Alabama Review

Florida gave Alabama all they wanted for 60 minutes, but fell just short in a 52-46 loss in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game.  The Gators stayed focused and didn’t give up after falling behind 35-17 at the half, and kept the game within one score for most of the final 20 minutes.

The first half really decided the game, as the Gators suffered from some incredibly bad luck and self-inflicted wounds that proved deadly at the end.  After watching Bama march right down the field on it’s opening possession, Florida responded in kind with it’s own scoring drive ending in a long TD pass from Kyle Trask to Kedarious Toney.  Toney was unstoppable the entire first half, and the Crimson Tide had no answer for him despite trying various coverages.  Alabama responded with another drive into Florida territory, and this is where things started to go off the rails.  Trey Dean made a terrific interception of a Mac Jones pass, ripping the ball from the intended receiver.  As he ran the ball back, though, he was blindsided by a tackle and fumbled the return right back to Bama.  You could just feel what would happen next, and it did.  The very next play, Jones found a wide-open DeVonta Smith for a TD, and the Gator defense could never really find their footing the rest of the half.  Bama stretched their lead out to 28-10, helped some more by the Gator defense with two drives extended by 3rd down penalties after Florida actually made some stops.  This forced Trask to abandon the running game (which was, again, no factor), and he and his receivers fought valiantly the rest of the game.  Florida scored to close the score to 28-17 with only 1 minute left until halftime, but that was too much time left for this bad Gator defense.  Dan Mullen’s clock management (or lack of) really hurt, as the Gators could have run off at least 20 seconds before scoring, maybe only enough time for Bama to get into field goal range.  Instead, Todd Grantham left his indelible mark on the game and his entire Florida tenure, rushing only 3 and allowing Jones all the time he wanted to pick apart a porous Gator secondary, finally hitting RB Najee Harris for a touchdown with only 6 seconds remaining.  Harris was unstoppable all night behind the Crimson Tide’s NFL-equivalent O-line, racking up 5 TDs rushing and receiving.  Overall the Gator defense played hard – the hardest it has all season – but playing hard doesn’t necessarily equate to playing well.  Too many missed tackles, some ill-timed penalties that put them right back on the field after getting 3rd down stops, and continued busts in coverage leaving wide open targets for Jones.  WR DeVonta Smith totaled 15 catches and 2 TDs of his own, possibly cementing a Heisman Trophy in the process.

Florida, to it’s credit, never gave up, and closed to 35-31 at the end of the 3rd quarter.  The defense had it’s best stretch of play all season, shutting the Tide out the entire quarter.  The Gator offense found it’s rhythm and unleashed Kyle Pitts as the Bama defense focused more on slowing down Toney.  Sadly, the defense couldn’t maintain that level of play, and Alabama controlled the 4th quarter, always having an answer when the Gators tried to get close.  On the Gators’ last scoring drive Mullen again screwed up, calling their second timeout before the 2-point conversion.  I have many issues here:  (1) No need to try for 2 there, as you would still need to score another touchdown to tie (or go for the win).  Miss the conversion there, and the best you can do is tie.  (2) Calling the time out cost Florida at least 40 seconds of game time after Bama recovered the on-side kick, so the offense would have had closer to 1 minute left instead of 20 seconds.  (3) Trying the on-side kick is a very low percentage move; kick the ball away so if you’re really going to give the offense only 20 seconds to produce a miracle, at least give them the ball closer to midfield instead of inside their own 10-yard line.

Another terrific offensive performance wasted by bad defense and unnecessary self-inflicted wounds.  That’s the story of the 2020 Florida Gators – what could have been.

It’s a shame that the media was fawning all over Jones during and after the game.  Of course he has great numbers – look at the NFL talent around him.  Now compare that to the mediocre O-line and weak running game supporting Trask, and look how he shredded the Bama defense all night and kept his team close to the number one team in the country.  He had to make throws on the move and under duress many times, and also had much smaller windows to throw into.  And yet he did it, just like he has all of 2020.  The loss to LSU likely cost him any realistic chance to win the Heisman, but there is no more outstanding player this season than Trask.  I will say that DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, and Kyle Pitts are all equally outstanding, and one of these four should win the trophy.

Florida remained 7th in the CFP rankings – massive respect for a 3-loss team.  The Gators were rewarded for their good season with a 3rd straight New Year’s Six bowl, this time the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.  It will be a short turnaround time of only 11 days, and I hope the team doesn’t mail in an uninspired effort and goes out in style.  As of now only Pitts has opted out of the game, and I certainly understand why, as he has fought through injuries the last month of the season and will be a top 10 NFL Draft pick.   I’ll be back with my preview of that game next week.

LSU Review / Alabama Preview

In the most embarrassing and disappointing loss of my Gator lifetime, Florida inexplicably forfeited their chance at the Playoff with a 37-34 loss at the Swamp to LSU.

The reasons for the embarrassment are myriad:

– LSU, even with a complete roster, is not a good team in 2020 – a team gutted by graduation, loss of coaches, injuries to multiple starters, and Covid opt-outs

– The Tigers came into this game with only 54 scholarship players (vs. the 85 allowed), 4 starters left the game with injuries, and their best player, CB Derek Stingley, was benched for the game

– LSU started true freshman QB Max Johnson, and once again a crap Todd Grantham defense that blew assignments and couldn’t even get lined up pre-snap made a bad QB look like a seasoned veteran

– LSU placekicker Cade York won the game with a 57-yard FG……in the fog……the longest in school history  

– Kyle Trask had 3 turnovers – a pick 6, another interception on a freak play, and a strip sack the fault of poor pass blocking……completely out of character, but he still overcame most of that, accounting for 4 TDs

– Florida wasted a career day from Kadarius Toney, who had over 200 scrimmage yards and single-handedly tried to will the offense to a win

