Florida $t. Review

Florida ended 5 years of misery with a 41-14 beatdown of Florida $t., a result made even sweeter as it came in Taliban City.  The game was won because the Gators controlled the game at the LOS from the outset and imposed their will all afternoon.  As the game wore on, it was obvious how poorly coached and undisciplined F$U is – multiple illegal formation penalties, late personnel changes, and stupid personal fouls.  Anyone watching the game (including recruits) could easily see the vast difference between the two teams, including teamwork..

Florida’s offense piled up over 500 yards for the 3rd straight game, showing balance with over 250 yards each rushing and passing.  The O-Line was able to create holes despite the Criminoles stacking the box all day, and Perine and Scarlett wore down the front 7 and eventually broke some long runs.  This domination allowed Franks to have a relatively clean pocket in order to pick out his WRs.  It was good to see the WRs finally exploit the intermediate zones and middle of the field, as both Grimes and Jefferson had some big plays and TDs.  The offense had the ball for almost 37 minutes, which allowed the defense to rest and eventually force F$U to abandon the running game in the second half.  The only complaint was the play-calling in the red zone in the first half, which kept the halftime score at 13-7 for Florida instead of a 20-7 or 23-7 lead.  Mullen said it himself in his television show that he could have called a better red zone game.  All the Gators had to do inside the 10-yard line was continue to pound the rock, but instead Mullen tried to get too cute with QB runs or passes into a crowded end zone.  All’s well that ends well – especially having a head coach secure enough in himself to acknowledge his mistakes publicly – unlike Slick Wille Taggart and F$U.

On defense, the Gators essentially shut down Florida $t. the entire game except for 2 drives kept alive by 3rd-and-long and 4th-and-long scrambles by Deondre Francois.  Each time there were defenders that whiffed on the tackle, or else this could have been close to a shutout.  The one player I was most worried about showed why – RB Cam Akers scored the first F$U TD on a one-handed catch, and had a long catch-and-run for a TD called back due to one of those stupid penalties I mentioned.  He was the only consistent threat.  The passing game was never a real threat due to constant pressure applied by Florida’s DEs against the F$U turnstiles.  The Gator secondary did a nice job of defending the long passes that F$U relied upon all season – once that was taken away the Criminoles simply weren’t going to put together long drives.  Props to Polite, Jefferson, and CGJ in their last regular season game as Gators.

Florida’s special teams were again solid.  McPherson capped off a great freshman season with 2 FGs and long kickoffs.  Getting McPherson to switch his commitment from Mississippi St. to Florida was one of the most important recruiting wins for Mullen.  Townsend had some long punts to flip the field, even a few of the rugby-style that I really don’t like.  The coverage units tackled well and never cracked.  Mullen takes it upon himself to put a lot of emphasis on special teams, including getting some starters on the coverage units, and the difference from last season was striking.

This was a statement win for Coach Mullen and entire the football program.  He has been playing catchup in recruiting since he arrived, especially with being out of the state for so long.  Now he has results to back up his pitch to recruits, along with proof that Florida is a better-coached and more stable program than F$U or scUM.  He and the staff are still behind in establishing the long-term relationships needed not just with kids but with coaching staffs around the state, and that has hampered efforts putting together the 2019 class so far.  This win could swing a few kids Florida’s way this season, but will pay long-term dividends for the 2020 and 2021 classes, of which the Gators have a much better start on.

Florida will learn it’s bowl fate in a week.  The Gators likely will finish in the top 12 of the CFP rankings and receive a New Year’s 6 bowl invitation.  That would be a better result than most expected before the season started, and especially after losing to Kentucky early in the season at home.  The extra practices will benefit all of the younger players that are redshirting, including QB Emory Jones.  There are a lot of positives to take away from the 2018 season, and hopefully that momentum continues through to Early National Signing Day in late December, the bowl game, and National Signing day in February.

I’ll be back with a bowl preview in December.  Until then – It’s Great To Be A Florida Gator!

 

 

 

Idaho Review / Florida $t. Preview

Florida took care of business against Idaho, mashing the Potatoes, er, Vandals in a 63-10 blowout.  The game worked out as well as Coach Mullen could have wanted – get a big early lead, and start pulling starters and emptying the bench to get the young guys some live reps.

Idaho was badly outmanned, and the Gators did as they pleased on both sides of the ball.  I was surprised at how often Mullen called a pass play, but perhaps he was secure in his comfort level with the running game for next week and wanted both Franks and Jones to get as many throws in as they could.  Franks had great numbers, but still missed some easy TD throws to Jefferson, continuing a season-long theme.  He was still high with some throws over the middle to open WRs and behind on a few slants, but found the range in the second quarter before being pulled.  Jones looked good moving the team, and made some accurate throws to all 3 zones.  He also turned the ball over on a botched snap, showing his inexperience.  Even in such a mismatch, the absence of Buchanan at center due to suspension meant Jordan had to move to center, and his play there immediately looked scarily like 2016 and 2017, as even the Vandals were able to stuff the inside run occasionally and get some pass pressure.  The Gator defense set the tone on the first scrimmage play, with CGJ getting a pick-6.  Florida dominated the LOS as they should have, and did an excellent job of shutting down the Idaho passing game, forcing the QBs to run for their lives all afternoon.  A lot of young guys got extended time, with DE Zack Carter and LB Ventrell Miller making some big plays.

The best thing about this game other than seeing so many young guys play was that there were no significant injuries.

Now it’s on to the rivalry game against the Criminoles in Taliban City.  Florida has now lost 5 straight and 7 out of 8 in the series, and that has to stop.  Recruiting and program prestige have suffered, and the time is ripe for Mullen and the Gators to take control of the state again.

