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 QB Trask shows more growth in key win Saturday
It was messy. It wasn’t the immaculate performance Kyle Trask delivered for the first two and a half quarters against LSU the week before.
This game against South Carolina on Saturday felt like a return to reality for Trask, who is a capable quarterback but doesn’t have as many tools in the toolbox as the man he replaced, the injured Feleipe Franks.
We have seen many examples over the years of college football programs – even those led by elite coaches – not picking the right quarterback for opening day of the season. These programs and coaches stumbled onto the superior quarterback after benching the Day 1 starter or watching an injury force their hand.
Nick Saban picked Blake Barnett over Jalen Hurts at Alabama a few years ago
Clay Helton of USC picked Max Browne over a man named Sam Darnold.
In 2005, West Virginia started the season with an average quarterback named Adam Bednarik. He got hurt… and Pat White entered to completely change Rich Rodriguez’s career and the direction of the West Virginia program.
Yes, it is sometimes true in college football that the original starting quarterback wasn’t the best quarterback for the team.
It is not true with Florida.
Franks did not play well in this year’s opener against Miami, but Franks – at full health, able to expand the field with his scrambling and give the Gators’ offense more options for moving the ball – still offered more upside than Trask. This is not a criticism of Trask; at the very least, you don’t have to interpret it that way.
One can simply acknowledge that Franks was the starter for a reason. Trask was thrown into a very uncomfortable spot.
He handled it well, but he still had to live with his limitations. So did Florida.
This marked a prefect prelude to Saturday, on the road, in a roaring Williams-Brice Stadium. This was a microcosm of Trask’s 2019 season.
He was thrown into an uncomfortable position. Not everything was working well for him. Yet, his team needed him. He had to somehow find an answer in the midst of a challenging situation.
Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, facing third-down pressure against an upset-minded opponent, what would Trask do? How would he respond?
The answer could not have been better for him, Dan Mullen, or the Gators.
Trask threw strikes in the fourth quarter. He threw them on the equivalent of a 3-2 count with runners in scoring position and two out… after racking up a high pitch count and having hitters work counts against him all game long.
Trask made so many bad reads through the first three quarters of this game. Dan Mullen was barking at him. The Gators’ offense sputtered against an in-form South Carolina defense which had made winning plays against Georgia and was rightly feeling confident that it could make those same plays one week later versus Florida.
The challenge wasn’t simply for Trask to play better; it was to block out the negativity from the first three quarters and provide the calm leadership of a team in dire need of stability.
Trask obviously needed to improve his reads and responses, but just as important was the need to provide a strong presence which would radiate through the huddle, anchoring Florida in a time of trial.
Trask answered the bell. It was in many ways a better outcome for Florida than if everything had gone swimmingly from opening kickoff to final gun.
THIS kind of win, not a drama-free joyride, truly prepares the Gators for the “Cocktail Party” against Georgia.
THAT is the game in which a smooth ride would be greatly appreciated by Gator fans… but they needed a triumph over difficult circumstances first.
They got it on Saturday. Kyle Trask conquered his doubts and his flaws, not just the Gamecocks.
Gators latest reunion with Muschamp defining one
The one time the Florida Gators maxed out on the gridiron this decade did not come from Urban Meyer in the 2010 season, his last in Gainesville.
It did not come from Jim McElwain, despite the fact that Mac is the only UF coach this decade to win the SEC East.
It did not come from Dan Mullen, even though Florida’s only New Year’s Six bowl win this decade (formerly known as a BCS bowl) was produced by Mullen last season against Michigan.
No, the best Florida football season this decade was authored by Will Muschamp, the man the Gators will face on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.
Yes, it is true that Muschamp’s tenure at Florida was generally a failure because of the rock-bottom nature of his other three seasons on the job. Yet, in 2012, everything fell into place for Muschamp. He not only crafted an 11-1 regular season which was accompanied by a top-five finish in the pre-bowl polls; he won in a manner Will Muschamp likes to win: with defense.
It figures, then, that Muschamp’s biggest win at South Carolina – knocking off No. 3 Georgia, Muschamp’s alma mater, Between the Hedges in Athens – was built by a defense which continued to make one big play after another.
The Gamecocks continued to bother Jake Fromm, and when a Georgia receiver bobbled a pass, South Carolina was there to pluck the interception and change the flow of the game.
It was a Muschamp masterpiece, forged in the face of all sorts of limitations, chiefly the injury to quarterback Ryan Hilinski. South Carolina had to survive on offense, avoiding a huge mistake, and then hope that its defense could continue to stand on its head and carry the team home.
That is exactly what happened.
South Carolina won without scoring a touchdown in overtime. It won in spite of a missed 33-yard field goal which would have won the game. It won despite the offense getting shut out in the second half of regulation.
It was the ugly kind of win which was common for Florida in 2012.
Muschamp is aiming for the best two-week sequence of his tenure as the Gamecocks’ head coach. Beating his alma mater, Georgia, and his former employer, Florida, in consecutive games would give Muschamp a set of memories to last a lifetime.
Winning these two games might also be enough to save his job.
Standing in the way are the Gators, who might be thinking about the plays they didn’t make against LSU, or dreaming about beating Georgia in a few weeks.
Florida can’t worry about what it failed to do, and it can’t win a game which hasn’t yet arrived on the schedule.
This game might define Will Muschamp’s future. It definitely defines Florida’s present-day reality.
The past several Florida teams – mostly under McElwain but also last year under Mullen – were prone to letdowns against one or two beatable teams on the schedule. If Florida is to return to the 2012 heights established by Muschamp, and to the high standard consistently set by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, this is the game Dan Mullen has to win.
Sure, everyone will focus on Georgia, a game whose importance requires no explanation. However, the difference between a decent 9-3 season and an excellent 11-1 season is built not just on beating Georgia, but on winning games such as this one.
Florida’s defense – smoked by Joe Burrow and LSU – now faces a much more manageable opponent when it lines up against the South Carolina offense Some teams are too good. LSU and Burrow are playing at an elite level The Gators just need to tip the cap to the Tigers. It happens.
That loss isn’t a bad loss, but it will be a much bigger problem if the Gators don’t learn from it. This South Carolina game will show of Florida can adjust and mentally reset, or if old demons are still haunting Gator football.
This game is defining for former Florida coach Will Muschamp. It will also define where the Gators stand, how well they carry themselves, and what they are capable of achieving this year.
Miami Dolphins7 days ago
Dolphins coach Flores gained respect going for win Sunday
Florida Gators1 week ago
Recent history shows Saturday will be tough for Gators at LSU
Jacksonville Jaguars1 week ago
Jaguars Fournette leads week six Fantasy Football advice
Jacksonville Jaguars1 week ago
Jaguars owner Khan says he’s met with Jalen Ramsey