Charleston Southern Review / Kentucky Preview

It was a fun night at the Swamp, as the Gators cruised to an easy 53-6 blowout of CSU.  The Gators came out fast and ran to a big early lead, which allowed the coaching staff to empty the bench throughout the second half and get a lot of young players some experience.

Surprisingly, it was the passing game that set the tone early and throughout the first half.  Feleipe Franks threw 5 TDs to 4 different WRs, and spread the ball around very well.  He looked a little tentative early, but once he relaxed he threw more accurately than in any previous appearance.  Newcomers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes accounted for 3 TDs and look like the 2 best WRs on the roster, providing a huge boost in talent and big-play capability.  All was not fun and games for the offense, however, as it took a while for the running game to get untracked.  The O-Line looked like there was more thinking than simply playing, and it was disappointing to see them struggle to dominate the LOS until the CSU D-Line started to tire in the 2nd quarter.  Jordan Scarlett’s return at RB was a bust, as he looked very tentative and did not hit the holes hard.  He was more than picked up by the depth at RB, as Malik Davis, Lamical Perine, and Dameon Pierce all broke off big runs to finally provide balance to the attack.

The Gator defense dominated all evening as they should have, controlling the LOS and making life miserable for the Buccaneer option attack with quick penetration from the D-Line.  Jachai Polite showed why he earned a starting role, and was unblockable.  I was impressed with the play of the some of the young LBs – Rayshad Jackson took himself off the side of milk cartons all over the state for at least 1 week, while Ventrell Miller showed some of the promise he came with out of high school.  The secondary was not challenged all night, but did play the run well and did not get lulled to sleep to then allow a long completion.

Florida’s special teams showed a pulse as well.  Freshman Evan McPherson made all of his FG attempts, and the Gators blocked both a FG and an extra point, providing some added excitement.

The real season starts this week with the SEC opener against Kentucky.  The streak now stands at 31 over the Wildcats, and after their gut-wrenching loss last year in Lexington, does UK really believe they can beat the Gators, especially on the road?  Once again, they are talking a big game, bringing their most experienced team and best defense under Mike Stoops to Gainesville.

Kentucky’s offense struggled against Central Michigan, as new starting QB Terry Wilson looked lost in his first start, while backup Gunnar Hoak provided the only passing TD.  The Wildcats will rely heavily on their running game, led by Benny Snell.  Wilson will likely start, as he brings a running dynamic that they will need to try and sustain drives and wear down the Florida defense.  They will try to shorten the game and make it into an ugly affair, hoping that Franks will panic if behind early or feel the pressure if the game is close deep into the second half.  The Gator defense welcomes back Cece Jefferson and David Reese from suspension, and those two will help to bolster the run defense.  The front seven will be under the gun to stuff the Kentucky running game and force them to throw, which will be a decided mismatch in favor of Florida.

The outcome of this game simply comes down to how well Florida’s O-Line plays.  The run blocking has to make a huge improvement from the lackluster play of last week, because the Gators have a stable of RBs that can control the entire game.  If they can give Franks sufficient time to keep the offense balanced with the passing game and allow the Gators to sprint out to an early lead, I really don’t see a path to victory for the Wildcats unless the Gators commit a rash of turnovers.

Florida will have to show marked improvement on offense from game 1 to game 2, and I believe this coaching staff is light-years ahead of the previous one in preparing the players.  The Gators have the advantage in the number of playmakers on both sides of the ball, and something tells me the special teams will make a significant play as well.  Finally, the excitement and support of the home crowd should provide the energy to help run the streak to 32 straight.

Prediction: Florida 30        Kentucky 20

2018 Season Preview

It’s déjà vu all over again.  The Florida football program has to push the reset button and start anew, and Dan Mullen has the task of rebuilding the Gator brand across the board – talent, coaching, facilities, and trying to heal the damaged psyche of the Gator Nation.

Mullen has been dealt a crappy hand in many ways by the Swamp Donkey, Jim McElwain.  Recruiting, especially on offense, has proven difficult.  Many prospects are in a wait-and-see mode, and many blue-chip guys have already committed elsewhere, choosing NOT to wait.  The QB room is a complete question mark, the O-Line has no proven depth behind the starting five, and the LB corps was it’s weakest in perhaps decades.  The fan base has lost enthusiasm, and football facility upgrades are still a few years away as other projects get finished.  To his credit, Mullen has soldiered through all of these negatives and question marks, employing his “relentless effort” manta to his handling of the responsibility of being the Head Coach at Florida.  He has embraced the pressure and expectations that come with it, instead of shrinking from them.

Regarding his new coaching staff, he has assembled a nice mix of experienced and younger coaches, most of which seem to be connecting with the current players and recruits.  New Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham promises an attacking style.  WR coach Billy Gonzales and OL coach John Hevesy have been with Mullen going back to Mullen’s years as the Offensive Coordinator at Florida, and will share the OC responsibilities.  Perhaps the most important addition to the staff is new Strength and Conditioning coach Nick Savage.  The players are very excited about the results already gained since January, which will result in better conditioning, less injuries, and better play late in games.

Coach Mullen has more rebuilding than reloading to do the next few seasons to restore the brand and begin to approach the expectations of not just the fan base, but of his own.  There are so many roster unknowns that predicting results for 2018 is extremely difficult……but that’s why I’m here!

Offense

Will the offense finally carry it’s fair share of the load for the Gators?  There is quality and depth at all the skill positions, but adjusting to a new scheme, lack of depth along the O-Line, and various question marks at QB could tell the tale of 2018.

The QB depth chart does not inspire optimism.  Feleipe Franks may be mentally damaged goods along with not being a natural fit for Mullen’s spread offense; Kyle Trask seemingly has the mental capacity to understand the offense but has zero college snaps; Emory Jones has the athletic ability and familiarity with the style of offense, but zero experience other than one spring and fall practice.  It’s Mullen’s job, along with the new staff, to instill confidence in the players and put them in position to succeed.  Most of the attention will certainly be on his development of the QB position.  His track record in developing various styles of players into productive, SEC-level QBs is undeniable, but he has a unique and challenging task to find someone in the current QB room to take the lead and perform.  Unless someone comes forward to provide some balance with a functional passing game and occasional effective running, this could be another disappointing season, renewing the disenchantment of Gator Nation.  I expect to see all 3 QBs in some capacity during September, with Franks getting the first shot at becoming the starter.  Mullen will see what they can do in live action and make his decision on a starter for the rest of the season.