F$U has struggled on offense most of this season, mainly due to a weak O-Line that has allowed QB Deondre Francois to be punished.  Florida has to focus on slowing RB Cam Akers, and then let the chips fall where they may with the matchup of their pass-rushing DEs vs. the sieve that is the F$U O-Line.  This should force F$U into more max-protect formations, negating some throws to the TE and RBs and allowing the Gator secondary to match up against the Criminole WRs.  F$U has some talent at WR in Nyqwan Murray and Tamorrion Terry, but nothing explosive like in previous years.  As long as the safeties play sound football and don’t allow any plays over the top, this is a good matchup for Florida.  Hopefully Stewart can play after sitting out the past 2 weeks with a quad injury.  If the Gator DTs can at worst get a stalemate and occasionally disrupt the interior, the rest of the defense should have a good day.  F$U has not shown the capability of sustaining long scoring drives, so they will be looking for a lot of chunk plays – the Gator LBs and secondary have to play sound and alert football all afternoon and communicate coverages.

Florida’s offense can’t simply play safe, conservative football all day.  While the F$U defense has had difficulty against power-running teams, the Gators can’t expect to simply control the LOS all game long.  It will be interesting to see how much risk Mullen is willing to take in the passing game – will he try to push downfield more often to loosen up the Criminole defense, or hope to continue to rely on the short, safe throws that protect Franks from extra punishment…..and from himself.  Scarlett and Perine need to get the tough yards to help the offense win on 1st down, as Franks can’t be relied upon to consistently bail out the offense in long-yardage situations.  It appears that Jones will be given a package for the game as well – whether he will be called upon is another matter.  The Gator O-Line has to account for DE Brian Burns in pass pro – he is one of the best pass-rushing DEs in the country.  The return from suspension of Buchanan at center should bolster the interior.  Florida’s WRs will need to block well and win some physical battles for the football against a F$U secondary led by Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels.

This game is massive for Coach Mullen and the Gator program.  Getting a win against a sub-.500 F$U team, ending their 36-year bowl game streak, and showing that Mullen is a much better coach than Slick Willie Taggart would do wonders for recruiting, the Gator Nation, and national perception.  There is a lot of internal unrest in the F$U program, as the team has looked outcoached and without focus many times.  They are coming off of a last-second win giftwrapped by Boston College, and now have some faint hope of another 6-6 season and extending their bowl game streak.  As in almost any rivalry game, records don’t mean much – like the stock market, past performance does not guarantee future results.  Florida really needs to win this game, but has to expect a 4-quarter battle unlike anything that the Criminoles have exhibited in 2018.  If this game were at the Swamp I could see a comfortable Gator win, but unless the Gators race out to an early lead and demoralize the F$U players and fans, this one likely doesn’t get decided until the 4th quarter.

Prediction:  Florida 24          Florida $t. 20

 

 

S. Carolina Review / Idaho Preview

In what could only be described as “Mr. Mullen’s Wild Ride”, Florida came back from two separate double-digit deficits to pull out a clutch win late against South Carolina.  This could have been a second consecutive disastrous home loss that would really have derailed the season, but instead the Gators get a lot of credit for digging deep and fighting back.

The defense was somnambulant for the first two Carolina possessions, allowing the Lamecocks to move easily down the field each time for touchdowns and a quick 14-0 first quarter lead.  Every position can take the blame, as the defense made Carolina QB Jake Bentley and their offense look like the Tom Brady-led Patriots.  It seems in general that home teams with noon kickoffs usually start slowly, but the Gators looked lifeless the entire quarter.  Finally, the offense awoke and put together two TD drives of their own in the second quarter to tie the game.  The right side of the O-Line gets most of the credit for opening large holes for Scarlett and Perine to run though, and this would prove to be the winning formula in the second half as well.  Franks hardly threw a pass more than a few yards downfield, instead making the safe throws.  He ran the ball better in this game than ever before, especially in short-yardage situations.  After being booed last week and early in this game, he unfortunately embarrassed himself by giving the home fans the shush gesture and screaming STFU after scoring his first rushing TD – just another example of his lack of maturity and leadership.  Then the defense relapsed, allowing Carolina a TD drive just before halftime to take a 21-14 lead.  There was no pass rush, and the LBs still looked lost in coverage and suffered from miscommunication in the 10th game of the season.

The second half started out as a repeat of the first, as the Gator offense came out slowly (again) and the defense collapsed (again) while the Lamecocks stretched their lead.  Every unit played a part – poor tackling and miscommunication by the defense, sloppy play from Franks and the O-Line, and special teams allowing a long kickoff return to set up Carolina with a short field for a score.  The offense drove to a 42-yard FG attempt, which McPherson missed.  Carolina responded with their own drive for a FG and a 24-14 lead, then later in the 3rd quarter extended to lead to 31-14 after the Gators allowed an 89-yard catch and run by Deebo Samuel to their 5-yard line.  The outlook at that point was bleak, as there was no energy from the players or fans.  Florida then had it’s most fortunate break of the season, a poorly thrown pass into coverage by Franks that was tipped and somehow came down into the hands of Hammond, who was then was stripped of the ball before hitting the ground.  The officials claimed his momentum had been stopped before the fumble, and Misschump shockingly didn’t challenge the call.  After that, the O-Line, Perine, and Scarlett dominated the rest of the game, scoring on 3 consecutive punishing drives to take the lead at 35-31.  Both RBs ran hard and broke tackles for extra yardage while punishing the Lamecock LBs and secondary.  The Gator defense finally responded, making just enough plays and finally getting some pressure on Bentley in the 4th quarter.  CJH ended the last decent threat by Carolina with a terrific interception, trailing the WR and baiting Bentley into the throw.

