Tennessee Review/Charlotte Preview

BIlly Napier got his biggest win to date at Florida with a 29-16 victory over Tennessee in front of a fantastic crowd at the Swamp.  The game followed his blueprint of a commanding running game, an efficient passing game that does just enough, and – finally – what appears to be a real defense led by competent coaching.  It’s also his first win against a Florida rival, which had been talked about all offseason and especially the week leading up to this game.

As exciting as it was to watch the Gators race out to a 26-7 halftime lead with 4 straight offensive TDs, it was even better to watch a young defense start to grow up and show what it can be capable of against a legitimate opponent.  The defense has been good all season, but this was by far it’s biggest challenge, and they rose to the occasion.  There were some hiccups with late substitutions against Tennessee’s fast-paced offense, but that’s to be expected.  The secondary allowed 3 long pass completions, but 2 of those were against true freshmen, and for the most part the DBs were allowed to cover closely and play a lot of man coverage.  What a breath of fresh air after watching the soft-as-charmin schemes of Todd Grantham and Patrick Toney the past 4 years.  The Florida D-line played very well, getting pressure on the QB and also controlling the Vol running game – the key to the win in my opinion.  Doing that forced Tennessee into too many must-pass downs, and I knew that Joe MIlton would not be able to deliver consistently.  The play of the Gator LBs was also fun to watch – they were able to showcase their speed in filling running lanes and also in coverage.  That is a tough offense for LBs to play against, and the young guys, led by Shemar James and Scooby Williams, held up against the pressure of the Vol quick-passing game.  There were a few missed tackles in space, but that’s going to happen against the talent Tennessee has on offense, and can be excused.  Overall, just an excellent effort for 60 minutes, and (hopefully) something to build upon going forward this season.

Florida actually showed life on offense in the 1st half.  Trevor Etienne was spectacular, racking up over 100 of his total of 172 rushing yards, including a long TD run in response to Tennessee taking a 7-0 lead and getting the crowd back into the game and energizing the entire team.  Montrell Johnson did not look his usual self and had limited touches, but capitalized with two nifty cutback runs for scores – one on a running play and one on a screen pass from Graham Mertz.  Mertz was terrific in the 1st half, going 17-20 and keeping the offense moving with some clutch 3rd-down completions.  Tre Wilson was a revelation at WR, being leaned on heavily in the 1st quarter on both jet sweeps and getting some key first down receptions, until unfortunately leaving with a bruised collarbone.  What was disturbing was that, after he left, it seemed much of the Gator passing game did as well, as suddenly it reverted to painfully conservative short throws, too often short of the sticks and not utilizing the middle of the field.  Napier admitted after the game he was too conservative the entire 2nd half, but I’ve seen that happen a little too often with him, and am afraid it’s more his comfort zone and will come back to bite him unless he learns to stay more aggressive.  It was hard watching the defense repeatedly being run back out after a 3-and-out, but they responded.

Overall this was quite the improvement from the troubles at Utah to start the season.  The coaching staff gets credit for having the team focused on the job at hand and cleaning up mistakes and penalties.  The “Gamechangers”, however, remain a huge question mark.  Adam Mihalek simply lost his composure, missing an easy FG and an extra point badly.  He looked lost coming off the field, his confidence completely shot.  Napier was forced to let Trey Smack handle the placekicking after the misses, and fortunately he delivered.  I have to believe he will be doing all of the kicking for the foreseeable future.  Jeremy Crawshaw punted adequately, but had another shank that gave Tennessee excellent field position for their final drive, which the Gator defense was able to eventually stop.  He has to become more consistent.

Finally, I have to address Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel and his ridiculous time out at the end of the game.  All he did was incite an ugly finish that got 4 players suspended for the 1st half of their next game, including 3 Gator O-linemen, which was a ridiculous ruling from the SEC office.  Then, he doubled down in his post-game press conference with a weak response to questions, while smacking on chewing gum and being dressed like a traffic cone.  He comes out of this looking like a bum, with Napier being too nice of a guy to call him out for it.  Methinks Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer certainly wouldn’t have let it go that easily.

Florida concludes it’s 3 game home stand against the Charlotte 49ers.  Charlotte should present more of a challenge than McNeese St., but is still overmatched.  The Niners are mostly a running team, and assuredly will try to keep the game respectable early.  They should be helped on defense by the suspensions along the Gator O-line for the 1st half of the game.  This could reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of Florida’s offense for a while, but it will also present an opportunity for some backups and younger players to show their potential for future games.  The suspensions, along with Mertz playing with an injured hand and the loss of Wilson for potentially a few weeks, could make this a boring, run-heavy affair that may not appease the fans in the stands or watching at home.  The Gators will still win this one, but it could be an ugly, sloppy game with Napier just trying to protect his team from any further injuries prior to the upcoming road game at Kentucky.  I do expect a bit of a letdown from such a young team, but the staff needs to show better in getting the team ready after a big game, failing badly in doing so last season.


Florida 38

Charlotte 10

McNeese St. Review / Tennessee Preview

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

“Fear and Loathing”, indeed……

In a shockingly mismanaged effort that I had the displeasure of watching in person, Florida lost a winnable game at Utah, and Billy Napier again provided the opportunity for the critics to have a field day.  I don’t want to hear about this being a road game at a ranked opponent in a hostile environment.  It was not that loud nor intimating a venue, and Utah was missing many key players and didn’t play that well, either.  This was just another poorly-coached effort and another example of a Napier offense that has no sense of urgency regarding the score or the time remaining.  Too many penalties at critical junctures – especially two illegal-formation penalties that ended drives into the red zone – were unacceptable.

Regarding the offense, it showed why I was concerned coming into 2023.  The running game was gutted by not just poor O-line play, but also the loss of Anthony Richardson to the NFL.  His running and big-play ability bailed out the OL many times last season, and Graham Mertz simply won’t be able to do the same.  There were no lanes for either Montrell Johnson or Trevor Etienne to exploit, and they were repeatedly stuffed.  This forced Mertz into passing much more often than expected, and he actually played better than I hoped.  The O-line and Napier’s playcalling did him no favors, and he took a beating all night with 5 sacks and other hits.  The lack of any running game made Florida one-dimensional, and the numbingly-slow tempo – a hallmark of Napier’s offense at Florida to date – precluded any real chance of a late comeback.  The lack of urgency in speeding things up to give the offense more snaps and more opportunities displays a stubbornness and lack of awareness in Napier that is simply not SEC-quality coordination.  In addition, when Florida actually employed 4- and 5-WR sets instead of the wasteful bunch sets with 2 or 3 TEs, they were able to generate some big plays and move the ball……but Napier refused to stick with it.  Ricky Pearsall made some big plays when fed the ball in the second half, and some of the young receivers like Marcus Burke and Eugene Wilson showed their speed and elusiveness with some chunk plays.  Too many pass attempts are being wasted on a TE group that simply lacks speed and big-play capability, not to mention their poor blocking performance.  Will Napier make some significant changes to help clean up this mess?  I’m not so sure, as he appears to be steadfast about being the playcaller.  His comments about needing to “keep focusing on the running game” aren’t confidence-inspiring.