New running back coach Greg Knox inherits a talented and deep RB corps.  Jordan Scarlett returns from his suspension in 2017 and has established himself as the lead back.  Malik Davis played very well as a true freshman last season, but is coming off of knee surgery and should not be overworked early – he is likely the best home-run option.  Lamical Perine has had moments, but needs to show consistency.  True freshman Dameon Pierce has impressed in fall camp with his size and toughness, and likely gets some snaps this fall.  Adarius Lemons would be in the rotation at almost any other school, but likely sees most of his action as a kick returner.  Finally, true freshman Iverson Clement has moved over to the defense to help out at the thin safety position, as he would not see the field as a RB with all of the depth and talent ahead of him.  This is one of the best rotations in the SEC, and should help ease the transition of the QBs into a new offense.  I expect the RBs to also be used more prominently in the passing game to help the QBs and O-Line.

The wide receivers are by far the most talented and deep group since Mullen’s previous stint at Florida.  New WR coach Billy Gonzales has plenty of capable players, but has to instill confidence, while also selling them on run-blocking in a spread scheme.  Tyrie Cleveland has shown flashes in his first 2 seasons, but has to prove he is ready for a lead role.  The transfer in of Van Jefferson from Ole Miss should pay immediate dividends – he is by far the most accomplished WR on the roster, and has ideal size and speed.  Kadarious Toney gives the Gators a weapon in the slot, and will also get the occasional snap as a wildcat QB because of his playmaking ability.  Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes has great size and potential, and could make a huge leap into the rotation.  For returning WRs Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain, it’s now or never to prove they deserve more than limited duty.  Dre Massey seems to have become the forgotten man, and may become more of a contributor on special teams.  Daquon Green has raw talent, but little experience.  Finally, true freshman Jacob Copeland could make an impact as he works his way into shape after minor knee surgery in August – he was one of the top WR recruits in the country, and brings playmaking ability and some swag.  There is more than enough size, speed, and playmaking in this group to keep defensive secondaries from stacking the line of scrimmage and providing balance to the offense……if the QBs can find them consistently.

The tight end position has received a huge infusion of new talent, but it lacks experience.  C’yontai Lewis is the only senior and returns as the only proven receiving threat, but has struggled with drops and focus.  Kemore Gamble has to potential to be a 3-down player, but has to prove to new TE coach Larry Scott his physical and mental toughness.  New arrivals Lucas Krull, Dante Lang, and Kyle Pitts all have prototype 3-down size and pass-catching potential, but are unproven.  At least one of them is going to get a chance to play this season.  If as I suspect the running game is leaned upon for most of the season, the guys that demonstrate in-line blocking ability will increase their chances of playing time.  There is more potential than proven ability at this position for 2018, but a lot of future promise.

New offensive line coach John Hevesy has 6 guys that he can count on as SEC-level players, but after that it’s a mixed bag of inexperienced and underachieving guys – he has a lot of work to do to identify at least 2-3 more guys he can trust.  The starting tackles will be Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, but there is little proven depth behind them.  Holdovers T.J. Moore, Kavaris Harkless, and Stone Forsythe, Texas transfer Jean Delance, JUCO transfer Noah Banks, and true freshman Chris Bleich are all in the mix as backups.  At guard, Tyler Jordan and Brett Heggie appear to be the starters, with returning players Nick Buchanan and Fred Johnson, and true freshman Richard Gouraige, all vying for backup time.  The most competitive position on the O-Line is at center.  Last year’s starter T.J. McCoy doesn’t seem to be adapting to the new scheme, and this has opened the door to Buchanan and Nick Villano to possibly start.  Ideally Heggie would be the center, as he is the best interior lineman on the team, but the lack of depth a guard will likely leave him there this season.  Coach Hevesy is known as an excellent position coach and technician, so perhaps he unlocks some of the unrealized potential of this group.

Defense

Fortunately there is plenty of SEC-level talent on defense to (again) shoulder a majority of the load with even a modicum of help and consistency from the offense.  There is experience along the D-Line and playmaking ability in the secondary.  If the defensive staff can get decent play out of a nondescript LB corps, this should be another solid Gator defense.

New defensive line coach Sal Sunseri has plenty of experience with winning teams both in college and the NFL.  He has a lot of talent and depth to work with this fall.  Khairi Clark, Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe comprise a solid rotation at tackle, and have the size and strength to hold up against the run and command the occasional double-team.  The DE rotation could be one of the best in the country.  CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite, and Antonneus Clayton all have speed and pass-rushing ability, and Zach Carter will provide solid depth at both end and tackle.  Jefferson and Zuniga especially have flashed elite pass-rushing skills, while Polite has been a terror in fall camp.  There is enough depth that a few injuries shouldn’t significantly affect the performance of this group.

The linebacker corps is the biggest question mark on the team, and has the most to prove.  It remains to be seen if the new scheme, along with new LB coach Christian Robinson, can find a way to maximize the talents of junior David Reese (not to be confused with freshman David Reese), Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and Jeremiah Moon.  All have only occasionally flashed promise, and none are 3-down players.  There is talent in the freshman group – Ventrell Miller, James Houston, Nick Smith, Reese, and Andrew Chatfield – and they will have to be counted on for depth.  It would not shock me if one of them gains starter snaps later in the season.  I would not be surprised to see a lot of 4-2-5 lineups to emphasize the strength at DL and in the secondary, while masking some of the deficiencies at LB.  Reese could be asked to play some at safety because of injuries there, while Chatfield comes in with potential all-SEC pass rush ability.

If Todd Grantham wants to employ an attacking, blitzing defense, he certainly has the cornerbacks to do it.  Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are the best young duo in the country, with sold depth provided by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the slot.  True freshman Trey Dean has impressed in fall camp and will play early.  The safety position is a mixed bag, and lacks quality and quality depth.  Jaewon Taylor, Shawn Davis, and Brad Stewart will rotate as starters and have shown glimpses of being SEC-caliber players, but none have shown yet they are consistent contributors.  Donovan Stiner is a solid special teams player but his coverage skills are suspect, while Quincey Lenton is lost for the season with an achilles injury.  Iverson Clement has the athleticism to be a good one, but is just learning the position.  New Safety coach Ron English will have his hands full developing a cohesive group – any more injuries here and the entire scheme may need to be altered.

Special Teams

This was one of the best units in the country in 2017, featuring perhaps the best PK/punter combo in the nation in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend.  Both are now gone to the NFL, and this unit becomes a big question mark.

