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

Alabama Review

Florida gave Alabama all they wanted for 60 minutes, but fell just short in a 52-46 loss in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game.  The Gators stayed focused and didn’t give up after falling behind 35-17 at the half, and kept the game within one score for most of the final 20 minutes.

The first half really decided the game, as the Gators suffered from some incredibly bad luck and self-inflicted wounds that proved deadly at the end.  After watching Bama march right down the field on it’s opening possession, Florida responded in kind with it’s own scoring drive ending in a long TD pass from Kyle Trask to Kedarious Toney.  Toney was unstoppable the entire first half, and the Crimson Tide had no answer for him despite trying various coverages.  Alabama responded with another drive into Florida territory, and this is where things started to go off the rails.  Trey Dean made a terrific interception of a Mac Jones pass, ripping the ball from the intended receiver.  As he ran the ball back, though, he was blindsided by a tackle and fumbled the return right back to Bama.  You could just feel what would happen next, and it did.  The very next play, Jones found a wide-open DeVonta Smith for a TD, and the Gator defense could never really find their footing the rest of the half.  Bama stretched their lead out to 28-10, helped some more by the Gator defense with two drives extended by 3rd down penalties after Florida actually made some stops.  This forced Trask to abandon the running game (which was, again, no factor), and he and his receivers fought valiantly the rest of the game.  Florida scored to close the score to 28-17 with only 1 minute left until halftime, but that was too much time left for this bad Gator defense.  Dan Mullen’s clock management (or lack of) really hurt, as the Gators could have run off at least 20 seconds before scoring, maybe only enough time for Bama to get into field goal range.  Instead, Todd Grantham left his indelible mark on the game and his entire Florida tenure, rushing only 3 and allowing Jones all the time he wanted to pick apart a porous Gator secondary, finally hitting RB Najee Harris for a touchdown with only 6 seconds remaining.  Harris was unstoppable all night behind the Crimson Tide’s NFL-equivalent O-line, racking up 5 TDs rushing and receiving.  Overall the Gator defense played hard – the hardest it has all season – but playing hard doesn’t necessarily equate to playing well.  Too many missed tackles, some ill-timed penalties that put them right back on the field after getting 3rd down stops, and continued busts in coverage leaving wide open targets for Jones.  WR DeVonta Smith totaled 15 catches and 2 TDs of his own, possibly cementing a Heisman Trophy in the process.

Florida, to it’s credit, never gave up, and closed to 35-31 at the end of the 3rd quarter.  The defense had it’s best stretch of play all season, shutting the Tide out the entire quarter.  The Gator offense found it’s rhythm and unleashed Kyle Pitts as the Bama defense focused more on slowing down Toney.  Sadly, the defense couldn’t maintain that level of play, and Alabama controlled the 4th quarter, always having an answer when the Gators tried to get close.  On the Gators’ last scoring drive Mullen again screwed up, calling their second timeout before the 2-point conversion.  I have many issues here:  (1) No need to try for 2 there, as you would still need to score another touchdown to tie (or go for the win).  Miss the conversion there, and the best you can do is tie.  (2) Calling the time out cost Florida at least 40 seconds of game time after Bama recovered the on-side kick, so the offense would have had closer to 1 minute left instead of 20 seconds.  (3) Trying the on-side kick is a very low percentage move; kick the ball away so if you’re really going to give the offense only 20 seconds to produce a miracle, at least give them the ball closer to midfield instead of inside their own 10-yard line.

Another terrific offensive performance wasted by bad defense and unnecessary self-inflicted wounds.  That’s the story of the 2020 Florida Gators – what could have been.

It’s a shame that the media was fawning all over Jones during and after the game.  Of course he has great numbers – look at the NFL talent around him.  Now compare that to the mediocre O-line and weak running game supporting Trask, and look how he shredded the Bama defense all night and kept his team close to the number one team in the country.  He had to make throws on the move and under duress many times, and also had much smaller windows to throw into.  And yet he did it, just like he has all of 2020.  The loss to LSU likely cost him any realistic chance to win the Heisman, but there is no more outstanding player this season than Trask.  I will say that DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, and Kyle Pitts are all equally outstanding, and one of these four should win the trophy.

