Florida $t. Review

Florida ended 5 years of misery with a 41-14 beatdown of Florida $t., a result made even sweeter as it came in Taliban City.  The game was won because the Gators controlled the game at the LOS from the outset and imposed their will all afternoon.  As the game wore on, it was obvious how poorly coached and undisciplined F$U is – multiple illegal formation penalties, late personnel changes, and stupid personal fouls.  Anyone watching the game (including recruits) could easily see the vast difference between the two teams, including teamwork..

Florida’s offense piled up over 500 yards for the 3rd straight game, showing balance with over 250 yards each rushing and passing.  The O-Line was able to create holes despite the Criminoles stacking the box all day, and Perine and Scarlett wore down the front 7 and eventually broke some long runs.  This domination allowed Franks to have a relatively clean pocket in order to pick out his WRs.  It was good to see the WRs finally exploit the intermediate zones and middle of the field, as both Grimes and Jefferson had some big plays and TDs.  The offense had the ball for almost 37 minutes, which allowed the defense to rest and eventually force F$U to abandon the running game in the second half.  The only complaint was the play-calling in the red zone in the first half, which kept the halftime score at 13-7 for Florida instead of a 20-7 or 23-7 lead.  Mullen said it himself in his television show that he could have called a better red zone game.  All the Gators had to do inside the 10-yard line was continue to pound the rock, but instead Mullen tried to get too cute with QB runs or passes into a crowded end zone.  All’s well that ends well – especially having a head coach secure enough in himself to acknowledge his mistakes publicly – unlike Slick Wille Taggart and F$U.

On defense, the Gators essentially shut down Florida $t. the entire game except for 2 drives kept alive by 3rd-and-long and 4th-and-long scrambles by Deondre Francois.  Each time there were defenders that whiffed on the tackle, or else this could have been close to a shutout.  The one player I was most worried about showed why – RB Cam Akers scored the first F$U TD on a one-handed catch, and had a long catch-and-run for a TD called back due to one of those stupid penalties I mentioned.  He was the only consistent threat.  The passing game was never a real threat due to constant pressure applied by Florida’s DEs against the F$U turnstiles.  The Gator secondary did a nice job of defending the long passes that F$U relied upon all season – once that was taken away the Criminoles simply weren’t going to put together long drives.  Props to Polite, Jefferson, and CGJ in their last regular season game as Gators.

Florida’s special teams were again solid.  McPherson capped off a great freshman season with 2 FGs and long kickoffs.  Getting McPherson to switch his commitment from Mississippi St. to Florida was one of the most important recruiting wins for Mullen.  Townsend had some long punts to flip the field, even a few of the rugby-style that I really don’t like.  The coverage units tackled well and never cracked.  Mullen takes it upon himself to put a lot of emphasis on special teams, including getting some starters on the coverage units, and the difference from last season was striking.

This was a statement win for Coach Mullen and entire the football program.  He has been playing catchup in recruiting since he arrived, especially with being out of the state for so long.  Now he has results to back up his pitch to recruits, along with proof that Florida is a better-coached and more stable program than F$U or scUM.  He and the staff are still behind in establishing the long-term relationships needed not just with kids but with coaching staffs around the state, and that has hampered efforts putting together the 2019 class so far.  This win could swing a few kids Florida’s way this season, but will pay long-term dividends for the 2020 and 2021 classes, of which the Gators have a much better start on.

Florida will learn it’s bowl fate in a week.  The Gators likely will finish in the top 12 of the CFP rankings and receive a New Year’s 6 bowl invitation.  That would be a better result than most expected before the season started, and especially after losing to Kentucky early in the season at home.  The extra practices will benefit all of the younger players that are redshirting, including QB Emory Jones.  There are a lot of positives to take away from the 2018 season, and hopefully that momentum continues through to Early National Signing Day in late December, the bowl game, and National Signing day in February.

I’ll be back with a bowl preview in December.  Until then – It’s Great To Be A Florida Gator!

 

 

 

Idaho Review / Florida $t. Preview

Florida took care of business against Idaho, mashing the Potatoes, er, Vandals in a 63-10 blowout.  The game worked out as well as Coach Mullen could have wanted – get a big early lead, and start pulling starters and emptying the bench to get the young guys some live reps.

Idaho was badly outmanned, and the Gators did as they pleased on both sides of the ball.  I was surprised at how often Mullen called a pass play, but perhaps he was secure in his comfort level with the running game for next week and wanted both Franks and Jones to get as many throws in as they could.  Franks had great numbers, but still missed some easy TD throws to Jefferson, continuing a season-long theme.  He was still high with some throws over the middle to open WRs and behind on a few slants, but found the range in the second quarter before being pulled.  Jones looked good moving the team, and made some accurate throws to all 3 zones.  He also turned the ball over on a botched snap, showing his inexperience.  Even in such a mismatch, the absence of Buchanan at center due to suspension meant Jordan had to move to center, and his play there immediately looked scarily like 2016 and 2017, as even the Vandals were able to stuff the inside run occasionally and get some pass pressure.  The Gator defense set the tone on the first scrimmage play, with CGJ getting a pick-6.  Florida dominated the LOS as they should have, and did an excellent job of shutting down the Idaho passing game, forcing the QBs to run for their lives all afternoon.  A lot of young guys got extended time, with DE Zack Carter and LB Ventrell Miller making some big plays.

The best thing about this game other than seeing so many young guys play was that there were no significant injuries.

Now it’s on to the rivalry game against the Criminoles in Taliban City.  Florida has now lost 5 straight and 7 out of 8 in the series, and that has to stop.  Recruiting and program prestige have suffered, and the time is ripe for Mullen and the Gators to take control of the state again.

