Florida’s reward for a bounce-back 2018 regular season is it’s 3rd matchup in it’s past 38 games with Michigan – this time in the Peach Bowl at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The teams are coming off of dramatically different season-ending games. While the Gators crushed F$U to end a painful 5-game losing streak, Michigan was embarrassed by Ohio $t. in a 62-39 beat down that made it 14 out of 15 losses against their bitter rival.
Florida’s offense will be challenged by a strong Wolverine front seven – even with the decision by DT Rashan Gary to forgo the game to prep for the NFL Draft. DE Chase Winovich and LB Devin Bush are all-Big 10/11/12/ whatever players. The running game has carried the Gators all season, but Mullen will have to be ready to mix things up if Michigan is stopping the run. Where some teams – especially the Black eyes – have exposed the Wolverines is in the secondary. If Florida can get their play makers into space they can do some damage. This game can be a showcase for LT Martez Ivey and RB Jordan Scarlett to exhibit their abilities against a legit front seven. The O-line has to stand it’s ground and give Franks time to find his WRs – if they do, there are some big plays to be had. I’m hoping that Grimes and Jefferson can build on their breakout game against F$U, while Toney has the kind of quickness and speed that O$U used to exploit Michigan’s defense.
Michigan’s offense is led by QB Shea Patterson, who transferred in from Ole Miss prior to the 2018 season and seriously upgraded the play at that position. While his new team has reined in some of his running, he is still a threat to scramble and make big plays. He also improved his passing dramatically this year, with a 21-5 TD-Int ratio. His main targets are WRs Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins and TE Zack Gentry. DPJ and Collins arebig, physical targets that will be a challenge for the Gator DBs. The Wolverines historically feature the TE, a position that has exploited poor coverage by the Gator LBs all season. Still, Michigan relies first onit’s running game, led this year by Karan Higdon, who has averaged just under 100 yards per game. It’s incumbent on the defense to win 1st down in order to force the Wolverines into more difficult down-and-distance plays. If Michigan is winning the LOS this will be a long afternoon for the Gator defense, and likely lead to a loss.
As with almost any bowl game – especially a non-playoff game – it virtually impossible to predict the mindset of the players coming in. There are so many variables – guys not playing to prepare for the NFL Draft, grades, baby mommas, guys that do play that will get drafted but try not to get injured, agents/runners sniffing around draft-eligible players, family/posses with their hands out, etc. Many of the bowl games now are more like exhibitions for the following season, with the main reward being the additional practices to develop younger and inexperienced players.
I feel that this game is more important to the entire Florida football program because of it’s recent transition in AD, coaching staff, and attitude. That may not necessarily translate into a win, but I believe Coach Mullen and the players will have extra motivation to prove to the nation (and future recruits)that the prognosis for Gator football isn’t just a short rally, but long-term success. Florida was embarrassed by Michigan in both the Citrus Bowl after the 2015 season and in their 2017 opener – both games under the Swamp Donkey. A new message needs to be sent that things are truly different –and better – going forward.
I think that Michigan’s experience within a consistent scheme for the past 4 seasons, the desire to begin erasing the impressions from their meltdown against Ohio $t., and better talent along the OL and DL will be enough to win. However, I also hope that once this game is over they – and the nation – realize that Florida is not the mentally and physically soft team they have enjoyed beating recently.
Prediction: Michigan 27 Florida 20
In what could only be described as “Mr. Mullen’s Wild Ride”, Florida came back from two separate double-digit deficits to pull out a clutch win late against South Carolina. This could have been a second consecutive disastrous home loss that would really have derailed the season, but instead the Gators get a lot of credit for digging deep and fighting back.
The defense was somnambulant for the first two Carolina possessions, allowing the Lamecocks to move easily down the field each time for touchdowns and a quick 14-0 first quarter lead. Every position can take the blame, as the defense made Carolina QB Jake Bentley and their offense look like the Tom Brady-led Patriots. It seems in general that home teams with noon kickoffs usually start slowly, but the Gators looked lifeless the entire quarter. Finally, the offense awoke and put together two TD drives of their own in the second quarter to tie the game. The right side of the O-Line gets most of the credit for opening large holes for Scarlett and Perine to run though, and this would prove to be the winning formula in the second half as well. Franks hardly threw a pass more than a few yards downfield, instead making the safe throws. He ran the ball better in this game than ever before, especially in short-yardage situations. After being booed last week and early in this game, he unfortunately embarrassed himself by giving the home fans the shush gesture and screaming STFU after scoring his first rushing TD – just another example of his lack of maturity and leadership. Then the defense relapsed, allowing Carolina a TD drive just before halftime to take a 21-14 lead. There was no pass rush, and the LBs still looked lost in coverage and suffered from miscommunication in the 10th game of the season.
