The Florida Gators know they have to confront their limitations this Saturday when they visit the LSU Tigers.
The question is: How?
How will Florida and Dan Mullen choose to face their weaknesses?
There is no “right” answer – not in a game in which Florida is a 12-point underdog. Florida is playing with house money in this game and is not expected by anyone across the country (outside of Gainesville, at least) to beat the Tigers.
It is true that Florida fans who are at least 30 years old will recall the 2003 game, in which a Ron Zook team stunned the eventual national champions from LSU, 19-7. That result came from nowhere, and if Florida wins this coming Saturday, the outcome will represent a similar ambush.
Maybe Florida can do the unthinkable… but it shouldn’t be expected.
Insisting that Mullen has to take one particular path against LSU seems unreasonable.
This is a game in which Mullen could legitimately eat a blowout loss with a longer-term goal in mind. Mullen could sacrifice this game in service of the more important Georgia game a few weeks later.
If Mullen did that, would it be a wrongheaded approach? I don’t think so… but let’s briefly explain what it means for Mullen to give up this game in pursuit of the Georgia game or other goals in the second half of the 2019 season.
Last weekend against Auburn, Florida and Mullen used a lot of slow-developing pass plays in which quarterback Kyle Trask held the ball for a long time. These plays led to turnovers and other highly negative outcomes.
These plays were frustrating for Gator fans because UF’s defense was smothering Auburn’s offense. It was clear that Florida’s path to victory was rooted in relying on its defense and not making big mistakes on offense. Therefore, any offensive play which took a risk or put Trask in a bad position was a bad call.
Fortunately, Mullen got away with those plays. He also got away with not preparing Trask for the task at hand.
Against LSU, though, the calculus is different.
LSU’s offense is not Auburn’s. LSU has an elite offense which presents a completely different challenge for Florida’s defense and will probably force the Gators to take more chances on offense.
Florida would love to contain LSU’s offense if it can, but the task is not nearly as realistic as it was against Auburn. Chances are the Gators will have to be a lot more explosive on offense to win.
This means that in order to hit big pass plays, Trask will have to hold onto the ball for longer periods of time. You will certainly see a lot of short passes from the Gators, but they will have to hit several downfield strikes if they want a realistic chance of winning.
So: Does Mullen force Trask to make low-margin plays in which he holds the ball too long? It is not a plan LIKELY to deliver a good result, but it might be the path Florida has to take if it wants any shot at winning.
This touches on a familiar tension point football coaches face in their line of work: “Do I want to keep the score close and respectable, but almost surely lose, or do I want to go for the victory, knowing that failure could result in a blowout loss?”
Mullen needs to answer that question one way or the other.
If he puts Trask in difficult or inconvenient positions, in pursuit of the big pass play, he is risking big with the hope of winning… but in ways which will probably lead to a struggle-bus performance and a decisive loss.
The sting of a blowout loss might be considerable in the short run, but by forcing Trask to do things he might not be ready to do at this stage in his evolution (and in his current physical condition), Mullen could absorb short-term pain in exchange for the possibility that Trask might be a much more prepared signal-caller by the time the Georgia game arrives.
This is how Mullen can trade the present moment for the future.
This is, however, not a path Mullen must follow.
This is the other path: Mullen could try to slow the game down and do his best to shield Trask from a high-workload, high-responsibility challenge.
Mullen could try to eschew long passes or adventurous plays of any kind. He could keep his offense very simple, emphasizing the run and draining the play clock to one on every running-clock snap to shorten the game and control the ball.
This approach would not empower Trask as a quarterback. It would make him work within a more contained structure which would sacrifice not the present moment, but future development. It would be the path which tries to defeat LSU in particular by keeping the ball from the Tigers.
Does Florida want to lose 24-7, or does it want to pursue victory knowing that the attempt could blow up in UF’s face and lead to a 49-10 drubbing?
Does Florida want to go into a protective shell against a superpowered LSU offense it has to keep off the field, or do the Gators want to let it ride in a context which suggests that they probably won’t be able to implement a daring game plan… but will likely have to if they want to win?
There is no right answer, but Mullen faces a choice between those two fundamental paths heading into Saturday.
Gators to Orange Bowl leads Florida schools-bowl games
The bowl lineup is set. Six teams from the state of Florida will play in bowl games in the 2019-2020 bowl season. All six games will be played in 2019 None of the bowls will be in January of 2020.
The two big storylines to emerge from the bowl games involving Sunshine State schools are as follows:
First, Florida got a bad matchup in the “New Year’s Six.”
The Gators always knew they would get an NY6 ticket; the question was: their destination and opponent? Memphis, in the Cotton Bowl would have been a tougher game for Gator fans to attend, but it would have been a lot more interesting.
This game, in the Orange Bowl against Virginia is a lot closer to home, but it comes against a four-loss Virginia Cavaliers team which did not win its conference and lost its conference title game by 45 points (62-17 to Clemson).
This is the kind of bowl game which is more of a burden than an opportunity It’s all gravy for Virginia, which is making a rare appearance in a New Year’s Six game. This is the biggest bowl stage for UVA since the 1991 Sugar Bowl against Tennessee.
This is a huge deal for the Hoos, who will be playing with house money and a lot to prove after getting kicked in the teeth by Clemson on national television.
