*The Gators are ranked 13th (Associated Press) after a 31-3 loss at Alabama knocked them out of the top ten in both polls. Though it's small comfort Florida's demotion means the Bulldogs will not be playing three-straight games against top-ten teams, which would have been a program ‘first.' State is coming off games against then-#7 Georgia and then-#4 LSU, the first consecutive games with top-ten foes since 1986. The last time MSU played three ranked opponents consecutively was at the end of the 1999 regular season with a lineup of #11 Alabama, #22 Arkansas, and #23 Mississippi.
*Mississippi State is the only unranked team the Gators will play this October.
*This is Florida's 2005 Homecoming Game, and the Gators have a 16-year winning streak going in these weekends—the longest such streak ever for UF.
About the Gators: So, what offered more impetus for dumping Ron Zook so abruptly last fall? Was it the jolt of losing at Mississippi State; or was it watching Urban Meyer's Utah club blazing through a perfect season and seeing the need to stake a claim before somebody else waved a big contract? Whatever the reasoning the timing was right for both and Meyer moved up to the big league, with bigger talent and bigger resources. And, bigger demands, since the afterglow of knocking off Tennessee is a bit dimmer this week considering how flat Florida fell at Tuscaloosa. Still if aspirations for a national title are shakier at the moment these Gators are entirely in control of their SEC fate as long as they take care of business with LSU and Georgia. Hey, even Steve Spurrier took two seasons to win his first conference championship; Meyer has a shot at doing it in one.
Offense: Anomaly. That's the only way Florida can see a no-TD day at Alabama, the first time a Gator team hasn't reached the end zone since a 1992 loss at Mississippi State. Then again, while 13 points beat the Volunteers in September it didn't light up the scoreboard as UF is accustomed. Even piling up points on unranked opposition only ranks the Gators 54th nationally in scoring, and 48th in yardage gained. And Meyer's schemes aren't so radically different from last year. Maybe it's just taking a little longer than outsiders expected for Florida to get up to speed…and goodness knows the speed is there with as sparkling a roster of throwers, catchers, and runners as any. Quarterback Chris Leak gets, and deserves, the headlines. A two-year starter already, the junior ranks with the best Gator passers ever with a career 60% completion rate, nearly 7,000 yards produced, and 54 touchdown passes. He's ahead of pace this season with nine TDs against two picks and 1,224 yards, and visions of what Leak could do in a second season with Meyer are frightening. There's enough for defensive backs to fear right now with the typical cast of catchers in blue-and-orange. Junior Chad Jackson leads the three-wideout set, with 40—forty!—receptions in just five games so far, six of them for touchdowns. Dallas Baker (21 catches, 277 yards) and Jemalle Cornelius (14, 217) balance out the field, and there's sufficient depth to overcome the loss of Andre Caldwell with a broken leg. Defenses can't forget that Gator receivers not only run after catches but can always run a reverse, a program specialty. More typically tailback DeShawn Wynn (55 rushes, 241 yards, five TDs) totes the ball, while frosh Kestahn Moore is being groomed for future feats. Yes, they can catch thrown balls too. While Gator speed and skill are by-lines in this league, it's all the muscle up front that deserves attention with an offensive line averaging over 6-5 tall and 320-plus pounds. ‘Huge' is the word we're looking for. It's also a veteran group of four seniors and a rookie with 110 combined starts to-date, though a couple of injuries at Alabama to both guards might mean adjustments. Freshman Jim Tartt could open at either his usual RG slot or move to LG if senior Tavares Washington can't go. The heart of the group is senior C Mike Degory, who has started all 43 games of his college career—a record for Gator blockers. Why UF has allowed a SEC-worst 18 sacks is a legitimate question, though. At least this team does take care of the football with only two fumbles in five games. So instead of asking why Florida isn't scoring more points, the question should be who will be the unfortunate foe when the Gators eventually do burn out the scoreboard.
Defense: There's natural anxiety in Gainesville after the past two weekends, with 59 points hung on a Gator defense that had been strutting a bit after shutting down Tennessee. In truth this is a better unit than last year with across-the-board improvements in such stats as points, first downs, possession time, and turnovers. Florida ranks 12th nationally in yardage allowed and 21st in scoring defense. It's also a defense that should continue improving though a couple of injuries have chipped away at a largely-veteran unit. Most SEC D-lines these days are going with bulky tackles and lighter, quicker ends. Not Florida, which features a more balanced front that varies only 20 pounds from smallest-to-largest. The four-man set does miss starting end Ray McDonald who tore up a knee against Tennessee. But there isn't much dropoff here, especially with 265-pound Jerome Mincey at one end and second on team in tackles; and 275-pound Joe Cohen on the other end. DT Marcus Thomas is a lot quicker than his 285-pound size suggests, with five tackles for losses to-date. Oh, and only one of the ten linemen on this depth chart is a senior. MLB Brandon Siler not only plays his position but all over the field, with two sacks, two pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, and a team-best 27 tackles. And he's the ‘kid' of this corps, flanked by senior SLB Todd McCullough and junior WLB Earl Everett who picked two passes against Kentucky. The secondary doesn't like being left out of the fun on the other side of the line as both safeties have sacks to their credit. Senior SS Jarvis Herring and FS Kyle Jackson have combined for 32 tackles this season, while senior Vernell Brown and junior Demetrice Webb (six breakups) cover the corners. Florida intercepted 17 passes last season and has seven already this fall. This defense does a good job getting the ball back with a five-minute edge in possession time. The areas that need to improve are total sacks and a negative penalty ratio.