It was a true gut-check for the team, and to their credit they played hard and came back.  This game can be the result, even more than the LSU win, that Mullen can point to in the offseason to the returning players as proof of what he has been preaching since he took the job.  Another blowout loss at home could have killed any recruiting momentum and left the team emotionally fragile heading into the game in two weeks against Florida $tate.

It’s on to Senior Day at the Swamp, as Florida welcomes the Idaho Vandals for a glorified scrimmage before the rivalry game in Taliban City against F$U.  Don’t expect much variety in scheme from either the offense or defense – just the basic plays and looks to get by.  Expect a lot of running plays on offense, with minimal need to expose Franks to any injury possibility.  Idaho has struggled in the weak Big Sky conference, so they are completely outmanned against the Gators.  A lot of younger and/or inexperienced players should get some snaps, as the staff should be able to start pulling starters and clearing the bench in the second half.  There has been a lot of debate as to whether Emory Jones should play to get some more live game experience, but it seems Mullen is holding him back for the last 2 games against the Criminoles and the bowl game, in order to preserve his redshirt.

As always, the mantra for this kind of game is……NO INJURIES.

Prediction: Florida 59          Idaho 13

 

 

Missouri Review / South Carolina Preview

In what could only be described as a Misschumpian or SwampDonkian performance, the Gators embarrassed themselves in a 38-17 blowout loss on Homecoming at the Swamp to a mediocre Missouri team.  A lot of the positives that developed up until this game were wiped away with a horrific effort that reopened a lot of fresh wounds for Gator Nation.  Mullen and the staff will say publicly that the loss is on them, but that’s just PR spin.  The players regressed and fell back into the bad habits from the previous 2 regimes.  No enthusiasm, no energy, and a lazy performance that will reopen a lot of position battles in practice this week – starting at QB.

All 3 phases of the team were bad, but the abysmal performance by the entire offense bled into the attitude and effort of the defense and special teams.  As it almost always does, the play at QB dictates how well the offense plays, and Franks was simply terrible.  He missed multiple wide-open WRs, checked into bad plays, and sulked on the sideline when Mullen laid into him.  *News Flash* – This is the SEC, and it’s big-boy football.  Produce or sit.  Mullen finally had enough and inserted Trask, and he played well under the circumstances, even leading the offense to a TD in his first possession.  Even in that small sample size he exhibited the ability to read the defense and go through his progressions more than Franks has most of the season.  While it’s (sadly) likely that Franks gets the start this week, I expect Trask to get snaps no matter what.  The O-Line played it’s worst game of the season.  There was no push in the running game, and they broke down in pass pro too often.  I feel bad for the RBs and WRs, who simply can’t show their skills consistently enough with such poor QB play.  There are indications that at least some of the locker room is starting to turn on Franks, and Mullen has to rein in and address the discord before it resembles the end of 2017.

The Gator defense was only minimally better.  There was no consistent pass rush from the DEs, while the interior of the line was gashed all afternoon.  The poor LB pass coverage was exposed, and even the CBs broke down on two long TD passes, but it’s hard to cover for 5+ seconds when the D-Line is getting stoned at the LOS.  Again, it appears there are parts of the team that are reacting to the struggles of the offense and QB, and the team lacks the leadership and maturity to push through it.  There is no push from the interior of the D-Line, and they were manhandled all afternoon in their worst performance of the season – even worse than Kentucky.

Evan McPherson hit his only FG attempt, the highlight of special teams.  Tommy Townsend inexplicably became a loose cannon on the field, garnering 2 personal-foul penalties along with a targeting call.  I can appreciate him wanting to not just be a spectator in punt coverage, but he has to control his emotions.  Punters may be people too, but antics like these really hurt the defense and gave Missouri great field position for two scoring drives.  If he doesn’t calm down, his ass will be on the bench.  It’s something I have never seen in my lifetime of watching college football.

South Carolina is next up and Florida has to get it’s house in order right away, or suffer another home loss, this time to Won’t Misschump.  There is some blood in the water in the Swamp right now, and you can count on the petulant Misschump wanting to do anything to beat the Gators.

The Gamecocks are led on offense by QB Jake Bentley.  He has been a little inconsistent this season, especially as their running game has really tailed off from prior seasons.  He does have a strong arm and isn’t afraid to run when needed, so the Gator DES and LBs will have to keep him contained in the pocket.  WR Bryan Edwards is a downfield threat, while Deebo Samuel will get lots of short passes and jet sweeps so he can use his speed and elusiveness in space to make plays.  Leading rusher Rico Dowdle is questionable with an ankle injury, so Tyson Williams may have to be the lead ball carrier.  Carolina has had difficulty sustaining drives, so look for them to try to hit big plays for chunks of yardage in order to set up scoring opportunities.  The Gator defense – if it decides to show up and actually play with some energy – matches up well and should be able to control the LOS.  The LBs have a lot to atone for after last week’s disaster – it’s back to basics, starting with playing your run gaps and actually accounting for the TE in the passing game.  The secondary has to focus on keeping Edwards in check, and force other WRs to beat them.  CGJ has not practiced this week with an undisclosed injury, and that would be a big loss.  The defense has to win on 1st down.

