Florida football: 3 things to look for in Gators' opener at Ole Miss
It’s finally here. Opening week.
In this the strangest and most terrible of years, after plenty of “wait and sees” and false starts, we finally get the chance to enjoy a Saturday down South.
It won’t be exactly the same.
The conference-only schedule has removed the feel-good season of hope that usually comes with early September. Instead, it’s head first into conference play, 10 games in 11 weeks in the most brutal league in America.
Florida begins the season in Oxford, one of the most idyllic campus settings in the sport. Usually, that would mean a stroll through the Grove, good food, tailgate tents with candelabras and chandeliers, the warmth of a handshake from a friend you usually see 4 months a year and enough sundresses and “Hi y’all’s” to fill even the most cynical tank with joy.
With social distancing guidelines limiting tailgating and stadium capacities, it won’t feel quite the same. SEC football is an annual advertisement for the sport, where stadiums bursting to the brim in color and sound remind us that no matter the national ratings, there’s nothing in our little corner of the world that sparks more passion than college football. It will be strange, then, to see the games played in quarter-full stadiums of echoes.
But in a summer where at times societally we’ve felt more divided than ever, we need this autumn and this chance to come together, to celebrate the one thing that still unites us all: football.
Enjoy the week. Call an old friend and talk about the season to come. If you aren’t making the trek to a campus, find a virtual watch party to celebrate the game with. Make that special family tailgating dish. Remember how much we miss this game when these seasons, already too short, are gone.
While you’re making plans, let’s talk about the challenge ahead of Dan Mullen and the Gators.
Florida begins the season with a true road game for the first time since 1987. That year, they lost 31-4 at Miami in the old Orange Bowl. They’ll hope this contest goes a bit better.
Because of the SEC’s oft-criticized cross-divisional rotation rules, Florida hasn’t actually visited Oxford since 2007, when Tim Tebow powered Florida to a tight 30-24 win. While the Gators won the last meeting between the schools decisively, 38-10 over No. 4 Ole Miss in The Swamp in 2015, Ole Miss actually leads the all-time series, 12-11-1. A win for the Gators Saturday would level the series.
The game will be the debut of Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. You know he’d love nothing more than to start the era with a huge win over a top-10 opponent.
Here are 3 things we’ll be looking for when the Gators kick off the 2020 season Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (12 p.m. ET, ESPN).
1. Does Florida’s offensive line look improved?
Put simply, Florida’s offensive line must be much better if the Gators are to bridge what Dan Mullen calls “the huge gap between 11 wins and 12 or more wins.”
Last season, the Gators suffered the second-largest drop off in rushing play success rate from 2018 in the Power 5, with only Missouri’s line performing worse. The Gators finished 80th nationaly in yards per rush, 89th nationally in yards gained before contact (1.49) and 102nd in rushing offense.
Florida’s pass protection, sometimes characterized by fans as “much better,” wasn’t really. Florida finished 12th in the SEC in QB pressures allowed (36% of snaps) and 41st nationally in sack percentage, a year removed from being 2nd in the SEC and 5th nationally in those categories.
In many ways, given how poorly Florida’s offensive line played in 2020, it’s remarkable Florida finished the year in the top 20 nationally in passing offense and 11th nationally in S&P+ offensive efficiency, behind only LSU and Alabama in the SEC.
Florida’s returns 4 of their core 5 starters, the lone exception being center Nick Buchanan, who graduated. They add Stewart Reese, a longtime starter and Mullen recruit from Mississippi State. Reese adds immense bulk (345 pounds in Miss State’s 2019 media guide). He can play guard or tackle and understands John Hevesy and Mullen’s blocking schemes. That, along with the emergence of freshman guard Ethan White, who arrived on campus weighing 400 pounds but has worked relentlessly to get to 335, gives Florida flexibility if and when senior right tackle and Texas transfer Jean Delance struggles.
Brett Heggie, an All-SEC freshman performer, is finally healthy and gives the team another leader who has started games in multiple seasons and can play multiple spots. He figures to start at center and add bulk that Buchanan lacked, which could help with the inside run game.