True freshman Evan McPherson will battle 5th-year senior Jorge Powell for the placekicking duties.  The competition has been even throughout the spring and into fall camp.  McPherson has the stronger leg, but no college experience, while Powel has had the opportunity to see limited action the past 3 seasons.  One of these two has to grab the role and do well, to help an offense that hasn’t proven yet that it can score touchdowns instead of stalling out short of the end zone.

There will still be a Townsend punting for the Gators – this time younger brother Tommy.  He has performed well in practice, but it’s an entirely new experience when the games count.  Hopefully he has learned enough from his older brother about the mental aspect of handling the pressure.  If he can even approach the job that Johnny did, he will be just fine.

Finally, Coach Mullen has brought a renewed emphasis on special teams in regards to both kick coverage and the return game.  He will not hesitate to install some starters to do both.  Massey, Lemons, Toney, and Cleveland have all taken turns returning punts and kickoffs in practice – evidence that Mullen wants the return game to be feared once again and a real weapon to flip the field and potentially help win a few close games.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida’s schedule is as manageable as it’s been in many years, and the opportunity exists for 9 or more wins with any sort of competent QB play.  Kentucky, LSU, and South Carolina are the key home games, while the games away from Gainesville are the real challenge.  Trips to Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida State will be tough, along with the annual game against Georgia in Jacksonville.  This staff should actually be able to coach up and develop the players, and have a game plan each week that can be executed.  By the end of September, both the ceiling and floor of what the season can be will become apparent.

Charleston Southern – Win

This game will get a lot more scrutiny than your typical opener against an outmanned opponent.  Gator Nation is restless, and will (likely) have unfair expectations for the offense to come out rolling in it’s very first game in Mullen’s spread scheme.  Any QB who plays will be watched closely and critically, and (hopefully) all 3 guys get a chance to play and shake off any nerves.  Other than a very few special plays, I expect a basic, workmanlike game plan by both the offense and defense.  Work on the base plays and schemes that will be used against every opponent, and develop some depth along the O-Line and at LB.  Most importantly – no injuries, please.

Kentucky – Win

The first SEC game is critical for the Gators to start out on the right foot in conference play.  The streak is now 31 straight over the Wildcats, and after stealing the game in Lexington last year, I just don’t see the Wildcats coming into the Swamp and winning unless the Gator offense melts down with a bunch of turnovers.  Mike Stoops will always field a solid defense, and the score may be close into the second half, but I think the Florida running game wins this one.

Colorado State – Win

The Gators start with 3 straight home games, and this should prove beneficial in establishing what the team is asked to do under the new staff before 2 straight important SEC road games.  The Rams are usually a decent team, and this could be a trap game for Florida if the Gators are caught looking ahead.  Again, I’m hopeful that the staff doesn’t have to show too much of it’s hand on film before hitting the road.  This one could also be closer than many expect, especially if the Gators come out flat early.

@Tennessee – Win

A huge game for both programs, with new coaching staffs trying to get the upper hand.  Florida cut out the hearts of the Vols (again) last season, and that alone will provide a lot of motivation for their players and fans.  The Gators will come in with much more game experience and more returning starters, which could prove to be the difference in a hostile environment.  Expect anything and everything from Tennessee, as Jeremy Pruitt tries to bring the winning ways from Alabama to Knoxville.  I can see this game coming down to a 4th quarter finish (again), but I am giving the edge to Coach Mullen with his experience as a head coach.

@Mississippi State – Loss

The Bulldogs have had this game circled on the calendar ever since Dan Mullen left for Gainesville.  Unfortunately for the Gators, this is likely the most talented and deepest team MSU has had since 2014, and Florida has historically struggled against SEC West teams, especially on the road.  QB play will be key in this game, and, despite the Gator coaching staff’s familiarity with the Bulldog roster, Nick Fitzgerald has a huge advantage over any current Gator QB.  Florida’s best chance to win is to ride the defense all game, finding a way to stop the MSU running game and to generate turnovers.

LSU – Win

The second straight visit to the Swamp by the Tigers, the result of the Hurricane Irma fiasco of 2017.  After choking away last year’s game, the Gators will have plenty of motivation in this one.  Two similar teams – good defense, good running game, lots of questions at QB.  Here’s hoping that by now Florida has sorted out it’s QB situation better than LSU, and that home-field advantage actually means something this time.  Likely another close, 4th-quarter battle.

@Vanderbilt – Win

This could be a trap game for Florida, coming after 3 straight tough SEC games.  The Gators traditionally sleepwalk through this game, especially in Nashville.  The Commodores lost a lot of their best defensive players, and will have to rely on QB Kyle Shurmer to pull an upset.  I’m counting on a legitimate coaching staff to keep the team focused well enough to grind out a win.  The Gators will need this win for momentum going into the next game.

Bye Week

  1. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

All the hype is around the Puppies these days, and everyone wants to know if they can sustain last season’s success.  Georgia lost a lot of starters on both sides of the ball, and we’ll see if they have the replacements in place to fill those losses.  They still have an experienced O-Line and capable RBs, but more pressure will fall on QB Jake Fromm to make plays, instead of being a caretaker.  Florida has fallen behind in regards to overall talent and recruiting, and Coach Mullen knows he has to show that last year’s blowout loss isn’t a sign of things to come in the series.  Despite having a week off to prepare and the motivation of last year’s humiliation, I just don’t see the Gator offense being ready to lead the way and carry it’s weight against a tough opponent.  This one should be very entertaining.

Missouri (Homecoming) – Win

Back home at the Swamp for 3 straight games.  This could be a trap game after the Cocktail Party.  This is another chance for the Gators to avenge a humiliating loss, rolling over and quitting last season at Missouri.  The Tigers are led by QB Drew Lock, who is getting a lot of preseason hype.  I feel Missouri took advantage of a lot of teams that were tanking by the time they played them last year, and won’t have such an easy time of it.  Florida should be able to control the ball with it’s running game and wear down the Tigers.  This could develop into a high-scoring affair.

South Carolina – Win

The Gamecocks and QB Jake Bentley are getting a lot of run after beating up on a bad SEC East last year.  By the time they come to the Swamp this fall, I think some of the shine is going to be off of them.  Won’t Misschump will be motivated to beat Florida again for payback after (justifiably) getting fired, and their defense should be solid.  I could see this one going either way at the end of the typical SEC grind, but again I will place some faith in a vastly-improved Gator coaching staff to find a way to win this one.

Idaho – Win

This game should afford a breather, and 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.  The Vandals will get a nice paycheck for their troubles.  Stay healthy – please!