Specialists: Evaluations are somewhat mixed here. Florida rates well in kickoff returns but is only 104th in NCAA punt returning and middling in both net-punting and kickoff coverages. Junior Eric Wilbur is seventh in SEC punting at 40.6 yards, while former walk-on PK Chris Hetland has hit all six of his field goal attempts with a 47-yarder to his credit, and 13-of-15 PAT tries.
The Series: Florida holds a 31-18-2 lead in a series dating back to 1923. Mississippi State actually held a lead into the late 1950 on the strength of a seven-game win streak from 1936-42. But once this became an annual series, from 1962-1993, the Gators took control with three five-game win streaks scrattered over the decades, most recently from 1987-91. The annual meetings ended once the SEC went to Divisional rotations. That first game ended in a 13-13 tie and was played in Jacksonville; the second meeting came in Montgomery, and 13 other contests have been played in off-campus sites. Primarily, at Jackson where the Bulldogs used to hold ‘home' games. But since 1982 all but one of the meetings have been in Starkville or Gainesville, and the 1991 exception was because State sold a home game to Orlando for funding needed to expand campus facilities. The Bulldogs enjoy playing these games on the home field, having won the last four meetings in Starkville (1986, '92, 2000, '04). But State has not won in Gainesville since 1965. Sylvester Croom is 1-0 against the Gators, while this is Urban Meyer's first meeting with the Bulldogs.
Gator Notes: Florida has had a first-round draft pick taken in 17 of the last 23 years. Currently six Gator wide receivers and five running backs are on NFL rosters, with a total of 37 former Florida players in the league.
*Florida has played in 11 January bowl games since 1993.
*Since Florida Field was re-titled the ‘Swamp' in 1990 the Gators have averaged 40 points per home game and compiled a 84-11 record. B.H.Griffin Stadium has sold out 99-straight games and ranked 7th in national attendance last year.
Connections: UF running backs coach Stan Drayton was on the MSU staff last season, having come to State from Green Bay with Croom. He was reunited with his former boss Meyer at Florida.
*Six Bulldogs hail from Florida homes: WR Adron Chambers (Pensacola), LB Jamar Chaney (Fort Pierce), DB Jamal Johnson (Wauchula), LB Anthony Littlejohn (Jacksonville), OL Dio Herrera (Hollywood), and DT Andrew Powell (Clewiston). The only Mississippian playing at Florida is OT Tavares Washington (Greenville).
Did You Know? Florida has the SEC's longest active streak of avoiding shutout losses, having scored points in 209 consecutive games. That is the fifth-longest such streak in the nation, with Michigan (255) currently first. The next-best streak in the SEC belongs to Tennessee at 137 games. Mississippi State is last in the league with a three-game scoring streak since a shutout at Auburn.
Bulldog Record Watch: Halfback Jerious Norwood has run into a (defensive) wall the last few weeks, slowing his climb up the school career-rushing ladder. The senior still stands fifth on the chart with 2,399 yards. That puts him 53 yards behind James Johnson (1997-98) to reach fourth rung. The top-three rushers in MSU annals are: Walter Packer 2,820 in 1973-76; Michael Davis 2,721 in 1991-94; and Michael Haddix 2,452 in 1979-82.
*Senior Willie Evans added another sack to his career tally in the LSU game, and is now a half-sack out of sixth place. Evans has 15.5 in four seasons, just behind Robert Young (1987-90) at 16 even. Next up would be Greg Favors (1994-97) in fifth place. The career record of 49 by Billy Jackson (1980-83) is out of reach and likely always will be, though 25 years ago the statistic was judged differently.
*Sophmore tight end Eric Butler already owns the school touchdown-catch record for his position and has only played 15 games. Butler has snared seven balls for scores in a season-and-a-half, three of them this fall. He set the position-record for a season with four touchdown catches in 2004.
*Keith Andrews continued his perfect record on PATs by making his lone attempt against LSU, raising his career mark to 26-of-26. The MSU record for consecutive made-PATs is 37, set by Kinney Jordan in 1975-76. Andrews did miss a 47-yard field goal attempt and is 8-of-14 in his two varsity seasons.
*Junior quarterback Omarr Conner has thrown eight touchdown passes in five games this season, including a 66-yarder against LSU this past weekend. It was the longest scoring throw of his two years under-center, though Conner did toss a 84-yarder at Mississippi last year that was fumbled short of the end zone. In this year's opener Conner tied the program record for game TD passes with four, against Murray State, matching the standard Derrick Taite and Tony Shell. Conner now has 2,007 passing yards in 14 games at quarterback.
Rookie Report: 11 of the 21 true freshmen on this 2005 roster have played in at least two games. The latest to be activated were OT Calvin Wilson and LB Jimmy Miller, in the Georgia game. One true frosh is a starter, P Blake McAdams, and WR Aubrey Bell is in the regular rotation of wideouts. Seven others are in backup or special teams roles for now: KR/CB Derek Pegues, DE Charles Burns, LB Jamar Chaney, OG Anthony Dunning, CB Keith Fitzhugh, OT Michael Gates, and RB Brandon Hart.
The newcomers who have not played yet are: WR Tay Bowser, OG Johnny Carpenter, WR Adron Chambers, QB Ty Evans, WR Corey Gardhigh, OT Craig Jenkins, DB Jarvis Kyles, QB Tray Rutland, OL Chris Spencer, and DE Quinton Wesley. Of those, Carpenter and Wesley are dressing for SEC games and Chambers is now practicing at defensive back.