– The Gator defense was horrific; allowing over 400 yards to an offense that was bereft of talent, playing multiple true freshmen, and lacking any playmakers

– Marco Wilson……it’s tough to call out a single player, but he was roasted most of the game in coverage, and made the most bone-headed play I can recall with his shoe-throwing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Gators the game

– Finally, the Gators had everything to play for……and bottomed out; this was the epitome of a team loss – players and especially coaches

Dan Mullen did the team no favors with some terrible playcalling in the red zone, continually refusing to run the ball enough while asking Trask to force some things.  To double-down on his arrogance, he didn’t even let Kyle Pitts suit up for the game.  I understand that he didn’t practice all week, but he warmed up pre-game and said he was ready……at least have him play some limited snaps in the red zone to open up things even more for Trask and the other receivers.  Coach Hevesy continues to roll out mediocre O-lines and refuses to replace underperforming players in favor of seniority.  Todd Grantham should be fired the second the SEC Championship Game ends – enough of his dated and easily-read schemes and blitzes that even QBs right out of high school can pick up.

This is a program-damaging loss for Mullen.  He has built up a lot of goodwill from Gator Nation by turning around the fortunes of the football team up until now, but this result is inexcusable.  It ends any Playoff talk; it causes discussion across the country not just by those knowledgeable of the game of football but even casual fans and media that show what a crap fest this game was; and it gives some important current and future recruits pause, wondering if the coaching staff as currently configured can win a title.  Sitting in the Champions Club with some long time, knowledgeable, patient fans, watching them shake their heads is bewilderment, and hearing them say this is the worst loss they have witnessed in 30, 40, 50 years……that’s all you need to know.

Florida somehow has to try and regroup and find a way to emotionally recharge for the SEC Championship Game this Saturday against Alabama.  I can only hope the leaders of the team can rally the players back from such a crushing loss and play well against one of Nick Saban’s best teams in years.

The Crimson Tide offense is the best in college football, with both an excellent running game and a deadly, deep-strike passing attack.  Stars such as WR DeVonta Smith, RB Najee Harris, and even QB Mac Jones deserve their accolades, but the engine for that offense is the offensive line, which will have at least 4 starters and even some backups playing in the NFL after this season or in the near future.  OT Alex Leatherwood and center Landon Dickerson are perhaps the best at their positions in the country.  WR John Metchie and TE Jahleel Billingsley are dangerous targets as well – just overshadowed by the other stars.  Talk about a matchup nightmare for a struggling Gator defense – it’s going to take the performance of a lifetime just to hold the Tide to under 40 points, and I just don’t see it happening.  The D-Line is good enough to get some stalemates at the LOS and try to slow Harris down somewhat, but the coverage by the back seven is so bad that unless Grantham actually does something completely new they likely will get shredded all night.  Perhaps it’s a simple 4-3 with minimal changes or wrinkles; perhaps playing a nickel or dime defense all game and daring Bama to be patient by running the ball would bear some fruit; perhaps the pass rush will be lights out and force Jones off his spot and to move in the pocket.  Anything that might work often enough to allow the Gator offense the chance to at least keep the game competitive for a half or 3 quarters would be a blessing.  But it’s unlikely, just as unlikely as Grantham straying from his outdated blitz packages and late calls that leave guys out of position at the snap.  I’ve given up on the hope of forcing some turnovers, which the defense has been terrible at all season. 

The Gator offense has to not just move the ball, but score touchdowns and not settle for field goals – a lot.  Somehow the right side of the O-line has to be upgraded, which means personnel changes.  For some of the LSU game the O-line was, from left to right, Richard Gouriage, Ethan White, Brett Heggie, Stewart Reese, and Stone Forsythe.  I would not have moved Stone to RT – he has been a good blind-side protector of Trask all season.  Switch the tackles and insert Josh Braun at RG, and you may have something.  Both Reese and Jean Delance are playing hurt, and are even less effective now – they have struggled in some capacity all season .  Go with the usual lineup, and you’re courting disaster against a strong and fast Alabama front seven.  The Tide’s D-line is not as good as past seasons, but still solid.  The real playmakers on their defense are in the back seven – LBs Dylan Moses and Christian Harris, CBs Daniel Wright and Malacai Moore, and safety Jordan Battle.  This group rarely blows an assignment, so it’s imperative that the Florida blockers give Trask time to be patient, make his reads, and deliver the ball accurately.  There’s no doubt in my mind that if the Gator skill players play their best, they can give any defense trouble and score a lot of points.  Pitts and Toney have to show out, and every receiver and running back needs to take advantage of even the slightest room to make plays.  But will the O-line give them the chance?

Both teams boast strong special teams.  Alabama actually has a decent placekicker for the first time in a decade in Will Reichard, who has yet to miss a kick this season – but has not had a single pressure situation.  Jaylen Waddle was the best kick returner in the country before his season-ending ankle injury, but don’t sleep on anyone – especially if DeVonta Smith continues in that role.  Neither punter is especially good – they are rarely used……but at least Florida’s Jacob Finn has done a good job the past month at placing kicks inside the 20 yard line,  Evan McPherson missed a tough, game-tying kick against LSU, but still is one of the best in the country…..hopefully he bounces back with a strong game.  Toney is always a threat on returns, and perhaps he can generate a quick strike if given the opportunity.  Dan Mullen has shown he isn’t afraid to take chances on special teams, and I expect something from deep in the bag of tricks if the situation is favorable.

It’s going to be incredibly hard for the Gator staff to keep the entire team focused and prepared.  Maybe they can, but I wonder if some guys might already be starting to check out mentally and looking ahead to the NFL Draft, or simply have lost the belief they can win this game.  I can only hope the team comes out fighting and plays a spirited game – even if it’s just to play for pride and to try and wash away some of the stink that will stay with them long after the LSU debacle.  The Gators need to bounce back and show the country what a great team they can be.with a complete effort – even if it’s just not enough against a better team.  Maybe……maybe if the Gators somehow get this game into the 4th quarter within one score, the pressure will have an effect on Alabama……but that’s a huge ask.

