The No. 9 Gators’ (7-1, 4-1 SEC) season will be defined in two weeks when they take on No. 10 Georgia in Jacksonville. Are they a legitimate national title contender, or will it be another solid nine- or 10-win season that sees them come up a little bit short of reaching the SEC Championship Game?
Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction following UF’s comeback victory over South Carolina as they enter a bye week.
1) The Gators are finally throwing the ball to setup the run effectively. Earlier this season, fans seemed to get a bit agitated at Dan Mullen’s insistence on being a run-based offense. Running backs would routinely get stopped at the line of scrimmage while receivers ran wide open downfield. It looks like Mullen’s finally committed to being a pass-first offense over the past two games. In the first quarter against the Gamecocks, he called nine passes and just two runs. In the second quarter, once the defense presumably dropped further back in coverage, he called 11 rushes versus seven passes. The pattern repeated itself in the third and fourth quarters. Even when it seemed like the game was at hand, he kept throwing the ball to the point where fans started getting upset at the lack of rushing attempts. The plan worked, as they produced their most rushing yards against an FBS opponent this season (154) and averaged 5.1 yards-per-rush. Inserting Richard Gouraige at left guard and improved blocking by the offensive line certainly played a role, but Mullen’s tactical switch likely played a key role as well.
2) It seemed like they rotated more players on the defensive line than usual. Jeremiah Moon, Luke Ancrum, Zachary Carter, Mohamoud Diabate and Khris Bogle received snaps at end, while Kyree Campbell, Adam Shuler, Tedarrell Slaton and Marlon Dunlap played inside. Some of this likely had to do with not having Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, but it could’ve also been an effort to spread the snaps around to not wear anybody down in their seventh consecutive game without a bye week. Whatever the rationale was, the rotation worked well, as they rebounded from a poor performance at LSU.
3) The Georgia game looks a lot more winnable now than it did a month ago. UF’s offense appears to have reached another gear over the past two games, while Georgia’s offense looks like a one-man show. After losing at home to South Carolina, they failed to score in the first half against Kentucky on Saturday. Quarterback Jake Fromm threw for just 35 yards. Yes, it was raining for most of the game, but Kyle Trask threw for 200 yards and four touchdowns in nearly the same conditions. The Bulldogs are so conservative offensively that they lose most of the big games they play in and let some inferior opponents hang around. When the season started, the Gators were definite underdogs. Now, Gator fans should expect nothing less than to walk out of Jacksonville with a victory.
1) How healthy can UF get over the next two weeks? Mullen expressed optimism Saturday that Greenard and Zuniga would return to practice in time to play against Georgia. However, he said the same thing before the LSU game, and that turned out to not be true. Will Zuniga and Greenard make it through the entire game, and will they play like their usual selves? Several more players went down against the Gamecocks, including Trevon Grimes, Dunlap, and CJ Henderson. What is the status of those players? Can the Gators get Kadarius Toney back from his shoulder injury, and how could his return affect the offense?
2) Will Jacob Copeland continue to be a big part of the offense, or is the South Carolina game going to be the peak of his season? He nearly matched his receiving yards from the first seven games combined on Saturday. All three of his catches went for 20 yards or more and helped produce 17 points. He showed why he was such a highly regarded recruit with his 37-yard touchdown catch and run in traffic. Mullen said after the game that he’s seen greater maturity and discipline from Copeland in practice over the past few weeks, which allowed him to get more opportunities in the game. He needs to keep it up. Florida doesn’t need him because of how deep its receiving corps is, but adding a guy with his talents into the mix could only make this offense more dynamic.
1) Linebacker David Reese is going to have a monster game against the Bulldogs. D’Andre Swift averaged 8.5 yards on his 21 carries against Kentucky. The rest of the Bulldogs averaged 2.7 yards on the other 34 plays. Shut down Swift, and you shut down the Bulldogs’ entire offense. This is the type of game Reese excels in. He racked up 16 tackles at Kentucky and 13 against the Gamecocks. He’s probably going to need to hit double-digits again for UF to beat Georgia. Expect Reese to be up to the task.