Texas A&M Review

Well, it wasn’t Covid-19 that possibly killed the Gators’ chances at a big season – it was Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham and his crap strategy and schemes.  It was so bad that even the Gator offense – having it’s 3rd straight game of only punting 1 time – wasn’t enough to overcome a historically bad defense in a 41-38 loss at College Station.  This is the worst scoring defense after 3 games that Florida has rolled out since 1917 – right before the Spanish Flu epidemic.  Coincidence?  

There was nothing good about any defensive group.  The D-line was pushed around the entire second half as the Aggies ran at will, and they did not get enough push into the pocket on pass plays.  The LBs were continuously lost in coverage and did a terrible job of filling running lanes.  The secondary was soft and out of position too many times to count.  Grantham continues to let the DBs play 5-8 yards off receivers, even when the opponent needs 5 yards or less and can complete simple slant routes all game long.  This very thing essentially ended the game late in the 4th quarter, as A&M completed an easy slant route pass on 3rd and 8 from the Gator 30 yard line.  Instead of a tough FG, the Aggies could leisurely run out the clock for a last-play FG to win.  Marco Wilson had his worst game in his Gator career, continually giving up big plays – even when in position to make one of his own – completely whiffing on an easy pass breakup or interception which allowed a long TD pass completion.  Florida gave up over 500 yards to a pedestrian offense and QB, and only forced 1 punt.  The players look confused and look like they are thinking too much, instead of playing fast and running to the ball aggressively.  The only good thing the entire unit did was when Jeremiah Moon forced a fumble early in the 4th quarter that the Gators turned into a TD and their last lead at 38-31.  But that was it……nothing else of note for the entire game……brutal.

If Dan Mullen doesn’t have the guts to tell Grantham and the defensive staff to simplify the schemes and calls to let these athletes actually use their abilities to their fullest, he’s not doing his job as the leader of the program.  At this point, I’d be fine if he demoted Grantham and demanded major changes, and allowed other guys like DL coach David Turner and CB coach Torrian Gray to have a lot more input.

The Gator offense was terrific once again. Kyle Trask threw another 4 TD passes, spreading the ball around on many long scoring drives.  8 possessions – 5 TDs, 1 FG, 1 punt, and 1 crushing fumble on their last possession by Malik Davis, who has had fumbling issues previously.  Again, when will Mullen give Dameon Pierce the chance to be the hammer in the last 6 minutes of a game?  But there’s no way I’m going to lay this loss at Davis’ feet.  The RBs – including NayQuan Wright – were once again effective in both the running and passing game.  Kyle Pitts, even hobbled with a foot injury, scored the first TD and demanded attention from the Aggies, allowing other receivers room to operate.  Kedarius Toney looks remarkably improved as a route-runner, and caught 2 TDs.

Well, there won’t be a LSU preview, as a Covid spike within the Gator team and staff has postponed that game until 12/12.  Now we wait to see if enough players will be eligible to try and have the Missouri game as scheduled – or possibly moved a few days later to a weekday in order to try and have all 10 games played by the end of the regular season.  LSU is in a world of hurt right now, and the Gators would have been able to take further advantage of them as their starting QB would have likely been out for the game.

Seeing games postponed is no surprise, as this was expected across the country.  Yes, it sucks that Florida is one of the affected teams, but I am very glad that the SEC had the guts to go ahead with a season, and mitigation plans were already in place for schedule impacts.  Here’s hoping the outbreak is contained as well as possible and that things can get back on track in a week or so.

It’s more than interesting at this point that all 3 teams that have played Texas A&M have subsequently had Covid outbreaks.  The disregard for Covid protocols in the stands at College Station was just a continuation of ones already seen at Georgia and other schools.  The SEC is now threatening a fine of $100K for any offense – even retroactively – but that’s a drop in the bucket to SEC schools.  The only thing that will get their attention is the threat of becoming ineligible for the SEC title……but the league office would never have the guts to do it.

Mullen and the entire coaching staff have a lot of work to do – navigate this latest pause in operations, start fixing the defense, and maybe keep an eye on the locker room in case some finger-pointing begins.

We’ll see how things develop the next 7-10 days, and hopefully I will be back then with a preview of the Missouri game.

S. Carolina Review / Texas A&M Preview

Florida dispatched South Carolina with a workmanlike 38-24 victory in the home opener at the Swamp.  This one was somewhat ugly early and late, but the Gator offense was so dominant in it’s limited 23 minutes of possession the outcome was never in serious doubt.

Florida’s defense gave up another touchdown on the opponent’s opening drive, allowing the Lamecocks to march right down the field both running and passing.  Despite Carolina lacking any real playmakers other than WR Shi Smith, they did as they pleased early on.  Fortunately, the Gators responded immediately with TDs on their first 2 drives to take the lead, a run by Dameon Pierce and reception by Kyle PItts.  With a chance to put Carolina in a deep hole in the 2nd quarter, Kyle Trask made an uncharacteristic error, keeping the ball on a read option and fumbling, which gave the Lamecocks life and allowed them to tie the game at 14.  Again, the Gators then flipped the offensive switch and scored the next 24 points going into the mid-3rd quarter to effectively end the game.  Pitts, Kedarius Toney, and Trent Whittemore all had TD receptions as the offense got on a roll.  Then the entire team seemed to lose focus and momentum, and Carolina went on to dominate time of possession and scored the last 14 points – and it really should have been 21 except for a poorly thrown pass on 4th down with just under a minute left.  DC Todd Grantham played a soft, conservative defense which allowed the Lamecocks to move the ball, but run out almost all of the remaining clock on their last drive. 