For Florida, however, the Orange Bowl is a game the Gators MUST win. If they don’t, it’s a heaping platter of humiliation served fresh, just before the new year arrives. The Gators would trudge into a miserable offseason if they lose to Virginia. It’s all pressure, low upside, for UF, in marked contrast to last year’s game against Michigan, which boosted spirits in the offseason and spring ball.
The second main story of the Florida-based bowl schools: Florida Atlantic got the best game.
The Owls were rewarded for their Conference USA Championship, even though coach Lane Kiffin left for Ole Miss, and was given a date with the 10-2 SMU Mustangs in the Boca Raton Bowl. The game will be on ABC on a Saturday afternoon. (The full schedule is listed below.) That is a great showcase for the FAU program, and the Owls won’t have to travel, either. What a great arrangement!
Most of the other Florida schools can’t be too happy about one or more aspects of their bowl schedule. Florida International is happy to go to any bowl, so Arkansas State in the Camellia is perfectly fine. The other Florida schools, though, have reason to complain.
UCF got dumped with Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl, a pre-Christmas game played in Tampa on a Monday afternoon. UCF won’t get to test itself against an SEC team or any Power Five conference team this year. UCF wasn’t 6-6 or 7-5; it was 9-3. This is a letdown for Josh Heupel’s team.
Miami gets the dreaded Shreveport location, symbolic of the most out-of-the-way, off-the-radar bowl possible. Worse, Miami plays Louisiana Tech, which will have a big crowd for the Independence Bowl.
Florida State did get a relatively decent opponent, Arizona State, but the Seminoles and their fans will have to travel all the way to El Paso for the Sun Bowl. That’s a rough holiday commute for anyone who wants to make it
Florida Atlantic: vs. SMU, Boca Raton Bowl – Saturday, Dec. 21 on ABC, 3:30 Eastern
Florida International: vs. Arkansas, Camellia Bowl – Saturday, Dec. 21 on ESPN, 5:30 Eastern
UCF: vs. Marshall, Gasparilla Bowl – Monday, Dec. 23 on ESPN, 2:30 Eastern
Miami: vs. Louisiana Tech, Independence Bowl – Thursday, Dec. 26 on ESPN, 4 Eastern
Florida: vs. Virginia, Orange Bowl – Monday, Dec. 30 on ESPN, 8 Eastern
Florida State: vs. Arizona State, Sun Bowl – Tuesday, Dec. 31 on CBS, 2:15 Eastern
Gators strong finish Saturday keeps them atop our rankings
The college football regular season came to an end last week. For some, it was great, and for others, it was horrible. The Gators and UCF rolled to victories over their rivals. FIU continued their winning ways, while their rival FAU clinched the C-USA East and will be hosting the title game.
The Noles got beat down, while their other rival Miami fell flat on their face for the second week in a row. In the NFL, the Bucs were on their way too embarrassing the Jaguars before a QB change softened the blow, while the Dolphins pulled one of the stunners of the NFL season.
With all of these games to unpack, this is how the top 5 looks heading in conference championship week and week 14 of the NFL:
Florida Gators- The Gators have been the most consistent team in the state, both college, and pro. Their only two losses are against the two teams playing for the SEC Championship Game (LSU and Georgia), and both of those teams can still make the playoff.
Florida had their way with Florida State all night Saturday. Taking advantage of missed tackles and a shaky secondary, Kyle Trask threw three touchdown passes. Florida State couldn’t do anything on offense aside from the opening drive, and a long Cam Akers second-half run. The 10-2 Gators will now wait to see where they are sent for a bowl game. They have an outside shot at a “New Year’s Six” game, but even if they fail to gain entry, an 11-win season is still a great one.
FAU Owls- It was simple for FAU: win, and you’re in. They answered the call by beating Southern Miss in the season finale, and now they are C-USA East champions. QB Chris Robinson connected with tight end Harrison Bryant for all three of his touchdowns passes in the 34-17 win. The Owl defense forced five turnovers on the way to the victory.
Next, the Owls will host West champ, UAB Saturday afternoon to decide who will win the Conference outright.
UCF Knights- The Knights ended their regular season by rolling over USF and ending the Charlie Strong era. Dillon Gabriel had 270 yards passing and two touchdowns, and WR Gabe Davis went over 100 yards again, catching both touchdowns. The Knights won’t be heading to the AAC title game or a New Years’ Six bowl game. A 10th win in the bowl, though, is still a good season for the Knights.
A consolation prize for them would be to draw either FSU or Miami in a bowl game for a shot at an in-state power five schools.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- For the second week in a row, the Bucs came away victorious and both road wins were highlighted by excellent defense. They were able to knock Nick Foles out of the game at halftime for poor performance. Foles had just 93 yards passing, an interception and two fumbles.
On offense, the Bucs didn’t have to do much, as Jameis Winston had no touchdowns and no interceptions. Peyton Barber was the running back who was hot, scoring twice one from 15 yards and the other a goal-line touch. The Bucs will look to make it three wins in a row and a home win this week against the Colts.
Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins, yes, the Dolphins, are in our rankings, as they pulled off one of the upsets of the season, defeating the Eagles 37-31.
Devante Parker had an explosive 159 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick had 365 yards and three touchdowns.
The craziest play, however, came on fourth and goal when punter Matt Haack rolled left and shuffle passed the ball past three eagle defenders to kicker Jason Sanders.
The win puts the Dolphins at three wins, and they have three more winnable games coming up. Once looking like the sure-fire choice for the first pick, the Dolphins are sliding down the draft board towards the 3-6 range.