Florida football: Fixing these problems during bye week will give Gators a chance at the Cocktail Party
The stage is set for the world’s largest Cocktail Party since 2012 (see what I did there?), one of two football games in the coming three weeks that will determine supremacy in the SEC East. The other game, as we all expected this summer when we picked Kentucky to finish sixth in the SEC East, is Georgia’s visit to Kroger Field and Kentucky Nov. 3.
That the Cocktail Party looms this large isn’t historically unusual, but it is unexpected in the context of this season, where a Georgia program coming off a SEC Championship and national championship game appearance was expected to be dominant and Florida, under new head coach Dan Mullen, was expected to simply lay a competitive foundation for its future.
Instead, the No. 11 Gators are ahead of schedule at 6-1 with quality wins at Mississippi State and over LSU. Georgia is also 6-1, and while the Dawgs still possess one of college football’s best rosters, they will enter Jacksonville on the heels of a decisive 20-point loss to the LSU team Florida felled the week prior. To show how difficult head-to-head type gauges of team quality are and complete the circle, however, it’s worth noting Florida needed an 18-point comeback to grind out a 37-27 victory at the same Vanderbilt team Georgia annihilated 41-13 the week prior.
In other words, consistency is still a hobgoblin for both the Gators and Bulldogs and both teams enter their bye weeks with all their season goals attainable and ahead of them but also searching for some answers and looking to get better.
Here are five things Florida will want to clean up and improve during the bye week to have a chance to sustain their success against the second half of the schedule, including the tilt with a significantly more-talented Georgia team come the Cocktail Party.
What’s with all the penalties?
Florida is averaging 72 yards of penalties a game, and that number is even higher the past three weeks.
The Gators tallied 90 yards in penalties in their upset win at Mississippi State (the Bulldogs had 2 penalties in the game for 15 yards!), 115 yards in their home win over LSU, and 63, including a team unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and two player ejections, against Vanderbilt. That’s an average of almost 90 yards a game, which is a difficult amount of free yardage to consistently overcome.
Florida wants to be aggressive and physical. But the Gators need to walk the line a bit better too, or they’ll risk consistently putting their still-evolving offense into bad positions.
There’s an argument that seven weeks into the year, you “are who you are,” to some extent.
Still, Florida had showed immense improvement in run defense after defending it about as effectively as a swinging gate early in the season. In the first two games, the Gators surrendered nearly 275 yards rushing per game, including 303 in a loss to Benny Snell and Kentucky. Missed tackles, poor linebacker play and inadequate leverage and push from the interior of Florida’s defensive line all combined to give the Gators one of the worst run defenses in America through two games.
Over the next three weeks, including contests against the powerful rushing offenses of Mississippi State and LSU, the Gators limited opponents to a paltry 3.0 yards-per-rush, which was top ten in the nation in that span. The return of All-SEC linebacker David Reese and edge-setter Cece Jefferson certainly helped; Todd Grantham’s scheme and the emergence of Vosean Joseph were even more vital.
Unfortunately for the Gators, their issues returned against the Commodores, just in time for the Georgia game.
Vanderbilt only tallied 107 yards rushing, but Ke’Shawn Vaughn was gutting the Gators (56 yards on 7 carries) until he left the game with an injury, and all told, the Commodores averaged almost 5 yards a carry, two yards more than the Gators were surrendering in their prior three games. Vanderbilt had the most success on inside zone actions, which is a place Georgia and its two-headed tandem of Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift excel.
That’s a concern Florida must address this week.
Clean up the turnovers
Florida remains third nationally and best in the SEC in turnover margin (+11), but after a 3-turnover performance at Vanderbilt, the Gators have to get back to taking care of the football as they ready for the second half of the season.
Yes, this Gators team is vastly improved in all facets of football, but Saturday at Vanderbilt was a reminder that Florida’s margin for error remains quite small.
Vanderbilt built its 18-point first half lead primarily through points-off-turnovers, and even after Florida fought back to take the lead in the fourth-quarter, a Dameon Pierce fumble in his own territory gave Vanderbilt the chance to reclaim the lead and the momentum. Fortunately for Florida, the defense limited the damage to a field goal, allowing Florida’s offense to put the game away a drive later.
Against Georgia and every other opponent on Florida’s remaining schedule save Idaho, Florida is unlikely to be able to turn the ball over three times and win.
Florida’s offense has made strides under Mullen. That much is obvious.
The numbers at first glance aren’t great (86th in total offense, 60th in rushing offense, 44th in scoring offense), but if you look a bit deeper, Florida is vastly improved.
The Gators are 33rd in S&P+ offensive efficiency, almost 50 spots higher than the program’s best finish in that metric since 2012. The Gators have also been especially effective in the red zone, ranking 23rd nationally in conversion rate despite an empty trip last week against Vanderbilt.
Still, there is room to grow.
The Gators rank a woeful 102nd nationally in third-down conversion offense, converting only 35 percent of their third-down opportunities. This isn’t an offense that’s capable of producing consistently on 3rd-and-long, so the Gators need to emphasize being better on 3rd-and-medium (4-6) and 3rd-and-short (1-3), where they are still scuffling a bit at (37%) and (49%), respectively.
Look, some of this goes with the Todd Grantham territory.
You want to produce game-changing plays and turnovers? It pays to play aggressive, fast, downhill defense with several blitz packages.
Who knows? You may even blitz a safety on 4th-and-long on the road up only a touchdown. It might even work.
The flip side to being aggressive, and the origin of “Third and Grantham,” is that sometimes you will get torched down the field.
Still, it’s happened a little too much to Florida over the past two weeks.
LSU reclaimed the lead in The Swamp with two seam-busting runs late in the second half where Florida’s aggressive contain packages were easily blocked.
Vanderbilt hit a 75-yard screen pass, a 43-yard inside zone read (off a run blitz) and multiple 20+ passing plays (off Florida blitzes).
This might just be who Florida is.
After all, the Gators defensive success rate (how often opposing offenses have a “successful” play) is exceptional, at around 33%. But in big games, a great defense is only as good as its next play, and Florida must do more to limit explosives.