The Gator defense did improve – it went from horrific to just bad.  The D-line was gashed most of the afternoon by Carolina’s running game, and once again could not get off the field on 3rd and 4th down in the 4th quarter.  The secondary played a little more aggressively, but the LBs again struggled in the intermediate zone.  This is disappointing, as this was supposed to be a point of emphasis and improvement from last season, but appears to be more of the same.  Shawn Davis certainly helped in his return to safety, but there are still way too many missed tackles at all 3 levels along with guys simply not getting lined up in time to get into proper position.  This is high school stuff that has to stop.  They allowed Carolina 37 minutes time of possession, which kept Florida’s high-powered offense sidelined far too long.

Overall, a decent performance by the Florida offense and a far from impressive finish by the defense.  Dan Mullen stated that his play-calling contributed to the loss of momentum and aggressiveness, and I agree.  Fortunately, Carolina is led by Won’t MIsschump, who seemed to not care that his own offense essentially iced the game by showing a lack of urgency over the last 8 minutes.  Just another in a long list of examples of why I’m so glad that clown is gone from the Florida sideline and is someone else’s problem.

It’s on to College Station to face Texas A&M, which is coming off of a big loss, getting hammered at Alabama 52-24 and not looking very good on either side of the ball in doing so.  This, coming off of a lackluster 17-12 opening game win at home against an outmanned Vanderbilt squad, has the A&M faithful really worried about their season going off the rails early.

The Aggies lost some of their best playmakers on offense, including their best 2 WRs, who opted out of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  They have 4-year starting QB Kellen Mond leading the attack, and he is still a threat both running and throwing.  However, he seems to have plateaued the past 2 years, showing little improvement.  He does have a decent O-line in front of him, and his favorite target is TE Jalen Wydermyer – who will be a tough matchup for the Gator LBs as they continue to struggle in coverage.  Surprisingly, their running attack has been only average so far, despite having 2 good RBs in Isiah Spiller and Ainias Smith.  Smith is also a capable receiver out of the backfield who is very quick and will have to be accounted for.

We are going to see now whether Grantham been playing it vanilla so far and holding back some things for this game.  Or has everyone figured out he’s pretty much a one-trick pony and his defenses struggle if they can’t pressure the QB and subsequently allows his soft secondary coverage to be exposed?  Brad Stewart returns from suspension to shore up the safety position, but the continued loss of Kyree Campbell at the DT spot highlights an underwhelming rotation that has been gashed by the running game so far.  The front seven will face it’s sternest test of the season to date, and somehow has to find ways to not allow long, time-consuming drives that keep the Gator offense on the sideline.

I do expect the Gator offense to continue to have success, especially throwing the ball against a depleted Aggie secondary that has suffered losses due to players opting out.  They were torched by Bama on deep throws that entire game, but the deep throw is not Trask’s strong suit.  I hope the running game has more success than it did against South Carolina, but Texas A&M does have a stout front seven that will be by far the best Florida has faced this season.  The O-line struggled some against Carolina protecting Trask, and has to tighten some things up.  The running game took a step back, and has to provide more balance this week.  Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland need to step up and take advantage of the easier coverage they receive while defenses focus on Pitts and Toney.

Will this be another case of the offense having to continue to outscore the opponent for 60 minutes?  No offense can continuously do that, and eventually it will bite the Gators unless the defense starts to step up at least occasionally.  I predicted a loss in this game, and despite the fact that the Aggies have not looked good at all in 2 games, there is too much talent there to see them stink it up for an entire season.  They have the weapons on offense in Monds’ running ability, a big TE, and a quick RB who catches the ball well in the intermediate zones – all areas that the Gator defense has yet to prove it can contain.  I just have a bad feeling that the cumulative effect of all of these matchups, along with a desperate group of Aggies who don’t want their season to unravel so soon, could cause Florida to stumble in this one.

Prediction: Texas A&M 31 Florida 28

Mississippi Review / S. Carolina Preview

What should have been a blowout win was marred by one of the worst defensive performances by the Gators since maybe 1979.  While Kyle Trask and Kye Pitts toyed with the Rebel defense all day, the defense continually looked like a high school unit, embarrassing themselves and forcing the offense to keep it’s starters in well into the 4th quarter to continue scoring and keep a safe lead.

The Florida offense was unstoppable.  Trask and Pitts served early notice that they could be in line for some major awards this year, but there were many other contributors.  The running backs, led by Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis, ran hard and also were featured more prominently in the passing game.  Trevon Grimes, Kedarius Toney, and Jacob Copeland each had their share of big plays in the passing game.  The O-line did a solid job, giving Trask plenty of time to scan the field and open running lanes for the RBs.  But before anyone gets too excited, remember this was against a young, inexperienced defense with a new coaching staff.  There are much tougher tests to come.

The Gator defense was horrific.  Even with the offensive expertise of Lane Kiffen’s playcalling, they made Ole Miss look like last year’s LSU offense.  Receivers were running unchecked and uncovered all game, and it was never corrected.  Despite knowing the Rebel QBs would be looking to run, the pursuit angles were poor and the DEs failed to set the edge.  

These breakdowns weren’t attributable to Covid-19 issues, loss of practice time, or inexperienced guys getting extended playing time in the secondary – this was blowing basic football assignments and miscommunication.  Just because Shawn Davis was stupid enough to get himself tossed early in the game for targeting and Brad Stewart was serving yet another suspension, this is the SEC……these guys are better than they are being coached.  Todd Grantham is on the clock.

