If the season had played out as scheduled, Saturday's 1 p.m. opener with Eastern Michigan in The Swamp would be the game to eliminate the typical mistakes made in a season opener. Zook himself has often said that once the season begins, the most progress is usually made between the first and second weeks of the season. Instead of having the luxury of a teaching week, which is essentially what this week would have been if the season had opened as scheduled, Zook and staff have had to prep the team for game one while keeping an eye ahead to next week's game in Knoxville. Questions that should have been answered by now will be weighing heavily on the Gator staff.
The relative youth and inexperience of this team is a complicating factor. As many as eight to ten true freshmen will be suited up along with an equal number of redshirt freshmen who were sideline cheerleaders last year. These guys will be making that first run through the tunnel on opening day and not just in any stadium, but The Swamp. That's an experience that more than a few Gators over the years have described as overwhelming, a heart pounding adrenaline rush that can leave a young player in never never land for the bulk of a game.
That's why the Middle Tennessee game was so important. With the first game nerves a thing of the past, Eastern Michigan would have been your basic lunch bucket game. Get in, get out, get the win and move on to focusing on the UT game. For the team, there won't be time to wave at the crowd from the sidelines. Focus from the first snap to the last will be critical. For the staff, the key element will be getting enough snaps to evaluate the players who are expected to be in the rotation for playing time in Knoxville next week.
On offense, the critical positions for evaluation will be at wide receiver and along the offensive line. There are as many as eight wideouts who the staff would like to see in action Saturday. Will Chris Leak be able to spread the ball around enough that the staff will be able to get comfortable with a rotation that will work against Tennessee next week? And with so many receivers who need to see the ball and only one game to prep, will Leak be able to get the necessary work in with the two or three receivers who figure to be the top targets?
Over on the offensive line, the first unit of tackles Jon Colon and Randy Hand, guards Lance Butler and Steve Rissler and center Mike Degory need to get the work in. Offensive lines only get better the more snaps they get in as a unit. But, with depth always a critical issue in the SEC, the first unit won't get as many snaps as they want. In particular, Tavares Washington will need as much work as possible. He's a critical backup at both tackle positions but he missed almost the entire preseason rehabbing a bum knee.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, the extra game would have helped to settle nagging questions about depth at defensive tackle where there are as many question marks as there are players. Beyond Marcus Thomas and Ray McDonald, the talent is either injury prone (Kenny Parker), young (Clint McMillan, Brandon Daniel, Michael Hill, Michael Brown) or underachieving (Eric Holcombe).
At linebacker, there are four experienced players, not enough to go through an SEC game much less a full schedule. The staff will have to get snaps for freshmen Brandon Siler, Javier Estopinan and Jarvis Moss who will be depended on for critical depth. Siler and Estopinan will see the field in practically every situation while Moss is likely to be used only in pass rush situations.
Without the extra game, the staff will have to make a quick decision about the fourth corner. While Dee Webb, Reynoldo Hill and Vernell Brown have solidified themselves with excellent preseasons, there are questions depth at corner. Someone needs to step it up to provide the fourth corner for the two deep roster. Deshawn Carter is a fourth year junior who will get the first shot, but if he doesn't step it up, there will be a ton of questions going into Knoxville. Again, this is a time when having that extra game would have been so beneficial.
From a staff standpoint, the extra game would have given new offensive coordinator Larry Fedora a chance to get used to calling a game from the press box again. It's been a couple of years since he was the play caller. On the defensive side, the extra game would have also benefitted new secondary coach Dan Disch, making the transition from successful high school head coach to college assistant.
There is no question both the players and the coaching staff are ready to play someone other than themselves in practice. Playing the first game will take the edge that builds on any football team that has too many practice dates before the opener. Zook has to be relieved that finally, the season begins.
This is a game that the Gators will win handily. Because it is the season opener, the team will come out sky high and the likelihood of a blowout win by a huge score figures only to raise the energy level even higher. In addition to evaluating his team in game situations for the first time, Zook will have to bring the team's feet quickly back to earth for there's not another tuneup game to prep the team for the Vols. With a squad so young, that will be a tough task.
How quickly he can get the team refocused after Saturday could prove to be the most critical factor in a season that holds plenty of promise.
(Photo courtesy of UF Sports Information)