Florida State Review

Gator Nation was ready to celebrate a big win over a bitter rival, with the extra bonus of ruining a potential championship season for Florida State.  But……again……Lucy (er, Billy Napier) pulled the football away from Charlie Brown (er, Gator Nation) right before they could kick it, and instead we all fell on our ass (again) and watched a poorly-coached meltdown lead to another loss snatched from the jaws of victory.

After a fantastic start to the game, with the running game working and Max Brown getting just enough help to make some plays with both his arm and legs, the Gators had built up a 12-0 lead despite a missed FG and settling for a FG inside the red zone.  The defense was more aggressive than ever since Napier became head coach, continuously blitzing backup QB Tate Rodemaker and putting the Semenholes in a world of hurt.  Then, Napier went full-Napier, making one of the worst play calls I can remember in watching Gator football since 1973.  Florida had just sacked Rodemaker for a safety and that 12-0 lead, and Trevor Etienne had returned the subsequent free kick all the way into FSU territory.  With all of the momentum on it’s side and the crowd ready to celebrate extending the lead, Napier called for a double-reverse pitch back to the QB to attempt a long pass.  This, after watching Brown run for his life with precious little time to throw even on quick routes because of a beaten up and, frankly, subpar O-line.  Of course, the result was disastrous – an intentional grounding penalty that led to 2nd-and 24 and essentially killed all of the momentum gained up to then.  Yes, Florida was able to pin down FSU at the 10-yard line after punting, but they were able to scratch together a TD drive near the end of the half, helped by 2 crucial penalties – one which led to the ejection of DL Jamari Lyons after spitting in an opponent’s face.  You can’t make this sh……um……stuff up.  Then shockingly, with less than a minute to work with, the Gators were able to get within easy FG range, just to have a lazy holding call on a running play force a FG attempt over 50 yards, which was missed.

Of course, F$U took the second half kickoff and quickly scored the go-ahead TD, and just like that all of the good work was wasted.  Even after retaking the lead 15-14, you could see the same old conservative Napier playcalling in full effect, playing not to lose instead of staying aggressive.  Even with all of the struggles of the O-line, they could still run the ball reasonably well.  But Napier refused to give Brown any chance again of using his athleticism to make any effective pass plays by not rolling the pocket or continuing with some read option or RPO calls, and simply allowed the Criminole defense to choke off the offense.  Unacceptable, and brutal.  And an ongoing coaching/personality issue that I’m not sure any staff changes or players can overcome.  Finally, the defense cracked in the 4th quarter, and didn’t help itself at all with some critical personal fouls and a VERY questionable pass-interference penalty on 3rd down early in FSU’s go-ahead TD drive.

And so, another long winter of discontent begins.  There will certainly be coaching staff changes, recruiting class defections/changes, endless debate about who to blame and why, along with the usual hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies all of that.  In my opinion, Napier has effectively lost years 4 and 5 on his contract, and it’s do-or-die in year 3.  And that will come with all of the aforementioned changes along with a BRUTAL schedule that potentially doesn’t lend itself to many wins nor much time to incorporate said changes.  It’s DEFCON 1 time for Napier to himself take action to correct his own flaws and show if he can remake his staff and roster into a better, more cohesive group.  HIs overall record at Florida now stands at 11-14, and 1-7 in rivalry games.  That’s not going to cut it.

Florida is unfortunately in the swing-and-miss cycle of coaches that a handful of traditional powers have had to endure, with some of those schools never recovering.  I’m not close to giving last rites to the football program, but it’s definitely in ICU and needs the right doctor and cure.  Right now I’d say that the next specialist will be hired in around 52 weeks unless there’s a miracle recovery.  It’s a shame, as so much of the struggles past 14 seasons have been due to self-inflicted wounds caused by the head coaches themselves.

I’ll be back in a month or two to discuss the 2024 recruiting class along with the staff changes that are sure to come and their potential impact.  There will be a LOT to unpack on both fronts.

Go Gators!

Missouri Review / Florida St. Preview

Where to even begin?  Against the odds, Florida came within a last-second FG of defeating Missouri on the road Saturday night.  It was likely the second-most spirited effort of the season after beating Tennessee at home back in September.  The offense, despite being crippled by injuries to the O-line and then losing Graham Mertz late in the 3rd quarter, did more than enough to win the game.  The Gators outrushed the Tigers even with backups at both tackle spots and at center, as both Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson ran hard and broke some big runs.  Ricky Pearsall made some big catches and had a long TD on a jet sweep, and Tre Wilson scored the first TD on a nice pass route and reception.  Max Brown came into the fray in relief of Mertz and did as well as could be expected.  He ran well, scrambled when needed, and completed a few key passes to extend 2 scoring drives in the 4th quarter to take a 31-30 lead on a Trey Smack FG with 1:36 left on the clock.  However……Napier had the Tiger defense on their heels, but chose to go too conservative the last series before taking the lead  He called 3 straight running plays into a loaded box and did not take at least one shot at a run/pass option with Brown or even a short throw attempt to get one more first down to milk the rest of the clock and all of Missouri’s time outs.  The season was already on the brink, so why not go for the knockout when it presented itself?  Very discouraging game management and another example of his conservative nature taking over when a game is close.  Props to the offensive players for rallying after watching their leader leave the game.

Of course, that left it up to the much-maligned defense.  Somehow, despite giving up another 500 yards, they had made enough plays to hold Missouri to those 30 points.  And then……4th-and-17 happened.  How Austin Armstrong couldn’t have the proper personnel on the field, even when given extra time courtesy of a Missouri time out, is inexcusable.  When the Gators had the opportunity to reach out and take victory, they sat back and instead snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, allowing an easy pass completion for a first down.  It was pretty much a given after that that they would lose.  Why they didn’t rush 5 and have 6 defensive backs to drop into coverage starting just inside the first down marker is baffling.  Instead, they had a LB who didn’t drop back deep enough, secondary players too far beyond the marker, and made it way too easy for Connor Cook to make the play of the game.  The front seven did play much better against the run in the second half after getting gashed for 123 yards by RB Corey Schrader in the first half.  There was shockingly some decent man coverage in the flats and downfield occasionally.  Just too little, too late, and too many breakdowns at key moments.  You would think at game 11 many of these deficiencies could be worked out with experience gained or from coaching adjustments, but……no.