Florida returns home to the Swamp to face South Carolina.  The Lamecocks put up a fight late against Tennessee, but, as usual, failed to finish the game.  Another typical Won’t Misschump performance.  

If the Gator O-line can do a serviceable job of run blocking and keep Trask upright, the offense should be able to continue having success.  This Carolina defense is not as good as recent vintage, and can be exploited – they actually made Tennessee’s offense look good at times, which is hard to do.  Of course, Misschump and DC Travarus Robinson will still have their axe to grind against Florida and do everything they can to spring an upset, so the Gators should expect a motivated defensive opponent.

Sadly, until the Gator defense shows up, nothing is certain.  There is too much talent on paper to allow the Lamecocks much success on offense, but I have a serious lack of confidence in Grantham right now.  The return of Davis and Stewart at safety hopefully provided a big boost to the secondary, and here’s hoping Kyree Campbell returns at DT to provide more depth and experience.  Carolina has a new starting QB in transfer Collin Hill – he was serviceable against Tennessee, but has nowhere near the mobilty the Ole MIss QBs had, which will help the Florida pass rush.  His main target is WR Shi Smith – the secondary will have their ficus on him, as they won’t have to worry about as many other threats that the Rebels offered.  Misschump still wants to run the ball, but the Lamecock O-line and RBs are retooling, and shouldn’t be as tough to deal with as usual.  Of course, the best scenario would be that the Gator offense gets Carolina behind on the scoreboard and forces them into being one-dimensional.

I expect Carolina to play hard, as MIsschump and Trevarus Robinson still have an axe to grind with Florida after getting fired.  As long as the Gators don’t implode with turnovers and keep Trask upright, the offense should be able to put up enough points for a comfprtable win – but it likely won’t be decided until sometime in the second half. 

Prediction:

Florida  34

S. Carolina  17

Mississippi Preview

Florida opens the season with a road trip to Oxford to face the Ole MIss Rebels and their new head coach, Lane Kiffen.  

The Gator offense already has some adversity to deal with, as starting center Ethan White will miss multiple games with a meniscus injury.  That will force Brett Heggie to center, Richard Gouriage inside to Heggie’s spot at guard, and put Jean Delance back at right tackle, where he struggled all of 2019.  Not an ideal, as Ole MIss has some good edge rushers that will have to be accounted for.  We’re going to see early on if the O-line can improve in the running game – it’s a requirement for the Gators to have any chance at a championship this season.  Kyle Trask is back and can handle pressure and make quick throws, and it looks like he may have to recreate his 2019 performance, at least early on.  RBs Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis should be good enough to provide balance, but only if they aren’t avoiding tacklers in their own backfield.  TE Kyle PItts will always draw a lot of attention from the defensive back seven, so we will get an early idea of how much WR Trevon Grimes and the other receivers can fill the large void left by losing 4 seniors that were one of the best corps in the country by the end of 2019.  Jacob Copeland and Kedarius Toney must show improvement, while transfer Justin Shorter may have to play a bigger role than many have predicted.  FInally, Ole Miss lost a lot of starters to graduation, and also have an entirely new defensive backfield – Mullen and Trask have to expose this group.

On defense, Florida will be challenged by a new offense with no film to study from, along with the likelihood of seeing 2 QBs with very different skill sets.  John Rhys Plumlee is an excellent runner and took over as the starter midway through 2019, but struggles mightily in the passing game.  Knowing how Kiffen likes to throw the ball, we’ll find out early if this is a “square peg into a round hole” situation, and if former Gator commit Matt Corral gets a majority of the snaps.  He is a talented passer and good athlete.  This unknown alone will make it a challenge for the defense on Saturday.  The other threats are RB Jerrion Ealy and WR Elijah Moore.  The defense will be down at least one DT (Kyree Campbell may opt out of 2020) and one safety (Brad Stewart suspended yet again – what a waste of talent).  Fortunately there is plenty of experienced depth at safety to cover for Stewart’s absence, but a few young DL like Gervon Dexter will get thrown into the mix early on, while Zach Carter likely will have to play DT for most of this game.  There is plenty of experience and talent at DE and LB that should be able to contain either QB trying to run while getting consistent pressure in passing situations.  This will be a good test to see if the open-field tackling by the back seven has improved – the Gators have really struggled with this the past 2 seasons and must improve.  The Rebels have an almost completely new O-line, and it would be a major disappointment if the Gators give up a lot of yards and points.

Jacob Finn has won the job at punter, and fortunately for the Gators he is a senior with some experience, so he shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the pressure of his first start.  Evan McPherson is one of the best placekickers in the country, and having someone so reliable is very important – especially on the road.  The return game for the Gators remains a mystery until someone stands out.  Here’s hoping that the Florida coverage units continue to perform as well as they have since Dan Mullen’s return.

Ole Miss is trying to break in a new coaching staff with an altered practice schedule, having almost 30 players miss practice time already with Covid-19 systems, and learning new schemes on both offense and defense.  While the newness of all this can be a hindrance to the opponent, I’m hoping that the Gators can actually get some benefit from this, combined with the stability of it’s own coaching staff and roster – especially at QB.  Many pundits think the Gators win easily, rolling up a lot of points on a defense that is retooling.  I think it could be closer than that, with some sloppy play and nerves showing themselves early.  This will be one of those noon eastern kickoffs that no team likes, as many times teams are sleepwalking through the first half.  I’m just hopeful for a win and no serious injuries in the start to the strangest season ever.