As for the Gator offense……what a difference a week makes.  If Franks gets the start, will the players just be waiting for him to make a few bad plays and get pulled?  I was hopeful Trask would either start or get significant reps, but he is now out for the season with a broken foot, the same injury that derailed his 2017 season.  Now Mullen has to SERIOUSLY consider burning Jones’ redshirt and getting him ready to play in every game the rest of this season.  No matter the QB, the O-Line has to rediscover it’s run-blocking ability and provide the balance necessary for success.  The WRs have to fight harder for balls, but how much of that is the inaccuracy of Franks and their growing frustration?  I would hope that after watching the tape from the Missouri game, every player would look himself in the mirror and demand better.  Mullen will have even more on his plate than usual, essentially having to prepare 2 full game plans that complement each QB the best.  I expect the running game to be featured early and leaned on as long as it is working.

I don’t like what I’m hearing out of practice and from sources right now.  There is some locker room sniping going on between the offense and defense, growing frustration with Franks from the WRs, and talk that some draft-eligible players are starting to mentally or physically check out.  Mullen still has some key players that are holdovers from the Swamp Donkey, and it appears those guys aren’t providing the effort that he expects.  As far as this week’s game is concerned, I think the sum of these issues is enough to lead to another home loss.

Prediction: Carolina 27   Florida 23

 

 

Georgia Review / Missouri Preview

It was a bitter defeat for the Gators in Jacksonville, as critical mistakes and injuries at key positions were too much to overcome in a 36-17 loss.  The game plan on both offense and defense was sound and the effort was there, but this team is not talented enough to defeat quality teams when not playing error-free football.

Dan Mullen called one of the best offensive games I can recall.  The running game was solid, the run/pass mix was effective, and a handful of special plays were there for the taking.  Unfortunately, Franks didn’t execute those plays in key moments – he just executed Florida’s chance to win.  After allowing Georgia a FG on the first series of the game, the very first Florida offensive play was a harbinger of things to come.  He badly overthrew a wide-open Jefferson for a TD on a flea-flicker, which would have sent a shock through the Georgia defense that this would be a vastly different game than last season.  The second possession started nicely, but an uncharacteristic Scarlett fumble gave the Puppies a short field.  They took advantage of that and the early exit of CJH due to a back injury to pick on McWilliams for key completions and a TD pass for a 10-0 lead.  Even after digging an early hole, the Gators didn’t panic.  They finally scored in the 2nd quarter with an excellent drive mostly led by Perine and the running game.  Unfortunately, right before the half ended the Puppies took advantage or poor pass coverage by the Gator LBs (especially Joseph) with 4 consecutive completions to TE Isaac Nauta to get a FG for a 13-7 halftime lead.

The second half started out perfectly.  After Toney returned the kickoff to the Georgia 48-yard line, it took the Gators only 3 plays to take the lead on Franks’ best pass of the day, a laser to Swain down the middle.  Sadly, the defense had a major letdown, allowing Georgia to march right down the field mostly through the air for a TD to retake the lead, as McWilliams was toasted – again.  Then came the 2nd critical mistake by Franks.  After a Georgia punt was downed at the Gator 1-yard line, he fumbled on the next play.  What could have easily then been a TD and perhaps the dagger was replaced by “The Stand” – 7 plays inside the 2-yard line that were stuffed by the Gator defense – holding Georgia to only a FG.  It’s unfortunate that the offense could not fully build on that inspirational effort, only getting a FG early in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 23-17, but never really threatening again.  The defense finally cracked, not being able to get off the field on 3rd down and not getting the key play in pass defense to force the Puppies to punt.  Two late TDs made the final score 36-17, which didn’t reflect the closeness of the game until the last 8 minutes.  Watching 3 out of 4 starters in the secondary sit on the sideline due to injury or suspension while Georgia was actually moving the ball through the air was sickening.

It’s back to the Swamp for the first time since the LSU game 4 weeks ago, this time to face Missouri.  It’s the start of a crucial 3 game home stand that will determine how good the 2018 season can be and the quality of bowl game the Gators are invited to.  There are a lot of positives to take from the Georgia game, but also a lot to clean up.

Missouri reminds me of a bad matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament.  The strength of their offense is based on QB Drew Lock, WRs Emanuel Hall and Jalen Knox, and a quality TE in Albert Okwuegbuna.  This group will cause headaches for the Gator LB corps and secondary – especially if CJH is not 100% and if Stewart is rusty after his suspension for the Georgia game.  The D-Line has to rediscover it’s pass rush and make life miserable for Lock, or else this could turn into a high-scoring affair that Franks and the Gator offense are not built for.  The Tigers also have two good RBs in Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett, who really hurt the Gators last year in Columbia.   The entire defense has to play a solid and smart game against a very good offense.  It all starts with winning first down to make the Tigers one-dimensional.  After that, if the defense continues it’s struggles getting off the field on 3rd down, it will be a long day and a probable loss.  Kentucky did a very good job holding Missouri to only 14 points last week, and the Gators should be able to see a lot of things on film they can apply this week.

Florida has to continue to find success in the running game, which will lessen the number of possessions by the Tigers and also allow the defense some rest.  The Gator O-Line has to first stop DT Terry Beckner – he is a load and an all-SEC candidate.  Perine and Scarlett are in a groove right now running the ball, but I continue to hope they are used more in the passing game.  Mullen has gone away from that the past month for some reason, but I hope he reintroduces it into the game plan.  Both Franks and all of the WRs need to improve – Franks his accuracy, and the WRs getting consistent separation from DBs and fighting harder through contact to go after the ball.  All of Gator Nation continues to impatiently wait for Toney to get more touches, even if it’s only on jet sweeps.

The Gator special teams have been excellent, and again can have a big impact on the outcome.  Townsend has to continue to flip the field with his punts, while McPherson has been nails with his FGs.  Toney had a big kickoff return against Georgia, and hopefully builds on that to perhaps set up an easy score.

