After what seems like six months of pre-season practice and the postponement of the scheduled opener the 2004 Gators finally got a chance to play somebody Saturday. But even then, you just knew it had to be difficult. Florida endured a 64-minute lightning delay before finally putting away an overmatched Eastern Michigan team. The Gators were sharper than expected with just one turnover and five penalties, which shows pretty impressive discipline considering the circumstances.
And they did it all in front of one of the smallest crowds in the Swamp in years. Yeah, I know they announced 90,009 as the attendance, but at least ten thousand of them were cleverly disguised as aluminum benches. By midway through the fourth quarter, The Swamp looked a lot like Sanford Stadium in Athens circa 1995.
BRIGHT SPOTS EASY TO FIND
There was plenty to like about the 49-10 victory Florida laid on the Eagles:
- The offense was sharp, committing just one turnover and scoring touchdowns on six of eight possessions during one stretch.
- The offensive line play was solid throughout. They did allow one sack, but for the most part controlled the game.
- The receivers seem ready to be playmakers led by OJ Small w/six catches.
- Ciatrick Fason appears to have distanced himself from DeShaun Wynn to become the number one tailback.
- Chad Jackson showed a spark on kick returns with a 47 yarder and added a 39-yard reception on a heckuva catch.
- Kickoff coverage was better.
SHORTCOMINGS JUST AS CLEAR
On the other hand there was plenty out there not to like. These items must be addressed quickly because the caliber of competition goes up dramatically:
- The defense allowed 184 yards passing in the first half to a team which passed for just 91 yards against lowly Buffalo. Coverage was spotty and soft. Second half was much better, but mostly because Eastern stopped throwing the ball downfield.
- Pass rush was minimal. One sack in 40 pass attempts is nothing to be happy about. Granted, Florida didn't blitz or show Eastern much in terms of coverage schemes. But the UF front four has to get more of a push.
- No defensive "playmakers". Gators with just one sack and one forced turnover did little on that side of the ball to excite the crowd or set up the offense for easy scores. Three interceptions were dropped.
- Not enough three-and-outs. EMU ran 76 plays to Florida's 66.
- Special teams gave up a 22-yard punt return, marring an otherwise solid performance
All in all Florida did what it needed to do after a tedious and frustrating pre-season. This team has the ability to beat everyone on the schedule, but also demonstrates enough weaknesses to be vulnerable most weeks. It's going to be interesting just about every week.
ELSEWHERE AROUND THE CONFERENCE
Several of you took exception to my referring to Georgia the best team in the S-E-C top to bottom, and midway through the second quarter Saturday I was looking into the witness protection program. However the Dawgs shook off a horrendous start to score the final 20 points in a 20-16 win over the Gamecocks. South Carolina will rarely have a better opportunity to knock off a top ten team. But a blown field goal opportunity, two late turnovers and a key stop on fourth down ruined their chance to take advantage of a collection of Georgia screw-ups too long to list.
A lot of people wrote off Arkansas because the Razorbacks had so few starters returning, but Houston Nutt's team was very impressive Saturday night. The 'Backs had a great chance to knock off Texas for the second straight year but fumbled away the chance to take the lead in the final quarter and lost by two. Anyone who thought October 12 was going to be a walkover better re-think that position.
CHRIS RIX STRIKES AGAIN
Has there ever been a college football player quite like the FSU quarterback? I can't think of anyone who is so equally capable of great games and awful ones in my 25-plus years of covering college football. "Sybil" was at it again in Miami Friday night with a putrid performance including four turnovers. Rix will play well again, unfortunately he always seems to against the Gators, but the loony-birds who picked him to win the Heisman have learned a lesson that Rix has taught FSU followers for the past four years.
And isn't it amazing that once again, a missed field goal (blocked this time) was crucial in FSU falling to Miami?
GOTTA PRAISE THE LADIES
One of my favorite things over the years has been covering and following some of Florida's phenomenal women's sports teams. And all indications are this is going to be a fantastic fall for Gator fans.
Becky Burleigh's soccer team has bounced back from a 3-nothing loss at Top-ranked North Carolina to post consecutive wins over nationally ranked opponents. A 5-1 win over #18 Duke and a 2-1 victory over sixth-rated FSU give Florida two huge victories away from home. Tennesee and Florida look like the top two in the SEC for 2004.
Meanwhile, Florida Volleyball Coach Mary Wise refuses to learn what it means to have a rebuilding year. Wise lost four seniors including two All-Americans from last year and lost a projected starter, Amber McCray to a season-ending injury. Despite those setbacks, the "depleted" Gators have gotten off to a 6-and-1 start. Florida beat 15th-ranked Kansas State and #21 Northern Iowa away from home, and lost a thrilling five-game match to fifth-ranked Minnesota on their home floor. 13 straight SEC titles looks like anything but an unlucky number for Wise and her charges.