It’s bad enough to lose (again), and watch the defense get pushed around (again), but for Billy Napier and his staff to play things overly conservatively given the desperate state of the game and season, it’s just another troubling sign that he may not be cut out for the SEC.

Now it’s time for the Battle of the Backups at the Swamp, as Florida State comes in undefeated and looking to try and make the College Football Playoff.  They will have to do it without QB Jordan Travis, who had his season and college career ended by a compound fracture in his lower leg, leaving both his foot and FSU’s playoff hopes dangling.  Tate Rodemaker gets the call and has played fairly well in relief this year, but this will be by far a tougher challenge.  The Seminoles will miss Travis’ scrambling ability, so they will rely heavily on RBs Trey Benson and Lawrence Toafili.  Both RBs are also decent targets in the passing game, and I could see them being used often to try and take pressure off of Rodemaker.  WRs Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson are big-bodied targets that the Florida DBs will have to be physical with, and TE Jaheim Bell is a transfer from South Carolina that is very familiar with the Gator defense.  The Gators will somehow, someway, need to get enough stops to give the offense as many chances as possible.  That means individual players will have to make some standout plays tackling in space or in coverage, as I don’t see any help coming from the defensive scheme in general at this point.  The defense has to find ways to get pressure on the QB and force him out of his comfort zone and into some mistakes.

The efficiency of the Gator offense and passing game will suffer with the loss of Mertz, and Brown will have to make some plays with his legs and perhaps on some deeper throws to try and offset that loss.  Hopefully OT Austin Barber can go this week, but even if he doesn’t look for the Gators to rely on a power running game as much as possible to manage the clock and allow Brown to settle in and take as much pressure off of him as possible.  Both Johnson and Etienne have to have good games, and one of the TEs or a mystery WR need to contribute something to take the pressure off of Pearsall and Wilson.  FSU’s defense is allowing under 50% pass completions this season, but they have played against a lot of bad QBs and poor passing offenses.  That makes the loss of Mertz even more glaring.  The O-line, in whatever form it has to take, must play well enough to allow the offense to establish some balance and give Brown a chance to make some plays.

The circumstances surrounding this game are certainly more question-filled than anyone could have anticipated.  Can Florida ruin FSU’s run at the CFP?  Can Napier do something to quell the rising tide of discontent from the fan base?  Is Florida’s defense so bad at this point that it doesn’t matter?  Is FSU that much better right now – even without Travis – that it doesn’t matter who plays QB against the Gators?  Can a night game at the Swamp be enough to give Florida a legit chance at pulling off the upset?  It’s a shame both QBs are out, but in a way that will put the spotlight even more on the surrounding casts to see which one is better.  On paper it’s not close right now, especially comparing the defenses.  But rivalry games can have some weird things happen, and the Gators may have to embrace all of that weirdness.  Unfortunately, I think there are just too many injuries and holes in the roster to cover for at this point.


Florida St. 31

Florida 17

LSU Review / Missouri Preview

The Bataan death march continues, with a humiliating 52-35 defeat at LSU Saturday night.  It’s a helpless feeling for any Gator fan, knowing that no matter what good things may happen, that the defense has deteriorated to the point that it just doesn’t matter.  The players fought and played hard, but many on defense did not play well, and there are just too many fundamental issues that can’t be overcome.

I had the misfortune of watching in person the Gator defense set more dubious school records in futility, allowing 702 yards of offense and all but making the reservations to New York and the Heisman Trophy ceremony for LSU QB Jayden Daniels.  Daniels met no resistance in piling up 371 yards passing and 234 yards rushing – never before done in NCAA history.  Even with getting a few stops in the first half, including an excellent goal-line stand, the defense looked lost way too often, as the same issues that have plagued them all season continued.  There was no pass rush of note from the D-line, and the only pressure came when the Gators blitzed.  It wasn’t as if they were going to stop Daniels from running the ball anyway, so why DC Austin Armstrong didn’t blitz all game long was baffling.  The secondary did what it could considering they had to cover way too long, but there were still too many wide open receivers on busted coverages, along with some weak tackling.  How this group has completely fallen apart can’t be explained away simply by injuries to the LB corps.  The held-over Patrick Toney scheme is terrible, and needs to be completely scrapped.  DC Austin Armstrong may be in way over his head and too inexperienced, and there are some serious issues with some position coaches.  Just too many issues to cover in one review, and a bad look for Billy Napier, who is ultimately responsible for everything.  This is the stuff that causes dissention in the locker room, and I can only hope the staff can prevent the offense and defense from getting after each other.

Florida’s offense played well enough, gamely trying to stay with LSU despite knowing they would have to score almost every time they had the ball.  They racked up over 400 yards, including over 150 on the ground, and easily had more time-of-possession.  And it wasn’t nearly enough.  Graham Mertz was solid, and played tough while being pressured again too often.  Both Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne ran the ball well and helped out as safety-valve receivers.  Tre Wilson and Ricky Pearsall made some big plays with runs after the catch.  And it wasn’t nearly enough.  The play of the game for the offense and the entire team was the officials overturning the long completion to Kahleil Jackson late in the 3rd quarter, thwarting a promising scoring drive and allowing LSU to extend it’s then 3 point lead to 10.  It was a terrible call, and forced Florida into a mostly passing game, offsetting the balance it was able to use up until then.  The O-line played well enough, despite LT Austin Barber repeatedly leaving the game with shoulder and leg injuries and eventually leaving for good in the 3rd quarter.  They played with pace and tempo more often than in any previous game, and it worked well.

Special Teams played well.  The kick and punt coverage was excellent, and punter Jeremy Crawshaw hit some big kicks to pin LSU down – like it mattered.  They even forced a turnover on a high kickoff that was fumbled by a Tiger return man.  No issues in this game, which is a rarity.

Next up is another very tough opponent in the Missouri Tigers, and the Gators are on the road again in Columbia.  Missouri has played well this year, coming in with a record of 8-2 with the losses by 10 points at LSU and 9 points at Georgia.  Simple extrapolation compared to Florida’s results against those same opponents tells you that this is going to be an extremely difficult game to win – especially away from home.

