First and 10: Anthony Richardson can lead Florida to a national championship. When will he get the chance?
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Let’s be clear about one thing: Florida will win a national championship with Anthony Richardson.
It may not be this season, and it more than likely will take a few games before he wins the starting quarterback job for the Gators. But once he does, the dynamic will change in the SEC and national championship races.
Just like it did with Joe Burrow at LSU.
“The only way any of us beat (Alabama) is with a transcendent quarterback — with our own Joe Burrow,” one SEC coach told me this summer. “You have to be so good at that position, so special, that even the Alabama talent doesn’t matter.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Anthony Richardson.
A week before the season began, a source at Florida admitted to me there was a battle going on within the coaching staff. Emory Jones had waited his turn and worked hard and had plenty of talent to win games in the SEC.
He earned the right to be the starting quarterback. Period.
But every play with Jones on the field meant one more play with Richardson – the most dynamic player on the team – on the bench. And it was clear that couldn’t happen.
We’ve seen why in the first two games of the season, where Richardson has played close to perfect against two overmatched opponents. Don’t let the alphabet soup of FAU and USF cloud your judgment.
“Are you kidding? He’s ridiculous,” said FAU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who has coordinated defenses and/or been a Power 5 head coach since the 1990s, and has seen every possible iteration at the most important position on the field.
Richardson is 6-4, 240 pounds, and any time he’s on the field, he’s the fastest player on the field. He can make every throw, and one of his two touchdown passes against USF was off his back foot, a quick snap of a deep ball that traveled 40 yards – off a Tim Tebow-esque self play-action fake.
Make no mistake, this isn’t Tebow. Richardson throws a better ball now than Tebow did at the same point in their careers.
The only player who compares to his skill set is Cam Newton, who began his career at Florida before transferring to junior college and eventually leading Auburn to the 2010 national championship. Newton won the Heisman Trophy that season with one of the greatest single seasons in NCAA history.
That season wasn’t unique from a statistics standpoint, but from the way he carried an average team all the way to the national championship – and did so by beating defending national champion Alabama on the road to reach the SEC Championship Game and eventually the BCS National Championship Game.
This isn’t exactly an average Florida team, and frankly, Richardson is two games into a season where both defenses he has played are at a distinct disadvantage. Moreover, he still makes mistakes.
That doesn’t mean his playing time won’t increase now that the warmups are over for Florida, and the real games begin this week with Alabama coming to The Swamp for the first SEC game of the season.
In fact, we’ll likely see more and more of Richardson (his tweaked right hamstring, willing) over the course of the season. Because you can’t keep the best player on the field off it.
“He does special things,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said of Richardson. “He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he does special things.”
2. Two bites at the apple
The ultimate question facing Mullen is the same question the staff debated over fall camp: When is the risk of a potential mistake worth the reward of all that can be?
Now, there’s one more question that must be asked: Can you beat Alabama with Jones?
After watching both teams in the first two games, the answer is clearly no. Florida’s defense is better; its pass rush has more impactful rush ends that will help coverage in the back end.
But the Gators – like last season – will have to outscore Alabama. That’s not happening with Jones. Frankly, it’s more than likely not happening with Richardson.
It could, however, happen a second time around with Richardson. That’s the key to this week’s decision about who plays more against Alabama.
Because while this game against the Tide is important, it’s not the biggest potential game between the teams. The Gators could play Alabama again in December with much more on the line.
If Richardson is what the Florida staff believes he can be, the Gators can beat Georgia, LSU and Kentucky and win the SEC East Division.
Richardson averaged 50.7 yards per pass and 28.8 yards per carry against USF, and while the Bulls aren’t in the same stratosphere as Alabama, you’d be foolish to watch Richardson — behind a vastly improved offensive line – and think he won’t have success in SEC games.
This is a generational talent.
“We’re a long way from consistent work on the field to get any kind of evaluation,” an NFL scout told me. “But a guy that looks like he does, runs like he does, throws the ball with accuracy and velocity – that throw across his body while off schedule and rolling left was beautiful – has a lot going for him. Add Dan Mullen’s teaching, learning the passing game concepts, and that’s potentially a really dangerous player.”
3. The difficult decision, The Epilogue
The idea of what could be with Richardson escalated quickly during the end of spring practice and through fall camp.
As one Florida source told me: “It was a lot like when Cam (Newton) was here in 2008. Everyone knew his talent was unique, but he wasn’t playing over Tim (Tebow).”
That decision was easy for Mullen, then the offensive coordinator at Florida for Urban Meyer. Tebow crafted one of the greatest careers in the history of the sport.
Jones, on the other hand, has a different hold on the job: the emotional connection with Mullen.
Jones was Mullen’s first quarterback recruit. He was committed to Ohio State, and on the day Mullen got the Florida job, Jones called Mullen and told him, “I want to be your quarterback.”
Mullen has invested 4 years of teaching Jones, and all the decisions (Kyle Trask over Jones when Feleipe Franks was injured in 2019) and emotion that goes with it. He wants him to succeed.
Now, the problem: In 2 games, Jones’ big advantage over Richardson – his ability to avoid disaster and ball security – has all but diminished. Jones has 4 bad interceptions in two games, and also missed play call at the goal line that ended a series on downs.
More damning: He’s not throwing with anticipation, and he’s slow getting through progressions.
The only advantage Jones has over Richardson now is experience in big games (Auburn and LSU in 2019). But at what point does that translate to diminishing returns – if it already hasn’t?
Richardson is the future at the position. The only question is when that future begins.
4. Pig out
Arkansas is more dangerous this season because QB KJ Jefferson is a better fit for Kendal Briles’ Baylor-inspired offense.
