Five games remain on Florida’s schedule, three that the Gators might have to go belly up to lose (Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic) and two that will require a maximum, sustained effort from the defense. No matter who it is the Gators are playing the rest of the way, it will require the usual dose of smoke, mirrors and ball protection to get by on offense although given that Demarcus Robinson, Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway will be on the receiving end of Treon Harris passes, we can expect a measure of explosiveness. But no matter what the offense comes up with, it’s still going to be the defense that has to carry the day for the Gators. They can’t afford shootouts. Last week’s 35-28 loss to LSU is probably as close to a shootout as the Gators can play.
When Jim McElwain took over as head coach, he knew he inherited a lot of talented defensive players but there were concerns about the tackles and the depth at linebacker. Jon Bullard has played at an All-SEC level at tackle but that was almost expected. The surprise has been the maturing of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivey and Taven Bryan, which has given coordinator Geoff Collins one of the top three 4-man rotations on the defensive interior as you will find in the SEC. The linebacker depth has been helped by the fact that six of Florida’s first seven opponents run a spread offense so the Gators have been in a nickel and dime package probably 85-90% of the time. That has allowed Collins to get away with essentially a 2-man rotation of Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis, both of whom have been outstanding.
In at least two of the five remaining games – Georgia on October 31 and Florida State on November 28 – the Gators are going to need that third linebacker because both teams will line up in the I-formation so their very fast tailbacks (Sony Michel at Georgia; Dalvin Cook at FSU) can pick and choose their own hole and find daylight. Georgia averages 215.57 rushing yards per game and 5.76 yards per carry while FSU averages 191.67 per game and 5.50 per carry.
Both these games are very winnable for Florida but it’s going to take superior game planning and execution for Florida come out ahead.
There should be no lack of confidence for the Gators going into either of these games. The Gators slowed Nick Chubb down enough last year in a decisive win and quite frankly, it’s still a mystery how UF lost to FSU in Tallahassee after holding the Seminoles to 306 yards. Georgia won’t have Chubb this year and although the Seminoles do return Dalvin Cook, the passing game isn’t nearly as dynamic.
It must be noted that Florida’s offense has done its part to help the defense by protecting the football. One reason the Gators have won the field position battles is the lack of turnovers. The Gators have committed only five turnovers all season and none since the second quarter (14 quarters ago) of the Tennessee game. A lack of turnovers and Johnny Townsend’s consistent punting (44.3 per punt) have meant Florida’s defense hasn’t had to defend short fields while opposing offenses have had to grind it long distance to put points on the board.
When this season began, everybody knew the defense would have to come up strong. Well, it’s done its part along with the offense and with five games remaining it’s not a stretch to imagine the Gators finishing the regular season 10-2 or 11-1. Who would have thought that in August?
3 DEFENSIVE POSITIVES THROUGH 7 GAMES
1. Opponents are converting only 33.94% of their third down attempts against the Gators. That’s actually an improvement over last year’s 38.58%.
2. At their current pace, the Gators will surpass last year’s totals for tackles for loss and sacks. Last year, the Gators had 87 tackles for loss, good for -363 yards, an average of 7.25 tackles for loss per game. This year, the Gators have 55 tackles for loss for -267 yards, an average of 7.86 per game. Last year the Gators had 30 sacks for -232 yards, an average of 2.5 sacks per game. This year the Gators have 21 sacks for -174 yards, an average of 3 sacks per game.
3. Although the Gators gave up fewer yards per carry (3.17) and rushing yards per game (116.7) last year, this year’s defensive unit is more than holding its own. Opponents are averaging only 3.46 yards per carry and only slightly more yards (116.57) per game.
#8 Alabama (6-1, 3-1 SEC): First down defense had everything to do with Alabama’s shutdown of the Texas A&M offense. "When it's second-and-5, it's hard to rush the passer," Saban said. "When it's second-and-10, it's a lot easier. When it's third-and-8, it's a lot easier. We created a lot of those situations in the game, and I think we were able to affect the quarterback because of it.” Alabama sacked Texas A&M quarterbacks five times, held the Aggies to 32 rushing yards and picked four passes, three of which were run back for TDs.
Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 SEC): Running back Kody Walker, who broke a hand in the loss to Toledo, will return to action against Auburn. He will play with a smaller cast that will make it easier to grip and hold on to the football. Wide receiver Jared Cornelius recovering from a double fracture of his forearm, could play but Bret Bielema says it might be another week.