Missouri is led on offense by QB Brady Cook.  Cook is another mobile QB, which has given the Gator defense fits all season.  RB Cody Schrader is a strong runner and by far the leading rusher in terms of carries and yards, piling up over 1,100 yards already this season.  Cook has two excellent WR targets in Luther Burden and Theo Wease, who both are big-play threats.  Florida has already faced some very good offenses and shouldn’t be surprised by anything the Tigers show on Saturday night.  But based on what they haven’t been able to do yet all season, this likely turns into another ugly performance.  The LB corps is in tatters, and unless Armstrong simply starts to blitz early and often to try and disrupt the Tigers and steal a few possessions, I don’t see them doing enough to give the offense enough chances to win.  Opposing QBs have had way too much time to read the field or simply take off and run.

Florida’s offense again will need to find some consistent running room for Etienne and Johnson in order to take time off the clock and keep the defense off the field.  Mertz again will have to be efficient in the passing game, as the Gators can’t afford too many short possessions and likely will need to score at least 30 points.  Missouri’s defense will make that harder than LSU did, though.  They have a good run defense led by former Florida LB Ty’ron Hopper, but have had some rough games against the pass.  Once again, Pearsall and Wilson have to make plays, but the TEs need to have more of an impact than they have the last two games.  Arlis Boardingham needs to be targeted more often.  It’s extremely frustrating that no other receiver has become a consistent threat in order to take the pressure off the main two guys and also force the defense to defend more of the field.

At this point, perhaps Missouri takes the Gators lightly after watching film on them.  Maybe somehow Florida gets out to an early lead and tries to hold on for an upset.  Perhaps the Tigers have a letdown of sorts after playing Georgia and Tennessee in consecutive weeks.  It’s sad to say it, but it may be Florida’s best chance.  I hope the entire defensive scheme is scrapped after the season, but it’s still possible to make some serious changes these last 2 weeks to maybe surprise the opponents enough to maybe steal a win.  Sadly, Napier seems too stubborn to allow it, though, and this turns into another ugly loss.


Missouri 38

Florida 20

Arkansas Review / LSU Preview

Well, all of my worst fears were realized on Saturday, as the Gators played down to the level of Arkansas and gave away the game, a 39-36 overtime loss that now endangers their chances of even becoming bowl-eligible this season.  It’s obvious the off week really benefited the Razorbacks, but Florida’s coaching staff did the players no favors in all 3 phases of the game, and disappointed once again.  Billy Napier needs to make some serious fixes this offseason.

Where to begin?  The offense played well early and late, but only when the situation dictated an aggressive approach and Napier was forced into it.  There were some explosive plays from RB Trevor Etienne and WR Tre Wilson, but they were still underutilized.  After falling behind early 14-0 in the 1st quarter, the offense rallied to tie the game, but then Napier reverted back to the same risk-averse scheme that has caused so many issues throughout 2023.  When Arkansas was allowed to move the ball in the 2nd half by a terrible Gator defense, he then loosened the reins again to allow Florida to rally back.  Graham Mertz wasn’t as accurate as usual, but held things together under some pressure situations and came through.  The lack of throws to the TEs and the too-often short throws at or behind the LOS returned, and did more to slow the offense than anything the Razorbacks did on defense.  Arkansas struggled all afternoon when the Gators spread them out and pushed the ball downfield, but it didn’t happen consistently enough……again.

Speaking of defense, Florida was again defenseless in the 2nd half after a solid 1st half.  Arkansas scored 17 points by halftime, but 7 were on a fumble return and 7 on the opening drive, after which the defense settled in and played reasonably well.  Then the 2nd half came, and some combination of Napier and DC Austin Armstrong took a lot stupid pills.  Gone was the 4-man D-line, replaced by a 3-man front that did nothing.  After KJ Jefferson started to hurt the Gators with QB runs, no spy was ever deployed to counter it, and Arkansas simply rode that attack to success in the 4th quarter and overtime.  Despite some pass breakups and an interception, the secondary allowed too many easy 3rd down completions to extend drives, and too often receivers were uncovered.  It’s this kind of coaching malfeasance that is so frustrating for Gator Nation to witness.  I’m really starting to wonder if Napier will ever check his ego to correct some foundational issues – the Patrick Toney defense he forced Armstrong to use has to be completely scrapped, and the position coaching of the LB corps needs a major shakeup and improvement.

Once again, there was an inexcusable special teams gaffe.  When Mertz had driven the Gators down for a chance at the game-winning FG in regulation, the FG unit sprinted onto the field instead of allowing Mertz to spike the ball.  If the clock hadn’t already stopped for a moment for a first down, the subsequent illegal substitution penalty would have led to a 10 second runoff, and there wouldn’t have even been an attempt, which Trey Smack unfortunately missed from 5 yards farther away.  This type of mistake has been far too common all season, and if Napier doesn’t have the awareness to get rid of the coaching-by-committee approach to special teams, he’s just providing more ammunition for his naysayers.

Just an ugly loss all around, and more self-inflicted damage Napier has brought on himself.

Florida now enters the last 3 games of the season needing a win against one of 3 Top 20 teams to become bowl-eligible, with the next 2 games on the road.  Up next is a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU.  The Tigers are coming off of a tough road loss at Alabama in which they played well for 40 minutes, but then were pushed around as the Tide closed them out with a power running game and 3 straight TDs in a 42-28 loss.  To make matters worse for the Tigers, QB Jayden Daniels suffered a concussion and may not play against Florida.  At this point, though, it may not matter, as the Gator defense has collapsed recently.  LSU has a good backup QB in Garrett Nussmeier who, while nowhere near the running threat Daniels is, is still a capable passer and will carve up the Gator secondary if given time to throw.  WR Malik Nabors is having a monster season, Brian Thomas isn’t far behind, and Mason Taylor is a big-time target at TE.  RB Logan Diggs is solid, and I’m sure will be leaned on if Daniels can’t play.  Slowing this offense down is very unlikely, as Florida is now dealing with many key injuries on defense.  Shemar James was already out for the season after the Georgia game, and now LB Jack Pyburn is gone with a torn ACL.  The LB corps simply isn’t talented or physical enough to compete against legit SEC teams.  The D-line still doesn’t generate much pressure except for Princely Umanmielen, and the secondary still doesn’t generate turnovers.  Florida has caused only 6 turnovers in 9 games, continuing a disturbing trend that started in 2020 where the defense simply can’t seem to play physically or aggressively enough.  Armstrong has nothing to lose, and he really needs to make some significant schematic changes to at least give his players a better chance of success the rest of this season……if he’s allowed to.

