Florida football: Reassessing the Gators after a 2-1 start
As Dan Mullen continues to build a Florida program that spent the better part of a decade lost in the wilderness, games like Saturday’s hard-fought 2-point loss to Alabama become inflection points. When reassessing the Gators after 3 games, that’s as good a place to start as any.
Florida can choose to build off a bitter defeat, or it can be satisfied with being the only program in the country to come within double-digits of the Crimson Tide over Alabama’s last 15 games. That Mullen’s program has twice come within a score of the Crimson Tide only increases the risk that the Gators find solace or satisfaction in a moral victory.
The challenge for Mullen and his staff is convincing his players that resting on the laurel of being “oh so close” to Alabama again would be a serious mistake. The Gators can take their fair share of good from Saturday’s loss, but there is plenty of work to be done.
To begin with, the Gators’ secondary is still a work in progress. The final 3 quarters Saturday were encouraging, as the Gators kept Alabama in front of them and weren’t often beat over the top by the likes of Jameson Williams and John Metchie III. But Florida’s inability to tackle in space helped the Tide gain big yardage on simple throws throughout the first quarter, and the Gators can’t let the inexperience of corners like Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr. or safeties like Rashad Torrence II be an excuse for poor tackling. If the Gators want the rematch with Alabama Mullen discussed after the game, they’ll need to clean up the tackling in the secondary before they face teams like Kentucky and Georgia, who, like Alabama, will be more than content to use simple throws to get the ball to playmakers in space.
Florida’s pass game will also need work. Yes, Emory Jones played by far his best game as a Gator on Saturday. He looked relaxed and comfortable and made some electric throws, like the back-shoulder dime he dropped to Xzavier Henderson on Florida’s 99-yard touchdown drive. Jones was sacked on the final play of the game, but before that, his drive chart on Florida’s final three drives looked like this:
Gators last 3 drives
10 plays, 75 yards, TD
11 plays, 99 yards, TD
12 plays 75 yards, TD
— Nick de la Torre (@delatorre) September 18, 2021
On the game, Jones collected 272 yards on 47 throws and rushes with 1 touchdown. Florida’s offensive success rate with Jones leading the zone read run game in the second half? 72.7 percent, the highest success rate allowed by an Alabama defense since it was shredded by Clemson in the national championship game in January 2019.
But Jones has work to do. Consistency is the hallmark of a great college quarterback, and Jones was inconsistent at times Saturday. Jones’ first-quarter interception, his 5th of the season, allowed Alabama to chalk up a short-field touchdown, and even though he made a great read on the play, he threw behind a wide-open Henderson, allowing Jalyn Armour-Davis, who was beat on the play, to make a play for the Tide.
Jones’ performance against the Crimson Tide should inspire confidence even as Florida awaits the return of dynamic quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was held out of the Alabama game after doctors told Mullen that playing him could make a recurring muscle issue worse. Jones building off a promising performance next week against Tennessee, and not reverting to the inconsistent, sloppy version of Jones Florida fans saw in pedestrian victories over Florida Atlantic and USF, is a must.
The good news when reassessing Florida after 3 games?
There is also a great deal to be encouraged about — some of it even pleasantly surprising.
Starting with pleasant surprises, the Gators’ offensive line is a legitimately excellent unit.
Criticized for its inability to get a push in the run game over the past 2 seasons, Florida led the nation in rushing offense and ranked third in success rate entering the Alabama game and carved up the Tide, too, running for 245 yards and 4 touchdowns at a 5.7-yards-per-carry clip. That’s tremendous stuff, and if Florida can block Alabama, it can block anyone.
The pass blocking has been excellent, too. The Gators limited Alabama’s vaunted front to just 1 sack — on the game’s final play — and Jones had clean pockets throughout the game. Left tackle Richard Gouraige looks like a force and has graded out as one of the best tackles in the country through 3 weeks, per Pro Football Focus. Center Kingsley Eguakun has also been a delightful surprise, winning the job in camp and playing terrific Saturday against Alabama.
Continuing to improve — and getting pile-moving guard Stewart Reese back healthy — are vital moving forward, but this is a unit that has shown out over the first quarter of the season.
Meanwhile, Florida’s revamped defensive front, expected to lead this defense back to respectability, has been “as advertised.” The Gators have gotten pressure with 3 or 4 when Todd Grantham has allowed them to this season, including at times Saturday. Brenton Cox Jr. is finally healthy and playing inspired football, and defensive end Zachary Carter is making good on his promise to have his best season ever as a senior. Of course, Florida has long had talent on the edge. It’s the interior of the line, led by the steady Penn State transfer Antonio Valentino and a blossoming Gervon Dexter, that has stabilized this front. After being iffy in run defense against FAU and USF, Florida slowed the long-dominant Crimson Tide run game, holding Alabama to 91 yards and 3.1 per carry. You can bet that teams like Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, who wait on Florida’s schedule, will want to establish the run. Florida’s rebuilt defensive line appears poised to make that difficult, which is encouraging.
All told, the Gators should feel encouraged after Saturday’s loss, but only if they use the sting of the defeat to get better. To his credit, Mullen said as much after the game, noting that if Florida feels it has things figured out because it had a close call against Alabama, that would be a mistake.
“We need to build off this,” Mullen said. “I know people think this is crazy, but next week (vs. Tennessee) becomes an even bigger game. This (Alabama) game has no effect on our Eastern (Division) record. We control everything we want to do still for the rest of the season.”
Mullen said he was hopeful Florida would see Alabama again this year, and safety Trey Dean III and defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk promised it would. To keep that promise, Florida has to win in Jacksonville. Before it can do that, it needs to keep getting better, beginning next week against Tennessee.
Florida should enter Cocktail Party weekend with only 1 loss, if it can manage a tricky trip to Lexington and if LSU continues to play uninspired football. Do that, and Florida will, for the 4th consecutive season under Mullen, play Georgia with a trip to Atlanta all but officially on the line. That’s where Florida football should be. But the Gators have work to do to get there.