Florida’s reward for a bounce-back 2018 regular season is it’s 3rd matchup in it’s past 38 games with Michigan – this time in the Peach Bowl at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The teams are coming off of dramatically different season-ending games. While the Gators crushed F$U to end a painful 5-game losing streak, Michigan was embarrassed by Ohio $t. in a 62-39 beat down that made it 14 out of 15 losses against their bitter rival.
Florida’s offense will be challenged by a strong Wolverine front seven – even with the decision by DT Rashan Gary to forgo the game to prep for the NFL Draft. DE Chase Winovich and LB Devin Bush are all-Big 10/11/12/ whatever players. The running game has carried the Gators all season, but Mullen will have to be ready to mix things up if Michigan is stopping the run. Where some teams – especially the Black eyes – have exposed the Wolverines is in the secondary. If Florida can get their play makers into space they can do some damage. This game can be a showcase for LT Martez Ivey and RB Jordan Scarlett to exhibit their abilities against a legit front seven. The O-line has to stand it’s ground and give Franks time to find his WRs – if they do, there are some big plays to be had. I’m hoping that Grimes and Jefferson can build on their breakout game against F$U, while Toney has the kind of quickness and speed that O$U used to exploit Michigan’s defense.
Michigan’s offense is led by QB Shea Patterson, who transferred in from Ole Miss prior to the 2018 season and seriously upgraded the play at that position. While his new team has reined in some of his running, he is still a threat to scramble and make big plays. He also improved his passing dramatically this year, with a 21-5 TD-Int ratio. His main targets are WRs Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and TE Zack Gentry. DPJ and Collins arebig, physical targets that will be a challenge for the Gator DBs. The Wolverines historically feature the TE, a position that has exploited poor coverage by the Gator LBs all season. Still, Michigan relies first onit’s running game, led this year by Karan Higdon, who has averaged just under 100 yards per game. It’s incumbent on the defense to win 1st down in order to force the Wolverines into more difficult down-and-distance plays. If Michigan is winning the LOS this will be a long afternoon for the Gator defense, and likely lead to a loss.
As with almost any bowl game – especially a non-playoff game – it virtually impossible to predict the mindset of the players coming in. There are so many variables – guys not playing to prepare for the NFL Draft, grades, baby mommas, guys that do play that will get drafted but try not to get injured, agents/runners sniffing around draft-eligible players, family/posses with their hands out, etc. Many of the bowl games now are more like exhibitions for the following season, with the main reward being the additional practices to develop younger and inexperienced players.
I feel that this game is more important to the entire Florida football program because of it’s recent transition in AD, coaching staff, and attitude. That may not necessarily translate into a win, but I believe Coach Mullen and the players will have extra motivation to prove to the nation (and future recruits)that the prognosis for Gator football isn’t just a short rally, but long-term success. Florida was embarrassed by Michigan in both the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season and in their 2017 opener – both games under the Swamp Donkey. A new message needs to be sent that things are truly different –and better – going forward.
I think that Michigan’s experience within a consistent scheme for the past 4 seasons, the desire to begin erasing the impressions from their meltdown against Ohio $t., and better talent along the OL and DL will be enough to win. However, I also hope that once this game is over they – and the nation – realize that Florida is not the mentally and physically soft team they have enjoyed beating recently.
Prediction: Michigan 27 Florida 20
Florida ended 5 years of misery with a 41-14 beatdown of Florida $t., a result made even sweeter as it came in Taliban City. The game was won because the Gators controlled the game at the LOS from the outset and imposed their will all afternoon. As the game wore on, it was obvious how poorly coached and undisciplined F$U is – multiple illegal formation penalties, late personnel changes, and stupid personal fouls. Anyone watching the game (including recruits) could easily see the vast difference between the two teams, including teamwork..
Florida’s offense piled up over 500 yards for the 3rd straight game, showing balance with over 250 yards each rushing and passing. The O-Line was able to create holes despite the Criminoles stacking the box all day, and Perine and Scarlett wore down the front 7 and eventually broke some long runs. This domination allowed Franks to have a relatively clean pocket in order to pick out his WRs. It was good to see the WRs finally exploit the intermediate zones and middle of the field, as both Grimes and Jefferson had some big plays and TDs. The offense had the ball for almost 37 minutes, which allowed the defense to rest and eventually force F$U to abandon the running game in the second half. The only complaint was the play-calling in the red zone in the first half, which kept the halftime score at 13-7 for Florida instead of a 20-7 or 23-7 lead. Mullen said it himself in his television show that he could have called a better red zone game. All the Gators had to do inside the 10-yard line was continue to pound the rock, but instead Mullen tried to get too cute with QB runs or passes into a crowded end zone. All’s well that ends well – especially having a head coach secure enough in himself to acknowledge his mistakes publicly – unlike Slick Wille Taggart and F$U.