The Gator offense has actually found some footing recently, but Napier has to allow it to continue.  He may have no choice if LSU is scoring early and often.  Etienne needs to get the majority of touches at RB.  Wilson is really coming on at WR to complement Ricky Pearsall.  The TEs need to become a factor again this week after being MIA against Arkansas for some unknown reason.  LSU is dealing with serious issues on defense as well, and Florida should be able to exploit many of them.  The Tigers are allowing over 400 yards a game, 171 of which are on the ground.  Napier wants to establish a running game, and if the offense can’t do it this week, then they are in serious trouble.  If the O-line can keep Mertz upright, he’s shown at this point he can make enough plays to move the ball and score points.  The poor play at RT hasn’t been resolved, however, and I can only hope Mertz stays healthy enough to make it through the next 3 weeks.  He’s already had way too many chances to show his toughness.  The only hope is attacking for a full 4 quarters.

It will be a night game in Death Valley, always a very tough venue for any opponent.  The coaching staff is going to have to swing for the fences with some major changes to steal a huge upset win.  I still don’t see Florida being able to stay close for 4 quarters – especially on the road – no matter who plays at QB for LSU.  Even with LSU’s defense having it’s own struggles, this is looking like another ugly loss as Florida continues it’s skid towards a losing season.  Sad days, indeed.


LSU 41

Florida 20

Georgia Review / Arkansas Preview

Wash, rinse, repeat.  Florida is no closer to Georgia right now than it was the previous 2 seasons, getting pushed around (again) in an embarrassing 43-20 blowout loss.  Every issue the Gators have had on either offense, defense, or special teams was magnified against the Bulldogs.  I wasn’t one of the delusional fans who thought there was more than a remote chance at an upset win, and sadly I was right.

After a terrific opening possession that led to a TD pass from Graham Mertz to Tre Wilson, the offense stalled out and was inept until garbage time.  Florida managed only the same amount of total yardage after that initial drive until the 4th quarter when the game was out of hand.  The offensive line was brutally bad, getting manhandled all afternoon and endangering the health of Mertz with terrible pass-blocking.  Once again, after the first well-scripted series, the rest of the game was a disjointed mess.  Billy Napier didn’t help the cause at all with his rendition of the infamous 1976 “4th-and-dumb” play call by Doug Dickey.  Why on 4th down with less than a yard to gain he tried the SAME play that they had run in just their previous game against South Carolina – the wildcat formation with Trevor Etienne trying to throw a flat pass – was beyond me.  Just line up 5-wide, and allow your struggling O-line to only have to block some combination of 6 DL/LB and run a simple QB sneak with Mertz, who is big and strong enough to get the first down.  That play gave Georgia all of the momentum, as they extended the lead to 17-7 immediately after and rolled from there.  Finally, why the TEs were ignored in the passing game is a mystery, and really impacted the effectiveness of the offense.  Napier really needs to recuse himself of any playcalling and hire a legit OC, as he simply lacks any feel for situational football and can’t seem to provide any continuous flow as a game progresses.

Florida’s defense wasn’t much better, giving up over 500 yards and never establishing the LOS.  The run defense again was gashed for multiple big plays, there was rarely any pass rush of note, and the secondary blew assignments, tackled poorly, and again showed an alarming lack of ball-awareness when given opportunities to defend the pass.  Other than that – “nothing to see here……move along, please”.  The defense never had any control of the game, and only a goal-line stand that held the Bulldogs to a FG on their opening possession stemmed the tide of their troubles.  Georgia ran and passed at will, rolling up over 500 yards of offense.  The Gators never really pressured Carson Beck, allowing him all the time he needed to pick apart a shaky Florida secondary.  It’s painfully obvious at this point that Napier needs to completely scrap the Patrick Toney defense he kept from the 2022 season, as it simply doesn’t work against legit SEC and Top 25 competition.  Princely Umanmielen was one of the precious few defenders that played well, playing perhaps his best game of the season from the Buck position.  To add injury to insult, Shemar James incurred an injury in pre-game warmups on the freshly resodded field.  He put a brace on his knee and gave it his best effort until limping off of the field in the second half with what turned out to be a season-ending injury – a dislocated kneecap requiring immediate surgery.   The LB and secondary play were both dreadful, as they allowed Georgia multiple chunk plays and never could play tight coverage.  This unit seems to be regressing as the season goes on, and must reverse it’s fortunes for the team to have a chance of success the rest of 2023.

Special teams again reared it’s ugly head, allowing a blocked punt due to a complete breakdown of blocking scheme, which just continued the momentum that Georgia had established in the 2nd quarter.  Just another in a LONG list of reasons Napier has to rethink his way of handling that unit.  It’s time for one voice in that room, and no more coaching-by-committee.  The “Gamechangers” were certainly that, all right.

Overall just a dispiriting effort and further proof there are still serious fundamental issues with both the coaching staff and the schemes being employed.  The team continued to play hard for 4 quarters, but not necessarily well, or smartly.  It will be a few more painful years before Florida approaches the level of talent it needs, and I can only hope that by then the coaching issues are resolved as well. 

The Gators return home for the first time in 4 weeks for a must-win game against Arkansas.  The Razorbacks come into this game off a bye week, which was serendipitous for them given how their season hit rock-bottom in their Homecoming loss to Mississippi St.  They fired their OC after a horrific 7-3 losing performance that had the home fans booing them off the field.  They were fortunate to have the extra time to try and turn things around.  What’s strange is that they have played well in a lot of close losses against one of the toughest schedules in the country, yet come inot this game on a 6-game losing streak.  Head Coach Sam Pittman always has his team ready to play for 60 minutes and to play hard – they just haven’t played well on offense.

