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Florida Gators

Gators future “Peachy” after pummeling Michigan Saturday

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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The Florida Gators entered the Peach Bowl hoping they would play their best, or something close to it, but they also knew that all the pieces of a truly great team did not yet exist. Building for 2019 was the focus. Solving the whole puzzle on the offensive side of the ball was not realistic, but making noticeable improvements from the regular season represented an attainable goal well within the realm of possibility.

Dan Mullen and Feleipe Franks checked those boxes on Saturday in Atlanta.

Don’t start a runaway hype train with this team just yet… but the Gators very clearly showed that their future should own quite a few happy moments under their current head coach.

Don Brown is and has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the country over the past decade. Either at Boston College or now at Michigan, Brown has fielded a lot of tough and smart defenses which can physically punish opponents and possess good instincts. After getting smoked by Ohio State’s superior athleticism a month ago, Brown had a lot of incentive to get things right in the Peach Bowl, and since Florida’s passing game has not exactly lit up the skies this season, Brown had reason to think that even with star linebacker Devin Bush and pass rusher Rashan Gary not playing, his remaining players could at least contain the Gator offense.

No, it was unreasonable to expect that Michigan — minus Bush and Gary — could dominate Florida, but containment? That’s a standard of performance Brown needed from his defense.

Dan Mullen carved up Brown for most of the day, certainly in high-leverage situations.

Third-down quarterback draws, fourth-down jet sweeps to Kadarius Toney, tunnel screens — they all opened up big plays in timely moments. Florida’s pass routes schemed receivers wide open and confused Michigan’s secondary. The Michigan back four was not hit hard by player absences — Bush and Gary are both part of the front seven — so those breakdowns are harder to explain from the Michigan side than the other weaknesses the Wolverines displayed on Saturday.

Yet, as much as you might be able to say that the absences of Bush and Gary mattered — they obviously did to a considerable extent — not everything about Florida’s blowout win can be chalked up to the depth chart. Michigan still had Chase Winovich and a number of other really good defensive players who are better than many of the defenses the Gators faced this season. Once again, Michigan should not have been expected to crush Florida in its shorthanded state, but the Wolverines should have been able to keep Florida in the mid-20s.

Brown could not do that. Mullen very decisively outcoached him.

Florida’s players looked much sharper than they did late in the regular season. The month of fine-tuning Gator fans hoped would make a difference in this offense certainly carried the right effect.

The coaching staff was on top of its game. Players developed and improved, showing what can happen when their athleticism is more finely channeled into the feel and flow of a game against a 10-2, seventh-ranked opponent. (That opponent is now 10-3, but Michigan isn’t a bad team; it simply isn’t the great team many people thought it was heading into the battle with Ohio State.)

Feleipe Franks did not hit some open receivers in this game, but he didn’t make the big mistake, and he ran like a dynamo in the first half. In the second half, he relaxed and hit some tight-window throws down the field. He is not all the way there. He hasn’t yet reached a point of total comfort and command within Mullen’s offense.. but he came a lot closer in the Peach Bowl.

Now he gets an offseason to build on this performance.

Yes, it’s great… to be… a Florida Gator.

Now, though, let’s put the Gators’ situation in perspective. Optimism certainly floods the landscape and covers most patches of ground, but when I say that it’s great to be in Florida’s shoes, I am talking more about the program’s new floor rather than its new ceiling.

Let’s pump the brakes on the idea that, in 2019 and 2020, this program is going to be what Kirby Smart created at Georgia the past two seasons. Is that possible? Maybe. However, my focus on what this Peach Bowl romp means for Florida is more about the lower end of the spectrum for Mullen and Company.

What this game shows me is that even with a very imperfect quarterback and an offense which was stumbling in the dark for much of the season, Florida won 10 games and captured a New Year’s Six bowl trophy. Recruiting, talent and quarterbacking should all get BETTER in the coming years. Mullen — who did as much as he realistically could at Mississippi State, now has Florida’s resources to call upon. This season showed once again that Mullen does more with less.