Prediction:

Florida  27

Mississippi  17

2020 Season Preview

Where to begin?  With the disruption of ‘normalcy’ and routine because of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps any effort at previewing and predicting what will happen this fall is folly.  That being said, the SEC is giving it the old college try – so to speak – along with the ACC and Big 12/11/10/whatever, while the Little 10/11/12/13/14/whatever and LAC-12 are currently either delaying their start even longer or tappng out and already feeling the ramifications from fans, players, recruits, and communities for doing so.

There will be a modified schedule this season with 10 games, all within the conference.  That will significantly increase the difficulty for SEC teams, with no cupcake games for a breather.  The meat-grinder that is the SEC will really be evident, even with a few open weeks built into every team’s schedule to provide some respite along with flexibility if a game or games have to be rescheduled due to virus outbreaks.  The NCAA is allowing for any play in 2020 to not count against eligibility limits, so coaching staffs can at least play freshmen as much as they want to potentially ease any depth issues (provided they have the luxury of a large enough lead in a game).  Additionally there are actually rules in place that could lead to postponement of a game if a certain number of players at a particular position are unavailable due to the virus.  Talk about a crazy possibility. 

Dan Mullen has led the Gators to two consecutive double-digit win seasons and New Years Six bowl wins.  The foundation is finally starting to settle in, but now he will be working with almost exclusively players he and his staff have recruited, and there have been some missteps along the way that have left some talent and/or depth holes in the roster to be managed by the coaching staff.

Offense

It all starts with QB Kyle Trask, who stepped in cold for an injured Feleipe Franks in last year’s Kentucky game, led a stirring comeback win, and essentially saved the season for Florida.  His performance in 2019 was a revelation, and nothing that 2020 throws at him will be intimidating.  There is some room to improve regarding reading some defenses and improving his deep throws (which may be helped by a now-healthy knee after the injury against Auburn and playing hurt the rest of 2019).  Emory Jones could probably start for most of the other SEC teams, and I would not be concerned if he had to step in due to injury or performance issues from Trask.  He filled in admirably when Trask went down in the Auburn game, and got plenty of experience in every game.  In case the O-line struggles again run blocking, he may actually get more snaps due to his own running ability in order to keep defenses more honest.  True freshman Anthony Richardson is a physical beast already, and looks like the prototypical Mullen QB with his running and strong arm.  The QB room is the best it’s been since 2009.

The running backs will be led by junior Dameon Pierce, who is in line to get the first crack at replacing the graduated Lamical Perine.  Pierce, Malik Davis, and transfer Lorenzo Lingard have big shoes to fill, but the raw talent is there.  Pierce is a physical runner who also has decent hands in the passing game.  Davis still has to prove he is physically and mentally back from his leg injuries, while Lingard himself is coming off of a knee injury.  Nay’Quan Wright may be one of those South Florida diamonds in the rough that pops out if given the chance.  Lots of potential here, but no proven commodity……yet.

The WR corps lost a ton of talent and production with Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland, and Josh Hammond all making it to the NFL.  Florida was very fortunate to have Trevon Grimes elect to return for his senior year to lead a young group that lacks experience but has some elite physical tools.  Jacob Copeland gets his opportunity to show out, while Kedarius Toney has one last chance to prove he can be a more consistent threat as a true receiver instead of making only 2-3 splash plays a game on sweeps and screens.  Transfer Jordan Pouncey brings experience, but there’s a group of talented freshmen that will get their chance for plenty of meaningful snaps.  Trent Wittemore, Ja’Markis Weston, and Xzavier Henderson (brother of CJ) all have enough ability to force their way into the rotation this fall – hopefully at least one of them does and provides some quality depth.  Finally, Florida received great news on the transfer waiver request for Justin Shorter – he was a big-time recruit for Penn St., and could be a huge boost to the WR group as he was the top high school WR prospect in the 2018 class.

The Gators have perhaps the most dangerous TE in the country in Kyle Pitts, who was Trask’s favorite target last year and a matchup nightmare for defenses.  His numbers may actually go down this season as he garners more attention, but that only opens up the field for the WRs to step up their production.  There is not much proven production behind him, as Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer both need to show the coaches they are ready to step up their game.  Perhaps Shorter, with his size, could actually be a solid backup to Pitts this fall.

Finally, we come to the much-maligned (and deservedly so) offensive line.  This group was terrible run blocking last season, and not much better in protecting the QB, especially the tackles.  Trask’s quick decisions and Perine’s pass-pro skill helped mask some of those deficiencies, but this group has to improve in order for Florida to make a run at any championships.  The interior of the line actually looks to be SEC-caliber, with Ethan White moving from guard to center and the combination of Brett Heggie and transfer Stewart Reese at guard.  There are still huge questions at the tackle spots – Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance return but they each had serious struggles last season.  Richard Gouriage had some good moments there in 2019, but has to become a consistent performer.  Unless one of the young and inexperienced guys like Joshua Braun or MIchael Tarquin can hold up in the rotation, Resse may have to slide out to try and stabilize the unit.  Coach Hevesy is on the clock to roll out a SEC-worthy unit this fall – the time for talk is over, and he needs to stop trying to fit guards into the tackle spots.

Defense

Florida lost some playmakers in DEs Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, CB CJ Handerson, and 4-year starter David Reese at LB.  However, there is actually more depth at those respective positions that may very well make up for their key contributions.