Florida State – Loss

Florida has now lost 7 out of 8 to the Criminoles.  At least F$U will not be coming into this game with the advantage of coaching stability, as Slick Willie Taggart continues his carpetbagging across the country by returning to the state of Florida.  FSU will still have an edge in overall talent and depth, and coming off of an ACC schedule that is not the same gauntlet that is the SEC.  The Gators are capable of winning this game, but must be healthy, have an established QB that is also a leader, and a consistent O-Line.  Being in Taliban City will likely be the advantage F$U needs to win this one, but the Gators need to show that the tide is turning in the series with a competitive game.

Overall Record          9-3

SEC Record              6-2

2018 is a very important year for Dan Mullen and the players to show progress on offense and energize the fan base and recruiting.  He has done a fine job so far in developing the roster and instilling confidence in his players, but will it translate to the field?  He has to develop a competent starting QB – having to juggle 2-3 guys in order to give the Gators the opportunity to win is not a sustainable formula for success.  The schedule is actually the most manageable it’s been in many years, and provides an opportunity to get off to a quick start and build belief between the coaches and players.  My prediction on a 9-win season may be wildly optimistic given the questions at QB, LB, and the O-Line.  It reflects confidence in Mullen’s track record in developing QBs along with continuity within much of his staff.  If Florida can manage to win 9 games while exhibiting progress on offense and improving a young but talented defense, that will set up things for a very bright future.  However, inconsistent QB play, lack of scoring, and a defense that starts to show cracks as the season progresses will slow any momentum, and the win-loss record will more closely resemble the floor of 6-7 wins.  This is going to be another challenging year for the Gators, but they have the talent and coaching to make it a fair fight.  This season may be very successful, or stressful…….but it will certainly be interesting.

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

The Dan Mullen Era Begins

Once again, the Florida football program has to push the reset button and begin another fresh start, and Dan Mullen has the task of rebuilding the brand across the board – talent, coaching, facilities, and trying to heal the damaged psyche of the Gator Nation.

Mullen certainly has hit the ground running, seemingly traveling the entire state and most of the country 24/7 looking for talent, while canvassing the state and even the Florida campus at speaking engagements to resurrect support and rekindle excitement in a program that has grown stale given the offensive doldrums of two coaching disasters.  He has been tireless in projecting excitement and enthusiasm to the fan base and media from day one.

Mullen was able to salvage a better-than-expected 2018 recruiting class by getting key players such as WR Jacob Copeland, QB Emory Jones, and DL Malik Langham to commit or recommit to the Gators.  Signing a class of 19 players with a composite national rank of 11 was a significant accomplishment, providing the impetus to start building momentum for the 2019 recruiting class, and also excitement in the fan base.

Mullen has been dealt a crappy hand by the Swamp Donkey, Jim McElwain.  He has the interest of many stud offensive recruits, but many are in a wait-and-see mode and simply aren’t ready to pull the trigger as they normally would for Florida until they see improvement on the field this fall.  That’s a lot of pressure to begin with, exacerbated by the new Early Signing Day in mid-December, meaning there’s even more pressure to put an entertaining product on the field – quickly.

There is more talent on hand on the offensive side of the ball than recent results have indicated.  There is plenty of skill position talent, but if the QB position and O-Line don’t at least perform adequately, it could be another ugly product.  The QB depth chart does not inspire optimism.  Feleipe Franks may be mentally damaged goods along with not being a fit for Mullen’s Spread offense; Kyle Trask seemingly has the mental capacity to understand the offense but has zero college snaps; Jones has the athletic ability and familiarity with the style of offense but zero experience other than one spring practice.  It’s Mullen’s job, along with the new staff, to instill confidence in the players and put them in position to succeed.  Most of the attention will certainly be on his development of the QB position.  His track record in developing various styles of players into productive, SEC-level QBs is undeniable, but he has a unique and challenging task to find someone in the current QB room to take the lead and perform.  There is plenty of talent at the skill positions to help take some pressure off, but unless someone comes forward to provide some balance with a functional passing game and occasional effective running, this could be another disappointing season ahead, renewing the disenchantment of Gator Nation.

Fortunately there is plenty of SEC-level talent on defense to (again) shoulder a majority of the load with even a modicum of help and consistency from the offense.  There is experience along the D-Line and playmaking ability in the secondary.  If the defensive staff can get decent play out of a nondescript LB corps, this should be another solid Gator defense.

Regarding his new coaching staff, he has assembled a nice mix of experienced and younger coaches, most of which seem to be connecting with the current players and recruits.  However, there are some guys such as John Hevesy that, while a good position coach, have zero juice on the recruiting trail, forcing Mullen and others to try and pick up the slack.  Mullen has chosen familiarity in some cases, but if he can’t help recruit enough elite talent at those positions, he is already hamstringing his own efforts.  Hopefully he recognizes this and will make the necessary staffing decisions, if required.

To his credit Mullen has soldiered through all of these negatives and question marks, employing his “relentless effort” manta to his handling of the responsibility of being the Head Coach at Florida and also embracing the pressure and expectations that come with it, instead of shrinking from them.

I’ll be back in August with my season preview.  I’m hopeful Gator Nation still has some patience after the last two coaching staffs have sucked much of the life and fun out of Florida Football.  Make no mistake – Dan Mullen has more rebuilding than reloading to do the next few seasons to restore the Gator brand and begin to approach the expectations not just of the fan base, but his own.

 

 

Alabama-Birmingham Review / Florida $t. Preview

Florida finally ended it’s 5 game losing streak with a workmanlike 36-7 win over UAB.  The Gators surprisingly handled a decent Blazer team with a solid defensive effort and effective running game from start to finish.

There was (as usual) nothing fancy about the offensive game plan – lots of power running formations with 6- and 7-man lines, and a large dose of Lemical Perine, Mark Thompson, and the emergence of Adarious Lemons.  All three ran hard and had some long runs behind an O-Line that did well despite all of the juggling of the lineup necessitated by injury.  Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor played on both sides of center, and also moved between guard and tackle depending upon the down and distance.  The TEs shockingly blocked well on the edge, but I think that was more reflective of the level of competition then their abilities.  Feleipe Franks was his usual inconsistent self, mixing in excellent throws with some clunkers and poor reads.  He’s lucky he didn’t get himself seriously injured in the second quarter, taking an unnecessary sack and having his right knee twisted underneath him.  He was hurt by a handful of dropped balls by the WRs, who have been disappointing most of the season.  At least Dre Massey is finally being utilized more often, and shows flashes of his playmaking ability prior to a serious knee injury that cost him the 2016 season.  For some reason the staff played Kedarious Toney and Tyrie Cleveland at less than 100%.  Toney left early with a bruised knee, and Cleveland is still hobbled by the high-ankle sprain he sustained in the LSU game.  I wish both had been held out and saved for the F$U game.