Florida should very, very rarely win fewer than nine games in any regular season over the next decade with Mullen in charge. This hire was not viewed as a home run throughout the college football industry. I loved it, but not everyone else did, and I could understand why, especially since Chip Kelly was the man many Gator fans hoped for. Nevertheless, Mullen has now shown how much he can do with a given level of talent. He has already shown so much more acuity and skill than Jim McElwain did in building an offense which can maximize players’ strengths and minimize or hide their weaknesses.

Yes, McElwain won a pair of SEC East titles, but remember: That was after Missouri and Gary Pinkel lost their mojo, and before Kirby built the Georgia colossus. McElwain’s East titles were mostly the product of a power vacuum in the SEC East. Florida’s 2018 team was better than either of those two East championship teams under Mac If this Florida team had existed in 2015 or 2016, it wouldn’t have beaten Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, but it probably would have won more than those Gator teams did.

Florida might not be ready to deliver 11-1 seasons, but the days of being unsure if the Gators would be a lock to win nine games appear to be over. Florida now looks like a program which will once again be in the SEC hunt every year. That’s not quite what this program expects, but it couldn’t maintain that modest standard for much of the past decade. Now it has regained that level of footing as it tries to climb higher.

The 2018 season, now complete, did not raise the ceiling for Florida — that’s what Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow did. This 2018 campaign is significant because it raised the floor.

Like this Peach Bowl against Michigan, the 2018 UF football season wasn’t a perfect performance from start to finish, but it represented considerable improvement as it continued. It left Gator fans feeling a lot better at the end, compared to the beginning.

For Year 1, Dan Mullen ought to be satisfied with the degree of progress he attained. Judging by his reactions throughout the fourth quarter in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the final Saturday of the year, Mullen certainly looked like a man who knows he has begun to reestablish a foundation Florida football can build on.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Florida Gators

Gators still hold strong in our weekly power rankings

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This past week was another one of disappointing football for fans of Florida Football. In the NFL, all three teams lost. While the only winners of the week were Miami, Florida Atlantic, and USF. Two of these teams will crack my top 5, with one being left out.

Let’s see how the rest of the top 5 breaks down:

Florida Gators- The Gators hold onto the top spot, despite dropping last week’s game to LSU. The game was much closer than the scoreboard reads off. The Gators were in it until late into the fourth quarter before a Kyle Trask pick would result in the Tigers going up two scores.

Florida played one of their better games of the season in a hostile environment. They still have a lot in front of them and control their own destiny in the SEC East race.

UCF Knights- UCF got a much-needed BYE after dropping 2 of their last 3 games. The Knights are still the second-best team, as of right now because no one else has stepped up to take it from them. They will look to bounce back with an easy opponent at home against East Carolina. Then, they will hope for some upsets within the conference to get them back to the AAC Title game.

Miami Hurricanes- The got a big ACC win last Friday night. They were able to win at home and against a ranked Virginia team in a sloppy affair.

The Canes will have another winnable game this week against Georgia Tech. The question for this team still remains: can they get consistent offense?

Jarren Williams could be back at QB, despite N’Kosi Perry winning last week and almost completing a comeback against Virginia Tech. If the Canes can prevail against the Yellow Jackets then again at Pitt, they will head into the Florida State game with a lot more on the line.

Florida Atlantic- The Owls continued their winning streak last week, pushing it to four in a row. Since losing against a pair of top 20 teams, including a top 5, they have been playing some of the most consistent ball in the state. They have a huge game this week home against Marshall.

A win here puts the Owls in an excellent position in the Conference USA standings and sets up a big game in two weeks against Western Kentucky.

Jacksonville Jaguars- The only NFL team to appear are the Jags. Despite losing to the Saints for their second loss in a row, they make the list.

The Jags have lost both games by a touchdown, each showcasing they are in each game. And, QB Gardner Minshew is giving fans in North Florida something to get excited about this year.

With college teams like FSU getting blown out and USF at an ugly 3-3, the Jags are the right call.

They should bounce back against the winless Bengals. Jacksonville is still hanging around at 2-4 in the division, if they can win against the Bengals and Jets, they will play the Texans in London for a potential swing game in the division.