F$U has struggled on offense most of this season, mainly due to a weak O-Line that has allowed QB Deondre Francois to be punished.  Florida has to focus on slowing RB Cam Akers, and then let the chips fall where they may with the matchup of their pass-rushing DEs vs. the sieve that is the F$U O-Line.  This should force F$U into more max-protect formations, negating some throws to the TE and RBs and allowing the Gator secondary to match up against the Criminole WRs.  F$U has some talent at WR in Nyqwan Murray and Tamorrion Terry, but nothing explosive like in previous years.  As long as the safeties play sound football and don’t allow any plays over the top, this is a good matchup for Florida.  Hopefully Stewart can play after sitting out the past 2 weeks with a quad injury.  If the Gator DTs can at worst get a stalemate and occasionally disrupt the interior, the rest of the defense should have a good day.  F$U has not shown the capability of sustaining long scoring drives, so they will be looking for a lot of chunk plays – the Gator LBs and secondary have to play sound and alert football all afternoon and communicate coverages.

Florida’s offense can’t simply play safe, conservative football all day.  While the F$U defense has had difficulty against power-running teams, the Gators can’t expect to simply control the LOS all game long.  It will be interesting to see how much risk Mullen is willing to take in the passing game – will he try to push downfield more often to loosen up the Criminole defense, or hope to continue to rely on the short, safe throws that protect Franks from extra punishment…..and from himself.  Scarlett and Perine need to get the tough yards to help the offense win on 1st down, as Franks can’t be relied upon to consistently bail out the offense in long-yardage situations.  It appears that Jones will be given a package for the game as well – whether he will be called upon is another matter.  The Gator O-Line has to account for DE Brian Burns in pass pro – he is one of the best pass-rushing DEs in the country.  The return from suspension of Buchanan at center should bolster the interior.  Florida’s WRs will need to block well and win some physical battles for the football against a F$U secondary led by Levonta Taylor and Stanford Samuels.

This game is massive for Coach Mullen and the Gator program.  Getting a win against a sub-.500 F$U team, ending their 36-year bowl game streak, and showing that Mullen is a much better coach than Slick Willie Taggart would do wonders for recruiting, the Gator Nation, and national perception.  There is a lot of internal unrest in the F$U program, as the team has looked outcoached and without focus many times.  They are coming off of a last-second win giftwrapped by Boston College, and now have some faint hope of another 6-6 season and extending their bowl game streak.  As in almost any rivalry game, records don’t mean much – like the stock market, past performance does not guarantee future results.  Florida really needs to win this game, but has to expect a 4-quarter battle unlike anything that the Criminoles have exhibited in 2018.  If this game were at the Swamp I could see a comfortable Gator win, but unless the Gators race out to an early lead and demoralize the F$U players and fans, this one likely doesn’t get decided until the 4th quarter.

Prediction:  Florida 24          Florida $t. 20

 

 

LSU Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida reawakened the Swamp with it’s most important win in 3 years, outlasting LSU in what has become a typical close battle between the Gators and Tigers.  This was no cheap victory – this came against a tough and well-coached team that came in with a solid resume and playing with confidence.  Hopefully this win resonates with not just the fan base, but with recruits as well – showing that the foundation is being laid for a bright future after the darkness of the Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras.

To win a game like this all 3 phases of the team have to play well (and they did), but I have to give the edge to the defense.  After giving up a quick and shockingly easy TD drive to open the game, the defense dug in and ramped up it’s intensity for the rest of the afternoon.  Other than that first drive and then the two big runs allowed on LSU’s last scoring drive in the 4th quarter, Florida controlled the action for most of the game.  Tackling was the best it’s been all season, with defenders making plays in space all over the field.  The D-line did get gashed for some long runs, but held it’s own against a quality O-line while proving it is one of the elite pass-rushing units in the country.  Polite, Zuniga, and Jefferson harassed Joe Burrow all game long and came up with 5 sacks and some key holding calls on the Tigers.  The tackle rotation still has some issues with more physical teams, and will have to find ways to counter that with slants and simply tougher play.  The LB corps had by far it’s best day under the new staff.  Joseph had his best game as a Gator with 14 tackles, 3.5 for loss, while Reese was filling gaps inside against a tough LSU running game.  The run fits continue to improve, and there were better pursuit angles on the edges.  The secondary had a good day overall, highlighted by Stewart’s pick-6 that iced the win.  LSU rarely challenged CJH, preferring to pick on McWilliams whenever he was in the game, and also going after Dean.  These guys have to pick up their game going forward, as opponents will continue to attack them until they prove they can cover.  Finally, CGJ had a career day, directing the secondary while flying around and making plays in the backfield, against screens, and even in coverage.  When the secondary looks at the film, they will see some areas for improvement.  The Tigers had some open WRs on their last two possessions, even against nickel and dime looks, but fortunately there were some key drops that thwarted those drives.  Improvement, but still work to do.

Florida’s offense was a mixed bag – either very good or very bad.  4 scoring drives, including the go-ahead TD after LSU took the lead, mixed in with 7 drives of 6 plays or less, including 5 3-and-outs.  While Franks and the O-line had their struggles and ugly moments, at least they were opportunistic.  These guys would have folded under the previous staff, but are developing the mental toughness to push through difficult circumstances.  The run blocking is noticeably improved when Heggie is in the game at guard, and it’s becoming obvious that when the Gators need important yards they run to the right behind him and Taylor.  The running game came through to provide balance, and gained 2 critical first downs after being pinned down at the 3-yard line late in the game.  This allowed the punt team flip the field and make LSU put a long drive together to try and get in position for a winning FG.  Perine scored 2 TDs and had some big runs off of the speed option, while Scarlett got the tough yards in close quarters in the 4th quarter.  The WRs made some contested catches, battling against an excellent LSU secondary.  There wasn’t much separation, so coming down with some 50/50 balls was key.  I was disappointed that the RBs weren’t included in the passing game.  Franks cannot afford to repeat his terrible decision-making in throwing the end zone interception early in the 3rd quarter that changed the complexion of the game.  Overall, the offense continues to make incremental progress, which is a good sign.  Finally, Mullen has shown an excellent touch in play-calling in the red zone, coming up with plays that are resulting in TDs instead of FGs.