The second half started out as a repeat of the first, as the Gator offense came out slowly (again) and the defense collapsed (again) while the Lamecocks stretched their lead. Every unit played a part – poor tackling and miscommunication by the defense, sloppy play from Franks and the O-Line, and special teams allowing a long kickoff return to set up Carolina with a short field for a score. The offense drove to a 42-yard FG attempt, which McPherson missed. Carolina responded with their own drive for a FG and a 24-14 lead, then later in the 3rd quarter extended to lead to 31-14 after the Gators allowed an 89-yard catch and run by Deebo Samuel to their 5-yard line. The outlook at that point was bleak, as there was no energy from the players or fans. Florida then had it’s most fortunate break of the season, a poorly thrown pass into coverage by Franks that was tipped and somehow came down into the hands of Hammond, who was then was stripped of the ball before hitting the ground. The officials claimed his momentum had been stopped before the fumble, and Misschump shockingly didn’t challenge the call. After that, the O-Line, Perine, and Scarlett dominated the rest of the game, scoring on 3 consecutive punishing drives to take the lead at 35-31. Both RBs ran hard and broke tackles for extra yardage while punishing the Lamecock LBs and secondary. The Gator defense finally responded, making just enough plays and finally getting some pressure on Bentley in the 4th quarter. CJH ended the last decent threat by Carolina with a terrific interception, trailing the WR and baiting Bentley into the throw.
It was a true gut-check for the team, and to their credit they played hard and came back. This game can be the result, even more than the LSU win, that Mullen can point to in the offseason to the returning players as proof of what he has been preaching since he took the job. Another blowout loss at home could have killed any recruiting momentum and left the team emotionally fragile heading into the game in two weeks against Florida $tate.
It’s on to Senior Day at the Swamp, as Florida welcomes the Idaho Vandals for a glorified scrimmage before the rivalry game in Taliban City against F$U. Don’t expect much variety in scheme from either the offense or defense – just the basic plays and looks to get by. Expect a lot of running plays on offense, with minimal need to expose Franks to any injury possibility. Idaho has struggled in the weak Big Sky conference, so they are completely outmanned against the Gators. A lot of younger and/or inexperienced players should get some snaps, as the staff should be able to start pulling starters and clearing the bench in the second half. There has been a lot of debate as to whether Emory Jones should play to get some more live game experience, but it seems Mullen is holding him back for the last 2 games against the Criminoles and the bowl game, in order to preserve his redshirt.
As always, the mantra for this kind of game is……NO INJURIES.
Prediction: Florida 59 Idaho 13
In what could only be described as a Misschumpian or SwampDonkian performance, the Gators embarrassed themselves in a 38-17 blowout loss on Homecoming at the Swamp to a mediocre Missouri team. A lot of the positives that developed up until this game were wiped away with a horrific effort that reopened a lot of fresh wounds for Gator Nation. Mullen and the staff will say publicly that the loss is on them, but that’s just PR spin. The players regressed and fell back into the bad habits from the previous 2 regimes. No enthusiasm, no energy, and a lazy performance that will reopen a lot of position battles in practice this week – starting at QB.
All 3 phases of the team were bad, but the abysmal performance by the entire offense bled into the attitude and effort of the defense and special teams. As it almost always does, the play at QB dictates how well the offense plays, and Franks was simply terrible. He missed multiple wide-open WRs, checked into bad plays, and sulked on the sideline when Mullen laid into him. *News Flash* – This is the SEC, and it’s big-boy football. Produce or sit. Mullen finally had enough and inserted Trask, and he played well under the circumstances, even leading the offense to a TD in his first possession. Even in that small sample size he exhibited the ability to read the defense and go through his progressions more than Franks has most of the season. While it’s (sadly) likely that Franks gets the start this week, I expect Trask to get snaps no matter what. The O-Line played it’s worst game of the season. There was no push in the running game, and they broke down in pass pro too often. I feel bad for the RBs and WRs, who simply can’t show their skills consistently enough with such poor QB play. There are indications that at least some of the locker room is starting to turn on Franks, and Mullen has to rein in and address the discord before it resembles the end of 2017.
