UT-Martin Preview

The home schedule begins this Saturday with the Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks coming to the Swamp for a big paycheck and an even bigger beatdown.  This will be not much more than a glorified scrimmage for the Gators, and a good opportunity to shake off some rust after the bye week while (hopefully) showing a lot of things were cleaned up after the sloppy win against Miami.

The offense has plenty of room for improvement.  The right side of the O-line was exposed against Miami – Bleich and Delance need to show improvement right away or may get replaced.  The WRs need to get separation and make more plays downfield.  The TEs have to improve their run-blocking.  Franks can improve some fundamentals and quicken his reads.  The entire offense needs to generate a solid running game – working on improving timing and execution.

The Gator defense should have little trouble controlling anything UT-Martin tries.  This should a good opportunity to get a lot of young guys some snaps in the second half, while some key players like DT Tedarrell Slaton return from suspension and can get some live game reps in.  The safety play has to improve – the performance against Miami was poor both in coverage and angles taken for tackling – the same issues as last season.

As always in a game like this, the mantra is NO INJURIES.  Things get a lot more interesting next week with the SEC opener at Kentucky.  I hope the staff is able to get the players to focus a little better than they might normally do with such an important upcoming game.

Prediction:

Florida 51

UTM     6

Miami Review

On a night in which the Gators tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Florida defeated Miami 24-20 despite a flurry of turnovers and penalties that made the score much closer than the two teams really are.  That was one, um……interesting game, but still satisfying in the end with a win.

I knew the first game would feature some sloppy play, but damn!  Let’s just say the Gator staff will have plenty to discuss with the team during the bye week with a LOT of things to “correct”.  I knew that the only way this game would be close was if Florida lost the turnover battle, and (unfortunately) that’s exactly what happened.  Leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Felipe Franks and Lamical Perine somehow muffed an exchange on a zone read, allowing Miami to escape a potential 11 point deficit and changing the entire complexion of the game.  A dropped pitch from Franks to Malik Davis should never have happened, which led to the ‘Canes taking the lead at halftime.  Franks then had 2 interceptions in the 4th quarter that allowed Miami first to retake the lead and then to stay close.  The first was a pass to an open Freddie Swain that was too high and tipped.  The second was, well……I’ll be nice and just say egregious.  I liked Coach Mullen calling a pass play on first down with 4:30 left, instead of just running the ball to try and milk the clock.  But no one knows why Franks made the throw that he did, giving the ‘Canes a short field to try and win the game.  Like I said……LOTS to “correct”.

The Gator defense was lights out for the most part.  The offense did them no favors by running only 54 plays and leaving the defense on the field for 36 minutes.  But those guys never flinched and brought the heat all night.  Yes, there was the one long rushing TD allowed because of horrific tackling.  But the defense rose up time and again after the turnovers gave Miami a short field many times.  DEs Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard and LBs Ventrell Miller and James Houston created havoc in the ‘Cane backfield all game, getting 10 sacks and numerous QB pressures along with many negative running plays.  My guess is that close to 100 yards of Miami’s 301 total came only after multiple pass interference and personal foul calls gave them new sets of downs.  DeeJay Dallas ended with 95 rushing yards, but 74 came on only two plays out of the wildcat formation, again driven by terrible tackling.  Miami has two quality TEs, and while Brevin Jordan had 88 yards and a touchdown (on a tipped pass), the defense did a much better job overall in covering the TEs than last season.  The safety play is still suspect – Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are not SEC-level players, and Brad Stewart was sorely missed, serving (another) suspension.

Florida’s special teams were dynamite, as expected.  I expected them to dominate, while most pregame analysis glossed over them.  Tommy Townsend’s punts were excellent, and his fake in the first quarter gained a first down and allowed the Gators to take the lead on the very next play, a 66-yard WR screen to Kadarious Toney.  All but one of Evan McPherson’s kickoffs found the end zone, and he converted his only FG attempt.  Finally, the buy-in by starters like WRs Van Jefferson and Tyrie Cleveland on punt coverage is a prime example of Mullen’s emphasis on special teams.  Both guys were right in Jeff Thomas’ face when he fumbled a punt at the Miami 11-yard line in the 3rd quarter.  Jefferson recovered, and the Gators took the lead 17-13 on a Franks to Perine pass.

