Vanderbilt Review / LSU Preview

Florida showed again that it can dominate in glorified scrimmages, putting away Vanderbilt 42-0 despite playing an uneven game on offense and defense.  It was a happy Homecoming against an outmanned opponent that allowed the staff to clear the bench in the second half with the outcome never in doubt.

The offense used this game to work on the deep passing game.  However……while Emory Jones had some success, I am not buying into that fool’s gold until it’s proven against SEC competition that has a pulse.  The O-line has some players banged up, but it’s stil concerning to see some of the stupid penalties from the Kentucky game still happening – that has to get cleaned up now.  The running game has become ragged, as opponents will simply dare Florida to throw the ball the rest of the season.  You could see the lack of intensity from the start of this game, but, again, that just shows how bad the Commodores are – on the field, not in the recording studio.

The Gator defense gave fans some bad flashbacks to 2020 in the first half.  They allowed Vandy to dominate time of possession while racking up 50(!) plays.  Fortunately, they self-destructed, missing 2 easy FGs and losing a TD on a reversed replay review that easily could have stood.  Why Todd Grantham can’t simply play aggressively from the start of a game remains a mystery.  The defense tightened up in the second half, and fortunately didn’t seem to suffer any injuries of note.  There were some good individual performances from Zach Carter and Gervon Dexter on the D-line, Ty’ron Hopper at LB, and Trey Dean at safety.  But some of last year’s issues are starting to crop up again – poor tackling, soft coverage, and some bad run fits by the LBs.  Hopefully most of that was due to the (lack of) ability of the opponent.

It’s on to LSU, for what I had hoped earlier would be THE BIG PAYBACK.  But, with the weirdness that is a Dan Mullen game plan (see Kentucky), I’m just hoping to get out of Baton Rouge with any kind of win.

The Tigers have been gutted by key injuries the past 2 weeks.  Star WR Kayshon Boutte, all-SEC DB Derek Stingley, all-SEC candidate CB Eli Ricks, and starting DE Ali Gaye are all out, leaving some big holes at those positions.  They are coming off of getting beaten down 42-21 at Kentucky, and it’s gonna be interesting to see if Mullen shows the guts to go for the kill for 60 minutes, or coaches not to lose……again.  Tiger Nation is screaming for Ed Orgeron’s head, as he is 8-8 after selling his soul for the 2019 National Championship season.  The SEC is an unrelenting grind, and LSU has certainly underperformed since then.

Florida is still a running team first, so I still expect Jones and the RB rotation to get their chances early and often to control the game.  The Tigers were gashed for 330 yards by the Wildcats, and the Gators have some serious issues if they can’t run the ball.  It looks like the Gator O-line should be in decent shape after shuffling some guys in and out due to injury.  We’ll see if the vertical passing game actually gets it’s chances, as the Gator WRs should be able to make some plays……if given some opportunities.  LSU has depth and experience issues in the secondary that have to be exposed.

Florida’s defense made Max Johnson look like Joe Burrow last season, in the most embarrassing home loss at the Swamp in decades.  The D-line is much improved, and needs to make a statement this week and deliver some punishment.  It’s been another week of empty statements from Mullen on the health of Kaiir Elam, again saying he should play this week.  I’ll believe it when I see it – he’s been missed.  LSU features only one RB, Tyrion Davis-Price, and I expect him to get a lot of work as long as the game is close.  Johnson does not have good arm strength or running speed, and is missing his primary receiving weapon, so the Florida front seven needs to apply pressure and get some hits on him early.

There’s not much left to play for this season.  Avenging the embarrassment of the 2020 loss to LSU is at least something, but so is showing some real intensity and grit on the road in the SEC and playing a complete game.  Mullen is starting to feel some real heat from Gator Nation, and deservedly so.  Again, we’ll see if last week was just some lip service on the field and to the media, or if he’s realized you need to coach every game hard.

I picked LSU to win this game in my preseason preview, but I’m going to go with Florida in a do-or-die, save the season situation.  It’s telling that this game gets a noon kickoff, as there is no buzz around this matchup, with both teams in a fight to simply get their respective seasons back on track.  It will actually be an 11:00 am local kickoff, which is the best scenario for the Gators, as LSU’s fan base will not be liquored up (at least as much as usual), and has been muted with the mediocre performance of the Tigers so far.  I just hope they have more to complain about and are even quieter after the game is over.  Amazingly, Florida is a 10.5 point favorite – I’d love to see the Gators rush out to an early lead and curb-stomp the Tigers, but that doesn’t seem to be Mullen’s make-up right now.  I can only hope that changes for the better.

Prediction: Florida 27 LSU 24

Kentucky Review / Vanderbilt Preview

In what can only be described as indescribable, the Gators completely imploded to lose to a mediocre Kentucky team 20-13 on the road, effectively ending their hopes for accomplishing anything of real note in 2021.

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the comedy of errors – penalties – including 9 false-starts by the O-line.  Dan Mullen and John Hevesy completely crapped the bed by not implementing a silent count, even at halftime, and gutting almost every potential scoring drive.  The special teams allowed an unconscionable blocked FG to be returned for a TD, causing a 10-point swing and forcing the offense to play from behind the rest of the night.  Mullen doubled down on his irresponsible oversight of the snap count, calling a game that would make vanilla seem like rainbow with sprinkles compared to the dreck he delivered.  His completely risk-averse mentality once again cost a victory, as he continues to underutilize athletic WRs like Jacob Copeland, Xavier Henderson, and Justin Shorter.  Why he refuses to try a fade route in the red zone is beyond comprehension, and he totally neglects their size and the physical mismatches these guys have most weeks.  Emory Jones was……well……not good.  He continued to miss open receivers, and seemingly can’t find wide open guys 20+ yards downfield.  It’s his 4th year in Mullen’s system, so is it the player and/or the coach?  It’s certainly not winning SEC football.  Anothiny Richardson again saw minimal snaps, and didn’t play enough to affect the outcome in any meaningful way.  Mullen again failed at clock management, effectively folding the tents with over 2 minutes left in the first half with plenty of time to try for more points.  Finally, the playcalling in the 4th quarter when Florida got inside Kentucky’s 10-yard line not once, but twice, was criminal.  No 50/50 or jump balls to the WRs, too many QB runs, and no aggressiveness.  I also understand rotating 3 very good RBs, but Dameon Pierce had a hot hand and was hammering the Wildcat defense……but never seems to be on the field in those circumstances.

The defense, for once, held up, allowing only 224 yards, 87 through the air.  Yes, they allowed UK’s first score with some shoddy tackling on a WR screen, but were solid almost the entire game.  The offense did them no favors,keeping the score close instead of taking charge early and allowing the defense to really punish a lousy opposing offense.  Kentucky is always a power running team first, so Florida held up pretty well.  They also miraculously held the Wildcats to 1-9 combined 3rd- and 4th-down conversions, helping the Gator offense to possess the ball over 36 minutes……which they did nothing with.

Talk about dispiriting.  That’s a 3-5 record for Mullen in his last 8 games, interspersing 2 well-played games against Alabama with some historically bad clunkers.  Gator Nation won’t soon forget the way 2020 ended with the inexplicable home loss to a terrible LSU team, then totally mailing it in against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.  His arrogance again showed itself in his post-game and Monday pressers, glossing over terrible coaching by talking about meaningless statistics and lamely taking some responsibility for some of the penalties.  Some of this stuff is beginning to look more and more like a trend, not an anomaly.  The worst part is that Mullen shows no sign of changing……anything.

