue his high level of play.   At LB, Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison will have to play strong run defense this week.  It looks like the defense will continue to play a lot of nickel packages, with Marcus Maye, Marcel Harris, or Neal dropping down into run support as needed. The CBs will be relied upon in man coverage, and this week will be a good challenge.

On offense, Florida has to show some new schemes to help out Grier, and the OL has to elevate it’s play.

Tennessee comes into this game with confidence, despite it’s meltdown loss at home to Oklahoma 2 weeks ago.  Again, they feel it’s long overdue to beat Florida and end their current losing streak to the Gators at 10.  They are talking a big game, but I still don’t see Butch Jones as a solid game day coach.  He talks a lot about how the Vols are back and how they are recruiting so well, but where are the results on the field?   This will be a tougher test than Kentucky, as the difficulty of the schedule continues to increase each week.  To really start changing the culture of the program, it starts with taking back the Swamp.  If the Gator offense can be functional, efficient, and opportunistic, Florida should be able to win.  But can the offense rise to the occasion?  Coach Mac and OC Doug Nussmeier have to continue to build the confidence of the offense and scheme ways around the deficiencies and inexperience.  The Swamp will be alive for this one – I just hope the players don’t get overhyped and make mistakes that can’t be overcome.

Prediction: Florida 24      Tennessee 21