Florida easily dispatched South Florida 42-20 in Tampa, but the end result was one of inconsistent play, questionable QB decisions from Emory Jones, and possible critical injury news.
The Gators rolled up over 660 yards of offense, dominating the first half to take a commanding 35-3 lead. All was well – a solid running game and some excellent TD throws and runs from both Jones and Anthony Richardson. Then the second half came, and Jones reverted back to his surprisingly slow pass reads and bad decision-making, throwing 2 horrendous picks to end long drives, and opening up the QB controversy door even wider. AR-15 was again an explosive playmaker, with a long TD pass to Copeland and a spectacular 80-yard TD run……which ended with a hamstring strain and now clouds Florida’s chances this week. It was obvious Coach Mullen wanted to emphasize the passing game more to get both QBs some reps, and the WRs played well.
Florida’s defense was again average. The D-line was facing an overmatched opponent and controlled the LOS, but the LB and secondary play again seemed to be sabotaged by a crap scheme from DC Todd Grantham and poor LB coaching from Christian Robinson. South Florida’s offense is poor, and yet the defense allowed 3 long, double-digit play drives, making both Bull QBs look efficient at times. Still way too many guys out of position, playing slow and not instinctively, and sometimes blowing assignments. They did force 2 interceptions, but why Grantham won’t allow more aggressiveness from the secondary is beyond me. Finally, it appears MLB and defensive leader Ventrell Miller will miss the rest of the season with surgery due to a torn biceps tendon. This is a massive blow to the defense, as he’s the guy getting the calls from the sideline, helping guys get into proper position, and far and away the best run defender.
It’s on to the much-anticipated showdown with Alabama at the Swamp, and Gator Nation has a lot to be concerned about. The Florida offense has not really been challenged by a solid defense with talent and depth, but now gets thrown into the deep end of the pool against a Crimson Tide team that continues to roll along, now with an improved defense compared to the past 2 seasons.
The Gator defense faces a monster task against an Alabama offense that comes in with a dominant O-line, solid running game, and enough talent at WR to help redshirt freshman QB Bryce Young develop while still playing efficiently and providing big plays with both his arm and legs. Young has been efficient so far with 7 TD passes and no interceptions. What he hasn’t done much of is run the ball on called QB runs, as I”m sure the Bama staff wants him to protect himself from injury so they don’t have to call upon backups with no real experience. He has shown enough mobility to keep plays alive and not take losses. Their O-line is led by All-American candidate LT Evan Neal, and has numerous talented players and quality depth – this unit has been the unsung key to Bama’s offensive juggernaut the past decade. The RBs are led by Brian Robinson and Trey Sanders – both are physical and tough to tackle. The WRs are led by John Metchie and Ohio St. transfer Jameson Williams, who both have excellent speed. This WR group is nothing like the embarrassment of riches Bama has enjoyed the past 6 years with multiple players being selected in the 1st round of the NFL Draft, but they have been effective and made enough explosive plays to date to stretch defenses and open up the running game.
For the Gators to win, the defensive line has to play lights out for 60 minutes. They have to somehow at least get a stalemate at the LOS to slow the running game and force Young to beat them by passing the ball by necessity. The loss of Ventrell Miller at MLB for perhaps the rest of the season is a huge issue, as he was by far the best run-stuffer of the LB unit. I’m not sure how well the rest of the LBs, led by Mohamoud Diabate and Amari Burney, will stand up to the physical challenge. It looks like Jeremiah Moon is being asked to move from the Buck position to try and shore up the inside, and Ty’Ron Hopper will see an increased role. Florida’s secondary has to find good CB play opposite Kaiir Elam – Avery Helm and Jason Marshall have the raw physical ability but simply lack experience, and have been picked on the first 2 games. The safeties have been out of position too often, and that includes Trey Dean. Grantham’s defensive scheme still seems to confuse his own players too often, and this will kill any chance of victory unless something significant changes.
Florida’s offense has been very effective the first 2 games, but I’m afraid a lot of that is simply fool’s gold against outmanned opponents. I do think the O-line looks more crisp in it’s assignments, but that’s compared to previous mediocre units, The task ahead on Saturday is a massive leap in difficulty. Bama’s D-line is likely the most talented and deepest in the country, led by Tim Smith, Justin Eboigbe, and Byron Young. The same can be said for their LB corps – Christian Harris, Tennessee transfer Henry To’oTo’o, and puss-rush specialist Will Anderson, Jr. are all studs, and again there is plenty of quality depth behind them. They lost Christopher Allen to a foot injury in the Miami game, but they continue to roll on because of top-ranked recruiting classes every year. The Gator QBs had better be ready to run the ball with determination to try and keep Bama from loading the box. They likely will be forced to often because Bama’s front seven is that good, and I’m afraid Florida’s O-line is going to have some real struggles. The Gators have enough quality RBs with Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright, and Demarkus Bowman to challenge anyone……but you can’t be effective if you don’t have running lanes and room to operate. I think we will see the RBs incorporated much more in the passing game this week to alleviate the pressure on the QBs and hopefully help put together some extended drives.
Jones will get the start at QB, but there are some serious concerns about his passing and where his head is at – he’s had 4 terrible and costly interceptions so far and has looked slow in his reads. Anthony Richardson has been incredibly dynamic both running and passing, but has benefitted from using his athletic ability to bail him out against weaker opponents. He’s day-to-day with his hamstring injury, but has been getting some practice reps in this week. Dan Mullen has a huge dilemma – does he risk shelving AR-15 for many games to come in and try to pull off the upset, or does he ride-or-die with Jones and save AR-15 for the balance of the season? We’ll find out on Saturday, but without Richardson and the threat of the big play, it looks bleak. If the O-line can stand up and give the QBs some time, I believe the Gator WRs can find success. Alabama has some good DBs in Marcus Banks, Malachi Moore, Daniel Wright, and Jordan Battle, but they can be beaten for some big gains when actually forced to cover by the opponent. Jacob Copeland, Xavier Henderson, and Justin Shorter must get separation and make some big plays downfield, while Trent Wittemore has to work the seams and underneath the zones to help move the chains.
What can be done to help pull off the upset? As has happened in the past, turnovers and big special teams plays can do it. Somehow, the Gator defense has to force mistakes from Young and also be ballhawks – strip sacks, tipped passes, stripping ball carriers. Sadly, this hasn’t been much in evidence under Grantham with his soft coverage and bend-but-try-not-to-break defenses. There’s no reason to hold back anything schematically or physically, but until I see it on the field, I can’t expect it.
It’s amazing that Florida is more than a 2 TD underdog at the Swamp, but that just shows how dominant Alabama and Nick Saban have been for so long. They have been the ultimate proof that winning is a habit – especially winning big games – and have all the hardware to prove it. Mullen is 0-10 against Alabama, and hasn’t done much better against other quality opponents. I don’t see a path for a Florida victory that doesn’t include an Alabama implosion comprised of multiple turnovers plus busted assignments allowing some Gator offensive TDs. Dan Mullen can scheme up all he wants for the offense, but Grantham’s defense is so pedestrian that any decent offense with a capable QB should have little trouble carving it up. The Swamp will be electric at the start, but will Bama race out to an early lead as it usually does and pull the plug on the crowd? The longer this game stays close, the more Young and the Tide will start feeling the heat. It can happen, but not without the aforementioned turnovers and big plays. I will see it live and firsthand but am not expecting it.
Prediction: Alabama 38 Florida 17