Georgia Preview

The SEC East title is essentially on the line this week, as the Gators have an opportunity to reclaim the top spot in the East, a trip to Atlanta, and more national respect.

Even with their recent struggles on offense, I expect the Puppies to focus on using RB Deandre Swift and leaning on their solid O-Line and running game to try and wear down a suddenly soft Gator run defense.  QB Jake Fromm is starting to be exposed with less receiving talent and experience around him.  If the Gators can generate a pass rush (hopefully with the help of returning DEs Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga) and get him off his spot and uncomfortable in the pocket, they can possibly generate some turnovers.  It is imperative to win first down and dictate the action.  Hopefully, DC Todd Grantham will mix in more press coverage by the CBs and not allow Fromm easy completions and Georgia to sustain long drives.  The Florida front seven has to play a lot better this week.  The DTs have to be more stout at the point of attack, and the LBs have to fill the gaps smartly – way too many missed assignments the past 2 games.

Florida’s offense is what it is by now – a mediocre running game with the occasional big play, while leaning on Kyle Trask and a stud receiving corps to make plays.  Hopefully, the O-Line can continue to provide Trask just enough time to go through his progressions and move the ball through the air, allowing Kyle Pitts, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes and co. to terrorize the Puppy secondary.  I am hopeful that the solid passing game downfield will allow the RBs (mainly Lamical Perine) some room in the flats to make some plays in space, extend drives, and keep some pressure off of Trask.  Dameon Pierce could be a surprise weapon as long as Florida is either tied or in the lead with his strong downhill running.  Finally, the Gators need to avoid a repeat of last year’s offensive performance, where turnovers killed them any time they had gained some momentum in the game, allowing Georgia to work from some short fields and stay in front most of the game.

Both teams have solid special teams, but recently Georgia PK Rodrigo Blankenship has struggled.  Florida PK Evan McPherson and P Tommy Townsend have been consistently good all season, and I hope it continues……they might be the difference this week. 

This will be the 40th consecutive Florida-Georgia game for me, and it never gets old……especially with so much on the line.  While Florida is in a similar position in the standings coming into this year’s game as last year, the feeling this year is much more intense.  Dan Mullen has a team this year that knows it can win tough games and come from behind in the second half, unlike last year.  Georgia has been talking a LOT since 2017, but underneath the surface some fear and doubt is starting to bubble up concerning both the performance of the team and also the ability of Kirby Dumb and his staff to develop talent and coach the team through tough games, instead of simply relying on a huge talent gap and opponents going through coaching transitions.  I am going to stick with my preseason pick of Georgia, as they still have the advantage along the LOS……but will be very happy to be wrong. 

Prediction: Georgia 27 Florida 20

Towson Review / Auburn Preview

Florida pitched its second shutout of the season with a 38-0 win over Towson.  It may not have been as smooth as many hoped, but it was efficient, and a solid win over a good FCS team while sitting at least 6 starters due to various injuries.

The Tigers’ offense actually generated two 12-play drives in the first half, exposing what has been the only real problem to date for the Gator defense – getting off of the field on 3rd down.  Their dual-threat QB hurt the Gators by consistently escaping pressure and scrambling for some first downs.  The pass defense was never truly threatened, but the run defense again had some lapses between the tackles.  If this is a harbinger of similar things Auburn does (and better), that could be bad news.

Florida’s offense was solid, but not spectacular.  Kyle Trask again was very efficient, going 18-20 and 2 TDs but only 188 yards, as Towson refused to bring their safeties into the box.  Unfortunately, the running game was only average (again), struggling with blocking between the tackles and still suffering from missed assignments.  Dameon Pierce came on in the second half to provide a spark at RB, and is pushing for more carries.  

The preseason is now officially over, as the calendar rolls into October and the schedule suddenly changes from weak to the toughest in the country.  Florida faces 3 Top 10 teams in their next 4 games, starting with the Auburn Tigers/War Eagles/Plainsmen/whatever visiting the Swamp for the first time since 2007.

