Florida Gators: Mack Brown
Solomon Patton, WR: Not only is he Florida's only home-run threat, but Patton has become a leader by example in his senior year. Despite his diminutive stature (5-foot-9, 177 pounds), he fights as hard as any Gator for extra yardage. On Saturday, Patton had a 54-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter that helped set up a field goal. He also caught his fifth and sixth touchdown passes of the season, which is the most for any Gator since 2009. Consider that Florida has scored only 10 TDs through the air this season to discover Patton's true value in this offense.
Kelvin Taylor, RB: The true freshman ran 22 times for 95 yards, including a 33-yard gallop in the first quarter that set up Florida's first points. Taylor has established himself as Florida's workhorse tailback. He was ESPN's No. 1-ranked running back in the Class of 2013, and he has lived up to that pedigree. Even with Matt Jones and Mack Brown returning as upperclassmen next season, Taylor has gained enough experience to be guaranteed an important role in 2014.
The fans: You might say a lack of individual accolades has prompted a search for anything that is sticker-worthy. You might say this is blatant pandering. But the Florida fans who showed up (and stayed) in the Swamp on Saturday deserve some recognition. It wasn't a capacity crowd, but it was fully engaged and vocal throughout the game. Sure, there was a smattering of boos here and there. But for the most part, the fans encouraged their Gators right up to the last play.
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
Kelvin Taylor, RB: In his first-career start, Taylor rushed for 76 yards on 20 carries. He only had a long run of 10 yards, but he showed some solid moves in space.
Mack Brown, RB: While he only carried the ball nine times, Brown rushed for 41 yards and a 5-yard touchdown that got the Gators right back into the game with six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Leon Orr, DL: He might have finished the day with just two tackles, but he started Florida's second-half comeback in the third quarter when he picked up a dropped pass by Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch that was ruled a backward pass. Orr rumbled 10 yards down to the Bulldogs' 14-yard line. Two plays later, Brown scored the Gators' first touchdown.
Making Murphy throw: Without question, Georgia's defensive game plan will center around slowing down running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor enough to force the Gators to put the ball in the air. LSU and Missouri were largely successful in that regard, with the Gators rushing for 111 and 59 yards in the last two games, respectively. The Gators are averaging an SEC-low 4.4 yards per carry this season on designed runs, down a full yard from last season, when their 5.5-ypc average on designed runs ranked fourth in the SEC. If Georgia can make Florida's offense one-dimensional, it would appear to be a big advantage even against the Bulldogs' mediocre secondary. Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy has been subpar in the last two games, including a 3.0 Total QBR in the Missouri game -- the lowest QBR by a Florida starting quarterback in the last decade. His QBR has declined in each game he has played this season.
The Gurley factor: All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley -- who rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown last season against Florida -- returns to Georgia's lineup today after missing the last three games with an ankle injury. The Bulldogs' offense fell into a major slump without Gurley and the assortment of other offensive weapons who have missed time lately with injuries. He's the most important piece, however, so his return is one of the most positive developments for the Bulldogs' offense in weeks. Georgia averaged 554 yards of total offense in the four games in which Gurley played this season. Without him in the lineup, Georgia averaged 370 yards.
Three is the magic number: Winners of the last two in the series, the Bulldogs have the chance to build their first three-game winning streak against Florida since 1987-89 -- with 1989 representing the final season before Steve Spurrier returned to Gainesville as head coach and launched Florida's two decades of dominance in Jacksonville. Georgia has six winning streaks of at least three games against Florida, but the Gators had won 18 of the last 21 meetings before Georgia launched its current winning streak with a 24-20 victory in 2011.
Turnover troubles: Georgia's last two wins in this series were punctuated by the eight turnovers the Bulldogs generated -- six last season and two in 2011. All-American Jarvis Jones was the driving force behind that turnover trend, but he's now in the NFL and the Bulldogs have struggled mightily at generating takeaways in his absence. With seven turnovers, Georgia is tied with Kentucky for last in the SEC, and only Arkansas (minus-six) has a worse turnover margin than Georgia's minus-five. The lone positive sign in this category for Georgia is that it posted its first multiple-takeaway game in its last outing, when both Shaq Wiggins and Corey Moore intercepted Vanderbilt passes and Wiggins returned his for a touchdown.