The Florida defense was dominant, shutting down the UAB running game.  The Blazers never were able to establish the run, and did not do much other than their one touchdown on a blown coverage in the Gator secondary.  When UAB was forced to throw, the LBs did a decent job of covering the TEs and RBs over the middle.  David Reese has really come one the past month, and has developed into one of the leaders of the defense along with Taven Bryan and Duke Dawson.  The D-Line controlled the LOS all afternoon, and the secondary was solid overall.  The only bad news was the injury to safety Jaewon Taylor – it’s unclear if he’ll be available for F$U.

Mercifully, the 2017 season comes to a close with the annual rivalry game against Florida $t.  Both teams have had a miserable season, coming in with identical 4-6 records and nothing to play for other than pride.  The Seminoles will whine about their injury to starting QB Deondre Francois in their opener against Alabama, but still have no excuse for how poorly they’ve played overall.  I’d like to see any team play with a similar depth chart to Florida’s right now, missing over 30 scholarship players.

If the Gators hope to have any chance of winning, the offense has to limit mistakes (penalties, missed assignments) and somehow find ways to make some big scoring plays.  The biggest challenge is an injured and restructured Gator O-Line vs. the F$U front seven led by DL Josh Sweat, Brian Burns, and Derrick Nnadi, and LB Matthew Thomas.  The O-Line and WRs are simply not good enough to generate long scoring drives, and will have to make plays either through misdirection or simply individual effort.  I expect S Derwin James to play a majority of snaps close to the LOS as well, forcing the Florida blockers to also account for him while trying to give Franks and the running game a chance.  Franks will be under pressure all afternoon, and has to show better judgement than he has all season in getting the ball out quickly.  The Gators have run the ball well most of the season, and have to do so this week to have a realistic chance.  I expect to see a lot of 6-, 7-, or even 8-man lines, trying to get double-teams off tackle or on the edge and to break an occasional big play.  Florida has the RBs that can make those plays if given some room.  Perhaps the Gators can hit a long throw or jump ball to Cleveland, or a big screen play to one of the RBs.  I also expect both Massey and Toney to get some snaps in the wildcat formation, and to try and make something happen with their legs or perhaps a surprise pass.  Of course, all of this is predicated on Doug Noosemeier actually trying to do anything to win this last game, and not doing the same old crap – a big and perhaps foolish assumption on my part.

Florida’s defense can control the LOS.  I believe the D-Line has the advantage over a mediocre F$U O-Line that has struggled all season to consistently open running lanes or protect the QB.  James Blackmon is the latest QB to get punished playing behind that line, and I hope to see an aggressive, attacking scheme to get after him – another big and perhaps foolish assumption, knowing Randy Shannon’s history.  Cam Akers is a quality RB and can hurt the Gators if allowed too much room or if he’s overlooked in the passing game.  I’m not too concerned about WRs Nyqwan Murray or Auden Tate, although Tate is a big target in the red zone.  What concerns me is F$U exploiting the flats and middle zones with the RBs, TE Ryan Izzo, or the WRs on crossing routes.  The pass defense by the LBs and safeties has been horrid all year, and unfortunately I expect to see those areas exposed again this week unless there is a fundamental change in coverages.  I seriously doubt Florida has more than 2 LBs on the field at any time, and occasionally only one.  Bryan, Reese, Dawson, and the secondary all need to have huge games to keep the score close enough for the offense to have a chance.

While I’m hopeful for an inspired effort against F$U, even that likely won’t be enough unless the Gators decisively win the turnover battle and somehow generate some big plays.  The Gator offense is so dysfunctional and injured that it simply can’t sustain long drives and hasn’t shown any consistency all season.  Whether it’s through new formations of simply good fortune, Florida has to get an early lead or stay within one score throughout the afternoon in order to win for the first time in this series since 2012.  Normally, I’d expect a focused effort, but with the players and staff partially in limbo with a coaching regime change on the horizon, I’m not sure what to expect.  The effort from the players has improved dramatically the past 2 weeks, and hopefully this rivalry game has them playing with intensity and focus for 4 quarters.

Prediction: F$U 27          Florida 16

South Carolina Review / Alabama-Birmingham Preview

The Bataan death march continued through Columbia, as Florida took only 56 scholarship players  – 29 under the maximum allowed – on the road to yet another lackluster defeat.  At least the players showed more effort and fight than in the previous two games combined, staying close throughout the second half after falling behind early – again.

In keeping with the theme of this lost season, Malik Zaire sustained a knee injury after a 31-yard run into the red zone……even a positive play ends in disaster.  He gamely tried to come back a few plays later, but collapsed on the field after taking only a few steps and was done for the day – and perhaps the rest of the season.  Doug Noosemeier further solidified his case as the worst OC at Florida since Lynn Amedee, discarding the only consistent threat the Gators’ offense had shown all season – a solid running game – instead choosing to have Zaire and Feleipe Franks pass way too often.  Florida’s offense wound up with a large number of chunk plays both running and throwing, but again were undone by terrible red-zone play calling by Noose, leading to FGs instead of TDs.  Speaking of adding injury to insult – it appears starting center TJ McCoy may be lost the rest of the season as well with a knee injury, to go along with Brett Heggie being lost the previous week at Missouri.  I never thought I’d see anything approaching the depth chart disaster that was 2013, but here it is again, on top of the failed coaching.

The Gator defense again was gashed by the running game, consistently giving up long runs on simple off-tackle carries.  David Reese was the only LB to play hard the entire game and actually make some tackles in the hole.  Vosean Joseph embarrassed himself by whiffing on multiple plays all afternoon, and failing to prevent QB Jake Bentley from scoring – simply falling away on a weak arm tackle.  The DEs were again pushed around and looked very weak against the run, consistently overrunning their rush lanes and allowing simple off-tackle carries underneath them.  When Carolina was forced to throw, the D-Line was able to apply pressure……but not stopping the run killed any hope for a win.  The secondary again gave up some surprising big plays.  Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson seem to be wearing down late in the season.  Henderson had the opportunity to tie the game in the first quarter on an interception return, but sloppily fumbled the ball away as he was getting ready to score……typical of this entire year.  Even Chauncey Gardner, after making a huge goal-line interception, had a chance to score as well, but allowed a fingertip tackle to stop him at midfield with clear sailing ahead.

