LSU Review / Texas A&M Preview

Florida’s good fortune ran out against LSU, with a bitter loss at the Swamp on Saturday.  What a disappointment for a jacked-up Homecoming crowd that did it’s part in cheering the Gators on.  This was the weakest LSU team since the 1990s, and yet this coaching staff failed the players by making in-game adjustments too slowly, and (again) becoming too conservative on offense once the Gators had seized momentum in the 3rd quarter.  Now, instead of continuing to build towards a SEC East showdown in Jacksonville, the staff has to try and prevent what could suddenly become a losing streak.

It was another slow start on offense, which again showed zero imagination by OC Doug Nussmeier and a staggering adversity to risk.  Once the Gators took control of the LOS with a power running game in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, those play calls dried up.  With a perfect opportunity to set up Feleipe Franks for a few deep throws against a defense worried about the run, ZERO were called.  It’s obvious at this point that Franks cannot read defenses or check off his primary receiver, so at least try to help by isolating a WR in man coverage and throw a 50/50 deep ball.  LSU’s passing game was just as anemic, but at least they took 2 deep shots to DJ Chark and both worked out for them – the (terrible) pass interference call on CJ Henderson in the 2nd quarter allowing LSU a FG for a 10-3 lead at halftime, and the 3rd quarter (supposedly) simultaneous catch between Chark and Duke Dawson setting up a 17-3 lead for the Tigers.  Why the throws to the RBs disappeared after the first play of the game until the last drive of the game is unconscionable, as both gained over 10 yards and a first down.  It’s hard to say this nicely – Nuss should be relieved of his OC duties immediately, as he is an abject failure in “coordinating” an offense.

Props to the Florida O-Line, which was able to establish a solid running game despite no threat of a competent passing game.  Brett Heggie and Martez Ivey were dominant on the left side.  Malik Davis and Lemical Perine again ran hard and effectively.  I was surprised at the lack of snaps for Mark Thompson…..but maybe shouldn’t be considering who is calling the offense.  Franks again was lost for much of the afternoon, with his only effective throws coming on rollouts that, while occasionally good for a first down, close off half the field and don’t allow for any real deep threat.  The last 2 plays of the final drive were especially galling.  With only 3 yards needed, all Franks had to do was throw a quick swing pass to Thompson to get an easy first down, but instead stared down Brandon Powell – a 5’9” WR surrounded by 3 defenders……ballgame.  All the fault doesn’t fall at Franks’ feet, as the WRs and TEs certainly didn’t get open.  Kerry Dixon and Greg Nord also need to be relieved of their coaching duties no later than the end of the F$U game – there is enough athletic talent at these positions to get some effective play.

The LSU offense did a lot as far as formations, shifts, and motion, which caused confusion and defensive struggles for the Gators most of the first half.  This exposed (again) the terrible play of the LB corps, as they rarely filled running lanes or contained the edge.  It was especially maddening to watch a simple jet sweep go undefended for the entire first half.  What is disheartening is that DC Randy Shannon refuses to at least change the look of the front seven or pre-snap sets, allowing offenses to play against a vanilla defense that they can dictate the action to, not vice versa.  Memo to Shannon – you need to help these kids, as the LBs aren’t good enough to sit back and make plays on their own.  The secondary played well, albeit against a nondescript QB.  Chauncey Gardner was improved in coverage and actually tackled well.  Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart filled in nicely for Nick Washington at safety.  Marco Wilson continues to shut down his half of the field, while Henderson played almost as well despite the terrible PI call on him.  It’s sickening that Danny Etling had only 125 yards passing…..and was the better QB on the field.  Finally, the defense has to improve it’s play on 3rd down – they simply can’t get off the field often enough, allowing opponents to win time-of-possession and limiting the snaps of an already-limited Gator offense.

Now it’s on to Texas A&M, with the Aggies making their first-ever visit to Gainesville.  The current state of the program for each team is very similar – both teams are coming off of tough losses, and their respective seasons are at a crossroad; both fan bases are becoming disenchanted; both head coaches are losing their popularity.  This game is critical for both – I can only hope the staff instils urgency into the players this week.

Texas A&M has true freshman Kellen Mond starting at QB.   He is very athletic, but raw as a QB.  He is showing improvement as a passer as the season has progressed, but is struggling with accuracy and decision-making right now……sound familiar?  However, he is a serious running threat, and must be accounted for……but by whom?  Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford are one of the better RB combos in the SEC, and will be leaned on.  The Aggies like to play fast and run spread concepts, so expect more of the jet sweep until the Gators show they can stop it.  The most dangerous Aggie playmaker is WR Christian Kirk, who is also a dynamite kick returner.  If the Gator safeties don’t stay over the top on him or the kick coverage teams have a breakdown, he’ll take it to the house.  I do think that the Florida D-Line matches up well and should cause problems for the Aggie O-Line, but they also have to maintain gap integrity and not allow Mond to escape containment for easy first downs.  I don’t see another WR giving the Gator secondary too much difficulty as long as they don’t allow Kirk to beat them deep.  Perhaps it’s time for a 5-2-4 defense that allows the DEs to help set the edge, keep the QB contained, and more easily defend the jet sweep.

The Aggie defense has recently shown improvement after a surprisingly rough 2016 and slow start to 2017.  The loss to the NFL of #1 draft pick DE Myles Garrett and DE Daeshon Hall were big losses, but it appears DC John Chavis has finally figured out how to get his guys to play better team defense.  He is a veteran SEC coach with previous experience at Tennessee and LSU, and knows the Gators well.  They are tough to run on, so (again) this will collide with Florida’s strength on offense.  They did a solid job against Alabama’s running game until they wore down, so Florida will have to find some success passing the ball on early downs and with more efficiency.  The Aggies have been poor against the pass, but there is no evidence that the Gators can take advantage of this.  Safety Armani Hall is a playmaker as a pass defender and also is allowed to blitz often – he has to be accounted for by the O-Line and QB.  There will be a ton of pressure on Franks to perform better this week, or else I expect to see Malik Zaire get a chance.  Actually, I’d like to see Zaire get some series in each half for a change of pace, but also to present another running threat in case the gator RBs find tough sledding.  He certainly can’t be worse at reading defense, and I can’t judge him as a Gator for the one crap situation he was thrown into late against Michigan.

The 2017 season is at a tipping point now.  Do the Gators respond to a crushing defeat with an inspired effort, or go into the tank and let the rest of the season unravel?  I really believe that despite the suspensions and injuries, there is enough talent for this team to win any remaining game on the schedule.  However, I am starting to have serious doubts about not just the assistant coaches I have already called out, but now for Coach Mac himself.  It starts at the top, and he has yet to prove he will make necessary decisions in a timely fashion.  Standing pat and not making serious changes to the offensive and defensive schemes will signal a blind loyalty to those who aren’t getting the job done, and affect the players even more than they already have been.  The heat is getting turned up, which is a shame because most of it is self-inflicted.  This is going to be a rough week in Gainesville for the entire staff, and I am not confident in their response until I see tangible proof on the field.  Texas A&M played hard for 60 minutes against Alabama, and despite losing may be able to build upon that effort going forward.  In my Season prediction I thought this game would be a loss because of coming off of a tough win – not because of coaching malfeasance.  I’m not changing the pick now, as much as I hope for a bounceback performance from the Gators.  A young team needs leadership, and it’s lacking right now from those who should be providing it.

Prediction:  Texas A&M 27            Florida 17

 

 

 

 

Vanderbilt Review / LSU Preview

Another week, another sloppy, inconsistent performance from the Gators……and another SEC win.  Nothing comes easy for this group, but they have proven resilient so far and showed resolve in the second half, physically dominating Vanderbilt and overcoming crucial injuries.