Florida's blitz: With some impressive edge rushers at its disposal and tenacious cornerbacks known for playing tight coverage, Florida's defense has been largely successful when it utilized the blitz this season. The Gators have sent five or more rushers on 25 percent of their opponents' dropback passes, with opponents completing just 38 percent of those passes and averaging 3.0 yards per play. Both numbers rank in the nation's top three among defenses from AQ conferences.
Florida's running game vs. Georgia's front seven: This is perhaps the most important matchup on this side of the ball. Florida's offensive identity is built around pounding the run and controlling the clock, and it made hay in that department with Mike Gillislee toting the rock an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards last season. The results have been highly uneven this year with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones sidelined by season-ending injuries. Georgia native Mack Brown (99-359, 3 TDs) is Florida's leading rusher, but he is not the Gators' scariest ball carrier. That honor goes to freshman Kelvin Taylor (28-172, TD), the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin has played more recently. The problem is that, like most freshman, he is a liability in pass protection. Until he becomes a more consistent blocker, defenses know what Florida likely intends to do when he lines up in the backfield.
Georgia pass rushers vs. depleted Florida line: The Bulldogs' defense hasn't had much to brag about this season, but they have actually applied fairly consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Georgia is tied for third in the SEC with 19 sacks -- many of which have come from the revitalized defensive line. Defensive end Ray Drew leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with five sacks. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four) and Jordan Jenkins (three) are just behind him. Florida has struggled with its pass protection this season, and it could be an even bigger issue on Saturday now that left tackle D.J. Humphries is out of the picture for the next few games. The Gators have allowed 17 sacks this season -- only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (19 apiece) have allowed more among SEC teams -- so their injury-depleted line needs to raise its level of play or Florida's offense might have difficulty moving the ball on Saturday. Jarvis Jones, who wreaked havoc against Florida in each of the last two meetings, is no longer on the roster, but Drew, Jenkins and Floyd are good enough to give the Gators problems.
Tyler Murphy on the edge: Driskel's replacement under center, Murphy, started out well enough, leading the Gators to wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in his first three games. But Murphy took a pounding in the last two games, both losses, and Florida's offense was barely able to generate any scoring punch. He is most effective as a run-pass threat -- Murphy ran 10 times for 84 yards after taking over against Tennessee -- but his Total QBR numbers have fallen off a cliff since his strong start. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murphy posted an outstanding Total QBR of 93.8 in the first three games, completing 72 percent of his passes, but he averaged an 8.9 QBR against LSU and Missouri -- including a 3.0 against Missouri, the lowest QBR by a Florida starter in the last decade. He'll have to make some things happen with his legs for Florida's offense to be effective Saturday, as he leaves a lot to be desired as a pure drop-back passer.
Containing Florida's receivers: The Gators have pretty much stunk in the passing game over the past few seasons, and 2013 has been no different (12th in the SEC in passing at 175.4 ypg). The speedy Solomon Patton (28-426, 4 TDs) -- whom Georgia safety Shawn Williams bulldog tackled just before he reached the first-down marker on a run last season, knocking Patton out of the game -- has been one of the Gators' only consistent receiving weapons. Otherwise, Florida's receiving corps has been a train wreck this season. Andre Debose is out for the year with an injury. Trey Burton (29-336, TD) has the most catches on the team, but hasn't been particularly consistent. Quinton Dunbar (22-301) is the only other Gator with more than 46 receiving yards. Georgia's secondary has been subpar this season -- the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in pass defense (253.4 ypg) -- so the matchup between its defensive backs and Florida's mediocre wideouts pits two weaknesses against one another.
Burton as wild card: Think back to Florida's 2010 win in Jacksonville. Florida utility man Burton might have been the most effective quarterback on the field that day. Operating out of Florida's Wildcat package, Burton ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, led the team with five receptions and completed two passes for 26 yards. He still operates out of the Wildcat at times, so keep an eye on the versatile senior, who is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.
