Roanoke's Around the SEC: Florida Week

Last Saturday night we got to see what our offense is supposed to look like – at least theoretically. The problem, of course, is that we executed the scheme properly against one of the least challenging defenses in America – but maybe we can stop torturing ourselves just long enough to enjoy the performance?

First, we won time of possession by holding the ball for over 45 minutes en route to 33 first downs. That is good football any time. Quarterback Johnny McCrary remained poised and elusive – and the offense looked balanced and confident for the first time all year. McCrary threw five TDs to five different receivers; he was 20 of 29 for 281 yards. Our running game piled up 243 yards – most of it gained by Ralph Webb. Dallas Rivers also contributed a number of bruising runs and the o-line pushed around ODU’s smaller defense. It was the second strong game in a row for the o-line – which followed up a good outing against Mizzou’s blitz-happy defense the previous week.

The play-calling was also more varied – with some lateral running, roll-out throws and even a well-executed tunnel screen. To the staff’s credit, they learned from the Charleston Southern debacle, pounding the ball early, establishing the run and then letting play action take its toll. Also, notably, the tight end set worked very effectively – evidenced by the fact that Scheu, Marcus and Dudchock each reeled in a touchdown grab. Dudchock delivered an impressive 50 yard scamper on a nicely thrown short toss. C.J. Duncan’s touchdown catch was of the circus variety – both Duncan and Latevius Rayford turned in very solid efforts. A glance at the roster reveals that McCrary, Webb, Rivers, and Duncan are all freshmen – so the casual daydreamer does have some material to work with.

On the whole, it was a great offensive outing, but – just to keep it in context – it was about average for what Old Dominion has been allowing. The glass half-full guys will note we have had a logical, tailored offensive plan two weeks in a row and things are looking up. The half-empty advocates have to be nervous that the performance against ODU proves that our scheme is geared to bulldozing inferior talent, but just doesn’t work against bigger, tougher SEC defenses. Obviously, our staff cannot expect to own the line of scrimmage against SEC opponents the way we did against ODU. This is especially true this Saturday. The Florida Gators have one of the best defenses we will face in 2014.

Florida is in a very weird place this week after being given up for dead following the Missouri rout. Much like Vandy, Florida underperformed mightily earlier in the year – largely due to poor offensive performance. The Gators were turnover prone and yet insisted on pocket passing. This allowed blitzing defenses to inflict carnage. Following the epic, home, self-destruct performance against Missouri, Will Muschamp – already presumed to be a dead man walking – used his bye week to good advantage in preparing for arch-rival Georgia. The Gators got a McCrary-like spark from the insertion of Treon Harris at QB, and they decided to run the ball down Georgia’s throat. This new scheme avoided the INT’s and sacks that had plagued the offense, while also revealing a hole in Georgia’s defense. Harris completed only 3 of 6 passes for 27 yards for the entire game; but Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones ran for 197 and 192 yards respectively against the Bulldogs. In short, Muschamp did exactly what Vanderbilt did to him last year in the Swamp – and it worked.

Going into last week’s games, it seemed likely that we would face a deflated Gator squad in Nashville – but Florida’s season turned on a dime. An expected defeat versus Georgia likely meant Muschamp’s immediate demise, a lost season, no bowl and a zombie performance on the road in Nashville. The big win in Jacksonville changed everything. The Gators are now playing with house money – and if they win out (versus us and South Carolina) in conference, they could actually win the punchless East.

This Saturday’s game is likely to come down to Florida’s ground attack versus Vandy’s run defense. Our defense was stellar against the run versus ODU – but has been vulnerable up the middle and on the edges this year, particularly when pounded by SEC-caliber o-lines. As an interesting sidenote, Derek Mason faced Florida OC Kurt Roper’s offenses twice while Roper was with Duke and Mason was with Stanford – the Cardinal fared well both times. It is likely we will stuff the box and dare Harris to beat us with his arm. Harris can look lost against a first-class blitz – although that has not been our strong suit this year – but our best hope is that Florida is tempted to throw and that turnovers ensue.