The Gator defense did not play a great game, but well enough to win.  The lack of a pass rush was disappointing – Princely Umanmielen did nothing of note, while the blitz packages were too reminiscent of the Grantham and Toney defenses.  The interior D-line did look improved, as they did not allow Utah to run consistently well between the tackles.  The lack of attention to Utah’s backup QB being only effective as a runner was stunning, as Nick Johnson was able to convert just enough plays to keep some drives alive that never should have happened.  Florida also had many true freshmen getting key reps throughout the game, and many of them showed flashes of promise and made some big plays.  Safeties Jordan Castell and Miguel Mitchell tackled well, LB T.J. Searcy was all over the field, and DE Kelby Collins got some push into the backfield.  LB Shemar James was the star, with 15 tackles and displaying real speed in covering ground sideline-to-sideline.  Despite all of these issues, including no help from the offense and given some poor field position a few times, they allowed only 270 yards of total offense, including the 73-yard bomb for a TD on the first scrimmage play for Utah.  I will not blame them for giving up an 11-yard TD drive after an interception, and they had already made a key stop late in the first half before the “Two #3s” call allowed Utah to continue a drive for a late TD and a 17-3 halftime lead that changed the complexion of the game.

The “Gamechangers” were an embarrassment……again.  A missed 30-yard FG, a shanked punt leading to a short field for a Utah TD drive, and having 8 men on defense for a FG attempt were bad enough.  But the one that will never be forgotten was “Two #3s on the field for the defense.  First down, Utah.”.  What a debacle – just another example that Napier’s special teams-by-committee coaching approach is a failure.  Assign one voice to the room, and don’t waste 2 coaching slots on the O-line.  The kickoff and punt coverage teams played very well, but the loss of easy points and momentum at key times were too much to overcome for a young defense and sluggish offense.  Wilson made a bad decision fielding a punt inside his own 5-yard line, but that’s a mistake by a true freshman that will get corrected.  This group simply has to improve – now.

Florida now entertains McNeese St. for the home opener, in what can only be described as an uninspiring matchup at best.  Other than getting more reps for the young and inexperienced players, this is nothing more than a glorified scrimmage.  Very little can be gleaned from this kind of game, and I expect a lot of empty seats and a crowd that will be unhappy with anything but a large blowout victory – something that Napier’s teams have not shown the ability to do no matter the level of competition.  Hopefully this one is decided early, so fundamentals can be worked on with nothing of note to put on tape for Tennessee.  The main thing in a game like is……NO INJURIES.

Prediction: Florida 45 McNeese St. 7

Utah Preview

Here we go.  Florida opens it’s 2023 season with a tough challenge on the road at Utah.  The Utes will have revenge on their minds after last year’s close 29-26 loss to the Gators at the Swamp, but there are serious extenuating circumstances surrounding both teams that make predicting who will win this game very difficult.

Utah’s QB situation is murky right now, and that’s being kind.  Cam Rising is coming off of an ACL injury in the Rose Bowl only 7 months ago, and has seen little practice time in fall camp.  He has not been cleared by doctors yet for any full contact, so there’s a real chance he doesn’t play, which is a big hit for them.  Freshman Brandon Rose came in and right away passed Bryson Barnes as QB2, but suffered his own knee injury a few weeks ago and is out.  That leaves Barnes as the presumptive starter, with hardly-used Nick Johnson as the backup.  Barnes saw some action late last season and in the Rose Bowl, but really didn’t show much.  IF……if Rising doesn’t play (and I think he will until the game starts and he’s in street clothes), then Florida will benefit.  Rising is a tough runner and very experienced player who makes that offense go, and his loss will be felt, no matter how well coached the Utes are by Kyle Whittingham and his staff.

If it’s Barnes, then expect a heavy dose of the running game led by Micah Bernard and Ja’Quindon Jackson.  Both are big backs that are tough to bring down behind a solid O-line.  Barnes can run effectively as well, but unless he can establish a passing game that shows it can threaten the Gator defense, they could struggle.  Utah usually relies on it’s TEs in the passing game, and I expect the same this season.  But even there they are hurt by the loss of Dalton Kincaid to the NFL, and Brant Kuithe is coming off of his own ACL injury last September.  I think he’ll play, and Florida has to slow him down and force Barnes to look for other receivers.  Utah does have one big concern other than Rising’s availability – they very well could be playing a true freshman at left tackle.

Of course, maybe none of Utah’s concerns at QB will matter unless the Gator defense can finally leave behind the stink of terrible play the past 3 seasons and can show significant improvement.  The D-line lost Gervon Dexter to the NFL, but Napier did well in the portal acquiring Cam Jackson and Caleb Banks to be immediate contributors at tackle along with Chris McClellan and Dez Watson.  Utah will always look to run the ball early and often, and the interior defense has to be stout.  If Rising doesn’t play, then I expect an even heavier reliance on the running game until the Gators show they can slow it down.  Florida lost it’s best run-stopping LB in Ventrell Miller to the NFL along with Amari Burney, so it’s time for Shemar James, Scooby Williams, Trey Wingo, and transfers Deuce Spurlock and Teradja Mitchell to step up against the run and also improve the pass coverage of the LB corps, which has struggled for years.  It appears new Defensive Coordinator Austin Armstrong will run a lot of 4-2-5 alignments, which means an extra defensive back – especially at the Star position – will be relied upon to help cover the Ute TEs.  Jason Marshall, Jalen Kimber, and Jaydon Hill are good enough to handle the Utah WRs, but the safety play of RJ Moten, Kamari Wilson, and Miguel Mitchell has much to prove.  This group has to show it can be in the right position, take proper angles, and tackle well when necessary.  There is little experience and continuity, and they can’t afford many miscommunications or blown assignments.

Florida comes into the opener with it’s own concerns at QB.  Graham Mertz has distanced himself from Jack MIller and Max Brown as the starter, and comes into his 4th year of college ball with 2 years of starting experience at Wisconsin.  However……his play there wasn’t great by any means, and he doesn’t approach what Anthony Richardson could do in the running game or to avoid sacks and generate big plays with his legs.  Mertz needs to play smart and manage the game – he has to prove he can complete passes in the short and intermediate zones to extend drives, throw with accuracy, and make the correct reads.  He’d better, as Billy Napier has thrown all of his eggs into the Mertz basket for 2023.  The Gators will undoubtedly rely on their running game again in 2023, led by RBs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne.  The O-line has been rebuilt after losing 3 starters, including All-American O’Cyrus Torrence.  The staff did a good job of filling those openings by acquiring Micah Mazzccua, Damien George, and Lyndell Hudson through the portal, to go along with returning starters Kingsley Eguakun at center and Austin Barber at left tackle.  There is better depth and some experience among the backups, which is a welcome change.  I expect the Utah defense to crowd the box to try and slow the run game and make Mertz prove he can hurt them throwing the ball.  That means a young and inexperienced receiving corps has to make some key plays.  Ricky Pearsall is the best of the group, but likely gets extra attention until others show they can make plays.  Some combination of Caleb Dougkas, Marcus Burke, and Ja’Quavion Fraziars need to prove they can get open and help the Gators move the ball through the air if Pearsall is the focus of the defensive secondary.  Perhaps one of the true freshmen – Aiden Mizell, Andy Jean, and Eugene Wilson – can surprise early, but that’s a big ask.

