Here's some perspective from the Florida Gators' sideline. Five questions with Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel.
1. Florida’s loss to LSU last season seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the Jim McElwain era. Obviously, there’s a whole new staff with Dan Mullen; but is there a lingering feeling among the players—or maybe even the fan base—that this is the opponent where everything went wrong? And that by beating them this year, it would provide some sort of validation?
“Personally, I don’t view this game at all in that light. McElwain is yesterday’s news and good riddance to the Florida fan base. Meanwhile, Mullen is gaining credibility and support by the week. Saturday’s expected sellout crowd is telling. It will be the first since Florida State visited the Swamp in November of 2015. The Gators are back in the Top 25 and hosting a Top 5 team and heated rival; Tim Tebow will be inducted into the Ring of Honor; and the 2008 national title team will be recognized. A Florida win in that atmosphere would be a statement Mullen has the Gators back on track, if not on the fast track.
“Last season’s 17-16 loss to LSU surely was one of the dominoes in McElwain’s decline. But the game also came down to a missed extra-point by record-setting kicker Eddy Piñeiro, a third-team All-America. Well before then, McElwain had begun to fall out of favor with fans and UF decision-makers. The 2017 season-opening loss to Michigan exposed the Gators’ shortcomings in the strength program, recruiting, discipline and quarterback development. Michigan shoved around Florida's O-line all day, QB Feleipe Franks struggled and was benched, and backup Malik Zaire was even worse as the Gators failed to score an offensive touchdown. Nine players sat out amid a credit card fraud investigation, and would not play all season.
“A Hail Mary to beat Tennessee and a comeback win at Kentucky, where the Wildcats failed to cover receivers on two touchdowns, only delayed the inevitable. McElwain’s program was falling behind and fan unrest was building to a boiling point. McElwain’s claim of death threats to kick off Georgia week - claims he would refuse to prove this bosses - was the tipping point. A 42-7 loss to the Bulldogs six days later was the day the wheels completely came off the program and put the wheels in motion for Mullen’s hire. Mullen since has put his stamp on the program. A win Saturday would further validate the course he has set for the Gators.”
2. Ed Orgeron talked extensively about Florida’s aggressive defense under Todd Grantham and how the defensive line is very good at stunts. How exactly does that defensive line disrupt offenses?
“High praise coming from Coach O, who is a master of D-line play. The Gators’ pass rushers in fact were expected to be the strength of the defense, along with the team’s cornerbacks until a season-ending knee injury to Marco Wilson left Florida thin in the ranks there.
“The Gators can come in waves off the edge with Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson. The trio can beat opponents with raw speed (Polite), power (Jefferson) or a combination of both (Zuniga). Each also has the savvy and experience to play games with the interior players to confuse blockers and find open lanes to the quarterback. Add Grantham’s aggressive play-calling and it’s no wonder the Gators are tied for second in the SEC with 15 sacks for a league-leading 107 yards of losses.
“Jefferson’s return in Week 3 from a two-game academic suspension has been key. One of the team’s leaders, Jefferson returned for his senior season to improve his draft stock and is on a mission to make amends. Another key factor is Grantham’s penchant for rotating players. With Polite and Jefferson sharing snaps last week at Mississippi State, each had handled around 30 snaps through three quarters and were fresh down the stretch. On the Bulldogs’ final series, Polite had a sack and Jefferson a tackle deep in the backfield, though he was flagged for a facemask.
“Finally, coaches have harped on the Gators about increasing their level of physicality and made practices more demanding. The improvement of UF’s interior line there, with West Virginia graduate transfer Adam Shuler leading the way, opens up things for the team’s pass rushers.”
Can't see video below? Click here.
3. Feleipe Franks seems to have made a drastic improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore year. Orgeron said Franks isn’t yet able to make all the throws on the field, and Mullen has been smart about giving Franks favorable throws. Have you seen that? And how do you assess his improvement?
“Mullen clearly has shown his ability to develop and manage quarterbacks this season. Few outside the program were confident Franks ever would figure it out following last season’s struggles with decision-making, accuracy and confidence. Franks has improved dramatically in each area under Mullen and QBs coach Brian Johnson, who continue to put the redshirt sophomore in positions to succeed.
“Mullen spoke this week of the balancing act of playing to an offense’s strengths and away from its weaknesses. Mullen and Co. rightly have identified the team’s embattled offensive line as a problem area. Florida might have the receivers to go deep and Franks might have the arm to throw deep, but he does not have the time to throw deep. At Mississippi State, Florida relied heavily on quick throws to the perimeter and screens, likely to lead LSU to employ a lot of press coverage Saturday.
“Those kinds of throws also favor Franks, whose decision-making and conviction still can be shaky when going down the field. Franks is better when he can make one, maybe two reads, and get rid of the football. During last season’s LSU game, Franks was asked to sit in the pocket and survey the field - and he suffered five sacks. Under a new coaching staff, Franks appears to be a totally different player. He is making far fewer mistakes, more pinpoint throws and even has added a run element to his game. Every week he looks more comfortable in Mullen’s offense, but LSU’s defense has the talent to make Franks look uncomfortable again.”
4. There’ve been favorable starts in both the Muschamp and McElwain eras. Are Gators’ fans skeptical of this one? Or do they believe in Mullen?
“Favorable scheduling has a way of leading to fast starts and creating false impressions. Under Muschamp and McElwain, Florida typically faced overmatched non-conference opponents and struggling Tennessee and Kentucky programs in September. Once October arrived, reality often would set in. There certainly were times when the Gators stumbled in the season’s first month under Muschamp and McElwain. Mullen suffered a misstep himself against Kentucky.
“Mullen now has a chance to kick off October with a season-defining win. But whatever happens Saturday, most Florida fans are embracing Mullen’s energy and approach. This even includes the segment of the fan base that doubted Mullen after Florida did not hire Scott Frost or Chip Kelly. Mullen seems to have the Gators on the right track, but at the same time most expected the Gators would be 4-1 entering the LSU, with a win against Kentucky and loss at Mississippi State.
“It will be hard to imagine everyone will not be bought into Mullen if the Gators beat the unbeaten Tigers Saturday. But the real key is going to be later this month when Florida’s coaches hit the recruiting trail, where Mullen and his staff still has much to prove to everyone.”
5. It may be off base to ask about a team that’s not playing in this game. But it’s the only loss on Florida’s schedule, and the team has also beaten Mississippi State. I’ve got to ask: Is Kentucky legit?
“Kentucky seems to be reaping the rewards of its commitment to sixth-year coach Mark Stoops. Solid recruiting, player development, facility enhancements and key staff changes under Stoops have coalesced during the Wildcats’ blistering 5-0 start. This includes impressive, if not one-sided, double-digit wins against Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina.
“This weekend, the Wildcats face a challenge on the road at Texas A&M. While Kentucky was beating Florida for the first time since 1986, the Aggies nearly knocked off Clemson Sept. 8 at Kyle Field. Against Stoops’ defense, A&M coach Jimbo Fisher will need QB Kellen Mond to play like he did that night, when he threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Kentucky is surprisingly physical on both lines, has the SEC’s leading rusher, Benny Snell, and a senior-laden secondary helping the Wildcats lead the league in pass efficiency defense.
“Stoops’ teams have had fast starts before. His 2014 team started 5-1 and finished 5-7. A 4-1 start a season later ended in another 5-7 finish. But times have changed in Lexington. Who would have thought at Nov. 3 visit from Georgia could decide the SEC East.”