Midterm grades: Are Gators better or worse than we expected?
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The defending SEC East champions are in the driver’s seat to get back to the Georgia Dome, but Florida fans probably shouldn’t count on a trip to Atlanta just yet. The Gators are 5-1 overall and 3-1 through their first four conference games, but those three wins have come against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Missouri, none of which played a bowl game last year and might not this year.
The loss came to Tennessee, which is 2-2 after playing UF, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. With UT holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Gators have no room for error against a much more difficult second-half conference slate of Georgia, at Arkansas, South Carolina and at LSU before finishing the regular season at FSU.
The Vols, meanwhile, will likely cruise through their remaining conference schedule of South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
The Gators are on top of the SEC East, but are they performing better or worse than preseason expectations?
With a quarterback roster of transfers (Luke Del Rio, Austin Appleby) and freshmen (Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask), not many people were expecting the offense to look as productive as it did last season with Will Grier as the starter, but most expected an upgrade over the frustratingly poor product on the field for the final eight games of the season with Treon Harris as the starting signal-caller.
The running back by committee approach likely won’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher, but the Gators are on pace to top 2,000 yards rushing after gaining just 1,777 in 14 games last season.
The 2016 offense has definitely met the expectation of somewhere in between the two versions of the 2015 offense. This year’s squad hasn’t demonstrated the ability to drive down the field and score when it must. On the same token, it doesn’t look as helpless as the Harris offense.
Florida’s SEC rank in the major offensive categories are: No. 7 (total offense), No. 5 (passing offense), No. 8 (rushing offense), No. 8 (scoring offense). That’s solidly middle of the pack, albeit against the weaker half of the schedule.
Regardless of turnover to the NFL and graduation, the Florida defense has been expected to be one of the SEC’s best year in, year out. There has only been one exception to UF’s defensive domination in 2016, and that was the second-half collapse at Tennessee, in which the Gators gave up 35 points to fall 38-28.
Cornerback Teez Tabor (above), an expected first-round draft pick, has stressed that the Gators are one of the best teams in the country aside from that one bad half. He and fellow future NFL cornerback Quincy Wilson are helping to drive that point home, especially after the Missouri game, in which each recorded a pick-six. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was the No. 11 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, but the Gators’ secondary hasn’t skipped a beat.
The defensive line has also adjusted well to the loss of starting defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister from last year’s squad. Redshirt freshman DE Jabari Zuniga has emerged a top pass-rusher (5 sacks) this season.
With all the losses to the NFL, this unit has definitely exceeded expectations, being ranked No. 1 in the SEC in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense.
Lamical Perine: With a three-headed monster of running backs (Jordan Cronkrite, Jordan Scarlett and Mark Thompson) already identified in the spring, not much was expected from Perine in the fall. The three-star signee from Theodore, Ala., however, impressed coaches in fall camp so much that the running back rotation added a fourth head. Perine’s 6.3 yards per carry leads all Gators rushers through Week 7.
Tyrie Cleveland: The No. 2 wide receiver of the 2016 class was the team’s top offensive signee and Gators fans were hoping to see an immediate impact on offense. His college career got off on the wrong foot, as he was arrested for firing a BB gun into a campus residence in July. In fall camp he battled hamstring injuries.
Cleveland got his first start against Missouri and showed what the Florida offense can potentially look like with a bona fide exterior threat to complement Antonio Callaway, recording three catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Teez Tabor: The outspoken junior cornerback is off to a strong start (4 INT, 2 TD, 10 tackles, PBU), with coach Jim McElwain attributing the interceptions to Tabor’s dedication to film study and recognizing routes as they develop. For many fans, however, Tabor will need to come up with a big play in a marquee game to redeem himself for losing his footing while covering Tennessee WR Jauan Jennings on the Volunteers’ go-ahead touchdown.
Quincy Wilson: Last year’s No. 3 cornerback on the team behind Tabor and Hargreaves was a household name for many Florida fans, but hardly known by the rest of the SEC. Everyone knows Wilson’s name now, as NFL scouts are calling him the best cornerback on the Gators, and possibly in the country.
Wilson and Tabor remain in friendly competition to see who can snag more interceptions. In three games – Kentucky, Tennessee and Mizzou – they have each made a pick, with a Tabor interception at Vanderbilt the difference right now.
Jarrad Davis – The side-to-sideline linebacker has led the Gators defense with 48 tackles on the year. Unfortunately, he’s out indefinitely with a “bad ankle sprain” per UF.
Antonio Callaway – Callaway has been a reliable No. 1 receiver for the Gators, averaging 79.8 yards per game, but he’s failed to bring anything to the punt return game like he did a year ago.
In terms of record and statistics, the Gators are on pace for a season that meets or exceeds most expectations, but the competition is about to get a lot more difficult. How the Gators have gone about getting to 5-1 could be viewed as disappointing.
Two of the bigger wins of the season, Kentucky and Missouri, came despite major issues with Del Rio in the passing game. The 13-6 victory at Vanderbilt featured the worst offensive performance of the season.
Right now, the Gators are on track with most preseason expectations that fell in the range of 7-5 to 9-3. They lost the only game they were expected to lose so far (adjusting for the LSU scratch), though the nature of the loss makes it hard to stomach.