On defense, the Gators essentially shut down Florida $t. the entire game except for 2 drives kept alive by 3rd-and-long and 4th-and-long scrambles by Deondre Francois. Each time there were defenders that whiffed on the tackle, or else this could have been close to a shutout. The one player I was most worried about showed why – RB Cam Akers scored the first F$U TD on a one-handed catch, and had a long catch-and-run for a TD called back due to one of those stupid penalties I mentioned. He was the only consistent threat. The passing game was never a real threat due to constant pressure applied by Florida’s DEs against the F$U turnstiles. The Gator secondary did a nice job of defending the long passes that F$U relied upon all season – once that was taken away the Criminoles simply weren’t going to put together long drives. Props to Polite, Jefferson, and CGJ in their last regular season game as Gators.
Florida’s special teams were again solid. McPherson capped off a great freshman season with 2 FGs and long kickoffs. Getting McPherson to switch his commitment from Mississippi St. to Florida was one of the most important recruiting wins for Mullen. Townsend had some long punts to flip the field, even a few of the rugby-style that I really don’t like. The coverage units tackled well and never cracked. Mullen takes it upon himself to put a lot of emphasis on special teams, including getting some starters on the coverage units, and the difference from last season was striking.
This was a statement win for Coach Mullen and entire the football program. He has been playing catchup in recruiting since he arrived, especially with being out of the state for so long. Now he has results to back up his pitch to recruits, along with proof that Florida is a better-coached and more stable program than F$U or scUM. He and the staff are still behind in establishing the long-term relationships needed not just with kids but with coaching staffs around the state, and that has hampered efforts putting together the 2019 class so far. This win could swing a few kids Florida’s way this season, but will pay long-term dividends for the 2020 and 2021 classes, of which the Gators have a much better start on.
Florida will learn it’s bowl fate in a week. The Gators likely will finish in the top 12 of the CFP rankings and receive a New Year’s 6 bowl invitation. That would be a better result than most expected before the season started, and especially after losing to Kentucky early in the season at home. The extra practices will benefit all of the younger players that are redshirting, including QB Emory Jones. There are a lot of positives to take away from the 2018 season, and hopefully that momentum continues through to Early National Signing Day in late December, the bowl game, and National Signing day in February.
I’ll be back with a bowl preview in December. Until then – It’s Great To Be A Florida Gator!
Florida took care of business against Idaho, mashing the Potatoes, er, Vandals in a 63-10 blowout. The game worked out as well as Coach Mullen could have wanted – get a big early lead, and start pulling starters and emptying the bench to get the young guys some live reps.
Idaho was badly outmanned, and the Gators did as they pleased on both sides of the ball. I was surprised at how often Mullen called a pass play, but perhaps he was secure in his comfort level with the running game for next week and wanted both Franks and Jones to get as many throws in as they could. Franks had great numbers, but still missed some easy TD throws to Jefferson, continuing a season-long theme. He was still high with some throws over the middle to open WRs and behind on a few slants, but found the range in the second quarter before being pulled. Jones looked good moving the team, and made some accurate throws to all 3 zones. He also turned the ball over on a botched snap, showing his inexperience. Even in such a mismatch, the absence of Buchanan at center due to suspension meant Jordan had to move to center, and his play there immediately looked scarily like 2016 and 2017, as even the Vandals were able to stuff the inside run occasionally and get some pass pressure. The Gator defense set the tone on the first scrimmage play, with CGJ getting a pick-6. Florida dominated the LOS as they should have, and did an excellent job of shutting down the Idaho passing game, forcing the QBs to run for their lives all afternoon. A lot of young guys got extended time, with DE Zack Carter and LB Ventrell Miller making some big plays.
The best thing about this game other than seeing so many young guys play was that there were no significant injuries.
Now it’s on to the rivalry game against the Criminoles in Taliban City. Florida has now lost 5 straight and 7 out of 8 in the series, and that has to stop. Recruiting and program prestige have suffered, and the time is ripe for Mullen and the Gators to take control of the state again.
