Tennessee Review / Mississippi St. Preview

Florida gained a much-needed victory, getting it’s first SEC and road win of the season on Rocky Top.  Despite the large margin of victory, I’m not going to buy into any more fool’s gold – the Gator offense was still inconsistent, while the defense and an avalanche of turnovers by the Volunteers were mainly responsible for the blowout.  Yes, there seems to be progress in the development of certain players and positions, but Tennessee is so bad right now that any evaluation is tainted.

After a strong first quarter in both production and execution, both the offense and Franks’ performance struggled at times with some questionable play-calling and mental errors.  Franks gets credit for improvising on his 2 long TD throws to Swain and Cleveland, but he took advantage of a terrible Tennessee secondary.  There were still missed opportunities and some inaccurate throws that would have extended drives.  The running game did enough to provide balance, but the O-Line still has issues with getting a consistent push.  Scarlett had a few nice runs and the TD that iced the game, but the rest of the game was spotty less Pierce’s TD after the game was decided.  Pass protection had less blown assignments and rushers coming free at Franks, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.  The performance of the WRs was difficult to judge, as there were only 18 pass attempts.  Swain continues to surprise as the breakout star, adjusting his route when Franks had to move out of the pocket to get open and outrun the Vol secondary.  I feel for Jefferson and Grimes, who, along with Toney, were underutilized……again.  Toney only had 2 touches – a wildcat QB keeper for 9 yards and a jet sweep for 34 yards.  Perhaps his blocking is not up to par or he is not performing well in practice, but the staff is wasting a real talent.

The Gator defense dominated at the LOS as it should have against a poor Vol O-line.  The D-line gets credit for improving it’s run fits, but the real difference was the return of David Reese at LB.  His presence really shores up the entire run defense and provided an emotional spark.  Transfer Adam Shuler is becoming a playmaker at DT, and has earned a starting role.  The DEs had a field day rushing the passer and getting some monster hits on the Vol QBs – eventually knocking Jarrett Guarantano out of the game.  There are still holes in pass coverage in the middle of the field, and Trey Dean is going to get picked on at CB until he gains experience and improves his deep coverage.  The biggest surprise of the night on defense was the emergence from the missing person’s file of Brad Stewart at safety.  He made a great interception on a deep pass, and came up in run support and actually made some solid tackles.  The overall performance of the safety position has been so bad that any development by him or anyone else will be a huge boost.  Overall, the defense played with more energy than in any game so far this year, and that has to continue.

Special teams play was solid again.  McPherson made all of his FGs and kicked off well, while Townsend pinned Tennessee inside the 20 many times and also hit a few long punts to flip the field.

Next up on the schedule is the Dan Mullen Bowl, as he returns to the aptly-named Starkville to face his former team in Mississippi St.  The Bulldogs have had this one circled on their calendar ever since he left for Florida, and will be very motivated to stick it to him and the Gators this week.  It will be interesting to see how they react after getting whipped at Kentucky, which has taken some wind out of their sails and slowed their talk about being a contender in the SEC West.

MSU’s offense is led by senior QB Nick Fitzgerald and a tough O-line.  He is a physical runner but a mediocre passer, and the Gator defense will have to try and replicate what the Wildcats did – stuff the run as much as possible and force him to throw to beat them.  RB Kylin Hill and WRs Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry are the main contributors after Fitzgerald.  The WRs don’t have a large volume of catches, but don’t be fooled – they are quality players that simply don’t get as many touches due to the reliance on the running game and the inaccuracy of Fitzgerald.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see backup QB Keytaon Thompson get some snaps for a change of pace – his throwing ability is no better, but he is a much quicker and dangerous runner.  The Gator DEs will again be relied upon to set the edge, while the secondary has to stay disciplined and not get caught peeking into the backfield just to get beaten over the top.  Something tells me that MSU is going to try and throw long more often this game.  The Bulldogs will be a much more formidable opponent than Tennessee – the defense will have to continue to play with effort and not lose confidence even if they give up some big plays along the way.  Coach Grantham is very familiar with the MSU personnel, and should be able to scheme up some looks that he knows will affect Fitzgerald’s play and slow down the Bulldog running game.

Once again, the success of the Gator offense rides almost solely on the arm of Franks.  Even if Florida can establish a semblance of a running game, he will have to have success throwing the ball if the Gators have any real hope of winning.  The MSU front seven is tough and physical, and has two of the better DEs in the SEC with Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons – they are effective pass rushers and will have to be accounted for by the Gator tackles and RBs in pass protection.  The O-line has to find a way to establish a run threat, or else this will be a long evening for the offense.  The tackles will have by far their toughest assignment of the season to date in pass protection, and have to at least get a stalemate against those tough DEs.  I’m hopeful that (finally) there will be a package to exploit Toney on the edges.  Getting (and keeping) the RBs involved in the passing game will also help slow the pass rush and stretch the defense, not allowing them to crowd the box.  Finally, there will be chances to hit some deep throws, but is Franks capable of exploiting the advantage the WRs have over the Bulldog CBs?

MSU is coming off of an embarrassing loss at Kentucky, and will seek to re-establish it’s identity against Florida – a power running game and tough run defense.  These are two areas that the Gators have struggled with this season, and it doesn’t help that the players and fans will be especially hyped for Mullen’s return.  I feel that the Gators could pull this one off if they can get an early lead and force the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone by having to pass more often.  Perhaps the special teams can continue to make big plays and set up some easy scores to help with the upset bid.  However, I still don’t trust Franks to be an efficient and accurate passer and decision-maker, and don’t see the rest of the team being good enough yet to overcome the offense if it struggles against a quality opponent.

Prediction:  MSU 31            Florida 17

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