The worst thing of all was having to watch a mediocre team led by Won’t Misschump laugh their way to a victory.  While I understand some of the players Misschump recruited wanting to chat it up with him after the game, knowing how he ripped the school after he was deservedly fired and subsequently poisoning recruits against Florida, if was sickening to see.

With no bowl game in their future, the Gators return home for the last 2 games of 2017, starting with UAB.  The Blazers have made some noise against other SEC teams the past 2 seasons, and will be looking for an opportunity to get by an undermanned and uninspired Florida team.   UAB is led by RB Spencer Brown, who has already rushed for over 1,000 yards this season.  QB A.J. Erdely is a dual-threat player – his passing is average at best, but he does run the ball often to keep defense honest.  IF……if the Gators play as hard as they did against South Carolina, they should find a way to win – even with a depleted roster.  With Zaire injured, Franks will be the QB barring injury.  If he gets hurt, then it’s wildcat time with Dre Massey and Kedarious Toney running the show…….which may be an improvement at this point.

I’m hopeful there’s a decent turnout by the fans this week, but sadly I expect a lot of empty seats.  The only people that can rally and inspire the team at this point are the players themselves, as the coaches continue to not change anything and have checked out on these players – unforgivable.

Prediction:  Florida 24       UAB 17

Georgia Review / Missouri Preview

I’m not sure if that will be rock bottom for most Gator fans the 2017 season, but it certainly was for me and for Jim McElwain, as he so kindly gave a parting gift to Gator Nation with the worst loss to Georgia in 35 years.  He certainly used the week off wisely, hanging himself in front of the national media by lying to the Athletic Dept., while not doing one damn thing differently to help his team for this game.  He allowed the same crap that hasn’t worked all season to continue, and showed he doesn’t have the guts to do what’s right for his players, letting his cronies ruin this season while he collected paychecks.  Well, it’s a shame he’ll get even one more, as apparently he wised up and decided to negotiate a reduced buyout as opposed to getting fired with cause.

I could have sworn it was 1982 again with John Lastinger, er, Jake Fromm, throwing only 7 freaking passes all afternoon while the Gators gift-wrapped a blowout win with it’s usual garbage passing game and a defensive front seven that mailed it in for the first time in memory.  Florida easily won the time-of-possession battle, while losing the war.  The Gator O-Line again played admirably and ground out close to 200 yards rushing against another defense that had zero fear of Feleipe Franks doing any damage through the air.  Franks was never very good this season, but he bottomed out in the second half, looking absolutely awful while taking more unnecessary sacks and not protecting the football.  Even the 2 times Florida marched deep into Puppy territory before garbage time, Coach Noose failed to call anything creative when only a few yards were needed for a touchdown – no rollouts, no jet sweep, no wildcat, no……anything.  I can’t wait to see him gone form this program soon.

There is no need for any in-depth analysis of this game.  That performance alone was a fireable offense in my book, notwithstanding the laundry list of other reasons Mac got his ass walked out.  Unfortunately, the handful of coaches (Noose, Dixon, Nord) that have done nothing to develop the players get to stick around for 4 more games.  They should forfeit their paychecks back to UF and coach for free – that’s what their efforts have been worth.

Florida is on the road this week at Missouri, to face another struggling team.  The Tigers have been Jekyll-and-Hyde this year, beating up weak non-conference teams while looking horrible against SEC competition.  Maybe getting away from Gainesville will prove beneficial for the Gators, as the team can employ a “circle-the-wagons” mentality and focus solely on the game.

Missouri’s offense is led by QB Drew Lock.  The Tigers run a spread attack and are almost 50-50 run/pass.  Their passing game could prove troublesome if they can isolate the safeties or LBs in coverage – WRs J’Mon Moore, Johnathan Johnson, and Emanuel Hall are all quality players.  RBs Demarea Crockett and Ish Witter are solid, and can hurt a defense if the Florida D-Line doesn’t play it’s assignments. It’s doubtful more than 1-2 LBs will be on the field at any time, so the D-Line has to control the LOS and slow the running game.  On must-pass downs, the Gator DL should have a decided advantage and should be able to apply pressure on Lock.  I expect a lot of nickel and dime packages the entire game – the secondary is going to have it’s hands full and be under pressure.  The Tigers have run up a vast majority of their statistics against FCS teams, making their overall numbers look good, but they have been slowed considerably in conference play.

Missouri’s defense is wretched.  They have little SEC talent, and have been victimized by both the run and pass.  One major development is the announcement that Malik Zaire will start at QB for the Gators this week.  He has been unfairly criticized for his small sample size of playing time at UF, as he has been thrown into games late that are out of hand where he’s expected to play catch up by throwing more often.  I expect to see a heavy emphasis on the running game, which should have little trouble moving the ball – under normal circumstances.  This would prove beneficial as it would allow Florida’s defense some rest and to defend fewer possessions.  Florida has shown a solid running game in conference play, and if the O-Line is focused and playing hard, it could be a big day for Lemical Perine and Mark Thompson.  Adarius Lemons may also get a few carries, as Malik Davis incurred a knee injury last week that will require surgery.  Zaire is a very capable runner, and I’m hopeful that Kedarius Toney has recovered more from his recent injuries and can get touches both on jet sweeps and in the wildcat formation.  On the few passing plays that are called, the WRs have to take advantage of their matchups and make some big plays.  It won’t be a glamorous day for them – they will be blocking more often than running routes.

I have no clue as to what the mindset of the players will be this week.  The best case scenario is that they use the embarrassment of last week as fuel and show some fire, instead of the zombie-like effort against Georgia.  Maybe the coaching change provides some juice to the team.  Interim Head Coach Randy Shannon and the staff have to find a way to get the players focused on playing simple, effective, physical football on both sides of the LOS.  I can’t believe the Gators are a 3.5 point underdog to such a bad team, even on the road.  A team can go 2 ways when a head coach is fired midseason – pack it in and give up, or pull together and play hard.  We’re going to see really quickly which way this team is headed.