F$U has struggled on offense most of this season, mainly due to a weak O-Line that has allowed QB Deondre Francois to be punished. Florida has to focus on slowing RB Cam Akers, and then let the chips fall where they may with the matchup of their pass-rushing DEs vs. the sieve that is the F$U O-Line. This should force F$U into more max-protect formations, negating some throws to the TE and RBs and allowing the Gator secondary to match up against the Criminole WRs. F$U has some talent at WR in Nyqwan Murray and Tamorrion Terry, but nothing explosive like in previous years. As long as the safeties play sound football and don’t allow any plays over the top, this is a good matchup for Florida. Hopefully Stewart can play after sitting out the past 2 weeks with a quad injury. If the Gator DTs can at worst get a stalemate and occasionally disrupt the interior, the rest of the defense should have a good day. F$U has not shown the capability of sustaining long scoring drives, so they will be looking for a lot of chunk plays – the Gator LBs and secondary have to play sound and alert football all afternoon and communicate coverages.
Florida’s offense can’t simply play safe, conservative football all day. While the F$U defense has had difficulty against power-running teams, the Gators can’t expect to simply control the LOS all game long. It will be interesting to see how much risk Mullen is willing to take in the passing game – will he try to push downfield more often to loosen up the Criminole defense, or hope to continue to rely on the short, safe throws that protect Franks from extra punishment…..and from himself. Scarlett and Perine need to get the tough yards to help the offense win on 1st down, as Franks can’t be relied upon to consistently bail out the offense in long-yardage situations. It appears that Jones will be given a package for the game as well – whether he will be called upon is another matter. The Gator O-Line has to account for DE Brian Burns in pass pro – he is one of the best pass-rushing DEs in the country. The return from suspension of Buchanan at center should bolster the interior. Florida’s WRs will need to block well and win some physical battles for the football against a F$U secondary led by Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels.
This game is massive for Coach Mullen and the Gator program. Getting a win against a sub-.500 F$U team, ending their 36-year bowl game streak, and showing that Mullen is a much better coach than Slick Willie Taggart would do wonders for recruiting, the Gator Nation, and national perception. There is a lot of internal unrest in the F$U program, as the team has looked outcoached and without focus many times. They are coming off of a last-second win giftwrapped by Boston College, and now have some faint hope of another 6-6 season and extending their bowl game streak. As in almost any rivalry game, records don’t mean much – like the stock market, past performance does not guarantee future results. Florida really needs to win this game, but has to expect a 4-quarter battle unlike anything that the Criminoles have exhibited in 2018. If this game were at the Swamp I could see a comfortable Gator win, but unless the Gators race out to an early lead and demoralize the F$U players and fans, this one likely doesn’t get decided until the 4th quarter.
Prediction: Florida 24 Florida $t. 20
In what could only be described as “Mr. Mullen’s Wild Ride”, Florida came back from two separate double-digit deficits to pull out a clutch win late against South Carolina. This could have been a second consecutive disastrous home loss that would really have derailed the season, but instead the Gators get a lot of credit for digging deep and fighting back.
The defense was somnambulant for the first two Carolina possessions, allowing the Lamecocks to move easily down the field each time for touchdowns and a quick 14-0 first quarter lead. Every position can take the blame, as the defense made Carolina QB Jake Bentley and their offense look like the Tom Brady-led Patriots. It seems in general that home teams with noon kickoffs usually start slowly, but the Gators looked lifeless the entire quarter. Finally, the offense awoke and put together two TD drives of their own in the second quarter to tie the game. The right side of the O-Line gets most of the credit for opening large holes for Scarlett and Perine to run though, and this would prove to be the winning formula in the second half as well. Franks hardly threw a pass more than a few yards downfield, instead making the safe throws. He ran the ball better in this game than ever before, especially in short-yardage situations. After being booed last week and early in this game, he unfortunately embarrassed himself by giving the home fans the shush gesture and screaming STFU after scoring his first rushing TD – just another example of his lack of maturity and leadership. Then the defense relapsed, allowing Carolina a TD drive just before halftime to take a 21-14 lead. There was no pass rush, and the LBs still looked lost in coverage and suffered from miscommunication in the 10th game of the season.