Florida’s special teams, er, “Gamechangers”, struggled often in 2022, and must show improvement.  The Gators will have little room for error against it’s better opponents, and need positive contributions from the kickers and returners.  Etienne is an excellent kickoff returner, and it looks like Pearsall will be the #1 punt returner.  It’s risky having two valuable skill players at those positions, but that’s what happens unless you have quality depth in the entire roster.  Jeremy Crawshaw will need to provide solid punting, and Adam Mihalek hopefully comes through when needed for any FGs.

This is a huge game for Napier and the Gators.  If they can pull off the upset win, or even lose a close game in which they show some balance on offense and an improved defense, that would go a long way in showing not just Gator Nation but themselves that progress is being made, and Napier’s long-term rebuild is on schedule.  Suffer an ugly loss filled with bad QB play and poor defense, and the criticism from outside will start immediately and only intensify.  I think Florida knows what it’s up against both on the field and regarding it’s perception nationally, and I expect a good performance and close game.  I just think the change at QB and this being a road game against a well-coached and experienced team are too much to overcome in a season opener.


Utah 24

Florida 20

2023 Season Preview

“Fear and Loathing in Gainesville” is a great way to describe what much of Gator Nation is feeling going into the 2023 season.  Season one is in the books for Billy Napier, and it was certainly a roller coaster ride.  There were some highs with the opening win against Utah, blowing out South Carolina at home, along with a nice road win at Texas A&M.  But it ended with a terrible thud – 3 straight losses – a dud at Vanderbilt, a bitter close loss at F$U, and an embarrassment in the bowl game against Oregon St.  While Napier and his staff in general showed some glimpses of hope with some excellent talent acquisition and good player development at several positions, there were some serious issues regarding time management on offense, the overall defense, and much of the special teams that hurt the team all season.  The last 3 games also impacted much of the goodwill built up until then, and gave Gator Nation cause for worry – again.

Gone is defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, which is addition by subtraction.  Gone is WR coach Keary Colbert to the NFL, which is a major blow.  Gone also are a handful of significant contributors led by QB Anthony Richardson and guard O’Cyrus Torrence on offense and LB Ventrell MIller on defense.  While Torrence was a revelation and an eventual All-American, the others, along with many juniors and seniors left over from the previous regime, were wildly inconsistent, and some often not good enough for the SEC.

Napier and his staff have turned over almost the entire roster now, but still have a long way to go in establishing quality depth and a proven culture of winning.  There are also some new coaches in Defensive Coordinator Austin Armstrong and WR coach Billy Gonzales, both being very surprising hires.  The 2024 recruiting class for now looks like the best since the Urban Meyer years, which is a huge improvement and bodes well for the future.  However, there is much more work to do both on and off the field, and we’re here to talk about right now.


While we now have one season of evidence to get a feel for what Napier wants to do, there is so much roster turnover along with youth and inexperience that 2023 again could prove to be maddeningly inconsistent.  Overall depth might be better, but there are some significant personnel losses that might prove too much to overcome given the players replacing them.

At quarterback, Richardson was the 4th overall pick in the NFL Draft and is now the starter for the Indianapolis Colts.  He will be replaced by Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, who is in his 4th year of college and has 2 years of starting experience.  Alas, much of that experience was inconsistent, and sometimes just not very good.  The usual questions of whether it was the coach or player responsible have followed him to Gainesville, and his performance in the Orange and Blue game left many with still more questions and concerns.  Accuracy seems to be an issue, and he is nothing close to what AR was regarding running the ball or avoiding sacks – obviously few are.  Reportedly he has picked up the paybook rapidly and his teammates like him, but we know all of that can change on a dime with some poor play.  Backing up Mertz will be Jack Miller and Max Brown.  Miller did nothing in the bowl game or in the O&B game to prove he can be an effective player, and Brown is still splitting time between football and baseball, although he was full-time with football during the spring.  All I want to see is consistency – good reads, good decision-making, decent accuracy throwing the ball in the short and intermediate zones, and limiting bad plays and turnovers.  None of the QBs is a high-ceiling playmaker, so these are the things they can do to make the team successful.  If Mertz gets injured or plays poorly, this season could easily go off the rails and really turn up the heat on Napier.  Napier apparently wanted Mertz all along, but also wanted another transfer QB for competition, and simply failed to land one for any number of reasons.  Fair or not, he is tied directly to what happens to Mertz in 2023.  Napier reiterated in the offseason that he is most comfortable as the playcaller and de facto Offensive Coordinator, and puts a lot of pressure on him to deliver.

The running back room again looks to be the best and deepest unit on the entire team, and one of the best in the country.  Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne return after stellar 2022 seasons.  Johnson showed power and surprising speed, while Etienne showed elite burst and moves.  They should also be featured more in the passing game in 2023, both to help the QBs stay clean but also because of questions surrounding the O-line and WR corps.  Cam Carroll is a 5th-year senior transfer from Tulane who impressed in fall camp with his power and blocking ability, but has been lost for the season to an ACL injury.  JUCO transfer Ja’Kobi Jackson moves up in the pecking order now and at least brings some experience to the position.  Treyaun Webb is a Gator legacy and held his own during the spring as a true freshman – he will get some chances this fall to provide depth.  Coach Jabbar Juluke has shown very well both in recruiting and developing his players.

The WR corps has many questions to answer.  It starts with new position coach Gonzales, who stunningly was hired back to Gainesville after Colbert’s departure to the NFL.  Gonzales was stained by the association with the Dan Mullen staff, despite good work in that stint and in his first during the Meyer era.  There is a ton of raw athletic talent to work with, but precious little experience.  Ricky Pearsall was another key portal acquisition in 2022 and immediately became Florida’s most consistent and dangerous receiver.  He toyed with the idea of leaving for the NFL, but thankfully decided to stay in Gainesville for one more season – his leadership will be critical to this unit’s success.  Sophomore Caleb Douglas has impressed in both spring and fall camp.  Ja’Quavion Fraziars and Marcus Burke are in their 3rd year at Florida and have to step up or be left behind.  True freshmen Aiden Mizell, Andy Jean, and Eugene Wilson were the excellent recruiting class put together in just one year by Colbert, and all have already flashed in practice and will get early chances this fall.  Wilson is especially quick and elusive and may get an early look as a punt returner as well.  Coach Gonzales has the pedigree of good development of WRs, but has to overcome the youth and lack of experience within this unit – quickly.

The TE room is the least talented on the roster, and has a long way to go to show it can compete successfully in the SEC.  Losing coach William Peagler to the NFL was a good thing, as he showed nothing in regards to recruiting or player development.  Russ Callaway was promoted from the support staff, but comes with plenty of experience as a position coach and playcaller.  Keon Zipperer was the apparent starter coming into 2023, until he tore his ACL in the spring and was lost for the season.  Dante Zanders has lost weight to improve his speed, but showed little last season after moving over from the D-line.  Arlis Boardingham is by far the best athlete at the position, but is battling injuries in fall camp – he needs to get some early opportunities as a decent receiving threat to help the offense.  Hayden Hanson is the biggest target and by far the best run-blocker, which could get him on the field earlier than expected in what could be a run-heavy offense.  Jonathan Odom came on late in 2022 as an excellent blocker, but tore an ACL in the bowl game and may not contribute much until perhaps later in the season.  Overall this group does not look promising right now, unless there is a major surprise.