The Razorback offense is led by QB KJ Jefferson, a huge guy who is a load to bring down.  That being said, he’s not that elusive of a runner and struggles mightily to complete passes when forced to move in the pocket.  Despite Pittman being one of the best O-line coaches in the nation, their running game has been abysmal, averaging only 109 yards per game and forcing Jefferson into too many must-pass scenarios.  Of course, South Carolina was doing even worse, and the Gator defense then made them look great.  In fact, the Gator defense is allowing well over 400 yards per game against it’s SEC opponents, and that gives me pause as to how effective they can be the rest of the season.  Arkansas’ main RB is AJ Green, who is averaging 6 yards per carry, but has only 42 attempts.  Theor best RB from 2022 – Rocket Sanders – may be back this week in limited action.  Jefferson is the main ball carrier by default – one of the reasons their OC was let go in-season.  Their top WR is Andrew Armstrong, who’s 42 catches is more than double the total of anyone else.  Normally it would be obvious how to defend and stop this offense – keep Jefferson in the pocket, simply get a stalemate at the LOS, and concentrate the pass coverage on Armstrong.  But with the firing of the OC and the week off, I would not be surprised to see enough wrinkles in the offense that allow the Hogs to keep this game close into the 4th quarter, like most of their games.  The loss of Shemar James creates a huge hole for the Gator defense that I’m afraid they can’t adequately fill.  Mannie Nunnery and true freshman Jaden Robinson will have to somehow cover for the loss, likely in situational roles.  The entire defense has to show up and play inspired football.

Florida’s offense will need to find balance, and will be tested by a good Razorback defense that has managed to hold up well despite having to repeatedly cover for the inept offense.  Since the O-line is such a mess right now in pass-protection, it looks like we may see a reversion back to the conservative, short passing game, and attempting to establish a more consistent running game to keep the struggling defense off the field.  Not the best situation at this point, but it may be the only option to get a win this week.  RBs Trevor Etienne and Montell Johnson looked good against Georgia, and will need to be leaders this week.  Ricky Pearsall along with Wilson again will be the main passing targets.  I’m hoping the TE position reappears after being basically ignored last week, to the detriment of the offense.

Once again, another massive game for Napier and the Gators, who need this win to become bowl-eligible.  The remainder of the schedule after this week features 3 teams in the Top 15 of the BCS rankings, the next two being on the road.  If the Gators lose this one, most if not all of any momentum and positive vibes created in the first half of the season are lost, and the possibility of a losing record is suddenly staring the team in the face.  No doubt they will be feeling extra pressure this week, and that may not bode well for the performance of such a young team.  I’m afraid this one might come down to the last possession of the game, and neither the Florida offense or defense gives me comfort in that scenario.


Florida 23

Arkansas 20

Georgia Preview

Florida now enters the difficult part of it’s schedule, starting with the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville.  The last 5 games include 4 Top 20 and 2 Top 5 opponents.  We’re about to see how much this team has either truly improved so far to get to a 5-2 record and within 1 win of becoming bowl-eligible, or if it’s more fool’s gold earned by piling up wins against mostly weaker teams.

This week’s game will be a major challenge, as Georgia comes in playing it’s best football after some struggles early in the season.  The Bulldogs are led by QB Carson Beck, who, while not flashy, has put together a very good season as a first-year starter by playing efficiently and not turning the ball over.  RB Daijun Edwards has come on strong the past month and has to to be slowed down considerably, or else it will be another long afternoon away from the Swamp for the Gator defense.  The run defense has been horrific lately, allowing too many easy running lanes combined with poor tackling.  The defensive staff really needs to get after the players to show more toughness and also play with better technique.  Brock Bowers, UGA’s All-American TE, is out after ankle surgery, which will keep him out for at least a month.  He’s one of the best playmakers in college football, and will be missed by Georgia’s offense.  However, Oscar Delp is a more than capable replacement, and the Gator defense has no reason to relax.  WRs Dominic Lovett (a transfer from Missouri) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint are excellent players, and the secondary needs to do a much better job of limiting long completions.  Georgia’s offense isn’t as explosive as the previous 2 seasons and will miss Bowers to an extent, but still has a physical O-line and enough talent at the skill positions to be dangerous.

Florida’s offense will face it’s toughest challenge of the season this week.  Georgia again has an excellent defense, despite the loss of more than a dozen players to the NFL over the past 2 drafts.  This group may not have the uber-elite playmakers of recent vintage, but still plays tough, physical football and tackles well.  The Gator O-line has to somehow get enough stalemates at the LOS to allow it’s skill players enough chances to make plays in space and also keep Graham Mertz upright, or this one will get ugly.  Mertz has taken way too much punishment the past few games, and won’t last the season if it continues.  Here’s hoping the off week helps get Kingsley Eguakun back at center and that the rotations at the other positions are finally settled.  I’m not expecting the running game to have consistent success the entire game, but it must generate some first downs to provide some balance and give the passing game a fair chance.  It will be very interesting to see if Billy Napier continues with the game plan employed at South Carolina that utilizes the entire field and plays aggressively, or if he goes back into a shell with risk-averse playcalling.  This team’s best chance is for the offense to stay aggressive the rest of the season, no matter the outcome.  

Special teams almost always contribute to an upset win, and Florida’s group hopefully finds a way to make a big play or two in the return game to help.  After Trevor Etienne made such an impact on kickoff returns the second half of last season, the return game has been mostly absent in 2023.  Trey Smack has been terrific as the FG kicker since taking over in the Tennessee game, and he’ll need to continue to take advantage of every opportunity he’s given.  Georgia has it’s own good placekicker in Peyton Woodring, and Mehki Mews is one of the best kick returners in the SEC.  The Gator coverage units have been very good so far, and that will have to continue – this team isn’t good enough to overcome any serious lapses in coverage leading to easy scores by the Bulldogs.

This game will be used as a measuring stick of whether Napier’s program is showing real improvement in year 2.  It may still end up as a loss, and perhaps the score isn’t terribly close, but how all 3 phases of the game look could be crucial to his long-term rebuilding project……and also to recruits.  He has an excellent recruiting class lined up right now, but it will be hard to keep it together if the next 5 games aren’t at least competitive.