The second half started out as a repeat of the first, as the Gator offense came out slowly (again) and the defense collapsed (again) while the Lamecocks stretched their lead. Every unit played a part – poor tackling and miscommunication by the defense, sloppy play from Franks and the O-Line, and special teams allowing a long kickoff return to set up Carolina with a short field for a score. The offense drove to a 42-yard FG attempt, which McPherson missed. Carolina responded with their own drive for a FG and a 24-14 lead, then later in the 3rd quarter extended to lead to 31-14 after the Gators allowed an 89-yard catch and run by Deebo Samuel to their 5-yard line. The outlook at that point was bleak, as there was no energy from the players or fans. Florida then had it’s most fortunate break of the season, a poorly thrown pass into coverage by Franks that was tipped and somehow came down into the hands of Hammond, who was then was stripped of the ball before hitting the ground. The officials claimed his momentum had been stopped before the fumble, and Misschump shockingly didn’t challenge the call. After that, the O-Line, Perine, and Scarlett dominated the rest of the game, scoring on 3 consecutive punishing drives to take the lead at 35-31. Both RBs ran hard and broke tackles for extra yardage while punishing the Lamecock LBs and secondary. The Gator defense finally responded, making just enough plays and finally getting some pressure on Bentley in the 4th quarter. CJH ended the last decent threat by Carolina with a terrific interception, trailing the WR and baiting Bentley into the throw.
It was a true gut-check for the team, and to their credit they played hard and came back. This game can be the result, even more than the LSU win, that Mullen can point to in the offseason to the returning players as proof of what he has been preaching since he took the job. Another blowout loss at home could have killed any recruiting momentum and left the team emotionally fragile heading into the game in two weeks against Florida $tate.
It’s on to Senior Day at the Swamp, as Florida welcomes the Idaho Vandals for a glorified scrimmage before the rivalry game in Taliban City against F$U. Don’t expect much variety in scheme from either the offense or defense – just the basic plays and looks to get by. Expect a lot of running plays on offense, with minimal need to expose Franks to any injury possibility. Idaho has struggled in the weak Big Sky conference, so they are completely outmanned against the Gators. A lot of younger and/or inexperienced players should get some snaps, as the staff should be able to start pulling starters and clearing the bench in the second half. There has been a lot of debate as to whether Emory Jones should play to get some more live game experience, but it seems Mullen is holding him back for the last 2 games against the Criminoles and the bowl game, in order to preserve his redshirt.
As always, the mantra for this kind of game is……NO INJURIES.
Prediction: Florida 59 Idaho 13
In what could only be described as a Misschumpian or SwampDonkian performance, the Gators embarrassed themselves in a 38-17 blowout loss on Homecoming at the Swamp to a mediocre Missouri team. A lot of the positives that developed up until this game were wiped away with a horrific effort that reopened a lot of fresh wounds for Gator Nation. Mullen and the staff will say publicly that the loss is on them, but that’s just PR spin. The players regressed and fell back into the bad habits from the previous 2 regimes. No enthusiasm, no energy, and a lazy performance that will reopen a lot of position battles in practice this week – starting at QB.
All 3 phases of the team were bad, but the abysmal performance by the entire offense bled into the attitude and effort of the defense and special teams. As it almost always does, the play at QB dictates how well the offense plays, and Franks was simply terrible. He missed multiple wide-open WRs, checked into bad plays, and sulked on the sideline when Mullen laid into him. *News Flash* – This is the SEC, and it’s big-boy football. Produce or sit. Mullen finally had enough and inserted Trask, and he played well under the circumstances, even leading the offense to a TD in his first possession. Even in that small sample size he exhibited the ability to read the defense and go through his progressions more than Franks has most of the season. While it’s (sadly) likely that Franks gets the start this week, I expect Trask to get snaps no matter what. The O-Line played it’s worst game of the season. There was no push in the running game, and they broke down in pass pro too often. I feel bad for the RBs and WRs, who simply can’t show their skills consistently enough with such poor QB play. There are indications that at least some of the locker room is starting to turn on Franks, and Mullen has to rein in and address the discord before it resembles the end of 2017.
The Gator defense was only minimally better. There was no consistent pass rush from the DEs, while the interior of the line was gashed all afternoon. The poor LB pass coverage was exposed, and even the CBs broke down on two long TD passes, but it’s hard to cover for 5+ seconds when the D-Line is getting stoned at the LOS. Again, it appears there are parts of the team that are reacting to the struggles of the offense and QB, and the team lacks the leadership and maturity to push through it. There is no push from the interior of the D-Line, and they were manhandled all afternoon in their worst performance of the season – even worse than Kentucky.