Finally, we come to the offensive line.  This unit was a surprising strength in 2022, leading what was one of the best running attacks in the country.  However, there have been significant losses to graduation (Torrence) and the portal (Ethan White, Michael Tarquin), which has filled this unit with plenty of questions and concerns.  They will not have Richarson’s legs to bail them out occasionally in pass-protection or simply making plays out of nothing.  It’s probably good that there are still two O-line coaches in Rob Sale and Darnell Stapleton to try and mold an effective unit.  Austin Barber will move full-time to left tackle and is the best returning lineman.  The huge loss of Torrence is hopefully offset with getting the top guard in the portal in Micah Mazzccua from Baylor, but he is trying to return from shoulder surgery in the spring and may be playing through pain all season.  Kingsley Eguakun returns at center, but continues to struggle against bigger SEC DL.  Alabama transfer Damien George looks to have locked down the starting spot at right guard, while right tackle is still a battle between FIU transfer Lyndell Hudson and possibly George if the staff decides to slide Richie Leonard in at right guard.  There is actually some welcome depth among returning OL Jalen Farmer, Riley Simonds, and Jake Slaughter, along with true freshmen Roderick Kearney and Knijeah Harris.  The raw talent is there to eventually become a good SEC O-line, but the lack of experience and continuity will likely be an occasional problem this fall.


Well, so much for my thinking that 2022 could not be any worse (or just as bad) as 2021’s performance.  After all the talk of Patrick Toney being a young, rising defensive coordinator who was heavy into analytics and playing an aggressive scheme, all we saw on the field was mostly the same crap we had been subjected to by Todd Grantham.  Players not lined up properly or on time, poor tackling, and general confusion with the scheme – what an embarrassment.  Toney somehow was hired by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to be an assistant, and Napier did nothing to stop him – probably saving Toney the ignominy of getting demoted or fired for such a pitiful effort.  Good riddance – just another in a long line of analytics guys who think they are the smartest man in any room.  Now, Napier has REALLY rolled the dice and hired Austin Armstrong, the former DC at Southern Miss.  He was hired by Nick Saban to be a linebackers coach only months before Napier’s offer came and was too good to pass up.  At only 29 years old, Armstrong has a LOT to prove, and if he struggles it will reflect poorly on Napier.  Armstrong promises to run a similar scheme to Toney’s (scary) but with actual aggression, while allowing input from excellent position coaches Sean Spencer and Corey Raymond.  Imagine that – some humility.

The defensive line has more playmaking ability and quality depth than since 2019.  The loss of leader Gervon Dexter to the NFL will hurt, but Florida did very well in the portal, acquiring 2 quality DTs in Caleb Banks from Louisville and Cam Jackson from Memphis.  Both are huge, and should help shore up a weak interior rush defense.  Returning tackles Chris McClellan and Dez Watson will provide a solid rotation, with McClellan having the chance to be the best of the group after flashing as a true freshman last season.  Redshirt freshman Jamari Lyons and true freshman Will Norman will have opportunities to get meaningful reps as the season progresses.  The DE and Buck positions are well-stacked with talent and depth, but lack experience.  Princely Umanmielin is getting pre-season award notice and is the leader of the group. and the best pure pass-rusher.  Tyreak Sapp will be relied upon to shore up the edge against the run.  The loss of Justus Boone in fall camp to an ACL injury was a huge hit, though, and will force young guys into the SEC fray.  The best true freshman is Kelby Collins, who played very well in the Orange and Blue game and now has the opportunity to make himself known very early.  Kamran James and T.J. Searcy are other highly regarded freshmen that may have to contribute sooner than expected.  Jack Pyburn saw limited snaps last season backing up Boone but will now have to step up.  JUCO transfer Quincy Ivory also could be forced into more duty than expected.  Again, plenty of talent and depth, but precious little experience – this unit cannot afford any more serious injuries.  Coach Spencer is doing good work recruiting and developing this group.

The LB corps comes in with little depth and has to overcome the loss of 2 long-time starters to the NFL in Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney.  It’s now time to shine for Shemar James, a top-ranked recruit who gained valuable experience as a true freshman last season.  Scooby Williams and Trey Wingo are now in their 3rd year at Florida, and have to step up their level of play.  Florida also scored through the portal with Ohio St. transfer Teradja Mitchell and Michigan transfer Deuce Spurlock – both likely will play a lot and have to provide quality depth. Mannie Nunnery transferred in from Louisville and is highly-regarded as a special teams star and very good in pass coverage – something the LB corps struggled mightily with in 2022.  Overall this unit should be better, but is dangerously thin depth-wise.  Coaches Jay Bateman and MIke Peterson will earn their salaries this season.

The secondary was again hindered in 2022 by a terrible DC, and I can only hope Armstrong is self-aware and humble enough to allow Corey Raymond to show off his coaching skills this season.  There is more talent and depth here than in many years, and the potential is there to finally remind the rest of the SEC and country just how good a Gator secondary can be.

The CB rotation is talented, but lacks experience.  Jason Marshall is the leader and an all-SEC candidate in what likely is his final season in Gainesville.  Jalen Kimber and Jaydon Hill have experience and shown flashes, but now have to prove they are consistent players.  Devon Moore impressed in limited time as a freshman in 2022, but injuries then and now are limiting his time on the field – he will be relied upon heavily if healthy.  There are 3 highly-ranked true freshman recruits that have already made impressions either in spring or fall camp, and all 3 will get an early opportunity to play some significant snaps.  Sharif Denson, Ja’Keem Jackson, and Dijon Johnson all have good size and speed, and have shown playmaking ability.  Coach Raymond is the best in the business, and excited by this unit as a whole – that’s good enough for me.

The safety position is a real mystery – again.  There was plenty of experience in 2022, but precious little playmaking.  Trey Dean and Rashad Torrence are gone to the NFL, but they never produced consistently at a SEC level.  The 2023 group will have talent, but has scary-thin depth.  Kamari Wilson came in as the crown jewel of Napier’s first recruiting class and gained a lot of experience as a true freshman – it’s now his time to lead this group.  Miguel Mitchell is a big hitter who must improve in coverage.  Michigan transfer R.J. Moten is a Gator legacy and will be counted upon to provide smart play and a steadying hand.  Jadarrius Perkins is a senior who has been maddeningly inconsistent, and who might get some reps at the Star position.  Finally, 2 highly-regarded true freshmen – Jordan Castell and Bryce Thornton – could work their way into the rotation very early given the lack of depth.  Coach Raymond and DC Armstrong have some work to do to coach around this group if they struggle on the field due to injuries or poor play. 

Special Teams

The “Gamechangers” made a mockery of that title for most of 2022.  The overall performance was mediocre at best, with little excitement except for when Trevor Etienne was inserted for kickoff returns.  This entire group has to step up and show major improvement in order to help a team that has little room for error.

Adam Mihalek handled almost all of the FGs and XPs, and has likely won the job for 2023.  He performed pretty well as a first-year player in the SEC, but did miss some relatively easy FGs inside of 40 yards that impacted a few games.  I expect some improvement this season.  Trey Smack returns as well, and will again handle kickoffs.  He has the stronger leg and perhaps will get some opportunities on longer FGs, but hasn’t shown the accuracy or consistency of Mihalek.  The experience they gained in 2022 will help.  Punter Jeremy Crawshaw improved as last season wore on, and could be one of the better punters in the SEC in 2023.  He has good leg strength and athleticism, but still could be more consistent with hang time.  His Australian Rules football background certainly helps.