Auburn’s defense starts with an excellent D-Line, led by Derrick Brown.  Their line is big, fast, and experienced.  This is a bad matchup for Florida’s weakest unit, the O-Line.  I have not seen the improvement expected after 5 games, so at this point Coach Mullen has to scheme around them.  Since the run blocking is not very good, I’m expecting the Gators to throw often on 1st and 2nd down.  If the O-Line can give Trask just enough time, the WRs and TEs can make plays.  The drawback, though, is that this could generate some quick 3-and-out series, forcing the defense into extended action and possibly causing them to wear down in the second half.  Execution has to be crisp. Trask has to make quick, decisive decisions with the ball.  Slow-developing plays won’t work against the Tigers.  Trying to pound the running game between the tackles likely won’t work, so some edge plays like jet sweeps have to be in the game plan.  I’m hoping that Mullen has been sandbagging in regards to his play sheet all season and has held some good plays in reserve for this game.

Florida’s defense also has a tough matchup against a senior-laden Auburn O-Line.  The tackle rotation has to play it’s best game of the year defending the power running game led by leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, while the DEs need to set the edge and guard against jet sweeps and QB runs form Bo Nix.  Nix is a true freshman, but now has had the chance to play in two big games against Oregon and at Texas A&M.  We’ll see if Coach Grantham also has been holding some looks and blitzes in reserve for this game in order to confuse the young QB and the O-Line blocking schemes.  I expect a lot of pressure near the LOS while putting the CBs and safeties on an island in more man coverage.  Marco Wilson and CJH (returning from injury) have to provide some lockdown coverage, and Trey Dean has to improve his coverage at the Star position.  Seth Williams is by far Auburn’s most dangerous WR and has good size – he needs to be taken out of the game as often as possible.  The Gator front seven also benefits from the return of DE Jabari Zuniga and LB Ventrell Miller from injury.  Finally, the defense has to ignore a lot of the ‘eye candy’ from Auburn – motion, weird formations, the ‘sugar’ huddle (which is nothing more than a quick-snap set), etc.  Stay focused, and play your assignments.  Make the QB uncomfortable, and force some mistakes and hopefully a few turnovers.

Florida’s special teams have been excellent so far, and have to be near perfect this week.  Flipping the field and forcing Auburn to drive the length of the field is imperative, as is execution of any FG opportunities.  It’s time (hopefully) for a big return in the kicking game to pop up for the Gators to provide a short field and generate some easier points.

It’s Homecoming week, with all of the added excitement to go along with the first visit by ESPN’s Game Day since 2012 and the Gators wearing throwback uniforms from the 1960s.  It will be a sellout crowd for the biggest home game of the season, as Florida has its chance to make a statement on the national stage.  No one really has a good feel for how good (or not) the Gators are right now, given the weakness of their opponents to date.  Florida has not been pushed other than the 4th quarter of their opener against Miami and then the 4th quarter comeback at Kentucky.  That could be a disadvantage going into this game, as Auburn has already defeated Oregon on a neutral field and won at Texas A&M. 

I’m going to stick with my preseason pick of an Auburn win.  I do think the Gators will play their best game of the season to date, but sometimes the matchup style is just too much to overcome.  It will take a complete game from all 3 phases to win, and it can be done.  But I have watched enough SEC games over 45 years to know that if a team is overmatched on both sides of the LOS, it is usually too much to overcome. 

Prediction: Auburn  24 Florida  20

Kentucky Review / Tennessee Preview

In the latest installment of a recently bizarre series, Florida managed to overcome some long odds and injuries to pull off another 4th quarter comeback at Kentucky, 29-21.

