Florida enjoyed the closest thing to an off week Saturday night, beating an outmanned McNeese St. team that was likely one of the worst teams to come to the Swamp in decades. The Gators were able to play many young guys early and often, emptying the bench in the second half and fortunately avoiding any injuries of note.
Coach Napier did what I expected – running the ball early and often for reps in preparation for the schedule to come. There was nothing of note put on film for Tennessee to look at – the offense made vanilla look exotic. There was more tempo between plays, which I can only hope continues, but something tells me it won’t against better opponents until Napier proves he’s willing. With the new clock rules having a running clock until the last few minutes of each half, there is less time than ever to run plays, so an offense needs to pick up the pace in order to get as many possessions as possible. The Gator defense was unchallenged all night, and only allowed 112 total yards. I wish there was more of substance to take away from their performance, but MSU was truly awful. Their only score came after a turnover by Florida’s bench players inside the Gator 20-yard line with a few minutes left.
Things are going to get real this Saturday night, with the SEC opener against Tennessee at the Swamp. After the sloppy and disjointed loss at Utah in the opener, Gator Nation needs to see a solid effort from both the players and coaching staff this week. The Vols come in ranked in the Top 10, but that’s more based on last year’s results, as they have not looked particularly good beating Virginia and Austin Peay. Still, their fast-break offense will be a huge challenge for Florida’s young and inexperienced defense to handle, even at home.
Tennessee is riding with Joe Milton at QB, and he has looked pedestrian at times in place of last year’s starter, Hendon Hooker. As much attention is given to the Vol’s tempo on offense and passing game, it’s their running game which has to be contained in order for the Gators to win. If Florida can force Milton into obvious passing situations, he has shown he will struggle to complete a high percentage of throws and also be subject to sacks and turnovers. He is not comfortable handling pressure in the backfield, and this is priority one for the Gators. Tennessee has two good RBs in Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small -neither of which are terribly big but both are quick, slashing runners. It’s incumbent on Florida’s front seven to stay disciplined in both filling the running lanes with the LBs and setting the edge with the DEs. Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White, and Bru McCoy make up a decent WR corps, but nothing the Gator secondary can’t handle with any help from the pass rush. The Gator LBs will have to be aware and on point in covering the RBs out of the backfield, though – something that has been a struggle for years now. Players like DLs Chris McClellan and Caleb Banks, LBs Princely Umanmielen and Shemar James, and DBs Jason Marshall, Jaydon Hill, and Jordan Castell all have to play well and lead the defense in it’s biggest challenge of the season to date.
Until something changes, I expect more ball-control pace for the Florida offense, trying to get the running game going enough to keep Tennessee’s offense on the sideline and shortening the game by running clock. And I also expect the Vols to employ what every Gator opponent on defense will – stacking the box until the Gators can prove they can win with their passing game. While I’m hopeful the running game will show better than against Utah (that’s not saying much), Graham Mertz and the receivers have to step up and make some big plays. Tennessee’s defense is decent but nothing special – can the Gators show they’re good enough to take advantage of passing opportunities? Just another question that remains unanswered until this game is over. I hope they feed Ricky Pearsall plenty of targets, and also get Eugene Wilson on the edge with some jet sweeps and quick passes to let him work in space. What I don’t want to see are continued 2 TE sets, as none have shown they can threaten as receivers, and this allows the defense to crowd the line of scrimmage and short-to-intermediate passing zones.
This is a massive game for Napier’s perception – not just from Gator Nation, but from the entire country. Year one ended badly, year two started badly, and the SEC is relentless in exposing problems. Florida must show it can play better against legitimate competition, despite all of the youth and inexperience on the roster. This roster is almost completely Napier’s now, and it’s time to see improvement and better in-game coaching/playcalling/adjustments. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that the tempo of Tennessee’s offense causes just enough problems for the young Gator defense that they are able to score enough to win at the Swamp, even if I’m not sold on their QB or defense.
Prediction: Tennessee 31 Florida 24