Florida football: 5 New Year's Resolutions the Gators need to make and keep
MIAMI — Florida capped an outstanding season Monday night with a 36-28 victory over No. 24 Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
The win marked the Gators’ 2nd consecutive season with a New Year’s 6 bowl victory and helped Florida achieve an 11-win season for only the 8th time in school history. A second consecutive top 10 ranking to close the season is assured and Dan Mullen’s 2-year win total is 21; only Urban Meyer (22) got off to a better start at Florida.
That’s an incredible start to the Mullen era in Gainesville, but as the coach candidly admitted from a victorious Orange Bowl press conference last night, the Gator Standard demands more. Florida doesn’t just want to go to New Year’s 6 bowls and win them — though given Florida has just 4 Orange Bowl wins in program history, those seasons are pretty special. Florida wants to compete for championships and play in the College Football Playoff.
“We’ve got work to do,” Mullen said after the game. “We’ve got to get back (to playing for championships). We’re going to enjoy being Orange Bowl Champions for a day or two. We had a heck of a year. The 2019 Gator football team was really special. To come out and finish as a top 10 team, maybe even a top 5 team, Orange Bowl champions, that’s really special. The 2020 team will be born in about two weeks, and if we want to go from 11 wins to 12, we’ll have to be better. It’s a lot harder to go from 11 to 12 than it is to go from 10 wins to 11.”
Mullen’s right. The gap between an 11-win team and a 12-win team that competes for a spot in or in the College Football Playoff is the toughest bridge to cross in the sport. Compounding matters, Florida will have to replace a group of program-changing seniors that leave a solid foundation for the future but whose leadership will be sorely missed on both sides of the football.
That’s the situation facing Dan Mullen as his program enters 2020, the 3rd year of his tenure at Florida.
If Florida is to take the next step and reach Atlanta or the College Football Playoff, here are 5 resolutions they need to make — and keep.
1. Identify and cultivate new leadership
The Gators need to resolve to find new leaders.
This can’t be emphasized enough.
Florida loses the leadership artery of the football program with the departure of a tremendous group of seniors whose legacy will cast a long shadow. That group, led by the likes of Lamical Perine, Van Jefferson, David Reese II, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland, Joshua Hammond and Jonathan Greenard, deserve immense credit for dragging the program out of the dark doldrums of college football’s wilderness, where they spent much of the decade.
Who replaces that group? What leaders emerge?
There are some candidates, such as senior quarterback Kyle Trask, redshirt sophomore Emory Jones, defensive back Marco Wilson (if he stays in school for his senior season), defensive end/linebacker Jeremiah Moon, and wide receiver Trevon Grimes (expected to return for his senior year). Inside the program, some believe younger, well-respected players like cornerback Kaiir Elam and linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, in particular, will take up the leadership mantle.
But it’s an open-ended question, and perhaps one of the most vital questions of the spring and summer.
2. Re-establish the run game
The Orange Bowl was promising in this respect.
Florida gashed a Virginia defense that entered the Orange Bowl a strong defense against the run. The Gators bullied their way to 244 yards on 34 carries. It was by far Florida’s most productive game running the football in 2019. What’s more, most the runs weren’t just splendid individual efforts, though the cut on Lamical Perine’s opening 61-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty. Florida ran the ball effectively in the Orange Bowl because the offensive line managed a consistent push for the first time all season.
Florida’s young offensive line, which loses only one starter, must resolve to build on that performance and establish a consistent run game in 2019.
Another season where the Gators rank at the bottom of the SEC in rushing offense will keep the Gators out of Atlanta. This is especially true given the attrition at wide receiver (more below) that will make balance all the more important to Florida’s offense next season.
Personnel losses will also complicate things. The loss of Perine, a future pro, will hurt on and off the football field.
Lamical Perine ends his career with:
493 carries, 2,485 yards, 22 rushing TD.
72 receptions, 674 yards, 9 TD.
He led the #Gators in rushing in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) December 31, 2019
Someone — whether it is junior Dameon Pierce, redshirt junior Malik Davis, or redshirt freshman Nay’Quan Wright — will need to emerge as “the guy” who Florida can trust for the hard yards Perine gained for four seasons.
3. Sign/hit the portal to add wide receiver depth
The loss of Florida’s quartet of senior wide receivers is going to sting. You can’t lose the production and leadership of Tyrie Cleveland, Van Jefferson, Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain without the unit downgrading a bit.
But let’s be clear: This also isn’t a Georgia 2019 type situation.
The Bulldogs lost 5 of their 6 top returners in terms of passing offense production, setting the stage for the problems in the passing game that plagued the Dawgs throughout the fall. Florida isn’t in that dire of straits. The Gators will return their leading receiver, tight end Kyle Pitts and their 5th-leading receiver, Trevon Grimes, if early accounts he’ll come back to school for his senior season are correct. Florida should also return the uber-talented Jacob Copeland, who came on strong late in the season to finish 8th on the team in receptions with 21. In other words, the cupboard isn’t bare.
Nevertheless, it’s obviously a position of need and concern. Florida signed only 1 wide receiver in December, 4-star Jaquavion Fraziers. Another 4-star, Leonard Manuel, is committed, and Florida is hopeful he will qualify academically. But CJ Henderson’s brother, high 4-star Xzavier Henderson, is rumored to be a Clemson lean and it was telling that Florida brought former Penn State receiver and 5-star Justin Shorter to campus just before Christmas.
The Gators will need bodies — preferably college-ready ones similar to what Georgia added in Lawrence Cager this season — to feel confident in their wide receiver corps depth next season.
4. Improve the safety play
In both of Florida’s losses, it was ultimately a lack of high-level safety play that proved terribly costly.
Yes, those losses came in a knock-down drag-out with No. 1 LSU in Tiger Stadium and a 1-score game against Georgia. But those are the games that make the difference between New Year’s 6 bowl appearances and SEC Championship and College Football Playoff appearances.
Per Stats Solutions, Florida’s safeties ranked 7th in the SEC in pass completion against — hardly the stuff of DBU legend.
Worse, beyond Shawn Davis, who had a quality season, Florida had 2 safeties who ranked in the bottom 50% of SEC safeties in pass completion against and passes defended (Brad Stewart and Donovan Stiner).
Davis, Stewart and Stiner will return, but it remains to be seen if another year of age and experience is really the issue, or if it just talent. Florida signed multiple safeties, including longtime Alabama lean Rashad Torrence, but it’s rare to come in and dominate at that position as a true freshman. That means the onus is on the current group to simply play better, especially in key moments.
5. Beat Georgia
Kirby Smart’s still recruiting like a banshee, but his teams have shown weaknesses the prior 2 seasons. The Bulldogs have a stale offensive scheme and at least this season, a dearth of perimeter playmakers to ease the pressure on their stable of terrific running backs. Georgia is still efficient on offense, most the time — they just aren’t very explosive.
The Gators closed the talent gap — not by outrecruiting Georgia — but by simply adding to the number of blue-chip (4 or 5 star) players on the Florida roster. That showed on the field this fall, as Florida played Georgia toe-to-toe for 4 quarters, only to fall by 7 points.
If Mullen wants to win championships at Florida, and judging by the quote above he understands that is the expectation, he’ll have to win in Jacksonville.
For all the issues Georgia fans may have with Smart at present, Kirby is 3-1 at the Cocktail Party, and as Steve Spurrier used to say, “all roads to Atlanta run through Jacksonville.”
It’s time for Mullen and Florida to resolve to beat Georgia, and get the job done.