Coach Mullen and the entire staff have to find a way to build on the positives from the Georgia game and get the players to continue to compete on every snap.  Despite the tough loss, Florida can prove it has emotionally matured by moving on to the next game and taking care of it’s business.  I have a nagging feeling this game will not go smoothly and will be in doubt late.  If the Gators can simply eliminate unforced turnovers they have a good chance of winning.  There is still a lot to play for, starting with protecting the Swamp.  Finally, the next few games will go a long way for the perception of the program in the minds of recruits.  The Gators are gaining the attention of a lot of big names, and if they can finish the season well, should be able to bring in a class that is more representative of the Florida program standard of the past 30 years.  It’s time to have the talent and depth to compete for championships again.

Prediction: Florida 27          Missouri 24

Georgia Preview

It’s rivalry week.  A huge game looms in Jacksonville with the winner likely representing the SEC East in Atlanta, and potentially bigger things to play for down the road.

I expect the Gator offense to have some struggles, so it’s on the defense to try and control the game and keep the score manageable.  Georgia will rely on it’s running game led by RBs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift and a strong O-Line.  Even in their loss at LSU they ran the ball effectively, only having to abandon it due to turnovers by QB Jake Fromm and falling behind by double-digits in the 4th quarter.  The Florida front seven will have it’s toughest challenge of the season in controlling the LOS – if the Puppies win first down they will control the clock and it will be a long afternoon.  If by some combination of run defense, turnovers, and effective offense the Gators can get a lead in the second half, once again it will fall on Fromm to have to make things happen with his arm, which is where he struggles.  Playing with a big lead and handing off most of the game is what he was able to do all of 2017, but he has not handled the pressure of being forced to throw very well.  On passing downs, the Gator DEs need to find ways to continue their excellent play and get pressure on the QB.  Georgia’s pass blocking has had some struggles this year, so perhaps there are some big plays and drive-killers available.  The Gator secondary will be have to play a lot of man defense, and will be challenged by WRs Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman and TE Isaac Nauta.  They will have to stay disciplined and not peek into the backfield on run fakes.  The entire defense will have trust each individual to do their job – no freelancing or over-aggressiveness leading to a bust and big play.  Finally, I expect Justin Fields to see action at QB as well.  He is a dangerous runner, but hasn’t been relied upon much in the passing game to date.  I suspect there are a few pass plays in the game plan for him this week to try and surprise the Gator defense.

Florida’s offense has to find a way to put some extended drives together in order to allow the defense to get some rest and to shorten the game.  Georgia will likely stack the box and dare Franks to throw to beat them, which is a good strategy until he proves he is accurate enough to make throws into tight windows.  The O-Line was able to open enough running room to balance the attack against LSU and has to do the same in this game, as relying on the passing game for consistent production isn’t a viable option yet.  Scarlett and Perine once again will have to get tough yards after contact, but I hope Mullen continues to incorporate them into the passing game to slow the rush and spread the field.  The WRs have to block well, and get separation occasionally to make some big plays.  CB Deandre Baker is an all-SEC candidate, so anyone not matched up with him has to make something happen.  The Puppy defense has shown some cracks this year, so Florida must capitalize when some opportunities present themselves – whether with individual effort of by scheme.  Georgia’s pass rush is nowhere near as formidable as last season.  D’Andre Walker leads the Puppies with 5 sacks, but they only have 9 total as a team.  The Gator O-Line needs to play their assignments and communicate – they stood up pretty well to Kentucky and LSU, and have to give Franks time and some clear passing lanes.  I’m hoping that Mullen isn’t so stubborn that he forces the running game if it is not working, throws more on 1st down, and isn’t afraid to take shots with lower-percentage 50/50 balls downfield to the WRs.  It’s not as if Franks completes 70% of his passes as it is, so it’s time to roll the dice and see if the WRs can win some one-on-one battles.  I expect to see some of Toney on jet sweeps and wildcat snaps – he is due for a few big plays.  If the Gators can get into the red zone, Mullen has demonstrated creativity and acumen with his play calls, and I’ll bet there are some new wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.

Both teams have excellent special teams.  Georgia PK Roberto Blankenship has done a great job since last season and has made some clutch kicks under pressure.  Hardman is a dangerous KO and punt returner with breakaway speed, so the Gator coverage units have to stay in their lanes and tackle well.  Florida PK Evan McPherson continues to impress, and Tommy Townsend will be relied upon to punt well and flip the field.  If the game is close into the second half, special teams could be the difference.

This year’s game has high stakes for the first time in a while, which will make the atmosphere even more intense.  Both teams are coming off of a bye week, so it will be interesting to see which one took the most advantage of it for the stretch run.  Florida has the bitter memory of last year’s debacle to try and make up for, quitting under the Swamp Donkey and embarrassing the program.  Hopefully the staff has the players at a high emotional pitch while not being too hyped and making stupid mistakes.  There are still a lot of guys on the roster that won the East in 2015 and 2016 and have experience in big games, so Mullen has that to build on.  Kirby Smart is feeling some heat for Georgia’s performance at LSU, and I expect a better effort.  I hope the discussions of how much Fields should play at QB becomes a distraction within the team, but my guess is that Fromm is still the guy and plays almost exclusively unless the Puppies fall behind by more than a TD in the second half.

As much as I want the Gators to win, I’m just not convinced that Franks can play efficiently enough and take advantage of big play opportunities to lead the offense to enough points.  My worry is that even if the defense plays well initially, they start to wear down in the second half, especially if they can’t stop the running game.  Additionally, the secondary is already thin, and can’t afford any significant injuries.  After last year’s embarrassment, there’s plenty of motivation for the Gators to play their best.