The offense continued to show signs of life with Luke Del Rio at QB, only to have him knocked out with a separated left shoulder that will require season-ending surgery.  The running game carried the day under both LDR and Feleipe Franks, as the O-Line manhandled the Vanderbilt D-Line all afternoon.  Once again the RB rotation of Malik Davis, Lemical Perine, and Mark Thompson led the way, helping to dominate time of possession and keeping the Gators 1-2 scores ahead in the second half while the defense once again struggled against the pass.  Franks did an excellent job of running the 2-minute offense at the end of the first half to get the tying FG.  In the second half he made some clutch throws, but also could have been easily picked off twice and continues to hesitate before throwing.  Why he continues to not take some good yardage when being forced to scramble is a mystery – unless the staff has told him not to take any chances of injury.  The RBs were utilized more in the passing game as well, and were effective.  The WRs were again very average other than Tyrie Cleveland.  Freddie Swain did make a great catch on a deflected ball that lead to a TD, but rest of the group was invisible.  Finally, it’s hard to believe that Moral Stephens is the most effective TE right now, but he had some clutch 3rd down catches and a big reception that led to a 3rd quarter TD.  Deandre Goolsby had one catch in the first half, while C’yontai Lewis’ picture is appearing on milk cartons.

The Gator D-Line had it’s way most of the game and helped to partially offset the continued struggles of the LBs and safeties in pass coverage.  For almost 3 quarters the back seven made Kyle Shurmur look like Dan Marino, leaving the middle of the field open and blowing assignments.  Once the lead became 14 points and the threat of the running game was negated, the D-Line harassed Shurmer the rest of the game and the pass coverage tightened up.  The return of Kylan Johnson to the LB corps was a boost, as he was able to get on roughly half of the defensive snaps and made his presence felt.  Jeremiah Moon and Vosean Joseph are still struggling, though, and there is simply no quality depth.  Duke Dawson moved between boundary and slot CB, and played well.  Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson were both victimized by some deep throws, but kept competing as good CBs need to do.  Chauncey Gardner came up to make some good tackles from the safety position, but Nick Washington still struggled in coverage.  There will be plenty of things to work on after watching the film.

Now it’s on to the newest grudge match on the schedule as the LSU comes to the Swamp for the first of 2 straight visits, the result of last year’s game being moved to Baton Rouge due to the whining of LSU AD Joe Alleva.  There was a lot of bad blood in last year’s game, as the Gators were especially motivated to win after all the disrespect afforded by Alleva and the entire LSU team.  Now the Tigers come to Gainesville really hurting after an upset loss at home to Troy in which they were physically beaten on both sides of the LOS.

With Franks now the de facto starter, there’s no more security blanket with LDR ready to come in.  It’s his show now, and he must perform with more consistency or get replaced by Malik Zaire.  Franks has so much to work on that the staff will have to try to manage his game while trying to continue the recent uptick of the offense in general.  He has to improve his cadence at the line, he needs to stop double- and triple-clutching some of his passes and let it go on the first read, and has to improve his accuracy and touch on intermediate throws.  No matter how well Franks plays, expect more of the wildcat formation with Toney at QB, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Zaire get some designated series during the game, both to get him experience with this offense and also for a change of pace.  No matter the QB or the amount of “special plays” that may be in the game plan, the run game is where the offense needs to continue to shine.  Despite the fact that LSU will likely crowd the box and dare the Gators to throw, the O-Line and RBs have to find ways to move the chains and not force Franks into many bad down-and-distance scenarios.  Hopefully Davis and Toney can have some success outside the tackles and around end, while Perine and Thompson will need to run tough inside.  I keep saying it – throw more to the RBs to get them in space and take pressure off of the QB and O-Line.  The passing game took a major hit with Cleveland’s ankle injury apparently keeping him out this week.  No one else has stood out or been a consistent contributor, and this could prove problematic.  Josh Hammond supposedly had an excellent fall camp, but has disappeared during the regular season.  Dre Massey has been on the milk carton photos Lewis hasn’t.  Brandon Powell is the senior and has made some plays, but it’s been solely with his legs, trying to make defenders miss after getting a short pass.  It’s not all on their shoulders, as Franks has struggled with his reads and progressions, but they have to start getting separation from DBs and getting open quickly.  Another steady diet of swing passes and short passes within a few yards of the LOS isn’t going to cut it this week.  This is not a vintage LSU front seven – Florida should be able to find some success running the ball if they stay patient, and Franks can make some plays downfield if he’ll just trust his WRs and make some throws on time and in rhythm.

The Gator defense knows it will be in a physical war this week.  LSU is still a run-dominant team, and has two terrific RBs in Derrius Guice and Darrell Williams.  Their O-Line is not as talented as in years past, but is no slouch.  The Florida LBs need to play their best game of the season – scraping off of blocks, making better reads and run fits in the gaps, and staying in their zones in coverage.  Will the light finally come on for these guys?  The D-Line needs to continue it’s strong play, getting penetration to disrupt blocking schemes and timing and forcing the Tiger RBs wide.  The DEs are a proven commodity, and should make QB Danny Etling’s life miserable if LSU is forced to throw regularly.  If the Gators can’t slow the running game, then big-play WR DJ Chark becomes even more dangerous – he is LSU’s playmaker, and the Gator secondary has to keep him contained all afternoon.

As usual, Florida has a huge advantage on special teams.  Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend have been excellent all season and are far better than their counterparts in this game.  The punt coverage team showed improvement against Vanderbilt, and needs to continue to get better.  The Gator offense isn’t good enough to score a lot on it’s own, and needs some help with occasional field position wins.

This team has been maddening to watch so far, matching great plays with dumb mistakes and horrible tackling.  The current level of inconsistency will eventually catch up to them unless it is reduced dramatically.  LSU will have a ton of motivation after the Gators gutted out the big win in the Hurricane Matthew game at Baton Rouge last year, along with the embarrassment they suffered at home last week.  The Tigers still have enough quality talent to win most games they play.  Hopefully the Gators are smart enough to realize they cannot overlook anyone, and remember how hard they’ll need to play for 4 quarters.  Coach Mac certainly remembers all the crap that came from Alleva and the entire Tiger camp before last year’s game, and I know that he personally wants this game badly.  I’m thinking that there will be some new wrinkles from both the offense and defense this week that the staff has been holding back.  With such a flawed team, it’s imperative to minimize turnovers and penalties.  This game is usually a close affair into the 4th quarter, and I expect the same in this one.

Prediction:  Florida 23      LSU 20

 

 

 

 

Kentucky Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida’s winning streak reached 31 against Kentucky with another ugly performance that had a beautiful ending.  After being outplayed for most of the first 3 quarters, the Gators dominated the 4th quarter to overcome a 13-point deficit and steal a SEC road win.

After watching Feleipe Franks stumble through another rough outing, Coach Mac inserted Luke Del Rio late in the 3rd quarter to try and spark the offense.  It turned out to be the correct call, as the offense came to life and moved the ball effectively and scored 2 touchdowns.  Malik Davis had the hot hand at RB, and surprisingly led the way with 21 carries for 93 yards to help establish a consistent running threat.  Kedarious Toney again showed why he is already one of the best freshmen in the SEC with a 36-yard TD run out of the wildcat formation and a long pass to Tyrie Cleveland that set up the first TD of the 4th quarter.  Cleveland scored a TD of his own in the 2nd quarter on a 4th down play known as “jazz hands”, where the staff had noticed that Kentucky sometimes was slow to cover an outside receiver out of a bunch formation.  Fortunately Franks saw the opening and delivered the ball to Cleveland.  Unbelievably, the same play worked to perfection late in the game for the winning score on a pass from LDR to Freddie Swain.  The O-Line did a decent job of run blocking even with no real threat from Franks and the passing game.  However, you could immediately see a huge improvement in both run and pass blocking when LDR entered the game.  He knows the playbook better than any of the QBs, and also knows how to call blocking scheme changes that help the O-Line.  The pocket was basically clean the last 20 minutes of the game.

