Florida opens the season with a road trip to Oxford to face the Ole MIss Rebels and their new head coach, Lane Kiffen.
The Gator offense already has some adversity to deal with, as starting center Ethan White will miss multiple games with a meniscus injury. That will force Brett Heggie to center, Richard Gouriage inside to Heggie’s spot at guard, and put Jean Delance back at right tackle, where he struggled all of 2019. Not an ideal, as Ole MIss has some good edge rushers that will have to be accounted for. We’re going to see early on if the O-line can improve in the running game – it’s a requirement for the Gators to have any chance at a championship this season. Kyle Trask is back and can handle pressure and make quick throws, and it looks like he may have to recreate his 2019 performance, at least early on. RBs Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis should be good enough to provide balance, but only if they aren’t avoiding tacklers in their own backfield. TE Kyle PItts will always draw a lot of attention from the defensive back seven, so we will get an early idea of how much WR Trevon Grimes and the other receivers can fill the large void left by losing 4 seniors that were one of the best corps in the country by the end of 2019. Jacob Copeland and Kedarius Toney must show improvement, while transfer Justin Shorter may have to play a bigger role than many have predicted. FInally, Ole Miss lost a lot of starters to graduation, and also have an entirely new defensive backfield – Mullen and Trask have to expose this group.
On defense, Florida will be challenged by a new offense with no film to study from, along with the likelihood of seeing 2 QBs with very different skill sets. John Rhys Plumlee is an excellent runner and took over as the starter midway through 2019, but struggles mightily in the passing game. Knowing how Kiffen likes to throw the ball, we’ll find out early if this is a “square peg into a round hole” situation, and if former Gator commit Matt Corral gets a majority of the snaps. He is a talented passer and good athlete. This unknown alone will make it a challenge for the defense on Saturday. The other threats are RB Jerrion Ealy and WR Elijah Moore. The defense will be down at least one DT (Kyree Campbell may opt out of 2020) and one safety (Brad Stewart suspended yet again – what a waste of talent). Fortunately there is plenty of experienced depth at safety to cover for Stewart’s absence, but a few young DL like Gervon Dexter will get thrown into the mix early on, while Zach Carter likely will have to play DT for most of this game. There is plenty of experience and talent at DE and LB that should be able to contain either QB trying to run while getting consistent pressure in passing situations. This will be a good test to see if the open-field tackling by the back seven has improved – the Gators have really struggled with this the past 2 seasons and must improve. The Rebels have an almost completely new O-line, and it would be a major disappointment if the Gators give up a lot of yards and points.
Jacob Finn has won the job at punter, and fortunately for the Gators he is a senior with some experience, so he shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the pressure of his first start. Evan McPherson is one of the best placekickers in the country, and having someone so reliable is very important – especially on the road. The return game for the Gators remains a mystery until someone stands out. Here’s hoping that the Florida coverage units continue to perform as well as they have since Dan Mullen’s return.
Ole Miss is trying to break in a new coaching staff with an altered practice schedule, having almost 30 players miss practice time already with Covid-19 systems, and learning new schemes on both offense and defense. While the newness of all this can be a hindrance to the opponent, I’m hoping that the Gators can actually get some benefit from this, combined with the stability of it’s own coaching staff and roster – especially at QB. Many pundits think the Gators win easily, rolling up a lot of points on a defense that is retooling. I think it could be closer than that, with some sloppy play and nerves showing themselves early. This will be one of those noon eastern kickoffs that no team likes, as many times teams are sleepwalking through the first half. I’m just hopeful for a win and no serious injuries in the start to the strangest season ever.