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