2. Record watch in Nashville: In Saturday's Georgia-Vanderbilt game, a handful of SEC career records could fall. With 112 career touchdown passes, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is just two behind Danny Wuerffel's SEC career record. And with 12,203 career yards of total offense, Murray needs 29 yards to match Tim Tebow's SEC mark. On the other sideline, Vandy's Jordan Matthews needs 97 receiving yards to match Terrence Edwards' SEC career record of 3,093 yards. Matthews had 119 receiving yards against the Bulldogs last season.
3. Gators running game: With the news this week that running back Matt Jones became the seventh Florida player to suffer a season-ending injury, the Gators' running game is now largely in the hands of Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor. Brown has been solid enough thus far, rushing for a team-high 340 yards. But Taylor is the guy many Gators fans are excited about. The son of UF great Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor has rushed 16 times for 98 yards (6.1 per carry), including 10 carries for 52 yards in last week's slugfest against LSU. Missouri's run defense ranks third in the SEC at 126.2 YPG, but Georgia freshmen J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas ran for 157 yards and averaged 6 yards per carry against the Tigers' last week. The Gators probably need Brown and Taylor to be similarly productive in order to hang with the Tigers' prolific offense.
4. Marshall back for Auburn: After sitting out last week's blowout win against Western Carolina with a knee injury, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall returns to the lineup this week against Texas A&M. Marshall rushed for 140 yards -- the most by an SEC quarterback this season -- in his last game, the Tigers' 30-22 win on Oct. 5 against then-No. 24 Ole Miss. He led the resurgent Tigers to a 4-1 record before taking a seat last week while true freshman Jeremy Johnson played for the first time -- and won SEC Freshman of the Week honors -- against the overmatched Catamounts.
5. Can Georgia recover? With half a dozen starters sidelined last week against Missouri, Georgia lost its first home game since September 2011. Now the Bulldogs limp to Vanderbilt, where they have struggled in two of their last three visits before earning narrow wins. UGA hopes to reach next week's open date with its SEC East hopes still intact. All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley likely still won't play this week, so the Bulldogs' offense must hope Murray, freshman tailbacks Green and Douglas and their crew of replacement wideouts can generate enough offense to outscore the slumping Commodores.
6. Vols back from open date: The last time we saw Tennessee, it came within an eyelash of upsetting then-No. 6 Georgia in overtime. First-year coach Butch Jones' team took last weekend off and now has another enormous test on its hands: a visit from No. 11 South Carolina, which finally seems to be hitting its stride after some early struggles. Volunteers fans are optimistic about the new coaching staff, but their team hasn't beaten a ranked opponent in its last 19 tries. Their next four opponents are all ranked in this week's AP Top 25.
8. Maintaining historic run: The SEC set a record when Auburn jumped into this week's AP Top 25, giving the conference eight ranked teams. But that historic total might be short-lived. At No. 24, Auburn will likely drop out if it loses on Saturday at No. 7 Texas A&M. No. 15 Georgia and No. 22 Florida also can't afford a loss if they want to remain in the poll next week.
9. Repeat performance for Aggies? Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M offense gained 671 total yards, the most ever allowed by an Auburn defense, in last season's 63-21 win against the Tigers. Those 63 points also represented the third-most points ever scored against the Tigers. If that wasn't the last straw for then-coach Gene Chizik and his staff, it was awfully close. New coach Gus Malzahn has instilled new optimism on the Plains. The Tigers are a ranked team for the first time since November 2011, but the Aggies are still a two-touchdown favorite.
10. Rebs on the ropes: Ole Miss was one of the feel-good stories of the season just a few weeks ago, with the Rebels' Sept. 14 win helping them jump to No. 21 in the polls. But entering Saturday's home game against LSU, Hugh Freeze's club has lost three straight games: a shutout loss to top-ranked Alabama followed by narrow losses to Auburn and Texas A&M. LSU has won nine of the last 11 against the Rebels, although three of the last four have been decided by a touchdown or less. Keep your eyes on Oxford on Saturday night. This game often has a way of remaining surprisingly competitive.
This team survived the 2012 season with a very slim margin for error by having a fantastic defense, great in-game adjustments and good old-fashioned luck.