The playcalling of Doug Nussmeier remains numbingly poor and predictable.  The swing passes and pitches to the short side of the field.  Only one deep throw.  No slant routes.  Passes within 2 yards (or behind) the LOS when longer yardage is needed..  Any time there was a pass on first down, you could count on a run on 2nd down and a pass on third down.  The same crap for 3 seasons, and the opposing coaches actually get paid to see the same things.  Nuss must go.

Shockingly, Deandre Goolsby made 2 clutch catches to extend drives in the second half, the first real contribution out of the TE position all season.  Greg Nord must go.

The punt coverage was abysmal – no lane integrity, poor angles.  Greg Nord must go.

The WRs still cannot get open consistently, displaying poor technique getting off the LOS and sloppy route-running.  Kerry Dixon must go.

Overreaction?  Not after 2+ years of this mess.

The Gator defense did not help the cause by allowing the Mildcats to control the ball and clock for almost 3 quarters.  The same problems have not been corrected yet – poor run game fits by the LBs, poor coverage by the safeties, no one setting the edge on outside runs, and incredibly bad tackling.  The loss of LB Vosean Joseph for a targeting call in the first half hurt the defense, already missing LB Kylan Johnson due to injury.  Nick Washington looked bad in coverage, getting beaten for Kentucky’s first TD.  The D-Line struggled in the first half against the run, but settled down in the second half and finally found it’s footing.  The pass rush was terrific all night, ending a handful of Mildcat drives that could have put the game away before the QB change for Florida.  Finally, the CB play from the freshmen continues to excel – they have helped save the team from what could be an 0-3 start.

Vanderbilt comes to the Swamp off of a crushing 59-0 loss to Alabama at home.  After getting off to a 3-0 start and talking themselves up, they were reminded of their place.  It will be interesting to see how they react to the loss – come out deflated, or use the embarrassment as motivation.  At this point it may not matter to the Gators, as they have so many issues of their own that no opponent can be overlooked.

The Commodore’s quick start to the season was led by their defense, as their offense has looked even worse that Florida’s.  Head Coach Derek Mason has done a very good job of coordinating the defense since he fired his defensive coordinator in the middle of the 2016 season (see Coach Mac – it can be done).  The Vandy front seven had been solid against the run, led by a very good LB corps.  However, they were literally run over last week by Alabama, so perhaps the Florida coaching staff can find some things in the film to exploit.  Their secondary is suspect, but who knows if the Gators can take advantage of it until it’s proven?  If LDR is named the starter this week (and I don’t see any reason not to), that should lend itself to a more varied passing scheme and (hopefully) more consistent success and balance.  The WRs should be able to get open more often.  The RB rotation of Davis, Lemical Perine, and Mark Thompson has been effective the last 2 weeks, and will be relied upon again.  The O-Line will need to continue to mesh, and should have improved communication with LDR at QB.  Finally, Toney should continue to terrorize defenses with his speed and playmaking ability.

Randy Shannon and the entire defensive staff have so much to work on, it’s hard to decide where to start.  This is perhaps the worst tackling team I’ve seen since the 1970s.  The LB play has been especially poor, hampered by both injuries and suspensions, with no relief in sight.  The DEs are doing a great job rushing the QB, but still are allowing way to many easy runs to the outside on sweeps and on not maintaining lane integrity on draw plays.  The safeties have really struggled – Chauncey Gardner while (not) tackling, and Washington in coverage.  I expect to see more of Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart this week – might as well throw Stewart in like the freshmen playing well at CB – he has the raw ability to be very good.  Perhaps it’s time to consider a 5 man front to shore up the edges, and let the chips fall where they may for the LBs.  The return of Joseph from his targeting ejection last week will be a huge boost.  A 5-2-4 alignment may be just what’s needed to get the best 11 defensive players on the field for now.

It hasn’t been pretty, but the Gators don’t need to make any apologies for being 2-0 in SEC play.  The important things are continuing to correct mistakes, developing the young players as the team is essentially on probation with 9 suspended players and some injured ones, and focusing only on the next  game.  It’s the start of a critical 3-game home stand that could set Florida up for another run to Atlanta, or expose the team’s flaws and really ramp up the “noise in the system”.  The pressure continues unabated for Coach Mac to improve the offense, while Shannon and the defensive staff have to find ways to mask the poor LB play.  For now, it’s hard to imagine a performance by this team that leads to a comfortable win until it happens.

Finally, now that felony charges have been filed for the “Suspended 9”, I’m hearing some disturbing things about what’s happening both inside and outside of the locker room.  Coach Mac is going to need to change his “aw shucks” persona and get tough publicly, and he also needs to not let friendships with coaches preclude improvement.

Never a dull moment for Gator Nation.

Prediction:  Florida 20      Vanderbilt 17

 

 

 

 

Tennessee Review / Kentucky Preview

“Train Right Open, Big Ben In”

That’s the play call that (again) will be etched into Florida Football history.  Unbelievable – the same play that won the game against Tennessee in 2015 came up aces again on Saturday, with the 63-yard throw from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland putting the dagger into the Vol’s hearts – again.  The 4th quarter turned what had been a mundane, low-scoring game into a highlight reel.

While all of the headlines will be about the last-play TD, it was the Gator defense that set the stage by holding the Vols to 3 points until the offense finally found some footing late.  The defense came up with many stops in it’s own territory throughout the game, forcing Tennessee to try long FGs (3 of which missed).  Duke Dawson came up with a huge pick at the Gator 1-yard line late in the third quarter, and CJ Henderson continues to shine as a true freshman with another pick six early in the 4th quarter to give Florida a 10 point cushion.  The one area of major concern is the poor defense of the linebackers, both against the run and pass.  There were again a host of missed tackles against the Vol RBs, and this group still hasn’t defended screen passes properly and continues to vacate the middle in pass coverage.  These were the only reasons Tennessee’s offense finally made it a close game, scoring way too quickly and easily in the 4th quarter.  Some of that might be attributed to getting worn down by having to play so many snaps due to the offensive struggles, but there were too many poor angles taken and a lack of recognition of pass-play development.  Coaches Shannon and Skipper have to get this corrected, even if it means moving to more 4-2-5 sets and getting another DB into coverage.

The offense again had it’s struggles, but did show signs of life in the running game.  Each of Lemical Perine, Mark Thompson, and Malik Davis had their moments, especially the long run by Davis that almost became a back-breaking TD to give the Gators a 17 point lead and effectively end the game.  It was good to see a few throws on slants to the WRs, which helped keep the LBs honest.  Kedarious Toney was finally unleashed, and showed off some big-time moves and speed.  His athletic ability will help the other WRs get more single coverage, and open up the entire field for Franks.  The route-running and lack of separation by the WRs remains a concern, and Coach Dixon isn’t impressing anyone right now with the lack of development of this group.  Every offensive unit still lacks consistency, and has room to improve.  Finally, moving Doug Nussmeier to the booth may have helped a little, but the lack of aggressiveness and assertiveness of his playcalling still is handcuffing the offense and in my opinion prevents the players from playing fast and loose as they should.  The Gators still aren’t taking full advantage of the speed of their skill players to threaten defenses all over the field.

It sounds like Volsheimers is setting in early in Knoxville, as somehow their narrative is that the better team lost.