Next up for Florida is Homecoming Week, with a rancid Vanderbilt team coming in for a beatdown.  This will be an easy preview for me – Vandy is terrible, and normally would not stay within 40-50 points of the Gators.  This is a chance for Mullen and the staff to play the younger guys a lot – and that includes Richardson.  He needs the reps in live action, and more than the usual 6-8 snaps.  Time to start seeing if he can improve and develop his game.  There are a lot of guys dinged up after 5 weeks, and this is an opportunity to give them some rest before traveling to LSU.  The Commodores really are bereft of talent – I can’t understand why Clark Lea would leave his DC position at Notre Dame to waste a few years losing in Nashville.   The Commodores music group has had more hits than this football team’s defense.  Florida is favored by 37 points, but I could see them not covering that spread because of the hangover effect from the cluster in Lexington, along with playing a lot of guys and not being as cohesive.  Just stay healthy, win by 4 or 5 TDs, and get ready for LSU.

This is a dangerous time for Mullen.  Along with another bad loss, it’s going to be really interesting to see if the staff starts to lose control of some of the locker room – especially the Draft-eligible guys that may start to mail it in to try and save their health.  There is practically nothing of substance to play for now except trying to get into another consolation New Year’s Six bowl game, and possibly ruining Georgia’s run at a perfect season.  Recruiting may have taken a hit with a couple of 5* players that had Florida in the lead now leaning elsewhere, and Gator Nation is starting to wonder if this is the best it can expect from Mullen – 8 to 10 wins, maybe the occasional upset, and an infrequent shot at getting to Atlanta.  Mullen’s seat is starting to get really warm, and nothing this week will change that.

Prediction: Florida 48 Vanderbilt 10

Tennessee Review / Kentucky Preview

Florida took care of business with a workmanlike 38-14 win over Tennessee Saturday night.  It was another slow start for the defense, giving up 2 long TDs with poor tackling and pursuit of a simple screen pass, and a blown assignment in the secondary allowing a deep completion.  To the team’s credit they dominated after that, taking a 17-14 lead at halftime and then wearing down the Vols 21-0 in the second half.  That makes it 16 out of 17 against the Dollies, as Florida has made a mockery of the series.  Rocky Flop, indeed.

The Gator offense looked pretty solid and composed all night.  Emory Jones had an efficient game with 209 yards passing and another 144 rushing.  Only a fumble by Jacob Copeland and later a penalty really stopped them.  Jones completed passes to 9 different receivers, and is getting the TEs more involved as well, which stresses the defense even more and makes his job easier and more manageable.  The Gators rolled up 283 yards on the ground, but I still want to see more passes to the RBs.  The O-line looked a little sluggish at times, and a few guys left and re-entered with minor injuries.  They seemed to make some adjustments at halftime and pushed the Vols around after that.  Justin Shorter is starting to get more involved at WR, but Copeland and Xavier Henderson need more looks and touches – they are simply too good to be underutilized in the passing game.  All 3 RBs again had their moments in particular series, and look like one of the best RB rotations in the country.

Florida’s defense was mostly good, but did seem to have a bit of a letdown after the Alabama game, allowing themselves to be gashed a few times in the run game to go with the long TD pass plays.  The front seven was mostly solid, but the secondary continues to miss tackles and have too many busts in coverage.  At this point it just shouldn’t be that difficult – DC Todd Grantham has to simplify things for them and allow them to play fast……but this has been going on ever since he arrived in Gainesville in 2018 and likely won’t change,  Kaiir Elam was not played to allow him to recover from the knee sprain he suffered against Alabama, and he was missed.  But the bigger issue is the continued spotty play from the safeties.  Trey Dean has been only OK, and whomever has manned the second spot simply hasn’t performed well.  Even this far into the season, the staff may need to make some hard choices regarding playing time and also position switches.  Travez Johnson continues to struggle at STAR, and perhaps needs a change. Jadarrius Perkins and Elijah Blades may be getting more snaps as soon as this week.

Special Teams were solid, and Jace Christmann seems to have won the PK job, making all of his extra points and a FG.  He is a 5th-year player and a former all-SEC player at Mississippi St., so he’s used to the pressure.

Florida now goes to the Bluegrass State for a huge road game at Kentucky.  If the Gators want to accomplish anything of note in 2021, this is a must win for them.  The Wildcats have opened things up on offense more this year, with new QB Will Levis injecting some life into a moribund passing game.  However, Mike Stoops will always rely on the run game first, and they have two good RBs in Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke.  They have rolled up some good stats to date, but the strength of the opposing defenses is suspect.  It’s on the Gator front seven to man up and control the LOS and force Levis into passing situations.  He has 5 interceptions already, so the Gators could make things much easier on themselves with a complete effort for 60 minutes.  The D-line needs to be disruptive and keep Kentucky off-schedule.  I expect some deep shots by UK, as Florida’s safeties have blown too many assignments this season and not proven they have figured that out.  Wan’Dale Robinson is by far their biggest threat at WR, and I expect Elam to be covering him as long as he can play.

On offense, Florida should expect Kentucky to do what most opponents will – load the box and force Jones to show he can move the team through the air if necessary and with efficiency.  The Gator RBs are a proven commodity, but it will be Jones who again will need to make the right reads, run effectively (and often) if necessary, and stand strong in the pocket and deliver some accurate throws.  The Wildcats have lost a lot of talented players to the league the past 3 seasons, and, while still well coached under Stoops, simply aren’t as good as before.  The Gators need to stress the edges and take shots downfield and get some chunk plays, and not assume they can grind out drive after drive.  The RBs need to be incorporated more into the passing game as well to spread the field and make things easier for Jones.

When will Florida’s special teams step up?  It seems like years since they blocked a kick, and have shown no real threat returning kicks.  The defense just doesn’t generate turnovers, and could really help out going forward with more aggression.  Defense and special teams are even more important on the road in the SEC.

It should be a raucous crowd in Lexington Saturday night, as Kentucky thinks (again) that they are going to make some real noise in the SEC.  It’s time for Mullen and the Gators to (again) silence them, and continue to build momentum as October rolls around and things start getting serious in the SEC.

Prediction: Florida 27 Kentucky 20

Alabama Review / Tennessee Preview

In what may turn out to be the SEC regular-season game of the year, Florida stood toe-to-toe with Alabama for 60 minutes before falling 31-29.  The Swamp was as loud as it’s ever been, and that could very well have been one of the top 5 best crowds ever. joining the likes of USC 1982, F$U 1997, Tennessee 1999, LSU 2006, Ole Miss 2015, or even Auburn 2019. 

The Gators were their own worst enemy early on, falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter due to soft defense, missed tackles, shaky QB play, and penalties.  They ultimately dug a hole a little too deep to climb out of against such a good opponent.  No one can question the effort, though, and the Gators were the better team for the last 40 minutes.That’s something to build upon, but not at the expense of assuming everything will be easier going forward.  Once again, Todd Grantham’s soft defense cost Florida dearly, and the adjustments to tighter coverage and changing up blitz looks, while effective, came too late.  The Gator defense finally tightened up in the second quarter, and only allowed 10 points the rest of the way.  Even those 10 points allowed were mostly the result of crushing 3rd down penalties that gave Alabama too many additional chances.  The D-line played it’s best game since 2019, holding the Tide to under 100 yards rushing and getting pressure on Bryce Young.  The secondary was victimized by some horrendous pass interference calls that extended drives for Bama and led to the early barrage of scores.  But that’s better than watching them get picked apart by playing soft and not challenging the opponent.  Zack Carter is simply an all-SEC DE right now, Gervon Dexter is showing flashes of being a monster at DT, and Kaiir Elam shut down any Bama WR across from him.  Finally, Jeremiah Moon is a revelation at ILB – he stepped in for the injured Vantrell Miller and made plays all afternoon.  He looked as good as any ILB the Gators have rolled out in years – I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.  He may have found a position to make some money in the League.  Props to the entire defense for playing hard for 60 minutes.