The special teams were again solid.  Townsend was able to pin down the Tigers with some great punts, but struggled when the tried the rugby-style kicks – he needs to shelve that and simply kick in rhythm.  McPherson had no FG opportunities, but only had one kickoff returned – after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Stewart’s pick-6 – but even then his kick was deep enough to force LSU to have to convert on a long drive.

Next up is Vanderbilt.  The Gators travel to Music City on a roll, and hopefully continue to show improvement and not rest on their recent success.

The Commodores are struggling right now, and coming off of a beatdown at Georgia.  Their offense has been mostly one-dimensional this year, relying on the passing of Kyle Shurmur to WR Kilija Lipscomb.  As long as the Gator defense doesn’t slip back into bad habits against the run, they should be able to force Vandy to throw and continue their sack barrage.  Shurmur is a big QB and hard to bring down, but if the defense can get some hits on him early, his accuracy will fall dramatically and give the Gator offense more possessions.  Florida’s D-line should have a decided advantage.

Vandy’s defense has been weak against the run, so I’m expecting a lot of carries for Scarlett and Perine.  Pierce should get some as well, as Mullen went with his experienced RBs against LSU for pass pro.  The Commodore secondary is nothing like LSU’s, so the short passes to the WRs should be more available to take pressure off of Franks.  There will be opportunities for some big plays if the O-line continues to improve and Franks makes the proper reads.  He has to improve his accuracy in order to extend drives and give the defense some rest.  This is an opportunity for the entire offense to work on becoming more efficient.

Defense and special teams travel, so as long as there isn’t an unexpected dropoff, those units should make it easier to get another SEC road win.

Now we get to see if Florida can handle success.  Mullen and the rest of the staff have a big challenge in getting the players refocused and continuing to emphasize consistency and effort.  This is another important step in the transformation of the program.  This team isn’t good enough to overcome lack of execution and sloppy play, so here is an opportunity to prove to themselves they are indeed working their way back to the Gator Standard.  Historically, Vanderbilt plays Florida close more often than not no matter the circumstances, and I think they will hang around at least into the second half.  After 3 big SEC wins, it’s time to grind through the mental and physical fatigue and get another victory before enjoying an off week.  It was an exhilarating win against LSU, but that has to be immediately set aside by the team to move forward to potentially some bigger things.

Prediction:  Florida 27      Vanderbilt 20

 

 

Mississippi St. Review / LSU Preview

Florida got another important SEC road win, defeating MSU in a tough, low-scoring affair that showed the development of some mental and physical toughness.  The team showed focus, blocking out all the hype around the game concerning Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville, and embraced the grind of a hard-fought victory.  This was the most complete team effort of the season.  All that talk in the offseason from MSU’s players and fans about how they are better off now has been exposed.  Florida has had to suffer long enough with these kinds of issues – it’s time to leave them behind and let other programs deal with them.

On offense, the playbook was pared down to only a handful of base plays that spread the field sideline-to-sideline to offset the strength of the Bulldog’s defense, their D-line.  While the final statistics weren’t gaudy, there was enough production by the running game to complement a short passing game that kept the chains moving and gave the defense a chance to rest.  The O-line had his best performance of the season to date.  They benefitted from the quick throws, only allowing 1 sack and few QB pressures, and got enough push in the run game to open some lanes for some key first downs on long drives.  Franks was solid for the most part, making some quick throws on the WR screens and some strong throws when needed on slants and digs.  This limited the number of reads he had to make to help him get rid of the ball quickly to avoid the rush.  The WRs stepped up with some tough catches over the middle and hard running after the catch.  Swain, Grimes, and Jefferson all showed toughness – not just with their pass-catching, but also in their blocking on the WR screens and running plays.  Perine is making a push to be the starting RB, again having success both in the run and pass game.  Scarlett continues to miss holes and lacks the explosiveness of 2016.  Pierce got some important carries in the 4th quarter and continues to impress.  And……finally…..Toney got some touches early, breaking off 2 nice runs from the wildcat formation and hitting the option pass for the winning TD.  He has to continue to be incorporated more into the offense.

The Gator defense also had it’s best performance of the year.  6 sacks, constant pressure on the pocket, decent run defense against a strong opponent, and solid pass coverage (less one blown play that should have resulted in a TD for MSU).  The DEs made life miserable for Nick Fitzgerald all night in the passing game, and the DTs and LBs shored up their zone-read fits in the second half to force the Bulldogs to pass more often than they like.  Polite and Zuniga were terrors off the edge, the LBs tackled well in space, and the secondary covered for the early loss of Dean to an unwarranted targeting ejection.  MSU wanted nothing to do with CJH’s side of the field all night, forcing Edwards and McWilliams into the spotlight.  They fared well overall but still had a few busted assignments that have to be corrected.  The return of Shawn Davis at safety really filled a gaping hole – he made some big plays early to show the Bulldogs the middle of the field wasn’t going to be as open as previous Gator games this season.  Finally, CGJ has become the leader of the secondary, getting them lined up properly and really improving his open-field tackling to lead by example.

It’s on to Alleva Bowl 3 – the rubber game in the grudge match that resulted from LSU AD Joe Alleva’s whining back in 2016 about travelling to Florida with Hurricane Matthew not far away – forcing the Gators into a second straight game at Baton Rouge in which Florida won the East with a goal line stand as time expired.  Sadly, the Tigers got the last laugh in 2017, beating the Swamp Donkey in the first of 2 straight games in Gainesville.  LSU comes in undefeated and riding high, with two wins over Top 20 opponents away from home already on their resume.  This is by far Florida’s toughest test so far this season.