Well, when you……

didn’t lead the entire game

have Florida lose a 73 yard touchdown run when the ball was stripped from behind at the one

had the ball first and goal at the one and didn’t score

missed 3 FGs

played a Florida offense with only 4 skill position players having more than 14 career games of experience

played against a Gator defense that at some times in the 4th quarter had 7 freshmen playing

……and don’t win, you didn’t deserve to win, and likely should have never been that close.

It’s on to the Bluegrass State to face a Kentucky team that is talking proud right now about how they have finally “arrived” in the SEC East this season.  This after coming off wins such as struggling on the road to beat a bad Southern Mississippi team, an ugly home win over Eastern Kentucky, and winning at South Carolina against an overrated Lamecock team.  Any time you get a road win in the SEC that is to be commended, but I’m not buying into the media hype that this is the year the Wildcats end their 30-game losing streak to the Gators just yet.  Head Coach Mike Stoops has his team playing solid fundamental football and limiting mistakes, but Florida is a large step up in talent and won’t be as accommodating.

Florida’s offense showed some glimpses of improvement and big-play capability against Tennessee, and must continue to attack more often and get the ball into the hands of Toney and Davis.  Their ability to stretch the field and spread out the defense opens up the rest of the offense, and allows Franks to become more comfortable in the passing game.  The Gator running game showed improvement last week and should have more success against a Kentucky D-Line they physically outmatch.  The rotation of Perine, Thompson, and Davis is improving, and allows each guy to stay fresh into the second half.  Franks hopefully will improve and quicken his decision-making, as he left a lot of yards on the field against Tennessee both as a passer and runner.  Josh Hammond seems to be the #2 WR behind Cleveland now, and he plus Toney have to help make the defense play more honest in coverage.  Perhaps Dre Massey will finally be removed from the side of milk cartons and get some touches.  The O-Line improved a little, but at this point I’m not expecting more than a middle of the pack performance this season.  This is where the playcalling has to help the entire offense – Coach Mac needs to continue to ensure the keys players are getting the ball and somehow quicken the pace of play.  So far the TE position has contributed nothing – a huge disappointment.  Here’s hoping Kemore Gamble gets healthy soon and can get on the field.

The old adage that defense travels is the mantra for this week.  The Gator defense has to shake off a bad 4th quarter of minor injuries and poor tackling against Tennessee and get back to solid fundamentals.  Kentucky simply doesn’t have the playmakers or firepower that the Vols have on offense, and the Gators should be able to control the action at the LOS and force QB Stephen Johnson into situations he is not comfortable in.  Johnson is more of a threat as a runner than as a passer and is the second leading rusher behind Benny Snell, so the DEs must stay in their rush lanes and contain him in the pocket.  Snell is the Wildcat workhorse – he’s not especially fast or elusive, but plays a physical game and tries to wear down opponents.  C.J. Conrad is the main receiving target – he doesn’t have many catches, but has a large average per catch, making big plays after defenses bunch up to stop the running game.  The Gator secondary has enough talent and playmakers to control the Wildcat WRs as long as they maintain discipline and don’t get caught looking into the backfield and allowing receivers to get behind them.  The LB corps misses Kylan Johnson and lacks quality depth right now, but simply has to play better and smarter – starting with containing the QB on scramble plays this week.

Florida’s special teams should have a huge advantage in this game.  Anything they can do to help field position and assist in generating points is always magnified on the road.

Someday Kentucky will end their losing streak to Florida, which now stands at 30.  They are at home, and will have an excited crowd behind them for a night game.  However, even with an offense and QB that are works in progress, the Gators have a better defense and a decided edge on special teams.  The coaching staff should be able to use the tape from the Tennessee game to keep the players focused on improving, and let all the talk coming out of the Kentucky camp provide motivation to keep the streak alive.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Kentucky 17

 

 

 

 

Tennessee Preview

Another season, another weather-impacted game.  Hurricane Irma caused the cancellation of Florida’s game against Northern Colorado, and now the Gators have lost a much-needed week of game prep and live action to work out the myriad problems on offense before the SEC opener against Tennessee.  Between this and the ongoing suspensions of 9 players for their role in the credit scam, Coach Mac can’t seem to catch a break.  From what I’m hearing, the investigation of those players is a criminal one, and they may not be back for weeks.  A literal and figurative black cloud still follows the Florida program.

The spotlight continues to remain on the Gator offense.  Assuming Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett are still unavailable due to suspension, Coach Mac has to make sure to spread the ball around to the rest of the playmakers.  If that means taking over play calling duties from Doug Nussmeier, then by all means do it.  Nuss isn’t getting it done, and will move upstairs to the coaches box……perhaps the first step in taking him completely out of the loop.  I really don’t think the offense needs to resort to anything special as far as the scheme goes – just play physical and fast.  The O-Line did not play well in the opener, and still has something to prove.  Establishing an effective running game will set everything else up for Franks and the WRs.  Coach Davis – do something to improve the interior OL play, especially at guard. Start Brett Heggie at a minimum, as Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson didn’t get it done in game 1.  For whomever is calling the plays – please use the RBs in the passing game (swing passes/screens) to take pressure off of both Franks and the OL; throw some passes between the hashmarks – it’s allowed; and get the ball into the hands of Kedarious Toney and Dre Massey in space to make plays. Tennessee’s defense is built on funneling plays to their LBs, each of whom is averaging over 10 tackles per game.  If Florida can take advantage of it’s speed on the perimeter and the O-Line can get to the second level, the offense will have finally have success.

The Gator defense will be healthy, and has to take it to the Volunteer offense from the start.  Blitzes, stunts, new looks – Coach Shannon has to show more aggressiveness in his schemes and not try to protect the young LBs and DBs.  The Florida D-Line should be able to control the LOS – it’s up to the back seven to make plays.  Coach Shannon and Coach Rumph – get on the asses of the DEs and teach them to play their assignments and rush lanes…..no more conversions of 3rd-and-10+ yards with freakin’ draw plays.  Tennessee has mostly new faces on offense.  QB in Quinten Dormady has looked OK so far, but has not faced a good defense yet and is still an unknown quantity.  RB John Kelly does look like a good player, and is the workhorse.  WR Marquez Callaway is a big play threat both as a receiver and on jet sweeps.  The Gator defense will focus on those three and force others to emerge.  I’m excited about Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson – they are going to be excellent CBs. I’m hoping to see Brad Stewart in an expanded role at safety and Shawn Davis develop – if Chauncey Gardner and/or Nick Washington aren’t on the field, these guys have to step up.  Get after the Tennessee offense – apply pressure, hit some people, and challenge them to make plays.

There is massive pressure on the entire staff and team to win this week.  The bad taste of the Michigan performance hasn’t been washed away, and an 0-2 start would cripple any expectations for this season as well as stop the great recruiting momentum gained over the summer.  No way around it – losing the experience of playing the N. Colorado game hurts the development of Franks and took away the chance to get a lot of young players more experience.  Coach Mac is giving indications that things will change for the offense, which is welcome.  I’m hoping the team doesn’t press too much and make dumb mistakes that prove costly.  The Gators match up as a better team on paper, but must prove it on the field – here’s hoping some much-needed relief comes for Gator Nation.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Tennessee 20

Irma 1          Florida 0

Michigan Review/Northern Colorado Preview

The Gators fell flat in Dallas, getting run off the field with a terrible second half performance and getting embarrassed by Michigan.  After an entire offseason to get the offense right and to prepare, the offensive coaching staff was indeed offensive, earning an ‘F’ grade for a dismal game plan that dredged up more of the same garbage that Gator fans have had to witness for most of the last seven seasons.  The suspensions of Callaway and Scarlett are no excuse, as Doug Nussmeier put another nail in his coffin by handcuffing Franks and the skill players with a painfully conservative game plan.  No throws between the hashmarks, no screens, no throws to the RBs to slow a constant Wolverine pass rush, no getting the ball in the hands of playmakers like Dre Massey and Kedarious Toney, no consistent runs to the outside (one of the few things that had success), no……anything.  The O-Line was over matched physically, and became a sieve in the second half as Michigan blitzed unrelentingly and the interior of the O-Line failed to match up.  The poor playcalling did not help them or the new QBs at all.