Evan McPherson hit his only FG attempt, the highlight of special teams. Tommy Townsend inexplicably became a loose cannon on the field, garnering 2 personal-foul penalties along with a targeting call. I can appreciate him wanting to not just be a spectator in punt coverage, but he has to control his emotions. Punters may be people too, but antics like these really hurt the defense and gave Missouri great field position for two scoring drives. If he doesn’t calm down, his ass will be on the bench. It’s something I have never seen in my lifetime of watching college football.
South Carolina is next up and Florida has to get it’s house in order right away, or suffer another home loss, this time to Won’t Misschump. There is some blood in the water in the Swamp right now, and you can count on the petulant Misschump wanting to do anything to beat the Gators.
The Gamecocks are led on offense by QB Jake Bentley. He has been a little inconsistent this season, especially as their running game has really tailed off from prior seasons. He does have a strong arm and isn’t afraid to run when needed, so the Gator DES and LBs will have to keep him contained in the pocket. WR Bryan Edwards is a downfield threat, while Deebo Samuel will get lots of short passes and jet sweeps so he can use his speed and elusiveness in space to make plays. Leading rusher Rico Dowdle is questionable with an ankle injury, so Tyson Williams may have to be the lead ball carrier. Carolina has had difficulty sustaining drives, so look for them to try to hit big plays for chunks of yardage in order to set up scoring opportunities. The Gator defense – if it decides to show up and actually play with some energy – matches up well and should be able to control the LOS. The LBs have a lot to atone for after last week’s disaster – it’s back to basics, starting with playing your run gaps and actually accounting for the TE in the passing game. The secondary has to focus on keeping Edwards in check, and force other WRs to beat them. CGJ has not practiced this week with an undisclosed injury, and that would be a big loss. The defense has to win on 1st down.
As for the Gator offense……what a difference a week makes. If Franks gets the start, will the players just be waiting for him to make a few bad plays and get pulled? I was hopeful Trask would either start or get significant reps, but he is now out for the season with a broken foot, the same injury that derailed his 2017 season. Now Mullen has to SERIOUSLY consider burning Jones’ redshirt and getting him ready to play in every game the rest of this season. No matter the QB, the O-Line has to rediscover it’s run-blocking ability and provide the balance necessary for success. The WRs have to fight harder for balls, but how much of that is the inaccuracy of Franks and their growing frustration? I would hope that after watching the tape from the Missouri game, every player would look himself in the mirror and demand better. Mullen will have even more on his plate than usual, essentially having to prepare 2 full game plans that complement each QB the best. I expect the running game to be featured early and leaned on as long as it is working.
I don’t like what I’m hearing out of practice and from sources right now. There is some locker room sniping going on between the offense and defense, growing frustration with Franks from the WRs, and talk that some draft-eligible players are starting to mentally or physically check out. Mullen still has some key players that are holdovers from the Swamp Donkey, and it appears those guys aren’t providing the effort that he expects. As far as this week’s game is concerned, I think the sum of these issues is enough to lead to another home loss.
Prediction: Carolina 27 Florida 23
It was a bitter defeat for the Gators in Jacksonville, as critical mistakes and injuries at key positions were too much to overcome in a 36-17 loss. The game plan on both offense and defense was sound and the effort was there, but this team is not talented enough to defeat quality teams when not playing error-free football.
Dan Mullen called one of the best offensive games I can recall. The running game was solid, the run/pass mix was effective, and a handful of special plays were there for the taking. Unfortunately, Franks didn’t execute those plays in key moments – he just executed Florida’s chance to win. After allowing Georgia a FG on the first series of the game, the very first Florida offensive play was a harbinger of things to come. He badly overthrew a wide-open Jefferson for a TD on a flea-flicker, which would have sent a shock through the Georgia defense that this would be a vastly different game than last season. The second possession started nicely, but an uncharacteristic Scarlett fumble gave the Puppies a short field. They took advantage of that and the early exit of CJH due to a back injury to pick on McWilliams for key completions and a TD pass for a 10-0 lead. Even after digging an early hole, the Gators didn’t panic. They finally scored in the 2nd quarter with an excellent drive mostly led by Perine and the running game. Unfortunately, right before the half ended the Puppies took advantage or poor pass coverage by the Gator LBs (especially Joseph) with 4 consecutive completions to TE Isaac Nauta to get a FG for a 13-7 halftime lead.