Florida coach Will Muschamp knew his team couldn't survive another season like that, but as the No. 22-ranked Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) prepare for a trip west to face the red-hot 14th-ranked Missouri Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC), he's seeing many of the same things that plagued the Gators last season.
Florida still has an elite defense (ranked third nationally, allowing just 235.3 yards per game), but it hasn't had much good fortune, and this team has two losses before Halloween. Yes, injuries -- especially on offense -- have hurt, but when the defense needed help in those eventual losses, the offense failed.
The Gators have more of a passing game this season, but offensive consistency is still an issue. In the 21-16 loss to Miami, Florida had a season-high 291 passing yards, but turned the ball over five times, including three times in the red zone. In last week's loss to LSU, Florida managed just 240 yards of offense with a season-low 3.5 yards per play, and the run game averaged 2.8 yards per carry for the third time this season.
However, Muschamp has been quick to criticize his defense. It isn't perfect and it has shown weaknesses. LSU rushed for 175 yards (121 coming from Jeremy Hill) and both the Tigers and Canes hit Florida's secondary with big plays. The Gators clearly miss defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who is out for the season with an ACL injury, and the secondary does have a knack for having eye control issues.
"We just need to play well defensively," Muschamp said. "Our defense doesn't need to worry about [what] our offense does.
"Our defense needs to worry about what our defense needs to do."
Still, only Miami has scored 20 or more points on the Gators this season. Even LSU's high-flying offense managed just 17 points, while becoming the only team to gain more than 275 yards on the Gators (who had 327). Florida leads the SEC with 13 straight conference games in which it did not allow more than 20 points.
New quarterback Tyler Murphy was efficient in two-plus games, but buckled against LSU's pressure. The Tigers had no problem going right at Murphy and stacking the box to stop the run. It was just one game, but teams won't have a reason to fear Florida's offense if pressure weakens it.
Florida is 13th in the SEC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and has hit 30 points just twice this season. On the road, it has yet to score more than 24 points.
Maybe Murphy needs more freedom throwing downfield in order to open up the running game. He had been efficient before the LSU game, but registered a QBR of 20 in Baton Rouge. Eleven of his 15 completions went for less than 10 yards. Florida's longest play came on a 20-yard pass to Demarcus Robinson, and the running game recorded a season-low 111 yards and had a long play of 14 yards.
Give LSU's defense credit -- its constant pressure overwhelmed the Gators. But the lack of big runs didn’t help.
"We have to create some more explosive runs," Muschamp said. "That’s been the biggest issue to me in the run game this season."
On the other hand, the defense ranks first in the SEC in passing, rushing and total defense, while the offense ranks 11th or worse in scoring, passing, rushing and total offense. The issue now is that the opposing offenses are only going to get better with Mizzou (515.7 yards per game), Georgia (517.3) and South Carolina (486.5) as three of the next four opponents. Then Florida State, which ranks fourth nationally in total offense (549), travels to Gainesville for the season finale.
The defense has to be champing at the bit to face these high-powered offenses, but can it survive if the offense isn't getting into the end zone?
Now the Gators will have to do it without running back Matt Jones, who is out for the season with a torn meniscus. That creates even more pressure on this offense . . . or is it on the defense?
Not having elite offensive talent certainly doesn't help Florida, but good teams find ways to adjust. Play-calling changes. Personnel groupings change. Florida's offense wasn't pretty last season, but it found ways to grind games out during an 11-win season. The defense can do only so much, which means the second half of the 2013 season is up to the offense.
The No.22-ranked Gators (4-2, 3-1) were 6 of 17 on third downs and of Murphy's 15 completions, 11 went for less than 10 yards. Making matters worse, Florida lost running back Matt Jones for the season with a torn meniscus. The Gators mustered just 111 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry against the Tigers.
Now Missouri is waiting, and so is that high-flying offense that is scoring almost 46 points per game and is churning out 516 yards per game. These Tigers will be without starting quarterback James Franklin (shoulder), but there are enough weapons around backup Maty Mauk for the Gators' defense to have its hands full.