Prediction: Georgia 31        Florida 20

 

 

Vanderbilt Review

Straight out of the Theater of the Bizarre, it was an all-to-typical Florida-Vanderbilt game.  A way-too-early start (11:00 am local time), a bad Vandy team, and Florida coming off of 3 straight big SEC games……all leading to a somnambulant first 25 minutes of play until the Gators awoke, with the help of some really childish actions by the Vandy coaching staff that fired up the entire team……and coaching staff.

As much as Dan Mullen preached all week about coming out focused and playing hard, the team only got it half right.  Stupid penalties, undisciplined play by the defense, and two terrible turnovers by Franks allowed the Commodores to race out to a 21-3 lead.  From there on out the Gators dominated and won, but it wasn’t comfortable until the last score to ice the game.

The offense came out sharply, following up a 3-and-out by the defense with an efficient drive all the way to the Vandy 5-yard line, whereupon Mullen made a huge mistake in not simply running the ball on 2nd and 1 and calling for a slant pass that was tipped and intercepted.  Maybe that stunned the defense enough for them to subsequently allow Vandy their longest scoring drive in 15 years.  The offense responded with another good drive, but some inaccurate passes led to a punt.  Then, the defense simply played undisciplined football, allowing an easy screen pass to go for a 75-yard TD.  Not to be outdone, Franks led the offense back down the field, only to not protect the football on a designed run and fumbling, giving Vandy possession in the Gator 40-yard line.  The defense continued their lackadaisical play, letting the ‘Dores march to a 3rd TD.  Then it became all too real for Florida – they were in serious trouble, and it was either throw away all the good that was accomplished the previous 3 weeks, or toughen up and go to work.  In a testament to the staff and the buy-in of this year’s players, the Gators did just that.  The offense came back with an important TD drive, the defense got a quick 3-and-out, and then the real run began.  On the punt return James Houston was ejected for a peelback block on a defenseless player (questionable – but OK), but then the Vandy coaching staff, while out on the field to check on the injured player, got into a shouting match with the Gator staff, which caused both benches to clear and for both teams to get an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.  This activated an obscure rule that if any player on either team already had a similar penalty earlier in the game, this would count as their second offense and cause an automatic ejection – goodbye Vosean Joseph (who really did it to himself with an egregious roughing penalty that helped Vandy score their second TD).  After losing good field position due to the penalties, Franks hit Perine with a screen pass that he almost took to the house.  This gave Florida a FG at the end of the half that made it a one score game, and provided all the emotional momentum the team needed to roll in the second half.

As soon as the teams returned to the field for the 3rd quarter, it was obvious that the Gators were ready to play.  The offense continued to run the ball effectively with Perine and Scarlett, the quick WR screens were getting chunks of yards, and Franks settled down and didn’t turn the ball over, allowing the skill players to do work.  After cutting the lead to 21-20 and forcing Vandy to punt, the offense landed the big body blow with Scarlett’s TD run to take the lead, which the Gators would not relinquish.  The only real scare was when Pierce fumbled in Gator territory, but the defense held the Commodores to a FG to keep the lead.  The Gators then drove for another TD to effectively close out the game.  The offense wound up with close to 600 yards and two 100-yard rushers.  The downfield passing game is still not clicking, as the only pass TD more than 5 yards beyond the LOS was the slant to Jefferson that he housed.  Franks has to improve his accuracy on throws more than 10 yards downfield, and actually allow his receivers the chance to make some 50/50 catches.  The defense tightened up the run gaps, but had chances for interceptions that they didn’t capitalize on that enabled Vandy to extend drives and get 2 FGs in the second half to keep the game close.

In retrospect this game could be a valuable teaching moment for Mullen and the staff, but also a confidence boost for the players.  They now see that they can’t slip into their early-season bad habits, which actually cost them the Kentucky game.  But they also see that the staff is actually coaching them up to be a good team, and that they can do some great things IF they are focused and disciplined.  The bye week comes at a good time, to allow the team to rest up both physically and emotionally for a critical 3-week stretch that will determine how good or average the season eventually becomes.

I’ll be back next week with my preview of the Georgia game.  Go Gators!

Florida 100        Bye Week 0

 

LSU Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida reawakened the Swamp with it’s most important win in 3 years, outlasting LSU in what has become a typical close battle between the Gators and Tigers.  This was no cheap victory – this came against a tough and well-coached team that came in with a solid resume and playing with confidence.  Hopefully this win resonates with not just the fan base, but with recruits as well – showing that the foundation is being laid for a bright future after the darkness of the Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras.

To win a game like this all 3 phases of the team have to play well (and they did), but I have to give the edge to the defense.  After giving up a quick and shockingly easy TD drive to open the game, the defense dug in and ramped up it’s intensity for the rest of the afternoon.  Other than that first drive and then the two big runs allowed on LSU’s last scoring drive in the 4th quarter, Florida controlled the action for most of the game.  Tackling was the best it’s been all season, with defenders making plays in space all over the field.  The D-line did get gashed for some long runs, but held it’s own against a quality O-line while proving it is one of the elite pass-rushing units in the country.  Polite, Zuniga, and Jefferson harassed Joe Burrow all game long and came up with 5 sacks and some key holding calls on the Tigers.  The tackle rotation still has some issues with more physical teams, and will have to find ways to counter that with slants and simply tougher play.  The LB corps had by far it’s best day under the new staff.  Joseph had his best game as a Gator with 14 tackles, 3.5 for loss, while Reese was filling gaps inside against a tough LSU running game.  The run fits continue to improve, and there were better pursuit angles on the edges.  The secondary had a good day overall, highlighted by Stewart’s pick-6 that iced the win.  LSU rarely challenged CJH, preferring to pick on McWilliams whenever he was in the game, and also going after Dean.  These guys have to pick up their game going forward, as opponents will continue to attack them until they prove they can cover.  Finally, CGJ had a career day, directing the secondary while flying around and making plays in the backfield, against screens, and even in coverage.  When the secondary looks at the film, they will see some areas for improvement.  The Tigers had some open WRs on their last two possessions, even against nickel and dime looks, but fortunately there were some key drops that thwarted those drives.  Improvement, but still work to do.