The offense was even better than hoped for the last 3 quarters, outrushing Bama 245-91, leading in time of possession, and winning on the scoreboard 26-10.  The Gator RB trio of Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, and Nay’Quan Wright all had big plays, ran hard, and even started getting worked into the passing game.  Emory Jones settled down after the first quarter, hung in the pocket and made some good throws, and also was effective as a runner.  Mobile QBs are such a weapon against any defense, and even a front seven as good as Bama’s struggled to contain his running.  This was likely the best O-line performance under John Hevesy since he returned along with Mullen in 2018.  Good, physical play, few mistakes, and solid pass protection that Jones needs to take better advantage of.  He continues to miss some open receivers by hesitating, and has to learn to let the ball rip sometimes.  He also needs to trust his WRs more downfield – Jacob Copeland, Xavier Handerson, and Justin Shorter can make plays on 50/50 balls, and have been sorely underutilized so far.  Trent Wittemore has really settled into his slot WR role, and is very effective against LBs and safeties in zone coverage.  This will prove valuable going forward in extending drives and giving the QBs a reliable target when under pressure.

As far as the failed 2-point conversion goes, Mullen stated after the game that one player was lined up incorrectly (Davis), and another (an OL) missed an assignment.  Even Jones said he knew Davis was lined up incorrectly, but didn’t call a timeout.  Despite wanting to save one of the two remaining timeouts, that play is WAY too important to not have everyone on the same page – that’s on both Mullen and the QB to call a timeout and get things right.  Those details are too important in a close game against a great team.  Another lesson that I hope Mullen learns.

Now it’s time to see if this was an aberration, or the first of a continuing series of consistent, hard efforts.  There are no moral victories for Florida Football – I need to see a staff and group of players that won’t listen to all of the compliments from the fans and media and won’t allow a huge letdown this week against Tennessee.  The Volunteers come in with a 2-1 record, but that loss is against the only team it’s played with a pulse – Pittsburgh.  This will be their first road game of 2021 and it needs to be a harsh reality check for them.  Josh Heupel is about to find out this ain’t the crap AAC conference he faced when coaching at UCF.  

Tennessee has it’s own QB issues, to date starting both Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.  Both are good athletes with strong arms, but both have been erratic passers and looked pedestrian for long stretches.  They have installed much of the faster tempo offense that Heupel brought from UCF, but obviously are not comfortable yet with it.  Hooker likely gets the start this week.   Despite opening up the offense, Tennessee is still more run-heavy, relying on RBs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small along with whichever QB is in the game.  The Vols historically have a good O-line, but Florida’s D-line should have the advantage in this game.  They need to blow things up at the LOS early and often and not allow the Vols to settle into a rhythm.  As usual, it starts with stopping the run game first, forcing Tennessee into passing situations.  The defense should be able to get pressure, and hopefully force some turnovers and sacks.  No Vol WR has stepped up as the leader – Jimmy Calloway seems to be the most dangerous target, but the Vols spread the ball around to many receivers.  If the Gators can replicate their coverage from the last 3 quarters against Alabama, the Dollies could be in real trouble.

The Gator offense should continue to try and build on the solid running game it has established this season – control the clock, wear down the Tennessee front seven, and control the flow of the game.  Hopefully Jean Delance and Stewart Reese bounce back after playing injured against Alabama, and allow the RBs to continue their stellar play.  Jones has earned the starter’s role, and should have gained confidence from last week’s performance.  If Tennessee loads the box to force the Gators to the air, Jones needs to push the ball downfield more to Copeland, Henderson, and Shorter.  He seems to have developed some good chemistry with Wittemore, who is showing how valuable a slot receiver can be in keeping drives alive and giving the QB a security blanket.

Tennessee has a weapon on special teams with Velus Jones on KO and punt returns.  Florida must do a good job of limiting his impact, as Gator Nation painfully knows how a special teams play can affect the outcome of a game.  It will be interesting to see if Jace Christmann is the lead placekicker for Florida after Chris Howard’s costly XP miss 

The coaching staff has to get the players refocused on looking ahead – fans and media have been praising the team all week for their effort against Alabama, but that will mean nothing if they don’t take care of business the next 4 weeks, starting now.  There is a long SEC season still ahead and plenty to play for – the team has to make sure to get it’s mind right first.  There will be a good crowd in the Swamp for a big Saturday night game, and that should give the players some extra juice.  I would not be surprised with a sluggish start, but if it happens, hopefully, they snap out of it quickly.  This could be a close game into the 3rd quarter, but Florida has the advantage along the LOS and should pull away.

Prediction: Florida 34 Tennessee 17

USF Review / Alabama Preview

Florida easily dispatched South Florida 42-20 in Tampa, but the end result was one of inconsistent play, questionable QB decisions from Emory Jones, and possible critical injury news.

The Gators rolled up over 660 yards of offense, dominating the first half to take a commanding 35-3 lead.  All was well – a solid running game and some excellent TD throws and runs from both Jones and Anthony Richardson.  Then the second half came, and Jones reverted back to his surprisingly slow pass reads and bad decision-making, throwing 2 horrendous picks to end long drives, and opening up the QB controversy door even wider.  AR-15 was again an explosive playmaker, with a long TD pass to Copeland and a spectacular 80-yard TD run……which ended with a hamstring strain and now clouds Florida’s chances this week.  It was obvious Coach Mullen wanted to emphasize the passing game more to get both QBs some reps, and the WRs played well.

Florida’s defense was again average.  The D-line was facing an overmatched opponent and controlled the LOS, but the LB and secondary play again seemed to be sabotaged by a crap scheme from DC Todd Grantham and poor LB coaching from Christian Robinson.  South Florida’s offense is poor, and yet the defense allowed 3 long, double-digit play drives, making both Bull QBs look efficient at times.  Still way too many guys out of position, playing slow and not instinctively, and sometimes blowing assignments.  They did force 2 interceptions, but why Grantham won’t allow more aggressiveness from the secondary is beyond me.  Finally, it appears MLB and defensive leader Ventrell Miller will miss the rest of the season with surgery due to a torn biceps tendon.  This is a massive blow to the defense, as he’s the guy getting the calls from the sideline, helping guys get into proper position, and far and away the best run defender.

It’s on to the much-anticipated showdown with Alabama at the Swamp, and Gator Nation has a lot to be concerned about.  The Florida offense has not really been challenged by a solid defense with talent and depth, but now gets thrown into the deep end of the pool against a Crimson Tide team that continues to roll along, now with an improved defense compared to the past 2 seasons.