After the immediate hysteria dies down about the wild 4th quarter, turnovers, penalties, and poor tackling, many will realize that these were the only things that kept the score close, as Florida was at least 14-17 points better than Miami.  By playing in this special opening game, Florida gets the rare gift of a 3rd bye week – allowing them plenty of time to recuperate after a hard-fought win and to clean up many things.  I could not care less what the national media and perception is from this game – it was a huge win against a bitter in-state rival, and will look even better as scUM cruises through a weak ACC schedule.

I’ll be back next week with my preview of the home opener against Tennessee-Martin.  Go Gators! 

Miami Preview


The 2019 season begins with a huge national showcase game against Miami in Orlando, to kick off the 150th season of college football.  This is a massive opportunity for the Gators to make a statement with the entire nation watching.  The fact that it’s against a bitter in-state rival makes this game even more critical to get off on a positive first step and also for in-state recruiting.
Florida’s offense has perhaps it’s best group of skill position players in a decade ready to roll out and show the nation how explosive they can be.  RBs Lamical Perine will be the leader of the ground game, but Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are capable guys with little to no falloff in production.  QB Felipe Franks has a stable of veteran WRs outside that possess speed, size, and run after the catch ability in Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland.  This group will demand the attention of the Miami secondary, many times in man coverage.  If the WRs make an early splash, that will open up the middle of the field for slot receivers Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond and TEs Kyle Pitts and Kemore Gamble.
Ultimately, all of that ability by the skill guys will be tempered (or worse) if the rebuilt O-line struggles.  Nick Buchanan in the only returning starter, at center.  Bret Heggie is a stud a left guard, but has been dogged by injuries his first 2 seasons and has to stay healthy.  Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets the start at right guard and has practiced well in camp.  The tackle situation is the biggest question mark, as Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance/Richard Gouriage step in for Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, respectively.  If Coach Hevesy can somehow get this unit to at least perform as an average SEC line, that will be more than enough to win this game but also give the Gators a chance for bigger things ahead.
If the O-line struggles to protect Franks, I expect more 2-back and 2-TE sets to help out.  While this will lessen the chances for big plays, these formations would allow Franks to get the ball out quickly to the RBs and TEs when not trying to run the ball.  Putting these guys in motion would also simplify the reads for Franks by making the defense declare their coverage and looks pre-snap.  Finally, jet sweeps to Kadarious Toney and Jacob Copeland can help stretch the filed horizontally and not require the O-Line to hold it’s blocks as long.
Miami returns most of it’s front seven on defense, but lost a key player in D-lineman Gerald Willis to the NFL.  Shaq Quarterman leads a very good LB corps filled with senior starters.  Al Blades Jr. is solid at CB as are Amari Carter and Gurvan Hall at safety.  This group will challenge the inexperienced Gator O-line, and Franks has to stay patient and not force things.
I expect the Gator defense to face a conservative, run-heavy game plan by the ‘Canes. If new OC Dan Enos is stupid enough to try and have an inexperienced Jarren Williams try to beat the Gators by passing the ball against a great secondary and pass rush, with an extremely inexperienced O-line at the tackle positions, he’ll just be setting up the offense for failure.  The Gator DEs – Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon – have to be licking their jaws, ready to eat up a true freshman and redshirt freshman at OT.  I expect Miami will try to shorten the game with steady running and the occasional play-action deep shot to a WR (KJ Osborn or Jeff Thomas – if he’s not suspended) or seam route to one of their talented TEs (Brevin Jordan or Will Mallory).  This will be an immediate test to see if Coach Grantham has improved the pass coverage by the LBs and how well Trey Dean is ready to fill in at the Star position.  Miami’s TEs will test the middle of the field, and the Gator LBs and safeties have to be ready and at least slow them down.
Florida should have a decided advantage on special teams.  PK Evan McPherson and punter Tommy Townsend are one of the best tandems in college football, and Coach Mullen has plenty of experienced and dangerous threats in the return game.  If Thomas is suspended for this game, that a big hit the the Hurricanes, as he is a dangerous kick returner.
If the Gators can protect the ball on offense and win first down on defense, this should be a solid win, despite the rivalry aspect of the game.  I expect Miami to come out early with a lot of fire, but after a few series and the teams settle down, Florida has enough experience and playmakers on both offense and defense to pull away in the second half. 
Florida 26scUM  13

2019 Season Preview

Florida comes off of the momentum of a strong finish to 2018 with wins over Florida $t. and Michigan, and will now be more the hunted than the hunter. Dan Mullen and his staff have the opportunity to build on the positive changes they established last season and continue to rebuild a solid foundation for the program. Every season is important, but some in retrospect are seen as more important than others – was 2018 a mirage, or do the Gators prove they are truly headed in the right direction?