The second half started out perfectly. After Toney returned the kickoff to the Georgia 48-yard line, it took the Gators only 3 plays to take the lead on Franks’ best pass of the day, a laser to Swain down the middle. Sadly, the defense had a major letdown, allowing Georgia to march right down the field mostly through the air for a TD to retake the lead, as McWilliams was toasted – again. Then came the 2nd critical mistake by Franks. After a Georgia punt was downed at the Gator 1-yard line, he fumbled on the next play. What could have easily then been a TD and perhaps the dagger was replaced by “The Stand” – 7 plays inside the 2-yard line that were stuffed by the Gator defense – holding Georgia to only a FG. It’s unfortunate that the offense could not fully build on that inspirational effort, only getting a FG early in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 23-17, but never really threatening again. The defense finally cracked, not being able to get off the field on 3rd down and not getting the key play in pass defense to force the Puppies to punt. Two late TDs made the final score 36-17, which didn’t reflect the closeness of the game until the last 8 minutes. Watching 3 out of 4 starters in the secondary sit on the sideline due to injury or suspension while Georgia was actually moving the ball through the air was sickening.
It’s back to the Swamp for the first time since the LSU game 4 weeks ago, this time to face Missouri. It’s the start of a crucial 3 game home stand that will determine how good the 2018 season can be and the quality of bowl game the Gators are invited to. There are a lot of positives to take from the Georgia game, but also a lot to clean up.
Missouri reminds me of a bad matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament. The strength of their offense is based on QB Drew Lock, WRs Emanuel Hall and Jalen Knox, and a quality TE in Albert Okwuegbuna. This group will cause headaches for the Gator LB corps and secondary – especially if CJH is not 100% and if Stewart is rusty after his suspension for the Georgia game. The D-Line has to rediscover it’s pass rush and make life miserable for Lock, or else this could turn into a high-scoring affair that Franks and the Gator offense are not built for. The Tigers also have two good RBs in Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett, who really hurt the Gators last year in Columbia. The entire defense has to play a solid and smart game against a very good offense. It all starts with winning first down to make the Tigers one-dimensional. After that, if the defense continues it’s struggles getting off the field on 3rd down, it will be a long day and a probable loss. Kentucky did a very good job holding Missouri to only 14 points last week, and the Gators should be able to see a lot of things on film they can apply this week.
Florida has to continue to find success in the running game, which will lessen the number of possessions by the Tigers and also allow the defense some rest. The Gator O-Line has to first stop DT Terry Beckner – he is a load and an all-SEC candidate. Perine and Scarlett are in a groove right now running the ball, but I continue to hope they are used more in the passing game. Mullen has gone away from that the past month for some reason, but I hope he reintroduces it into the game plan. Both Franks and all of the WRs need to improve – Franks his accuracy, and the WRs getting consistent separation from DBs and fighting harder through contact to go after the ball. All of Gator Nation continues to impatiently wait for Toney to get more touches, even if it’s only on jet sweeps.
The Gator special teams have been excellent, and again can have a big impact on the outcome. Townsend has to continue to flip the field with his punts, while McPherson has been nails with his FGs. Toney had a big kickoff return against Georgia, and hopefully builds on that to perhaps set up an easy score.
Coach Mullen and the entire staff have to find a way to build on the positives from the Georgia game and get the players to continue to compete on every snap. Despite the tough loss, Florida can prove it has emotionally matured by moving on to the next game and taking care of it’s business. I have a nagging feeling this game will not go smoothly and will be in doubt late. If the Gators can simply eliminate unforced turnovers they have a good chance of winning. There is still a lot to play for, starting with protecting the Swamp. Finally, the next few games will go a long way for the perception of the program in the minds of recruits. The Gators are gaining the attention of a lot of big names, and if they can finish the season well, should be able to bring in a class that is more representative of the Florida program standard of the past 30 years. It’s time to have the talent and depth to compete for championships again.
Prediction: Florida 27 Missouri 24
It’s rivalry week. A huge game looms in Jacksonville with the winner likely representing the SEC East in Atlanta, and potentially bigger things to play for down the road.