Prediction: Alabama 49 Florida 27

Tennessee Review / LSU Preview

Florida clinched the SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta with a 31-19 win on Rocky Top that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.  Despite the easy win, it was another uneven and uninspiring effort, as the Gators seem to have lost some of their edge and focus since the big win over Georgia.

Kyle Trask and the passing game were unstoppable for the most part, and yet still had some ragged moments with dropped passes and some missed open receivers that left at least 17 points on the field.  The running game was abysmal – 19 carries for 19 net yards.  The right side of the O-line was blown up most of the afternoon – while it didn’t hurt the team this time, it will soon enough against significantly better competition.  Kyle Pitts was again a monster with 120 yards, Tre Grimes had 2 TDs, and Kedarius Toney was the second receiver with over 100 yards, plus a TD of his own.  Trask did have to dance around in the pocket and leave it a few times to avoid the rush, but he has become so good at doing this and still maintaining his focus downfield that it covers up for the problems at right guard and tackle.

I’m getting the feeling that even with the noticeable lack of intensity, the playcalling has been somewhat simplified and vanilla the past 3 weeks.  Perhaps that is by design from Coach Mullen, but I’d prefer continuing to step on the throats of the weaker opponents well into the second half before letting off the gas.  Maybe he is holding some things back for Alabama, but I don’t like seeing the offense lose it’s edge recently, as they will determine how far this team will go the rest of the season.

The Gator defense again had some positive moments and generated a lot of negative plays, but allowed 2 TD drives of over 90 yards and played a sloppy 4th quarter.  Tennessee wound up playing 3 QBs, and there was never a serious threat to put this game in doubt in the second half.  The D-line for the most part did an adequate job slowing the Vol running game.  The secondary was able to stay close to the Tennessee receivers for a majority of the game until the two late scores, but that was as much an indictment of the Volunteer passing game as it was of how well the secondary played.  There were still too many 3rd-and-Grantham plays allowed, especially when Tennessee was pinned deep in its own territory, so again the offense covered up some of the defense’s warts.

Next up is the final regular season game, at home in the Swamp against LSU.  The Tigers are having a difficult season – they never recovered from being gutted after last season by graduation, early entries into the NFL Draft, and the loss of both coordinators.  This season has also been marred by a shockingly poor defense, injuries, and key opt-outs.  They are coming off of an embarrassing 55-17 home loss to Alabama, and were never competitive.  Starting QB Myles Brennan hasn’t played since their 3rd game, and they have been alternating 2 true freshmen in his place – TJ Finley and Max Johnson.  I expect to see both against the Gators.  Finley has been starting recently despite expected struggles – he is the better runner and physically more talented, while Johnson is more cerebral and reads defense better but isn’t a threat to run and has a weaker arm.  The Tiger offense has recently lost leading WR Terrace Marshall and TE Arik Gilbert to opt-outs, and a group of very inexperienced receivers are left to fill the void.  They have two good RBs in Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery, and I expect a bigger reliance on the running game this week to protect the young QBs and to continue the recent trend of trying to keep Florida’s offense on the sideline. 

When Florida’s offense takes the field, they will be facing a very good secondary led by Safety JaCoby Stevens and CBs Derek Stingley and Cordale Flott.  Despite coming off of the evisceration they suffered at the hands of the Crimson Tide, there are some very talented playmakers in this group that could make things a little difficult for Trask and his merry band of receivers.  This is a case, though, where the Gators have so many weapons that you simply can’t take all of them away, and Trask has consistently proven he will find the right matchup and has been deadly accurate all season.  This is not a vintage LSU D-line – despite some raw talent, they have struggled to consistently establish a pass rush, and if the Gator O-line holds up it could be another long night for the Tiger defense.

Along with being the last regular season game for Florida, it is also Senior Day.  The Gators will say goodbye to 23 seniors and also Kyle Pitts, and will have some massive holes to fill on the roster next season.  That, however, is a worry for another time – this group gets props for sticking it out through the dying days of the Swamp Donkey and helping to establish a new foundation for the Gator standard under Dan Mullen.  I hope the staff can have the Gators focused early on and not looking ahead to next week’s SEC Championship Game.  Florida has started slowly in each game since defeating Georgia, and needs to start with intensity rather than tuning things on only when needed.  This rivalry has almost always seen close games for the past 15 years……there’s no need for the Gators to get into a death struggle late into the second half with the Tigers while Alabama awaits.

Prediction: Florida 38 LSU 20

Kentucky Review / Tennessee Preview

Another nooner snoozer start for the Gators, and another decisive win at the end, 34-10 over Kentucky.

The Mildcats were certainly that after their one successful touchdown drive that consumed over 8 minutes.  The best part of that was watching the ass-chewing Dan Mullen gave to Todd Grantham after allowing another long drive with poor basic schemes and late alignment by the defenders.  Maybe this public display will finally lead to some positive developments regarding the defense.  Certainly something changed after that, as the Gators allowed barely 100 yards the last 40 minutes of game time and played aggressively.  The defense came up with 3 interceptions in the second half, and the game was never really in doubt after Florida took a double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter.  Zach Carter was in the backfield most of the afternoon, and Mahmoud Diabate had one of the interceptions while running down the UK ball carriers with his speed while limiting them to short yardage.  The entire secondary played more aggressively in the second half, and I hope this continues the rest of the season.

