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