The Gator defense was only minimally better. There was no consistent pass rush from the DEs, while the interior of the line was gashed all afternoon. The poor LB pass coverage was exposed, and even the CBs broke down on two long TD passes, but it’s hard to cover for 5+ seconds when the D-Line is getting stoned at the LOS. Again, it appears there are parts of the team that are reacting to the struggles of the offense and QB, and the team lacks the leadership and maturity to push through it. There is no push from the interior of the D-Line, and they were manhandled all afternoon in their worst performance of the season – even worse than Kentucky.
Evan McPherson hit his only FG attempt, the highlight of special teams. Tommy Townsend inexplicably became a loose cannon on the field, garnering 2 personal-foul penalties along with a targeting call. I can appreciate him wanting to not just be a spectator in punt coverage, but he has to control his emotions. Punters may be people too, but antics like these really hurt the defense and gave Missouri great field position for two scoring drives. If he doesn’t calm down, his ass will be on the bench. It’s something I have never seen in my lifetime of watching college football.
South Carolina is next up and Florida has to get it’s house in order right away, or suffer another home loss, this time to Won’t Misschump. There is some blood in the water in the Swamp right now, and you can count on the petulant Misschump wanting to do anything to beat the Gators.
The Gamecocks are led on offense by QB Jake Bentley. He has been a little inconsistent this season, especially as their running game has really tailed off from prior seasons. He does have a strong arm and isn’t afraid to run when needed, so the Gator DES and LBs will have to keep him contained in the pocket. WR Bryan Edwards is a downfield threat, while Deebo Samuel will get lots of short passes and jet sweeps so he can use his speed and elusiveness in space to make plays. Leading rusher Rico Dowdle is questionable with an ankle injury, so Tyson Williams may have to be the lead ball carrier. Carolina has had difficulty sustaining drives, so look for them to try to hit big plays for chunks of yardage in order to set up scoring opportunities. The Gator defense – if it decides to show up and actually play with some energy – matches up well and should be able to control the LOS. The LBs have a lot to atone for after last week’s disaster – it’s back to basics, starting with playing your run gaps and actually accounting for the TE in the passing game. The secondary has to focus on keeping Edwards in check, and force other WRs to beat them. CGJ has not practiced this week with an undisclosed injury, and that would be a big loss. The defense has to win on 1st down.
As for the Gator offense……what a difference a week makes. If Franks gets the start, will the players just be waiting for him to make a few bad plays and get pulled? I was hopeful Trask would either start or get significant reps, but he is now out for the season with a broken foot, the same injury that derailed his 2017 season. Now Mullen has to SERIOUSLY consider burning Jones’ redshirt and getting him ready to play in every game the rest of this season. No matter the QB, the O-Line has to rediscover it’s run-blocking ability and provide the balance necessary for success. The WRs have to fight harder for balls, but how much of that is the inaccuracy of Franks and their growing frustration? I would hope that after watching the tape from the Missouri game, every player would look himself in the mirror and demand better. Mullen will have even more on his plate than usual, essentially having to prepare 2 full game plans that complement each QB the best. I expect the running game to be featured early and leaned on as long as it is working.
I don’t like what I’m hearing out of practice and from sources right now. There is some locker room sniping going on between the offense and defense, growing frustration with Franks from the WRs, and talk that some draft-eligible players are starting to mentally or physically check out. Mullen still has some key players that are holdovers from the Swamp Donkey, and it appears those guys aren’t providing the effort that he expects. As far as this week’s game is concerned, I think the sum of these issues is enough to lead to another home loss.
Prediction: Carolina 27 Florida 23
It was a bitter defeat for the Gators in Jacksonville, as critical mistakes and injuries at key positions were too much to overcome in a 36-17 loss. The game plan on both offense and defense was sound and the effort was there, but this team is not talented enough to defeat quality teams when not playing error-free football.
Dan Mullen called one of the best offensive games I can recall. The running game was solid, the run/pass mix was effective, and a handful of special plays were there for the taking. Unfortunately, Franks didn’t execute those plays in key moments – he just executed Florida’s chance to win. After allowing Georgia a FG on the first series of the game, the very first Florida offensive play was a harbinger of things to come. He badly overthrew a wide-open Jefferson for a TD on a flea-flicker, which would have sent a shock through the Georgia defense that this would be a vastly different game than last season. The second possession started nicely, but an uncharacteristic Scarlett fumble gave the Puppies a short field. They took advantage of that and the early exit of CJH due to a back injury to pick on McWilliams for key completions and a TD pass for a 10-0 lead. Even after digging an early hole, the Gators didn’t panic. They finally scored in the 2nd quarter with an excellent drive mostly led by Perine and the running game. Unfortunately, right before the half ended the Puppies took advantage or poor pass coverage by the Gator LBs (especially Joseph) with 4 consecutive completions to TE Isaac Nauta to get a FG for a 13-7 halftime lead.