Florida remained 7th in the CFP rankings – massive respect for a 3-loss team.  The Gators were rewarded for their good season with a 3rd straight New Year’s Six bowl, this time the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.  It will be a short turnaround time of only 11 days, and I hope the team doesn’t mail in an uninspired effort and goes out in style.  As of now only Pitts has opted out of the game, and I certainly understand why, as he has fought through injuries the last month of the season and will be a top 10 NFL Draft pick.   I’ll be back with my preview of that game next week.

LSU Review / Alabama Preview

In the most embarrassing and disappointing loss of my Gator lifetime, Florida inexplicably forfeited their chance at the Playoff with a 37-34 loss at the Swamp to LSU.

The reasons for the embarrassment are myriad:

– LSU, even with a complete roster, is not a good team in 2020 – a team gutted by graduation, loss of coaches, injuries to multiple starters, and Covid opt-outs

– The Tigers came into this game with only 54 scholarship players (vs. the 85 allowed), 4 starters left the game with injuries, and their best player, CB Derek Stingley, was benched for the game

– LSU started true freshman QB Max Johnson, and once again a crap Todd Grantham defense that blew assignments and couldn’t even get lined up pre-snap made a bad QB look like a seasoned veteran

– LSU placekicker Cade York won the game with a 57-yard FG……in the fog……the longest in school history  

– Kyle Trask had 3 turnovers – a pick 6, another interception on a freak play, and a strip sack the fault of poor pass blocking……completely out of character, but he still overcame most of that, accounting for 4 TDs

– Florida wasted a career day from Kadarius Toney, who had over 200 scrimmage yards and single-handedly tried to will the offense to a win

– The Gator defense was horrific; allowing over 400 yards to an offense that was bereft of talent, playing multiple true freshmen, and lacking any playmakers

– Marco Wilson……it’s tough to call out a single player, but he was roasted most of the game in coverage, and made the most bone-headed play I can recall with his shoe-throwing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Gators the game

– Finally, the Gators had everything to play for……and bottomed out; this was the epitome of a team loss – players and especially coaches

Dan Mullen did the team no favors with some terrible playcalling in the red zone, continually refusing to run the ball enough while asking Trask to force some things.  To double-down on his arrogance, he didn’t even let Kyle Pitts suit up for the game.  I understand that he didn’t practice all week, but he warmed up pre-game and said he was ready……at least have him play some limited snaps in the red zone to open up things even more for Trask and the other receivers.  Coach Hevesy continues to roll out mediocre O-lines and refuses to replace underperforming players in favor of seniority.  Todd Grantham should be fired the second the SEC Championship Game ends – enough of his dated and easily-read schemes and blitzes that even QBs right out of high school can pick up.

This is a program-damaging loss for Mullen.  He has built up a lot of goodwill from Gator Nation by turning around the fortunes of the football team up until now, but this result is inexcusable.  It ends any Playoff talk; it causes discussion across the country not just by those knowledgeable of the game of football but even casual fans and media that show what a crap fest this game was; and it gives some important current and future recruits pause, wondering if the coaching staff as currently configured can win a title.  Sitting in the Champions Club with some long time, knowledgeable, patient fans, watching them shake their heads is bewilderment, and hearing them say this is the worst loss they have witnessed in 30, 40, 50 years……that’s all you need to know.

Florida somehow has to try and regroup and find a way to emotionally recharge for the SEC Championship Game this Saturday against Alabama.  I can only hope the leaders of the team can rally the players back from such a crushing loss and play well against one of Nick Saban’s best teams in years.

The Crimson Tide offense is the best in college football, with both an excellent running game and a deadly, deep-strike passing attack.  Stars such as WR DeVonta Smith, RB Najee Harris, and even QB Mac Jones deserve their accolades, but the engine for that offense is the offensive line, which will have at least 4 starters and even some backups playing in the NFL after this season or in the near future.  OT Alex Leatherwood and center Landon Dickerson are perhaps the best at their positions in the country.  WR John Metchie and TE Jahleel Billingsley are dangerous targets as well – just overshadowed by the other stars.  Talk about a matchup nightmare for a struggling Gator defense – it’s going to take the performance of a lifetime just to hold the Tide to under 40 points, and I just don’t see it happening.  The D-Line is good enough to get some stalemates at the LOS and try to slow Harris down somewhat, but the coverage by the back seven is so bad that unless Grantham actually does something completely new they likely will get shredded all night.  Perhaps it’s a simple 4-3 with minimal changes or wrinkles; perhaps playing a nickel or dime defense all game and daring Bama to be patient by running the ball would bear some fruit; perhaps the pass rush will be lights out and force Jones off his spot and to move in the pocket.  Anything that might work often enough to allow the Gator offense the chance to at least keep the game competitive for a half or 3 quarters would be a blessing.  But it’s unlikely, just as unlikely as Grantham straying from his outdated blitz packages and late calls that leave guys out of position at the snap.  I’ve given up on the hope of forcing some turnovers, which the defense has been terrible at all season. 