The kickoff return game was inept (again) until Etienne was put in as the kickoff returner.  He immediately injected some real juice and had some long returns that set up scoring chances for the offense.  I’m sure Napier would prefer not to have to use him at such a risky position, but until he has enough quality depth at the skill positions he doesn’t have much choice.  The nice haul of freshman WRs could provide a surprise source to improve punt returns, which have been dreadful for the most part of the past 8 seasons.  It remains a mystery who might get a chance right up until the start of the season, but I hope Eugene Wilson gets some reps.  He has elite quickness and change-of-direction, and this could get him on the field quickly to take advantage of his playmaking potential, as he will be learning at WR all year.

The group as a whole is more settled than going into 2022, which is a good thing.  I will say that I’m not a fan of Napier’s method of having multiple position coaches coach different aspects of special teams – I would much prefer he actually hired a dedicated special teams coach and had only one offensive line coach.  If special teams struggle again this season, he needs to seriously consider going in a different direction.

Schedule and Outlook

The 2023 schedule is again difficult, with another tough opener and the usual SEC grind.  There is no time for easing into the season – the staff and players will have to be ready immediately for a revenge-minded opponent on the road in game one and with scant room for error or poor play as the season progresses.

@Utah – Loss

So many questions for both teams, starting at QB.  Mertz for Florida, and will Cam Rising play for Utah coming off of an ACL injury suffered in the Rose Bowl?  His backup is out with an injury in fall camp, and they may be relying on QB3.  Still, it’s a road game against a well-coached team.  I’ll have to see the Gators actually play tough (and well) on the road first.

McNeese St – Win

The hope opener, which should allow the staff to get younger players some experience while playing what’s essentially a controlled scrimmage.  As usual in games like this – NO SERIOUS INJURIES is key.

Tennessee – Win

It might be blind faith, but I think the Gator defense will play with pride and purpose in this one after last year’s embarrassing effort offset the best performance of the offense in 2022.  They’ll likely have to, as I’m not counting on the offense to look completely functional yet.  A huge game for Napier to show the rest of the SEC that Florida is improving.

Charlotte – Win

Another chance for the Gators to play some backups after a tough game.  It also comes before an important road game at Kentucky – that’s sad to say.

@Kentucky – Loss

If Florida has lost at home to Tennessee before this one, the “noise in the system” will be ramped up.  The Gators have lost 3 out of the last 5 to the Mildcats, including 2 straight after rolling to 32 straight wins in the series.  Another big game for Napier to show his “plan” is working.

Vanderbilt (Homecoming) – Win

Florida should have enough motivation for this one, after the collapse in Nashville last season started the death spiral that ended 2022.  Vandy is still Vandy, and without some of their key players from last season.  The Gators need to put on a good show.

@South Carolina – Loss

The Lamecocks got embarrassed in Gainesville in 2022, and will have extra motivation.  I’ll still be on the “prove it” side for SEC road games until Florida and Napier show better.  It’s tough to see the Gators struggling against teams like this recently.

Bye Week

Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

Crazy things happen in rivalry games, but the talent and depth gaps are just too vast for the Gators to win this one.  A good showing and some tough play would help.  Florida really needs to show it’s on more level footing starting in 2024.

Arkansas – Win

This will be a much-needed win for the Gators.  Arkansas lost a lot off of last year’s team, but still have KJ Jefferson at QB, who’s a load as a runner.  Sam PIttman is a good coach who has his team ready to play.  If the SEC season has already gone poorly, this could be ugly.

@LSU – Loss

Florida has simply let L$U get into it’s head recently, and is not as talented or deep as the Tigers right now.  Death Valley is always one of the toughest places to play, and I don’t see the offense ready to carry the load it will need to in this environment.  It’s hard to believe Jayden Daniels could be one of the best two QBs in the entire SEC – what a down year for the league.

@Missouri – Win

The Gators could be in desperation mode by now, and will have to find a way to not lose to the interlopers of the SEC.  Eli Drinkwitz is a punk coach who has shot off his mouth too often about Florida.  Napier better win this one.

Florida $t. – Win

It may be a stretch at this point after the SEC grind has come to an end, but here’s hoping that Mertz is still upright and the defense has matured and has actually received some legitimate coordination from Armstrong by now.  The Criminoles are vastly overrated, propped up by last year’s soft schedule and fortunate wins to end 2022.  If Jordan Travis is still healthy and their starting QB, contain him in the pocket and actually tackle in open space for a change, and their offense will be in trouble.

Overall Record          7-5

SEC Record              4-4

2023 is a season with so many questions and variables that it is extremely difficult to predict with any level of certainty.  There is key turnover with players and coaches, and the schedule (as usual) will not allow the staff to hide any weaknesses nor have the luxury of an easy opener to get valuable reps and experience before things get real.  7 wins is actually optimistic compared to most predictions by other analysts and by our friends in Las Vegas, who have Florida’s win total over/under at 5.5.

Florida comes into the season with it’s best raw talent since 2020, but also a lot of inexperience and youth in the 2-deep roster.  There will be injuries as always, and can those unproven kids provide the level of play and depth needed both to compete against elite teams and also maintain a high level of play through the grind of a SEC schedule?  This staff has a LOT of work to do to cobble together both schemes and rotations that maximize what they have to work with.  If the offense can’t provide an effective passing game to move the chains and score efficiently, opponents will load up against the running game, and the defense will wear down as the season progresses.  At least this year’s team has the same staff and routine to work with, and there should be very little of the attitudes and friction caused by the Mullen holdovers.

Lots of new faces in key roles – again – and a lot to prove to themselves and the country – again.  You can’t hide in the SEC, and the good (or bad) will be exposed soon enough.  The season could go a lot of ways, and we’re about to see where.  With all of the uncertainty – especially at QB – I believe winning 7 games would be a successful season.  Anything above that would be a bonus – which is just another indictment of the current status of the program.  But, if injuries hit key players, it could be a tough road to get to even 6 wins.  It’s a shame it’s come to this.  Patience, which is in small supply in college football – especially in the SEC – will be needed as Florida continues the road back to legitimacy and competing for championships.

It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

Las Vegas Bowl Preview

Florida gets “rewarded” for it’s second straight 6-6 regular season with a trip to Las Vegas to take on the Oregon St. Beavers.  Obviously, this game has no meaning nationally outside of the two fan bases, and the Gator coaching staff is going to have it’s hands full trying to balance the past critical recruiting weekends, bowl game prep, and figuring out how to field a competitive team.

Since the end of the regular season, Florida has lost 29 players to a combination of the transfer portal, graduation, and dismissal from the program (QB Jalen Kitna, who was slated to start the bowl game and had the opportunity to audition for 2023).  There are some key losses – especially on offense – that could gut any real chance at the Gators winning.  QB Anthony Richardson, OG O’Cyrus Torrence, and WR Justin Shorter are gone, along with MLB Ventrell Miller.  For now, it appears as if DT Gervon Dexter and OT Richard Gouriage intend to play even though both have declared for the NFL Draft, and I’m sure Billy Napier and Gator Nation will gladly accept any scraps they can get at this point.