Feleipe Franks was a willing runner last year, but he wasn’t a powerful runner. He couldn’t break tackles and push the pile when needed.
Baylor’s offenses were most prolific when quarterback run was a significant portion of the offense, with Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty.
Jefferson doesn’t have the dynamic ability of Griffin III, but he’s similar to Florence and Petty – quarterbacks who stressed defenses with their ability to get chunk plays in the run game.
More than anything, Jefferson’s emergence as a zone-read threat (8.5 ypc.) makes a good run game potentially elite. And that benefits an underrated defense that stayed on the field too long last season, but was 7th in the SEC in yards per play – the one stat that best explains defensive efficiency.
That yards per play number is down significantly to 4.06 after 2 games this season, and Arkansas is giving up 282 yards and 19 points per game. There’s one more tune-up this weekend against Georgia Southern before the Hogs get their first SEC test of the season Sept. 25 at home against Texas A&M.
5. The Weekly Five
Five games against the spread
- Alabama (-14) at Florida
- Auburn at Penn State (-4)
- Mississippi State (-3) at Memphis
- South Carolina (+32) at Georgia
- Stanford (-9) at Vanderbilt
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Ole Miss ILB Chance Campbell.
“Speed has always been the question prior to this season, but he was playing fast in that Louisville game. Playing in the SEC is a great opportunity for him to show he can be an impact player in the best conference. He’s more athletic than you think, a strong guy. I’ve watched him twice now at Ole Miss, and he’s cutting it loose. I always thought he was way undervalued at Maryland, kind of lost on an average defense. He has a chance to work his way up into the early rounds.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Biggest surprise after Week 2.
1. Georgia: TE Brock Bowers played well against Clemson; showed he can stretch the field against UAB.
2. Alabama: Tide still needs a legit No.3 receiver. Is freshman JoJo Earle that guy?
3. Florida: DE Zach Carter may finally have reached his potential, backing up Week 1 impressive showing (3.5 TFL) with another in Week 2 (2.5 TFL).
4. Texas A&M: DT Jayden Peevy, inconsistent prior to this super senior season, has been disruptive in the middle with tackles for loss and hurries.
5. Ole Miss: DT Isaiah Iton, a heralded JUCO transfer, has been a force against two overmatched offensive lines. How will he impact SEC season?
6. Kentucky: An ACL injury ended LB JJ Weaver’s 2020 season; he already has 3 sacks in 2021.
7. Arkansas: RB AJ Green. Elite freshman recruit who played his first game, and averaged nearly 10 yards per carry.
8. Auburn: This is an easy call. QB Bo Nix is a different thrower in a different system. A huge improvement from 2019-20.
9. LSU: Freshman 5-sar DL Maason Smith (3 sacks) has been the best player on an inconsistent defense.
10. Missouri: While Mizzou is still figuring out the lines of scrimmage, the back end in the secondary is better because of S Jaylon Carlies.
11. Mississippi State: Will Rogers has thrown nearly half as many TD passes in 2 games (5) as he did all last season (11).
12. South Carolina: Former grad assistant QB Zeb Noland is a fun story. This week begins the heavy lifting.
13. Tennessee: Vols are using TE Jacob Warren in various formations, and his versatility is a microcosm of the successful change in philosophy on offense.
14. Vanderbilt: You want surprise? How about losing to FCS East Tennessee State at home to begin the season, then winning on the road at Colorado State?
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I can’t wait until Nick Saban retires. This might be a dumb question, but how do you beat Alabama? Korey Stevenson, Detroit.
Korey: It’s not a dumb question at all. In fact, it’s a brilliant question. How do you beat the unbeatable? In a word: pressure.
Alabama has gone from a national champion based on running the ball and playing defense, to a national champion based on outscoring the other guy – and good defense when it has to have it. So how do you outscore/beat the Tide?
You pressure the quarterback. You force him into off-schedule throws and hope he throws inaccurately. You sack him and force the offense to work behind the chains and become more predictable. You hurry him into quicker decisions, which result in poor reads and throws.
Who says defense doesn’t win big games?
When you affect the quarterback, you give your back end on defense the ability to make plays in coverage by allowing them less time in coverage. The longer they have to cover, the easier it is for Alabama to systematically pick you apart.
The game is quarterback-driven, and the best way to beat the best team in the game is to affect their quarterback. Over the next month, we’ll see that philosophy play out twice with Florida (which can get after the quarterback) this weekend, and Texas A&M (which can also rush the QB) on Oct. 9.
Even Ole Miss, which will try to outscore Alabama (Oct. 2), will need a handful of defensive stops to win that way. Other than those three games, no one has a legitimate chance to beat Alabama before the SEC Championship Game.
6.7. We’re 2 games into the season, and it’s clear why some on the LSU staff believed Myles Brennan was the best choice at quarterback (before a season-ending injury).
Blame uncertainty on the line (3 starters were out last weekend vs. McNeese State), or inconsistent play from wideouts (numerous drops), but QB Max Johnson is still a work in progress. He’s averaging a paltry 6.7 yards per attempt, and the LSU offense isn’t pushing the ball vertically and isn’t generating explosion plays.
Johnson is completing 60% of his passes, which in this age of quarterback-friendly offenses and rules, is a low number.
The Tigers’ offense gets one more chance to gain traction this week against Central Michigan. After that, it’s consecutive games at Mississippi State, Auburn, at Kentucky and Florida.
That’s four strong defenses, all with the ability to rush the passer and create negative plays.
10. Quote to note
Georiga QB Stetson Bennett, on his 10-of-12, for 288 yards and 5 TD performance vs. UAB: “It seems like that’s usually an Oklahoma stat line, when they’re playing North Southwest Texas.”