The Gator offense has to not just move the ball, but score touchdowns and not settle for field goals – a lot.  Somehow the right side of the O-line has to be upgraded, which means personnel changes.  For some of the LSU game the O-line was, from left to right, Richard Gouriage, Ethan White, Brett Heggie, Stewart Reese, and Stone Forsythe.  I would not have moved Stone to RT – he has been a good blind-side protector of Trask all season.  Switch the tackles and insert Josh Braun at RG, and you may have something.  Both Reese and Jean Delance are playing hurt, and are even less effective now – they have struggled in some capacity all season .  Go with the usual lineup, and you’re courting disaster against a strong and fast Alabama front seven.  The Tide’s D-line is not as good as past seasons, but still solid.  The real playmakers on their defense are in the back seven – LBs Dylan Moses and Christian Harris, CBs Daniel Wright and Malacai Moore, and safety Jordan Battle.  This group rarely blows an assignment, so it’s imperative that the Florida blockers give Trask time to be patient, make his reads, and deliver the ball accurately.  There’s no doubt in my mind that if the Gator skill players play their best, they can give any defense trouble and score a lot of points.  Pitts and Toney have to show out, and every receiver and running back needs to take advantage of even the slightest room to make plays.  But will the O-line give them the chance?

Both teams boast strong special teams.  Alabama actually has a decent placekicker for the first time in a decade in Will Reichard, who has yet to miss a kick this season – but has not had a single pressure situation.  Jaylen Waddle was the best kick returner in the country before his season-ending ankle injury, but don’t sleep on anyone – especially if DeVonta Smith continues in that role.  Neither punter is especially good – they are rarely used……but at least Florida’s Jacob Finn has done a good job the past month at placing kicks inside the 20 yard line,  Evan McPherson missed a tough, game-tying kick against LSU, but still is one of the best in the country…..hopefully he bounces back with a strong game.  Toney is always a threat on returns, and perhaps he can generate a quick strike if given the opportunity.  Dan Mullen has shown he isn’t afraid to take chances on special teams, and I expect something from deep in the bag of tricks if the situation is favorable.

It’s going to be incredibly hard for the Gator staff to keep the entire team focused and prepared.  Maybe they can, but I wonder if some guys might already be starting to check out mentally and looking ahead to the NFL Draft, or simply have lost the belief they can win this game.  I can only hope the team comes out fighting and plays a spirited game – even if it’s just to play for pride and to try and wash away some of the stink that will stay with them long after the LSU debacle.  The Gators need to bounce back and show the country what a great team they can be.with a complete effort – even if it’s just not enough against a better team.  Maybe……maybe if the Gators somehow get this game into the 4th quarter within one score, the pressure will have an effect on Alabama……but that’s a huge ask.

Prediction: Alabama 49 Florida 27

Tennessee Review / LSU Preview

Florida clinched the SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta with a 31-19 win on Rocky Top that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.  Despite the easy win, it was another uneven and uninspiring effort, as the Gators seem to have lost some of their edge and focus since the big win over Georgia.

Kyle Trask and the passing game were unstoppable for the most part, and yet still had some ragged moments with dropped passes and some missed open receivers that left at least 17 points on the field.  The running game was abysmal – 19 carries for 19 net yards.  The right side of the O-line was blown up most of the afternoon – while it didn’t hurt the team this time, it will soon enough against significantly better competition.  Kyle Pitts was again a monster with 120 yards, Tre Grimes had 2 TDs, and Kedarius Toney was the second receiver with over 100 yards, plus a TD of his own.  Trask did have to dance around in the pocket and leave it a few times to avoid the rush, but he has become so good at doing this and still maintaining his focus downfield that it covers up for the problems at right guard and tackle.

