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.

 

 

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

S. Carolina Review / LSU Preview

So much for the doomsayers and sky-is-falling crowd. South Carolina was no match for Florida in the Swamp, in a game where the score didn’t reflect the Gators’ domination. Florida should have been up at least 30 in the 3rd quarter if not for 2 terrible fumbles in the red zone. Not surprisingly, the Gator defense completely shut down the Lamecock offense and their supposed freshman sensation QB, only allowing a garbage time TD and some late yards with the backups playing. The D-Line controlled the LOS all afternoon, while David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph played well at LB despite their inexperience. Austin Appleby played to his strengths, and made enough plays with his arm and legs to spark the offense and provide some hope. Jordan Scarlett rumbled to over 100 yards, and Ahmad Fulwood (!) came straight off the missing person’s sticker on the milk carton to make some big catches and score a TD. It was good to see Coach Nuss force the ball to Antonio Callaway and let him make plays in space. Even though Appleby can’t read defense at LDR’s level, he can make athletic plays and make the long throw.

It was a solid showing overall, and always good to see Won’t Misschump get sent packing with another loss. Its just a shame the Gators didn’t roll up a bigger score to embarrass that clown. They did put on a good show for what was a huge recruiting weekend, with an excellent list of recruits in attendance. Coach Mac and the staff have to lock some of these kids down to restock the roster for 2017 while injecting some more juice into the offense.

The dark cloud that is injuries is getting bigger. Tyler Jordan left after the first play after getting rolled up by a teammate, David Sharpe had the same thing happen to him later in the 1st quarter, and Marcus Maye, the only real leader left on the defense, was injured in the 3rd quarter and had to be carted off with a broken arm. Talk about gutted like a fish – that’s 3 starting OL from a unit that was only average at best, and the strength of the defense up the middle in Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Maye (Anzalone and Maye are out for the season – Davis is likely out for this week). Maybe some day good luck will return to this program, because it’s been in short supply for 7 years running.

It’s do-or-die time for Florida this week, having to travel to LSU to play the Tigers after Hurricane Matthew screwed up the scheduling. LSU AD Joe Alleva became a whiny bitch and got his way (for this season), making the Gators play in Baton Rouge for a second straight year. Win, and the Gators are SEC East champions and book a trip back to Atlanta. Lose, and it’s depend on the unlikely scenario that Tennessee loses at home to Missouri or at Vanderbilt, in which the Vols will have more fans at that game than the Commodores – pathetic.

For Florida to win on the road, it’s going to take big plays from all 3 phases. The defense will have to at least slow the rugged Tiger rushing game led by Leonard Fournette and Darius Guice, while generating a score of their own. The offense will play the fastest and toughest defense it will see in the regular season, and have to put a least 10 points together. And special teams will need to break Callaway loose on a punt return to either score or set up a short field for the offense. The O-Line is a M*A*S*H unit at this point, but perhaps for 1 game they can rise to the occasion. Martez Ivey looked good at his natural LT spot, while TJ McCoy filled in adequately at center. Jordan should be back this week, which helps the interior. Appleby’s mobility will be critical in this game, as the LSU D-Line will be after him all afternoon. Coach Nuss will have to continue to design rollouts for him, and also allow him to keep the ball on the read option – that worked very well against Carolina and can at least slow the pursuit of LSU’s front seven.

LSU’s offense is all predicated on establishing it’s power run game, as QB Danny Etling is nothing special as a passer, despite having quality weapons at WR in Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, and D.J. Chark. The secondary will be on it’s own in man coverage all day, as the front seven will have it’s hands full with LSU’s running game. It all starts with RBs Fournette and Guice, possibly the best 1-2 punch in the country. They will pound the rock all afternoon, and the Gators front seven will have to play it’s best game of the season to just slow them down – I don’t see them being able to completely stop the Tiger running game. It’s imperative that the Florida DL play sound football, holding their gaps and not allowing cutback lanes. The LBs will have to play the game of their young lives – they need to tackle well and not overpursue. The Tiger defense is led by LB Kendall Beckwith, CB Tre’Davious White, and safety Jamal Adams. All are all-SEC caliber players. Florida will have to find a way to get some modicum of a running game going with Scarlett and Lemical Perine, and those 2 will also need to help in pass blocking and in the passing game to take pressure off of Appleby and sustain some drives. If the offense can’t give the defense some rest, there’s no way they will hold up with all of the critical losses they have suffered. Hopefully CeCe Jefferson can play some this week at DE, and I think Davis will give it a go at LB. His presence would be a huge boost to the entire team, even in limited action.

I hope the Gator coaching staff throw everything they can at LSU and can keep them off-balance enough to keep the game close into the 4th quarter. If the offense sputters again, it will another bad loss on the road, and likely a bitter end to the SEC season with no trip to Atlanta. As much as is riding on the outcome, the Gators can’t get too jacked up and make early mistakes – just do your job, and play hard and physical. Florida has a lot of pride to play for after embarrassing themselves on the road this season, and this would be a monumental win. Unfortunately, I don’t see Appleby and the offense making enough happen on their own, and the defense cracking due to the inexperience it brings in at LB and getting worn down as the game progresses.

