The good news: Florida beat Tennessee and Mississippi State looked quite vulnerable against Kentucky.
The bad news: Tennessee is horrible and Mississippi State is now mad.
The Bulldogs are determined not to play two bad games in a row, and they’re at home, waiting in Starkville for Dan Mullen to return as the coach of a different team.
Does Florida’s new coach face a tough test against his former school and the quarterback — Nick Fitzgerald — he coached the past few seasons? Yes it does… but the Gators can’t worry about those outside details. They can’t worry about the storylines or distractions.
They need to worry about getting better. They need to worry about their place in the SEC and how to build it up sooner rather than later. No, Florida can’t expect a rapid rise to the very top tier of the league this season — not with Alabama and Georgia ruling the roost with a pronounced look of superiority — but the Gators have adjusted their outlook after blasting the Volunteers into oblivion this past weekend.
Florida should no longer be concerned with its ability to avoid the basement of the SEC. That was the big fear after Kentucky outslugged the Gators in the trenches a few weeks ago. That fear can fade away, and sights can be set higher — not to the top of the conference, at least not in 2018, but to the second tier behind the Tide, the Dawgs, and LSU and/or Auburn.
“The No. 5 team in the SEC!” That’s not what players come to Florida to play for. It’s not what fans expect out of the Gators. It’s not why Mullen left Mississippi State to coach again in Gainesville, where he helped Urban Meyer win multiple national titles and guided Tim Tebow to a Heisman Trophy. Yet, in 2018, that seems to be Florida’s realistic ceiling. It’s a lot better than ninth or tenth place in a 14-team league, but it’s not the sum of Mullen’s ambitions.
This year, however, Mullen is running smack-dab into the limits of a first season and a flawed situation left behind by his predecessor, Jim McElwain. Mullen knows what this is like — not just from his days at Mississippi State, but from his previous go-round at Florida under Urban. Mullen had to endure the 2005 season before he could mold Chris Leak into a good-enough quarterback who got out of the way of the defense in the 2006 national title season at UF. Mullen also knows what it is like to remake a program from his stint with Urban at Utah.
That, like Florida, was a situation in which a first season of adjustments was followed by a second year that exceeded all expectations. Meyer gets due credit for being able to engineer these “two-year fixes” at various programs, but Mullen certainly helped him. That’s what Florida’s coach can realistically aspire to do: Set down the foundation this year and dream big for 2019, aiming to restore Florida where he and its fans expect the program to reside.
In 2018, though, expectations have to be more modest.
This Saturday’s game against his former school is important for Mullen not because of any championship hopes — there are none if we are being honest. It is important for Mullen because it gives Florida a chance to reach the top of the SEC’s second tier below the big boys. It is also important because of the pride a coach takes in being able to beat a former employer.
MSU and Florida are both SEC schools, but they hardly stand on the same plane in terms of national stature, resources, and historic achievements over the past 30 years. Mullen needs the SEC to know that at the school with more of a football pedigree, he can beat the smaller school he took to the Orange Bowl and an in-season No. 1 national ranking four years ago.
If his Mississippi State successor, Joe Moorhead, badly outmaneuvers him in Week 5 on Saturday evening, the grumbling inside the Florida program which was so abruptly silenced during the Tennessee game will come bubbling back to the surface. If Florida plays valiantly and loses a narrow decision to MSU in a well-played game, Florida fans won’t exactly do cartwheels, but they will know that the progress and evolution witnessed in the Tennessee game carried over to the next week. If Florida can play well and win, however, the idea that this program is on the way back to relevance will pick up steam.
That phrase — “pick up steam” — is what Mullen can badly use in the court of public perception, because it is in that realm where Mullen can change the tenor of the conversations he and his staff will have on the recruiting trail, which is where the Florida coach has to drastically improve the outlook for his program in the next cycle. Florida-MSU isn’t just a sweet, honey-soaked nostalgic bath for Mullen, who did a lot of good work at his former employer; this is a game in which Florida can show that, yes, it is more than just the beneficiary of Tennessee’s manifold weaknesses. This is a group of Gators which can stack good SEC performances on top of each other.