Jack Miller has been named the starter at QB for Florida.  he was the backup to AR and played in the Orange and Blue game, but suffered a broken thumb in fall practice and didn’t play a single snap all season.  He’s going to have a lot to prove, and having the defections on offense just makes his job that much more difficult.  If Gouriage does play, the only O-line change will be Richie Leonard filing in for Torrense at guard – at least he’s had extended reps during the season.  The running game will have to leaned upon heavily as Miller has precious little experience with the starting WRs, let alone not being able to develop timing with them.  Other than Shorter, most of the WR corps appears to be back and in decent health.  OSU’s strength on defense is against the run, allowing only 114 yards/game.  If the Gators can’t establish an effective running game, it could be a long afternoon for Miller and the offense.  Florida can have success throwing the ball, as OSU has allowed 228 yards per game.  Having almost all of the WRs back is a huge boost.  Miller needs to protect the football as well, as the Beavers have 12 interceptions on the year.  Of course, unless the Gators put together a decent running game, Miller won’t have the luxury of a balanced offense and will be forced into obvious passing situations.  He does have some mobility, but with the only backups being walk-on Kyle Engel and true freshman Max Brown, Miller needs to stay healthy, so I don’t expect a lot of running from him unless something is wide open.  It’s hard to believe that Florida comes into this game with no QB having ever having thrown a pass for the Gators.

OSU’s offense also relies on a strong running game, led by true freshman Damien Martinez with 970 yards.  The Beaver passing game is ball-possession, with neither of their QBs – Ben Gulbranson or Chance Nolan – throwing deep very often.  They are also turnover-prone when forced to throw with 15 TDs offset by 13 interceptions, so it’s obvious what the Gator defense has to do – find a way to win first down and then rush the QB and force some mistakes.  OSU does have one legitimate deep threat in WR Anthony Gould, who averages 17 yards per catch and is also one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country with an 18 yard average and 2 TDs.

Florida’s special teams have been impacted by all of the roster attrition.  Many of the backups that have left the program received extended snaps on the kick return and coverage units, so there will be lots of new faces and inexperience, which can be disastrous… especially with a kick returner like Gould on OSU’s side.  Fortunately, both placekicker Adam Mihalek and punter Jeremy Crawshaw are available.  Mihalek did pretty well in his first year, and Crawshaw was one of the best in the SEC and country.  Given the potential struggles ahead for Florida’s offense, field position and not allowing any big plays by OSU is critical to chances for a win.

The psychology behind this game will be fascinating.  OSU will be looking at this game as a huge opportunity, and you can bet they will be focused and ready to play.  Florida, however, may be looking at this as more of a scrimmage, with many of the players still on the roster looking to audition for their place in 2023.  I can’t imagine more than 10K Gator fans attending this game (probably less), as it has no real juice and is against an unfamiliar opponent.  It’s also an expensive trip across the country right now, with high air fare prices and inflation impacting the budget of many.  Maybe the staff can have the team ready to play and the Gators come out with some fire, but I would not be surprised at all if it becomes a struggle.  I have no high expectations for a win – it would be great for the team’s morale, but something tells me there is already a significant amount of attention on 2023, from both the players and coaching staff.

Prediction: Oregon St. 24 Florida 20

Florida State Review

Well, this game certainly embodied the entire 2022 Gator football experience.  Big plays, even bigger plays allowed, penalties, bad tackling, perplexing playcalling, emotional highs and crushing lows, frustration, and a close finish – too often on the losing side.

What a shame to see the season end with such a thud.  After the debacle at Vanderbilt, the effort was there this time – especially with a depleted offensive roster.  But, again, some poor play at critical times and some mind-numbingly inaccurate passing by Anthony Richardson were too much to overcome, especially with a defense that failed (again) to look even competent.  The offense was often electric in the first half, with a solid running game led by Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, and big-time connections from AR to Ricky Pearsall which led to a 24-21 halftime lead.  Florida had momentum going into the locker room, and was getting the 2nd half kickoff with an opportunity to take control of the game.  Then, it happened (again).  The offensive performance in the 3rd quarter was as bad as it could have been.  Billy Napier for some reason decided to get away from the run game, and rolled with a QB who had completed only 55% of his passes coming in.  Well, that led to 3 consecutive 3-and-outs, while the defense collapsed to let F$U win the quarter 17-0 and force Florida to play catch-up in the 4th quarter.  Credit to the guys, as they fought back to a 38-38 tie by getting back to dominating the LOS with their running game.  That was by necessity, as AR was on his way to finish the night with only 9 completions in 29 attempts, after starting out 5 of 7.  That the Gators actually had an opportunity to steal a win at the end with only 4 pass completions in the last 3 quarters was a minor miracle in itself.  He even misfired on 2 easy throws in the flat that would have led to big gains.  It was that kind of inefficient and inaccurate passing from AR too often that ultimately led to too many losses.  It is simply not sustainable in today’s game, especially in the hyper-competitive and talented SEC.

Yet, even with all the struggles in the passing game, it was the defense that ultimately lost this game.  The first half was actually OK, with a few stops and generating a turnover on F$U’s first possession.  But the season-long bugaboos popped up (again) enough to allow the Criminoles to stay close.  Jordan Travis is just not a good passer, evidenced by a 13-30 night passing.  But Florida’s pass coverage over the middle has been dreadful all season, and made him look like Joe Montana at times with a handful of easy completions for big yards with no one within 10 yards of the receiver.  Despite that, the Gators could have had a larger halftime lead if they simply tackled Travis in the backfield a few times.  As I mentioned in my game preview, if the defense could limit his running, F$U would be in trouble.  Well, they didn’t, and it got exponentially worse in the 3rd quarter, which ultimately helped decide the outcome.  The performance by the defense in the 3rd quarter was horrific – I can’t recall seeing such poor tackling in space, bad angles, and simply blowing chances for stops even when DC Patrick Toney actually managed to get a few calls right.  Travis escaped multiple times when almost getting sacked, keeping 2 touchdown drives alive.  It led to a 38-24 lead by the end of the quarter that the Gators were never able to fully overcome.  Toney (again) dialed up some inexplicable coverages at times along with occasionally trying to spy Travis with a D-lineman – what a joke.  But the players were at fault oftentimes with their own poor play.  Even getting Ventrell Miller back for the 2nd half after he served his suspension for his targeting ejection in the Vanderbilt game seemingly changed nothing.

The special teams actually had one of their best games.  Adam Mihalek made all of his placekicks, Trey Smack’s kickoffs were mostly touchbacks, and the kickoff and punt coverage was solid.  Etienne had another long kickoff return to set up a second quarter score.  He really put some juice into the return game once he was inserted – it should have happened at the start of the season.

So, after all of the bluster and a roller-coaster season, Florida winds up with exactly the same record as 2021……6-6.  That gives the Gators a 20-14 regular season record since 2019, which is Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina territory……not to mention the ugly bowl losses the past 2 seasons.  For now, Florida is just another team in the SEC, and faces a critical offseason which will help determine the direction of the program going forward.  Recruiting has gone well, with the Gators’ current class inside the Top 10.  Even if the staff can hold the class together and possibly sign a few more elite players, they are going to have to hit the transfer portal VERY hard, and get extremely lucky in hitting on some immediate starters and some quality depth.  I expect a massive roster turnover, with the combination of high school signees plus transfers totalling anywhere from 35-40 players – almost half of the roster in total.

