In what may turn out to be the SEC regular-season game of the year, Florida stood toe-to-toe with Alabama for 60 minutes before falling 31-29. The Swamp was as loud as it’s ever been, and that could very well have been one of the top 5 best crowds ever. joining the likes of USC 1982, F$U 1997, Tennessee 1999, LSU 2006, Ole Miss 2015, or even Auburn 2019.
The Gators were their own worst enemy early on, falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter due to soft defense, missed tackles, shaky QB play, and penalties. They ultimately dug a hole a little too deep to climb out of against such a good opponent. No one can question the effort, though, and the Gators were the better team for the last 40 minutes.That’s something to build upon, but not at the expense of assuming everything will be easier going forward. Once again, Todd Grantham’s soft defense cost Florida dearly, and the adjustments to tighter coverage and changing up blitz looks, while effective, came too late. The Gator defense finally tightened up in the second quarter, and only allowed 10 points the rest of the way. Even those 10 points allowed were mostly the result of crushing 3rd down penalties that gave Alabama too many additional chances. The D-line played it’s best game since 2019, holding the Tide to under 100 yards rushing and getting pressure on Bryce Young. The secondary was victimized by some horrendous pass interference calls that extended drives for Bama and led to the early barrage of scores. But that’s better than watching them get picked apart by playing soft and not challenging the opponent. Zack Carter is simply an all-SEC DE right now, Gervon Dexter is showing flashes of being a monster at DT, and Kaiir Elam shut down any Bama WR across from him. Finally, Jeremiah Moon is a revelation at ILB – he stepped in for the injured Vantrell Miller and made plays all afternoon. He looked as good as any ILB the Gators have rolled out in years – I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. He may have found a position to make some money in the League. Props to the entire defense for playing hard for 60 minutes.
The offense was even better than hoped for the last 3 quarters, outrushing Bama 245-91, leading in time of possession, and winning on the scoreboard 26-10. The Gator RB trio of Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, and Nay’Quan Wright all had big plays, ran hard, and even started getting worked into the passing game. Emory Jones settled down after the first quarter, hung in the pocket and made some good throws, and also was effective as a runner. Mobile QBs are such a weapon against any defense, and even a front seven as good as Bama’s struggled to contain his running. This was likely the best O-line performance under John Hevesy since he returned along with Mullen in 2018. Good, physical play, few mistakes, and solid pass protection that Jones needs to take better advantage of. He continues to miss some open receivers by hesitating, and has to learn to let the ball rip sometimes. He also needs to trust his WRs more downfield – Jacob Copeland, Xavier Handerson, and Justin Shorter can make plays on 50/50 balls, and have been sorely underutilized so far. Trent Wittemore has really settled into his slot WR role, and is very effective against LBs and safeties in zone coverage. This will prove valuable going forward in extending drives and giving the QBs a reliable target when under pressure.
As far as the failed 2-point conversion goes, Mullen stated after the game that one player was lined up incorrectly (Davis), and another (an OL) missed an assignment. Even Jones said he knew Davis was lined up incorrectly, but didn’t call a timeout. Despite wanting to save one of the two remaining timeouts, that play is WAY too important to not have everyone on the same page – that’s on both Mullen and the QB to call a timeout and get things right. Those details are too important in a close game against a great team. Another lesson that I hope Mullen learns.
Now it’s time to see if this was an aberration, or the first of a continuing series of consistent, hard efforts. There are no moral victories for Florida Football – I need to see a staff and group of players that won’t listen to all of the compliments from the fans and media and won’t allow a huge letdown this week against Tennessee. The Volunteers come in with a 2-1 record, but that loss is against the only team it’s played with a pulse – Pittsburgh. This will be their first road game of 2021 and it needs to be a harsh reality check for them. Josh Heupel is about to find out this ain’t the crap AAC conference he faced when coaching at UCF.
Tennessee has it’s own QB issues, to date starting both Michigan transfer Joe Milton and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker. Both are good athletes with strong arms, but both have been erratic passers and looked pedestrian for long stretches. They have installed much of the faster tempo offense that Heupel brought from UCF, but obviously are not comfortable yet with it. Hooker likely gets the start this week. Despite opening up the offense, Tennessee is still more run-heavy, relying on RBs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small along with whichever QB is in the game. The Vols historically have a good O-line, but Florida’s D-line should have the advantage in this game. They need to blow things up at the LOS early and often and not allow the Vols to settle into a rhythm. As usual, it starts with stopping the run game first, forcing Tennessee into passing situations. The defense should be able to get pressure, and hopefully force some turnovers and sacks. No Vol WR has stepped up as the leader – Jimmy Calloway seems to be the most dangerous target, but the Vols spread the ball around to many receivers. If the Gators can replicate their coverage from the last 3 quarters against Alabama, the Dollies could be in real trouble.
The Gator offense should continue to try and build on the solid running game it has established this season – control the clock, wear down the Tennessee front seven, and control the flow of the game. Hopefully Jean Delance and Stewart Reese bounce back after playing injured against Alabama, and allow the RBs to continue their stellar play. Jones has earned the starter’s role, and should have gained confidence from last week’s performance. If Tennessee loads the box to force the Gators to the air, Jones needs to push the ball downfield more to Copeland, Henderson, and Shorter. He seems to have developed some good chemistry with Wittemore, who is showing how valuable a slot receiver can be in keeping drives alive and giving the QB a security blanket.
Tennessee has a weapon on special teams with Velus Jones on KO and punt returns. Florida must do a good job of limiting his impact, as Gator Nation painfully knows how a special teams play can affect the outcome of a game. It will be interesting to see if Jace Christmann is the lead placekicker for Florida after Chris Howard’s costly XP miss
The coaching staff has to get the players refocused on looking ahead – fans and media have been praising the team all week for their effort against Alabama, but that will mean nothing if they don’t take care of business the next 4 weeks, starting now. There is a long SEC season still ahead and plenty to play for – the team has to make sure to get it’s mind right first. There will be a good crowd in the Swamp for a big Saturday night game, and that should give the players some extra juice. I would not be surprised with a sluggish start, but if it happens, hopefully, they snap out of it quickly. This could be a close game into the 3rd quarter, but Florida has the advantage along the LOS and should pull away.
Prediction: Florida 34 Tennessee 17