Florida’s offense was a mixed bag – either very good or very bad.  4 scoring drives, including the go-ahead TD after LSU took the lead, mixed in with 7 drives of 6 plays or less, including 5 3-and-outs.  While Franks and the O-line had their struggles and ugly moments, at least they were opportunistic.  These guys would have folded under the previous staff, but are developing the mental toughness to push through difficult circumstances.  The run blocking is noticeably improved when Heggie is in the game at guard, and it’s becoming obvious that when the Gators need important yards they run to the right behind him and Taylor.  The running game came through to provide balance, and gained 2 critical first downs after being pinned down at the 3-yard line late in the game.  This allowed the punt team flip the field and make LSU put a long drive together to try and get in position for a winning FG.  Perine scored 2 TDs and had some big runs off of the speed option, while Scarlett got the tough yards in close quarters in the 4th quarter.  The WRs made some contested catches, battling against an excellent LSU secondary.  There wasn’t much separation, so coming down with some 50/50 balls was key.  I was disappointed that the RBs weren’t included in the passing game.  Franks cannot afford to repeat his terrible decision-making in throwing the end zone interception early in the 3rd quarter that changed the complexion of the game.  Overall, the offense continues to make incremental progress, which is a good sign.  Finally, Mullen has shown an excellent touch in play-calling in the red zone, coming up with plays that are resulting in TDs instead of FGs.

The special teams were again solid.  Townsend was able to pin down the Tigers with some great punts, but struggled when the tried the rugby-style kicks – he needs to shelve that and simply kick in rhythm.  McPherson had no FG opportunities, but only had one kickoff returned – after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Stewart’s pick-6 – but even then his kick was deep enough to force LSU to have to convert on a long drive.

Next up is Vanderbilt.  The Gators travel to Music City on a roll, and hopefully continue to show improvement and not rest on their recent success.

The Commodores are struggling right now, and coming off of a beatdown at Georgia.  Their offense has been mostly one-dimensional this year, relying on the passing of Kyle Shurmur to WR Kilija Lipscomb.  As long as the Gator defense doesn’t slip back into bad habits against the run, they should be able to force Vandy to throw and continue their sack barrage.  Shurmur is a big QB and hard to bring down, but if the defense can get some hits on him early, his accuracy will fall dramatically and give the Gator offense more possessions.  Florida’s D-line should have a decided advantage.

Vandy’s defense has been weak against the run, so I’m expecting a lot of carries for Scarlett and Perine.  Pierce should get some as well, as Mullen went with his experienced RBs against LSU for pass pro.  The Commodore secondary is nothing like LSU’s, so the short passes to the WRs should be more available to take pressure off of Franks.  There will be opportunities for some big plays if the O-line continues to improve and Franks makes the proper reads.  He has to improve his accuracy in order to extend drives and give the defense some rest.  This is an opportunity for the entire offense to work on becoming more efficient.

Defense and special teams travel, so as long as there isn’t an unexpected dropoff, those units should make it easier to get another SEC road win.

Now we get to see if Florida can handle success.  Mullen and the rest of the staff have a big challenge in getting the players refocused and continuing to emphasize consistency and effort.  This is another important step in the transformation of the program.  This team isn’t good enough to overcome lack of execution and sloppy play, so here is an opportunity to prove to themselves they are indeed working their way back to the Gator Standard.  Historically, Vanderbilt plays Florida close more often than not no matter the circumstances, and I think they will hang around at least into the second half.  After 3 big SEC wins, it’s time to grind through the mental and physical fatigue and get another victory before enjoying an off week.  It was an exhilarating win against LSU, but that has to be immediately set aside by the team to move forward to potentially some bigger things.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Vanderbilt 20

 

 

Mississippi St. Review / LSU Preview

Florida got another important SEC road win, defeating MSU in a tough, low-scoring affair that showed the development of some mental and physical toughness.  The team showed focus, blocking out all the hype around the game concerning Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville, and embraced the grind of a hard-fought victory.  This was the most complete team effort of the season.  All that talk in the offseason from MSU’s players and fans about how they are better off now has been exposed.  Florida has had to suffer long enough with these kinds of issues – it’s time to leave them behind and let other programs deal with them.

On offense, the playbook was pared down to only a handful of base plays that spread the field sideline-to-sideline to offset the strength of the Bulldog’s defense, their D-line.  While the final statistics weren’t gaudy, there was enough production by the running game to complement a short passing game that kept the chains moving and gave the defense a chance to rest.  The O-line had his best performance of the season to date.  They benefitted from the quick throws, only allowing 1 sack and few QB pressures, and got enough push in the run game to open some lanes for some key first downs on long drives.  Franks was solid for the most part, making some quick throws on the WR screens and some strong throws when needed on slants and digs.  This limited the number of reads he had to make to help him get rid of the ball quickly to avoid the rush.  The WRs stepped up with some tough catches over the middle and hard running after the catch.  Swain, Grimes, and Jefferson all showed toughness – not just with their pass-catching, but also in their blocking on the WR screens and running plays.  Perine is making a push to be the starting RB, again having success both in the run and pass game.  Scarlett continues to miss holes and lacks the explosiveness of 2016.  Pierce got some important carries in the 4th quarter and continues to impress.  And……finally…..Toney got some touches early, breaking off 2 nice runs from the wildcat formation and hitting the option pass for the winning TD.  He has to continue to be incorporated more into the offense.