Auburn (4-2, 1-2 SEC): Arkansas might be 2-4 overall, but Gus Malzahn says you can’t judge the Razorbacks by their record. Malzahn says playing in Fayette Nam is going to be a challenge for the Tigers. Malzahn said, “Bottom line is we have to play our best game … definitely a tough place to play.”
Georgia (5-2, 3-2 SEC): There are concerns about the offensive line, which was thought to be a team strength heading into the season. Asked about the play of his OL, Mark Richt said, “I’d say our tackles (John Theus and Kolton Houston) have been our most consistent over the course of the first seven games. (Left guard) Isaiah Wynn started out playing extremely well and I think he’s struggled a bit lately. (Right guard Greg) Pyke’s been up and down a little bit. (Center Brandon) Kublanow has been solid but with the (recent) ankle (sprain), you just can’t quite get the push you want to get when you’re blocking.” Against Missouri, Georgia’s longest run was 10 yards.
Kentucky (4-2, 2-2 SEC): As the Wildcats prepare to face Mississippi State in Starkville, Mark Stoops reflected on the first half of the season and just how close the Wildcats are to being 6-0. “We’re very disappointed we did not beat the two teams that we lost to in Florida and Auburn,” Stoops said. “We had our opportunities. We just need to continue to build and get better and find those ways to win those games.”
#5 LSU (6-0, 4-0 SEC): Les Miles said there is no way LSU will take Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference lightly this weekend. “Offensively, this team can play,” Miles said noting that quarterback Brandon Doughty completes 74.1% of his passes and has thrown for 2,709 yards and 24 touchdowns. Miles says WKU is more than an offensive juggernaut, however. “This is a complete team,” he said. “This team will stop you on defense, move the ball and score on offense and play special teams very dangerous.”
Mississippi State (5-2, 1-2 SEC): Quarterback Dak Prescott is the third (Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are the others) SEC player to pass for more than 50 touchdowns and run for more than 30 in his career. “That is a lot of touchdowns that he is responsible for on the field,” Dan Mullen said Monday. “If you talk to him I’m sure he will be very humble about it. He has thrown over 50 touchdown passes but someone had to catch them. He’s responsible for 90 total. That’s a lot. Someone had to throw it to him. People had to block for him. He had to throw it and someone had to catch it. It’s a lot for the team but a lot of it is on him and the success we have had offensively because of his growth and playmaking ability.”
Missouri (4-3, 1-3 SEC): There is still no word on the status of suspended quarterback Maty Mauk. When Missouri released its depth chart for Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt, Mauk’s name was nowhere to be found.
#24 Ole Miss (5-2, 2-1 SEC): Third down is a problem for the Rebels. They rank #102 nationally stopping opponents on third down and they’re #63 converting third downs when they’ve got the ball. On third down with 7-9 yards to go, Ole Miss opponents are completing 75% of their passes. Offensively, the Rebels have completed 38.9% of their passes on third down with 4-6 yards to go.
South Carolina (3-4, 1-4 SEC): The Gamecocks moved the ball for 424 yards in their win against Vanderbilt, going up tempo most of the game. With a bye week, interim coach Shawn Elliott plans some offensive tweaks to make up tempo the offensive style the rest of the season.
Tennessee (3-3, 2-2 SEC): Jalen Reeves-Maybin knows the key for Tennessee this week will be slowing down Alabama tailback Derrick Henry, who torched Texas A&M for 236 yards last year. Reeves-Maybin said, “You can’t have any arm tackles, any weak tackles. You have to put your pads on him and make him stop his feet. If we do that, we’ll be successful.”
Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1 SEC): Kevin Sumlin says quarterback play has to get better. “No doubt, need to play better at the position and those guys – (Kyle) Allen and Kyler Murray – first to tell you,” Sumlin said. “One [interception] could have been a better route. The last interception was uncharacteristic of Kyle.” Bad news for the Texas A&M defense. Linebacker Otaro Alaka, who missed the Alabama game, is gone for the rest of the season.
Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-3 SEC): Backup Wade Freebeck and freshman Kyle Shurmur are getting reps at QB this week. Head coach Derek Mason says he’s “exploring every option” at quarterback where Johnny McCrary has been turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
IVAN MAISEL ON THE UF TURNAROUND
Writing at ESPN.com, Ivan Maisel writes: “The 35-28 loss at LSU should not diminish the turnaround that Jim McElwain has engineered in his first season at Florida. We knew that the Gator defense would be good, a gift left behind by McElwain’s predecessor, Will Muschamp. But the Florida offense has been a marvel, and not because it is scoring points by the bunches. It isn’t. With two very young quarterbacks, the suspended Will Grier and Treon Harris Florida isn’t beating itself. The Gators have committed only five turnovers in seven games, and are plus-nine in turnover margin.”