The Tigers were fortunate to land QB Joe Burrow, who transferred in from Ohio St.  In only a few months he has proved more than competent, showing toughness and poise along with surprising running ability.  His overall passing statistics aren’t great, but he has been clutch in key moments and has won his teammates over.  LSU is still a running team first, lead by a solid O-line and RB Nick Brossette, who did not start until now, his senior year.  The difference in their offense now vs. the past few seasons is that they mix in the pass more often on first down, with WRs Justin Jefferson and former Gator commit Ja’Marr Chase providing targets with good size and speed.  Florida’s DTs will have to get at least a stalemate inside to slow the running game, while the DEs have to find a way to continue their recent excellent pass rushing on must-pass downs.  Getting Dean back will be a boost to the secondary at CB – he and CJH will be challenged by the size and speed of LSU’s WRs, and have to play their best game to date.  The safeties will likely be required to help in run support, but whoever is left behind in coverage has to tackle well in space to prevent big plays.  The Tigers really like working the middle of the field with slants and square-ins, so everyone in the secondary will need to be physical and try to get the WRs off of their routes.

The Gator offense really needs to find a way to run the ball effectively, as the LSU secondary may be the best one they will see all season.  Passing the ball with efficiency could be a real struggle given the occasional issues with the O-line and RBs in pass pro and the inconsistent reads and accuracy from Franks.  The Gators did run the ball well in the second half of last year’s game with the Tigers and the past few weeks of this season, but another slow start really lessens an already narrow margin for success.  It will be interesting to see if Perine gets more carries, and if Toney is used to get to the edges to try and spread out a very good LSU LB corps led by all-SEC candidate Devin White.  The O-line has to eliminate the stupid penalties that have hampered the offense and get some push, or it will be a long afternoon.  I really liked how the RBs were involved in the passing game last week, and that would be a big help again to keep the defense honest and prevent them from stacking the box.  Florida’s WRs will also face their biggest challenge to date against an excellent LSU secondary led by safety Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams.  The Tiger secondary will be motivated to show out in their annual feud with the Gators about who really is DBU.  The WRs have to get some separation to help Franks, and I expect they will again be asked to make some tough catches in the middle of the field.  I’m not sure how well a repeat of the MSU game plan with the quick screens to the WRs will work against LSU’s defensive speed and physical CBs.  There may be a few opportunities to fake a screen and try for a deep ball, now that LSU has seen so many short throws on film.

Florida’s special teams need to continue their excellent play.  Points may be at a premium, so McPherson has to make any reasonable FG attempts he gets.  Townsend will be called upon to flip the field with his punts, and hopefully he can continue his success in pinning the opponent inside the 20 when presented the opportunity.  The coverage units have also been playing well, and have to keep it going.  In a close game against a strong opponent, a big play by this unit could be the difference.

This is the biggest recruiting weekend of the season for Florida, and the Gators really need to put on a good performance to help get some key recruits off the fence and committed.  It will be a wild scene at the Swamp for this one, and hopefully the team continues to show improvement in execution and toughness, no matter the outcome.  The win at MSU has to provide a confidence boost for the players.  LSU has already been tested and had success against some quality opponents, so they will not be intimidated by this game.  Gator Nation really wants this game badly to stick it to LSU for their childish actions back in 2016 and a bitter home defeat in 2017, but I don’t know if the running game and Franks’ passing ability are far enough along to win the day in what I expect will be another close battle with the Tigers.  I feel Florida’s best chance in this one is to not be forced to play from behind, and applying early pressure on LSU by getting the lead.  I just hope the Gators don’t come in too hyped and commit a slew of mistakes that takes them out of it early.  It will require a complete effort from all 3 phases – the potential is there, but I’m just not sure this team is quite ready yet.

Prediction:  LSU 23            Florida 20

Tennessee Review / Mississippi St. Preview

Florida gained a much-needed victory, getting it’s first SEC and road win of the season on Rocky Top.  Despite the large margin of victory, I’m not going to buy into any more fool’s gold – the Gator offense was still inconsistent, while the defense and an avalanche of turnovers by the Volunteers were mainly responsible for the blowout.  Yes, there seems to be progress in the development of certain players and positions, but Tennessee is so bad right now that any evaluation is tainted.

After a strong first quarter in both production and execution, both the offense and Franks’ performance struggled at times with some questionable play-calling and mental errors.  Franks gets credit for improvising on his 2 long TD throws to Swain and Cleveland, but he took advantage of a terrible Tennessee secondary.  There were still missed opportunities and some inaccurate throws that would have extended drives.  The running game did enough to provide balance, but the O-Line still has issues with getting a consistent push.  Scarlett had a few nice runs and the TD that iced the game, but the rest of the game was spotty less Pierce’s TD after the game was decided.  Pass protection had less blown assignments and rushers coming free at Franks, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.  The performance of the WRs was difficult to judge, as there were only 18 pass attempts.  Swain continues to surprise as the breakout star, adjusting his route when Franks had to move out of the pocket to get open and outrun the Vol secondary.  I feel for Jefferson and Grimes, who, along with Toney, were underutilized……again.  Toney only had 2 touches – a wildcat QB keeper for 9 yards and a jet sweep for 34 yards.  Perhaps his blocking is not up to par or he is not performing well in practice, but the staff is wasting a real talent.

The Gator defense dominated at the LOS as it should have against a poor Vol O-line.  The D-line gets credit for improving it’s run fits, but the real difference was the return of David Reese at LB.  His presence really shores up the entire run defense and provided an emotional spark.  Transfer Adam Shuler is becoming a playmaker at DT, and has earned a starting role.  The DEs had a field day rushing the passer and getting some monster hits on the Vol QBs – eventually knocking Jarrett Guarantano out of the game.  There are still holes in pass coverage in the middle of the field, and Trey Dean is going to get picked on at CB until he gains experience and improves his deep coverage.  The biggest surprise of the night on defense was the emergence from the missing person’s file of Brad Stewart at safety.  He made a great interception on a deep pass, and came up in run support and actually made some solid tackles.  The overall performance of the safety position has been so bad that any development by him or anyone else will be a huge boost.  Overall, the defense played with more energy than in any game so far this year, and that has to continue.