The Gator defense also had it’s best performance of the year.  6 sacks, constant pressure on the pocket, decent run defense against a strong opponent, and solid pass coverage (less one blown play that should have resulted in a TD for MSU).  The DEs made life miserable for Nick Fitzgerald all night in the passing game, and the DTs and LBs shored up their zone-read fits in the second half to force the Bulldogs to pass more often than they like.  Polite and Zuniga were terrors off the edge, the LBs tackled well in space, and the secondary covered for the early loss of Dean to an unwarranted targeting ejection.  MSU wanted nothing to do with CJH’s side of the field all night, forcing Edwards and McWilliams into the spotlight.  They fared well overall but still had a few busted assignments that have to be corrected.  The return of Shawn Davis at safety really filled a gaping hole – he made some big plays early to show the Bulldogs the middle of the field wasn’t going to be as open as previous Gator games this season.  Finally, CGJ has become the leader of the secondary, getting them lined up properly and really improving his open-field tackling to lead by example.

It’s on to Alleva Bowl 3 – the rubber game in the grudge match that resulted from LSU AD Joe Alleva’s whining back in 2016 about travelling to Florida with Hurricane Matthew not far away – forcing the Gators into a second straight game at Baton Rouge in which Florida won the East with a goal line stand as time expired.  Sadly, the Tigers got the last laugh in 2017, beating the Swamp Donkey in the first of 2 straight games in Gainesville.  LSU comes in undefeated and riding high, with two wins over Top 20 opponents away from home already on their resume.  This is by far Florida’s toughest test so far this season.

The Tigers were fortunate to land QB Joe Burrow, who transferred in from Ohio St.  In only a few months he has proved more than competent, showing toughness and poise along with surprising running ability.  His overall passing statistics aren’t great, but he has been clutch in key moments and has won his teammates over.  LSU is still a running team first, lead by a solid O-line and RB Nick Brossette, who did not start until now, his senior year.  The difference in their offense now vs. the past few seasons is that they mix in the pass more often on first down, with WRs Justin Jefferson and former Gator commit Ja’Marr Chase providing targets with good size and speed.  Florida’s DTs will have to get at least a stalemate inside to slow the running game, while the DEs have to find a way to continue their recent excellent pass rushing on must-pass downs.  Getting Dean back will be a boost to the secondary at CB – he and CJH will be challenged by the size and speed of LSU’s WRs, and have to play their best game to date.  The safeties will likely be required to help in run support, but whoever is left behind in coverage has to tackle well in space to prevent big plays.  The Tigers really like working the middle of the field with slants and square-ins, so everyone in the secondary will need to be physical and try to get the WRs off of their routes.

The Gator offense really needs to find a way to run the ball effectively, as the LSU secondary may be the best one they will see all season.  Passing the ball with efficiency could be a real struggle given the occasional issues with the O-line and RBs in pass pro and the inconsistent reads and accuracy from Franks.  The Gators did run the ball well in the second half of last year’s game with the Tigers and the past few weeks of this season, but another slow start really lessens an already narrow margin for success.  It will be interesting to see if Perine gets more carries, and if Toney is used to get to the edges to try and spread out a very good LSU LB corps led by all-SEC candidate Devin White.  The O-line has to eliminate the stupid penalties that have hampered the offense and get some push, or it will be a long afternoon.  I really liked how the RBs were involved in the passing game last week, and that would be a big help again to keep the defense honest and prevent them from stacking the box.  Florida’s WRs will also face their biggest challenge to date against an excellent LSU secondary led by safety Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams.  The Tiger secondary will be motivated to show out in their annual feud with the Gators about who really is DBU.  The WRs have to get some separation to help Franks, and I expect they will again be asked to make some tough catches in the middle of the field.  I’m not sure how well a repeat of the MSU game plan with the quick screens to the WRs will work against LSU’s defensive speed and physical CBs.  There may be a few opportunities to fake a screen and try for a deep ball, now that LSU has seen so many short throws on film.

Florida’s special teams need to continue their excellent play.  Points may be at a premium, so McPherson has to make any reasonable FG attempts he gets.  Townsend will be called upon to flip the field with his punts, and hopefully he can continue his success in pinning the opponent inside the 20 when presented the opportunity.  The coverage units have also been playing well, and have to keep it going.  In a close game against a strong opponent, a big play by this unit could be the difference.

This is the biggest recruiting weekend of the season for Florida, and the Gators really need to put on a good performance to help get some key recruits off the fence and committed.  It will be a wild scene at the Swamp for this one, and hopefully the team continues to show improvement in execution and toughness, no matter the outcome.  The win at MSU has to provide a confidence boost for the players.  LSU has already been tested and had success against some quality opponents, so they will not be intimidated by this game.  Gator Nation really wants this game badly to stick it to LSU for their childish actions back in 2016 and a bitter home defeat in 2017, but I don’t know if the running game and Franks’ passing ability are far enough along to win the day in what I expect will be another close battle with the Tigers.  I feel Florida’s best chance in this one is to not be forced to play from behind, and applying early pressure on LSU by getting the lead.  I just hope the Gators don’t come in too hyped and commit a slew of mistakes that takes them out of it early.  It will require a complete effort from all 3 phases – the potential is there, but I’m just not sure this team is quite ready yet.

Prediction:  LSU 23            Florida 20