The offense started out slowly as Kentucky dropped eight in coverage and dared Florida to run the ball – which they didn’t do effectively as the right side of the O-line had it’s worst performance of the season.  RG Stewart Reese appears to be playing hurt, and RT Jean Delance continues to struggle while Gator Nation wonders why a better lineup can’t be found by OL Coach Hevesy.  Maybe it’s loyalty and a preference to play upperclassmen, but the best guys aren’t playing right now, and it’s painfully obvious.  Kyle Pitts certainly reintroduced himself to the nation with a dominant 3 TD afternoon – toying with the Mildcat secondary.  But the biggest and most important plays of the game were on special teams.  The first was the fake punt after the offense went 3-and-out on it’s first possession – Damien Pierce carried the ball for a first down and gave the sleepy Gators some energy and led to a touchdown drive.  The second was the punt return TD by Kedarius Toney late in the first half – it gave the Gators a 14-10 halftime lead, completely changed the momentum of the game, and deflated Kentucky after they expended all the energy they could with a depleted roster for the first 30 minutes.  In the second half, Florida’s offense took over, and Kentucky had no answers as they wore down.

It’s now on to Rocky Top to face Tennessee.  The Vols are on a current 5-game losing streak, all losses by double-digits, and the noise in the system is getting pretty loud about Jeremy Pruitt’s job status.  Tennessee had an off week after Covid-related schedule changes, and I’m sure this will be their bowl game as they try to damage Florida’s chances of winning the SEC East and perhaps ending their Playoff dreams.

The Volunteer offense is led by a strong O-line that is experienced and talented.  RB Eric Gray has emerged as their lead back, and I expect to see him get a lot of touches both running and receiving, as Tennessee will try to do what Arkansas and Kentucky couldn’t for 60 minutes – shorten the game and keep the Gator offense off of the field.  QB Jarrett Guarantano has simply never progressed in 4 years – he continues to turn the ball over too often and is inaccurate as a passer.  He likely gets the start this game, but true freshman Harrison Bailey will see some snaps as well.  Coach Mullen recruited Bailey and is familiar with him as a highly-ranked dual-threat QB.  You can bet the Florida defense will do everything they can to force either QB to make reads in the passing game, but even more importantly must be stout against the run on first and second down to force those passing situations.  DTs Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slaton need to plug the middle of the LOS while (hopefully) getting improved gap responsibility by the LBs.  When the Vols do throw, they have a good group of WRs led by Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson.  The Gator secondary will be forced into more man coverage while the front seven concentrates on the running game, so the coverage has to be tighter and the tackling more secure.  The defense can’t allow Tennessee a big advantage in time of possession and needs to give the offense enough possessions to score points and force the Vols out of their comfort zone.

Tennessee has an experienced defense with a strong front seven led by DT Matthew Butler, LBs Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, and DBs Trevon Flowers and Bryce Thompson.  This group has played pretty well given the struggles of the offense and having to play extended snaps.  Florida is going to have to stay patient on offense and do a better job of running the ball than they have the past 2 games.  I expect the Vols to continue the recent trend by opposing defenses of dropping eight into coverage as often as possible to try and frustrate Trask and force the Gators to prove they can run the ball effectively.  The Florida O-line will need to play a physical game while cleaning up the missed assignments on the right side of the line.  It will be interesting to see if any personnel changes will be made based on their early performance – this is not the time for Coach Hevesy to continue to be stubborn.

The weather forecast for Knoxville isn’t good – temps in the mid 40s with possible precipitation.  That could impact Trask and the Gator passing game and force Mullen’s hand somewhat in his playcalling.  Tennessee will be hyped for this matchup and the Gators need to match that energy and emotion from the opening kick.  While a loss would still leave Florida as the SEC East leader, it certainly would end their hopes of making the Playoffs and would put a serious damper on what has been a very good season to date.  This one could be tense well into the second half, and the Gators need to play hard and confidently for 60 minutes

Prediction: Florida 31 Tennessee 24

Vanderbilt Review / Kentucky Preview

Florida played it’s typical game at Nashville against an outmanned Vanderbilt team, leaving with a less-than-inspiring 38-17 win.  The Gators started out slow through most of the first half before taking the lead with under a minute to go, then stretched the lead in the second half before a sloppy finish.

The Florida offense ran up almost 600 yards and 38 points, but it’s telling that compared to the unbelievably high bar it has set this season it felt like a mediocre performance.  Kyle Trask had a good but not great afternoon with 383 yards and 3 TDs, but still missed some big plays.  The running game was adequate but lacked explosive plays.  Kemore Gamble filled in well again for the missing Kyle Pitts with 2 TD catches, while Kedarious Toney contributed a TD catch but also a fumble deep in Commodore territory that ended a probable TD drive.  Trevon Grimes has stepped up his play the past 3 games, and is finally looking like the star he was expected to be this season.  The O-line blocked pretty well, but took a step back from the previous 2 games.  Plenty of backups were able to see action, and Emory Jones led a nice TD drive in the 4th quarter both running and passing to ice the game.

The defense, however……  Another lackluster effort filed with busts in coverage and poor tackling against a true freshman QB and a Vandy team missing multiple starters.  They allowed an opening-drive TD (for the 3rd game in a row) and then a go-ahead FG right after the Gator offense responded.  From the middle of the second quarter until early in the 4th quarter the unit started to play better – especially against the run – but then lost it’s focus again and was gashed for some long plays and a TD catch-and-run highlighted by missed tackles and poor angles.  It’s shocking to continue to see the secondary late to line up and/or blow assignments.  Most of these guys are highly-rated recruits with 3 or more years in the program.  If that’s not an indictment on the Defensive Coordinator I don’t know what is.  Sadly, at this late point in the season it likely doesn’t improve much (if at all), and the offense is on the hook with the pressure of having to score 40+ points almost every game.

The Gators return home this week to host Kentucky.  The Wildcats were eviscerated at Alabama 63-3 last week after keeping the game close for the first 20 minutes and then completely collapsing.  Kentucky (again) had no effective passing game,and were down some starters on both offense and defense due to Covid-19 protocols.  It wouldn’t have mattered too much, though, as Bama right now is outclassing the rest of the SEC by quite a distance……including Florida.  QB Terry Wilson is struggling mightily throwing the ball, and backup Joey Gatewood is essentially a TE who can run but not throw.  They are completely one-dimensional right now, but against the Gator defense that still could be enough to pull an upset.