That means the offense has to be ready to score some real points. Florida is 13th in the SEC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and has hit 30 points just twice this season. On the road, Florida has yet to score more than 24 points (two losses). So if Florida is going to leave Columbia, Mo., with a win, the offense has to take some of the pressure off of the defense and get into the end zone.
The weird thing about this offense is that it actually has been better through the air. The Gators are one of only three teams to have three players with more than 300 receiving yards and Murphy is fourth in the SEC and seventh nationally with an adjusted QBR of 86.9. But Florida's performance against LSU raised some major red flags. When the Tigers brought pressure, Florida's offense wilted. The running game never really got going and the passing game was never a threat.
The Bayou Bengals didn't respect the passing game, so why should these midwestern Tigers? Florida is facing a defense that is second in the SEC in sacks (17) and has two NFL-types at end in Michael Sam (six sacks) and Kony Ealy (2.5 sacks). Even if Mizzou can't duplicate what it's done in its first two SEC games, Florida's offense will have to prepare for a game in which it has to score more than 20 points. Can Florida win a game 21-17 or 24-21?
It sounds like Florida will be changing things up protection-wise, which is a good start, but if the Gators are going to win Saturday, they need to have a more balanced attack. Running backs Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor have to open things up for Murphy, and the offensive line has to play tougher.
1. Arkansas run game vs. Florida run D: This will be the matchup to watch today. Arkansas is second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (237) while Florida is No. 1 in the country in rushing defense (53.5 yards allowed per game). Arkansas hasn't faced a defense as good as Florida's and the Gators haven't faced a team as productive as the Razorbacks on the ground, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Freshman Alex Collins (597 rushing yards) and sophomore Jonathan Williams (471) pace the Razorbacks. Florida's run defense hits opponents at or behind the line of scrimmage 57 percent of the time, 15 points better than average among AQ conference squads, and the Gators haven't allowed an opponent to rush for 75 yards or more yet this year.
2. Florida's series dominance: This is the first meeting between the two teams since 2009 and Florida leads the all-time series 8-1. Since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992, Florida has won all eight meetings between the squads. Arkansas has lost its last five SEC games and is in the middle of a stretch where it is playing ranked teams four straight weeks. The Razorbacks lost their last two games, falling to unranked Rutgers and to No. 9 Texas A&M. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema only lost three straight games in a season once while he was at Wisconsin back in 2008, when the Badgers dropped four in a row.
3. Continued success for Murphy?: This will be Tyler Murphy's second start since taking over for an injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback. So far, Murphy has been nothing short of stellar. His QBR of 96.1 would rank second in the FBS if he had enough snaps to qualify in the national rankings, but the results have been positive for Florida's offense when Murphy has been under center. In his 19 drives, he has led Florida to seven touchdowns to only four three-and-outs, with three drives ending in turnovers. In 28 drives under Driskel, Florida had five touchdowns, seven turnovers and eight three-and-outs.
4. Running game emerging: Matt Jones had his best game of the season last week (28 carries, 176 yards, one touchdown) since returning from a viral infection that caused him to miss the opener. While much of the talk around Florida has surrounded the quarterback, it's the running game that will carry the Gators. Mack Brown is a solid complement and the Gators have rushed for more than 200 yards in all but one game this season, the loss to Miami.
5. Kicking game: Florida kicker Austin Hardin missed a field goal attempt last week and is 4-of-7 on the season, with his misses coming from 39, 41 and 53 yards, respectively. The Gators were accustomed to having an ace in the hole at kicker when Caleb Sturgis was around but Hardin, a redshirt sophomore, is still trying to find some consistency. He beat out senior Brad Phillips in preseason camp, but it'll be interesting to see if Phillips gets a look if Hardin doesn't show improvement.
Something's got to give: Arkansas comes into the game with the SEC's top rushing offense, averaging a league-high 237 rushing yards per game. True freshman Alex Collins is sixth overall in the country with 597 rushing yards this season and the Razorbacks have a solid one-two punch at the position when you add Jonathan Williams (471 rushing yards) to the mix. Florida, of course, is boasting college football's top rushing defense, allowing a measly 53.5 yards per game. The Gators allow just 2.43 yards per carry. So watching the battle at the line of scrimmage when Arkansas has the football will be compelling.