Other than a few nice deep throws by Feleipe Franks, there was no running game, no consistency, and certainly no aggressive calls in those precious few opportunities in Michigan territory.  Even the one run by Mark Thompson that broke for a TD and would have given the Gators a 24-13 lead was called back for a phantom holding penalty.  I understand why Mac pulled Franks for Malik Zaire after a few shaky series and a fumble, but Zaire did not provide a spark, and by then Michigan was teeing off on the passing game and he never had a chance.  I am surprised that Franks wasn’t allowed to go back in after a few series to get more experience and try to generate something.  One of the few players who showed out was WR Tyrie Cleveland, who played hard throughout and came up with some tough catches in traffic.  But even he wasn’t completely without fault, as his fumble on a kickoff return led to a quick Wolverine FG to stretch their second half lead.  Just a complete disaster that has to shake the confidence of a young offense and has the fan base grumbling (again).  It’s time for Coach Mac to cut bait and take over playcalling immediately, or else he could derail the season by October and start dragging himself down with his loyalty to Nuss, who needs to be let go.

The Gator defense showed flashes of being a solid unit, but also showed expected problems in the secondary, especially at safety.  The loss of Marcell Harris was felt as two blown coverages led to Michigan’s first and last offensive TDs – the first right after Chauncey Gardner had to leave the field for a few series after an injury.  Duke Dawson was solid at CB, tying the game with a pick six.  True freshmen CBs Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson played very well, with Henderson even giving the Gators the lead with a pick six of his own.  There will be some growing pains for the secondary as the season progresses, but there’s hope that by midseason it’s a quality group overall, with a bright future beyond 2017.  The D-Line and LBs had some moments, but also some critical breakdowns.  The DEs consistently came out of their rush lanes and did not set the edge, allowing some crippling draw plays and rushes bounced to the outside to extend scoring drives.  The only DE that doesn’t fall into that category is Jordan Sherit, who actually made some plays and had a sack.  The LBs missed a lot of tackles by taking some poor angles, and also were exposed in the passing game, as the Michigan TEs consistently beat them with crossing routes.  The tackling exception was David Reese who led the team with 11.

Overall, the defense played well enough to win, especially rising to the occasion in the second half and holding Michigan to 2 FGs after critical fumbles by Franks and Cleveland deep inside Gator territory.  They eventually cracked just enough as the offense continually floundered……a theme repeated all too often the past 3 seasons.  There’s plenty to work on and to improve.  Randy Shannon has to show more looks on the defensive front, and also get the front seven to play with more discipline.

Special teams were solid, even with one missed FG by Eddy Pineiro.  Johnny Townsend was terrific as usual in the punting game, continually flipping the field.

How deflating – Gator Nation turned out in force and had the energy and attendance advantage – only to witness a soul-crushing coaching performance.

Next up is the home opener against Northern Colorado.  There’s a lot for the staff and players to work on in practice, and hopefully they can shake off the disappointment of last week and show improvement, especially the offense.  Coach Mac will start Franks again as he should, but has to take over the play calling and let the skill players play fast, spread the ball around, and actually have some fun.  This week should be a good opportunity to play a lot of guys, while giving Franks the chance to develop some confidence.  The defense should have little trouble controlling the game.  There’s no time to relax, as a big game against Tennessee looms next week, with a tough run of games all the way to the off week before Georgia.  Unfortunately, other than James Robinson, there’s no official word on which of the ten players suspended last week will be allowed to play, so their stupidity affects the cohesion of the rest of the team.  Hopefully there are no serious injuries before the SEC season begins.

The fans at this point are likely not to be too excited even if the offense improves and the Gators win big, waiting to see good play against a legitimate opponent.  Another ugly performance from the offense and things could head downhill really fast, including the defense turning on the offense in the locker room.  A rather inauspicious start to 2017.

Prediction:  Florida 41      UNC 13

 

Michigan Preview

The 2017 season kicks off with a monster game against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys.  This is part of national television doubleheader, with a lot of media attention and fans across the country tuning in to watch 2 big-time programs.  There are a lot more questions than answers going into the start of the season.  Has Coach McElwain finally constructed a competent offense?  Does Florida have a QB?  Is Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon re-loading the defense, or is it a re-build?  Can Florida set aside the off-season distraction of suspensions to 7 players and play a focused, hard-fought game?  We’re about to find out.

On offense, Coach Mac has been coy with the media about who will start at QB, but I am going with my season preview pick of Feleipe Franks as the guy who gets first crack at it.  To help move the ball against a tough D-Line and keep Franks upright, I believe Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier will have an assortment of quick passes, roll-outs, motion, counter plays, and misdirection to keep the QB clean while (hopefully) wearing down the Wolverine defense.  I do expect to see at least 2 guys taking some snaps, though, as Mac has to develop Malik Zaire in this offense (he is a real threat as a runner), or get Luke Del Rio the opportunity to shake some rust off after missing the last month of 2016 due to various injuries.

The Gator O-Line will have to take charge of the LOS against a strong Michigan front four, and actually score enough points to help a talented but inexperienced defense.  New OL coach Brad Davis has an O-Line that has enough experience, depth, and talent that it should be able to do enough to allow the skill position players their chance to make some big plays and announce themselves to the nation.  Martez Ivey will be playing hurt, but is a potential all-SEC LT.  TJ McCoy has to build on his good play at center after he became the starter the last month of 2016.  Jawaan Taylor will be even better after a fine freshman year at RT.  If the combination of Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson, and Brett Heggie can hold their own in the interior, this will make the life of whomever is playing QB much easier.

New RB coach Ju’Juan Seider has a deep stable of RBs ready to do their part, if they are given some room.  Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine will get most of the carries, and Mark Thompson is a big back that could start for many teams.  True freshman Malik Davis may get some work if Thompson is suspended for the  game.  All of them are good receivers as well, and can really help take some pressure off of the QB with some safe throws while getting out into space to make plays.

The WRs must take up the slack for the loss of Antonio Callaway to suspension.  It’s time for coach Kerry Dixon to get consistent performance out of this group.  Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond have their turn to show out, while Dre Massey, Brandon Powell, and freshman Kedarious Toney could do some serious damage from the slot, as all are big play threats.  Toney will also get a few snaps in the wildcat formation in order to keep Michigan’s defense honest while giving him additional touches where he could make something happen.  Michigan’s secondary is completely new, so the Gator WRs should have a decided advantage and be able to generate some big plays.

Michigan is replacing 7 defensive starters with a lot of young talent, but it is inexperienced, and it’s doubtful they have reliable depth to count on at the start of a season.  Their D-Line has real quality players in Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, and Bryan Mone.  This is the strength of their defense, and will be a huge challenge for Florida’s O-Line.  At LB they have only one returning starter in Mike McCray, but he is a potential all-conference player.  Michigan likes to employ a big safety on a majority of snaps that can drop down into the box, but they no longer have the luxury of All-American Jabrill Peppers, who is in the NFL.  Their new secondary has very little experience, few tackles, and no interceptions among the group.  A bunch of lightly-used upperclassmen and true freshmen will be thrown in to the fire, and it’s imperative that Mac and Nuss exploit them.