I expect the Wildcats to display an effective, physical run game against the Gator defense.  I also expect to see 50+ carries by Kentucky to try and shorten the game, keep Florida’s offense off of the field, and somehow keep the game close enough to try and steal it in the 4th quarter.  Their O-line is big and physical, and RBs Chris Rodriquez, Asim Rose, and Kavosiey Smoke are tough runners.  Either QB is an effective runner as well, so I expect head coach MIke Stoops to pound away all afternoon until they are (hopefully) forced to throw if they fall behind.  Florida’s front seven is on notice this week, and had better be ready for a rough, physical afternoon of smash-mouth football.  Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell need to play as well as they did against Georgia to help the rest of the defenders.  Hopefully the defense has a healthy contingent of both starters and backups, as they could be on the field a lot.  I hope not, but I also haven’t seen much to convince me otherwise.

Kentucky’s defense has struggled against the pass this season, so that should portend well for Trask and his receivers.  Pitts returns after missing the past 2 games, which just creates more headaches for their defense.  I expect much more passing from Dan Mullen this week after working the running game against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, knowing his passing offense was always ready to ramp things up if needed.  The Wildcat D-line is actually good, and will give Florida’s O-line some trouble.  The run game will still be mixed in for some balance, but the RBs could be contributors this week in the passing game, as I expect UK to concentrate on taking away as much as they can downfield, forcing Trask to stay patient.

The Gators should have extra motivation after Kentucky came into the Swamp 2 seasons ago and ended their 31 game losing streak to Florida.  However, the defense continues to struggle so badly that nothing can be taken for granted.  I hope the Gators can run away and hide in the first half, but something tells me that won’t be the case, and that there could be some tense moments in the second half.  Finally, the Wildcats could be down even more players due to Covid issues, so perhaps that shows up in the second half if the Gator offense can get ahead early and wear Kentucky down.

Prediction: Florida 38 Kentucky 24

Arkansas Review / Vanderbilt Preview

Florida kept it’s historic scoring run going with a 63-35 blowout of Arkansas that wasn’t as close as the final score.

Kyle Trask and the Gator offense roll on, even with the absence of Kyle Pitts.  Keon Zipperer snagged 2 TD catches, Justin Shorter made a leaping TD grab on an NFL-type back shoulder throw from Trask, and Trevon Grimes continued his recent resurgence with 2 TDs of his own.  Trask showed complete command of the offense, picking apart the Hogs’ zone defense with accurate throws and racking up 6 TD passes.  However, the bigger story was the patience Dan Mullen showed in running the ball 45 times against a 3-man front for the Hogs to give the Gator defense a chance to rest against Arkansas’ tempo offense.  Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright all had good games, with Wright especially showing improvement and composure for such a young player.  The O-line seems to be improving as the season progresses, and a handful of backups are getting more snaps and working themselves into the rotation.  It was good to see Stewart Reese bounce back from his shoulder injury against Georgia, while Josh Braun and Ethan White are playing well off the bench and showing they are SEC-level players for next season.

The other benefit of Mullen calling so many running plays was to keep the Gator defense off the field and from embarrassing themselves with more blown coverages after allowing 3 TDs of over 50 yards.  The busts in the back seven are shockingly bad and way too frequent – high school-like.  Shawn Davis has regressed greatly from his play at safety last season, while the LBs continue to blow their assignments in filling the running lanes.  Some of the young players may get more snaps than expected if the upperclassmen can’t play their assignments better.  The defense is getting more stops and more possessions for the offense, but giving up so many big plays and long TDs is unacceptable.  At least the D-line is showing some consistency and improvement.  Zach Carter had another big game and also had a scoop-and-score to ice the game early in the 4th quarter. 

It’s now on to Nashville to face Vanderbilt.  The Commodores are really struggling, coming into this week’s contest winless at 0-6.  Derek Mason may very well get fired after this season, and if he does someone (Florida?) could get a very good defensive coordinator.  Vandy has actually shown some life on offense the past few weeks after inserting true freshman Ken Seals at QB.  RB Keyon-Henry Brooks is their leading rusher and also a good receiving threat with 22 catches for 2nd on the team.  Cam Johnson is by far their leading receiver, and TE Ben Bresnahan is a big target in the red zone.  The Gator D-line should be able to disrupt the ‘Dore offense, as they have a marked advantage against the Vandy O-line.  Here’s hoping that the back seven can get a few turnovers this week just to make the overall task that much easier.

The Gator offense should continue it’s onslaught even with Pitts sidelined for one more game.  The running game could very well be featured again to get more good work in, with the passing game there to close out drives.  I expect another game where many different runners and receivers get touches.  Just play smart and protect Trask, and keep the momentum going.

Florida has a huge advantage in special teams, and I could see Toney perhaps breaking a return this week.  Evan McPherson continues to excel in the kicking game, but the kickoff return unit has given up some long returns the past 2 weeks and has to get that corrected.

The weather looks pretty good for mid-November in Nashville, with temps in the 50s and 60s during the game and hopefully a dry track.  The Gators get another noon kickoff, but are used to it by now and should not be affected.  The main worry for the staff is a letdown after the past 2 weeks, which has historically been the case when the Gators travel to Music City and Vanderbilt is outmanned.  FInally, this should be another opportunity to play a lot of backups and young players to gain experience.

