It hasn’t just been shoddy quarterback play that has haunted Florida in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri.
The defense, so integral to the program’s surprising victories at Mississippi State and at home against then-No. 5 LSU, has fallen off the proverbial cliff.
As a result, a Florida team that was ranked in the top 10 and considered a legitimate SEC East and New Year’s 6 contender has fallen to 6-3 and is now fighting simply to secure a place in a quality New Year’s Day bowl game.
Florida’s defense keyed early-season upsets by pressuring quarterbacks, collecting momentum-changing tackles for loss and forcing 17 turnovers in the team’s first 6 games.
Much of Florida’s success was about playing like the team’s collective hair was on fire, according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
“There’s a certain standard and edge that the defense has to play with,” Grantham told the media earlier this week. “If you aren’t doing that, you are cheating yourself and the team. If (the Gators defensive players) go back and look at how (they) felt in the locker room after playing at Mississippi State, how (they) felt after winning at Tennessee, when we played LSU and beat them,” Grantham said. “You’ve got to make sure that you give relentless effort and you give that strain every snap.”
Consistency of effort and performance has been a mantra of Dan Mullen and the coaching staff since they arrived in Gainesville. The idea of “playing with relentless effort” was cited by Mullen at his introductory press conference and he told the media this summer that “demanding relentless effort and accountability was the best way to flip the culture.”
For a while, the Gators appeared invested and bought in, and the results showed on the field. But there’s no question Florida’s defense regressed the past two weeks when challenged by two of the nation’s best offenses in Georgia and Missouri.
In those two contests, Florida has surrendered an average of 37 points, an average of 6.52 yards per-play and allowed them to convert a staggering 19-of-32 third downs. No matter who starts at quarterback against South Carolina, those types of miserable numbers aren’t sustainable if Florida hopes to finish the regular season with three more victories.
Florida’s defensive misery hasn’t really been limited to the run or the pass either. The Gators have been sliced apart in the air by Jake Fromm and Drew Lock, who collectively posted numbers of 41-for-65 for 490 yards, 6 touchdowns and 0 turnovers. The Gators have been nearly as inept against the run, giving up 390 yards and 4.93 yards-per-carry on the ground during the two losses. Those numbers, coupled with Florida’s mind-boggling poor percentages on third down, are a perfect recipe for failure.
For the defense to rally against the Gamecocks, Florida must find a way to once again get pressure on the quarterback.
The Gators have registered only 3 sacks in their previous three games, and one was a sack in name only, coming on a Drew Lock scramble where the Missouri quarterback slid just behind the line of scrimmage.
Jachai Polite and Vosean Joseph were instrumental in Florida’s limiting LSU and Miss State to 3.0 yards-per-carry rushing and constantly pressuring and creating havoc in the backfield around Nick Fitzgerald and Joe Burrow. In those two wins, Joseph and Polite combined for 7 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble and turnover. In the two losses to Georgia and Missouri, Joseph and Polite have 1 sack and 1.5 tackles for loss with zero forced fumbles or turnovers.
That lack of big-play production is a big reason Florida’s defensive sack rate has slipped from a spot in the top ten nationally to 19th in the country. More concerning, the Gators have gone from a third-down/passing down sack rate in the top 25 in the country to 98th in the country in just three games (Vandy also limited Florida to only 1 sack.)
Some of Polite’s struggles have come as he increasingly faces chips, tight end help and double teams, which was expected given his early production. What’s more concerning is that no one has filled the void, especially considering the one-on-one opportunities Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga are being afforded given all the attention Polite is commanding.
South Carolina will also present challenges.
The Gamecocks are vastly improved offensively under first-year offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon. The Cocks will arrive in the Swamp 38th in S&P+ offensive efficiency and 62nd in total offense, a year removed from finishing 88th and 99th in those categories.
Much of that improvement has to do with an improved passing offense that is both efficient (5th in the SEC) and explosive (11th nationally in big plays in passing game), led by junior signal caller Jake Bentley. The Gamecocks, who feature two All-SEC caliber wide receivers in Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel, will be a huge test for a thin Florida secondary to begin with. The task of slowing that dynamic duo will be next to impossible if Florida continues to struggle to pressure the quarterback.
Further, while Florida would seem likely to focus on pressuring Bentley and containing the Gamecocks dangerous passing attack, Will Muschamp’s offense has started to show life running the ball in wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss. The Gamecocks have tallied 185 yards per-game in those contests, helping provide balance to an offense that was already explosive vertically.
It won’t be easy for Florida to pressure South Carolina. The Gamecocks rank 36th nationally in fewest-sacks allowed (only 12) and are in the top 25 in sack rate allowed, meaning they do a good job of protecting the quarterback even without a powerful run game. That likely means Florida will need to take some risks with the blitz, especially if Florida’s front three/four continue to struggle to win one-on-one battles early in the game.
The rub of course is that if Florida blitzes more, the onus will be on the suddenly struggling secondary to make plays one-on-one against one of the better personnel groupings they’ll face in the SEC. That’s a big challenge, but it’s one the Gators need to be up to if they are to help Dan Mullen finish with a winning record in SEC play in his first season in Gainesville.