Special teams play was solid again.  McPherson made all of his FGs and kicked off well, while Townsend pinned Tennessee inside the 20 many times and also hit a few long punts to flip the field.

Next up on the schedule is the Dan Mullen Bowl, as he returns to the aptly-named Starkville to face his former team in Mississippi St.  The Bulldogs have had this one circled on their calendar ever since he left for Florida, and will be very motivated to stick it to him and the Gators this week.  It will be interesting to see how they react after getting whipped at Kentucky, which has taken some wind out of their sails and slowed their talk about being a contender in the SEC West.

MSU’s offense is led by senior QB Nick Fitzgerald and a tough O-line.  He is a physical runner but a mediocre passer, and the Gator defense will have to try and replicate what the Wildcats did – stuff the run as much as possible and force him to throw to beat them.  RB Kylin Hill and WRs Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry are the main contributors after Fitzgerald.  The WRs don’t have a large volume of catches, but don’t be fooled – they are quality players that simply don’t get as many touches due to the reliance on the running game and the inaccuracy of Fitzgerald.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see backup QB Keytaon Thompson get some snaps for a change of pace – his throwing ability is no better, but he is a much quicker and dangerous runner.  The Gator DEs will again be relied upon to set the edge, while the secondary has to stay disciplined and not get caught peeking into the backfield just to get beaten over the top.  Something tells me that MSU is going to try and throw long more often this game.  The Bulldogs will be a much more formidable opponent than Tennessee – the defense will have to continue to play with effort and not lose confidence even if they give up some big plays along the way.  Coach Grantham is very familiar with the MSU personnel, and should be able to scheme up some looks that he knows will affect Fitzgerald’s play and slow down the Bulldog running game.

Once again, the success of the Gator offense rides almost solely on the arm of Franks.  Even if Florida can establish a semblance of a running game, he will have to have success throwing the ball if the Gators have any real hope of winning.  The MSU front seven is tough and physical, and has two of the better DEs in the SEC with Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons – they are effective pass rushers and will have to be accounted for by the Gator tackles and RBs in pass protection.  The O-line has to find a way to establish a run threat, or else this will be a long evening for the offense.  The tackles will have by far their toughest assignment of the season to date in pass protection, and have to at least get a stalemate against those tough DEs.  I’m hopeful that (finally) there will be a package to exploit Toney on the edges.  Getting (and keeping) the RBs involved in the passing game will also help slow the pass rush and stretch the defense, not allowing them to crowd the box.  Finally, there will be chances to hit some deep throws, but is Franks capable of exploiting the advantage the WRs have over the Bulldog CBs?

MSU is coming off of an embarrassing loss at Kentucky, and will seek to re-establish it’s identity against Florida – a power running game and tough run defense.  These are two areas that the Gators have struggled with this season, and it doesn’t help that the players and fans will be especially hyped for Mullen’s return.  I feel that the Gators could pull this one off if they can get an early lead and force the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone by having to pass more often.  Perhaps the special teams can continue to make big plays and set up some easy scores to help with the upset bid.  However, I still don’t trust Franks to be an efficient and accurate passer and decision-maker, and don’t see the rest of the team being good enough yet to overcome the offense if it struggles against a quality opponent.

Prediction:  MSU 31            Florida 17

Colorado St. Review / Tennessee Preview

The Gators got a much needed bounce-back win against CSU, capitalizing on big plays from the special teams to race out to an early lead and then regain momentum after a slow second half start.

The offense looked marginally better, but until they perform against a solid SEC team, it could be more fool’s gold.  Franks did hit some long throws, but again left points on the field with slow decisions and late throws.  Will he ever develop the mental part of his game?  He did take off and run a few times when the field opened up, which is what he should do.  The running game still goes in fits and starts.  Scarlett broke off a nice TD run, but still missed some holes.  Perine continues to play solidly as the 3rd down back, and Pierce again broke off a long run and is pushing for more carries.  Davis hobbled off the field after a tackle with what has been diagnosed as a broken foot, and will miss 4-6 weeks.  Fortunately the RB position is the deepest on the team.  The O-Line seemed to play more cohesively, but, again, they have to play better against better competition.  There are still too many missed assignments in pass blocking from experienced guys, which tells you that some of them are playing only because of poor depth.  The WRs continue to get open, but Franks again missed some opportunities for big plays.  Finally, Toney continues to be criminally underutilized.

The defense actually played better in spurts and looked more disciplined in the run fits by the LBs.  Houston continues to push for more playing time, Jackson’s tackling was better, and Joseph actually made some big plays because he was in position and not freelancing.  The D-Line did a better job with it’s pass rush off the edge, and this has to continue going forward as the competition improves dramatically in conference play.  The secondary had it’s moments, but I’m worried about the coverage between the hashmarks.  The safeties are still too soft and occasionally lost in coverage, leaving too much room over the middle for easy completions.  At this point, I’m doubting if that changes at least until Shawn Davis returns from injury.  Coach Grantham will simply have to blitz more often to try and force quicker throws and generate turnovers.

Special teams led the way, with a fumble recovery, a blocked punt, and a punt return TD by Swain.  This unit is the best on the team so far, and has brought some energy to the team.  I’m very impressed with McPherson as the PK so far – he has a nice career ahead of him, and already looks steady – especially for a true freshman.

