The No. 11 Gators defeated Missouri 23-6 on Saturday in Columbia, but the news wasn’t all positive. Later in the day, Georgia beat Auburn 21-14 to clinch the SEC East. With the SEC Championship no longer in the picture, UF must focus on getting healthy during the bye week before tangling with Florida State (6-5, 4-4 ACC) in the Swamp on Nov. 30.
Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction as the Gators (9-2, 6-2 SEC) prepare to wrap up the regular season.
1) The Gators and their fans are going to miss this senior class a lot. This is arguably the most talented and deepest senior class since Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes exited in 2009. But the specialness of this senior class goes beyond just their talent. The unselfishness they play with is rare and fun to watch. You have a guy like Tyrie Cleveland who was almost a five-star recruit who’s only caught 18 passes and one touchdown this season. Instead of getting frustrated at not getting the ball, he’s possibly the Gators’ best perimeter blocker and a key part of special teams. Josh Hammond hadn’t touched the ball all game but seized his opportunity when it came and hauled in a 34-yard touchdown against Missouri. Lamical Perine hasn’t had a lot of success running the ball this season thanks to his offensive line, but he’s still finding ways to impact the game, with the latest example being his terrific 15-yard scoring grab against Missouri. On the defensive side, Jonathan Greenard’s team-first mentality is incredible. Despite not playing for UF the past two years, he referred to the Gators as “we” when discussing the team’s struggles with Missouri in past seasons. Gator Nation should appreciate these players over their final two games and send them out with large ovations on their Senior Day.
2) Coming into this season, a lot of people expected the offensive line to be a work in progress as they broke in four new starters. Still, guard Brett Heggie and center Nick Buchanan were viewed as two dependable building blocks that UF could count on to steady the ship. Instead, Heggie and Buchanan have been big disappointments. In his bits and pieces of playing time the last two years due to injuries, Heggie looked like an All-SEC type of player. He got beat multiple times in pass-protection against Missouri, with at least one of them resulting in a sack on third down. Buchanan got shoved into Kyle Trask’s lap several times to disrupt the timing of plays. They’re both part of the worst run-blocking offensive line at UF in recent memory. Relying on a bunch of inexperienced players combined with having your veterans regress is not a great combination.
3) Tedarrell Slaton’s emergence over the past three weeks could be a huge development for the future of the defense. At 6-foot-5 and 358 pounds, he’s always had the size and freakish athleticism to be a dominant defensive tackle. However, it’s been said that he didn’t always have a great motor or work ethic, and he’s also struggled to get his body in the right shape. He’s put together the best three-game stretch of his career against Georgia, Vanderbilt and Missouri. During those games, he made 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack. He’s played with much more consistency, and he’s received more playing time as a result. Florida will lose Adam Shuler and Luke Ancrum after this season, so Slaton should be next in line to start. The Gators need him to keep playing well.
1) Freshman offensive lineman Ethan White started against Vanderbilt and played a couple of series against Missouri. He’s now up to four games played, the maximum allowed for players to maintain their redshirt status. Will the Gators play White against Florida State and in the bowl game, or will they hold him out to preserve his redshirt? In an ideal world, this wouldn’t have even been a discussion and White would’ve redshirted. However, the offensive line playing poorly and Christopher Bleich transferring midseason aren’t ideal, so burning White’s redshirt is a realistic possibility. This could be a situation where coach Dan Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy leave it up to White as to whether he wants to redshirt or not.
2) Redshirt sophomore defensive back Marco Wilson has impressed since moving to the nickelback position full time two weeks ago. His quickness allows him to cover slot receivers more efficently than Trey Dean, and he’s a better tackler than Dean. He also seems to have a better knowledge of the defense than Dean. It seemed like Dean had to think through everything before trying to make a play, while Wilson is just reacting naturally. Will Wilson return next season, and, if so, will he continue to play inside? Unless Dean, C.J. McWilliams or Chester Kimbrough take major strides over the offseason, they might need him to. Does Wilson like playing nickel, and could the position they want him to play influence his decision to turn pro or return to UF?
1) Jonathan Greenard will be named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for the second week in a row on Monday afternoon. He won the award last week after his 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Vanderbilt. On Saturday, he sacked UM quarterback Kelly Bryant twice and made five tackles-for-loss. He displayed incredible burst off of the line and impacted even more plays than his statistics indicate. Florida’s had a long line of great defensive ends over the past decade or so, and Greenard has a strong argument to be in the top two or three.