Keep away?: While Arkansas likes to run the ball, so does Florida. The Gators lead the nation in time of possession, averaging 38 minutes and 58 seconds of possession time per game. That keeps an opposing offense off the field, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease isn't necessarily looking to grind the clock down all the time. Pease said that sometimes he'll "still stress that you want to have explosive plays and you hope you get those where you’re scoring in two or three [plays], which limits your time of possession." So the Gators will continue to look for opportunities to make big plays on offense.
Building on Kentucky performance: Sophomore running back Matt Jones had his best game of the season last week against Kentucky, exploding for 176 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. After missing practice and game time earlier this year because of a viral infection, it appears Jones is no longer feeling any effects that might have lingered. The Gators are fortunate to have another quality option in the backfield with Mack Brown, but Jones' emergence last week was key and he'll have a chance to build on it this week.
Continuing success at QB: Since being pressed into the lineup because of a season-ending injury to starter Jeff Driskel, quarterback Tyler Murphy has played well. He has completed 71.9 percent of his passes and has been a threat with his feet also, rushing for 120 yards. Pease said Murphy just needs to keep being himself. As long as others around him continue to do their job, all should be well for Murphy.
Improve the kicking game: Redshirt freshman kicker Austin Hardin missed a 53-yard field goal try last week and while long field goals are never easy, he is 4-for-7 on field goals (57.1 percent). That won't get it done if games are close and a field goal attempt is a deciding factor in a win or a loss. Hardin has been the lone successor so far to Caleb Sturgis, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist last year, but senior Brad Phillips is competing in practice with Hardin.
It might sound silly for him to laugh off a word used to describe an offense ranking 12th or worse in the SEC in scoring (23.8 points per game), passing (191.8) and total offense (403), but Brown sees more than just stats and believes the best is coming for Florida's offense.
"I feel like if the running game is successful every game and we can control the clock, we can do what we planned for before the season: Be in Atlanta [for the SEC Championship Game] and then end the season in Cali. [for the BCS National Championship]."
Added starting running back Matt Jones: "We know as running backs that we have to contribute because without us, our offense kind of goes sideways."
For all the talk about the loss of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and what Tyler Murphy has to do in his place, if Florida is going to play for an SEC title, it's going to have to strap onto the back of its running game just like last season.
This wasn't much of a passing team in 2012, and the first four games of the season have shown that 2013 won't be much different. Fans want to see more passing and more explosion, but the bottom line is that this offense is built to be a hard-nosed, physical running team first and will throw second … or even third.
Just look at Florida's ugly loss to Miami. People piled on Driskel for his three turnovers and indecision, but check out the running game. The Gators averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, the lowest average since gaining just 1.9 yards per carry in last season's 17-9 loss to Georgia.
"For us to be successful, we need a guy -- or guys -- to be able to make some big plays in the running [game] and hit some bug runs for us," coach Will Muschamp said.
Heading into Saturday's game against Arkansas, Muschamp might finally see the return of his feature back in Jones. Hampered by a viral infection during preseason camp, Jones said he didn't feel close to 100 percent until last week's Kentucky game, where he rushed for a career-high 176 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 28 carries.
"It felt good being the workhorse of the team," said Jones, who leads Florida with 272 rushing yards.
"I have a good feeling about it."
But he won't have to shoulder all of the responsibility. He has a solid sidekick in Brown and feels confident in walk-on surprise Mark Herndon and freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. While we've seen a majority of Brown and Jones (combing for 123 carries), Brown expects to see all five backs get more time.
"That's real dangerous," Brown said.
Even with Driskel under center last season, the Gators ranked third in the SEC in rushing, averaging 187.7 yards per game. With or without him this season, the running game was going to be the focus of this offense, as the Gators look for more consistency in the passing game.
In three games, Florida has rolled with its running game, but defenses are going to get better from here on out.
"When [defenses] aren't worried about playing the run, you have some issues offensively," Muschamp said. "Especially with how we're built at this point, we need to have teams respect our rushing game."