The Gator defense faces a monster task against an Alabama offense that comes in with a dominant O-line, solid running game, and enough talent at WR to help redshirt freshman QB Bryce Young develop while still playing efficiently and providing big plays with both his arm and legs.  Young has been efficient so far with 7 TD passes and no interceptions.  What he hasn’t done much of is run the ball on called QB runs, as I”m sure the Bama staff wants him to protect himself from injury so they don’t have to call upon backups with no real experience.  He has shown enough mobility to keep plays alive and not take losses.  Their O-line is led by All-American candidate LT Evan Neal, and has numerous talented players and quality depth – this unit has been the unsung key to Bama’s offensive juggernaut the past decade.  The RBs are led by Brian Robinson and Trey Sanders – both are physical and tough to tackle.  The WRs are led by John Metchie and Ohio St. transfer Jameson Williams, who both have excellent speed.  This WR group is nothing like the embarrassment of riches Bama has enjoyed the past 6 years with multiple players being selected in the 1st round of the NFL Draft, but they have been effective and made enough explosive plays to date to stretch defenses and open up the running game.

For the Gators to win, the defensive line has to play lights out for 60 minutes.  They have to somehow at least get a stalemate at the LOS to slow the running game and force Young to beat them by passing the ball by necessity.  The loss of Ventrell Miller at MLB for perhaps the rest of the season is a huge issue, as he was by far the best run-stuffer of the LB unit.  I’m not sure how well the rest of the LBs, led by Mohamoud Diabate and Amari Burney, will stand up to the physical challenge.  It looks like Jeremiah Moon is being asked to move from the Buck position to try and shore up the inside, and Ty’Ron Hopper will see an increased role.  Florida’s secondary has to find good CB play opposite Kaiir Elam – Avery Helm and Jason Marshall have the raw physical ability but simply lack experience, and have been picked on the first 2 games.  The safeties have been out of position too often, and that includes Trey Dean.  Grantham’s defensive scheme still seems to confuse his own players too often, and this will kill any chance of victory unless something significant changes.

Florida’s offense has been very effective the first 2 games, but I’m afraid a lot of that is simply fool’s gold against outmanned opponents.  I do think the O-line looks more crisp in it’s assignments, but that’s compared to previous mediocre units,  The task ahead on Saturday is a massive leap in difficulty.  Bama’s D-line is likely the most talented and deepest in the country, led by Tim Smith, Justin Eboigbe, and Byron Young.  The same can be said for their LB corps – Christian Harris, Tennessee transfer Henry To’oTo’o, and puss-rush specialist Will Anderson, Jr. are all studs, and again there is plenty of quality depth behind them.  They lost Christopher Allen to a foot injury in the Miami game, but they continue to roll on because of top-ranked recruiting classes every year.  The Gator QBs had better be ready to run the ball with determination to try and keep Bama from loading the box.  They likely will be forced to often because Bama’s front seven is that good, and I’m afraid Florida’s O-line is going to have some real struggles.  The Gators have enough quality RBs with Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright, and Demarkus Bowman to challenge anyone……but you can’t be effective if you don’t have running lanes and room to operate.  I think we will see the RBs incorporated much more in the passing game this week to alleviate the pressure on the QBs and hopefully help put together some extended drives.

Jones will get the start at QB, but there are some serious concerns about his passing and where his head is at – he’s had 4 terrible and costly interceptions so far and has looked slow in his reads.  Anthony Richardson has been incredibly dynamic both running and passing, but has benefitted from using his athletic ability to bail him out against weaker opponents.  He’s day-to-day with his hamstring injury, but has been getting some practice reps in this week.  Dan Mullen has a huge dilemma – does he risk shelving AR-15 for many games to come in and try to pull off the upset, or does he ride-or-die with Jones and save AR-15 for the balance of the season?  We’ll find out on Saturday, but without Richardson and the threat of the big play, it looks bleak.  If the O-line can stand up and give the QBs some time, I believe the Gator WRs can find success.  Alabama has some good DBs in Marcus Banks, Malachi Moore, Daniel Wright, and Jordan Battle, but they can be beaten for some big gains when actually forced to cover by the opponent.  Jacob Copeland, Xavier Henderson, and Justin Shorter must get separation and make some big plays downfield, while Trent Wittemore has to work the seams and underneath the zones to help move the chains. 

What can be done to help pull off the upset?  As has happened in the past, turnovers and big special teams plays can do it.  Somehow, the Gator defense has to force mistakes from Young and also be ballhawks – strip sacks, tipped passes, stripping ball carriers.  Sadly, this hasn’t been much in evidence under Grantham with his soft coverage and bend-but-try-not-to-break defenses.  There’s no reason to hold back anything schematically or physically, but until I see it on the field, I can’t expect it. 

It’s amazing that Florida is more than a 2 TD underdog at the Swamp, but that just shows how dominant Alabama and Nick Saban have been for so long.  They have been the ultimate proof that winning is a habit – especially winning big games – and have all the hardware to prove it.  Mullen is 0-10 against Alabama, and hasn’t done much better against other quality opponents.  I don’t see a path for a Florida victory that doesn’t include an Alabama implosion comprised of multiple turnovers plus busted assignments allowing some Gator offensive TDs.  Dan Mullen can scheme up all he wants for the offense, but Grantham’s defense is so pedestrian that any decent offense with a capable QB should have little trouble carving it up.  The Swamp will be electric at the start, but will Bama race out to an early lead as it usually does and pull the plug on the crowd?  The longer this game stays close, the more Young and the Tide will start feeling the heat.  It can happen, but not without the aforementioned turnovers and big plays.  I will see it live and firsthand but am not expecting it.

Prediction: Alabama 38 Florida 17

FAU Review / USF Preview

Florida coasted to a 35-14 win over FAU in the Swamp, but it certainly wasn’t a smooth effort, particularly offensively.

The Gators did what they should have done against an outmanned Owl front seven, rolling up 400 yards of rushing and owning the LOS.  What was disconcerting, though, was the struggle by Emory Jones to establish a consistent passing attack.  He was inaccurate all night, ineffective in the intermediate and deep zones, and threw two terrible picks, the first killing a drive in the red zone.  For some unknown reason, he looked hesitant, missing open receivers numerous times when he simply could have let the ball rip.  He did fine running the ball with 74 yards.  Now there will be rumblings of a QB controversy, as Anthony Richardson was devastating running the ball with 160 yards on just 7 carries, including a 73-yard breathtaking romp.  He also completed the longest pass of the night for the Gators, a 32-yard throw to Ja’Markis Weston.  Jones has to improve and do it immediately.

All of the Florida RBs were solid, as they had plenty of room to operate.  Mailk Davis looked the best he has since 2017, before his injuries.  Dameon Pierce and Nay’Quan Wright did fine in limited carries, and Demarkus Bowman showed some speed on the edge.  The group that didn’t get to operate was the WR corps.  No real deep passes were completed, few were attempted, and Jones did not give them many chances for YAC.  This group might need to prepare itself mentally for a long year of run-blocking, as what we saw from Kyle Trask in 2019 and 2020 won’t be seen for a while.  I was also disappointed that Coach Mullen chose to go for TDs on two long 4th-and-goal situations, instead of taking the sure 6 points to stretch the lead and give the new placekickers some work.  The O-line looked good, but FAU’s front seven lacked size, experience, and talent – they should have run as well as they did.

Defensively, the first game showed some promise for a marked improvement by the Gators.  The D-line dominated most of the night, and it was good to see 8 guys rotating throughout to keep them fresh and active.  Zach Carter looked especially good both rushing the passer and defending the run.  There was still some disappointing run gap integrity from the LBs that has to improve, and I’m really wondering if LB coach Christian Robinson is up to the task.  The secondary wasn’t really tested, as FAU’s N’Kosi Perry was scrambling for his life much of the game.  They did show some promise by covering more closely and tackling better in space, but there were still some busts that weren’t exploited because of the excellent pass rush.  The only real gains made by FAU were after Florida started playing most of it’s reserves in the 4th quarter.  It was a sloppy finish, but that’s not too surprising, given it was the first game and the outcome was well in hand.