I’m getting the feeling that even with the noticeable lack of intensity, the playcalling has been somewhat simplified and vanilla the past 3 weeks.  Perhaps that is by design from Coach Mullen, but I’d prefer continuing to step on the throats of the weaker opponents well into the second half before letting off the gas.  Maybe he is holding some things back for Alabama, but I don’t like seeing the offense lose it’s edge recently, as they will determine how far this team will go the rest of the season.

The Gator defense again had some positive moments and generated a lot of negative plays, but allowed 2 TD drives of over 90 yards and played a sloppy 4th quarter.  Tennessee wound up playing 3 QBs, and there was never a serious threat to put this game in doubt in the second half.  The D-line for the most part did an adequate job slowing the Vol running game.  The secondary was able to stay close to the Tennessee receivers for a majority of the game until the two late scores, but that was as much an indictment of the Volunteer passing game as it was of how well the secondary played.  There were still too many 3rd-and-Grantham plays allowed, especially when Tennessee was pinned deep in its own territory, so again the offense covered up some of the defense’s warts.

Next up is the final regular season game, at home in the Swamp against LSU.  The Tigers are having a difficult season – they never recovered from being gutted after last season by graduation, early entries into the NFL Draft, and the loss of both coordinators.  This season has also been marred by a shockingly poor defense, injuries, and key opt-outs.  They are coming off of an embarrassing 55-17 home loss to Alabama, and were never competitive.  Starting QB Myles Brennan hasn’t played since their 3rd game, and they have been alternating 2 true freshmen in his place – TJ Finley and Max Johnson.  I expect to see both against the Gators.  Finley has been starting recently despite expected struggles – he is the better runner and physically more talented, while Johnson is more cerebral and reads defense better but isn’t a threat to run and has a weaker arm.  The Tiger offense has recently lost leading WR Terrace Marshall and TE Arik Gilbert to opt-outs, and a group of very inexperienced receivers are left to fill the void.  They have two good RBs in Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery, and I expect a bigger reliance on the running game this week to protect the young QBs and to continue the recent trend of trying to keep Florida’s offense on the sideline. 

When Florida’s offense takes the field, they will be facing a very good secondary led by Safety JaCoby Stevens and CBs Derek Stingley and Cordale Flott.  Despite coming off of the evisceration they suffered at the hands of the Crimson Tide, there are some very talented playmakers in this group that could make things a little difficult for Trask and his merry band of receivers.  This is a case, though, where the Gators have so many weapons that you simply can’t take all of them away, and Trask has consistently proven he will find the right matchup and has been deadly accurate all season.  This is not a vintage LSU D-line – despite some raw talent, they have struggled to consistently establish a pass rush, and if the Gator O-line holds up it could be another long night for the Tiger defense.

Along with being the last regular season game for Florida, it is also Senior Day.  The Gators will say goodbye to 23 seniors and also Kyle Pitts, and will have some massive holes to fill on the roster next season.  That, however, is a worry for another time – this group gets props for sticking it out through the dying days of the Swamp Donkey and helping to establish a new foundation for the Gator standard under Dan Mullen.  I hope the staff can have the Gators focused early on and not looking ahead to next week’s SEC Championship Game.  Florida has started slowly in each game since defeating Georgia, and needs to start with intensity rather than tuning things on only when needed.  This rivalry has almost always seen close games for the past 15 years……there’s no need for the Gators to get into a death struggle late into the second half with the Tigers while Alabama awaits.

Prediction: Florida 38 LSU 20

Kentucky Review / Tennessee Preview

Another nooner snoozer start for the Gators, and another decisive win at the end, 34-10 over Kentucky.

The Mildcats were certainly that after their one successful touchdown drive that consumed over 8 minutes.  The best part of that was watching the ass-chewing Dan Mullen gave to Todd Grantham after allowing another long drive with poor basic schemes and late alignment by the defenders.  Maybe this public display will finally lead to some positive developments regarding the defense.  Certainly something changed after that, as the Gators allowed barely 100 yards the last 40 minutes of game time and played aggressively.  The defense came up with 3 interceptions in the second half, and the game was never really in doubt after Florida took a double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter.  Zach Carter was in the backfield most of the afternoon, and Mahmoud Diabate had one of the interceptions while running down the UK ball carriers with his speed while limiting them to short yardage.  The entire secondary played more aggressively in the second half, and I hope this continues the rest of the season.