This is a program which is beginning to rediscover the right formula Those are the headlines and talking points Mullen wants to carry out of this trip to Starkville. Losing won’t crush his ambitions and prospects, but winning will breathe a lot more oxygen into the Gators’ renewal effort. This isn’t a game which means everything — that would be hyperbolic — but it has the potential to advance Mullen’s Florida restoration project on many levels. It’s more than just a reunion with his former school.
One historical note is warranted when referencing Florida and Mississippi State: Before Steve Spurrier changed everything in the 1990s, Florida — as was well known throughout the college football industry — was the sleeping giant waiting to be awakened by the right coach. In the early 1980s, when UF was still trying to gain traction, Mississippi State had one of the more innovative coaches in college football. Emory Bellard didn’t field a large number of great teams at MSU, but he did put together two exceptionally good seasons for the title-starved Bulldogs in 1980 and 1981. MSU defeated big, bad Alabama in the 1980 season. It played Tom Osborne and Nebraska in the 1980 Sun Bowl. Bellard was a clever coach who pieced together a solid and important career. He was the developer of the wishbone offense who left behind a noticeable legacy in his sport.
The limitation of Bellard’s career, though, is that while he worked under Darrell Royal at Texas in the late 1960s and coached at Texas A&M in the 1970s, he didn’t make the jump to an elite program. Mullen, who was conspicuously creative with Tim Tebow in the final years of his first coaching tenure at Florida, has reached the top-tier job Bellard never received as a head coach. Mullen is not the hammer-and-nails preacher of toughness in the SEC — that’s Nick Saban’s music and Kirby Smart’s song. Mullen is not the charm-your-shoes-off recruiter Ed Orgeron is at LSU. Mullen is the guy whose X-and-O acumen is supposed to give his team — with apologies to Charlie Weis — a “decided schematic advantage.”
The meeting with Mississippi State is significant for reasons already mentioned, but it is also symbolically potent because Joe Moorhead is a coach cut from cloth similar to Mullen’s. Moorhead gave James Franklin the chalkboard wisdom and agility Penn State had been lacking. Trace McSorley went from a barely-known quarterback to a college football star. Saquon Barkley was always known as an exceptionally talented running back, but once Moorhead got hold of the Penn State offense, his gifts were maximized. Barkley dazzled the college football world in both 2016 and 2017. When Moorhead matches wits with Mullen, Penn State will play Ohio State in the Big Ten game of the year… a game made possible in part by Moorhead himself.
Mullen, therefore, is up against another SEC head coach who is in his first year at a program, with the mandate to win games because he is smarter than the other coaches in the room. Mullen will look across the field and see a version of himself. Beating Moorhead won’t merely give Florida hope of being the fifth-best team in the SEC by season’s end. It won’t just improve public perception or sustain momentum in the program. A win on Saturday will mark Mullen as the head coach poised to become the best offensive brain in the conference, the man who can — in due time — match wits with the Smarts and Sabans of the world and win his share of battles. Doing so would eventually mean that Florida will have returned to the mountaintop.
The climb is steep right now, and should Florida lose to MSU on Saturday, please don’t push the panic button unless the game becomes unexpectedly awful… but if Florida wins, Dan Mullen would move up the SEC ladder on so many levels.
This game is about so much more than winning the “Dan Mullen Bowl” against his former school.
Gators struggle early-survive Saturday in Nashville
The Gators can’t say they weren’t warned.
A young team with an unproven quarterback had just scored the biggest victory of its season against a top-10 opponent. The misery of early September had been washed away by a series of steadily better and more encouraging performances. The Gators grew and developed, just as any fan would hope for in a transitional season under a first-year head coach. No one expected all the pieces to perfectly fit together, but Florida gradually assembled the puzzle and solved several of its biggest problems.
