VETTEL: Six Keys To UF's Stretch Run

The wounds suffered in the Auburn game, many of them self-inflicted have had time to heal. The dream of running the table has been shattered and modified, and the opportunities the season still presents are right in front of them. Now the Florida Gators get set for a five game stretch run which will do one of three things for the 2006-07 Gators.

The best case scenario sees the Gators run the table, post an 11-1 record, move into the top three or four in all the polls and head to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game and a chance to play for the national title.

The next best has the Gators winning four of five, but still claiming the SEC East one way or the other. A national title is no longer in the picture, but a chance to win the SEC for the first time in six years and earn the first BCS bowl bid in five campaigns is right there for the taking.

The third scenario --- the one Florida must avoid --- involves two or more losses and watching Tennessee or Georgia playing for the SEC crown. That would make for a long, depressing off-season of coulda, woulda, shoulda. It would also send the Gators to Nashville or Memphis for its bowl game.

For the Gators to finish strongly, I think there are six things that have to happen, and they have to happen beginning next Saturday in Jacksonville.

CUT BACK ON TURNOVERS: Through eight games the Gators are a mediocre minus-one in turnover differential. A year ago the Gators topped the SEC at plus-18 in that category; a number that ranked third in the nation. The big problem has been on the giveaway side of the ledger where Florida has committed 15 turnovers in seven games. That's two more than they had all of last year (12 games). The 2005 Gators came up with 31 takeaways, but are about a half a turnover a game behind that pace. You'd like to get a few more in that category, but protecting the ball is the bigger issue.

PLAY BY THE RULES: Gator partisans can moan and groan all they want about officiating, but it doesn't change the reality. Florida is by far the most penalized team in the SEC after being next-to-worst in that category a year ago. The Gators lose 63 yards a game to penalties, 22 more than their opponents. That's like starting every game down two first downs. In SEC games it's even worse with the Gators having almost 26 more yards in penalties. Those things don't hurt you against UCF and Kentucky, but it sure made life more difficult against LSU, Tennessee and Auburn. Like turnovers, penalties are self-inflicted wounds that can be healed internally.

GET THE BALL DOWNFIELD: So much was made about the return of the big play to the Gator offense early in the season but in the last two weeks that has been less and less prominent. Florida has to get back to challenging defenses down the field with the speed of Bubba Caldwell and Percy Harvin. That will give the Gators a chance to score 30 or more points in a conference game, something they haven't done all season. It's also going to back safeties off the line of scrimmage opening up both running opportunities and underneath routes.

GET OFF THE #$%&@#! FIELD: I'm not normally a "time of possession guy" because it's often a meaningless stat … but not always. Florida had the ball for only 23:17 against Auburn and a minute of that was watching kickoffs sail out of the end zone. Generally speaking, you can't score when your offense is off the field. I am a big "third down conversion guy" and the last three weeks that stat has been a very poor one for the Gators. Florida offense is converting just 30 percent (9-30) on third down. But Gator opponents are converting almost half the time (21-44). The third down conversion rate certainly contributes to dominating time of possession. It also creates more urgency to score when you have the ball, which leads to turnovers and penalties. Most teams set a goal of 50 percent on offense and 30 percent on defense. Florida was close to those numbers the first four games, but not lately.

LET THE FRESHMEN RUN: Percy Harvin averages more than eleven yards per carry. Jarred Fayson gets seven, Tim Tebow almost six. Those three guys combine for about nine carries a game. That number should almost double from here on in. Just look at the numbers: Freshman trio 65- 453, 6.96; All others 172-651, 3.78. That's over three yards more per carry.

LEAK MUST ESTABLISH A LEGACY: Chris Leak has done some remarkable things at UF, among them never lashing out at teammates or brooding about the revolving door on the offensive coordinator's office his first three years. Still, for all his passing yards (9,774) and touchdown passes (80) he has not led the Gators to a division title. It's not all on him, but as a quarterback that's where the credit and/or blame will lie. He cannot have the kind of mistakes that cost Florida the game in Auburn. Florida is better than the final five teams on the schedule, and if Leak plays at a high level, they probably won't lose to any of them. Then he'll get a chance to join the short list of Gator quarterbacks who have led UF to an SEC Title.


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