The offense started out slowly as Kentucky dropped eight in coverage and dared Florida to run the ball – which they didn’t do effectively as the right side of the O-line had it’s worst performance of the season.  RG Stewart Reese appears to be playing hurt, and RT Jean Delance continues to struggle while Gator Nation wonders why a better lineup can’t be found by OL Coach Hevesy.  Maybe it’s loyalty and a preference to play upperclassmen, but the best guys aren’t playing right now, and it’s painfully obvious.  Kyle Pitts certainly reintroduced himself to the nation with a dominant 3 TD afternoon – toying with the Mildcat secondary.  But the biggest and most important plays of the game were on special teams.  The first was the fake punt after the offense went 3-and-out on it’s first possession – Damien Pierce carried the ball for a first down and gave the sleepy Gators some energy and led to a touchdown drive.  The second was the punt return TD by Kedarius Toney late in the first half – it gave the Gators a 14-10 halftime lead, completely changed the momentum of the game, and deflated Kentucky after they expended all the energy they could with a depleted roster for the first 30 minutes.  In the second half, Florida’s offense took over, and Kentucky had no answers as they wore down.

It’s now on to Rocky Top to face Tennessee.  The Vols are on a current 5-game losing streak, all losses by double-digits, and the noise in the system is getting pretty loud about Jeremy Pruitt’s job status.  Tennessee had an off week after Covid-related schedule changes, and I’m sure this will be their bowl game as they try to damage Florida’s chances of winning the SEC East and perhaps ending their Playoff dreams.

The Volunteer offense is led by a strong O-line that is experienced and talented.  RB Eric Gray has emerged as their lead back, and I expect to see him get a lot of touches both running and receiving, as Tennessee will try to do what Arkansas and Kentucky couldn’t for 60 minutes – shorten the game and keep the Gator offense off of the field.  QB Jarrett Guarantano has simply never progressed in 4 years – he continues to turn the ball over too often and is inaccurate as a passer.  He likely gets the start this game, but true freshman Harrison Bailey will see some snaps as well.  Coach Mullen recruited Bailey and is familiar with him as a highly-ranked dual-threat QB.  You can bet the Florida defense will do everything they can to force either QB to make reads in the passing game, but even more importantly must be stout against the run on first and second down to force those passing situations.  DTs Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slaton need to plug the middle of the LOS while (hopefully) getting improved gap responsibility by the LBs.  When the Vols do throw, they have a good group of WRs led by Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson.  The Gator secondary will be forced into more man coverage while the front seven concentrates on the running game, so the coverage has to be tighter and the tackling more secure.  The defense can’t allow Tennessee a big advantage in time of possession and needs to give the offense enough possessions to score points and force the Vols out of their comfort zone.

Tennessee has an experienced defense with a strong front seven led by DT Matthew Butler, LBs Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, and DBs Trevon Flowers and Bryce Thompson.  This group has played pretty well given the struggles of the offense and having to play extended snaps.  Florida is going to have to stay patient on offense and do a better job of running the ball than they have the past 2 games.  I expect the Vols to continue the recent trend by opposing defenses of dropping eight into coverage as often as possible to try and frustrate Trask and force the Gators to prove they can run the ball effectively.  The Florida O-line will need to play a physical game while cleaning up the missed assignments on the right side of the line.  It will be interesting to see if any personnel changes will be made based on their early performance – this is not the time for Coach Hevesy to continue to be stubborn.

The weather forecast for Knoxville isn’t good – temps in the mid 40s with possible precipitation.  That could impact Trask and the Gator passing game and force Mullen’s hand somewhat in his playcalling.  Tennessee will be hyped for this matchup and the Gators need to match that energy and emotion from the opening kick.  While a loss would still leave Florida as the SEC East leader, it certainly would end their hopes of making the Playoffs and would put a serious damper on what has been a very good season to date.  This one could be tense well into the second half, and the Gators need to play hard and confidently for 60 minutes

Prediction: Florida 31 Tennessee 24