There’s always a chance for an upset in a rivalry game, but it will take Florida’s best effort combined with some mistakes from Georgia for that to happen.  The Gators likely can’t come from behind against the Bulldogs, so they’ll have to find a way to get an early lead and try to hold on.  As of right now, Florida is likely still too young and lacks the physicality and depth necessary to make it happen.


Georgia 35

Florida 17

South Carolina Review

In just another example of proof a Multiverse exists, Florida actually exhibited an offense that looked like it came from the 21st century and came away with a thrilling 41-39 win at South Carolina.  I can only hope Billy Napier finally has had an epiphany of sorts and realized he wouldn’t be long for his current job unless he ditched his ultra risk-averse philosophy and allowed his offense to play aggressively for an entire game.

The Gator offense was a revelation, consistently throwing the ball to all levels of the field and challenging the defense to cover in space.  And, not surprisingly, they couldn’t, and Florida’s playmakers could actually make plays in 1-on-1 matchups.  It appears that some Miracle-Gro was applied to the route shrub and it became a tree – for at least one game.  Ricky Pearsall had a huge game with some clutch catches and the game-winning TD, Kahliel Jackson had a huge reception and got his own TD later in the same 2nd-quarter drive, and Eugene Wilson made some great runs on jet sweeps and also had the key reception from the deflection off of Pearsall’s hands on the winning drive.  TE Arlis Boardingham again came up big, catching a TD to close the score to 37-34, and saving the game with his 4th-down reception and run to keep that last drive alive.  Even TE Hayden Hansen had a few 1st-down receptions and the 2-point conversion catch.  When Florida did run the ball, Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne combined for over 100 yards, providing the balance needed with such a pass-heavy attack.  All this despite Graham Mertz getting punished behind a shaky O-line.  Mertz has definitely shown he’s tough……and been forced to way too often.  The OL have to improve if he’s to survive the rest of the season, and give the Gators any hope of winning some games.

Florida’s defense, sadly, was as bad as the offense was good.  I don’t know what’s happened to the run defense recently, but they have been gashed repeatedly and the tackling has been abysmal.  I mean, looking like 2022 all over again.  I was incredibly frustrated that DC Austin Armstrong didn’t employ a spy against Carolina QB Spencer Rattler, and it almost cost the Gators the game.  Rattler continually extended drives by running for first downs and extending drives.  This kind of defense has to be addressed in the off week – at all 3 levels – including some possible schematic changes.  The D-line played a little better than the numbers suggest, as they were constantly held by the Lamecock OL.  They were able to get occasional penetration into the backfield and some pressure on Rattler, but there usually was no LB to clean things up where there should have been.  It’s pretty much Shemar James and a cast of thousands at LB right now, which is a disappointment.  The secondary didn’t do itself any favors, either, allowing too many easy catches and yards after the catch as well.  The tackling by the back seven was horrific – both the technique and effort were sorely lacking.  To their credit, the defense did hold up on Carolina’s final 2 possessions, getting pressure on the QB and making the game-sealing interception.  This group is regressing, though, and has to right the ship.

Props again to Trey Smack, who made 4 of 5 FG attempts, including a 54-yarder to close out the first half and give the Gators a 24-21 lead.  His emergence has filled what was a huge deficiency and helped steady the special teams overall.  Every one of his made kicks was needed, and he’ll be relied upon again with the upcoming schedule.

This was a massive win for Napier and the entire program.  Yes, the opponent wasn’t great, but Carolina was coming off of a bye week, made some serious personnel changes that hadn’t been seen on film, and have played pretty well against other good opponents.  I can only hope Napier uses the same aggressive approach with the offense the rest of the way, no matter the results.  The balance of the schedule is much more difficult, with 4 Top 10 and 2 Top 5 opponents left to play.  If you’re gonna go to battle against those kinds of teams, go in with everything you have and give your team it’s best chance.  This win will provide a much-needed shot of confidence to the players.  They’ll need the off-week, as many guys have been playing hurt for weeks due to the lack of both quality depth and experience on the roster.  I’ll be back next week with my preview of Florida vs. the #1 Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville.

Vanderbilt Review / South Carolina Preview

Florida got a much-needed bounceback win, handling Vanderbilt 38-14 on Homecoming at the Swamp.  The Gators were never really challenged, as both the offense and defense looked much sharper.  That being said, I can’t get too excited, given the struggles of the Commodores this season.

The offense was led by RB Montrell Johnson, who racked up well over 100 yards and looked the best he has all season – maybe he’s finally getting healthy after an inconsistent month of September.  Graham Mertz was again efficient, but the passing game is still lacking any consistency beyond 5 yards past the LOS.  The biggest development was the emergence of TE Arlis Boardingham, with 99 yards on 7 catches plus 2 TDs.  Here’s hoping there’s finally a TE that can be a consistent receiving threat to help Mertz behind a shaky O-line.  Speaking of which, the O-line held up pretty well despite the absence of LT Austin Barber and C Kingsley Eguakun, but they were matched up against a weak Vandy front seven.  Finally, it was good to see both Ricky Pearsall and Tre Wilson get into the end zone on jet sweeps, since precious few big plays come from the passing game.

The Gator defense did well enough, controlling the Commodore running game and forcing them to pass more often than they’re comfortable with.  However, there were still some breakdowns in coverage, allowing 2 long completions during the game, and an easy TD to close the score within 2 TDs in the 3rd quarter.  The pass rush is still inconsistent and must improve going forward – it has been a disappointment this season.  There were some interesting personnel developments, with LBs Trey Wingo and Teradja Mitchell getting extended looks in the second half.  That’s good for depth, as it will be all hands on deck going forward the rest of the season with the difficult part of the schedule coming up.

It’s now on the road again, this time to Columbia to face South Carolina.  The Gamecocks are 2-3 and coming off of their bye week, which they needed after a very tough start to their schedule, including games away from home against North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  They lost all of those, but were at least competitive into the second half, something the Gators have not been away from the Swamp since last October with the one exception being at Florida St.  I don’t believe anyone will buy into any fool’s gold after the Vanderbilt win – it’s time for Billy Napier and his staff to put a competitive team on the field in a road game.