The biggest question mark will be the defensive line, especially along the interior.  Luke Ancrum and Adam Shuler have graduated, but neither was a consistent performer nor 3-down player.  Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell have shown flashes the past 2 seasons, but now are seniors and must step up as leaders and increase the number of snaps they play each game.  Zach Carter came on the second half of 2019, and is starting to look like a Jon Bullard-type player that can play inside and out – he will be needed more at tackle as the DE and Buck posiitons are loaded with talent and numbers.  The one freshman that could be a factor at DT could be 5* recruit Gervon Dexter, already a man-child at 6’7″ and 270 lb. with freakish athletic ability.  This group needs to stay healthy this fall or else inexperienced and undersized players will be forced to play, not a good recipe in the SEC.

There is a lot of youth at DE and Buck, but the talent is undeniable.  Jeremiah Moon returns for his senior season as the leader and best pass rusher – his decision to come back was crucial and hopefully pays major dividends.  Mohamoud Diabate, Khris Bogle, and Andrew Chatfield saw a lot of action as freshmen, and are now being counted upon to make the leap to established SEC starters.  Lloyd Summerall and Princely Umanmielen are freshmen that will be forced into early playing time to provide some depth.  If this group struggles, Zack Carter may be forced outside, which will hurt the rotation at tackle.  Plenty of talent along the line, but much of it is still young and must grow up quickly.

Losing Reese hurts at LB, but there will be more athleticism and depth there than since 2016.  Ventrell Miller and James Houston are the returning starters with the most experience, but both need to show consistency.  The major upgrade will be 5* Brenton Cox, who transferred from Georgia and unfortunately did not get his waiver approved to play in 2019.  He is tearing it up in fall practice and will be a force outside and as a pass rusher on occasion.  Amari Burney is a freak athlete, but needs to find a position – he played both OLB and Star at times in 2019, but was simply not good enough in pass coverage at Star – I really hope Grantham leaves him at OLB to improve the pass coverage against TEs and pursue the run.  Freshmen Tyron Hopper, Derek Wingo, and David Reese (different Reese – I know, confusing) all have athletic talent, and will need to grow up quickly to provide some depth.  Again, a less experienced group than going into 2019, but I believe a more athletic and talented one overall.  The pass coverage in the intermediate zones should be much-improved – this has been a sore spot and an area that has been exploited since Todd Grantham arrived.

The secondary will be significantly reconfigured with the loss of CJH and the movement of key contributors from 2019 to new positions.  However, I think the overall production and quality of pass coverage will improve.  Marco Wilson returns as the leader of the unit, and likely will be the starter at the Star position.  Kaiir Elam came on the last month of 2019 and has established himself as a starter at CB.  The only question is who fills in opposite him at CB – the hope is that the combination of Chester Kimbrough, CJ McWilliams, and Jaydon Hill is adequate.  If that group struggles, however, Wilson may need to move outside and a combination of Trey Dean and Brad Stewart slide down from safety to Star.  Which leads me to the safety position – probably the most experienced group, but one that still has more questions than it should.  Dean seems to have accepted his move here, as he struggled mightily in coverage at CB last season.  Stewart’s play regressed, and he is wasting his physical gifts with poor mental preparation and is now down to his last season of eligibility to make his mark.  Shawn Davis is the best player here, showing good coverage skills and hard tackling.  Donovan Stiner will get plenty of snaps in the rotation, but is simply not a SEC-caliber player.  Tre’Vez Johnson, Mordecai McDaniel, and Rashad Torrence are 3 freshmen who could be future SEC stars that will get the chance to provide some additional depth and gain experience as they will be counted upon heavily in 2021 when 4 seniors depart.  This group can show significant improvement both in deep zone pass coverage and in taking proper angles for open-field tackling.

Special Teams

I am really excited to see how this unit will contribute this fall.  Florida has one of the best placekickers in the country in junior Evan McPherson, who has proven to be one of most important recruits for Dan Mullen at Florida.  Unfortunately, the 6-year run of the Townsend brothers at punter has come to an end, and the Gators need to find a competent replacement.  It looks to be a battle between Jacob Finn and Australian Jeremy Crenshaw for the job.  Whoever gets the chance has big shoes to fill.  

Once again my wishes for a playmaker in the return game remained unanswered.  Swain performed the punt return duties, but more for ball security than for breakaway potential.  Toney may get first shot, but has to be a north-south runner in that role as opposed to his usual wild, freewheeling style.  Freshmen Fenley Graham may get an opportunity when he recovers from a fractured forearm sustained early in fall practice.  It’s still a mystery as to who Mullen will give kickoff return responsibility to  – Toney or one of the young receivers could get an early look.  Plenty of raw athletic talent, but who will step up?

Schedule and Outlook

The 10 game SEC-only schedule will likely be a real grind – no cupcake games to rest starters and get younger players experience.  This could really show which coaching staffs have the ability to develop and motivate a team, and expose weak links.  Additionally, the Gators will not play Florida $tate for the first time since 1957 – too bad, as the Criminoles are in a world of hurt, and I was looking forward to another beatdown in Taliban City and turning more recruits off to that cesspool.

@Mississippi – Win

Lame Kiffen returns to Power 5 football, and is going to have a rough go in his own division, let alone having to open with the Gators.  The Rebels have a ton of roster turnover along with experiencing many players contracting the virus or opting out of 2020.  Too much uncertainty and a lack of talent on defense.  The only way this one stays close into the fourth quarter is a combination of Gator turnovers and first-game sloppiness.

South Carolina – Win

Won’t Misschump will always have an axe to grind against Florida, so his team will have extra motivation.  However, they still lack playmakers on offense, and it’s likely their defense will wear down in the second half of games – again.  THis one is likely close at halftime, but Florida pulls away in the second half.