Florida has rushed for more than 200 yards in every game except the loss to Miami, but Jones still thinks this running game isn't getting its due. But he expects that will change. Couple his health with the depth in the backfield, and Jones expects to see the running game drain opponents as the season continues.
"We're kind of overlooked right now," he said. "We're kind of in the shadows, but we do wear a lot of teams down. They get really tired of tackling [the running backs].
"We wear people out when we need to."
First, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken fibula during the win over Tennessee last Saturday. Then on Tuesday, star defensive tackle Dominique Easley tore the ACL in his right knee, ending what was looking like a very promising season. Two of Florida's top players are gone before the Gators even get into the meat of the SEC schedule.
Florida is turning to unproven, longtime backup Tyler Murphy to replace Driskel and hoping that a committee of players can help replace Easley up front.
Neither task will be easy, but there's a reason you recruit, and there's a reason we call this a violent sport. There's nothing the Gators can do now but move on and try to salvage a season that looks to be slowly slipping through their fingers because of injuries.
A step in the right direction could begin Saturday, when the 20th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., to take on a Wildcats team that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 consecutive tries. In a sport with parity like college football, you'd think the Wildcats could have sneaked a win in there somewhere in the last 26 years.
With a wounded Florida team limping into Lexington, maybe this is Kentucky's shot. But you have to think that with so many questions still remaining on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats, Florida's talent will be too much. Murphy played admirably in place of Driskel in Florida's 31-17 win over Tennessee. Granted, Tennessee's defense is surrendering more than 400 yards a game and 6 yards per play, but to come in and direct the offense to 31 points after not attempting a single college pass before the day began is pretty impressive.
As for Florida's defense, the Gators shouldn't miss Easley as much this weekend because the Wildcats are still struggling to find a quarterback and playmakers at receiver. Saturday will serve as an opportunity to get players in the interior of Florida's line more reps and experience before SEC play really starts to heat up. Guys such as Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have played well, but need more quality snaps. Reserves Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. need to get their feet as wet as possible.
It's also a chance for outside players such as Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. to get used to life without Easley. The big man in the middle absorbed a lot of double-teams that created ideal one-on-one situations for his teammates, so Florida needs to learn how to generate a pass rush without him.
Tyler Murphy has to stay healthy: With Jeff Driskel going down with a broken leg that will end his 2013 season, the Gators now turn to fourth-year junior Tyler Murphy. He entered the game with no official passes on his résumé and left with fans chanting his name. He passed for 134 yards, rushed for another 84 and had two total touchdowns. But it's very important that Murphy stay upright going forward. If you thought Florida's quarterback depth was bad when Driskel was playing, it's even worse now. Neither Skyler Mornhinweg nor Max Staver have any college experience. Murphy played well, but he has to stay healthy or the Gators' offense could truly be sunk. That means the scrambling quarterback will have to get used to sliding when he takes off.
There's a battle at running back: Matt Jones entered the season as the Gators' starting running back, but coach Will Muschamp said after Saturday's game that he plans to play the hot hand at running back going forward. Right now, junior Mack Brown has the hot hand. He carried the ball a game-high 24 times for 86 yards and had a touchdown. He was more effective in between the tackles and was able to break free from tackles more often than Brown, who rushed for just 49 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Florida's secondary is full of depth: Injuries and an ejection didn't stop the Gators' secondary from having another solid outing. Starting cornerback Marcus Roberson was out with a knee injury, while fellow starter Loucheiz Purifoy left the game early with a leg injury. Brian Poole was ejected in the fourth quarter after being called for targeting. Still, the Gators held Tennessee's two quarterbacks to just 154 yards and a touchdown on 14 of 34 passing. Florida also recorded four interceptions. Coaches were able to move guys all around the secondary, too. Freshman corner Vernon Hargeaves III had another impressive outing, registering three pass breakups. Florida gave up a touchdown pass late on a blown assignment, but the secondary really showed it's quality depth inside the Swamp Saturday.
The 24-6 win over the Rockets lacked the panache many fans were hoping for, but that was by design. All in all, the game was a victory for the coaching staff: Jeff Driskel was decisive under center, completing 17 of 22 passes with no interceptions; the running game was effective in spite of Matt Jones' absence; quality depth emerged on both sides of the football; and the defense did its job against a high-paced Toledo offense, limiting the Rockets to 3.8 yards per play and no touchdowns.