Prediction: LSU 30 Florida 13

Arkansas Review / South Carolina Preview

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. After Tennessee lost at S. Carolina last week to open the door for Florida to win the SEC East by winning 2 out it’s last 3 conference games, the Gators were barbecued in the Ozarks, embarrassing themselves in a 31-10 defeat that was not as close as the score. Another brutal performance by the offense from the first snap to the last completely took away any incentive for the defense to soldier on. The game plan by Doug Nussmeier is grounds for immediate dismissal – coming out throwing against a team that just yielded over 500 yards rushing by Auburn with a QB that simply isn’t a SEC-caliber player was unconscionable. 5 carries by Jordan Scarlett, and 2 crippling interceptions by LDR, one a pick 6 on the first offensive play. Unacceptable.

To add injury to insult, Alex Anzalone is out for the year with a broken arm, Jarrad Davis had to leave with his recurring ankle injury, Cam Dillard has a knee injury that could keep him out until the bowl game, CeCe Jefferson has a foot injury that will limit him at least the coming week, and finally LDR is gone with a shoulder injury suffered late in the first half. Coach Mac stated he should have sat him down, but respected his toughness. Well, the performance didn’t merit that respect, and now it’s Austin Appleby’s chance to save the season.

The best thing to happen for Arkansas was a week off to regroup, get angry, and take it to Florida. I predicted a Razorback win, and was pessimistic all week about the game. But the (lack of) performance was disheartening to the defense and fans. This crap has to stop.

It’s back to the Swamp for the final home game of 2016 against South Carolina, with Will Misschump coming back to the place he tore down to try and pile on to the current negative momentum for the Gators. No one thought this game would even be competitive, but with all of the injuries and roster turnover on Florida’s side, this suddenly becomes a very important game for the Gators current SEC hopes, how the entire season is remembered, and also for recruiting. After the horrid performance at Arkansas, the coaching staff has to swing for the fences with the players filling in.

On offense, most of the attention will be on Appleby, but the O-Line will have to be revamped. Tyler Jordan will move from guard to center, Fred Johnson will start at Jordan’s spot, but expect to see an 8-man rotation with Kevaris Harkless, Richard Desir-Jones, and Brandon Sandifer getting snaps. It’s time to force the ball the Antonio Callaway, no matter if the defense is keying on him. You can put him in motion, use him on sweeps, and make sure he gets at least 8-10 targets in the passing game. No other WR seems to have the confidence of the staff, so go with your horse. To help Appleby out, make sure to feed the ball to Scarlett and Perine in the running game, and use the swing passes to the RBs more often. Appleby doesn’t have to try and do too much, but he has a much better arm than LDR and is a better runner – coach and game plan to his strengths. It also appears that Coach Mac is ready to pull the redshirt off of one of the freshmen QBs as the backup, and right now Felipe Franks has the edge over Kyle Trask. Franks is an elite athlete who could be effective in limited action with a specific script of plays. The Carolina defense is middling at best, but right now Florida’s offense makes any defense look good. Coach Nuss has to shake things up this week to inject some excitement into the players and generate points.

The defense will still have to be leaned upon, despite the myriad injuries. With both starting LBs out, freshmen Kylan Johnson, David Reese, Vosean Joseph, and Jeremiah Moon have to step into the void and perform. Jarrad Davis will likely dress out, but hopefully doesn’t need to take the field – his ankle injury needs the rest. The D-Line is still playing a lot of guys with injuries, but there’s too much on the line now to rest guys. The Gator secondary should have little problem with the Gamecock WRs – there are no game-breakers in that group. Carolina is starting true freshman Jake Bentley at QB. He has put up decent stats so far against mediocre competition, but is taking a major step up in competition. I know a lot of fans are down on the Gators right now, but I can’t wait to see Florida’s defense get after this kid – he has no idea what he’s up against Saturday, and I hope he gets punished. I expect Brandon McIlwain to get some snaps at QB as a change up because of his running ability, but he poses little threat as a passer.

It’s all hands on deck, literally, to get back some positive momentum, get the win this week, and set up a win-and-in scenario the following week at LSU. Unfortunately, this game will be another noon start, so expect far from a sellout crowd to help cheer the Gators on. With all of the strangeness that has been the 2016 season to date, now the drama of Misschump returning to Gainesville gets added to the mix. He and Trevaris Robinson have done nothing but bad-mouth Florida since they were let go (while still getting paid by UF), and need to get their asses kicked and punched in the mouth. I know Coach Mac wants this game badly, on top of it’s importance to the Gators’ SEC chances. I think the embarrassment of last week will motivate the players, and the entire coaching staff has something to prove as well. It could be another offensive grind for Florida, but I think Appleby can do enough on offense, and the home field will certainly help. Losing to MIsschump simply can’t be allowed to happen.