@Texas A&M – Loss

The Aggies are seemingly always a mystery – some elite talent, but always coming up short and laying some eggs along the way.  They will be pointing to this game as a springboard to a big season.  Will Kellen Mond finally show up in a big game?  Florida historically struggles with at least one SEC West team each season, and this could be the game.

LSU – Win

Tiger fans will tell you that Florida gave them their toughest test in 2019.  Since then, their roster was gutted like a fish due to the draft, early departures, and opt-outs, and they also lost both coordinators.  They had their magical season, and are gonna experience some payback.  HIstorically this is a close game, but the Gators have too much experience and a solid QB – enough to get the win.

Missouri – Win

The Tigers are hurting for talent and depth, and breaking in a new coaching staff and QB.  Never a good combination in the SEC, and they are going to have a rough go of it this fall.  The Gators could experience a hangover from the previous week, but this one could get ugly.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

Florida has the advantage at QB, while the Puppies have what could be a generational defense.  Dan Mullen is still winless against UGA as a head coach, and one of the hardest things to do is get off the struggle bus.  I have to see Mullen and the staff put a 4 quarter game plan in place and win this one to believe.

Arkansas – Win

Feleipe Franks could be the starting QB for the Razorbacks when they come to the Swamp, which is fine.  I’ll get to see him turn the ball over and help the Gators win.  Arkansas is far behind the elite SEC teams in talent and depth.

@Vanderbilt – Win

The Commodores were really bad in 2019, and don’t have any better talent this season.  The only reason this one could stay within 3 TDs is the Gators sleepwalking through this one, as they have historically done.

Kentucky – Win

Terry Wilson was a surprise in 2018, and sadly had perhaps the best game of his career against Florida.  Since then, the rest of the league has seen the tape, and there isn’t much to scare you – he’s a good runner and an inaccurate passer.  The Gators are due to put a beatdown on the Mildcats after too many close games the past decade.

@Tennessee – Win

Volsheimers is almost always in effect at the end of each season, as Tennessee finishes the year with 4 or 5 straight wins against a garbage schedule and proclaims themselves ‘back’.  Florida will relish the chance to shut the Dollies up to end the season on a high note.

Overall Record          8-2

SEC Record              8-2

2020 could be remembered as the most challenging and weird season ever.  With so much uncertainty for every team even before the games begin, coupled with the unknown of whether a virus outbreak could derail a season, it may be an exercise in futility to try and predict what could happen.  Florida has some built-in advantages – an intact coaching staff, stable QB room, and (so far) no large virus outbreaks reported that have undermined practice (and performance) already for other Power 5 teams.  In a vacuum, the Gators look to be better than anyone on their schedule except maybe Georgia.  There’s a lot of talk in the media that this is the year the Gators win the East and return to Atlanta, but there are still some major hurdles to overcome – winning at Texas A&M, getting by LSU at home, and of course shutting up Kirby Smart.

Additionally, with only 20-25% fan capacity in stadiums, any home-field advantages may simply not exist.  Florida must remain healthy along the O-line and D-line, and someone in the WR corps has to take up the slack behind Grimes.  The coaching staff seems quietly confident in this group, which is a good sign.  Finally, can the Gators navigate 2020 by staying healthy on – and off – the field?   

It’s that time again (I hope)……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

Orange Bowl Preview

Florida gets rewarded for another 10-win season and top-10 ranking with it’s second consecutive New Year’s Six game – this time in the Orange Bowl to play the Virginia Cavaliers.

This is great for the program for many reasons.  First is the ability to practice and be seen in the fertile South Florida recruiting region, with scUM currently a dumpster fire.  It also shows future recruits around the country that Dan Mullen has the program headed in a winning direction again.  Finally, it’s a great reward for the guys that either stayed with or came into the the program to turn things around and reinvigorate the Florida brand nationally.

Virginia is led by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and the team reflects his personality – fundamentally sound and tough.  Their offense is led by senior QB Bryce Perkins, a true dual-threat QB with almost 200 carries this year.  He is the focus of the Cavaliers’ attack, and the key to whether the Gator defense can slow or shut down Virginia and make it a long night for them.  Perkins isn’t terribly accurate as a thrower, but can hit some big plays on scrambles or if a play breaks down and he improvises.  His main target is WR Joe Reed – Reed is a 1st-Team ACC player, and also a dangerous kick returner with 2 kickoff returns for scores.  The Gators will have one of their better CBs on him all night, and occasionally roll a safety over the top to keep him on check.  The only other ballcarrier with significant snaps is RB Wayne Taulapapa who averages only 10 carries a game, but has 12 rushing TDs.  The Gator defense seems to match up well against Virginia’s attack.  If the front seven does it’s usual good job of controlling the LOS, the DEs are going to make things very tough on Perkins.  It appears that both Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga will play – a huge boost in contrast to many star players sitting out bowl games.  Unfortunately, CB CJ Henderson will be one of those, so freshman Kaiir Elam gets a chance to start and make a name for himself.

Florida’s offense should have success as long as they come motivated to play and keep Kyle Trask upright.  Virginia’s defensive strength is in their LB corps, which plays sound football and tackles well.  However, there is no one outstanding talent that can’t be handled, and the Gator WRs could have another big game.  Indications are that everyone available will play, so Trask has his entire compliment of weapons.  Here’s hoping that the rest and extra practice has the O-line playing one of it’s best games and allowing RB Lamical Perine to go out a winner with some good running and pass-catching.

Head Coach Dan Mullen wants this win in order to keep the positive momentum going for the program, get more top-level recruits interested in Florida, and continue to widen the distance between Florida and it’s in-state rivals F$U and scUM.  He and the staff have shown the ability to keep their players motivated and playing hard, and that will be challenged by a lackluster opponent and a Monday night game after the CFP games have already been played.

