Just like that, it’s all over. It seems like just yesterday that the Gators were in Orlando to kickoff the 150th anniversary of college football by playing Miami. No. 9 Florida’s 36-28 defeat of No. 24 Virginia in the Orange Bowl on Monday night closed the book on one of the oddest seasons in recent years.
These Gators (11-2, 6-2 SEC) lost their quarterback in the third game of the year, struggled mightily along the offensive line, were without their two-best pass-rushers for nearly a month and experienced inconsistency at safety. If you had known all of these things were going to happen prior to the season, how many games do you think they would’ve won? Seven? Maybe eight?
Instead, this team stuck together and scratched and clawed their way to the program’s first 11-win season in seven years, making this perhaps the best coaching job of Dan Mullen’s head coaching career.
The 2019 Gators won 10+ games in consecutive years, won marquee bowl games in back-to-back years and will finish in the top-10 in consecutive years for the first time since 2008-09.
Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction as 2019 winds down.
1. Kaiir Elam is going to be a force to be reckoned with over the next two seasons. The freshman cornerback took on a more significant role against Virginia due to CJ Henderson’s absence, and he didn’t disappoint. He demonstrated that he’s already become a complete player. He stuck closely to receivers like Velcro, and he only got beat twice when he slipped. On those two plays, he displayed great recovery speed to still contest the passes. He wasn’t afraid to take on ballcarriers and made a pair of nice tackles in space. Then of course, he secured victory with his leaping interception of Bryce Perkins at the UF 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. He’ll enter 2020 with massive expectations and deservedly so. Elam is the Gators’ next star cornerback.
2. The offensive line saved its best game of the season for last. UF rushed for 244 yards at 7.2 yards-per-carry and surrendered just one sack to the nation’s sixth-best pass-rush. They carved a gigantic hole for Lamical Perine to burst through for a 61-yard touchdown on the third play of the game en route to a career-high 138 yards for him. Just how good were they? Their 189 rushing yards in the first half would have been their second-best output of the season for an entire game. It wasn’t like the rushing stats were inflated by Perine’s long run, either. When they needed a couple of yards on third- or fourth-and-shorts, they got them. Only Nick Buchanan is scheduled to depart, so Monday night was an encouraging sign for the future of the offensive line.
3. Florida played a base 4-3 defense more than they have in any other game in Todd Grantham’s tenure as defensive coordinator. They started the game with David Reese, Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney all on the field at linebacker and Trey Dean watching from the sideline. They also rotated James Houston in throughout the night. Despite the Cavaliers abandoning the run early, they stuck with their 4-3 alignment throughout the game. Having three linebackers on the field helped keep Perkins from taking off and hurting them with his legs. They made him be a pocket-passer. Playing three linebackers did hurt them a bit against the pass, however, as evidenced by the 52-yard catch and run by Tanner Cowley on the final play of the third quarter when Houston bit hard on a play-action fake. Still, playing in a more traditional alignment made Perkins a one-dimensional player, which was Grantham’s objective entering the game.
1. Will any more underclassmen leave early for the NFL Draft? A couple of weeks ago, Mullen said he didn’t anticipate anyone else declaring early for the draft. However, that might have just been wishful thinking. It seems like there are always one or two players who surprise everyone by leaving early. The three players to watch over the next couple of weeks are cornerback Marco Wilson and wide receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney. Wilson said he plans to talk with his family and make his decision soon. He doesn’t have elite measurables, so he could benefit from another year in college. Grimes hasn’t indicated a timetable for his decision, but the way he’s spoken about next season with the media seems to indicate that he will return. As he was on the field, Toney is unpredictable. He’s accomplished nothing statistically that will impress scouts, but he would put up incredible numbers in a combine setting. It seems like he is leaning toward going pro. What these three players decide to do will play a large role in shaping the 2020 Gators.
2. Will there be any staff turnover this offseason? Mullen said he thinks all of his assistant coaches like it at Florida and will be back next season, but that’s hard to believe. There will almost certainly be one or two coaches who leave for jobs elsewhere. Grantham was rumored to be close to taking the defensive coordinator job with the Cincinnati Bengals after last season. If another NFL team comes calling, will he take the job this time? Quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson and linebackers coach Christian Robinson are both regarded as two of the top up-and-coming assistant coaches in the country. They could get offered coordinator jobs elsewhere. Staff stability is a big part of Mullen’s program, so it’ll be interesting to see how much he has to replace in the coming weeks.
1. The Gators will finish in the top-5. While they were ranked No. 9 in the final College Football Playoff poll, those rankings aren’t updated after the bowls. Instead, the Associated Press and Coaches polls serve as the final rankings. UF entered bowl season ranked No. 6 and No. 7 in them, respectively. Oklahoma should fall behind Florida following their ugly blowout loss to LSU in a semifinal. Georgia has a bunch of players out for the Sugar Bowl, so they could very well lose to Baylor and finish behind Florida for the second year in a row. The Gators should finish with their highest ranking since finishing the 2009 season at No. 3.