There are some significant holes to fill with the losses of OT Jawaan Taylor, DE Jachai Polite, and slot defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the NFL. There are some very good players ready to step in, but quality depth can only be found within certain position groups and not across the board. Another solid season would go a long ways toward closing the talent (and depth) gap that widened during the Won’t Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras by continuing the recent recruiting momentum.

Offense

Florida finally will roll out a group of skill position players that approaches what is expected by Gator Nation. However……unless Coach Hevesy can develop an O-Line that is at least serviceable, then there could be some problems against a challenging schedule.

Any success from the offense will depend almost solely on the offensive line. Nick Buchanan is the only returning starter, at center. There is no real experience behind him, so Brett Heggie will likely be the backup. Heggie is the best returning lineman and will start at left guard, but has battled injuries for 2 seasons and must stay healthy. Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets first crack at right guard – he has looked good in spring and fall camp, but (in a recurring theme) has little experience. The biggest concern is at the tackle positions, trying to replace LT Martez Ivey and RT Taylor. Stone Forsythe earned the start at LT in fall camp, while Texas transfer Jean Delance was slated to be the RT until incurring a leg injury in fall camp. Forsythe may have to move to RT or a backup gets forced into a starting role. There is so little experience and so much youth that usually this is exposed and magnified in the SEC. Mullen will have to call plays that help hide some deficiencies and try and allow a solid group of skill position players to shine. Richard Gouraige and TJ Moore are the only backups with any meaningful experience, with Noah Banks having to quit football for medical reasons. This is a scary depth chart, and injuries to any starters could derail any chance for a big season.

The running back corps is solid. Lamical Perine returns for his senior season as the leader. He has always been a tough runner, but has improved his speed during his career and is also a reliable receiver and pass-blocker. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis will provide quality depth and have shown big-play potential. Freshman Nay’Quan Wright has promise, but will get only limited carries with so much quality ahead of him.

The strongest unit by far is at wide receiver. Talent, speed, depth, and size abound. Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland are all reliable targets with big-play potential. What would really help the offense is the development and some actual production out of the slot receivers – Josh Hammond, Rick Wells, and Freddie Swain need to put pressure on the middle of the field to help Franks keep the chains moving and the improve the overall efficiency of the offense. Finally, will this be the season that Kadarious Toney is utilized as he should be? He needs 8-10 touches a game to stress the defense on the perimeter and to showcase his ability in the open field.

I’m more bullish on the TE group than most. Despite the lack of experience, this unit has guys with SEC size and talent that can actually help in both the run and pass game. Kyle Pitts, Lucas Krull, and Kemore Gamble all have the potential to contribute – the question is which one or two takes over?

At quarterback, it’s Felipe Franks’ offense now. He finished 2018 strong and has distanced himself from Emory Jones and Kyle Trask. If he simply focuses on continued improvement in the film room and runs with conviction when the opportunities are there, he will be fine. As long as the O-Line doesn’t have him running for his life, there are plenty of playmakers surrounding him in order to have success on offense.

Defense

The Gator defense should be very good this season, with razor-thin depth in the secondary the only major concern. As long as the offense isn’t forcing these guys to play too many snaps, there are real playmakers in the group to assist in perhaps a run at the SEC East title.

The D-line actually could be as good or better than in 2018 – especially the edge guys. The loss of Jachai Polite might be felt initially, but the overall depth at DE, led by returning starter Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon are as good as anyone in the SEC. Young guys like Zach Carter, Andrew Chatfield, and Mohamoud Diabate will get their chance in the rotation to make a splash. The most important group will be the interior DL. Adam Shuler is the leader at DT and should make some noise this year. It’s time for Kyree Campbell, Elijah Conliffe, and TJ Slaton to put up or shut up. The physical talent is there – but will they mentally push through fatigue and the occasional injury, unlike last season?