I expect the Gator offense to have some struggles, so it’s on the defense to try and control the game and keep the score manageable. Georgia will rely on it’s running game led by RBs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift and a strong O-Line. Even in their loss at LSU they ran the ball effectively, only having to abandon it due to turnovers by QB Jake Fromm and falling behind by double-digits in the 4th quarter. The Florida front seven will have it’s toughest challenge of the season in controlling the LOS – if the Puppies win first down they will control the clock and it will be a long afternoon. If by some combination of run defense, turnovers, and effective offense the Gators can get a lead in the second half, once again it will fall on Fromm to have to make things happen with his arm, which is where he struggles. Playing with a big lead and handing off most of the game is what he was able to do all of 2017, but he has not handled the pressure of being forced to throw very well. On passing downs, the Gator DEs need to find ways to continue their excellent play and get pressure on the QB. Georgia’s pass blocking has had some struggles this year, so perhaps there are some big plays and drive-killers available. The Gator secondary will be have to play a lot of man defense, and will be challenged by WRs Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman and TE Isaac Nauta. They will have to stay disciplined and not peek into the backfield on run fakes. The entire defense will have trust each individual to do their job – no freelancing or over-aggressiveness leading to a bust and big play. Finally, I expect Justin Fields to see action at QB as well. He is a dangerous runner, but hasn’t been relied upon much in the passing game to date. I suspect there are a few pass plays in the game plan for him this week to try and surprise the Gator defense.
Florida’s offense has to find a way to put some extended drives together in order to allow the defense to get some rest and to shorten the game. Georgia will likely stack the box and dare Franks to throw to beat them, which is a good strategy until he proves he is accurate enough to make throws into tight windows. The O-Line was able to open enough running room to balance the attack against LSU and has to do the same in this game, as relying on the passing game for consistent production isn’t a viable option yet. Scarlett and Perine once again will have to get tough yards after contact, but I hope Mullen continues to incorporate them into the passing game to slow the rush and spread the field. The WRs have to block well, and get separation occasionally to make some big plays. CB Deandre Baker is an all-SEC candidate, so anyone not matched up with him has to make something happen. The Puppy defense has shown some cracks this year, so Florida must capitalize when some opportunities present themselves – whether with individual effort of by scheme. Georgia’s pass rush is nowhere near as formidable as last season. D’Andre Walker leads the Puppies with 5 sacks, but they only have 9 total as a team. The Gator O-Line needs to play their assignments and communicate – they stood up pretty well to Kentucky and LSU, and have to give Franks time and some clear passing lanes. I’m hoping that Mullen isn’t so stubborn that he forces the running game if it is not working, throws more on 1st down, and isn’t afraid to take shots with lower-percentage 50/50 balls downfield to the WRs. It’s not as if Franks completes 70% of his passes as it is, so it’s time to roll the dice and see if the WRs can win some one-on-one battles. I expect to see some of Toney on jet sweeps and wildcat snaps – he is due for a few big plays. If the Gators can get into the red zone, Mullen has demonstrated creativity and acumen with his play calls, and I’ll bet there are some new wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.
Both teams have excellent special teams. Georgia PK Roberto Blankenship has done a great job since last season and has made some clutch kicks under pressure. Hardman is a dangerous KO and punt returner with breakaway speed, so the Gator coverage units have to stay in their lanes and tackle well. Florida PK Evan McPherson continues to impress, and Tommy Townsend will be relied upon to punt well and flip the field. If the game is close into the second half, special teams could be the difference.
This year’s game has high stakes for the first time in a while, which will make the atmosphere even more intense. Both teams are coming off of a bye week, so it will be interesting to see which one took the most advantage of it for the stretch run. Florida has the bitter memory of last year’s debacle to try and make up for, quitting under the Swamp Donkey and embarrassing the program. Hopefully the staff has the players at a high emotional pitch while not being too hyped and making stupid mistakes. There are still a lot of guys on the roster that won the East in 2015 and 2016 and have experience in big games, so Mullen has that to build on. Kirby Smart is feeling some heat for Georgia’s performance at LSU, and I expect a better effort. I hope the discussions of how much Fields should play at QB becomes a distraction within the team, but my guess is that Fromm is still the guy and plays almost exclusively unless the Puppies fall behind by more than a TD in the second half.