Prediction: Florida 24      Missouri 21

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

 

 

 

 

Florida $t. Review / Alabama Preview

In another frustrating and painful road loss, the Gator offense once again failed miserably to do it’s part to win the game. After a great opening drive that featured a quick pace and spreading the ball around the entire field, it was back to the same predictable, ineffective play calling and execution that that has been all too common in 2016. That initial promising drive ended with the very questionable (in my opinion dead wrong) decision to try and score a TD on 4th down instead of taking the points and buoying the confidence of the offense. After that, it was hit or (mostly) miss, with a beaten up O-Line and inaccurate passes killing any legitimate chance to keep the game within reach. Why the offensive scheme didn’t remain the same the entire night is something that Coach Mac needs to address immediately – continued bad offense will be his undoing and he’ll not even make it to his 5th year, and perhaps 4th. Once again the lack of a quality SEC QB was obvious, as just a few accurate deep throws to open WRs completely changes the complexion of the game. Appleby missed Antonio Callaway on a corner route near the goal line after the interception by Chauncey Gardner, and later in the 3rd quarter missed Tyrie Cleveland on a post-corner route for a gain deep into F$U territory. The Criminole defense played to stop the running game and make the Gators prove they could do damage through the air, and that strategy ultimately worked. Martez Ivey was playing hurt from the start, and it showed. David Sharpe again struggled with speed rushing off the edge, while Jawaan Taylor simply wasn’t good enough as a true freshman to control Demarcus Walker. The RBs didn’t help out in pass protection either, consistently missing assignments and making life difficult for Appleby. The O-Line could not consistently provide the same holes for Jordan Scarlett and Lemical Perine that they did against LSU. Finally, the offense was 0-13 on 3rd down – that is embarrassing, and another indictment against Doug Nussmeier.

The Gator defense played valiantly with limited resources and inexperience at key positions at LB and in the secondary, and kept the game within reach until the middle of the 3rd quarter, when they repeatedly allowed 3rd down conversions that eventually wore them down and allowed 2 big plays that lost the game. The long pass and run by Travis Rudolph wasn’t helped by the bad angle Chauncey Gardner took attempting the tackle, and the fullback counter play early in the 4th quarter came against a tired defense that almost always easily makes that play – as they did repeatedly against LSU when rested. All that being said, the defense in general did not do a good job of controlling Dalvin Crook, allowing him to control the game with over 100 rushing yards and not setting the edge at the LOS, allowing him to get outside. Lots of missed tackles and bad angles as well. I think the struggles of the offense again have taken their toll physically and mentally – DE Jordan Sherit left with a season-ending knee injury, backup S Jaewon Taylor incurred a shoulder injury that took him out of the game, and others like CBs Duke Dawson and Quincey Wilson started to cramp up and were noticeably limping in the second half. It’s amazing that this unit held together this long, especially losing the heart of the defense in Jarad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye to injury the past month. But……again……they did crack, and it’s déjà vu all over again, with flashbacks to the horrid end of the 2015 season.

The Gator special teams did what they could by blocking a FG at the end of the first half, controlling the F$U return game, and scoring a TD in the 4th quarter on a fumble recovery. Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro have been outstanding this season, and did their part. The only glaring mistakes were 2 shanked kickoffs by Pineiro that allowed F$U to start form their 35-yard line, but neither of those possessions wound up in points.

That makes 6 out of 7 losses to F$U, and another hit to recruiting. Zero offensive TDs in the last 2 games against your in-state rival – unacceptable. Some very basic changes are necessary, and hopefully Coach Mac is strong enough to do what is necessary – now.

Florida now moves on to a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. This is a rematch of the 2015 game against Alabama, and once again Florida is a huge underdog, and deservedly so. Bama has top talent and depth throughout it’s roster, and has had little trouble imposing it’s will on opponents all season. Despite good production on offense led by true freshman QB Jalen Hurts, the Crimson Tide defense again is the backbone of the team. The front seven is heavy with future NFL players led by DTs Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand. Their D-Line is stout against the run, but also consistently gets pressure with pass rush specialist Tim Williams. The Bama LB corps is led by Rueben Foster and Ryan Anderson, 2 more all-SEC caliber players that are smart and physical. Florida’s depleted O-Line will have trouble moving the ball with any regularity – it’s up to Coach Mac and Coach Nuss to realize this, try and spread the field with quick throws in space, and accept the fact that it will take success with low-percentage deep pass plays to make this a game. While CB Minkah Fitzpatrick is a playmaker and ball hawk, the loss of Eddie Jackson needs to be exploited, as the Tide secondary can be beaten occasionally. There really is nothing to lose, and there is no proof that the Gators can sustain a running game against this level of competition. Yes, the run game was effective in the second half at LSU, but this Bama front seven is better.

Florida’s defense is depleted further this week with more key injuries. DE Jordan Sherit is done with a knee injury, S Jaewon Taylor is out with a bad shoulder, and the key pair of LB Alex Anzalone and S Marcus Maye remain out. It does look like LB Jarrad Davis will give it a go after missing the past 3 games with ankle injuries – his leadership could prove valuable. There is still enough talent and depth along the D-Line led by Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, and Taven Bryan to get a stalemate at the LOS, but will these guys (again) become worn down by another putrid performance by the Gator offense? The Bama running game is still strong led by a veteran O-Line and RBs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, but a few guys have been dinged up recently and they haven’t been gashing teams as often the past month. Hurts is threat to run as well as pass, but if the front seven can keep containment and force him to throw, he has shown he will turn the ball over. Calvin Ridley is an excellent WR and ArDarius Srewart is a deep threat, but the narrative is essentially the same as the previous 2 weeks – try to hold things in check up front, and lean on Tabor and Wilson to control the intermediate and deep passing game. Hopefully, TE OJ Howard will continue to be underutilized, as he is a tough matchup for slower LBs and smaller DBs – he could be a real threat in this game. Ultimately, the defense can’t afford to allow any easy scores, and must make Hurts prove he can move the Tide offense through the air.

Special Teams have to be just that this week – they somehow have to lead directly to a score or provide short fields for the offense at least twice. Townsend and Pineiro have answered the bell all season for the most part, and have to once again. It’s incumbent on the return game to find a way and break Callaway loose.

As much as I had hoped the end to 2016 would be different, it’s starting to feel like 2015 again. A bad loss to F$U, a difficult matchup with a strong Alabama team, and recruiting momentum stopped. I’m not sure how this game ultimately plays out, but unless Appleby is allowed to run occasionally and to take more deep shots, and the offense finds a way to give the defense a fighting chance, this will be another blow to Florida on the national stage and could cripple the 2017 recruiting class. Coach Mac is starting to hear the questions and feel the pressure that comes with being the head coach at Florida. He will need to make some difficult but necessary decisions as soon as this game is over in regards to his current staff and also hold together what was until last week a good recruiting lass. A solid showing against Alabama is the first, difficult step……he has a lot of things working against him right now.