The linebacker corps should be the best group since 2016. Senior David Reese leads the way at ILB. James Houston and Ventrell Miller have shown flashes, but need to play well consistently. Amari Burney is the young gun that started to ball out the last 2 games and could be the breakout star this season. Ty’Ron Hopper is a true freshman that could get into the rotation if he practices well and contributes on special teams.

The secondary has perhaps the best pair of CBs in the SEC in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, who returns from an ACL injury last September. These guys can shut down anyone, and should allow the front seven to make plays. Trey Dean was forced into Wilson’s spot last year and did well as a true freshman – he will step into the Star role in the place of NFL-bound Gardner-Johnson. Kaiir Elam is the one true freshman that could see significant snaps this year in a backup role. The safety position is the one that worries most observers. Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart are SEC-level players, but Davis has to improve in coverage, while Stewart’s biggest enemy is himself being a knucklehead off the field. Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are solid backups, but both have to improve in coverage and with the angles they take for open-field tackling.

Special Teams

I am really excited to see how this unit will contribute this fall, as the kicking specialists might be the best pair in college football. In addition, Dan Mullen has the roster depth now to place some real dangerous guys in the return game.

PK Evan McPherson could have been the most important recruit of 2018. He never looked like a true freshmen, making 90% of his FGs including clutch kicks to help win the road game at Mississippi St., while regularly placing his kickoffs into the end zone. Tommy Townsend succeeded his brother Johnny at punter and didn’t miss a beat, with great hang time for the coverage units and even sticking his nose in to make some tackles.

It’s finally time to put some real playmakers in for returns. There obviously is risk in using any starter, but guys like Toney and Davis could steal a close game if given the opportunity. Swain and Cleveland got the majority of touches on punts and kickoffs respectively in 2018, so it will be interesting to see if Mullen sticks with the the familiar or shakes things up.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida’s schedule begins with a showcase on August 24th against Miami in a neutral site game in Orlando. It will be the only game of the day, kicking off the 150th season of college football. This is a huge opportunity to get off to a good start both on the field and in recruiting – but comes with a lot of added pressure. The 4-game SEC stretch from Auburn through Georgia will ultimately determine how big of a season this will be for the Gators.

vs. scUM (Orlando) – Win
Huge game for the Gator program and Mullen. No need to take a step back after a strong finish to 2018. Beat down an in-state rival for recruiting momentum. Could be close into the 3rd quarter, but Florida should have too much for the ‘Canes.

Bye Week 1

UT Martin – Win
A glorified scrimmage to start the home schedule. Offers the chance to knock some rust off before starting the SEC slate. As always – no injures, please.

@Kentucky – Win
The Mildcats are talking proud after a 10-win 2018, but are gonna take a step back after taking advantage of some weaker-than-usual teams. They will learn quickly that having a target on your back is a lot different. Very important game to get off to a good start in conference – Mullen will have the Gators ready even though this one is on the road.

Tennessee – Win
Always an important SEC East game for the Gators. The Vols still have a major rebuild in progress. Florida simply has too many talent advantages across the board to lose this one at the Swamp.

Towson – Win
Another glorified scrimmage. Offers the chance to play some young guys and rest/heal the starters before a brutal SEC stretch. As always – no injures, please.

Auburn (Homecoming) – Loss
Toughest game to predict before the season starts. The Gators historically have struggled with Auburn. The Tigers have the best D-Line in the SEC, and will rely on a strong running game. The Gators can’t afford to play from behind. Auburn’s inexperience at QB could allow Florida to win a very close game, but right now this looks like a bad matchup at the line of scrimmage.

@LSU – Loss
LSU returns most of a very strong defense, and likely will have an improved offense. This series has turned ugly recently, and this will be another typically tough matchup. I’m going with the Tigers to prevail based on the Gators coming off of a difficult game the previous week.

@S. Carolina – Win
After 2 tough games, this one could be a lot closer than it should be. The Lamecocks have a lot of holes to fill and have a very tough schedule. But any road game in the SEC can prove difficult, and I could see this one coming down to the last possession.