For the Gators to have any chance of winning, the offense must step up by playing faster and using more of the field to make the defense work harder.  It’s been too easy for defenses to play close to the LOS and squeeze what little space there is in Napier’s scheme.  It’s time for a few more deep shots, even as those lower-percentage throws seem to be anathema to Napier’s philosophy of extreme risk-aversion.  Of course, the running game has to be there for balance, and here’s hoping some of the injured linemen are available this week.  I’m hoping RB Trevor Etienne returns this week to give the Gators one of their biggest weapons.  South Carolina’s defense is allowing over 450 yards a game, and Florida somehow needs to take advantage of those struggles and keep them off-balance.  WIth Boardingham and Etienne to go along with Johnson, Pearsall, and Wilson, there are enough weapons for Mertz to exploit the Gamecock defense……if he’s given enough protection and the game plan to do so.

The Gator defense needs to reclaim some honor from it’s dreadful showing in getting manhandled at Kentucky.  South Carolina has had talent and injury issues along it’s O-line, even starting a true freshman at LT.  Their running game has suffered as a result, averaging only 87 yards per game, and they have had to rely on the legs and playmaking ability of QB Spencer Rattler to give them any chance for victory.  He has played well to date, and their passing game challenges defenses downfield.  They are averaging over 300 yards per game through the air, led by WR Xavier Legette.  The Gator secondary has to tighten up this week, at least control Legette to prevent big plays, and force Rattler to throw into tighter windows, where he is prone to making some mistakes.  Cornerback Jason Marshall needs to emerge from his funk in 2023 and start playing like the preseason all-SEC candidate we saw his first 2 seasons.  Since the secondary will have a full plate, the Florida D-line has to get some push at the LOS to not allow the Gamecocks easy running lanes, and also stay disciplined when rushing the passer, forcing Rattler to stay in the pocket.  He is at his most dangerous when ad-libbing with his arm and legs.  Florida needs to show some real fire on defense this week and play with pride.

Gamecock head coach Shane Beamer is a master of special teams, and I’m sure will have his usual bag of tricks ready for this one.  Florida has to be alert all game long in any kicking game situation and not allow some kind of momentum-switching play that can swing a game away from them.  The Gator kickers have looked very good the last two games and need to execute at their best whenever called upon.

This is desperation time for South Carolina.  With the advantage of having an off-week to get healthy, along with the memory of the beatdown Florida put on them last season, they will have all the motivation they need and will come out firing.  Florida has the talent to stay in the game, but until the coaching staff proves they have the Gators motivated and focused like they should be on the road, I remain skeptical of their chances of winning away from home until they prove they can get it done.  This is a pivotal game for Napier to show Gator Nation he’s addressing these issues and actually show marked improvement in a road environment.


South Carolina 27

Florida 20

Kentucky Review / Vanderbilt Preview

BIlly Napier’s Prevent Offense was once again successful, gifting Kentucky an easy 33-14 win in Lexington that wasn’t as close as the final score.  This game was over early, as the Gators looked flat and disinterested from the opening kickoff, falling behind 23-0 while getting manhandled and embarrassed by the Wildcats all day.  It’s one step forward and two or more steps back, as the staff once again failed to have the team ready for a road game.  I know there are a lot of young guys in the 2-deep roster, but this is getting ridiculous, and starting to give fans and the media a lot of ammunition to start taking shots at Napier for continued miserable play away from home.  Hearing comments from some of the players about how it was hard to get ready for an early kickoff, along with Napier saying he’ll remain the playcaller and that he’s confident in the offensive scheme, does not give me much confidence that things will improve the rest of 2023 unless some major changes are made.  This is starting to look and sound like some failures of previous coaching regimes – I like Napier, but being a nice guy doesn’t necessarily make for a good head coach.  Some self-awareness and humility might be in order – VERY soon.

Napier has to be honest with himself and realize this offense doesn’t work.  The route shrub, er, tree for the passing game does little more than put receivers too close to each other, and much too often too close to the line of scrimmage.  All of the motion is wasted, as that player (too often Ricky Pearsall) is usually left at the sideline with nowhere to go.  Too many running plays on 3rd-and-long.  Too many pass routes bunching receivers, allowing the defense easy coverage in a small space.  80+% of passes thrown either behind the line of scrimmage or within 5 yards of it, with precious little use of the middle of the field or deep routes.  This kind of offensive ineptitude has led to the firing of previous coaches across the country, not just at Florida, and Napier is starting to dig his own coaching grave.  Something has to change now, even if that means recusing himself from playcalling and letting someone like Russ Callaway and/or Billy Gonzales to have a crack at it.  Even with a struggling O-line, some schemes can be developed and implemented to help what talent you do have succeed.  Stubbornly sticking to a 1970s-style power game when it’s 2023 and the rules favor the passing game and spreading the field just won’t work against good or better teams consistently.  As for the execution of the offense to date – with respect to John McKay – I’m all for it.

I am not absolving the Gator defense of blame, as it did itself no favors with it’s worst showing of 2023, and looked horrifyingly like the 2022 version.  Way too many missed tackles, blown assignments, and playing soft against the run, allowing over 300 yards on the ground and making things way too easy for Kentucky’s offense.  The defenders took bad angles, displayed terrible tackling technique, and looked slow.  The few times they put Devin Leary into a passing situation they defended well, but it was way too infrequent.  There was also a dropped interception that could have been a pick-6.  The lack of energy on defense was alarming and troubling, and the defensive staff has to get this fixed.

To cap off a complete team failure, another special teams gaffe led directly to a Wildcat TD.  After actually forcing a punt deep in Kentucky territory and likely setting up the offense with great field position, a punt rusher illegally jumped over the center to try and block the kick.  This gave Kentucky a first down, and was immediately followed on the next play by a long TD run that essentially ended the game early.  Nice.