As much as I want the Gators to win, I’m just not convinced that Franks can play efficiently enough and take advantage of big play opportunities to lead the offense to enough points. My worry is that even if the defense plays well initially, they start to wear down in the second half, especially if they can’t stop the running game. Additionally, the secondary is already thin, and can’t afford any significant injuries. After last year’s embarrassment, there’s plenty of motivation for the Gators to play their best.
Prediction: Georgia 31 Florida 20
Straight out of the Theater of the Bizarre, it was an all-to-typical Florida-Vanderbilt game. A way-too-early start (11:00 am local time), a bad Vandy team, and Florida coming off of 3 straight big SEC games……all leading to a somnambulant first 25 minutes of play until the Gators awoke, with the help of some really childish actions by the Vandy coaching staff that fired up the entire team……and coaching staff.
As much as Dan Mullen preached all week about coming out focused and playing hard, the team only got it half right. Stupid penalties, undisciplined play by the defense, and two terrible turnovers by Franks allowed the Commodores to race out to a 21-3 lead. From there on out the Gators dominated and won, but it wasn’t comfortable until the last score to ice the game.
The offense came out sharply, following up a 3-and-out by the defense with an efficient drive all the way to the Vandy 5-yard line, whereupon Mullen made a huge mistake in not simply running the ball on 2nd and 1 and calling for a slant pass that was tipped and intercepted. Maybe that stunned the defense enough for them to subsequently allow Vandy their longest scoring drive in 15 years. The offense responded with another good drive, but some inaccurate passes led to a punt. Then, the defense simply played undisciplined football, allowing an easy screen pass to go for a 75-yard TD. Not to be outdone, Franks led the offense back down the field, only to not protect the football on a designed run and fumbling, giving Vandy possession in the Gator 40-yard line. The defense continued their lackadaisical play, letting the ‘Dores march to a 3rd TD. Then it became all too real for Florida – they were in serious trouble, and it was either throw away all the good that was accomplished the previous 3 weeks, or toughen up and go to work. In a testament to the staff and the buy-in of this year’s players, the Gators did just that. The offense came back with an important TD drive, the defense got a quick 3-and-out, and then the real run began. On the punt return James Houston was ejected for a peelback block on a defenseless player (questionable – but OK), but then the Vandy coaching staff, while out on the field to check on the injured player, got into a shouting match with the Gator staff, which caused both benches to clear and for both teams to get an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. This activated an obscure rule that if any player on either team already had a similar penalty earlier in the game, this would count as their second offense and cause an automatic ejection – goodbye Vosean Joseph (who really did it to himself with an egregious roughing penalty that helped Vandy score their second TD). After losing good field position due to the penalties, Franks hit Perine with a screen pass that he almost took to the house. This gave Florida a FG at the end of the half that made it a one score game, and provided all the emotional momentum the team needed to roll in the second half.
As soon as the teams returned to the field for the 3rd quarter, it was obvious that the Gators were ready to play. The offense continued to run the ball effectively with Perine and Scarlett, the quick WR screens were getting chunks of yards, and Franks settled down and didn’t turn the ball over, allowing the skill players to do work. After cutting the lead to 21-20 and forcing Vandy to punt, the offense landed the big body blow with Scarlett’s TD run to take the lead, which the Gators would not relinquish. The only real scare was when Pierce fumbled in Gator territory, but the defense held the Commodores to a FG to keep the lead. The Gators then drove for another TD to effectively close out the game. The offense wound up with close to 600 yards and two 100-yard rushers. The downfield passing game is still not clicking, as the only pass TD more than 5 yards beyond the LOS was the slant to Jefferson that he housed. Franks has to improve his accuracy on throws more than 10 yards downfield, and actually allow his receivers the chance to make some 50/50 catches. The defense tightened up the run gaps, but had chances for interceptions that they didn’t capitalize on that enabled Vandy to extend drives and get 2 FGs in the second half to keep the game close.
In retrospect this game could be a valuable teaching moment for Mullen and the staff, but also a confidence boost for the players. They now see that they can’t slip into their early-season bad habits, which actually cost them the Kentucky game. But they also see that the staff is actually coaching them up to be a good team, and that they can do some great things IF they are focused and disciplined. The bye week comes at a good time, to allow the team to rest up both physically and emotionally for a critical 3-week stretch that will determine how good or average the season eventually becomes.
I’ll be back next week with my preview of the Georgia game. Go Gators!
Florida 100 Bye Week 0