It’s on to Tampa to face South Florida for another in-state matchup.  The Bulls looked dreadful at NC State last week, getting castrated 45-0 and providing no resistance of any kind.  That program has struggled the past 2 seasons, but they may be bottoming out in 2021, with little talent or depth at many positions.  Their new coaching staff has years of work ahead of them to try and make that program competitive again.

This should be a glorified scrimmage for Florida.  I don’t expect any exotic plays or formations, leaving very little on tape for Alabama prior to next week’s showdown at the Swamp.  We’ll see both QBs again, and even though USF is overmatched, Jones needs to prove he’s the #1 QB.  The passing game has to get cleaned up.  Unfortunately, USF may be worse than FAU, so the Gators won’t get tested before playing the Tide.  I don’t see much benefit from this game.  As always, the most important thing other than winning the game will be (hopefully) no injuries.

Prediction: Florida 41 USF 13

FAU Preview

Florida kicks off the 2021 season at home with an in-state game against FAU.  Slick Willie Taggart brings the Owls to Gainesville coming off of a decent 2020 and still trying to repair his tarnished reputation after failing miserably at F$U.

This will be the debut of Emory Jones as the Gator QB, and expectations are high for the 4th year junior.  He now has 4 years in Dan Mullen’s system, and should not have any real restrictions as to the playbook.  Of course, it’s completely different when you are the man and not coming off the bench.  I expect some early nerves and perhaps some inaccurate passes until he settles in.  Florida has struggled the past 2 seasons running the ball with any consistency, and has to do better this year.  Jones’ running ability will help, and this version of the Gator offense will resemble more of what we saw from Mississippi St. when Mullen was the head coach there.  Expect Anthony Richardson to get a decent number of snaps, even early in the game.  Mullen likes his backup to get meaningful snaps to gain experience and also be better prepared if the need arises to take over.  AR-15 is a tremendous physical specimen and could develop into a dynamic playmaker over time.

Florida has plenty of skill-position talent to help Jones.  There are a lot of quality RBs to share the load, and I expect a committee approach to how the carries are distributed until a few guys edge ahead.  Seniors Damien Pierce and Malik Davis likely get the early work along with Nay’Quan Wright, but Gator fans will be looking for either of the 5* transfers, Demarkus Bowman (Clemson) or Lorenzo Lingard (Miami), to provide some excitement and big-play capability.  Jacob Copeland is now the leader of the WR corps, and is expected to have a big season.  There is plenty of receiving talent, but a lot of it is inexperienced.  Justin Shorter is probably the next option, and provides great size and a big target, especially in the red zone.  Xavier Henderson is similar but has a little more deep speed,  Trent Wittemore returns from injury and is a reliable possession target.  Hopefully, the Gators can get a comfortable lead in the 2nd half so younger receivers like Ja’Quavion Fraziars, Ja’Markis Weston, and Marcus Burke can get some valuable reps.  Jones loses the best security blanket in college football with Kyle Pitts leaving for the NFL.  Kemore Gamble is a more traditional TE while Keon Zipperer is more of an H-back.  Both will be called on to run block more, but have proven to be solid red zone targets.  Freshman Nick Elksnis has been a revelation in fall practice, and could be the successor to Pitts eventually given his athleticism.

The Gator defense will face Taggart’s Lethal Stupidity, er, Simplicity attack, led by Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry at QB.  Perry was terrible at scUM, and is trying to resurrect his career.  His physical attributes aren’t in doubt, as he is a good runner and has a strong arm.  However, he never showed the ability to read defenses, and was a turnover machine.  FAU has recently been primarily a passing team, but we’ll see how well that plays against a Gator defense with so much to prove after a horrific 2020.

Florida picked up 3 key transfers at DT with Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell from Auburn and Antonio Valentino from Penn St.  They, along with Gervon Dexter and Lamar Goods, should provide a solid rotation and improve the run defense.  The DEs and Buck positions have lots of talent and playmaking ability.  Zack Carter returns as the senior leader, Brenton Cox is coming back from offseason foot surgery and is a pass rush specialist, Kris Bogle and Jeremiah Moon provide speed off the edge, and Princely Umanmielen is a young player with potential.  Hopefully this group shows right away that they can control the LOS and keep the LB corps clean.  Ventrell Miller is the LB leader and very good against the run.  LBs Mohamoud Diabate, Amari Burney, Ty’Ron Hopper, and Derel Wingo have a lot to prove after a terrible 2020 – especially in pass coverage.

The secondary is led by all-SEC candidate Kaiir Elam at CB and Trey Dean at safety.  However, after these two, there is precious little experience and proven talent.  Tre’Vez Johnso gets first shot at the STAR position.  Avery Helm steps in for injured Jaydon Hill at CB opposite Elam.  True freshman and 5* recruit Jason Marshall will play a lot at CB.  Transfers Elijah Blades from Texas A&M and Jadarrius Perkins from Missouri will see a lot of snaps at both CB and STAR to provide depth.  After Dean, Donovan McMillon, Rashad Torrence, and Mordecai McDaniel all struggled last season, and have to show significant improvement, or the back end will get abused again in 2021.  Plenty of athletic talent in the secondary, but so much is left to prove, and there is not much quality depth.

I expect FAU to be fired up at the start, and to throw everything they have at the Gators to try and pull off a huge upset.  I don’t expect that to happen, as the Owls have lost most of the players that led them to 2 consecutive good seasons, including a few guys that were drafted into the League.  This game likely stays close for the first 20 minutes or so, but then the Gators should pull away to a comfortable win with their large advantage in talent and depth.  The defense has much to prove, along with much-maligned DC Todd Grantham, who unfathomably still has a job in Gainesville.  His schemes have to be improved, and play calls must get in much faster than last season.

It will be interesting to see how full the Swamp is with no attendance restrictions, while Covid-19 variants continue to cause record hospitalizations in the always-progressive South.  Despite that, I expect a good crowd that will provide much of the missing juice for the players compared to the 2020 season.  This should be a good opening test for Florida to work out some kinks, shake off some rust, and start ramping up for the SEC season to come.  As always, the mantra for the first 2 weeks is NO INJURIES.  The Gators come in having already lost 2 players in the secondary, and can’t afford any key losses.

Prediction: Florida 34 FAU 13

2021 Season Preview

The 2021 season comes with a strange mix of “what could have been in 2020”, “I really hate how 2020 ended”, and “Oh crap, now what in 2021?”.  After wasting a generational pass offense with the worst defense in over 100 years and some terrible coaching, the new season is filled with more questions and anxiety than with excitement.

For now, this year will be close to ‘normal’, with an 8-game SEC schedule and, as of now, no attendance restrictions.  The entire coaching staff has to attempt to wash out the bad taste of 3 straight losses – 2 of which were colossal embarrassments against LSU and Oklahoma.  This is to be accomplished with almost an entirely new skill position roster on offense and the same tired defensive philosophy.  In some ways, the feel of the upcoming season is almost worse than before Dan Mullen’s first back in 2018.

