South Florida Review / Tennessee Preview

The Multiverse of Madness is real!

In what felt like an alternate universe of reality, the Gators had to come from behind to escape – yes, escape – with a 31-28 “win” over a badly outmanned USF team.  It was an uneven effort from the start by the entire team, and another terrible performance from Anthony Richardson, as he threw 2 more interceptions that almost lost the game.  I said in the game preview that nothing good would come from this game other than hopefully no injuries.  I was more right than I’d even imagined.  There are just more questions now on both sides of the ball, and AR is regressing – not improving.  His checkoff inside the 5-yard line to a pass in the 4th quarter, when the Gators were blowing the Bulls off the ball and running at will, was bad judgment.  But to then double-down and throw a pass low and inside instead of high and outside with touch – to the near sideline no less – was just awful.  He was lucky that the defense got a turnover and gave the offense a short field to take the lead late.  Then the defense almost did its own Jekyll-and-Hyde imitation, allowing USF to drive inside the 20 before a bad snap ended the drive and a bad hold botched the tying FG attempt.  The entire game was brutal to watch except for when the RBs were allowed to dominate and Jalen Kimber’s pick six on a great play.

The Gator defense was horrific against the run, getting gashed for almost 300 yards on the ground and looking as bad as that statistic.  It is mind-numbing watching the DEs and rush LBs continue to play undisciplined football, not setting the edge or reading the QB on basic option runs.  Gervon Dexter is simply not a natural DT, and is playing out of position to help the team.  Ideally, he would drop 25 pounds and be a terror as a DE, but there are only inexperienced guys other than him in the DT rotation.  The inside LBs had a bad night, and it wasn’t just because the DTs weren’t doing their job – there were some poor fits and misreads that can’t happen.  Yes, Ventrell Miller was out, but the dropoff should not be that extreme for Florida at any position……just another indictment of the poor recruiting by Dancin’ Danny and the Losers.  The lone bright spot on the D-line was Des Watson – he still has a LONG way to go before he’s in good enough shape to play more snaps, but he’s improving each game, and does control the interior of the LOS when he’s in the game.

There is a serious talent issue, as the current depth chart of the defensive front seven is the weakest Florida has fielded since before Charley Pell took over in 1979……and that’s not hyperbole.  But the undisciplined play and lack of personnel/scheme adjustments by DC Patrick Toney to counter the run game is troubling.  The D-line was consistently outnumbered (again) by jumbo formations, and Toney stubbornly stuck with a 3-3-5 alignment for the entire night.  That has to change going forward for Florida to have any chance against the better teams coming up on the schedule.

Florida now travels to Rocky Top to face a 3-0 Tennessee team that can smell the blood in the water.  You know things are bad for the Gators when they go into this game having won 16 out of the last 17 in the series, and are currently 11 point underdogs……and that number continues to rise.  Based on the lack of quality depth and experience in the defensive front seven, this is an especially bad matchup against the Vols’ fast-tempo offense.  QB Hendon Hooker is nothing special, and the Gator secondary can likely cover the Tennessee receivers, but for how long?  When Hooker has to come off of his first read, that’s when he’s susceptible to turnovers.  Their O-line isn’t used to having to sustain blocks for more than a few seconds and can allow a lot of sacks.  Somehow, some way, the Gator defensive front seven has to dictate the action, or else it will be a long afternoon.  I do believe the secondary matches up well with Tennessee’s WRs, and Toney’s 3-3-5 scheme may work better against their style of offense.  The Vols do have a few injuries that could impact their offense.  WR Cedric Tillman is slowed by an ankle injury, another WR is suspended for the first half of the game, and their leading RB, Jaylen Wright, is playing through some injuries.  But none of that will matter if they control the LOS.

It’s all on AR to turn himself around and into the natural playmaker he was until a few weeks ago to make the Florida offense actually threatening.  He has been playing almost emotionless football recently, and looks completely lost.  The coaches can only do so much in developing a game plan that accommodates his strengths, but I will say Billy Napier and Co. need to tell AR to let himself loose and go back to some of the sandlot style that he excels in.  I know they have been protecting him from possible injury, but the passing offense just isn’t working consistently, and there’s no way you can be a solely running team in today’s SEC and win with regularity.  The only thing I liked in the USF game was that finally there were some jump balls thrown to a big receiver – in this case Justin Shorter.  He made a great catch on one, and didn’t have a chance on the other because it was such a poorly-executed throw by AR.  If you’re going with a QB with a lower completion percentage, then perhaps it’s time for more low-percentage throws that can either be big plays or simply incompletions……not interceptions.

It’s obvious that Florida will have to run the ball well – and often – to have any real chance at an upset win.  Of course Tennessee will do what every team has done to date – force AR to prove he can beat them throwing the football, and stack the box to slow the running game.  What’s disturbing is that even when he makes the correct reads, he’s overthrowing his receivers by a LOT.  If it’s nerves and he can’t shake them, then it’s time to try someone else, no matter the limited options right now.  Even a series or two on the sideline might help him see things better……or not.  But this is what the passing game has devolved into at this point.  Even with the limited and simplistic game plans, there are receivers getting open.  Word is that Jalen Kitna may finally have enough trust of the staff to be called upon if AR struggles again……maybe that provides some extra motivation?

Napier goes into his first SEC road game with a lot of noise building in the system.  No one is calling for head and he’s not going anywhere, but many who were concerned about his position coaching and play calling history are saying “I told you so” right now.  If the offense continues to struggle all season, it’s going to be of great interest as to whether he relinquishes those duties and becomes CEO Billy Napier.  There’s nothing wrong with that in today’s football landscape.  I predicted a loss in this game in my season preview, and unfortunately, I’ll have to stick by that for now.  As long as I see a competent offense and an improved run defense, that will bode well for the rest of the season.

Prediction: Tennessee 34 Florida 21