Florida returns to the Swamp this week for Homecoming, with Vanderbilt as the opponent.  The Commodores are back to their usual self, but there is some real angst taking hold regarding the Gator offense, and some key injuries for this game could make things even worse than usual.  LT Austin Barber is likely out, as is RB Trevor Etienne.  The O-line is regressing, and having to juggle the lineup doesn’t help.  Vanderbilt head coach Chuck Lea is a solid defensive coach, and will have a scheme ready – he just lacks the horses to usually maximize his plan.  If the O-line plays poorly and can’t get the running game going, I’m not confident that Graham Mertz – especially in this offense – can get the passing game going effectively enough to score a lot of points, if needed.  It’s been painfully easy for defenses to play against this offense the entire season except for the first 2 quarters against Tennessee.  Someone, maybe a senior like Pearsall, has to step up and make a big play or two.

Florida’s defense should hold up much better against Vandy’s rushing attack than last week (which isn’t saying much), but the Commodores have shown the ability to hit some deep throws this season, and I expect them to try a handful on Saturday.  The front seven needs to take last week’s embarrassment to heart and play with much more aggression and tackle better.  The pass rush has all but disappeared the past 2 games, and players like Princely Umanmielen have been somewhat disappointing so far in 2023.  Whether it’s the scheme or the players themselves, the Gators have to rediscover getting pressure on the QB.  I want to see tight coverage from the secondary all afternoon, and it’s time for the defense to generate some turnovers.

Gator Nation is coming home to celebrate this Saturday, not to fret over some kind of death struggle with Vanderbilt.  Unfortunately, I could easily see a game in doubt into the 4th quarter, unless there’s an epiphany from Napier and the offense.  Something tells me there’s a hangover from the Kentucky game throughout the first half, and this one could be too close for comfort.  I sure hope I’m wrong.


Florida 23

Vanderbilt 17

Charlotte Review / Kentucky Preview

If you ever needed an example of an ugly win, this was it.  Florida stumbled to a 22-7 win over Charlotte, draining most of the energy out of the Swamp early on and sleepwalking to victory.  I expected a letdown from a young team, but this performance was even worse than I expected.  Not exactly what the fans were hoping for from Billy Napier and the Gators against an overmatched opponent.

The offense was horrid – 1 of 9 on 3rd-down conversions, settling for 5 FGs, multiple failures in the red zone, sloppy O-line play (yes, there were some suspensions for a half to deal with), and more unimaginative playcalling.  The passing offense is just……uninspiring, despite Graham Mertz being efficient in it.  Still precious few downfield attempts, and a stubborn refusal to use the middle of the field with regularity.  Even the running game was poor, with the O-line not getting any consistent push.  I’m starting to wonder about RB Montrell Johnson – even when he had some holes, he doesn’t look anything like he did last season.  He’s indecisive, gets tackled too easily, and is lacking the power he showed in 2022.  Trevor Etienne had too few touches.  The play of the game was Ricky Pearsall’s spectacular catch in the 1st quarter, leading to the only Gator touchdown of the night.  The only other offensive highlight of note I can recall was a TE actually catching a TD pass.  It looks like Arlis Boardingham may have become TE1, which is fine by me, as he actually looks like a receiving threat.

The defense did enough, but experienced some disinterested tackling in the 2nd half after Charlotte switched QBs and ran more zone reads.  There were some busts in the pass coverage as well, especially when the QB evaded the initial rush.  The interior D-line played well, but the edges were a little too soft against the run.  Again, the intensity level was way down from the previous week, but this is what you’re gonna get with so many young players and few upperclassmen starters.

FInally, the special teams overall had their best game of the season.  Good punt/kick coverage, and Trey Smack came through with a 5-5 night on FGs, including a 54-yarder.  All of his kickoffs went for touchbacks as well.  He’ll be counted upon heavily with Napiers’ conservative attack.  

The entire staff now has more work to do, with an important road test at Kentucky this week.  It’s sad to have to say that, but it’s what the Florida football program has become recently.  The first road game at Utah was a disastrous performance, and we’ll see if there is actual improvement playing away from the Swamp.

Kentucky comes in at 4-0, but has looked unimpressive in wins over some weak opponents.  New QB Devin Leary (a portal transfer from NC State) has been shaky at times, their running game has not been as strong as previous years, and their defense – head coach Mark Stoops’ specialty – has struggled as well.  The Gator defense has improved this year, and will have to carry the load again in this game.  The front seven looks like it can hold it’s own against a Wildcat O-line that has taken a step back from previous seasons.  Ray Davis is the leading rusher, but isn’t a breakaway threat.  The secondary is talented enough to control the UK WRs, led by Tayvion Robonson.  What I hope to see is DC Austin Armstrong’s continued aggression in dictating the tempo of the game, even if there’s an early hiccup.  Leary is completing less than 60% of his passes and already has racked up 5 interceptions – it’s time for the defense to generate some turnovers to help the offense.  I’m not counting on the Gator offense to do very much on the road until they prove they can, so the defense needs to carry the day.

Florida’s offense has fallen off dramatically it’s past 6 quarters of football.  The running game needs to be re-established, but Kentucky will follow the expected opponent’s game plan by crowding the box and daring the Gators to throw deeper routes and use the middle of the field more often.  I hope to see more passing on early downs to try and loosen up the secondary.  Reportedly, center Kingsley Equakun and WR Tre Wilson are going to play, which are huge additions.  Wilson has the juice to make plays in space and keep the defense more honest, opening up more opportunities for Pearsall and the other WRs.  Both will be playing through some painful injuries, but I hope they can tough it out for the entire game.  Etienne needs to be the lead RB right now and get more touches until Johnson proves he’s back to form.  The offense has to exhibit more efficiency when it reaches the red zone, or else I could see this one slipping away in the 4th quarter.

At the Swamp or even on a neutral field, I think Florida wins this game.  However, until I see a complete team effort and a more aggressive passing attack on the road, I’m afraid that somehow the Gators find a way to lose this one.  It’s a hugely important game for Napier to build upon his win over Tennessee, but there’s too much inconsistency in this young team yet where I’m comfortable predicting a win.  I could see this game staying close throughout, and Napier being comfortable with that and just trying to steal a win late.  It’s hard to believe Kentucky has won 2 straight and 3 out of 5 against Florida after the Gators reeled off 31 consecutive victories.  At some point Florida will have to prove itself on the road again in winnable conference games.


Kentucky 20

Florida 17