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Florida Gators

Confidence gained in Gators wild loss Saturday night

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Losing stings, especially in a sport with only 12 precious regular-season games, 12 unique opportunities to prove one’s worth and make a statement of significance. The Florida Gators’ 42-28 loss to the LSU Tigers on Saturday night surely contained its frustrating components for Dan Mullen and his team.

This game didn’t have to end the way it did.

Without a pivotal holding penalty in a 28-28 tie in the third quarter, Florida might have remained in the hunt to the very end, possibly with an outright advantage. The Gators played the Tigers dead-even up to that point, matching LSU’s loaded offense every step of the way.

After roughly 40 minutes of thrillingly close combat, Florida finally made the mistakes which had been commonplace through the previous six weeks of the season, the mistakes which figured to be more prevalent on Saturday night, but had been pushed to the side by an improved Gator offense.

Where was THIS, many Gator fans surely wondered over those first 40 minutes Where was the Kyle Trask who got rid of the ball quickly and yet still managed to throw deep-intermediate passes for surgical 20-yard gains? That guy wasn’t on the field against Auburn, but he was against LSU.

Where were the wide receivers and tight ends before Saturday night in Baton Rouge? They also played their best game of the season on Saturday, finding seams in the LSU back seven and offering yet more evidence of Dan Mullen’s marvelous ability to scheme players open in the structure of his offense.

This offense was so good through two and a half quarters that the Gators began to offer legitimate reason that they could actually win outright as a double-digit underdog in Death Valley. It didn’t seem like wishful thinking. The offense kept proving itself with long touchdown marches. LSU’s defense remained toothless.

The holding penalty which changed the game was so influential because it wiped out a gain of nearly 30 yards by Florida. The UF offense was on the rampage yet again before the music finally stopped and the visitors’ momentum abruptly left Tiger Stadium, a hasty exit which ought to be a source of agony.

Florida didn’t play a complete 60-minute game. Only LSU did. Everyone in the Florida locker room will carry that wound, that failure, into the rest of the season.

Losing is not without consequence or pain. We can acknowledge this.

We can also acknowledge that some losses carry a pain which is more permanent than others. This loss won’t leave a permanent mark on the Gators. It sets the stage for next week’s important test at South Carolina, which upset Georgia on the road. It also leads to the biggest game the Gators will play this year, the Cocktail Party against Georgia in three weeks.

If part of the story of this LSU loss was that the Gators didn’t finish the game, the other part is that Florida gained a lot of belief that it can beat the Dawgs in Jacksonville when that moment arrives.

One day did a lot to change the way the SEC East is viewed.

Sure, it could be the case that Georgia was just “off” against South Carolina, but the Dawgs were 20-point favorites. South Carolina was playing with a quarterback who was No. 2 on the depth chart on opening day, and HE – Ryan Hilinski – got injured. The Gamecocks ultimately beat Georgia in Athens with their third-stringer relative to the start of the season.

Under no circumstances should Georgia lose that game. Given that the Bulldogs failed to trounce Notre Dame (a team which struggled to put away USC on Saturday), and played a sloppy first half at Tennessee a week ago, maybe Kirby Smart’s team isn’t as formidable as many people thought before the season, or even two weeks ago.

Maybe Georgia is not the colossus who towers over the rest of the SEC East.

Florida’s ability to not merely compete with LSU on the road (better than Georgia did at LSU last year, it should be noted), but to display a high-level offensive performance, offers proof that the Gators can truly play with Georgia on even terms.

This hardly guarantees that they will, but one has to admit that if Georgia seemed several tiers above Florida heading into Week 7, these teams seem to be on much more even footing heading into Week 8.

Yes, Florida lost, and the outcome is not free of consequence. The loss shrinks UF’s margins and forces the Gators to take care of business against South Carolina and Missouri. Yet, the quality of the offense and the performance of Kyle Trask in particular give Dan Mullen legitimate reason for optimism when the Gators meet Georgia.

The SEC East title seems more attainable, not less. If a loss can do that, it is clear that as long as the Gators keep improving, this season could still be as successful as the Gator Nation hoped back in late August.

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