The win came at a huge cost, as Feleipe Franks suffered a dislocated ankle and possible broken fibula at the end of the 3rd quarter that will end his season.  The Gators once again did not seem completely engaged mentally from the outset – Franks threw a terrible interception that ended a promising opening drive, the offense committed some untimely penalties, and the defense was pushed around for much of the game at the LOS while playing a soft coverage in the secondary to try and protect the true freshmen pressed into service.  The performance of the defense through the first 3 quarters was perhaps the biggest disappointment.  The defensive game plan by DC Todd Grantham was, at best, curious.  Despite having to play some true freshmen CBs, they have talent, and the Wildcat WRs weren’t that special.  The soft coverage allowed backup QB Sawyer Smith to look like Tom Brady until the deciding 4th quarter.  The D-line was gashed at times by the running game, and it took a heroic performance by LB David Reese with 16 tackles – including 2 consecutive ones on 3rd- and 4th-and-1 right after the Franks injury and change of possession – to keep the game within reach for Kyle Trask to come off the bench and lead the comeback.  As soon as Trask came in, there was an urgency displayed by both the offense and defense that had been missing.  He immediately started by attacking a lesser-talented Wildcat secondary with quick, accurate throws that kept the pass rush away from him.  The drive ended with a touchdown on a great play by Trask, an option pitch while he was being tackled to Perine to pull the Gators within 21-16.  After an exchange of possessions, Shawn Davis made the second of his two interceptions with 8 minutes left to set up the Gators for the go-ahead drive.  Trask again was the difference, finding Van Jefferson and Kyle Pitts for key completions and then finishing off the drive with a zone-read keeper and a 22-21 lead.  The 2-point try failed, and left Kentucky 4 minutes to get into FG position for the win.  Again, fortune smiled upon the Gators as a 35-yard FG missed with 58 seconds left.  Florida then iced the game on 3rd down with a well-executed jet sweep handoff to Josh Hammond who made a 74-yard house call.

As I have said from the start, the lack of a running game is going to hurt in big games.  The O-line was manhandled most of the evening, forcing the Gators to be more pass-heavy than Coach Mullen wishes.  **Notice to Coach Mullen – the O-line ain’t gonna get much better this season, and Florida is going to have to be a passing team first going forward.**  He’ll need to take advantage of what Trask can do best along with a host of quality WRs and an O-line that seems to be adequate in pass-blocking.  Florida once again ran less than 60 plays, forcing the defense to hang on while starting to tire.  

It’s now Trask’s turn to lead, and hopefully, he can be coached up for the meat of the schedule, starting with Tennessee.  It’s gonna be really interesting going forward to see if Mullen is stubborn about the running game if it continues to struggle early in SEC games, or he starts by using the passing game to set up some runs later on.  A lot of folks have been critical of Lamical Perine this year, but where the hell can he go when both the D-line and O-line are in the backfield?  We’ll see if Coach Hevesy tinkers with the starting O-line, perhaps putting Richard Gouriage at LT and flipping Stone Forsythe to RT.  Also, Brett Heggie may need to start seeing time at center, with Ethan White getting some reps at LG.  Some semblance of a running game is still necessary to keep the offense on the field for more plays and provide some rest to the defense.  In Florida’s favor is that Tennessee’s D-line is simply not very good right now, suffering from lack of talent and experience.  I am hopeful that the offense rallies around Trask and runs the ball better this week.  

The Volunteers come to the Swamp with a load of their own problems.  They suffered an embarrassing loss in their home opener to an FCS school – Georgia St. – followed up by an overtime loss on Rocky Top to BYU after giving up a late lead.  A win over UT-Chattanooga is little to be proud of, and you have to wonder what their confidence level truly is headed into their SEC opener to a team they have lost to 13 out of the last 14 games.  On offense I expect QB Jarrett Guarantano to test the Gator secondary with their two best skill players in WRs Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway.  Hopefully, CJ Henderson can return even in a limited role to help in covering these two.  RB Ty Chandler is a good player, but the Volunteer O-line has struggled even more so than Florida’s to date.  If the Gator defense can force Tennessee into being one-dimensional, it will be a long, painful afternoon for Guarantano.  There are some injury concerns for the Florida defense, as DE Jabari Zuniga and LB Amari Burney both left the Kentucky game early and didn’t return.  Those losses, plus CJH, were felt by the defense against Kentucky.  Zuniga looks like he’s out for this week, so I am hoping that Burney and CJH can play at least a limited number of snaps.

Fortunately, this game is at the Swamp, and that should be enough to help pull the Gators through.  The only drawback is a noon kickoff, which typically helps the visiting team as the home team usually seems to sleepwalk early along with it’s fans.  I can only hope the slow starts by the offense in every game so far can be addressed and corrected, because this team cannot continue to rely on second-half comebacks – especially with the schedule about to become extremely difficult in October.  Since it’s Trask’s first start and he doesn’t have much live game experience, I expect some rough patches and perhaps an ugly interception along the way, but hopefully the team plays a solid game overall and the home field can make up for some of those inexperienced mistakes.  This is a scenario where the special teams can really help both the offense and defense.

Prediction: Florida       27 Tennessee 17

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