Those who expected an offensive explosion last week against Tennessee's stout defense were probably fending off the munchies because they inhaled. That just wasn't going to happen, not against that well-coached team even though the Gators had their chances to put many more points and gain a ton more yardage.
So all signs point to Lexington as the place where the offense that everyone expected when Coach Urban Meyer and Florida became an item will finally break out of its shell and show off the bells, the whistles, the gadgets and the funkiness that makes it so much fun to watch when it's run the right way. That's part of the problem right there. Gator fans tuned in to watch Utah last year and what they saw was this finely tuned machine that ate up chunks of yardage and blew out circuits on the scoreboard while making opponents look downright silly. They've been expecting the same thing at Florida and because it hasn't shown up yet, there are those who are starting to believe the naysayers who are cackling away, telling us they told us all along that it's one thing to make the San Diego States of the world look silly, but it's another thing altogether to do it in the SEC.
On paper, Kentucky's porous defense should be like tossing a couple of gas cans on the fire. If ever there was the perfect setup for an explosion, this is it. Of course, we were expecting the explosion in games one and two also, but while we got a few highlight reel plays to whet our appetites, there was not the relentless, go for the throat attack that everyone expected. Basically, there are two reasons why it didn't happen early on and why we're still waiting.
Problem one is this is the spread option and problem two is the play of the guards.
The Gators have been doing a fine job of spreading. It's the option part that has yet to emerge. Without the option, the offense is pretty much the same as any other four-wide, single back, shotgun offense that is the rage of college football these days. Figure it's only a matter of time before everyone's running it, kind of like the west coast offense about 10 years ago. So many people are running the spread that there are a number of advanced theories on how to stop it. What separates the spread option from the various other shotgun spread offenses is the option element. When there is no option, the offense can be rather pedestrian because there are a bunch of known theories about how to stop it.
Why the option makes this offense so difficult to defend is because it spreads the field then makes the opposing defense play assignment football. The option is stoppable, in theory at least, if you have disciplined linebackers and defensive ends who can play assignment football where everybody has a man that they have to account for. In theory, that's how you stop the option. Where the theory gives way to reality in the spread option is spreading out the defense with four wide receivers. By making the linebackers account for the running game with the option there is very little help for the secondary which is forced to try to cover the four wide sets man-to-man. Take out the linebackers and replace them with corners or safeties to help the secondary cover and the option will eat up that defense. Try playing a team like Florida without much help to double up on a Chad Jackson or a Dallas Baker and you have a potential disaster on your hands.
The lack of the option in the offense is the same problem Meyer and his quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen faced at Utah in year one. Alex Smith was a drop back passer, same as Florida's Chris Leak. It took a bunch of games for Smith to get the hang of running the option. Three games into his first crack at the spread option, Leak still doesn't look comfy. Meyer and Mullen are hoping that Leak's learning curve begins to accelerate but patience is a requirement here.
You can further pinpoint Leak's problem with the offense to a matter of confidence. To make the option work, Leak has to ride the running back with the ball and make the first read --- either give up the ball or continue down the line to force the hand of the defensive end. So far, there haven't been many correct reads and he's handed off practically every time to the dive back. If he pulls the ball out and proceeds down the line, the defensive end has to commit to stop the quarterback or go for the pitch man. If the end commits to the quarterback then Leak's job is to pitch to the trailer. If he goes for the trailer, then Leak has to turn upfield and run with the ball. It's the pitch part that is dicey for Leak. Meyer and staff preach taking care of the ball and Leak has to make that pitch with confidence. It's not quite as easy as it looks and there is tremendous potential for a turnover here --- and we know how Meyer feels about turning the ball over.
Until Leak can confidently make the proper reads coming down the line with the ball and then confidently make the pitch, the option isn't going to be a part of this offense.
The guards are another matter.
Florida has three veteran starters on the offensive line who have been there and done that so many times that they should be very good. Mike Degory is considered by many experts to be no worse than the second or third best center in the country. He's started every game since his redshirt freshman year. Randy Hand, over at left tackle, began starting four years ago when he was a true freshman, and Lance Butler at right tackle started two years at guard before moving over to tackle, his natural position, after the spring.
They should be good but they haven't really had much chance to show it in the first three games. The reason? Think guards, or lack of them. It's not that the guards haven't shown up to play --- they have --- it's just that they haven't exactly played like they actually showed up. For the offensive line to get in synch, it is the guards that have to get their collective acts together and what better place to get it together than at Kentucky?
The problem at guard has been experience, or lack of. Tavares Washington is a senior and a team leader, but he was a redshirt last year due to an injury and during the previous year he got got in a whopping 65 plays. Drew Miller has been the starter on the right side while Jim Tartt and his recovering shoulder have been brought along slowly. The previous staff burned Miller's redshirt last year by playing him something like 28 plays. Steve Rissler has some experience at guard but since he's also Degory's backup at center, he hasn't been playing guard. That changed last week against Tennessee when he replaced Washington, who sprained his elbow. Washington will play some against Kentucky but Tartt will get his first start on the left side and if Miller continues to struggle as he has in the first two games, then Rissler will be called on for relief duty.
There is no way to teach experience so it's more on the job training for the guards. Simply because they are from the SEC, Kentucky should probably offer a bit more resistance than Wyoming or Louisiana Tech but then again, there is a reason that the football Wildcats, unlike their basketball brethren who tend to show up fierce every game, are called the Mildcats.
What we have here is a near perfect opponent to get the offense going. Florida has better athletes and the Wildcats are pretty banged up, which equates to all the pieces being in place for the Gators to show up big when they have the football. Florida knows it can throw the ball already and even with Bubba Caldwell out for the year, there shouldn't be too much of a drop-off in the passing game against Kentucky's secondary so expect Florida to really make the effort to get the option going Saturday because the Gators are going to really need it the next week against Alabama.
And, look for the Gators to settle in on some rotation at the guard positions. This is the chance that Florida needs to find two functional guards who can carry out their assignments well enough that Degory, Hand and Butler can concentrate on theirs rather than worry about how they're going to help their buddies at guard.
Always there is the potential for upset but for the Gators to lose this one, they would have to play with zero emotion and discipline. The fact that the option and the offensive line play have been so sporadic probably takes that lack of emotion element out of the mix. Florida has practiced hard and with a certain edge in getting ready for this one. Meyer knows that if the Gators are to run the table in the SEC East they can't go week to week waiting for the offense to finally come around. With Alabama, LSU and Georgia looming on the schedule, the sooner the Gators work out the kinks the better. The opportunity to make it all happen is Saturday against Kentucky. A good showing could be a sure sign that Florida has a legitimate shot to win a championship.