The Gator defense has a lot of unknown talent getting it’s chance to make a name for itself.  Despite the losses of 8 players to the NFL, there is enough talent and depth returning to again be an upper-level SEC defense and hold it’s own against any offense.  The D-Line will need to lead the way, in order to protect a good LB corps that lacks depth and a secondary that has lost impact players and is very young.  The DT rotation of Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and 3 freshmen have to stand up to a tough Michigan running game.  The Wolverines are replacing 10 offensive starters, and Coach Jim Harbaugh will rely on the run along with multiple TE sets to try and wear down Florida’s front seven.  It will be fun to watch Randy Shannon and DL coach Chris Rumph mix and match a deep rotation to try and gain at least a stalemate at the LOS and be able to turn loose a large group of pass-rushers at DE.  If the Gators can force Michigan to pass, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, and others should be able to make life miserable for QB Wilton Speight, new OTs and an inexperienced WR corps.

Shannon’s defensive schemes usually ask the D-Line to occupy the blockers, allowing the LBs to clean things up.  The starting LB group of David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph will be tested by the Wolverine running game, and have to tackle well.  Michigan returns 3 RBs that combined for over 1,500 yards, led by Chris Evans, who has elite size and talent and should get the majority of carries.  Coach Tim Skipper has only Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia as experienced backups, and will have to manage this group wisely.

When Michigan does choose to throw they have a young but physically large group or WRs led by Grant Perry and Eddie McDoom, but true freshmen Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones will play a lot.  They will have a size advantage over CBs Duke Dawson, Chauncey Gardner, Joseph Putu, and a handful of true freshmen led by Marco Wilson.  These guys have to try and alter routes at the LOS and prevent letting the WRs use their size on slant routes.  Nick Washington is the only returning starter at safety, and will be tasked with getting the entire secondary lined up properly and getting the right coverage calls in.  Jaewon Taylor saw increased playing time the last month of 2016, and needs to play well.  Gardner may have to move back and forth from CB to safety during the game.  Freshmen Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart will be pressed into duty and, while being promising prospects, have zero college experience along with being thrown into a high-pressure game against a quality opponent.  Coach Corey Bell is going to have his hands full all season finding the right combinations of players while having to develop the young guys immediately.

One area that Florida should have a sizeable advantage is on Special Teams – especially the kicking game.  K Eddy Pineiro and P Johnny Townsend could be the best kicking duo in the country, and could prove to be a huge edge in the field position battle along with providing relief to both the offense and defense.  Both will have to be sharp from the outset and come through in pressure situations.  There may so little room for error in this game that either one could be the difference.  With Callaway out, Massey or Powell will handle punt returns, while Cleveland and Toney will get their shot at kickoff returns.  Each of these guys has the ability to impact the game with a big return, which would take some pressure off of both the offense and defense.

I can’t overstate how important this game is to both teams to start the season.  There is a lot riding on the outcome for Florida – national respect, conference pride, building confidence in the direction of the program, and a boost in the chances of this year’s team attaining some major goals.  Coach McElwain now has most of the roster filled with his own recruits, and has to try and put together a big season against a very tough schedule.  The entire staff and the players have to be as prepared and as sharp as can be expected right out of the gate, with little room for error.  Having the entire offseason knowing they had Michigan in the opener has hopefully given the team the focus and incentive it needs to win.  If the offense finds it’s footing and actually carries it’s own weight, while the defense plays solid assignment football and limits big plays, I think the Gators have enough of an edge in experience to win the game.

Prediction: Florida 24      Michigan 20

2017 Season Preview

Jim McElwain begins his 3rd season as head coach with the most balanced roster of his tenure. He has finally been able to build depth at all positions, and is not relying solely on heath, transfers, and good luck to survive an entire SEC season at any particular position. New energy has been infused into both coaching and recruiting with the addition of Brad Davis as the OL coach, Ja’Juan Seider as RB coach, and Corey Bell as secondary coach. All 3 have the juice to energize their players and also recruits. The offense, which has struggled mightily at times since 2011, finally has enough legitimate talent and depth to compete against anyone. The defense actually carries more question marks coming into 2017, moreso due to loss of experience than to the talent returning. Randy Shannon moves into the Defensive Coordinator role, and will have to scheme around a lot of young players who will have to contribute from the start. Overall, there is more positive momentum coming into this season than there has been in a long time, and it is welcome.

Offense

It’s time for the offense to carry it’s fair share of the load for the Gators, and to even lead the team. There is quality and depth at all positons, but inexperience at QB could tell the tale of 2017. Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier are tired of the criticism, and are ready to put a consistent, competent product on the field.

At quarterback, it appears that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks has taken the lead in fall practice and will begin the season as the starter. He is being thrown into a tough position, as he has no college experience, had a lot of hype coming in as a recruit, and has an impatient Gator Nation ready to see a quality offense. He has all of the physical tools to be very good, but will need to be coached well to overcome the inexperience and take advantage of what he can do well right now. Fortunately he redshirted last season in order to learn the offense.

Luke Del Rio will be vying with Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire as the backup. Both have starting experience, but come with question marks of their own. LDR has to prove he’s healthy, while Zaire is behind on learning the playbook. LDR knows this offense better than the others, while Zaire is a very good athlete and provides a running dynamic that sets him apart. I would not be surprised to see all three guys get snaps throughout September, both to give the Gators the best chance at winning, but also to give the players the chance to prove who can be most effective in live action.

Coach Seider inherits a talented and deep RB corps from Tim Skipper, who is now coaching the LBs. Jordan Scarlett returns as the leading rusher from 2016, and has established himself as the lead back. Lamical Perine played very well as a true freshman last season, and should receive more snaps this year. Mark Thompson returns with the strongest physical presence, but still has to prove he’s mentally focused every snap and has improved his ball security. True freshman Malik Davis impressed in fall camp, and likely gets some snaps this fall. Each of the returning RBs is also comfortable with catching passes – this could be an important way to take pressure off of whomever is playing QB.

The wide receivers are by far the most talented and deep group under McElwain’s watch. Coach Kerry Dixon will need to scheme around the suspension of Antonio Callaway at least against Michigan, but there are plenty of capable players ready to step in. Tyrie Cleveland showed flashes as a true freshman in 2016, and now must show he is ready for a lead role. The return of Dre Massey from injury gives the Gators a weapon in the slot. Josh Hammond saw limited duty as a true freshman, but has stepped into a starting role with a strong offseason. Brandon Powell provides senior leadership and consistency, while true freshmen Daquon Green and James Robinson have enough raw talent to contribute right away. The x-factor will be freshman Kadarious Toney, a high school QB who enrolled early and immediately made an impact with his running ability. He will be a slot receiver, but will also get snaps in the wildcat formation at QB – he is a dangerous playmaker. There is now enough speed and size in this group to keep defensive secondaries from stacking the line of scrimmage and allowing the running game room to really shine.

The tight end position will again be more of a receiving threat vs. being involved in the running game. C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return as proven threats on seam and wheel routes, which should help keep opponent LBs honest. Both must catch the ball more consistently. True freshman Kemore Gamble has to potential to be a real 3-down player that can stay on the field for any down-and-distance situation. Until any of these three prove they are effective in-line blockers, Coaches Mac and Nuss will continue to flex out the TEs to scheme around their blocking deficiencies. If they can improve in the running game, that will lessen the predictability of the play-calling based on the personnel on the field.