The second half started out perfectly. After Toney returned the kickoff to the Georgia 48-yard line, it took the Gators only 3 plays to take the lead on Franks’ best pass of the day, a laser to Swain down the middle. Sadly, the defense had a major letdown, allowing Georgia to march right down the field mostly through the air for a TD to retake the lead, as McWilliams was toasted – again. Then came the 2nd critical mistake by Franks. After a Georgia punt was downed at the Gator 1-yard line, he fumbled on the next play. What could have easily then been a TD and perhaps the dagger was replaced by “The Stand” – 7 plays inside the 2-yard line that were stuffed by the Gator defense – holding Georgia to only a FG. It’s unfortunate that the offense could not fully build on that inspirational effort, only getting a FG early in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 23-17, but never really threatening again. The defense finally cracked, not being able to get off the field on 3rd down and not getting the key play in pass defense to force the Puppies to punt. Two late TDs made the final score 36-17, which didn’t reflect the closeness of the game until the last 8 minutes. Watching 3 out of 4 starters in the secondary sit on the sideline due to injury or suspension while Georgia was actually moving the ball through the air was sickening.
It’s back to the Swamp for the first time since the LSU game 4 weeks ago, this time to face Missouri. It’s the start of a crucial 3 game home stand that will determine how good the 2018 season can be and the quality of bowl game the Gators are invited to. There are a lot of positives to take from the Georgia game, but also a lot to clean up.
Missouri reminds me of a bad matchup in the NCAA basketball tournament. The strength of their offense is based on QB Drew Lock, WRs Emanuel Hall and Jalen Knox, and a quality TE in Albert Okwuegbuna. This group will cause headaches for the Gator LB corps and secondary – especially if CJH is not 100% and if Stewart is rusty after his suspension for the Georgia game. The D-Line has to rediscover it’s pass rush and make life miserable for Lock, or else this could turn into a high-scoring affair that Franks and the Gator offense are not built for. The Tigers also have two good RBs in Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett, who really hurt the Gators last year in Columbia. The entire defense has to play a solid and smart game against a very good offense. It all starts with winning first down to make the Tigers one-dimensional. After that, if the defense continues it’s struggles getting off the field on 3rd down, it will be a long day and a probable loss. Kentucky did a very good job holding Missouri to only 14 points last week, and the Gators should be able to see a lot of things on film they can apply this week.
Florida has to continue to find success in the running game, which will lessen the number of possessions by the Tigers and also allow the defense some rest. The Gator O-Line has to first stop DT Terry Beckner – he is a load and an all-SEC candidate. Perine and Scarlett are in a groove right now running the ball, but I continue to hope they are used more in the passing game. Mullen has gone away from that the past month for some reason, but I hope he reintroduces it into the game plan. Both Franks and all of the WRs need to improve – Franks his accuracy, and the WRs getting consistent separation from DBs and fighting harder through contact to go after the ball. All of Gator Nation continues to impatiently wait for Toney to get more touches, even if it’s only on jet sweeps.
The Gator special teams have been excellent, and again can have a big impact on the outcome. Townsend has to continue to flip the field with his punts, while McPherson has been nails with his FGs. Toney had a big kickoff return against Georgia, and hopefully builds on that to perhaps set up an easy score.
Coach Mullen and the entire staff have to find a way to build on the positives from the Georgia game and get the players to continue to compete on every snap. Despite the tough loss, Florida can prove it has emotionally matured by moving on to the next game and taking care of it’s business. I have a nagging feeling this game will not go smoothly and will be in doubt late. If the Gators can simply eliminate unforced turnovers they have a good chance of winning. There is still a lot to play for, starting with protecting the Swamp. Finally, the next few games will go a long way for the perception of the program in the minds of recruits. The Gators are gaining the attention of a lot of big names, and if they can finish the season well, should be able to bring in a class that is more representative of the Florida program standard of the past 30 years. It’s time to have the talent and depth to compete for championships again.
