Florida football: Plenty to like about tough Gators; hard part next
Dan Mullen’s football team hasn’t been perfect over the season’s first six weeks.
The Florida Gators don’t run the football well. An inexperienced offensive line is still searching for effective rotations and depth. They’ve turned the ball over too often. They don’t always tackle at a high level. They’ve needed fourth-quarter comebacks to win twice.
In other words, the Gators have plenty of room for improvement — and starting next week when Auburn rolls into town, they’ll need to play better.
But make no mistake: For all of Florida’s flaws, the Gators are 5-0.
The Gators extended the SEC’s longest active winning streak to nine games with Saturday’s 38-0 rout of FCS team Towson. Florida’s last nine-game winning streak came in the Tim Tebow era, which is both a testament to how up and down Florida has been this decade and a statement about where Mullen wants this program to get again.
For now, Florida will settle and briefly celebrate being 5-0 for only the 17th time in 110 years of program history. Seven of the previous 16 Gators teams that started 5-0 finished first in the SEC. Two won the national championship. All but two won nine games or more by season’s end.
Point being? It’s rare to start a season 5-0, and when you do, big things are often on the horizon, and big things could be waiting for this Gators team.
Is Florida flawed? Yes. But the Gators are also unbeaten. And they sure are tough.
Since opening the season Week 0 against Miami, the Gators have packed what seems like a season’s worth of drama and injuries into just over a month of football.
Overcoming multiple fourth quarter deficits. Injuries that forced All-American cornerback CJ Henderson and All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga out of the first two SEC contests. A season-ending injury to starting quarterback and team leader Feleipe Franks. Plenty of teams would have wilted under similar adversity. The Gators have grinned in its face.
For all the nitpicking, there’s plenty to like about this Florida team too, and we saw its strengths on display again on this steamy September Saturday in The Swamp.
Buoyed by a dominant defense throughout this lost decade, Florida is finding answers on offense again.
It starts with the quarterback.
Kyle Trask didn’t want to become QB1 at the University of Florida because Franks got hurt, but Saturday, he continued to show he’s ready for the moment.
Trask was 7-for-7 on Florida’s opening drive, leading a beautiful length-of-the-field TD drive to open a game for the second consecutive week. Trask completed his first 15 passes, breaking a school record for consecutive completions (18 going back to the Tennessee game). He didn’t throw an incompletion until midway through the third quarter and finished 18 of 20 for 188 yards and 2 TDs. Those numbers will work.
We already knew the Gators wide receivers were elite, but in speedy 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end Kyle Pitts, Florida has found a mismatch nightmare to add to that already dynamic group. Pitts caught four passes for 28 yards and two touchdowns, including this tremendous catch on a high Trask throw in the third quarter.
KYLE TO KYLE and the Gators lead 24-0! pic.twitter.com/GOYH0BIKI1
— libgator (@lib_gator) September 28, 2019
Other young players on offense are also emerging.
Sophomore running back Dameon Pierce gave the Florida run game a much needed jolt, putting together two excellent cutback runs and collecting 84 yards on six carries. Five games into the season, Florida’s push in the run game has not been great. The Gators need good running back vision and some creativity in scheme to facilitate the balance needed to make their talented passing attack truly dangerous. They showed both of those things Saturday, which is encouraging.
Of course, Florida’s remains ferocious on defense.
The Gators defense didn’t start well Saturday, as Towson moved the ball effectively the whole first half, collecting 10 first downs, converting 5 of 8 third downs and averaging 4.6 yards per play. Florida missed too many tackles as well, with Towson’s dual-threat star QB Tom Flacco causing Florida problems with his legs, perhaps an ominous sign ahead of a date with Auburn’s Bo Nix.
But the Gators escaped a middling half without allowing any points, and they rallied and played better in the second half, dialing up repeated stops and turnovers to pull away from a Towson team that will almost certainly play deep into the FCS postseason.
After marching up and down the field (without scoring) in the first half, Towson managed only 74 yards in the second half and didn’t get a first down until its fourth possession of third quarter. By then, a 17-point Gators halftime lead had been extended to 31 and Florida fans had turned their thoughts toward October, beginning with next Saturday’s CBS game of the week against Auburn.
On the season, this Florida defense has two shutouts and has kept three opponents from scoring a touchdown. That’s big time stuff, especially considering they’ve played basically the bulk of those games without arguably the team’s two best defensive players, Henderson and Zuniga.
What’s more, the Gators are getting healthy again. Henderson, Zuniga and scintillating playmaker Kadarius Toney are all expected back for the Auburn game, the first meeting between the two programs since 2011.
— SI College Football (@si_ncaafb) September 23, 2019
Florida will need those talented players to have a chance to win in October and November.
Make no mistake about it, as good as the 5-0 start feels, the hard part is coming.
But isn’t winning supposed to be hard? Isn’t the hard part the fun part? The hard part is where you win the big ones, where that weighty word potential can become that proud word accomplishment.
The Gators will need to be their best to accomplish their goals over the next month-plus, with a slate that includes three matchups against potential top-10 teams in Auburn, LSU and Georgia and another tough road game against Missouri, a program which has been a thorn in Florida’s side. Those are four very tough challenges in a six-game span.
But pressure is part of the privilege of being at a place like Florida.
Great programs expect to have the opportunity to consistently play big games on the grandest stages. Dan Mullen knows this, and knows what Florida can be because he was part of the program when it was great. And great teams rise up to those challenges.
Starting next Saturday against Auburn in what promises to be a raucous Swamp, the chance at greatness is in front of the 2019 Florida Gators.
They just need to get out there and seize it.