Florida football: 3 matchups that will define Florida-Arkansas
Fresh off an emotional win over Georgia, the Florida Gators will look to keep their path to the College Football Playoff on the straight and narrow Saturday night when upstart Arkansas visits The Swamp (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game also marks the return of former Gator and now Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks to The Swamp, where he left behind a legacy as a foundational piece of Dan Mullen’s program turnaround. For both Franks and his former teammates, it will be bittersweet but fun to compete against each other.
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman, the leader in the clubhouse for SEC Coach of the Year, will miss the game after contracting COVID-19. Bringing the game full circle, defensive coordinator Barry Odom will be the Razorbacks’ head coach in Pittman’s absence. The last time Odom was a head coach in The Swamp was 2 years ago, when he took Missouri to Gainesville and clobbered Franks and the Gators 38-17. That was Florida’s last loss at home, as the Gators carry an SEC-best 10-game home winning streak into Saturday night’s matchup.
As you’ll see below, this game is rich with storylines, a truly fascinating cross-divisional matchup that ultimately is an unexpected gift from the extended conference-only COVID-19 schedule.
It’s also a dangerous game for the Gators, and not just because Florida’s coming off a huge win over rival Georgia. The Hogs match up well with Florida strength on strength, and the Gators will need to play very well to win.
Here are 3 matchups that will define Saturday night’s game.
Kyle Trask vs. Grant Morgan
Talk about a matchup made in unlikely college football hero heaven.
Trask is the former 2-star recruit and afterthought who burst out of obscurity a season ago and has become a bona fide Heisman candidate as a senior. Forever a backup to Franks, Trask is now the heartbeat of a Florida program that controls its destiny in the SEC East. His mind, and his ability to consistently make the right check and read given down, distance and personnel, is the biggest reason this offense ranks 3rd nationally in success rate and yards per play, 5th in S&P+ offensive efficiency and 4th in yards per pass attempt.
On the other side of the field, there’s Razorbacks linebacker and tackling machine Morgan, who has made the long journey from walk-on special teams player in 2017 to anchor one of the nation’s most opportunistic defenses in 2020. Morgan “makes all of our on-field calls,” according to Odom, and he will have to go personnel grouping for personnel grouping with Florida’s Trask on Saturday night.
Morgan isn’t just a walking brain on the football field, though he certainly is that. He’s also the Hogs’ leading tackler (70), and he’s tied for the team lead in passes defended (4). Morgan has done it playing through a bulky, irritable elbow injury, and he has keyed a defensive revival that has seen the Hogs shut down an explosive Ole Miss offense in a 33-21 win earlier this season. In that game, Morgan checked to a zone coverage before making this play:
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 17, 2020
Morgan’s experience — he has played more than 500 snaps a season for 3 different defensive coordinators — has been invaluable to the Hogs in 2020. Having guys like Morgan and fellow veteran Bumper Pool has allowed Odom to simplify things for the younger core of the Arkansas defense, including safety Jalen Catalon, who is putting together a redshirt freshman season for the ages, and another walk-on, Hudson Clark, whose 3 interceptions against Ole Miss put his name immediately in Sharpie in Razorbacks lore.
Morgan doesn’t have bad games. He’s too consistent. But he has to be splendid for Arkansas to have a chance Saturday night. The Razorbacks defense has given up its fair share of yards, but it has made “bend but don’t break” a specialty, and it ranks in the top 40 in college football in third-down defense (41.2 percent) and yards allowed per play (5.0) as a result. The Hogs also rank 9th in red-zone defense nationally (minimum 3 games) and 15th in yards allowed per pass attempt (6.0), giving them just the type of stat profile you’d want if you faced Trask and Florida.
The Gators are going to score some points. But if Morgan and Arkansas can force a couple of poor Trask choices — which they have done better than anyone in America this season with 12 interceptions — this game could very well be interesting, because …
Franks and Arkansas can test the Gators downfield
The thing that sticks out about Franks as a senior in a new offense is the accuracy. Yes, he was on pace to be about 70 percent accurate at Florida a season ago before an injury ended his Gators career. But these numbers are now through 6 games and are conference-only, and they show a 10 percent improvement over his final full season at Florida, where he was good enough to win 10 games and a Peach Bowl MVP award.
Franks isn’t doing it with dink and dunk, either. He has been one of the top 3 SEC quarterbacks in intermediate passing and downfield passing this season, per SEC StatCat.
Feleipe Franks' pass chart Weeks 1-7
82% Adj Comp
62.1% Depth Adjusted Accuracy
50.3% Success Rate
9.84% Explosive Pass Rate
4.92% Interceptable Pass Rate
36% Screen+RPO Throw Rate
14.2% Uncatchable Pass Rate
6.84 ADOThttps://t.co/Tej5FI7M4o pic.twitter.com/vRXFGaWsrm
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) November 11, 2020
He can also punish you if your safeties fail, as Tennessee’s did here:
Franks didn’t hit deep balls like that often early in his career, even if everyone remembers that throw against Tennessee. It’s consistency and accuracy that are the hallmark of Franks as a senior.
This week, Mullen said that’s about being coachable.
“When I think of Feleipe, I think of coachability. Of mental and physical toughness,” Mullen said. “There comes a lot in that, believing you can win and expecting to win. They could have a better record than they have. They fell down behind last week, and they fought and climbed back in. There’s a lot to be said for that. Toughness doesn’t show on the stat line, but he has it.”
Franks also has a favorable matchup against Florida safeties, who have been downright scary in the deep pass game this season. The Gators rank 11th of 14 SEC teams in explosive pass plays allowed, a big reason Florida ranks outside the top 50 nationally in yards allowed per play and yards allowed per pass attempt.
If Franks can isolate his best target, Treylon Burks, a couple of times Saturday night, the Hogs could get cheap scores. That would be a big deal for an Arkansas team that ranks only 75th nationally in yards per play and 67th in success rate. The Razorbacks struggle to sustain long drives, but if Franks can best Florida’s safeties by hitting chunk plays, all bets are off.
Florida’s improved front 7 vs. a shaky Arkansas OL
Pittman is one of the best offensive line coaches in the country, and when he arrived in Fayetteville, the offensive line was one of the few things that on paper seemed like it might be a strength. The Hogs returned 6 offensive linemen with starting experience when camp opened and added Notre Dame transfer Luke Jones as a depth piece.
The unit has had its moments, but one area it has truly struggled in is pass protection. The Hogs rank 101st in the country and dead last in the SEC in sack percentage allowed, giving up a sack on 9.18 percent of passing downs. That’s not on Franks, who has a quick trigger release and is plenty mobile enough to avoid pressure. That’s just simply losing 1-on-1 battles. How much of it relates to Kendal Briles’ scheme being a poor fit for Arkansas’ personnel is a fair question, but the bottom line is that this is a weakness Florida can exploit.
How do we know? Arkansas doesn’t even have an “if we protect well, we win” trendline. The Hogs have surrendered double-digit pressures in every game this season. They have surrendered at least 2 sacks in every game, and at least 3 sacks in every game but one. In other words, Franks spends too much time running for his life, a big reason the Razorbacks are so big-play reliant on offense and struggle to sustain drives.
Florida isn’t great at getting to the quarterback, ranking just 54th nationally in sack percentage, a far cry from the group that led the country in that category a season ago. But the Gators line has looked much improved since Kyree Campbell returned against Missouri, and it should be able to create pressure on Franks and force him into some uncomfortable down-and-distance situations.