Missouri at Florida
Date: Oct. 18
Record: Florida finished 4-8 in 2013, including a 36-17 loss at Missouri. Missouri leads series 2-1
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
While I think Will Muschamp’s a good coach and in general the idea of a “hot seat” for having one losing season is stupid, Florida’s going to only bounce back so far from last year’s 4-8 disaster.
Florida’s stout defense makes them tough, but there are question marks. And any time you hire a new coordinator and hear that the offense will be “the polar opposite of what we were doing before,” as Jeff Driskel has said, that’s a worry. Kurt Roper showed he was a good OC at Duke, and his resume includes stops at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky, so he knows the SEC. His high-octane no-huddle offense has had success in a lot of places and can be tough to stop when operated effectively, but it may take Florida a while to get settled into it, and while 4-8 was a shock last year, even in the Gators’ successful seasons of ’12 and ’11, they were led by big defensive performances overcoming a pretty mediocre offense.
The quarterback discussion begins with Driskel, who looked pretty sharp in the Gators’ 11-2 season in 2012 and started the first three games last year (a close loss to Miami sandwiched by wins over Toledo and Tennessee) before breaking his leg in the first half of the Vols game. Driskel is a threat passing or running and showed two years ago that he knows how to win. Reports out of Gainesville indicate he’s healthy now.
Depth is a question mark. True freshman Will Grier’s ceiling is sky-high but, well, he’s a true freshman. Most Gator fans expect at some point Grier will jump into the No. 2 slot ahead of Skyler Mornhinweg, who was 0-3 as a starter last year including a loss to Georgia Southern that was the lowest point for the program in quite a few years.
Running back is one of several positions on the Gators offense affected by injury last year, but this story had something of a happy ending. When Matt Jones was lost for the year at LSU, freshman Kelvin Taylor stepped in and in spite of a piecemeal offensive line and not much of a passing threat, he ended up with 4.6 yards a carry and made the all-freshman SEC team. Taylor, who broke Emmitt Smith’s high school rushing record in Florida, returns and if Jones is back to 100 percent, the two make one of the best rushing combos in the nation, especially if the Gators line improves. Senior Mack Brown is a solid option here as well.
Senior Quinton Dunbar is the top man on the receivers chart at this point. He isn’t a big-play type player, but is a consistent possession guy with excellent hands and a fine route runner who provides leadership for an offensive unit needing it. The explosiveness this team needs may come from sophomore Demarcus Robinson, if he’s straightened up his off-field problems. He came in a highly touted recruit and has the size and speed to be a good one, but two suspensions for violation of team rules left him with only five catches last year. LaTroy Pittman is probably the third starter, and there’s some strong depth at the position as well. If Robinson stays on the field, this is a strong set of wideouts.
The Florida offensive line was pretty poor last year, and they lost two keys to graduation including center Jonotthan Harrison. So, taking a page from the Gary Pinkel playbook, the Gators move starting guard Max Garcia to the middle. Both tackles—D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green—have experience as starters but missed part (Humphries) or all (Green) of 2013 with injuries. Guards Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown both have played, but will be in new positions. These are all fairly good linemen, but rust, learning new positions and a real lack of depth makes this a bit of a high-wire act. One thing goes wrong, and this line…and the Gators offense—could be in trouble.
On the other hand, shaky as the outlook for Florida’s offense might be, the defense is a beast, quite possibly the best in the SEC in my view. The line is very good, led by a speedy Michael Sam type “tweener” Dante Fowler, Jr. Named first-team All-SEC for the preseason, he’s a monster pass rusher who can change the game in a heartbeat and will be appearing regularly in the nightmares of SEC quarterbacks. While he plays what’s known as the “buck” position in the UF system, a more traditional end on the strong side is Jonathan Bullard. Bullard was a five-star recruit and proved in his first season he belongs in the SEC’s elite as well. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings in the middle are good, especially against the run, but not as good as the ends.
The Gators run a complicated multi-set defense, so talking about “starters” in the linebacker corps is tricky, but they return two good MLBs with experience in Antonio Morrison and senior Michael Taylor. Even without being on the field full-time, Taylor led the team in tackles last year and provides serious leadership on the field. Morrison may also slide to the Will position. Another senior, Neiron Bell, will be on the strong side and there’s some intriguing backups here, as well.
Those who read or listen to me much at all probably know one thing about my philosophy on football: you cannot win without a great secondary. If I were to start a football team, I’d take a quarterback first then start bringing in shutdown corners. Florida’s going to be a team I’ll enjoy watching, with quite possibly the best corner in the nation in Vernon Hargreaves, III. He’d have eventually become a star, but when injuries gave him a shot as a true freshman last year, he knocked everyone’s socks off. The preseason All-American is the son of a coach and understands the game. The rest of the league can’t wait to see his inevitable move to the NFL. He may be the more experienced corner in Gainesville this year, as the other position will be a battle in camp with two freshmen, Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson leading contenders. At safety starter Cody Riggs has left the team for Notre Dame, but senior Jabari Gorman and sophomore Marcus Moye have at least some starting experience at free and strong safety, respectively and both face battles from good young safeties when the season starts.
The Gators defense is tough, smart, and balanced. They will be hard to score on either by run or pass. But with the question marks on offense, they are still a team that will be battling to get back to what Florida football once was. The schedule also does them no favors, and with a game against Mizzou part of a five game swing that includes ‘Bama, Tennessee, LSU, Missouri and Georgia, the young offense may be scrambling for answers by the time the Tigers arrive in Gainesville. The Gators are always tough in The Swamp, but Mizzou has more team balance and will win a good old-fashioned defensive battle and go to 6-1.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association. Find him on Twitter: @KBIAHellwege