I’ll be back with my bowl game preview, and the potential matchups are not looking very exciting.  There are already a good number of players that have entered the transfer portal, with likely more to come, so what the overall roster will look like going into the game is a mystery……very similar to last year.  Good times.

Vanderbilt Review / Florida St. Preview

Fool’s gold – so much for finishing the season strong.

In a massive step backwards, the Gators completely imploded in an embarrassing 31-24 loss at Vanderbilt – their first in Nashville since 1988.  This was a complete failure across the board, starting with the coaching staff.  This performance was very troubling, and not indicative of a team or staff showing continuous improvement and establishing a winning standard going forward.

As badly as some players performed, including some of the upperclassmen, this game was squarely on the coaching staff.  Poor preparation, terrible schemes, and a shocking lack of focus.  It appeared as if the staff was already looking ahead to the F$U game in the way they prepared the team for this game.  The playcalling on offense was mystifying – Vandy obviously sold out to stop the run, which normally would force you to pass more often.  But to come out that way from the opening snap, and to both fail to run stretch plays to the edge and not force Anthony Richardson to pull the ball way more often on the read option to pick up extra yards and extend drives was criminal.  AR wound up with 400 passing yards, but only because the run scheme was trash and the offense was in desperation mode against some prevent defense in the 4th quarter.  He again missed too many receivers on key downs, and his hail mary throw to end the game was simply unconscionable – not even trying to get the ball into the end zone, but throwing it through the uprights?!  Finally, Billy Napier started chasing points way too early, leading to 2 unsuccessful 2-point conversion tries that forced the offense to try and score twice instead of once late in the game.

The defense reverted back to it’s undisciplined ways, not setting the edge against the run, and playing soft pass coverage.  There were some mind-numbing penalties from Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney that extended Commodore drives, including Miller getting himself ejected for a targeting call that keeps him out of the first half against Florida St.  The DEs refused to play the outside run correctly, and the tackling was abysmal.  The only real impact play came from Jason Marshall, who made a great interception on a pass deep in Florida territory in the 4th quarter to give the Gators a small chance at a comeback.  Other than that, a complete collapse against a bad opponent.

Special teams was a disaster as well.  Poor coverage, a few penalties (again), another missed extra point, and what was a backbreaking mistake by Marshall, trying to field a punt inside his 5-yard line.  He fumbled, and gave Vandy a free touchdown right before the first half ended.  Yes, he’s the 3rd-string returner, but it’s on the staff at that point to tell him to NOT TOUCH THE BALL – no matter what.  Yes, this was a total team loss, and starts up the noise in the system – again.

What a huge letdown for Gator Nation.  As bad as the false hope of the previous 6 quarters of football was against depleted opponents, the performance of the coaching staff was close to unforgivable.  They of all people should know the talent limitations of this Gator team, and the precious little room for error.

It’s now on to Taliban City for the last game of the regular season to face the Criminoles.  What momentum gained from the previous 2 games is completely lost, and now Florida could have some serious injury problems at key positions to make things even harder on themselves.  The WR corps is decimated – Justin Shorter, Marcus Burke, and Xavier Henderson are out, and Ricky Pearsall is in concussion protocol.  Freshmen Caleb Douglas and Daejon Reynolds have stepped up lately, but now will be thrown into the fire as starters.  OL O’Cyrus Torrence and Michael Tarquin both will try to play through leg injuries, and aren’t close to 100%.  Of course, unless Napier gives these guys a legit game plan that makes sense, it could all be moot.  This team has to find at least a modicum of a running game to keep the defense honest and not force any more pressure on AR, who just can’t process things fast enough or be counted upon to play efficiently when forced to throw too often.  The Seminole defense has been susceptible to the running game when they’ve played a team with a pulse, so there is some hope there……but only if AR decides to run the ball himself……often enough and with authority.  If the injury report isn’t enough to make Napier force the running game – including AR – nothing will.

The Gator defense has to stop F$U’s running game first, and that includes not allowing QB Jordan Travis to hurt them on the read option or break containment on scrambles.  I’m still not sold on his ability to simply lead their offense on drives when having to rely on passing.  He does have a weapon in WR Johnny Wilson, a transfer from Arizona St. (and former teammate of Pearsall), who is a huge target at 6’7″.  RB Lawrance Toafili is involved in the passing game as well when he’s in the game.  Their leading rushers are Trey Benson and Treyshaun Ward, both averaging over 6 yards per carry.  Again, it’s incumbent on the Gator defense to stop the run and force the Seminoles to win the game through the air.  Their overall passing game is nothing special compared to teams Florida has already faced.  But, of course, there’s the Patrick Toney factor……once more we’ll see if he stays in his soft shell or allows the defense to play aggressively for 60 minutes.  Florida’s front seven has struggled often this season, but F$U’s O-line is nothing special – get at least a stalemate here and perhaps the defense can actually get enough stops to give the offense enough possessions to win the game.  Losing Miller to suspension for the first half ain’t gonna help – some of the young players will have to elevate their game.

Florida needs to play well for many reasons.  It’s bad enough they are coming off of a disastrous loss at Vanderbilt.  This game is as much about perception of where the program is headed under Napier, and will affect recruiting as well.  Get embarrassed (again) on the national stage, and it will be felt on and off the field.  The coaching staff has a lot to prove, and I’m just not sure if some of them are up to the task, short- or long-term.  I’m not confident at all that the Gators will play well, with injuries piling up and a nothing bowl game on the horizon.  It’s a shame, as F$U has built up it’s record against a garbage schedule and is nothing special, including it’s own mediocre coaching staff.  It is a rivalry game, so perhaps Florida will show up this week – it’s just a shame that we don’t know, because of the inconsistent coaching and player performance all season.

Prediction: Florida St. 38 Florida 21

South Carolina Review / Vanderbilt Preview

The Big Payback, indeed.  Not quite as big as I would have liked, but Florida beat down South Carolina 38-6 to partially atone for the embarrassment of 2021, and made the Lamecocks look bad in the process.  

The Gator defense continued it’s recent improved play by not allowing an offensive touchdown – only a TD on a fake punt due to a blown special teams play.  The front seven did what was needed to control the game – slow down Carolina’s running game and force Spencer Rattler to beat them by throwing the ball……which he can’t do.  Princely Umanmielen continues to show out at DE, setting the edge against the run and pressuring the QB.  LB Ventrell Miller had another solid day making tackles all over the field, and the secondary was solid in coverage.  The only negative was allowing some 3rd-and-long conversions.  Shockingly, Trey Dean had perhaps his best game of the season, with solid run support and an interception.

Florida’s offense did what they should have – pounding the Lamecocks with the running game – and rolled up 374 yards on the ground.  Each RB had a good afternoon – Montrell Johnson with 162 yards and a TD, and Trevor Etienne with 100 yards, including an electrifying 84 yard TD.  Anthony Richardson again ran the ball as often as he should have been doing all season.  10-12 designated runs are necessary to keep the defense off-balance and allow him to make some big plays with his legs.  He had a nice touch pass to Ricky Pearsall for a TD, but again was scattershot with his accuracy, especially on the move.  That has to get cleaned up before the last 2 regular season games.  WR Caleb Douglas again had a few nice catches and continues to improve.  I still want to see a few more throws to the RBs and TEs to help AR out, but perhaps Billy Napier is saving those for the game 2 weeks from now.