Bowl games can be tricky to handicap – some players sit out to avoid injury before leaving for the NFL, some players play but ‘protect’ themselves from injury before the NFL draft, and some are dealing with baby mommas/agents/runners for agents/other distractions that take away from their usual focus.  Finally, Virginia comes in with the motivation to rehabilitate their image after getting completely embarrassed by Clemson in the ACCCG, and I believe they will be fired up for this game.  Florida needs to be ready from the start to match the Cavaliers’ intensity.  The Gators are similar to Clemson in team speed, and ultimately I think they pull away in the second half.

Prediction: Florida 34 Virginia 20

Florida $tate Review

Florida put a second straight beatdown on the Taliban City Losers with a 40-17 win that wasn’t as close as the score suggested.  The only reason the game was even that close was halftime – at that point the Gators were completely dominating the Criminoles on offense and defense, and the break prevented a mercy killing in the Swamp.

As expected, Florida’s strength on offense – the passing game – was a perfect attack to employ, as F$U’s pass defense was horrid all season.  Just like a bad matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament, you could see this was gonna be a long night for their defense, which only made me especially happy that it happened under the watch of interim head coach Odell Haggins, who hates the Gators.  Deal with it Odell……again.

The O-line again struggled to generate a running game, and even were stuffed late in the 3rd quarter with a first-and-goal inside the 1……unacceptable.  More reason to put Coach Hevesy on notice in 2020.  That really bothered me, as Coach Mullen could have just given Lamical Perine a last touchdown run in the Swamp on Senior Night but didn’t even have him in the game.  But it didn’t even matter, as Kyle Trask and the WRs toyed with F$U all night, doing pretty much as they pleased.  Only a few missed deep throws by Trask and a missed RB pass form Kadarius Toney to Dante Lang prevented a 50+ point output.

The defense did as I expected – giving up a big play to each of the only two players on FSU’s offense that are legit talents – WR Tamorrion Terry and RB Cam Akers – but shut down everything else for the most part.  The only real complaint was (again) the safeties getting burned deep 2-3 times……they were lucky James Blackman was harassed and missed open receivers for some big plays.  I still can’t believe Akers didn’t enter the transfer portal after last season to get the hell away from that sinking ship……but at least he’ll leave early for the NFL now.  The Gator pass rush racked up 8 sacks and numerous pressures, and never let either F$U QB get comfortable in the pocket.  Jonathan Greenard added 3 more sacks, and should be 1st team all-SEC.  The open-field tackling was adequate, but there were some bad misses by the safeties that allowed a few scoring drives to continue.

Finally, in the ultimate act of schadenfreude, the ACC referees allowed to officiate this game in Gainesville for the first time since the Swindle in the Swamp in 2003 absolutely killed F$U with crushing penalties at the most inopportune times, extending Gator scoring drives and even reversing a Gator turnover.  It was beautiful to watch.

Florida finishes the 2019 regular season at 10-2, which betters the 2018 record of 9-3.  Now the Gators await the results of the conference championship games and the final CFP rankings to see where they fall in the bowl pecking order.  If Florida somehow gets shut out of a New Year’s Six bowl game that would be a disgrace, but it’s college football, and weird, inexplicable things happen.  I’m hoping for an Orange Bowl bid, but the Cotton Bowl is in play as well.

On the heels and momentum of a state championship, Mullen and his staff are now hitting the recruiting trail hard to close on some potential stud players, with some new names popping up on the board now.  There is still some real dead weight on the staff in regards to recruiting (OL – Hevesy, Safety – English, RB – Knox, TE – Scott), and Mullen can only do so much on his own……he needs the position coaches to pull their weight, and we’re going to see soon if they will.

Given the circumstances of how the season developed – especially the season-ending injury to Feleipe Franks, recurring injuries to Jabari Zuniga and Greenard, and no real running game almost the entire season, Coach Mullen gets tons of respect for coaching around the deficiencies and getting to 10 wins, and also being in the LSU and Georgia games deep into the 4th quarter.  F$U and scUM continue to struggle and regress, and it’s time to bury them deeper as well as start to reduce the talent gap between Florida and the 5-6 schools nationally that have dominated recruiting the past 6-8 years.

I’ll be back with my bowl preview later in December.  Enjoy another successful football season, a state championship, and the holidays to come.

Go Gators!

Florida $t. Preview

Florida ends it’s 2019 regular season with its annual rivalry game against Florida $t. in the Swamp.  The Gators ended a painful 5-year losing streak in the series last year in Taliban City, and look to build on that by extending its own streak.

F$U has had a miserable season and (unfortunately) did the right thing by blowing out Slick Willie Taggart 3 weeks ago.  Odell Haggins has taken over in the interim, and the players actually respect him and have played harder recently.  It’s just a shame that they are already bowl-eligible, as the Gators would have loved to prevent the Criminoles from going bowling a second consecutive year.  F$U’s identity this season has been to start fast on offense, then do little to nothing in the second half while the defense collapses.