Florida now travels to Knoxville to face another struggling program.  This game is not even a shadow of what it once was right now, and neither team looks competitive in the SEC.  Tennessee has not looked good at all – the one decent team they played, West Virginia, ran up close to 600 yards and was never challenged, and they have outclassed two weak opponents – eerily similar to Florida so far.  The Vols have even more new faces and less experience on their roster than the Gators, and are looking for an identity on both offense and defense.  QB Jarrett Guarantano has improved some after being forced into action last year as a freshman and getting beaten up.  He has a good deep arm and some mobility, but can be forced into mistakes by a good pass rush.  Tennessee relies on RBs Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler to control the clock while WRs Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer are the favorite passing game targets.  I expect them to challenge the Gator secondary, which after CJH and CGJ is undistinguished.  Tennessee has some SEC talent at the skill positions, but the Vol O-Line has struggled, and Florida’s D-Line has to take advantage of it’s talent advantage and create havoc at the LOS to disrupt timing and possibly create turnovers.  It’s time for Coach Grantham to unleash some of the pressure looks he’s touted for and to force Tennessee into things they are uncomfortable doing.  The LBs and safeties are simply not good enough in coverage to hold up.  I also want to see the tackling continue to improve – both in technique and finishing off ball carriers.  The safeties have to improve – now.

The Tennessee defense is the least talented it’s been in memory, relying on a team concept to try and mask individual deficiencies.  To date their pass rush has been weak, but can Florida’s O-Line actually protect Franks on the road?  The conundrum with how the Gators will attack on offense is that, while Mullen would like to establish the running game to take pressure off of Franks, the Vol secondary is dreadful, and should be taken advantage of by a Florida WR corps that is superior in talent.  But, can Franks begin to make throws consistently on time and accurately to take advantage of this mismatch?  There will be plenty of opportunities for big plays if the interior O-Line reduces the number of missed assignments and gives Franks a decent pocket and some time.  The RBs will need to fight through contact for extra yards, and hopefully will be utilized some in the passing game to force Tennessee to defend the entire field.  Pierce will step in for Davis to get more carries, but Scarlett and Perine have to take over the majority of the load and be leaders of the offense.  Once again, will Toney finally get the touches he needs to make some big plays?

One thing that can tip the scales Florida’s way is the play of the special teams.  This group hopefully can continue to build on it’s early season success and set up the offense a few times with a shorter field.  They can change or build on momentum quickly, and with all of the issues on both offense and defense right now, all three units have to play well for this team to win.

This is a huge game for both programs and head coaches.  Jeremy Pruitt was way down the list of candidates to get the Tennessee job and has a lot of doubters, while Dan Mullen is trying to change the culture at Florida in all phases of the football program and is hitting some bumps in the road so far.  The team that loses this game faces another long, painful season ahead, while the winner at least has something positive to build on despite low expectations going forward.  Since both teams are struggling, it looks like the one that plays smarter, protects the football, and more effectively takes advantage of the opponent’s weak secondary will win this one.  Fair or not, again the Gators’ fortunes fall on the decision-making ability of Franks, which is a dicey proposition.  I’m hoping the advantage in experience on the Florida roster is enough to offset the home-field advantage for the Vols.  The Gators desperately need this win to provide some hope and a spark for the rest of the season.

Prediction:  Florida 27          Tennessee 24

Kentucky Review / Colorado St. Preview

All of the early hype and excitement about a new regime came crashing down Saturday night, as the Gators put on an uninspired display, getting embarrassed by Kentucky in a 27-16 loss.  That about does it for the last remnants of the football program pre-2010, as the last positive streak came to a desultory end.  Nothing is left from the great run of 1980-2009, and the rebuild now appears to be more of a 3-5 year one.

It appears that too many, including the players, bought too much into the fool’s gold of the first game.  It was stunning to hear Coach Mullen say in his post-game presser that he and the coaches witnessed first-hand how the team felt entitled and practiced poorly all week.  It looks like there are still a lot of bad apples left behind from the Swamp Donkey’s tenure, and the new staff is stuck with playing most of these guys as there is a lack of SEC talent and depth at the OL, LB, and safety positions that will take years to restock.  Hearing how the team came in overconfident is mind-boggling – talk about out of touch with reality.

There isn’t much analysis needed – the OL and DL were outplayed, outhustled, and physically beaten all night.

On offense, it’s apparent now why Mullen has chosen to throw so often – the OL is soft, and doesn’t play with the attitude necessary to run block.  Combine this with a mediocre QB, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  The absence of Brett Heggie at guard or center is really being felt, and he can’t get back soon enough to bolster the interior O-Line.  It may be time to shuffle positions and put Ivey back at guard, bench both Jordan and Johnson, and get some young guys in.  John Hevesy is supposedly a master technician as a position coach – let’s see it.  There was actually one area the OL performed well in – the draw plays were effective all night.  .Franks is what he is – even when given time he misses open guys or is late with the throw.  When he’s pressured at all, it’s a complete crapshoot.  The skill guys did what they could to offset the poor OL and QB play.  Malik Davis is still recovering mentally from his knee injury, bit is starting to show flashes of his old form at RB.  Perine is excelling on 3rd downs, both running and receiving.  Scarlett, however, looks tentative and slow – he has lost whatever juice he displayed in 2016, and is in danger of losing snaps.  The WRs consistently bailed out Franks on bad throws.  There was a ton of YAC and two potential scores lost due to inaccurate throws.  Once again, it appears the jet sweep is not allowed at Florida.  Toney (again) is being underutilized – he is electric with the ball.  Perhaps it’s time to move him to the QB room.  Finally, what was up with the first play of the 2nd quarter?  Run the damn ball and get a first down or TD there – that cost the team 4 important points.  If that was the call from Mullen, despite the struggles of the O-Line, it was brutal.