Prediction: Florida 27 Missouri 24
It’s rivalry week. A huge game looms in Jacksonville with the winner likely representing the SEC East in Atlanta, and potentially bigger things to play for down the road.
I expect the Gator offense to have some struggles, so it’s on the defense to try and control the game and keep the score manageable. Georgia will rely on it’s running game led by RBs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift and a strong O-Line. Even in their loss at LSU they ran the ball effectively, only having to abandon it due to turnovers by QB Jake Fromm and falling behind by double-digits in the 4th quarter. The Florida front seven will have it’s toughest challenge of the season in controlling the LOS – if the Puppies win first down they will control the clock and it will be a long afternoon. If by some combination of run defense, turnovers, and effective offense the Gators can get a lead in the second half, once again it will fall on Fromm to have to make things happen with his arm, which is where he struggles. Playing with a big lead and handing off most of the game is what he was able to do all of 2017, but he has not handled the pressure of being forced to throw very well. On passing downs, the Gator DEs need to find ways to continue their excellent play and get pressure on the QB. Georgia’s pass blocking has had some struggles this year, so perhaps there are some big plays and drive-killers available. The Gator secondary will be have to play a lot of man defense, and will be challenged by WRs Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman and TE Isaac Nauta. They will have to stay disciplined and not peek into the backfield on run fakes. The entire defense will have trust each individual to do their job – no freelancing or over-aggressiveness leading to a bust and big play. Finally, I expect Justin Fields to see action at QB as well. He is a dangerous runner, but hasn’t been relied upon much in the passing game to date. I suspect there are a few pass plays in the game plan for him this week to try and surprise the Gator defense.
Florida’s offense has to find a way to put some extended drives together in order to allow the defense to get some rest and to shorten the game. Georgia will likely stack the box and dare Franks to throw to beat them, which is a good strategy until he proves he is accurate enough to make throws into tight windows. The O-Line was able to open enough running room to balance the attack against LSU and has to do the same in this game, as relying on the passing game for consistent production isn’t a viable option yet. Scarlett and Perine once again will have to get tough yards after contact, but I hope Mullen continues to incorporate them into the passing game to slow the rush and spread the field. The WRs have to block well, and get separation occasionally to make some big plays. CB Deandre Baker is an all-SEC candidate, so anyone not matched up with him has to make something happen. The Puppy defense has shown some cracks this year, so Florida must capitalize when some opportunities present themselves – whether with individual effort of by scheme. Georgia’s pass rush is nowhere near as formidable as last season. D’Andre Walker leads the Puppies with 5 sacks, but they only have 9 total as a team. The Gator O-Line needs to play their assignments and communicate – they stood up pretty well to Kentucky and LSU, and have to give Franks time and some clear passing lanes. I’m hoping that Mullen isn’t so stubborn that he forces the running game if it is not working, throws more on 1st down, and isn’t afraid to take shots with lower-percentage 50/50 balls downfield to the WRs. It’s not as if Franks completes 70% of his passes as it is, so it’s time to roll the dice and see if the WRs can win some one-on-one battles. I expect to see some of Toney on jet sweeps and wildcat snaps – he is due for a few big plays. If the Gators can get into the red zone, Mullen has demonstrated creativity and acumen with his play calls, and I’ll bet there are some new wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.
Both teams have excellent special teams. Georgia PK Roberto Blankenship has done a great job since last season and has made some clutch kicks under pressure. Hardman is a dangerous KO and punt returner with breakaway speed, so the Gator coverage units have to stay in their lanes and tackle well. Florida PK Evan McPherson continues to impress, and Tommy Townsend will be relied upon to punt well and flip the field. If the game is close into the second half, special teams could be the difference.
This year’s game has high stakes for the first time in a while, which will make the atmosphere even more intense. Both teams are coming off of a bye week, so it will be interesting to see which one took the most advantage of it for the stretch run. Florida has the bitter memory of last year’s debacle to try and make up for, quitting under the Swamp Donkey and embarrassing the program. Hopefully the staff has the players at a high emotional pitch while not being too hyped and making stupid mistakes. There are still a lot of guys on the roster that won the East in 2015 and 2016 and have experience in big games, so Mullen has that to build on. Kirby Smart is feeling some heat for Georgia’s performance at LSU, and I expect a better effort. I hope the discussions of how much Fields should play at QB becomes a distraction within the team, but my guess is that Fromm is still the guy and plays almost exclusively unless the Puppies fall behind by more than a TD in the second half.