For once, the offensive line isn’t the primary concern. Coach Davis has enough talent and depth to field a solid SEC-level rotation at each position. At center, TJ McCoy was a revelation when finally given the chance to play, and has entrenched himself as the starter. The guard position has been a shaky one the past 2 seasons, but Fred Johnson, Tyler Jordan, and Brett Heggie are a solid group that hopefully stops the inside penetration that has hampered the offense. Antonio Riles returns from missing 2016 due to injury to provide depth. The tackle position is in excellent shape in regards to the starters. Martez Ivey finally gets to play his natural position of left tackle, and could be an all-SEC player this fall. Jawaan Taylor was a true find as a lightly-regarded recruit last year, and excelled as a true freshman at right tackle. Kavaris Harkless, Nick Buchanan, and true freshmen Kadeem Telfort and T.J. Moore will back up both positions. Most of these guys have cross-trained at other positions, so a few injuries shouldn’t derail the overall performance. This is still a young group overall in regards to experience, but a very capable one that could provide the foundation for (finally) an SEC-competent offense.

Defense

The defense had led the Gators since 2011, but will have a lot of new faces and some inexperience to overcome. Florida was hammered with the loss of early NFL entrants DT Caleb Brantley, LB Alex Anzalone, and CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincey Wilson, along with the graduation of LB Jarrad Davis and S Marcus Maye. The overall talent left behind and from the incoming freshman approaches that level, but that loss of experience is difficult to overcome immediately, if at all. Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon will earn his salary this year in trying to mold together a cohesive unit that limits mistakes and can stand up to a tough schedule. Hopefully the offense finally shares the load again, and can keep these guys fresher and healthier as the season progresses.

Defensive Line coach Chris Rumph will have a lot of talent to manage. He has plenty of depth this fall, but it is young and needs to be developed quickly. The defensive line loses Joey Ivie as well as Brantley at tackle, and it will be a rotation of upperclassmen Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and freshmen Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe holding down the fort. Shannon’s schemes usually doesn’t require the DTs to be the playmakers – instead asking them to hold the point of attack and allowing the LBs to clean up. The freshmen will get a lot of snaps by necessity, and at least have the size to hold up against physical SEC O-Lines. The DE rotation could be one of the best in the country. CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jordan Sherit, Keivonnis Davis, and Antonneus Clayton all have pass-rushing ability, and freshman Zach Carter will play as well (perhaps sliding down to tackle if necessary). Jefferson and Zuniga especially have flashed elite pass-rushing skills. There is enough depth that a few injuries shouldn’t significantly affect the performance of this group.

Tim Skipper moves from coaching the RBs to the LBs, but has coached that position at previous stops. He has a strong nucleus returning that was forced to learn and grow out of necessity last season due to injuries to Davis and Anzalone, but has little depth and experience behind the starters. He will have to manage this group carefully and hope they stay healthy. Sophomores Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and David Reese will start, with Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia the only backups with experience. True freshmen Ventrell Miller, James Houston, and Nick Smith all have promise, but will have to be thrown to the SEC wolves this year to try and keep the starters fresh while not seeing a major dropoff in production. It will be interesting to see how often Shannon chooses to run a 4-2-5 scheme based on the performance of the D-Line; this could help keep the LB corps healthy throughout the season. Shannon is one of the best LB coaches in the country, and will be a huge help to this group.

After more than a decade of skill, depth, and playmaking ability exhibited by the secondary, 2017 will be a transition year for DBU. Coach Bell has perhaps the most difficult coaching assignment of the staff this fall, and will have to find a way to manage the little experience he has returning, while integrating many talented freshmen into the rotation at both cornerback and safety. Going into fall practice it looks like Duke Dawson will move from the nickel position to CB, with Chauncey Gardner moving from safety to the other CB slot. JUCO transfer Joseph Putu, and freshmen CJ Henderson, Marco Wilson, and C.J. McWilliams will all be in the rotation, with Wilson having locked up the nickel position. The safety position is a mixed bag as well. The offseason loss to injury of Marcell Harris is a huge blow. Nick Washington is the only upperclassman, and will be charged with getting the others lined up correctly pre-snap and providing leadership. Jaewon Taylor received more playing time as a freshman the last month of 2016 and is slotted in Harris’ position. True freshmen Brad Stewart, Brian Edwards, and Shawn Davis, and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton will all play. Davis has moved ahead of the others for now, with Lenton battling foot injuries. Gardner may be forced to move back to safety if injuries or lack of production occur, or (better yet), the young guys develop rapidly at CB. Stewart comes in with a lot of hype, and already has looked the part in fall practice. He is athletic enough where he could be asked to also play some at CB if necessary. There is a scary lack of experience – if either Dawson or Gardner are injured, it could be a long season.

Special Teams

This is one of the best units in the country, featuring perhaps the best PK/punter combo in the nation in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Both are strong All-SEC and All-American candidates.

Pineiro was a revelation in 2016, especially after the disastrous previous season with Austin Hardin. Already an internet sensation, he showed it on the actual field of play. He became an immediate weapon on kickoffs, either generating touchbacks or pinning opponents inside the 25 with his high kicks. Where he really impacted the season was with his FG kicking, where he became an accurate, long-distance weapon. This provided Coaches Mac and Nuss a lot of leeway in playcalling once the offense had crossed midfield. He is good enough to actually consider leaving early after 2017 for the NFL if he repeats his success.

Townsend again was one of the best punters in the country in terms of distance and hang time, while also showing a knack for placing kicks inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. He is vitally important in the field position game, in which those hidden yards are so valuable, especially against tougher opponents. The punt coverage team benefitted from his performance, finishing as one of the best statistically in the nation.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida has one of toughest schedules in the country for 2017. The home schedule is perhaps one of the most loaded – ever, with 4 preseason ranked teams coming into the Swamp. In addition, the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville could be a showdown for the SEC East, while conference road games at Kentucky and South Carolina will pit the Gators against very motivated opponents with their own reasons for wanting to win that game – badly. Navigating this schedule successfully will be a huge undertaking for the entire coaching staff and the players. This season will test the patience of the staff and the depth of the roster they have developed.

vs. Michigan – Win
No easing their way into things. The opener at AT&T Stadium in Dallas on national television is a massive game that can set the tone for a successful season or shake the confidence of the entire team. I’m going to lean on the side of an inspired effort that benefits from an entire fall camp devoted to the game plan. Feleipe Franks has to perform well and move the offense, or this could be another ugly loss to the Wolverines. Fortunately, Michigan is replacing 18 starters, and even with a lot of returning talent, they are very young and inexperienced at almost every position. I believe that’s enough to give the edge to Florida.

Northern Colorado – Win
No matter the result against Michigan, this will likely be a sloppy performance against an outmatched opponent in a sandwich game. Stay healthy, and hopefully get a lot of players some snaps. This should allow the staff to peek ahead to the following game.

Tennessee – Win
Payback time for the Gators. The Volunteers finally ended an 11-game losing streak in the series last year, but were gutted by graduation and will be facing a very motivated Florida team. This one could stay close into the second half as Franks (or whoever the QB may be) acclimates to the starting role. As long as the Gators avoid turnovers and any defensive meltdowns, they should return to their winning ways against the Inbreds.

@Kentucky – Win
The first SEC road trip comes against a team that Florida has defeated 30 straight times. The Wildcats are talking proud about how this is the year they take a step up, but have yet to prove it. They will have enough playmakers on offense to test the inexperienced Gator defense, but still do not have the quality depth on defense to give their offense enough opportunities to win. It can be dicey when a young team goes on the road for the first time, especially if they have struggled against either Michigan or Tennessee.

Vanderbilt – Win
Florida has gutted out two close wins under McElwain, but this year’s offense has more quality and playmakers that should allow for a more comfortable game. The Commodores have a good running game, but lack the QB play and defense to stay competitive for 60 minutes. However, historically this has been a sloppy game, and that could continue as Florida may be thinking about their upcoming Homecoming opponent……

LSU (Homecoming) – Win
Wow. This has quickly turned into a nasty game, especially after LSU and their AD, Joe Alleva, called out the Gators for rescheduling last year’s game at the Swamp because of Hurricane Matthew. All Florida did was then allow L$U to whine their way into playing the game at Baton Rouge, then sticking it to the Tigers to win the SEC East and a return trip to Atlanta. The dramatic goal-line stand to win that game will not be forgotten – by either team. There’s bad blood on both sides, and I expect a lot of penalties and mistakes from both teams. The Gator coaching staff has to rein in the emotions and get the team to focus on execution. This is going to be a classic SEC showdown.