ESPN.COM MIDSEASON ALL-AMERICA TEAM
QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU
RB: Leonard Fournette, LSU; Dalvin Cook, FSU
WR: Josh Doctson, TCU; Corey Coleman, Baylor; Will Fuller, Notre Dame
OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor; Taylor Decker, Ohio State
OG: Josh Garnett, Stanford; Dan Feeney, Indiana
C: Ethan Pocic, LSU
D-Line: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss; Shaq Lawson, Clemson; Myles Garrett, Texas A&M; Carl Nassib, Penn State
LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin; Blake Martinez, Stanford; Reggie Ragland, Alabama
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
S: Von Bell, Ohio State; Jeremy Cash, Duke
PK: Ross Martin, Duke
P: Michael Carrizosa, San Jose State
AP: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
My Comments: No Vadal Alexander (LSU, OT)? No Kentrell Brothers (Missouri LB), who is averaging more than 16 tackles a game? Can’t imagine why Jourdan Lewis was picked over Desmond King (CB, Iowa). Nkemdiche’s reputation seems bigger than his game this year.
CBSSPORTS.COM MIDSEASON ALL-AMERICA TEAM
QB: Trevone Boykin, TCU
RB: Leonard Fournette, LSU; Dalvin Cook, FSU
WR: Corey Coleman, Baylor; Josh Doctson, TCU
TE: Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky
OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor; Vadal Alexander, LSU
OG: Pat Elflein, Ohio State; Joshua Garnett, Stanford
C: Nick Martin, Notre Dame
DE: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M; Carl Nassib, Penn State
DT: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss; Adolphus Washington, Ohio State
LB: Kentrell Brothers, Missouri; Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame; Joe Schobert, Wisconsin
CB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida; Desmond King, Iowa
S: Jeremy Cash, Duke; Karl Joseph, West Virginia
PK: Ross Martin, Duke
P: Tom Hackett, Utah
KR: Evan Berry, Tennessee
PR: William Likely, Maryland
AP: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
My Comments: Alabama has the best defense in the country but no one midseason All-America? Not even Reggie Ragland?
DABO SWINNEY SAYS DALVIN COOK IS THE BEST
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN that he thinks FSU’s Dalvin Cook is a better running back than LSU’s Leonard Fournette. “They’re both really good, but if you can only pick one, I’m taking Dalvin Cook,” Swinney said. As for me, I’ll take Leonard Fournette, who gets his yards against SEC defenses. I’ll also take Fournette because of character. He didn’t need Free Willie Meggs to skate on a charge of beating up a woman.
Rick Pitino sounds convincing when he says he didn’t know graduate assistant Andre McGee was providing dancers and escorts to Louisville basketball recruits. He’s telling McGee to man up and “tell the truth.” Let’s assume that Pitino is telling the truth. That doesn’t answer the question how did a GA get the cash to pay for escorts and strippers?
J.T. Barrett will start at quarterback for Ohio State Saturday. He probably should have been starting all along. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year as a redshirt freshman and very well could have taken the Buckeyes to the national championship. Cardale Jones did a great job the three games after Barrett broke his ankle, but so far this season, Barrett is the one playing like he belongs on the field and Jones is playing like the guy who spent 12 games on the bench last year.
Travis Haney of ESPN says it’s a very real possibility that Rich Rodriguez might leave Arizona to take over at South Carolina. RichRod is currently making $2.8 million at Zona and his buyout is a reported $500,000.
Here are some buyout numbers for some coaches whose names will be heard: Dan Herman (Houston) $2.25 million; Chad Morris (SMU) $3 million; Justin Fuente (Memphis) $500,000; Kirby Smart (Alabama DC) $100,000.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
If you had to pick between Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, who would you take and why?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I have yet to figure out why Carleen Anderson’s music has never resonated in the United States as it has in the UK and Europe. Born and raised in Houston, she was a public school music teacher who moved to London in the 1990s fronting for The Young Disciples, which was a hot band on the club scene. When she took her career solo, she became a real star on the European R&B scene. Today’s music is from her 1998 “Blessed Burden” CD.