Prediction: Florida 48 Vanderbilt 20

Georgia Review / Arkansas Preview

Florida ended 3 years of frustration by running away from Georgia 44-28 in Jacksonville.  The Gators bounced back from a horrid start and took it to the Puppies the rest of the afternoon in convincing fashion.  The team deserved a lot of credit for staying together and quickly getting back into the game after falling behind 14-0 only 4 minutes in.  The offense simply dominated until midway through the 3rd quarter by going on a 41-7 run, while the defense did just what everyone in Gator Nation pleaded for – getting enough stops to allow the offense to do what it does.  A great win and hopefully a springboard into the second half of the regular season.  Also, this could turn some key recruits Florida’s way for the 2021 class and improve their chances for some studs in the 2022 class.

Kyle Trask had his best performance as a Gator with 474 yards passing and another 4 TDs – becoming the only QB in SEC history with at least 4 TD passes in 5 consecutive games.  Remember that all of these games were against SEC opponents – no cupcakes.  The RBs stunned Georgia all day with over 200 yards – in pass receptions – continually burning LBs in coverage with big plays on wheel routes that the great Kirby Smart never made an adjustment to.  The much-maligned O-line did just enough in the running game to keep the defense honest, while allowing only 1 sack and keeping Trask upright and comfortable enough to shred the Puppy secondary.  Dan Mullen deserves praise for the game plan – isolating the RBs against LBs was something he obviously saw on film as a mismatch.  The playcalling in the last 20 minutes was very conservative, but at that point he had decided that Georgia’s offense wasn’t a threat to score many more points.  It also didn’t help that Kyle Pitts had left the game in the second quarter after a targeting call for a dirty hit that left him with a possible concussion.  Speaking of injuries, RG Stewart Reese left with a shoulder injury, while RT Jean Delance played through a knee injury.  Freshman Josh Braun filled in adequately for Reese and redshirt freshman Michael Tarquin held his own while Delance was out.

The Gator defense is improving, and other than the bust on the first play of the game – a 75 yard TD run by Zamir White – they did a nice job of controlling the running lanes and getting a stalemate at the LOS.  In just 2 games Kyree Campbell has established himself as the defensive MVP.  He, along with Tedarrell Slaton, have formed a solid duo at DT, allowing Zack Carter, Brenton Cox, and the other linemen to play in their natural positions……as the results speak for themselves.  However, there were still a handful of complete busts in the secondary, as Georgia had multiple receivers open deep.  Fortunately their QB play was so bad that it didn’t matter.  It’s perplexing to see a senior like Shawn Davis continually out of position……something has to be done to fix this issue, as other QBs on the remaining schedule won’t miss all of those deep throws.  Overall, they did enough to limit Georgia to 3-13 on 3rd down and 1-3 on 4th down – providing the Gator offense with more than enough possessions to pile up points and get the Puppies out of their comfort zone.  There is still a LOT of room for improvement, however.

Next up for Florida is Arkansas at the Swamp, led by former Gator QB Feleipe Franks.  The Razorbacks have already won 3 conference games this season after winning that many over the previous 3 seasons combined.  Head Coach Sam Pittman has revitalized that program, but solid QB play from Franks is the real reason they have been competitive.

Florida’s offense will get a different look from Arkansas, as former Missouri head coach Barry Odom has them playing mostly a zone defense that looks for opponents to make mistakes or force the ball into coverage.  I’m not sure that’s going to work against Trask – he’s shown patience and maturity in hitting the open receiver and taking what defenses have been giving him.  The Hogs have forced over 2 turnovers per game, and that has lifted them to some surprising wins.  Ball security will be important this week, as turnovers are really the only way the Razorbacks could steal this game.  What’s great about all of the pass completions to the running backs against Georgia is now that opponents see that on film, they will have to focus a significant amount of practice time on it, which should allow Mullen to be able to break those tendencies with different looks and perhaps more emphasis on the running game.  Florida also can’t afford any more injuries along the O-line.

Arkansas’ offense has not been overpowering.  They average only about 140 yards a game on the ground and 240 passing.  What they have done is rely on occasional big plays from Franks on deep throws or after he has kept a play alive with his legs.  New Offensive Coordinator Kendal Briles has them playing with tempo and having Franks making quick reads and getting the ball out.  If the Gator defense can force Franks to check down and not allow long completions, they should have success limiting the Hogs’ effectiveness.  The Florida D-line is still improving, and they have enough talent and depth to get pressure on Franks and also control the running game.

The Florida coaching staff has a big challenge this week in getting the team focused on the Razorbacks after such a big win.  They also have some key personnel to replace due to injury – Pitts and Reese likely are out – so their backups need to step in and contribute in a positive way.  I certainly hope that the Gators don’t feel they are suddenly unbeatable and can simply go through the motions and win without too much effort.  They are only halfway through their season, with nothing but SEC teams on the schedule.  Arkansas will have to play this game with Coach Pittman back in Fayetteville quarantined with Covid-19, so that could lower their energy as the game goes on.  I do think there will be a small letdown by the Gators, but eventually their offensive firepower will be too much to overcome.  There has been a lot of chirping all week between Franks and the Gator defenders, so at least the defense should be hyped for this one.  I could see a sloppy game mentally for Florida for a half, but I think the Gators pull away in the second half and do just enough to get a comfortable win.

Prediction: Florida 38 Arkansas 24

Missouri Review / Georgia Preview

Well, the Gators found a way to circle the wagons with less than 60 players available, multiple starters out, and losing others because of a fight at halftime, and still beat down the Missouri Tigers 41-17.

The defense was vastly simplified, with a lot more 4-3, less blitzing, more zone in the intermediate areas, and occasionally more man coverage by the CBs.  The secondary was without 3 starters going in, and lost Trey Dean due to injury in the first half.  Talk about clearing the bench for Homecoming – there were guys not even on the 3-deep roster and a few non scholarship players seeing snaps in the 4th quarter – and still they survived without allowing too many big plays.  Amazing what can happen if you simplify some stuff, isn’t it, Todd Grantham?  The return of DT Kyree Campbell was evident, as he did a nice job of stuffing some running lanes and getting some push in the pocket on occasion.  That allowed other guys to play their more natural positions and excel.  Brenton Cox had his best game as a Gator, getting pressure on the QB but also setting the edge better against the run and making some good tackles pursuing down the line of scrimmage.  Zach Carter played very well in the first half before being ejected due to the fight.  Brad Stewart played well at safety, and hopefully is allowed to stay there the rest of the season.  Young CBs Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough and safety Rashad Torrence saw extended playing time.