What did I think of the execution of the defense?  I’m all for it.  That was one of the worst tackling displays in memory, as the Wildcats gained 168 freaking yards after contact!  It was shocking how bad the DEs were at setting the edge or playing contain on the QB or RB.  I’m not sure how much blame to pin on the staff, as some players apparently don’t want to be coached.  It took until the 4th quarter, but Polite finally started to play the read option correctly on handoffs to the RB and made some tackles for little or no gain.  Too little, too late, though.  The LB fits in the run game were horrendous.  Joseph just freelanced and continually got pinched inside, and Jackson’s tackling technique was awful.  Just having a healthy David Reese to bolster the run defense may have been enough to win – he may struggle in pass coverage, but he’s by far the best run-stopper on the team.  The safety play was terrible.  Brad Stewart is approaching “bust” territory – many had high hopes for him.  Taylor is getting lost in pass coverage.  I knew things were bad when Stiner was named a starter – he may work hard, but he’s just not a SEC-caliber safety.  The injury to Shawn Davis is really being felt here, and no one knows exactly when he’ll return.  To add injury to insult in the secondary, all-SEC candidate Marco Wilson is out for the year with a torn ACL.  After he went down on the second defensive snap of the game, the entire defense seemed a little deflated.  Trey Dean gets his chance now to back up a lot of his talk – he made some plays, but also looked like a freshman on occasion.  If he or Henderson go down……yeesh.  CJ was all over the field all night, even though you could tell he was gassed.  I wasn’t impressed with Coach Grantham’s schemes, either.  I wonder if he’ll ever decide to spy a running QB?  Where is all the blitzing and pressure that was promised?  What’s the worst that could happen – the QB breaks contain and converts 3rd-and-long plays all game?  Oh, wait……

Colorado St. comes into the Swamp with a lot of momentum off of a surprising 4th quarter comeback win at home over Arkansas.  It’s going to be interesting to see how the Gators react to such a dispiriting loss.  The players better focus on nothing other than improving themselves – they ain’t all that, despite what they may have thought.  The Rams came back against Arkansas with their passing game, and with the injuries and lack of depth in the Gator secondary, I expect a lot of passing by them this week.  I wonder if the game plan for the Florida offense will be pared down to more basic plays, despite the potential wasting of so much talent at the skill positions.  The O-Line has to get better, and Franks has to improve his accuracy.  I hope the RBs are incorporated more into the passing game, and that there are some quicker throws to the WRs to allow them to make plays in space.  If they start slowly, there will be rumblings from the stands – Gator Nation is not happy right now.

This is an early fork in the road for Mullen and the team.  Will the players pick themselves up and allow themselves to be coached and improve, or will they tank?  Or will they not take either path and just run directly into the tree?  I’m still holding out hope for a winning record, but the loss to Kentucky was sobering and exposed a variety of problems.  The coaching staff has a lot of work to do to build the players back up and improve their play.  It’s time to start using the bench as a motivator to adjust some attitudes and to get some young guys in if the upperclassmen don’t want to buy in.  This has suddenly become a critical game to set the tone for the rest of 2018.

Prediction: Florida 31          CSU 21

 

 

Charleston Southern Review / Kentucky Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Florida 30        Kentucky 20

Charleston Southern Preview

The 2018 season kicks off with Charleston Southern traveling to the Swamp. The Buccaneers will receive a large paycheck for their troubles – and a beatdown.

Most of the attention of Gator Nation will be given to the performance of the offense – again.  It looks like Feleipe Franks will get first shot at the starter’s role at QB, but I’m hopeful the offense plays well so Kyle Trask and perhaps even Emory Jones can get their first experience.  We should see fairly early how comfortable the QBs are in the new scheme.

The running game should have success against an outmanned CSU D-Line.  Jordan Scarlett comes back from his 2017 suspension and should be anxious to show what he can do.  I expect the rest of the rotation – Malik Davis, Lamical Perine, and freshman Dameon Pierce to all share the load.

There will be new faces to watch for at WR.  Transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes join Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, and Dre Massey to form what could be a strong WR corps.  That will (hopefully) be proven out with better coaching and improved QB play.  In the new spread scheme the WRs will be expected to block even more than before, so the guys that buy in will have the advantage in terms of playing time.

TE is a mixed bag right now, and no one has a feel for how the rotation will eventually shake out.  C’yontai Lewis will start, but after him there are simply more question marks than answers.  I’m hoping that one of the new arrivals, maybe Lucas Krull or Kyle Pitts, shows some early promise.

The O-Line will have a new look, and is being counted on to improve.  Martez Ivey finally gets to play his natural position at left tackle.  Jawaan Taylor returns as the right tackle, but needs to improve his pass blocking.  The guard position will be a mixed bag until performance and health shake out who the starters will be.  Brett Heggie is the best guard or center on the roster, but is returning from knee surgery and likely won’t be 100% for another month or so.  Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson, and Nick Buchanan will all play, with Buchanan getting the start at center.

The Gator defense should have little trouble dominating the game, and it will fun to watch how the players are adapting to the new scheme that should feature more aggressive play.

The D-Line could develop into one of the best in the SEC this season.  Elijah Conliffe, Tedarrell Slaton, and Khairi Clark make up a solid rotation at tackle.  The DEs could become dominant as the season progresses – Cece Jefferson, Jachai Polite, and Jabari Zuniga each have all-SEC ability.

At LB, David Reese, Vosean Joseph, and Kylan Johnson all return, with young players Ventrell Miller, James Houston, and Jeremiah Moon pushing for snaps.  The secondary features great starting CBs in Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson, Chancey Gardner-Johnson in the slot or ‘star’ position, with Brian Edwards and freshman Trey Dean getting an early look at cornerback.  The safety position is filled with question marks – Jaewon Taylor, Brad Stewart, Donovan Stiner, and Shawn Davis will all play, but none of them have shown consistency yet.