Florida is coming off of 3 straight New Years 6 bowl games, but now has to go in with the roster almost entirely composed of Mullen’s players.  He inherited a lot of talent when he arrived and did well with it (for the most part), but it’s a different animal with no more scapegoats from the previous staff – time to show what you have on your own.  He did himself no favors with his flippant attitude, arrogant (and shortsighted) press conferences, and actions on the field last year.  This is who he is it seems, and he’s going to have to win a lot more in order for Gator Nation to endure it for an extended period of time.

Offense

Get ready for what Dan Mullen is really known for – a spread offense led by a QB who can run and one that is more run-heavy.  Gone are Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kedarius Toney, and a passing offense that was basically unstoppable paired with a poor running game that could not be counted upon to get any tough yards that were necessary.  Emory Jones finally gets his chance to be the man at QB – he is a terrific athlete who can make a lot happen with his legs, but also has been effective passing the ball when needed.  He has plenty of game experience from his first 3 years, including snaps in big SEC games, but it’s vastly different when the team is looking to you to lead from the start.  Jones has very good instincts and vision when running the ball, and we’ll now see if his throwing accuracy is enough to put together scoring drives.  He has proved to be calm when thrown into some tough situations, and seems mentally ready to lead.  It will most likely be something resembling Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, circa 2014 – I think if Jones plays that well then the offense will be fine.  Anthony Richardson is the backup to start the season – he physically resembles Cam Newton in size and power, with a very strong arm.  He saw limited duty in 2020 as a true freshman, but will see action in most games, as Mullen likes his backup to get experience early in case of injuries.  Freshmen Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna come in with solid credentials, but hopefully won’t be pressed into duty in any meaningful situations this season.

The RB room is the best it’s been in many years.  Dameon Pierce and Mailk Davis provide senior leadership and have had sporadic success.  Nay’Quan WRight stepped in as a freshman last season and wasn’t intimidated – he was effective both in the running and passing game.  All three have played in big games and produced.  There is real buzz about the two 5* guys that transferred in – Demarkus Bowman from Clemson and Lorenzo Lingard from Miami.  Florida recruited both very hard out of high school – they both have special physical gifts, but now must show they can succeed at the collegiate level.  The hardest thing for Mullen and RB coach Greg Knox may be how to distribute the carries to keep all of them happy.  There is no better rotation in the SEC.

The WR corps lost a ton of talent and production – again – with Toney and Trevon Grimes making it to the NFL.  It now falls upon Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, and Xzavier Handerson to step in and continue the recent run of excellent play.  Copeland has been inconsistent, but is poised for a breakout season – he has excellent speed, is a great leaper, and a tough runner after the catch.  Shorter and Henderson are big targets that are effective against smaller defenders and in the red zone as well.  Trent Wittemore, Ja’Markis Weston, Daejon Reynolds, Ja’Quavion Fraziers, and Marcus Burke are all young guys with the talent to make plays – they lack experience, but some combination will need to step in and provide depth and make some plays as the season progresses.  There is plenty of talent and athletic ability in this group – just a lack of experience.  Let’s see if they can continue the recent run of great WR play at Florida.

The Gators lost a generational talent with Kyle Pitts leaving for the NFL as the highest-drafted TE ever.  His loss will be felt in many ways – his size and speed demanded coverage from 2 defenders, opening up the field for the other receivers and also giving the QBs the best security blanket in the country.  Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer will need to do what they do well, while Mullen will have to develop a much-different passing scheme around this group’s talents.  They will be called upon to run block much more often, but both showed the ability to get open in the red zone.  Freshman Nick Elksnis is a big target and will get some opportunities to show what he can do and hopefully provide quality depth.

Finally, we come to the much-maligned (and deservedly so – again) offensive line.  This group was poor in run blocking last season, struggling mightily when called upon in short-yardage situations.  The right side of the line wasn’t much better when protecting the passer – Stewart Reese and Jean Delance were frequently abused.  Trask’s decision-making and the ability of PItts and Toney to quickly get open helped mask some of those deficiencies, but this group has to improve in order for Florida to make a run at any championships.  The interior of the line could be SEC-caliber, despite the loss of Brett Heggie at center.  Kingsley Eguakun and Ethan White will split time at center and guard, with Reese, White, and Josh Braun slated to rotate at the guard positions.  All three have experience and good size.  Once again, the tackle spots are a huge question.  Richard Gouriage finally gets the chance to move to his natural position at LT, and needs to stay healthy and play well to protect the QB’s blind side.  Delance once again gets first crack at RT, which is actually an indictment on John Hevesy’s lack of ability to develop tackles as well as recruit SEC talent at the position.  Unless some combination of Braun, Michael Tarquin, or perhaps Gerald Mincey can hold up in the rotation, a lot of inexperienced and unknown players will have to step in – which is unacceptable in the SEC.  Hevesy continues to recruit too many guard-types and tries to plug them in at tackle.  With new QBs and their abilities comes a renewed need for a more effective running game – something I am not confident about until it’s proven against SEC opponents.

Defense

The 2020 Gator defense was the worst one seen in Gainesville in over 100 years.  It was stunning to watch the same things week after week – players not lining up properly, late signals from the sideline, getting gashed in the running game, and continually lining up 7 yards or more off opposing WRs, allowing easy completions and long scoring drives.  Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham somehow was retained instead of getting his ass fired, which baffled and angered the entirety of Gator Nation.  Unless this unit does a complete turnaround and starts playing like a Florida defense is used to, it’s going to be a long season.  There is no more powerful passing offense to bail these guys out and simply outscore opponents.

Florida’s key losses were DTs Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell, CB Marco Wilson, and safeties Brad Stewart and Shawn Davis.  Based on the performance (or lack of) from the secondary, the hope is that fresh blood, a full spring practice session, and frankly, better coaching from Grantham, can alleviate a lot of the problems that plagued them all of 2020 – poor tackling, lack of ball awareness, and consistent busted coverage in the deep zones.

The defensive line should be bolstered with 2 arrivals from the transfer portal.  Both Antonio Valentino (Penn St.) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) are redshirt senior DTs with plenty of big game experience who are slated to start immediately.  The DT rotation will include Gervon Dexter, Jalen Lee, Lamar Goods, Jaelin Humphries,and massive freshman Desmond Watson.  This unit should be improved overall from 2020 both in terms of depth and overall talent.  These guys should help improve the run defense by occupying the OL better and keeping the LBs clean.

The DEs, including the Buck Position, are poised for a good year.  Zachary Carter is the leader of the defense and plays both the run and pass well. Brenton Cox showed flashes last season rushing off the edge, but must improve in setting the edge against the run.  Princely Umanmielen played well as a true freshman thrown to the wolves in the SEC.  Jeremiah Moon returns after an injury-shortened 2020 for a 6th year, and provides another pass rushing threat.  Finally, Kris Bogle emerged in the second half of last season, and is pushing for a starting role.  There is plenty of experience and ability in this unit.

The Gator LB corps was poor in 2020, struggling with poor tackling, bad angles, and getting abused in coverage.  Ventrell Miller was the only player who performed consistently, and he had his difficulties in coverage.  Mohamoud Diabate moved from OLB to ILB midway through the season, and only in the last month started to show he was picking up his new assignments.  Amari Burney was moved around way too much between LB and the Star position (where he simply was out of position), and looked lost way too often.  All three return in 2021 with plenty to prove – they have the physical ability to play and succeed in the SEC, but Grantham’s chemes and LB coach Christian Robinson’s coaching must improve significantly to take advantage.  There is a lot of young talent that will see a heavy role in the rotation.  Ty’Ron Hopper, Derek Wingo, Chief Borders, and Andrew Chatfield will all get plenty of snaps, with Chatfiled showing some pass-rushing promise last season.  This unit has to perform much better in 2021, or the defense will struggle again.

