Florida gets ready for an SEC showdown at home with Tennessee Saturday. And, let’s start with a dose of bitter-tasting realism, but then move to a note of hopeful optimism.
The bitterly realistic outlook for the Gators is that, when Feleipe Franks went down with a season-ending injury against the Kentucky Wildcats, Florida’s hopes of being a genuine challenger to the Georgia Bulldogs were greatly diminished. It is hard to get around that point.
Franks’s mobility gave Florida’s offense an extra dimension which is generally needed to win high-level games against formidable opposition. No, Franks was not playing well at the time of his injury, but his presence on the field – combined with the chance that he would evolve in the first half of the season before finding his groove in the second half of the campaign – gave the Gators and Dan Mullen a legitimate belief that this season could become everything Gator Nation hoped it would be.
Now, those high-end hopes are hard to sustain. Being on the same level of Georgia just doesn’t seem like a legitimate aspiration.
That is the bitter realism.
Now, let’s shift to the hopeful and optimistic part of the program.
All while Florida’s offense and its ceiling have been the primary focal points of the 2019 discussion surrounding the Gators, it has to be noted that the defense has been very uneven as well.
Florida couldn’t tackle in Week 1 – neither could Miami, but that’s for the Hurricanes to sort out.
Florida made a backup quarterback, Kentucky’s Sawyer Smith, look very good for most of last weekend’s game in Lexington. Florida had no answers for Kentucky receiver Ahmad Wagner.
Pass interference penalties have been a recurring problem this year for the Gators, whose secondary has become a primary problem, a source of both instability and constant guessing from a coaching staff which is trying different combinations of players.
As much as the Franks injury has hurt this team, the Gators do have a path to improvement, a path which could make them more competitive and dramatically increase their upside: The secondary can get its act together.
Quarterbacks – often in relationship with their receivers – frequently need time to develop as a season moves along. September can be a choppy and uneven month for quarterbacks, as Franks himself showed. Yet, let’s not be trapped into thinking this is only an offensive problem. Defenses can also spend September slogging through difficult periods.
Had Kentucky made a medium-length field goal in the final minute of Saturday’s game in the bluegrass, Florida would have paid a real price for the sins of its secondary, but the Gators got away with their deficiencies. Florida hasn’t yet learned the hard way that in a pass-first sport – with more pass-first teams, including the 2019 SEC, where LSU and Alabama are gunning instead of running – the secondary is primary.
If Florida can develop and evolve on the back line of its defense – not only cultivating better instincts and in-game responses, but also finding the rotations of players with the appropriately balanced snap counts to give every player the proper workload, relative to his abilities – the Gators can develop a cutthroat defense.
The ceiling might have been lowered for the offense without Feleipe Franks, but the ceiling is high for the defense because of all the untapped potential waiting to be developed in the secondary.
Florida isn’t going to fulfill all its dreams and ambitions with 35-31 games this year. The Gators need to take the 17-10 path instead.
Starting on Saturday against Tennessee – a highly vulnerable offense – we will see if the Gators can chomp down on opposing passing games and concede nothing. That is the new path Florida must take if this season is to come close to fulfilling its hopes and dreams.
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.
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