The next step for a team which evolves from chaos into continuity: Maintaining that evolutionary process instead of stopping to rest and think it has it all figured out. Weeks 1 through 6 of the college football season brought the Gators to a much better place, but with a month and a half left in the journey, Florida needed to realize the race — entering its daunting middle stages — was only beginning to take on added textures and tones.
Every challenge surrounding a young football team was neatly crystallized — or not-so-neatly, as it were — in Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Florida team which had begun to figure out how it wanted to play; the Florida team which had begun to establish and cement the template for the rest of the season; the Florida team which had begun to breathe in the intoxicating aroma of success, and all the temptations that go with prosperity, had to develop tunnel vision and not rest on recent achievements. Playing a late-morning game in a half-filled stadium against a reeling Vanderbilt side, Florida had to shove complacency and human nature into a dungeon, lock the door, and move on.
That proved to be a huge challenge… and not unexpectedly, either.
Believing you are better than you actually are — in that first moment when a team tastes considerable success — is not an easy thing to confront. Young teams and imperfect teams inevitably have to go through the process of playing a game (or many games) in the face of that complacency before they learn how to master and subdue that inclination.
This game against Vanderbilt was a maiden voyage for the 2018 iteration of the Gators. Without question, this experience will do UF a lot of good in 2019, but the more immediate question emerged as Florida sleepwalked through most of the first half in Nashville: Could this 2018 team, warts and all, find the clarity to dig its way out of trouble?
The answer: Yes… and in the way which has defined the Gators in their upward climb this season.
The central characteristic of the Vanderbilt team which limped into Week 7 is that it had been punched in the mouth, outworked and outplayed by two SEC opponents… and Tennessee State. Vanderbilt had conclusively shown that it could not handle a street fight.
In the first half, Vanderbilt threw and landed the punches, en route to a 21-3 lead.
Would the Gators get off the canvas?
Would they immediately show they could take several body blows?
The eruption of tempers among various players and coaches from both teams late in the first half could have cut in either direction. It could have become an indication of how unfocused and unprepared this team was… or it could have become the application of smelling salts the Gators needed.
Safe to say, they woke the heck up.
The Florida offensive line, which has to flex its muscles in order to minimize and guard against Feleipe Franks’ limitations as a passer, began to roll up its sleeves. The concept of physically dominating an opponent is not hard to grasp, but doing it is the hard part, especially after a first half which sent frustrations past the boiling point.
Florida was tested — physically, emotionally, and situationally — on Saturday in Nashville. The Gators were far from perfect, just as they have been all season… and will continue to be.
That is what they are: very flawed, and unlikely to become a great team by the end of November.
What they also are, however, is a team that is winning more than most people expected at the start of this season, especially after the Kentucky game.
Four wins in a row in the SEC is nothing to disregard.
These Gators don’t play beautiful football… but what they lack in aesthetics is more than made up for in the intangible realm.
Gators trip to Vandy starts our Saturday college primer
It’s the second Saturday in October and the games in conference play start to heat up for state schools. Leading of our primer, USF has already won dramatically on Friday night 25-24 over Tulsa in the final seconds. And Florida State has the bye week off their heart breaking 28-27 loss to Miami and now, dealing with the aftermath and cleanup after Hurricane Michael slammed the Panhandle Wednesday.
Still the games will go on an for all three state school teams in action Saturday, they are on the road. So, here here we go in order:
Gators at Vanderbilt
It’s an early kickoff in Nashville for Florida off an emotional hard fought SEC win over newly formed rival LSU last Saturday in the Swamp. The Gators defense locked the Tigers (above) led by linebacker Vosean Joseph’s 14 tackles and two sacks. Florida had three takeaways, including a pick six in the final two minutes that sealed the deal.
Now, off three straight SEC wins, will the Gators stumble against a mediocre Vanderbilt team with an 11 a.m. local kickoff in Nashville?
It would be a third straight SEC road win, if coach Dan Mullen’s team can get it.