We will need to be patient on offense. The Gators’ defense is very talented – and we are likely to turn back to the quick release passing game that worked versus Mizzou. Florida’s dbs, however, are cagy enough to jump these patterns if we are not careful. Notably, we had serious difficulty running out of the Missouri set: will we let Patton Robinette run some dual threat series this week? I am thinking yes, given his effectiveness in Gainesville last year. The tight end package is also intriguing versus the Gators – it has been a very good wrinkle lately. It adds big blockers up front for the run game – but provides believable play action that can fool aggressive run-stoppers. If Florida’s defense has had a weakness, it has been a vulnerability to the long pass. Again, this has not been a strength for us to date, but the Gators will be missing safety Keanu Neal this week. Florida’s special teams have been vulnerable to kick returns on occasion, too, which does happen to be an area where we can do damage.

The intangible of the week could be the weather. The forecast is chilly and we have a cold weather game under our belts. Florida does not. My Gator insider, Gainesville Josh, reminds me that last year Florida’s sole cold weather outing did not go well for the warm-weather Gators. Another factor is the memory of last year’s game – a convincing 34-17 Vandy win in the Swamp. Florida likely will have revenge on its mind – but Vandy’s players have the confidence of knowing they can beat the Gators. So long as we are discussing head games, it merits mention that Vandy rb Ralph Webb is a Gainesville High product who was not recruited by the Gators – that will likely be on his mind Saturday.

Vegas likes Florida by 14 – even minus a couple of banged up starters. It is a hard game to figure – the listless early season Gators barely survived UT and Kentucky. The re-energized Gators led by future NFL-ers Dante Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves III looked like a January bowl team versus Georgia. Are they due for a let-down or a break-out this week? Sadly, I think we get their best shot – an outcome I would not have expected two weeks ago. Pick: Florida 31, Vandy 14.

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The Alabama-LSU match-up dominates the SEC slate this week. Pre-season I marked Bama’s trip to Death Valley as the Tide’s most likely loss. But Bama already has a loss – and they cannot afford another one. As we noted before Bama’s last bye week – the Saban era has not seen great success following a bye. Just the same, the lackluster finish against Tennessee probably gave Coach Saban a lot to chew on these last two weeks. Vegas likes the Tide by 6½. LSU has had its offensive problems this year and yet they are 7-2. The Bengal Tigers are also fresh off a bye following their win against Ole Miss. Look for LSU to run smashmouth football at the Tide and let their defense try to steal one. This should be a very physical game that could take a toll on Bama – which could come into play next week when the Tide faces MSU. Pick: Bama 27, LSU 14.

Auburn hosts Texas A&M as a 21 point favorite. A&M is without Kenny Hill again and the Aggies barely survived Louisiana-Monroe last week without him. Bama’s 59-0 massacre seems to have taken a toll on the Aggies. Auburn, meanwhile, won a classic in Oxford last week and should be loose and energized. Pick: Auburn 42, A&M 14.

Kentucky is dangerous at home and winless on the road. Georgia laid a season-wrecking egg last weekend. That makes this game in Lexington really interesting. Georgia’s defense has to be reeling after the Florida debacle. Kentucky’s offense is not fancy – but it is capable, especially at home. Frankly, Kentucky has not played a bad game in Lexington this year and Georgia will definitely be nursing a Gator hangover in this one. Vegas likes Georgia by 10. If Mark Richt is wise enough to run the ball all day, UK will likely succumb. Pick: Georgia 34, UK 24.

The SEC cupcake games are brutal this Saturday. MSU hosts UT Martin in a tune up before their trip to Tuscaloosa next week. After the recent close calls against Arkansas and Kentucky, expect the Bulldogs to come unleashed. Pick: MSU 52, UT-Martin 14. Presbyterian’s visit to Oxford was preordained to be a massacre even before Ole Miss suffered its agonizing last-second, goal line defeat to Auburn last week. Presbyterian may have beaten Charleston Southern, but the last thing the Blue Hose needed was to face angry Ole Miss. Pick: Ole Miss 49, Presbyterian 7.

Last Saturday seemed to be a crossroads in the SEC. Several high-flying teams hit the skids with a vengeance – and several struggling teams finally righted the ship. In Nashville this weekend, two of the latter teams meet up and only one can keep the momentum going. Given last year’s outcome, there is, at least, reason for hope.

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