Texas A&M – Loss
Huge trap game for Florida, after the emotional game against LSU and before a critical SEC East showdown. The Aggies will have their usual talent on offense and challenge the Gator defense. The Florida offense had better be ready to score some points and try to control the clock. This would be a disappointing loss, but not a shocking one. Kevin Sumlin is coaching for his job in 2017, and will be even more unpredictable and wide-open on offense.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
This one is tough to predict. Florida has won 21 out of the last 27, and is completely in the heads of the Puppy players. However, Georgia could have a distinct edge at QB, and have a senior-laden defense returning. This one is feeling like the 1997 game, after Steve Spurrier had neutered the Puppies 7 straight times, but came in with a team fighting through a tough schedule and physically beaten up, as well as playing multiple QBs. Given even terms, I give the coaching edge to Coach Mac over Kirby Smart any day, but an off week prior to this game may not be enough.

@Missouri – Win
Trap game between 2 emotional East Division games. The Tigers struggled mightily last year, as their season cratered under the weight of losing defensive talent, playing legitimate SEC East division teams again, and the controversy swirling around their campus and team in regards to myriad poor decisions by the school administration. What a mess, and an embarrassment to the SEC. I wish the SEC had never admitted them and could find a way to kick them out. Missouri will have some threats on offense with a wide-open passing game and talent at RB, but the Gators should have enough talent on defense to slow them down, while the offense should be able to move the ball successfully. This one may simply come down to the mental strength and focus of the Florida players.

@South Carolina – Win
Another chance to kick Won’t Misschump’s ass after he gutted the talent level and depth of Florida’s offense while trashing the Gator brand. He will certainly have his team ready to play to get back at Florida. It remains to be seen if he can put together a competent offense, while he is rebuilding a defense that hasn’t been SEC-level for several years now. This will be another emotional game that the Gator players have to get up for and avoid a letdown. I’m sure Coach Mac has his own motivation to pay back Misschump for the mess he’s had to clean up, and hopefully he can rally the team to close out another brutal SEC season.

Alabama-Birmingham – Win
Normally this game would be a relaxing scrimmage to rest up before the big game the following week, but UAB made some noise last season, including winning at Mississippi State. That should be enough to make the players take notice, and give the coaching staff something to get their attention. Hopefully the staff gets the opportunity in the second half to empty the roster and have some extra preparation time for the final regular season game. Stay healthy – please!

Florida State – Loss
Florida has lost 6 out of 7 to the Criminoles, and Gator Nation is restless. Watching this game has been brutal recently, and it’s time for Florida to get back on even footing. F$U will come into this game with the advantages of stability in the coaching staff and a strong defense. They still have an edge in overall depth and will be coming in off of an ACC schedule that again is not the same gauntlet that is the SEC. The Gators are capable of winning this game, but must be healthy and have an established QB that is also a leader. Being in the Swamp will be a huge help, but the offense has to finally score a touchdown in this game for the first time since 2014, and continue to score.

Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 6-2

2017 is a huge year for Coach Mac to finally show progress on offense and energize the fan base and recruiting. He has rebuilt the depth chart, balanced the roster, and generated momentum from a big recruiting summer. Once again he has to develop a QB in Feleipe Franks and/or juggle 2-3 guys in order to give the Gators the opportunity to win a return trip to Atlanta. The schedule is daunting and will test the entire staff and roster. If Florida can manage to win 9 games playing a big-time national schedule while exhibiting progress on offense and managing a young defense, that will set up things for a very bright future. However, inconsistent QB play, lack of scoring, and a defense that starts to allow big plays will possibly slow the positive momentum. This is going to be another challenging year for Coach Mac and the Gators, but they finally have the talent and depth to make it a fair fight. This could be an exciting, memorable season……for the right reasons.

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

Alabama Review

The rollercoaster 2016 regular season ended at it’s lowest, as Florida was run off the field of the Georgia Dome in the second half in an ugly 54-16 loss. After a great start including a touchdown drive to open the game and an immediate 3-and-out by the Gator defense, things quickly spiraled out of control. Two terrible interceptions by Austin Appleby, one of which was returned for a TD, and then a blocked punt returned for a TD reversed the momentum and forced the Gators to play catch up the rest of the afternoon.

On offense, Appleby was in an early holiday season mood where he giveth, and giveth, and giveth away. 26 for 39 and 2 TDs was good against a very tough defense, but the 3 crushing interceptions completely changed the complexion of the game and allowed Alabama to stay in their comfort zone on offense and defense. This was a microcosm of his career at both Purdue and Florida – occasional big plays offset by too many interceptions and inaccuracy. Despite the interceptions, the offensive game plan was a good one. Coaches Mac and Nussmeier devised a passing game that took advantage of soft coverage in the flats and openings over the middle in the intermediate zones that allowed drives to continue. Quick throws were working, but Appleby’s lack of accuracy and one terrible panicked throw over the middle showed again why he wasn’t the starter until LDR was hurt. The performance of the O-Line was a mixed bag – while they couldn’t sustain any running game, the pass-blocking was very good, allowing Appleby more time than expected to keep plays alive and convert some 3rd downs. Antonio Callaway was hot early on the first TD drive, but was slowed down afterward. Brandon Powell did a nice job of working the flats and underneath zones to convert some 3rd downs, and TE Andre Goolsby was rediscovered and made some clutch receptions along with a TD. Against such a strong team, though, there was no room for error, and the lack of a run threat put Florida behind the chains too often and didn’t allow the Gators to play keep-away from the Bama offense and apply even more pressure on Jalen Hurts to make plays.

The Gator defense came out hot with two consecutive 3-and-outs, but the Appleby turnovers plus the blocked punt return for a TD put them on their heels. In addition, falling behind by double digits took the pressure off of freshman QB Hurts, after the Gators had him rattled early. The avalanche of Bama points that followed from the Gator turnovers removed any realistic chance at an upset win. What momentum the Gators had taken back after their 92-yard TD drive at the end of the first half was lost when they failed to punch it in after another excellent drive early in the 3rd quarter. You could see the team’s spirit visibly broken after being stopped and then allowing a 98-yard TD drive which included a 3rd-and-19 conversion. That was the ballgame, and two late TDs by Bama were inconsequential. All of the injury losses were magnified against a powerful Crimson Tide running game.

Unfortunately the 2016 regular season ended in similar fashion to 2015 with 2 bad losses, and now questions abound about Coach Mac’s leadership, the direction of the program, and recruiting being stuck in neutral. Mac needs to make some difficult decisions, including changes in the staff, to spark recruiting and regain interest from some key recruits still on the board.

The bowl game against Iowa in Tampa is very important for Florida. Something positive needs to happen for the program to get the fan base back in the fold and for the last month leading up to National Signing Day. Normally a game of this stature really wouldn’t carry much weight, but these aren’t normal times for Florida. 7 years of bad QB play and ineffective offense have really affected the fan base and eroded the Gator brand. There will be a lot of cries to play one of the redshirted freshmen QBs to get them ready for 2017, but there’s no way you burn a redshirt at this point. Appleby will get the final start to the season with LDR backing him up. I would hope that after the debacle of the Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan after last season, the returning players and the staff have all the motivation they need to prevent a recurrence of that performance.

I’ll be back with the bowl preview late in December. Happy Holidays – it’s still great to be a Florida Gator!