UCF at Memphis
In what is sure to be a wild, high-scoring affair, UCF is the “River City” of Memphis, TN, for their second road game of the year (they had one with UNC wiped out by Hurricane Florence in September).
And this is big one.
The unbeaten Knights have risen to #10 in the AP Poll and are on an 18 game win streak. Led by all everything QB McKenzie Milton, UCF goes for yet another win over the Tigers. They bombed Memphis is in the regular season meeting in Orlando and then, won a cliffhanger 62-55 double OT game for the American Conference Title in December and a perfect regular season at 12-0.
Will Memphis, a team that stumbled two weeks ago at Tulane, be able to score with the Knights? Will UCF turn the ball over and make it easier for them? Will UCF run away with this one and flex their muscle, again?
Miami at Virginia
As already written above, the Canes stormed back to beat rival FSU 28-27 a week ago and keep themselves unbeaten in the ACC. Now, they travel to a placed that has haunted them recently, Charlottesville, VA. The Cavaliers have won the last three meetings at home over Miami.
Will red-shirt freshman N’Kosi Perry improve on his overall play this week? Although he threw three TD passes in the second half of the comeback over the Noles, he was shaky for the first 2 1/2 quarters of the game, as Miami fell behind.
If the Cavaliers have a play maker it’s receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who has over 2,000 receiving and over 500 yards rushing in his career.
Miami hopes to continue to bring out the vaunted “Turnover Chain” again and again. They have 14 of them now in six games.
Guess who moved up on our Power Rankings?
We roll out our latest edition of our Power Rankings. And yes, there is definitely a college based theme:
5. Jacksonville Jaguars- The Jags are here mostly due to the fact the Bucs were on BYE, and the Dolphins fell to Cincinnati. FAU and FIU haven’t done enough in the conference USA yet either. The Jags had a rough trip to Kansas City suffering their worse loss of the year. The Chiefs came into the game with a defense that was known to be the weak point of the team. They took that to heart and forced five turnovers. Since the impressive win vs. the Patriots, they have had bad games against Tennessee and Kansas City, and a thumping of the Jets. The Jags look to get back into the win column against the average Cowboys offense.
4. USF Bulls- Jordan Cronkrite ran for 302 yards, and three touchdowns and South Florida improved to 5-0 for the second straight season by beating UMass 58-42. The performance earned the former Gator the AAC player of the week. This was the third game in a row Cronkrite has surpassed 100 yards. Barnett finished 17 for 24 for 209 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He once again didn’t have to do much with the ground game on point. The Bulls will be in action again Friday night against Tulsa on national television.
3. Miami Hurricanes- The Hurricanes drop a spot after they sure made last week interesting last week. They were close to letting FSU and Willie Taggart get his first signature win. Instead, the Canes found their mojo and broke out the turnover chain a few times, followed by 21 unanswered points, and all was well in the Hard Rock. N’Kosi Perry threw four touchdown passes and bounced back from early game struggles. The Hurricanes hadn’t beaten Florida State in consecutive seasons since 2003 and 2004, and still control their destiny in the ACC Coastal. They will take on the Virginia Cavaliers Saturday.
2. Florida Gators- Are the Gators back? Tim Tebow delivered a pre-game speech, so they must be right? They sure looked the part after defeating the LSU Tigers and we’ve moved them up. The defense continued to flex its muscles holding the Tigers to less than 200 yards passing. Lamical Perine was able to grind for 85 yards and two scores, and it was just enough for the Gators to win. Up next is a trip to Nashville against Vanderbilt a program they have struggled with in the past.
1. UCF Knights- Another week another game on the Knights roll. This is just becoming a regular thing like drinking water it seems. McKenzie Milton threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, Adrian Killins rushed for 113 yards and a TD for the Knights in their win over SMU. The Knights got some help with a few top 10 losses and find themselves inside of it now. The question is: if the Knights continue to roll the way they are, can they crash the playoff party? UCF takes on Memphis in an AAC title rematch that will air on ABC at 3:30.
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