The secondary was a disaster last season – poor and soft coverage, even poorer schemes from Grantham, bad angles in tackling, and way too many deep completions allowed.  Other than that, everything was fine.  So, Grantham stays and Torrian Gray, an excellent DB coach, is fired as the scapegoat.  Enter Wesley McGriff from Auburn and Jules Montinar from South Florida to try and pick up the pieces and start again.  McGriff has developed a lot of good players at Auburn, but Montinar is a complete unknown thrown into the SEC fire.  Both the cornerback and safety positions have a lot of work ahead, which is really a shame at what used to be DBU.

Kaiir Elam is the established leader at one CB spot, but the loss of Jaydon Hill to a knee injury in fall camp leaves the other spot a wide open competition between Avery Helm, true freshman Jason Marshall, and Missouri transfer Jadarrius Perkins.  Marshall was one of the top recruits in the country and will get a lot of snaps to sink or swim.  Any more injuries at CB could be disastrous with so little experience and depth behind Elam.  The Star position has no established starter, either – right now it looks like a competition between Tre’Vez Johnson and transfer Elijah Blades.  Johnson got some experience last year as a freshman at both CB and Star, and likely has the edge going into the season.  Blades was a former commit to Florida 3 years ago before beginning an odyssey that took him to Nebraska and Texas A&M first.  The safety position will be led by Trey Dean, who finally accepted that this was his best position the second half of 2020 and really came on as a playmaker the last half of the season.  Who plays beside him will be a mix of Rashad Torrence, Mordecai McDaniel, Donovan McMillon, Kamar Wilcoxson, and even true freshman Corey Collier.  There’s plenty of raw talent and athleticism, but very little experience.  Some combination has to step up and play well, or the last line of defense won’t be a “safe” place.

The back seven will tell the tale of the 2021 defense.  There are so many new faces and such little experience that the coaching staff has to do a much better job of getting these guys lined up correctly, in position to use their athletic ability, and keep things simple so they can think less and play faster.  With so many questions heading into the season, this is perhaps even more worrisome than the O-line……not what a quality SEC team should be dealing with.

Special Teams

There are new faces across the board for the Gators, both kicking and for returns.  The 2020 group was one of the best in the country – losing PK Evan McPherson will be difficult to replace, for both kickoffs and FGs.  Kedarius Toney was always dangerous on returns.  I expect a step back in production in 2021, and just hope the new guys don’t make it a large step back.

The new PK will be decided between Jace Christmann, a grad transfer from Mississippi St., and returning senior Chris Howard, who filled in well last season when McPherson was out with an injury.  Jeremy Crawshaw gets his chance to be the punter this fall.  He’s another in the long line of Australian footballers to come into the American college game in the past decade, and I can only hope he can produce similarly.  Florida’s offense was so good in 2020 that punting really wasn’t a factor in any game – that likely won’t be the case this season.

The return game is a complete mystery right now.  There are plenty of fast, athletic guys on the roster, but some are too valuable as starters, and others lack experience.  Fenley Graham was in the mix before getting hurt in fall camp last year.  Mailk Davis has some experience from 2019, and with the RB room so deep he may get a crack at either punt or kickoff returns.  So far in fall camp, Demarkus Bowman is getting some reps on kickoff returns.  Xavier Henderson and Kaiir Elam are getting some punt return reps, but with the depth chart so scary thin at CB there’s no way I want Elam returning kicks. 

Too many questions to feel comfortable right now – we’ll see in the first few games who steps up and takes charge at all positions (hopefully).

Schedule and Outlook

It’s back to the familiar schedule in 2021 – an 8-game SEC schedule, what should be some warm-up games the first 2 weeks, and Florida $t. back in the Swamp after escaping an epic beatdown last year because of conference-only scheduling due to Covid restrictions.  For now, there are full crowds expected, which should provide extra juice for the players to perform.

Florida Atlantic – Win

Slick Wille Taggart landed at FAU after getting run out on a rail from Taliban City.  The Owls have had some success against bigger schools the past few seasons when Lane Kiffen was there trying to rehabilitate his career, but a lot of that talent is gone.  They will be hyped to play a big in-state school like Florida, and I’m sure Willie T will want to make some noise, but I don’t expect much of a game after the first quarter or so.

@South Florida – Win

Gator Nation will show out in Tampa for this one.  The Bulls are a mess right now and simply not a very good team.  This will be another in-state opponent that will be fired up and maybe stick around for the first 20 minutes or so, but Florida should pull away for a comfortable win.  The only way this stays remotely close is either turnovers or looking ahead to Alabama.

Alabama – Loss

Massive game for Dan Mullen.  Bama will come in with a new QB and replacing a lot of starters, but their recruiting has been elite for a decade, and they are always strong at the line of scrimmage.  The Gators can win, but it will take winning the turnover battle along with scoring at least 27 points.  Nick Saban just keeps rolling along, however, and I have to see Mullen prove me wrong against an elite opponent.

Tennessee – Win

There will be some level of hangover after the previous week, but how much?  Tennessee was gutted by graduation and transfers, and has a new coaching staff led by Josh Heupel coming from UCF.  He has a lot of holes to fill, and will learn very quickly that the SEC ain’t like the AAC in level of competition each week.  Heupel brings in a fast-paced offense that could prove effective.  This one could be a sloppy affair and closer than some think into the second half.

@Kentucky – Win

The Wildcats have played Florida close for almost a decade now, taking advantage of coaching turnover in Gainesville and a falloff by the Gators in recruiting.  Because Florida will be more of a running team, this likely plays into Mike Stoops’ hands as a defensive coach, and this could, unfortunately, be another game not decided until late.  Kentucky is a run-first team, and getting an early lead on them would force them out of their comfort zone.

Vanderbilt – Win

Homecoming in the Swamp, and the Commodores are another SEC team with a new coaching staff.  Vandy simply has too much talent deficiency to stay close after halftime, and the Gators should pull away for a comfortable win.

@LSU – Loss

At first, I was going with the angle that the Gators will have a ton of revenge on their minds after last year’s embarrassment in the Swamp, but Florida has struggled the past decade in Baton Rouge, and this one could be a clunker effort despite the motivation.  The defense will have to rise up in this one, but Mullen has to show he’s up to the task as well.  I suspect it will be the usual 4th-quarter tight game between these teams.

Bye Week

Vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

This game won’t be the scoring match that we saw in 2020, and that plays right into Kirby Smart’s hands.  The Puppies will roll out one of the best defenses in the country, and will actually have a capable QB in JT Daniels that provides more balance to their offense.  Another in the long line of elite opponents that Mullen has rarely defeated with any regularity in his coaching career.  This will take a complete effort from the Gators, and the offense has to put up at least 24 points to make this game a possible win.  As usual, Florida’s best chance will be to slow Georgia’s running game and force them to throw often.

@South Carolina – Win

Another SEC team with a new coaching staff.  Carolina has some talent left behind by Won’t Misschump on defense, but it’s offense has a lot of problems, starting with talent.  I could see Florida struggling on the road after the Georgia game and this one not being decided until the second half.  I think the Gators win, but the score will be closer than it should be.