Next up for Florida is a trip to Nashville to face Vanderbilt.  The Commodores are coming off of their first SEC win since 2019 (26 games), winning at Kentucky.  It’s been tough sledding for head coach Clark Lea to institute the latest program rebuild there, but he has one nice piece to start with in QB MIke Wright.  Wright isn’t a very accurate passer, but is their second-leading rusher on the season and has injected some life into their offense the past month.  The ‘Dores will lean on their running game, led by RB Re’Mahn Davis, who is also a capable receiver.  Once again, the Gator front seven has to focus on winning first and second down and forcing Vandy into throwing the ball.   WR Will Sheppard is a good player, and the secondary needs to focus on slowing him down.  Do these two things, and it should be a good afternoon in the Music City. 

Florida doesn’t need to change fundamentally on offense this week – continue to impose their will with a strong running game, with AR taking yards when they present themselves.  Vandy’s defense is ranked 121st (out of 131) in the country, so this isn’t the time to get fancy – pound the rock and then hit them with some key play-action passes.   I’m not sure if either of WR Justin Shorter or Ja’Quavion Fraziars are going to return from injury to play this week.  It would be nice if they are ready, but perhaps the staff is hoping to hold them out for the last game at Florida $t.

This will be another one of those noon (11 am local time) snoozer starts, but the Gators are in no position to take any game lightly this season.  Here’s hoping the coaching staff has them ready to roll from the start.  This isn’t the time to fall behind and have to recover.  I don’t trust AR enough yet to not make some mistakes each game, including some inaccurate throws, even with his good performance at Texas A&M a few weeks ago.  He still lacks consistency, although he has played better on the road than at home this season.  It’s gonna be a chilly day for football, with the game temps in the upper 30s to low 40s, but at least it looks like it will be a dry day.  Get ahead early and run the ball well, and it will feel much colder for the Commodores and their fans.  As usual, the visiting team should have almost half of the seats filled with their fans, and Gator Nation will show up at Vanderbilt this week.  Finally, I’m not buying into a lot of the fools gold that seems to be going around after the last 2 games.  Neither opponent was that good, so folks need to pump the brakes on thinking the Gators are suddenly a very good team.  They aren’t……yet.

Prediction: Florida 38 Vanderbilt 21

Texas A&M Review / South Carolina Preview

Florida got a much-needed win in College Station, defeating a depleted and imploding Texas A&M 41-24.  The Aggies were missing 31 players due to injury, illness, or suspension, but I’ll take it.  The Gators were coming off of a beatdown to their rival and facing the possibility of falling under .500, so getting this win was huge for the mental makeup of a team trying to close the season on an uptick.

The Gators did what they should have done on offense – running at the Aggies early and often, and piling up close to 300 yards on the ground against a poor run defense.  Anthony Richardson actually did more of what he should be doing in the running game, keeping the ball more on the read option and hurting opponents with his legs to loosen the defense.  His 60-yard TD run highlighted an excellent first half for the offense, and every point was needed.  The Gators were forced into playing some young WRs due to injuries, and they stepped up.  Both Caleb Douglas and Ja’Quavion Fraziars made key TD grabs.  Ricky Pearsall was given more touches (as I’ve been begging for all season) and did damage on both receptions and on jet sweeps.  Why Billy Napier refused to do this all season is still a mystery.  The O-line blocked well, and opened some massive holes for Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne to rumble through.

DC Patrick Toney again came out in his shell, allowing another mediocre QB to look like a Heisman candidate and causing the Gators to trail 24-20 at the half.  After the Gators finally started playing closer coverage and blitzing Haynes King relentlessly, he played down to his usual level and the defense shut out the Aggies in the second half.  Ventrell Miller did a great job of defending and tackling Devon Achane in space in the flats.  The front seven actually got pressure on the QB when they blitzed, and DE Princely Umanmielen forced a strip sack and turnover to stop a Texas A&M 4th quarter drive to effectively close out the game.

I revel in the misery that is Dumbo Fisher right now.  That scumbag can’t lose enough, and one more loss guarantees they stay home for bowl season.  Not bad for the $90 million coach and the program that paid millions for their recruiting class that is already causing locker room upheaval.

Florida now returns to the Swamp for it’s final home game of the year to face South Carolina.  It is essential for the Gators to build on last week’s win and gain momentum for the coming end of the regular season.  I would hope Florida has all of the motivation it needs for this game.  They embarrassed themselves and everyone associated with the football program by laying down and quitting in last year’s game, and owe the Lamecocks the Big Payback.

Carolina is led on offense by QB Spencer Rattler, who transferred in from Oklahoma after losing the starting job there last season.  He lost the job for some good reasons – he couldn’t read defenses and was a turnover machine.  So far in 2022 he’s only marginally better, and if the Gator front seven can continue to apply pressure, they should be good.  Carolina leans on a running game led by Marshawn Lloyd – if the Gators can slow him down, then opportunities will present themselves for some sacks and possible turnovers.  Antwane Wells is by far their leading WR, but they do a decent job of throwing to their RBs, so Ventrell Miller and Co. will again have to prove they can cover and tackle well in space.

Carolina’s defense has been pushed around often this season, only to have opponents bail them out with ugly turnovers.  In their last game, Texas A&M actually outplayed them but gave the game away.  Their secondary has 11 interceptions, and their team thrives on the emotion of turning the ball over.  If Florida can continue to protect the football while getting a lead it will be very difficult for Carolina to keep it close.  Opponents have had success running the ball, and Florida needs to lean on it’s strength and continue that trend.  AR has to be aggressive and take yards when they present themselves – not be timid.  WR Justin Shorter may miss a second straight game with a hamstring injury, and Fraziers is out with a bad shoulder.  That means Pearsall needs to be fed the ball, and others have to make plays when called upon.  Of course, it would help to throw to the RBs more often, but AR simply doesn’t seem to look for it enough.

One thing the Lamecocks do have are excellent special teams. Head Coach Shane Beamer brought that with him after working under his dad at Virginia Tech for years, and he stresses it every day.  It has paid off big-time, with multiple punt blocks and other plays that have saved a few wins for them this season.  Florida has actually improved it’s kick return game the past month, and both punter Jeremy Crawshaw and PK Adam Mihalik have been solid – that needs to continue.

I still haven’t seen Florida put together two consecutive good performances, and I wonder if they will put too much into the fool’s gold of beating a reeling Aggie team and not come out with the fire and sharpness they need.  Kickoff is set for 4 pm, and the weather should be perfect.  It’s the last home game of 2022, with a lot riding on the outcome.  The crowd should be ready and the Swamp alive for what oftentimes is a less-than-compelling matchup.  I can only hope Napier and his staff ensure that the team is ready from the opening kickoff – they can start by making the team watch the tape from last year’s debacle.  This is another critical game for the “perception” of both Napier and the program’s direction.

Prediction: Florida 31 South Carolina 24