A telling 3 weeks await Florida in Year 3 of the Dan Mullen era
I wish I could peak into the crystal ball and look 3 weeks ahead.
No, I wouldn’t use that for lottery numbers or gambling. Honestly. I’d instead use it to see what awaits Florida.
As we know, a lot can change in 3 weeks. When the Gators take the field Saturday against Mizzou, it will have been 3 weeks since they last played a game. The last time Florida stepped off the field, Tennessee was an undefeated team with the nation’s longest active winning streak among Power 5 teams.
Again, a lot can change in 3 weeks.
That’s especially true given what we think we know about Florida, and what we have yet to figure out. We think that Dan Mullen’s offense is explosive. It’s clearly the closest thing we’ve seen to an Urban Meyer-Florida offense since Urban Meyer-Florida offenses were no more. We also think that Florida’s defense is clearly in need of improvement, and it played a major part in the loss to Texas A&M.
What we don’t know about Florida is pretty simple — what will this 3-week stretch look like after this prolonged COVID-related break?
You’ll notice that I said 3-week stretch, not a 2-week stretch. I’m referring to upcoming games against Mizzou, Georgia and Arkansas. That’s right. Arkansas, AKA the team that should be 3-1 right now with a certain Feleipe Franks at quarterback, is worth including in that important 3-game stretch. More on that later.
Let’s start with this Saturday with a Mizzou program that is 4-4 against Florida since joining the SEC. Perhaps more important, it’s a Mizzou team that is fresh off outright wins in consecutive games as an underdog. Eli Drinkwitz did that with 2 vastly different offensive strategies, too. It’s not coach-speak to say that the Tigers are more than capable of hanging with Florida.
How does Florida respond to this atypical layoff? Sure, a night game at The Swamp won’t be a sleepy atmosphere even with a limited capacity crowd, but the Gators shut down the facilities for nearly 2 weeks. Will Florida be physically ready after it dealt with an outbreak within the program? And what about Mullen? Assuming he’s on the sidelines on Saturday after testing positive for COVID, what will his scripted plays look like?
Those are unknowns, though perhaps the more pressing issue for Florida fans is what this defense looks like following its poor start to the season. Todd Grantham had a chance to hit the reset button. That means finding new ways to get his pass-rushers involved and simplifying coverages so that pass-catchers aren’t running free at the second level. Ask LSU about that formula against Mizzou. It doesn’t work.
Ah, and obviously there’s the whole “has Florida figured out how to tackle yet” cloud that hangs over a program who allowed an alarming 164 rushing yards per contest in its first 3 games.
ISAIAH SPILLER COULD NOT BE TACKLED 😤 pic.twitter.com/sVyN0hAq1q
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 10, 2020
Mizzou ran the ball 62 times and it held the ball for 43 minutes against Kentucky. Drinkwitz has no problem doing that, and he likely will do that if it means keeping Florida’s offense off the field.
Everything we see from Florida against Mizzou will shape perception heading into Georgia. Lay an egg or barely survive against the Tigers and it’ll be “the Gators don’t have a chance against Georgia.” I’d argue that no matter what happens against Mizzou, Florida’s offense against Georgia’s defense is the No. 2 matchup of the year in the SEC (No. 1 was Alabama’s offense vs. Georgia’s defense).
But who are we kidding. It’ll be all about the defense then, too. It won’t be lost on Florida fans that Georgia converted 20-of-32 attempts on 3rd down the last 2 years. Even in non-Georgia games, “Third and Grantham” hasn’t exactly been a positive thing in 2020 yet. The Gators allowed opponents to convert 59% of 3rd downs, which ranks No. 99 of 101 FBS teams. Woof.
Don’t be surprised if these next 3 weeks determine whether Grantham gets a Year 4 in Gainesville. Of course, one could’ve assumed that the Georgia game would determine Grantham’s future. That’s reality for a coordinator in this business, especially now that he’s running the No. 68 defense for a team that appeared to have (and could still have) legitimate Playoff aspirations.
If those Playoff aspirations go up in smoke against Georgia for the 3rd consecutive year, yes, it’s safe to say Mullen will have some difficult decisions to make. When you win a pair of New Year’s 6 Bowls in your first 2 years, you don’t have to make a lot of those major personnel moves. But that’s what elite programs do.
Georgia let its offensive coordinator walk each of the last 2 years. Alabama might not have technically “cleaned house” after the blowout loss to Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, but Nick Saban didn’t exactly fight to keep many of those top assistants around. LSU won a New Year’s 6 bowl in 2018 and still revamped its entire offense.
And speaking of revamped, that Arkansas defense is exactly why Mullen would need to consider a coaching change if these next 3 weeks don’t result in a defensive turnaround.
What Barry Odom has done as a defensive coordinator is Broyles Award-worthy. He has walk-ons picking off 3 passes in a game, he has former walk-ons looking like first-team All-SEC guys and he has a defense that’s been ready to roll in every game it played. Compare that to last year when an Arkansas defense with most of the same players was easily the SEC’s worst under John Chavis.
It’s not an excuse to chalk up poor defensive play to an atypical offseason or not having 5-star talent. Arkansas is living proof of that. If the Hogs shut down Florida’s offense, that’ll only make that point more obvious.
(For what it’s worth, I don’t know that anyone is totally shutting down Florida’s offense.)
These next 3 weeks will say a lot about Florida. We’re going to see how it responds after a long layoff, we’re going to see if it can make some necessary adjustments against quality opponents and we’re going to see if it’ll be in for some major personnel changes at season’s end.
These next 3 weeks will shed light on Mullen’s status as one of the elite coaches in this sport, and it’ll determine just how high Florida’s floor is.
Judgment time is coming in Gainesville. The crystal ball will reveal a clear image soon enough.