Samford – Win

A glorified scrimmage that will be a welcome respite from a rough stretch of SEC games.  This game should give the staff a chance to play a lot of backups and rest the starters for the last 2 regular season games.

@Missouri – Win

A late November visit to Columbia could be quite a cold one,  The Tigers showed some life on offense in 2020 and have played the Gators tough too often since they joined the SEC.  Florida will need to run the ball well to control the clock and time of possession.  By this time of year there are usually quite a few players dinged up, and with a rivalry game the next week, this might come down to a late score.

Florida $tate – Win

The Criminoles were horrid in 2020, and shamelessly abandoned playing their toughest opponents last year with last-second Covid excuses.  Their offense has a lot of new players, including at QB, and the handful of talented players on defense have left.  This being a rivalry game, it could be close into the 3rd quarter or so, but Florida has handled F$U with relative ease the last 2 games these teams have played, and I see the Gators winning this one again.

Overall Record          9-3

SEC Record              5-3

2021 is a critical year for Dan Mullen.  The roster is essentially all of his players now.  The season-ending 3 game losing streak reflected poorly on Mullen in preparing his team.  The defense has to show significant improvement, as the offense simply won’t be able to match the explosiveness and scoring of last season’s group.  It’s up to Emory Jones to show he’s ready to be the man at QB and lead his team into another tough SEC schedule.  Both the O-line and D-line have to prove they are SEC-worthy units.  Florida has to be able to run the ball when needed, and not just rely on Jones’ legs to make big plays.  The defense needs to get off the field on 3rd down – something Grantham’s units historically have struggled to do well against good teams.  Most of the coaching staff has something to prove.

The schedule is challenging, with 7 straight games until the off week before Georgia, in-state teams looking to wreck the season early, and of course the marquee game in the Swamp against Alabama.  That game could set the tone for a really good season, or start up all the talk (again) from the doubters of Mullen’s ability to beat elite teams.  It will be nice to have full attendance to get the feel of real college football and SEC intensity again, which will help the home team.

Lots of new faces in key roles, and a lot to prove to themselves and the country.  The talent is there mostly, but it is unproven.  You can’t hide in the SEC, and the good (or bad) will be exposed soon enough.  The season could go a lot of ways, and we’re about to see where.  Unfortunately, I see the ceiling for this year’s team at 10 wins, with the floor as low as 7 wins.

It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators! 

Oklahoma Preview

Florida travels to Arlington, Texas for a Cotton Bowl matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners.  Interestingly enough, this is the first ever appearance for the Gators in one of the longest-running bowl games in history.  The fact that Florida remained 7th in the CFP standings after losing 3 games shows a ton of respect from the committee and gives Florida a chance at finishing a trying season with a win against a big-name opponent.

Despite this being one of the few big games outside of the Playoffs, this is starting to feel more like an exhibition.  Florida has been gutted by opt-outs, injuries, and Covid:

Kyle Pitts (opt-out)

Kedarius Toney (opt-out)

Trevon Grimes (opt-out)

Jacob Copeland (Covid)

Kyree Campbell (opt-out)

Ventrell Miller (injury)

Marco Wilson (opt-out)

Shawn Davis (injury)

That’s a loss of over 75% of receiving receptions, yards, and touchdowns, the best run defenders at DL and LB, a 4-year starting CB, and the most experienced safety.  Other than that – “all is well”…as Kevin Bacon’s character in ‘Animal House’ stated during the parade chaos.  LMAO.

What a shame after such an entertaining season, but that’s what happens when your defense blows a Playoff spot in the current era of college football where the Playoffs have such a disproportionate weight.  It looks like Kyle Trask will suit up and start, but how long he plays is a significant question.  There are some talented younger receivers like Justin Shorter and Xzavier Handerson to try and take up some of the slack, but it will be almost impossible to approach that amount of talent loss and production.  Unless the Gators somehow discover a running game to provide some balance, backup TEs Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer, along with all of the running backs, will be called upon to step up and give Trask and/or Emory Jones all of the help they can.  If the passing game struggles, I expect Jones to get more snaps than many expect, both to help with the running game and also to get some experience prior to taking over as the starting QB in 2021.

Oklahoma actually played decent defense for the first time in at least 5 years – nothing spectacular, but compared to the sieve they were previously, definitely improved.  Their secondary came up with 13 interceptions during the year, led by CBs Tre Brown and Tre Norwood.  Fortunately for Florida, Brown has chosen to opt-out of the game, which hopefully lessens the impact of losing all of the main receiving contributors.  The Sooner front seven is led by LBs Brian Asamoah, DaShaun White and Nick Bonitto, along with sack leader DE Isaiah Thomas.  They racked up 36 sacks in 9 games, so once again the Gator O-line will be challenged to keep Trask and Jones relatively clean, especially having to find less experienced targets when passing.

After enjoying a crazy run of elite QB play (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts), this is not a vintage Lincoln Riley offense.  The Sooners are still potent with freshman Spencer Rattler and skill players RB Rhamondre Stevenson and WRs Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, but average more than 2 touchdowns less per game and don’t run plays at the breakneck speed they did under their previous Heisman winners.  Their O-line is also a step down from previous units, as the running game isn’t as strong and Rattler has to scramble often to extend plays.  Given how poorly Florida’s defense has played all season, maybe none of that matters, but one can hope.  With Campbell out, freshman Gervon Dexter will get a lot of snaps at DT.  The loss of Wilson may not be as significant, as he has struggled mightily all season.  Young CBs Jaydon HIll and Tre’Vez Johnson will get their opportunity to make an early push for starting status in 2021.  Trey Dean seems to have locked down a starting spot at safety, and Brad Stewart is coming off of perhaps his best game as a Gator against Alabama.  If…if the young secondary can make Rattler go through his progressions, the Gator pass rushers, led by Brenton Cox, Chris Bogle,and Zack Carter, should be able to disrupt the pocket and get some sacks.

I expect Oklahoma to have a decided advantage in the number of fans allowed to attend the game.  The state of Texas has very relaxed Covid protocol rules regarding attendance limitations, and it’s a short trip for OU fans to simply drive down to Jerry World vs. a very long drive or a riskier plane trip from around the country for Gator fans.  The Florida fan base has to be shaken as well after seeing the offense gutted like a fish and a handful of defenders that actually made some plays this season out as well.  I’m not sure what frame of mind the Gator players will be in.  Have they checked out after losing to Alabama?  Will the absence of so many star players simply be too much to overcome in so short a time?  Will guys that do play and have a chance to be in the NFL Draft be more concerned about staying healthy instead of playing with all-out physical effort?  The coaching staff has a major challenge ahead – can they motivate a suddenly much younger and inexperienced team?

Both Florida and Oklahoma have solid special teams.  Sooner placekicker Gabe Brkic has had an almost identical season to the Gators’ Evan McPherson.  One big impact is Florida losing Toney as a kick returner  – that is a major blow.

After the grind of a Covid season that included so many stops and starts going back to the spring, along with playing 11 straight SEC games, it will be a huge task in gearing up for a game with no title implications.  I hope the Gators can end the season with a win after the players endured so much in 2020.  It’s going to be a tough ask – even if Trask plays (and plays well), there may be too much to overcome.  Oklahoma has a young team that has improved after a 1-2 start, is playing much closer to home, and is familiar with the venue.  Sadly, this game is starting to feel like the opposite of the Florida v. Michigan Peach Bowl of 2 years ago

Prediction: Oklahoma 34 Florida 31