Florida started off Billy Napier’s tenure with a rousing 29-26 win over Utah in front of a season-opener record crowd at the Swamp. This game went as I suspected, with two evenly-matched teams battling until the end in a close game. Utah played well in a hostile environment, but all of their talk about being PAC-12 champions rang hollow, as they looked simply like a solid SEC team. Similar to when Auburn is good, for instance – good running game, mobile QB, well-coached, but nothing the Gators don’t see 5-6 times every season. Their fans will never really understand that SEC teams see this kind of atmosphere 6 or more times EVERY season, and sometimes 3-4 weeks in a row. The SEC isn’t a one-off conference……welcome to the grind. Another fantastic showing from Gator Nation in the Swamp – it was an electric night.
Anthony Richardson was the best player on the field, and did a good job in his first start as QB1 given the quality of the opponent. He stayed within himself for the most part, not trying for hero plays and executing the offense. His passing came around after he calmed down as the game progressed, but it was his legs that were the difference-maker. Utah had no answer for him as a runner, even when they had him defended – he’s just that elite of a playmaker. The O-line played perhaps it’s best game in a decade, allowing the Florida RBs to get to the second level while controlling the LOS. O’Cyrus Torrence played up to his pre-season hype, while the rest of the linemen looked better coached than in years. Nay’Quan Wright, Montrell Johnson, and Trevor Etienne all had their moments. Johnson looks like a load between the tackles, while Etienne received more snaps than I think anyone expected, and showed why. He has some serious juice, exhibiting both elusiveness and power. The WR corps definitely has a WR1 in Ricky Pearsall, and it’s obvious why AR says he’s already built a comfort level throwing to him. He was effective in the middle of the field all night, and made some clutch 3rd down receptions to extend scoring drives. Xavier Handerson and Justin Shorter were effective ball-control targets. Florida still seems to lack a deep passing game for now, and I’m not sure if that’s going to change this season. If not, opponents will start to shrink the field even more to slow the running game. It was disappointing to not see Trent Wittemore involved more, with zero catches.
Surprisingly, the defense struggled much of the night, especially against Utah’s running game. Frankly, I was disappointed in DC Patrick Toney’s schemes, especially the entire second half. Utah came out with an overloaded O-line and he never adjusted his personnel to it. The Gator D-line was manhandled, getting gashed time and again, and also not spying QB Cam Rising, who hurt Florida with some huge 3rd down runs. The secondary played very well, limiting Utah’s WRs all game, However, Toney never seemed to account for their TEs, who are the strength of their passing attack. Yes, Amari Burney had the play of the game with his end zone interception to save the win, but where were the nickelbacks and CBs to cover the TEs? This was a stark reminder of what coaching continuity and experience can do – the Utes made key adjustments in the 2nd half, and the Gators did not counter them well……or at all. LOTS of improvement needed there. The open-field tackling was improved from last season, but still has a long way to go. Safety Rashad Torrence missed too many tackles, and the cornerbacks can do better in run support.
Special Teams were solid but unspectacular. Still no return game of note, and I’m surprised the staff didn’t put Etiennne, Lorenzo Lingard, or a cornerback in to return punts. Adam Mihalek, a preferred walk-on, got the start as the placekicker, which was surprising. His kickoffs weren’t that deep, and he wasn’t allowed any FG attempts, as Napier rolled the dice on two 4th down calls in the red zone that led to touchdowns. I’m concerned about this until Mihalek or Trey Smack show something in live action. Jeremy Crawshaw did a nice job of placing his punts inside the 20 with no chance for returns.
I really liked Napier’s comments in the post-game locker room and presser. They were measured and to the point, and you can tell how much the players respond to him. What a change from Dancin’ Danny – no arrogance or stupid, off-the-cuff statements that embarrass the players and University.
Florida’s SEC East Revenge Tour begins this week with Kentucky coming to the Swamp. After the embarrassment of last year’s debacle in Lexington, this team has all the motivation it needs to not have a letdown after such a big game. The Wildcats are getting some run from the media as the 2nd-best team in the East for some reason, but I’m not buying it. They are playing through some school-imposed suspensions of a few key players, including RB Chris Rodriquez. They didn’t look impressive in beating Miami (OH) last week, and we’ll see if they know anything about expectations in football. QB Will Levis for some reason is getting hyped by some NFL Draft gurus as a potential 1st-round pick, which is laughable. He has a decent arm and some mobility, but a crappy Todd Grantham defense held him to 87 yards passing last season, and their running game is not as good this year. Despite it’s struggles in the second half against Utah’s running game, I expect some improvement from the Gator front seven this week. I’m hoping to see some scheme adjustments from DC Patrick Toney, and perhaps some additional rotation at DT to keep bodies fresh. Florida’s offense isn’t so explosive that the defense can allow Kentucky to control the clock for extended periods, or else this game could become another dicey 4th-quarter affair.
I expect a lot of the same things we saw from the offense against Utah in this game. Florida will try to establish it’s running game to allow AR some comfort in a controlled passing game, with the occasional QB run for shock and awe. I’m still waiting for evidence of a deep zone threat to open up the field. Anything will be an improvement over last year’s meltdown – just limit the penalties and turnovers, and eventually wear down the Wildcat defenders. 3rd down efficiency will be a key all season until there is evidence of big-play ability in the passing game.
I actually believe that Kentucky is similar to Utah in many ways – relying on a strong running game and run defense, along with coaching and scheme continuity. Those similarities should help the Gators in their preparation. They will already have that kind of game feel from last week, and should not be surprised by anything the Wildcats throw at them. The Swamp will be jacked up for the SEC opener, even more so coming off of a thrilling win. Florida owes Kentucky some serious payback, and I think we get to see it Saturday night.
Prediction: Florida 27 Kentucky 20