Bye Week 2

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
The Puppies have taken advantage of very shady recruiting practices and a weak SEC East to prop themselves up nationally the past 2 seasons. Sadly, Georgia has a distinct talent advantage right now, and enough experience returning to win a close game. The Gators need to reverse the trend in this series soon.

Vanderbilt – Win
The Gators will be coming off a very tough 4-game conference stretch, and likely will have one of their historic letdowns against the Commodores. Florida wins by double-digits, but it may not be pretty.

@Missouri – Win
Florida has been embarrassed by this mediocre program mostly due to it’s own struggles since the Tigers joined the league in 2012. Missouri lost a lot of talent on offense and will be rebuilding. If this game were anywhere but on the road in what could be bad weather conditions, I would pick the Gators to win comfortably. This one could be close into the 4th quarter.

Bye Week 3

Florida $t. – Win
The Gators ended a miserable 5 game losing streak to the Criminoles last year, and the pendulum is swinging Florida’s way. It’s a rivalry game, so (almost) anything is possible, but F$U has major issues within it’s program and it’s talent level is way down. Mullen will put a stamp on a state championship with a solid win.

Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 5-3

2019 arrives with a much different feeling surrounding the Florida program than the uncertainty of Dan Mullen’s first season. There is confidence that comes from the strong finish to 2018, but there are also the expectations that come with that. Predicting even 9 wins with an inexperienced O-Line against a tough SEC slate could be wildly optimistic. New players need to step into leadership roles – Franks, Perine, and Jefferson on offense and Henderson, Reese, and Zuniga on defense. The starting 22 are among the best in the SEC, but quality depth is sorely lacking at OL, LB, and in the secondary in case of injuries. The Gators will need some luck on the health front to maximize it’s win potential. Another good season will keep the recruiting momentum going and allow Florida to further distance itself from F$U and scUM. With so little room for error, it will be another interesting season in Gainesville.

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

Peach Bowl vs. Michigan Review

Florida closed out it’s 2018 season with a resounding 41-15 beatdown of Michigan in Atlanta. What a turnaround from 2017 – props to Dan Mullen, his coaching staff, and the players for starting the rebuild/rehabilitation of the Gator brand with a 10-win season and providing much-needed momentum going into the February recruiting period and off-season.

After a slow start, the offense found it’s footing by establishing a solid running game that included some chunk plays by Franks on read-options that forced the Wolverine front seven to stay honest. Perine and Scarlett wore down the Michigan defenders in the second half, with Perine’s long TD run on a 3rd-and-20 draw play effectively ending the competitive phase of the game. Other key plays were Toney’s 30-yard burst on 4th-and 1 to set up a score, and the tunnel-screen throw to Perine for the TD that put Florida in the lead for good (a play that hadn’t been run all season).

The defense bent some in the first half, but once they were able to control the LOS and slow Michigan’s running game, that allowed the pass rushers and secondary to take over. The DT rotation held it’s own against a strong Wolverine O-line, while Polite and Zuniga disrupted the pocket for Shea Patterson on quite a few pass plays. CGJ closed out his Gator career with 2 critical interceptions – the first ending a Michigan scoring chance at the goal line followed by a long return that set up a Gator score, and then capping off the scoring with a pick six that started the celebration early.

After suffering 2 embarrassing losses to Michigan under the Swamp Donkey, this result showed the rest of the country that Florida is beginning it’s return to elite status with a head coach that actually works as hard as he demands from his staff and players along with becoming tougher both physically and mentally.

Dan Mullen and the staff can now use this exclamation point to further their case on the recruiting trail, while the retuning players can look back and see the fruits of their hard work and buy-in to the new regime, including Nick Savage’s S&C program. While F$U and scUM struggle, Florida can step into the vacuum and re-establish itself as the premier program in the state while starting to put space between itself and it’s in-state rivals. If the Gators can close on a handful of recruits at positions of need and continue to grind in off-season workouts and then spring practice, they will be in good shape in advance of another challenging season ahead.

The light at the end of the tunnel is no longer an oncoming train of bad coaching and lazy, misguided recruiting……it’s one of better days ahead for Gator football and for the Gator Nation.

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