Prediction: Florida 23 S. Carolina 13

Mississippi Review / Missouri Preview

The Swamp was the Swamp again Saturday night, as the Gators hammered Ole Miss and reminded the nation of what they can expect in the coming years as Florida rebuilds into a SEC power again. The Rebel players, coaches, and fans looked bewildered, as they have not seen what has been possibly the best home-field advantage in the country for 30 years until the Will Miss-champ era began and mercifully ended. They won a big game at Alabama 2 weeks ago, but ran into a defense and home crowd that can intimidate anyone. The atmosphere was electric, and the recruits at the game were treated to a great show for the second week in a row.

The entire offensive coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for developing such an efficient and successful game plan. They are still keeping things relatively simple, but the players are playing quicker and reducing the number of mistakes. Will Grier made some excellent reads and got the ball where it needed to be on time and in rhythm. Jake McGee is turning in to a clutch receiver and a weapon in the red zone. Demarcus Robinson – finally – got some chances to make some plays downfield, and he delivered. He still needs to run tougher and more north-south, but if he continues to make some big plays that won’t matter as much. Kelvin Taylor was a workhorse with 27 carries, and made just enough decent runs to help balance the offense. The OL is going to struggle all season in the running game, but so far they have opened up some lanes often enough to keep drives going. That has to continue with the schedule coming up the rest of October. The return of Martez Ivey from injury should help, and provide some depth.

The Gator defense made a statement to the nation and, more importantly, themselves. They dominated Ole Miss the entire night, punished the QB, got penetration often to blow up run and pass plays, and showed great speed in the front seven. Jon Bullard is all-SEC in my opinion to date, and has been disruptive every game. A lot of guys are getting quality snaps on the DL, and this is keeping them fresh. Jarrad Davis and Tank Morrison were all over the field at LB making big plays – I just hope they don’t get worn down or hurt. The coverage in the secondary was excellent – that was an explosive offense they shut down, despite the makeshift OL the Rebels had to use. There are multiple Ole Miss WRs led by Laquon Treadwell that will be playing in the NFL some day, and they controlled them all night. The tackling was cleaned up, and they laid some big hits on the QB and WRs. The only quibble is a small one – they still allowed the QB to make good gains on the counter plays, but I have to believe part of that was simply allowing for that possibility while shutting down the other playmakers.

It’s off to Columbia to try and exorcise the demons of the past two games against Missouri. This will be a huge test of the maturity and leadership on this team. I know there will be some players that will overlook the Tigers, but hopefully the upperclassmen can focus most of the guys on just getting the job done this week. Actually, I hope the team isn’t too hyped up on trying to make up for the past 2 performances against Mizzou, and make silly mistakes trying to do too much. I don’t care how ugly it is, as long as the Gators get out of there with a win and move on.

The Tigers are struggling on offense, with QB Maty Mauk regressing from his play the previous season. It now looks like his suspension will continue, and true freshman Drew Lock will get thrown into the fire. Hopefully he presses, and the Gator defense hits him early and often as they have done to the opposing QB all season. They have lost a lot of talent on the O-Line and at WR, and have not replaced it with the same level of play. The main threats are RB is Ish Witter, and WRs Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore. The defense has already played against better talent, and if the guys come to play, they should be able to handle anything the Tigers throw at them. No need to overpursue and get caught by misdirection or any trick plays – just play solid straight-up defense and control the action.

The Gator offense now has something to fall back on in terms of confidence, as they can see in the past 5 quarters of play that they can indeed apply pressure to defenses and make plays. The Tigers have another solid defense, but have lost a lot of NFL talent on the D-Line over the past 2 seasons. As always, it starts with the Florida OL – keep Grier upright, try to generate at least 100 yards of rushing to stay balanced, and continue to improve on pass protection and picking up blitzes. Taylor has carried a big load at RB the past 2 weeks, and it would be nice to see Jordan Cronkrite be able to spell him for a bit without a significant drop off in production. The WRs need to continue to improve, as it’s always that much more difficult on the road to move the ball. Robinson’s confidence has to be on the upswing after a big game, and that should take some attention away from the other WRs. Look for the TEs to continue to be relied upon to convert 3rd downs and be a check-down option for Grier. As long as he continues to play smart and understand that making the safe throw and settling for short gains is OK, the offense should do just enough.

After 2 such lousy seasons, it’s hard not to get too excited about how this team is developing. But that’s just the time when a young team can stumble and lose a game it should win. The coaching staff has a different challenge this week in keeping the players focused on just the next game and simply doing their job each play. This isn’t the time for bad penalties and turnovers to allow the Tigers an early lead and to get the momentum. The trip to Missouri is a strange one – not a traditional SEC location, iffy weather, and quite frankly, not an impressive stadium or noisy crowd. If the Gators can replicate the start they enjoyed at Kentucky, that should be enough to get the ball rolling to an important road win. I fully expect the Tigers to throw everything they have into this game, including trick plays. Florida’s special teams could be the equalizer – they have been less than special so far this season, and were embarrassed by Missouri last year.

Florida 20 Missouri 13