The offense was not as well-balanced as I had hoped, but part of that seems to be by design, as Dan Mullen stubbornly refused to run the ball more and relied on Kyle Trask and a plethora of receivers to control the game.  Trask had some shaky moments – some of his own doing – but he remained poised and played well overall.  The timing between him and his receivers was better than I expected, but still showed some rust after losing 2 weeks of practice time.  Trask actually wound up as the leading rusher as well, with some timely runs extending drives – but this isn’t a viable course for the rest of the season.  Mullen is going to have to rely on the RBs to carry their share of the load to try and survive the balance of the season.  Kyle Pitts was hot early, and that loosened things up for the other receivers the rest of the game.  Kedarius Toney scored 3 TDs – 2 receiving and 1 rushing – and continues to show what a huge leap he has made this season……he’s making himself some money come NFL Draft time.

Of course, there was one negative……a HUGE one.  The fight at the end of the first half was caused by a late hit on Trask and then inflamed by Mullen’s uncontrolled reaction led to multiple ejections.  The most serious one is losing Carter for the first half of the upcoming game.  Just a bad look all around, with no help from the inept referees who could have at least thrown a flag for the late hit and probably prevented this.  Mullen gets a $25K fine, players get suspended, and the Gators get bad press nationally……all of which was avoidable.  That’s twice this season that Mullen has crapped on himself to the detriment of the school and team – he needs to control himself better, even if the team feels he has their back.  You can show the team the same without these over-the-top words and actions.

It’s on to Jacksonville for the SEC East showdown against Georgia.  This is going to be a really tough matchup for the Gators because of the style the Puppies play – a tough running game and physical defense with both size and speed.  The Florida front seven is going to get it’s toughest challenge of the season by far from Georgia’s O-line and stable of talented running backs, led by Zamir White.  White, Kendall Milton, and James Cook are all talented, and Cook is also a weapon as a receiver.  The Gator defense has to get some stops and as many possessions as possible for the offense.  It’s going to take at least 24-27 points to win this game, and it will take a lot of possessions to get there against the toughest defense Florida will face in the regular season.  As a result of Carter’s suspension for the first half, I hope to see both Campbell and TJ Slaton on the field at the same time at DT as much as possible to try and clog the inside running lanes and also disrupt the pocket on passing downs.  The LBs need to make a huge improvement in filling the running lanes.  QB Stetson Bennett is nothing more than a game-manager, and Kirby Smart will rely on the running game to control the line of scrimmage and also time of possession.  Their main goal will be to try and keep Florida’s offense on the sideline, as they were able to do last season.

Florida’s offense will be under pressure all afternoon from a physical, fast, and well-coached Georgia defense.  For starters, let’s hope they don’t repeat the fiasco of last season, when the skill position players had the wrong play calls on their wristbands which caused confusion and self-inflicted wounds the entire first quarter.  There is very little room for error this week – the O-line will have to manage at least a stalemate at the LOS to both protect Trask and also establish some semblance of a running game for balance.  The Gator WRs will need to be prepared for a secondary that specializes at playing physical at the LOS to knock receivers off routes and disrupt timing.  The WRs can’t afford to get frustrated – they must fight through this and make some individual plays.  Trask will find the right person if given time, and has the right temperament to withstand some pocket pressure and take some hits.  Georgia’s defense has suffered some significant injuries recently – both on and off the field.  All-SEC Saety Richard Lecounte is out after a scooter accident, while DL Julian Rochester is out with a torn ACL and DI Jordan Davis may try to play through a serious shoulder injury.  Some of the Puppy LBs are also dinged up but will play – Quay Walker and Monty Rice are excellent defenders and would be sorely missed.  Dan Mullen really needs to call a quality game, as this year’s Gator offense has it’s best matchup since Mullen has been the head coach.

I would feel better about this game if Florida was in it’s regular weekly game rhythm, had it’s full complement of players, and was simply in 100% game shape.  The loss of 2 weeks of practice time in October is a tough hurdle to overcome, complicated by facing an opponent that hasn’t had those issues.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do is stop an opponent’s winning streak against you……and much of that can be the mental game.  I just don’t see the Gators at 100% for this one and ready to reverse their fortunes in this series.

Prediction; Georgia  27 Florida  23 

Missouri Preview

The 2020 season gets another restart on Halloween against MIssouri.  Florida has had no football operations in place for almost 2 weeks, but now has only 6 days to get ready for an important home game.  We won’t know who is available until kickoff, so there could be some key contributors on both offense and defense missing.  Talk about a huge challenge for the entire team and the coaching staff.  After having to wait an additional 3 weeks to start the season, the Gators now have to manage a 3 week break between games during the actual season.

Missouri actually has some momentum coming into the Swamp.  They rolled up 45 points in a huge upset win at home against LSU, and shut down Kentucky last week, allowing only 10 points while running the ball over 60 times.  Lerry Roundtree is their workhorse RB, and unless the Florida front seven can control the Tigers’ running game, this one could get dicey.  Missouri installed freshman QB Connor Bazelak during their second game after a slow start on offense, and he seems to have provided a spark to their passing game to provide some balance to their attack.  He has two good WRs in Jalen Knox and Damon Hazleton who have had success in the SEC.  Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham has had 2 additional weeks to fix some of the problems with the Gator defense, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Even if there are some schematic changes, the loss of 2 weeks of practice is going to hurt……we just don’t know how much until the game is played.  The D-line will get Kyree Campbell back to bolster the DT rotation, but I’m not counting on him too much until he gets into game shape.  The rest of the D-line and the LBs have a lot to prove, and there is no room for error the rest of the way if the Gators are going to make noise nationally.