As much as I want the Gators to win, I’m just not convinced that Franks can play efficiently enough and take advantage of big play opportunities to lead the offense to enough points. My worry is that even if the defense plays well initially, they start to wear down in the second half, especially if they can’t stop the running game. Additionally, the secondary is already thin, and can’t afford any significant injuries. After last year’s embarrassment, there’s plenty of motivation for the Gators to play their best.
Prediction: Georgia 31 Florida 20
Straight out of the Theater of the Bizarre, it was an all-to-typical Florida-Vanderbilt game. A way-too-early start (11:00 am local time), a bad Vandy team, and Florida coming off of 3 straight big SEC games……all leading to a somnambulant first 25 minutes of play until the Gators awoke, with the help of some really childish actions by the Vandy coaching staff that fired up the entire team……and coaching staff.
As much as Dan Mullen preached all week about coming out focused and playing hard, the team only got it half right. Stupid penalties, undisciplined play by the defense, and two terrible turnovers by Franks allowed the Commodores to race out to a 21-3 lead. From there on out the Gators dominated and won, but it wasn’t comfortable until the last score to ice the game.
The offense came out sharply, following up a 3-and-out by the defense with an efficient drive all the way to the Vandy 5-yard line, whereupon Mullen made a huge mistake in not simply running the ball on 2nd and 1 and calling for a slant pass that was tipped and intercepted. Maybe that stunned the defense enough for them to subsequently allow Vandy their longest scoring drive in 15 years. The offense responded with another good drive, but some inaccurate passes led to a punt. Then, the defense simply played undisciplined football, allowing an easy screen pass to go for a 75-yard TD. Not to be outdone, Franks led the offense back down the field, only to not protect the football on a designed run and fumbling, giving Vandy possession in the Gator 40-yard line. The defense continued their lackadaisical play, letting the ‘Dores march to a 3rd TD. Then it became all too real for Florida – they were in serious trouble, and it was either throw away all the good that was accomplished the previous 3 weeks, or toughen up and go to work. In a testament to the staff and the buy-in of this year’s players, the Gators did just that. The offense came back with an important TD drive, the defense got a quick 3-and-out, and then the real run began. On the punt return James Houston was ejected for a peelback block on a defenseless player (questionable – but OK), but then the Vandy coaching staff, while out on the field to check on the injured player, got into a shouting match with the Gator staff, which caused both benches to clear and for both teams to get an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. This activated an obscure rule that if any player on either team already had a similar penalty earlier in the game, this would count as their second offense and cause an automatic ejection – goodbye Vosean Joseph (who really did it to himself with an egregious roughing penalty that helped Vandy score their second TD). After losing good field position due to the penalties, Franks hit Perine with a screen pass that he almost took to the house. This gave Florida a FG at the end of the half that made it a one score game, and provided all the emotional momentum the team needed to roll in the second half.
As soon as the teams returned to the field for the 3rd quarter, it was obvious that the Gators were ready to play. The offense continued to run the ball effectively with Perine and Scarlett, the quick WR screens were getting chunks of yards, and Franks settled down and didn’t turn the ball over, allowing the skill players to do work. After cutting the lead to 21-20 and forcing Vandy to punt, the offense landed the big body blow with Scarlett’s TD run to take the lead, which the Gators would not relinquish. The only real scare was when Pierce fumbled in Gator territory, but the defense held the Commodores to a FG to keep the lead. The Gators then drove for another TD to effectively close out the game. The offense wound up with close to 600 yards and two 100-yard rushers. The downfield passing game is still not clicking, as the only pass TD more than 5 yards beyond the LOS was the slant to Jefferson that he housed. Franks has to improve his accuracy on throws more than 10 yards downfield, and actually allow his receivers the chance to make some 50/50 catches. The defense tightened up the run gaps, but had chances for interceptions that they didn’t capitalize on that enabled Vandy to extend drives and get 2 FGs in the second half to keep the game close.
In retrospect this game could be a valuable teaching moment for Mullen and the staff, but also a confidence boost for the players. They now see that they can’t slip into their early-season bad habits, which actually cost them the Kentucky game. But they also see that the staff is actually coaching them up to be a good team, and that they can do some great things IF they are focused and disciplined. The bye week comes at a good time, to allow the team to rest up both physically and emotionally for a critical 3-week stretch that will determine how good or average the season eventually becomes.
I’ll be back next week with my preview of the Georgia game. Go Gators!
Florida 100 Bye Week 0
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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!