Florida’s guards, if they are Reese and Richard Gouraige, who was recruited as a left tackle but has developed well inside, have the potential to be formidable. But what excites the staff most right now is the potential to have quality depth. Assuming Stone Forsythe, Delance, Reese, Heggie and Gouraige start, Florida believes it will still play 8 linemen in 2020, 2 more than the 6 man rotation they relied on for so much of 2019. The other three — White, Michael Tarquin and TJ Moore — all have had their moments in camp.
In a year when COVID will test depth, a larger rotation developing trust is huge.
Florida’s Week 1 test comes against an Ole Miss defensive line that replaces all its defensive ends a year removed from ranking 59th nationally in sack percentage. The Rebels did rank 44th in yards per rush allowed and in the top 30 in run defense as season ago (139 allowed per game), both respectable figures, especially in the SEC West. But even with DJ Durkin brought in to clean things up defensively, the losses up front are significant.
If Florida can’t win this battle, that’s a problem.
2. How does Florida look at defensive tackle?
Another spot where the Gators have been “just OK” compared to the college football elite of late is defensive tackle.
Kyree Campbell quietly had a very good year in 2019 but is questionable for Saturday’s game. If he cannot play, Florida’s nose tackle position will be a 3-headed rotation of Marvin Dunlap, a slimmed down Tedarrell Slaton, and 5-star freshman Gervon Dexter. The latter two are, of course, big-time recruits. But that’s a lot of uncertainty to have entering a game against an Ole Miss team that even without Lane Kiffin scheming finished 42nd nationally in S&P+ offensive efficiency, 40th in yards per play and, vitally, 7th in yards per rush attempt in 2019.
Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner are one of the best running back tandems in the SEC and that’s before you get to quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who led the Rebels in rushing last year with 1,105 yards.
Florida will need answers up front and might be shorthanded Saturday.
3. What are the roles for Emory Jones and Kadarius Toney?
If you had to pick two playmakers on Florida’s roster where you weren’t entirely sure what to expect, it would almost certainly be Jones and Toney.
Jones is the QB2 that plenty in the fan base think has the full package needed to win championships in modern football. His ability to throw and run means that opinion makes sense, but there’s also a reason that every beat writer and journalist who covers the program expects Kyle Trask to be QB1 unless something drastic — and likely not good — happens. Quarterbacks like Trask that throw for nearly 3,000 yards and win Orange Bowls usually return as Heisman candidates, not as guys who battle for their job.
Still, Jones is simply too electric a runner and talented a thrower to squander his diverse skillset on the bench. He’s also a much better passer than he gets credit for, having completed 37-of-54 career passes for 5 touchdowns without an interception.
Jones made several big throws in Florida’s win over No. 5 Auburn last season and he has good touch and accuracy on his downfield passes, like this one to Jacob Copeland:
Emory Jones hits Copeland for 37 yards to set up the Gators final TD in a 56-0 blowout of Vanderbilt pic.twitter.com/O1dTHpdJtx
— libgator (@lib_gator) November 9, 2019
For whatever reason, defenses seem to think Jones is only entering to be a runner, similar though not identical to the way Dan Mullen used Tim Tebow behind Chris Leak in 2006.
That’s simply a misreading of Jones’ substantial talent, and it will be interesting to see what kind of package Emory gets Saturday in Oxford.
As for Toney, the enigma continues.
Toney is the first Gators wide receiver to average a first down per touch (minimum 10 rushes and 10 receptions each) since Percy Harvin. He’s always been electric. That said, Toney missed a good chunk of the 2019 season with an injury and never seemed to find a rhythm, or demonstrate a larger grasp of the offense last season.
Mullen has raved about his progress during camp, saying his understanding of the offense is “miles better.” Is that a good sign that Toney is finally set to make good on all that jitterbug ability? Maybe. It certainly is a positive when a coach who has long lamented your inability to run the play called feels like you finally understand the position and demands of the playbook.
But Florida also has a well-established core, at least in the passing game. The rapport between Trask and Kyle Pitts, Trask and Trevon Grimes, and Trask and Copeland is a thing that will limit Toney’s touches. Can he make the most of the opportunities he does get, and run plays as they are called, so as to warrant more touches?
It’s an interesting question, but finally, after months of waiting, we begin to find out this week.