Prediction: Alabama 37 Florida 13

LSU Review / Florida $t. Preview

Finally, some good fortune for the Gators! Despite tough odds playing with 8 missing starters and having to play a second straight year on the road at Baton Rouge, Florida gutted out a memorable 16-10 win that books a trip back to Atlanta as SEC East champions. That was a remarkable effort from the entire team and coaching staff. It wasn’t pretty at times, but timely playmaking and strong red-zone defense were enough to earn a much-deserved victory and shut up all of those corn dog fans and assclown AD Joe Alleva.

On a day defined by big plays such as the 98-yard TD pass from Austin Appleby to Tyrie Cleveland and great individual efforts such as Jordan Scarlett’s 102 yards rushing, everyone will remember the goal-line stand by the defense. That group forced 2 turnovers and allowed only 10 points on 5 trips by LSU into the red zone. The young LBs led by David Reese played very well, and the D-Line made enough individual big plays led by Caleb Brantley to turn back a physical Tiger rushing offense. How poetic that Derrius Guice, who ran his mouth all week about how Florida was scared to play LSU, fumbled in the first half at the Gator 2-yard line and was stuffed on the last play of the game. Watching the replay showed that every defender did a great job of holding their ground and not allowing any room to run. While the Gators were hurt by throws to the TEs, they weren’t going to have a repeat of 2015, when they allowed 2 long pass TDs to the WRs by simply failing to locate the ball on what should have been easy breakups or interceptions. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson were in man coverage almost all afternoon, and held up well. Tabor also made a game-saving tackle on the last LSU drive by tackling D.J. Chark after Wilson had fallen down in coverage. LSU did move the ball well between the 20s, but the defense rose up when it counted most to save the day.

The Florida O-Line found it’s rhythm in the second half, churning out 2 long, time consuming drives by running right at LSU’s front seven and dominating the LOS. T.J. McCoy did a great job at center in his first-ever start, getting the line calls made and holding the point of attack. The guards were able to get to the second level and break Scarlett free for some big runs, but he also earned a lot of yards with very tough running and second effort. The passing game was not going to be relied upon unless absolutely necessary, and the defense made sure that Appleby didn’t have to win the game by throwing every down. The WRs did a great job of blocking for the running game and not getting down about the limited pass plays. Appleby was overly cautious at times when he had open field to run, but perhaps the staff had told him to protect himself at (almost) any cost. He was able to make critical completions in the second half to extend drives and the big TD to Cleveland (the second-longest pass TD in Gator football history) that completely changed the momentum of the game.

There was so much going against Florida coming in to this game, and it was gratifying to see them team respond with such a great performance. The entire LSU athletic dept. and team disrespected the Gators……and now get no respect after losing and being ridiculed across the country for their behavior. I hope they are looking forward to 2 straight trips to the Swamp!

There’s no time to rest on it’s laurels, as Florida now travels to Taliban City to face the Criminoles. The Gators certainly should come into this game with a lot of confidence from winning at LSU, and are trying to end a 3-game losing streak in the series.

This will be the 4th straight year that Florida comes into this game with a backup QB. At least Applebly has made some big plays at both Tennessee and LSU, and won’t be fazed by the night-game atmosphere. The game plan for the offense may look similar to LSU – try and win time of possession with the running game, and occasionally go for the big play with the pass. Given all of the recent turnover on the O-Line, pass protection is usually the hardest thing to solidify. I expect McCoy to start again at center, but David Sharpe has been a turnstile at LT in pass protection. Unfortuntely, Martez Ivey has an undisclosed leg injury and may not start. Kevaris Harkless may have to start at his 4th OL position this week. F$U’s strength on defense is it’s pass rush led by DeMarcus Walker, and that’s not a good matchup for Florida. If Appleby does get time to throw, the Criminole secondary has been vulnerable all season. It’s imperative to get the ball to Callaway and Cleveland in space for the opportunity of a big play. I look for a little better mix of passes on early downs, but still a heavy dose of Scarlett and Lemical Perine to try and keep the offense on schedule. I know the staff would like to let Appleby run more often on zone reads or scramble plays, but with zero experience backing him up those plays will have to come judiciously.

The Gator defense will be tested, as F$U mixes the run and pass well. They are led on offense by RB Dalvin Crook, and must make it a priority to slow him down first to force freshman QB Deondre Francois into passing downs. The Criminole O-Line has been a sieve in pass protection – Francois has taken a beating all season and can’t be anywhere near 100% health. He has played well given his inexperience and can be an elusive runner. However, he is susceptible to turnovers and his passing accuracy is only average. If the Gator D-Line can apply pressure and get hits on him, there will be opportunities for takeaways. They should be able to physically overmatch the F$U O-Line occasionally, but have to remain disciplined in their gaps because of Crook’s cutback ability and quickness. Once again Tabor and Wilson will be relied on heavily in man coverage against Travis Rudolph and the Criminole WRs. I expect F$U to be able to move the ball well at times – the Gator defense will need to limit explosive plays and stiffen in the red zone. Dumbo Fisher will try to expose the young LBs in pass coverage with screens and swing passes to the RBs, and that could be a real problem for the defense.

Florida’s special teams were certainly that against LSU, and have to repeat that performance. Johnny Townsend needs to continue his excellent punting, including pinning the opponent inside the 20. Eddy Pineiro has been a real weapon on kickoffs by not allowing many returns, and has found a groove on FGs that hopefully continues – he will be relied on this Saturday. The coverage teams will face some good return men and need to break down and contain. Callaway can hopefully break loose on a punt return, while Tabor has stepped in to help Chris Thompson on kickoff returns. Anything that can help flip field position will be welcomed.

As always, a lot rides on this game for Florida. Can the Gators finally put 2 quality efforts together? Of course it would be great to end the losing streak, but also to continue to gain momentum on the recruiting trail as there are several big-time targets both schools are fighting for. A lot of recruits are paying close attention to how Florida ends this season and whether they look consistently competitive against the best teams. The coaching staff has done an excellent job in keeping the team together despite so many injuries and off-the-field noise. Once again the Gators have to close ranks, find the right available personnel to match up with a talented opponent, and find a way to rise up emotionally to the challenge. I’m not sure if so many younger players are ready to perform again at a high level after so much effort went into the victory at LSU. At full strength, Florida has a good chance to win. With so many starters out……not so much

Prediction: Florida $t. 27 Florida 16