F$U’s offense has been wildly inconsistent all season, partly due to the uneven play of starting QB James Blackman backup Alex Hornibrook, but moreso by a weak O-line that has performed even worse than Florida’s.  The Criminoles have racked up some big numbers against weaker competition, but have struggled against decent or good opponents.  RB Cam Akers is the best player on the entire roster, and the sole hope they have to be competitive in this game.  He is an excellent runner and also a consistent threat as a receiver out of the backfield.  The only real receiving threat is WR Tamorrion Terry, who has size and deep speed.  The Gator front seven need to remain disciplined and not get fooled by the motion and quick pace of OC Kendal Briles’ offense, which he brought from Baylor.  If the Florida DTs can at a minimum get a stalemate at the LOS or get occasional penetration in the gaps, it could be a long night for F$U’s offense.  The DEs, led by Jonathan Greenard, should be able to disrupt the pocket consistently against the poor OTs, and need to get either QB off their spot and first read.  Jeremiah Moon is out with a foot injury, but it appears that Jabari Zuniga will get at least limited snaps.  The secondary should match up well against any spread sets, especially now that Marco Wilson has moved to the Star position and can slow down the slot receivers and help control the middle of the field.  F$U has enough talent at the skill positions overall to make some plays, but if the LBs and safeties can tackle well in space and force the Criminoles into long drives, that should be enough to disrupt their offense, as it thrives on big plays and isn’t built for long, ball-control drives.  The tackling against Missouri was as good as it’s been all year, and that offense with a mobile QB could help as a preview for what to expect Saturday night. 

On offense, Florida’s passing game matches up well against F$U’s pass defense, which has struggled all season both in coverage and open-field tackling.  The Gator WR corps has a decided advantage in size, speed, and depth.  As always, as long as the O-line can keep Trask clean and relatively upright, he and the receivers should be effective most of the night moving the ball.  It remains to be seen if Mullen can somehow coax any semblance of a running game, which could hit some big plays if the passing game is clicking early.  I have a feeling that Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce may be able to break free for a few chunk plays.  F$U’s defense has been hurt by season-ending injuries to DT Marvin Wilson (a future high draft pick) and LB/safety Jaiden Woodbey, but there’s no sympathy felt here – go after their replacements and keep the pressure on all game long.

Florida’s special teams have a decided advantage.  PK Evan McPherson and P Tommy Townsend have excelled all season, and the coverage units have been some of the best in the nation.  It’s a luxury and a real bonus to field position, and has been a huge help to both the offense and defense.  These hidden yards can’t be underestimated in the Gators’ success this year.  

It’s Senior Day, a chance for the first 10-win regular season since 2015, and the opportunity for Florida to set itself up for a New Year’s Six game.  The bigger goals of winning the SEC East and playing in Atlanta weren’t achieved, but there are still some significant things to play for, and there should be plenty of motivation to put on a great performance.  As always, in-state recruiting is impacted by this game, and Florida can continue to distance itself from scUM and F$U by winning the state title and closing the gap on the SEC schools it still trails in both talent and in the standings.  The Swamp should be electric at night for this game, and Gator Nation is ready to see another winning performance against the Criminoles.

Prediction: Florida 34 Florida $t. 17

Missouri Review

Florida took care of its business in Columbia with a workmanlike 23-6 win over Missouri that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.  The Gators didn’t play an entirely clean game, especially in the first half, but played hard, stayed focused, and proved their superiority over the Tigers with a dominant second half.

Kyle Trask once again was called upon to lead the offense despite no running game to provide any balance, and he did with 284 yards and 2 TDs, both in the 3rd quarter to essentially end the game.  Van Jefferson was the primary target most of the afternoon and was open most of the day.  Josh Hammond and Lamical Perine caught the 2 TS throws from Trask, with Perine making a great catch in traffic – especially good for a running back.  Emory Jones received the most snaps he has in a meaningful game since Auburn, and responded with a handful of good runs to extend drives and one long completion to Kedarious Toney setting up a FG.  The O-line again was pushed around trying to run block, but was able to give Trask just enough time to make some reads and get the ball out.  They did allow 4 sacks, though mostly from inside rushes where the guard play has fallen off recently due to injury and inexperience.

The Gator defense made life miserable for the Tigers and QB Kelly Bryant all afternoon, repeatedly getting penetration into the backfield, harassing him on many throws, and getting 3 sacks and multiple tackles for loss.  The front seven did a pretty good job limiting RB Larry Roundtree, but did get hurt by some designed runs and scrambles by Bryant that extended a few drives that led to their only points.  The pass coverage in the intermediate zones was solid – TE Albert Okwuegbunam was held to 4 catches for 26 yards, and the tackling was better than it has been in weeks, limited yards after the catch.  The improvement in coverage with Marco Wilson playing the Star position was immediately noticeable.  Kaiir Elam got the most snaps he has all season at CB, while Trey Dean moved for Star to CB and at least looked more comfortable – I still think he may be better suited for safety.  The safeties tackled well and didn’t allow any passes over the top.

Special teams were on point as they have been all season.  Evan McPherson made all 3 of his FG attempts, Tommy Townsend averaged 46 yards on his punts with 4 placed inside the 20, and the kick coverage was solid.

Defense and special teams need to travel on the road in the SEC, and this was just another example of that.  Missouri never had any momentum, and knew they would have to be more lucky than good to make anything happen as the game progressed.

Credit to Dan Mullen and his staff for having his players in the right mindset for this game.  No need to look backwards at the embarrassing losses under Won’t Misschump, the Swamp Donkey, or even last year.  No need to be concerned about the weather (it was fine).  No need to read too much into Missouri’s home record which was built up against garbage teams.  Just go out and play hard, and the better team (Florida) would win.

There are still a few goals to achieve for this year’s team – win 10 regular season games, beat F$U, and get into another New Year’s Six bowl game.  The Gators have their 3rd bye week of the season to rest, get as healthy as possible, and throw everything they have at the Criminoles and beat those clowns down – again.

I’ll be back next week with my game preview.  Happy Thanksgiving, and Go Gators!