It could be a challenge for the Gator offense to come out with the same precision and production it showed the first 3 games, after this schedule pause with no official practice time until this past Monday.  Sadly, until the defense shows a pulse, they may be forced (again) into scoring 30+ points and having that constant pressure on their shoulders the entire game.  If the timing is off early in the passing game, I hope Coach Mullen isn’t afraid to lean on his stable of running backs to keep the defense fresh and, until they prove their worth, off the field.  Missouri is led by LBs Nick Bolton and Devin Nicholson and DT Trajan Jeffcoat, so they are strong up the middle.  All 3 have played well this season and will need to be neutralized as much as possible.  If given time, Kyle Trask should find success against a Tiger secondary that has struggled against good passing attacks.  It’s still a mystery as to when Ethan White returns to give the O-line another quality starter and more depth.

Missouri will have a decided advantage as they are in a weekly schedule rhythm and are sharp.  It’s imperative that the Gators somehow come out strong early and play smart, controlled football.  On top of this, Dan Mullen is one of the 4 staff members who has tested positive for Covid-19, so the entire coaching staff has it’s hands full attempting to get both themselves and the team ready to go from the start while dealing with reduced contact with the players on and off the field.  It would not shock me if the Tigers pulled off an upset, but it would be a massive disappointment for the team and Gator Nation to see the season suddenly on the brink.  There’s no home field advantage at the Swamp with only 17,000 or so fans, instead of nearly 90,000 to help the team through any rough stretches.

Prediction: Florida 34 Missouri 24

Texas A&M Review

Well, it wasn’t Covid-19 that possibly killed the Gators’ chances at a big season – it was Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham and his crap strategy and schemes.  It was so bad that even the Gator offense – having it’s 3rd straight game of only punting 1 time – wasn’t enough to overcome a historically bad defense in a 41-38 loss at College Station.  This is the worst scoring defense after 3 games that Florida has rolled out since 1917 – right before the Spanish Flu epidemic.  Coincidence?  

There was nothing good about any defensive group.  The D-line was pushed around the entire second half as the Aggies ran at will, and they did not get enough push into the pocket on pass plays.  The LBs were continuously lost in coverage and did a terrible job of filling running lanes.  The secondary was soft and out of position too many times to count.  Grantham continues to let the DBs play 5-8 yards off receivers, even when the opponent needs 5 yards or less and can complete simple slant routes all game long.  This very thing essentially ended the game late in the 4th quarter, as A&M completed an easy slant route pass on 3rd and 8 from the Gator 30 yard line.  Instead of a tough FG, the Aggies could leisurely run out the clock for a last-play FG to win.  Marco Wilson had his worst game in his Gator career, continually giving up big plays – even when in position to make one of his own – completely whiffing on an easy pass breakup or interception which allowed a long TD pass completion.  Florida gave up over 500 yards to a pedestrian offense and QB, and only forced 1 punt.  The players look confused and look like they are thinking too much, instead of playing fast and running to the ball aggressively.  The only good thing the entire unit did was when Jeremiah Moon forced a fumble early in the 4th quarter that the Gators turned into a TD and their last lead at 38-31.  But that was it……nothing else of note for the entire game……brutal.

If Dan Mullen doesn’t have the guts to tell Grantham and the defensive staff to simplify the schemes and calls to let these athletes actually use their abilities to their fullest, he’s not doing his job as the leader of the program.  At this point, I’d be fine if he demoted Grantham and demanded major changes, and allowed other guys like DL coach David Turner and CB coach Torrian Gray to have a lot more input.

The Gator offense was terrific once again. Kyle Trask threw another 4 TD passes, spreading the ball around on many long scoring drives.  8 possessions – 5 TDs, 1 FG, 1 punt, and 1 crushing fumble on their last possession by Malik Davis, who has had fumbling issues previously.  Again, when will Mullen give Dameon Pierce the chance to be the hammer in the last 6 minutes of a game?  But there’s no way I’m going to lay this loss at Davis’ feet.  The RBs – including NayQuan Wright – were once again effective in both the running and passing game.  Kyle Pitts, even hobbled with a foot injury, scored the first TD and demanded attention from the Aggies, allowing other receivers room to operate.  Kedarius Toney looks remarkably improved as a route-runner, and caught 2 TDs.

Well, there won’t be a LSU preview, as a Covid spike within the Gator team and staff has postponed that game until 12/12.  Now we wait to see if enough players will be eligible to try and have the Missouri game as scheduled – or possibly moved a few days later to a weekday in order to try and have all 10 games played by the end of the regular season.  LSU is in a world of hurt right now, and the Gators would have been able to take further advantage of them as their starting QB would have likely been out for the game.

Seeing games postponed is no surprise, as this was expected across the country.  Yes, it sucks that Florida is one of the affected teams, but I am very glad that the SEC had the guts to go ahead with a season, and mitigation plans were already in place for schedule impacts.  Here’s hoping the outbreak is contained as well as possible and that things can get back on track in a week or so.

It’s more than interesting at this point that all 3 teams that have played Texas A&M have subsequently had Covid outbreaks.  The disregard for Covid protocols in the stands at College Station was just a continuation of ones already seen at Georgia and other schools.  The SEC is now threatening a fine of $100K for any offense – even retroactively – but that’s a drop in the bucket to SEC schools.  The only thing that will get their attention is the threat of becoming ineligible for the SEC title……but the league office would never have the guts to do it.

Mullen and the entire coaching staff have a lot of work to do – navigate this latest pause in operations, start fixing the defense, and maybe keep an eye on the locker room in case some finger-pointing begins.

We’ll see how things develop the next 7-10 days, and hopefully I will be back then with a preview of the Missouri game.