Vanderbilt Review / LSU Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Florida 27 LSU 24

Kentucky Review / Vanderbilt Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Florida 48 Vanderbilt 10

Tennessee Review / Kentucky Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Florida 27 Kentucky 20

Alabama Review / Tennessee Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Florida 34 Tennessee 17

USF Review / Alabama Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Alabama 38 Florida 17

Oklahoma Preview

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

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

Kyle Pitts (opt-out)

Kedarius Toney (opt-out)

Trevon Grimes (opt-out)

Jacob Copeland (Covid)

Kyree Campbell (opt-out)

Ventrell Miller (injury)

Marco Wilson (opt-out)

Shawn Davis (injury)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Oklahoma 34 Florida 31

Orange Bowl Preview

Florida gets rewarded for another 10-win season and top-10 ranking with it’s second consecutive New Year’s Six game – this time in the Orange Bowl to play the Virginia Cavaliers.

This is great for the program for many reasons.  First is the ability to practice and be seen in the fertile South Florida recruiting region, with scUM currently a dumpster fire.  It also shows future recruits around the country that Dan Mullen has the program headed in a winning direction again.  Finally, it’s a great reward for the guys that either stayed with or came into the the program to turn things around and reinvigorate the Florida brand nationally.

Virginia is led by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and the team reflects his personality – fundamentally sound and tough.  Their offense is led by senior QB Bryce Perkins, a true dual-threat QB with almost 200 carries this year.  He is the focus of the Cavaliers’ attack, and the key to whether the Gator defense can slow or shut down Virginia and make it a long night for them.  Perkins isn’t terribly accurate as a thrower, but can hit some big plays on scrambles or if a play breaks down and he improvises.  His main target is WR Joe Reed – Reed is a 1st-Team ACC player, and also a dangerous kick returner with 2 kickoff returns for scores.  The Gators will have one of their better CBs on him all night, and occasionally roll a safety over the top to keep him on check.  The only other ballcarrier with significant snaps is RB Wayne Taulapapa who averages only 10 carries a game, but has 12 rushing TDs.  The Gator defense seems to match up well against Virginia’s attack.  If the front seven does it’s usual good job of controlling the LOS, the DEs are going to make things very tough on Perkins.  It appears that both Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga will play – a huge boost in contrast to many star players sitting out bowl games.  Unfortunately, CB CJ Henderson will be one of those, so freshman Kaiir Elam gets a chance to start and make a name for himself.

Florida’s offense should have success as long as they come motivated to play and keep Kyle Trask upright.  Virginia’s defensive strength is in their LB corps, which plays sound football and tackles well.  However, there is no one outstanding talent that can’t be handled, and the Gator WRs could have another big game.  Indications are that everyone available will play, so Trask has his entire compliment of weapons.  Here’s hoping that the rest and extra practice has the O-line playing one of it’s best games and allowing RB Lamical Perine to go out a winner with some good running and pass-catching.

Head Coach Dan Mullen wants this win in order to keep the positive momentum going for the program, get more top-level recruits interested in Florida, and continue to widen the distance between Florida and it’s in-state rivals F$U and scUM.  He and the staff have shown the ability to keep their players motivated and playing hard, and that will be challenged by a lackluster opponent and a Monday night game after the CFP games have already been played.

Bowl games can be tricky to handicap – some players sit out to avoid injury before leaving for the NFL, some players play but ‘protect’ themselves from injury before the NFL draft, and some are dealing with baby mommas/agents/runners for agents/other distractions that take away from their usual focus.  Finally, Virginia comes in with the motivation to rehabilitate their image after getting completely embarrassed by Clemson in the ACCCG, and I believe they will be fired up for this game.  Florida needs to be ready from the start to match the Cavaliers’ intensity.  The Gators are similar to Clemson in team speed, and ultimately I think they pull away in the second half.

Prediction: Florida 34 Virginia 20

Florida $tate Review

Florida put a second straight beatdown on the Taliban City Losers with a 40-17 win that wasn’t as close as the score suggested.  The only reason the game was even that close was halftime – at that point the Gators were completely dominating the Criminoles on offense and defense, and the break prevented a mercy killing in the Swamp.

As expected, Florida’s strength on offense – the passing game – was a perfect attack to employ, as F$U’s pass defense was horrid all season.  Just like a bad matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament, you could see this was gonna be a long night for their defense, which only made me especially happy that it happened under the watch of interim head coach Odell Haggins, who hates the Gators.  Deal with it Odell……again.

The O-line again struggled to generate a running game, and even were stuffed late in the 3rd quarter with a first-and-goal inside the 1……unacceptable.  More reason to put Coach Hevesy on notice in 2020.  That really bothered me, as Coach Mullen could have just given Lamical Perine a last touchdown run in the Swamp on Senior Night but didn’t even have him in the game.  But it didn’t even matter, as Kyle Trask and the WRs toyed with F$U all night, doing pretty much as they pleased.  Only a few missed deep throws by Trask and a missed RB pass form Kadarius Toney to Dante Lang prevented a 50+ point output.

The defense did as I expected – giving up a big play to each of the only two players on FSU’s offense that are legit talents – WR Tamorrion Terry and RB Cam Akers – but shut down everything else for the most part.  The only real complaint was (again) the safeties getting burned deep 2-3 times……they were lucky James Blackman was harassed and missed open receivers for some big plays.  I still can’t believe Akers didn’t enter the transfer portal after last season to get the hell away from that sinking ship……but at least he’ll leave early for the NFL now.  The Gator pass rush racked up 8 sacks and numerous pressures, and never let either F$U QB get comfortable in the pocket.  Jonathan Greenard added 3 more sacks, and should be 1st team all-SEC.  The open-field tackling was adequate, but there were some bad misses by the safeties that allowed a few scoring drives to continue.

Finally, in the ultimate act of schadenfreude, the ACC referees allowed to officiate this game in Gainesville for the first time since the Swindle in the Swamp in 2003 absolutely killed F$U with crushing penalties at the most inopportune times, extending Gator scoring drives and even reversing a Gator turnover.  It was beautiful to watch.

Florida finishes the 2019 regular season at 10-2, which betters the 2018 record of 9-3.  Now the Gators await the results of the conference championship games and the final CFP rankings to see where they fall in the bowl pecking order.  If Florida somehow gets shut out of a New Year’s Six bowl game that would be a disgrace, but it’s college football, and weird, inexplicable things happen.  I’m hoping for an Orange Bowl bid, but the Cotton Bowl is in play as well.

On the heels and momentum of a state championship, Mullen and his staff are now hitting the recruiting trail hard to close on some potential stud players, with some new names popping up on the board now.  There is still some real dead weight on the staff in regards to recruiting (OL – Hevesy, Safety – English, RB – Knox, TE – Scott), and Mullen can only do so much on his own……he needs the position coaches to pull their weight, and we’re going to see soon if they will.

Given the circumstances of how the season developed – especially the season-ending injury to Feleipe Franks, recurring injuries to Jabari Zuniga and Greenard, and no real running game almost the entire season, Coach Mullen gets tons of respect for coaching around the deficiencies and getting to 10 wins, and also being in the LSU and Georgia games deep into the 4th quarter.  F$U and scUM continue to struggle and regress, and it’s time to bury them deeper as well as start to reduce the talent gap between Florida and the 5-6 schools nationally that have dominated recruiting the past 6-8 years.

I’ll be back with my bowl preview later in December.  Enjoy another successful football season, a state championship, and the holidays to come.

Go Gators!