Special teams will also hold the interest of the fans, as there will be a new placekicker and punter.  Freshman Evan McPherson gets first crack at placekicking duties, while Tommy Townsend replaces his brother as the punter.  Each has huge shoes to fill, as Florida likely had the best kicking duo in the nation last season.  Coach Mullen has renewed the emphasis on the coverage and return units, and knows that this phase of the game can win a few games with field position or a big return in close games.

CSU should pose little challenge, as they are overmatched physically and in skill level.  Hopefully the Florida offense is provides an early and expanding lead – this will allow the staff to rest starters on both sides of the ball and to get a lot of guys on the field to gain experience and develop depth.  Plenty of young guys will get their chance to prove they belong in the rotation at various positions, especially at OL, LB, and the secondary.

This should be a glorified scrimmage before the SEC season begins.  I expect a vanilla scheme on offense and defense that allows the players to get game reps in the base formations and looks that will be relied upon the rest of the season.  As always, the mantra for this kind of game is, “no injuries!”.

Prediction: Florida 41      CSU 10

 

 

 

Florida $t. Review

The 2017 season came to an ignominious end with an embarrassing 38-22 home loss to F$U.  That’s 6 out of 7, and 4 straight losses at the Swamp in the series.  Gator Nation is beyond tired of this trend, as poor coaching and recruiting has torn down the huge advantage Florida had gained during Urban Meyer’s reign.  It was especially frustrating watching Feleipe Franks single-handedly giving the game away, while the rest of the offense and the defense played well enough to win despite a depleted roster.

The Gator offense actually showed some life and moved the ball effectively at times.  Mark Thompson had a fine day running the ball, scoring the first touchdown for the Gators and breaking off some other long runs.  Lemical Perine was fairly quiet, however, while Adarius Lemons strangely had only a few touches.  Any chance to win the game was sabotaged by Franks, who threw 3 interceptions, one a pick six, and the other two inside Florida’s own 20.  Brutal and inexcusable throws that weren’t necessary, as the Gator defense was holding it’s own.  The O-Line had it’s moments, but the reshuffled lineup struggled in pass blocking, especially outside at tackle.  Franks was under duress most of the day, but his poor throws showed bad judgement and a lack of situational awareness – both consistently bad all season.  Brandon Powell showed out on Senior Day, consistently getting open and scoring twice.  But, once again, there was no consistency or output from the rest of the WR corps or the TEs.

The Gator defense held on into the 4th quarter, and limited F$U to a paltry 125 yards until Franks’ last interception effectively ended the game.  Another solid performance wasted.  Taven Bryan disrupted the pocket all afternoon, and CeCe Jefferson actually played one of his better games rushing off the edge and playing the run game.  RBs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick were held in check most of the game except for a few draw plays.  As I said in my preview, I wasn’t worried about the Seminole running game – it was the passing game that was the concern, and that’s where they made just enough big plays to extend the lead.  Of course, when you’re set up in the opponent’s red zone by stupid turnovers, it’s not hard to deliver.  David Reese and Vosean Joseph played one of their better games in terms of tackling and pass coverage, but Reese was isolated in coverage on a slot receiver in the 4th quarter that led to a long completion and subsequent touchdown.  Duke Dawson led the secondary with a solid day that included several pass breakups.  CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson did a good job of limiting completions to WR Auden Tate, allowing only one jump ball completion despite a height disadvantage.  Chauncey Gardner did a nice job of getting the safeties lined up and making some sure tackles, but Shawn Davis continued to struggle in coverage.  It was good to see Brad Stewart get some extended playing time at safety, as he will be counted on more heavily next season.  Finally, the roughing the passer penalty called on Jabari Zuniga late in the third quarter after QB James Blackmon was sacked completely turned the momentum of the game – what an egregious call.  The Gators had closed to 24-16 and would have had great field position after F$U punted.  Instead, that drive stayed alive, and with the help of a few more penalties led to a Criminole touchdown early in the 4th quarter to effectively end the game.

Eddy Pineiro was great in what may have been his final game as a Gator, driving his kickoffs deep and making his only FG attempt.  Strangely, Johnny Townsend had perhaps his worst game of the 2017 season and one of the worst in an excellent career, not getting some punts to turn over and not attempting to drop a punt inside the 20 while kicking from midfield.  Punt and kickoff coverage was solid.

With no bowl game ahead, it’s time to turn attention to the immediate future, beginning with the coaching change.  Dan Mullen has been named the new head coach after Chip Kelly used Florida’s offer to manipulate UCLA into giving him more than originally offered.  I think Mullen himself has what it takes to be successful at Florida, but has to bring in a solid staff that can develop talent and do whatever he can to salvage the 2018 recruiting class.  Bringing in some of the old crew from the Urban Meyer days (John Hevesy, Billy Gonzales) doesn’t excite me too much unless they have improved dramatically in the time they’ve been gone, as it looks like they are going to follow him to Gainesville.

Gator Nation is simply glad this season has ended.  What a shame another coaching change has been necessitated, and more transition is coming.  Of course, playing at the end of the season short 30 scholarship players out of 85 means there’s a LOT of room for roster improvement, including players returning from injury or suspension.  Mullen has his hands full immediately trying to construct his staff and rebuild the confidence of the returning players, trying to prevent transfers, and also convincing the current commits that Florida is still a destination school where they can win and compete for titles.  After the disastrous end to Jim McElwain’s tenure, hopefully the cloud that has hung over the Florida football program since 2010 will finally lift.  The new staff has to find a way to hit the ground running between now and the early signing period in December, and rebuild the team starting with workouts in January.  It will be very interesting to watch what develops leading up to and including Spring practice and the Orange and Blue game.  I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that 2018 could be surprisingly good, especially with expectations within the SEC and nationally lowered so much.

It was a rough season, but it still Great To Be a Florida Gator!  See you in 2018.

Go Gators!!