Against the Hurricanes, the Gators will have to do more. Playing vanilla worked in Week 1, but it won't in Week 2. Miami might be unranked in the AP poll, but coach Al Golden has his team knocking at the door.
"Certainly they know it's an important game for the University of Florida," Muschamp said on Wednesday, speaking to the rivalry between the two in-state schools. "We talk about it all the time. Our players understand the importance of the game. ... Any time they play against guys they know and are familiar with, it's obviously very important."
Miami will test Florida's ability to stop the run on Saturday with its stout, veteran offensive line and a tailback many consider to be among the best sophomores at his position. Duke Johnson, a first-team All-ACC choice this preseason, was third in the conference in rushing last year with 947 yards on the ground. He'll have a slew of talented linemen blocking ahead of him with Brandon Linder, Malcolm Bunche and Seantrel Henderson clearing the way.
"You have to be disciplined in your gaps," Muschamp explained. "He is a guy that can take the ball anywhere. They do a nice job of showing the stretch look and him cutting the ball back and heading north and south.
"He is an extremely tough and competitive guy. We recruited him. ... He catches the ball well, he protects. He's a complete back."
Florida should feel confident on defense, though, with as talented and deep a group of athletes as any in the SEC. Getting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison back from suspension should help slow Johnson. And cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will return from his one-game suspension to give the Gators an anchor in the secondary against Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, whose 160 passing yards against FAU in the season opener put him over the 5,000-yard mark for his career.
Rather, what the Gators do on offense could determine the outcome of this game. All offseason we've heard how offensive coordinator Brent Pease would open up the playbook and bring more production to Florida's attack. Against Miami, we'll get to see if those words can be put into action.
Florida has the skill and depth at running back to control the tempo with Jones healthy once again and Mack Brown helping shoulder the load. But Driskel, who is now into his second year starting in the system, must make smart decisions with the football. He fumbled the ball twice against Toledo and has a history of poor pocket awareness. He can a Miami defense that had five sacks in its opener to come at him ready to knock the ball loose on Saturday.
"We're going to miss a block here and there," Driskel told reporters in Gainesville this week, "but I have to take care of the ball."
In a rivalry games like this, turnovers are everything. Limiting takeaways and sustaining momentum will be vital for Florida to walk away with a win. If the Gators try to do too much and give the ball away, the results could be disastrous.
Will the SEC's magic number end at the lucky number of seven? Is eight just too great?
Well, according to them, it isn't in any danger, yet. Kiper admits that the league is more vulnerable now than it was last year, which is safe to say, but he's not ready to call a slow start to the year the end all for the sport's most-dominant conference.
McShay still thinks that an imperfect Alabama is still much better than the rest of the pack. Plus, he's still convinced the SEC has some other worthy national championship contenders.
The SEC saw some slow starters here and there, but I'm not ready to write off the conference after Week 1.
Here's why: The SEC has more than just Alabama. There are still five other worthy title contenders. Let's take a look at them and where they stand in the championship realm:
Alabama: The Crimson Tide beat Virginia Tech by 25 points inside the Georgia Dome over the weekend, but what everyone took from that game was the play of the offensive line. It wasn't great. It was actually pretty ugly, but that will change. Some kinks have to get ironed out, and Nick Saban will make sure of it. As for the defense, it looked pretty fast and pretty physical over the weekend. Things will be a lot tighter after the bye week. Trending: Same
LSU: Someone on this blog has been pretty adamant about people not sleeping on the Tigers. I can't really recall his name, but he's the sharpest dressed man in the business. Anyway, DO NOT SLEEP ON THE TIGERS! There might be a revamped defense down on the Bayou, but LSU still has a ton of speed and athleticism on that side of the ball. The Tigers' defense overwhelmed TCU on Saturday, and the offense put up nearly 450 yards of offense. This team is good, folks. Trending: Up
South Carolina: The defense was solid, the offense was balanced and the Gamecocks head into Week 2 with a ton of confidence and momentum. Sure, Jadeveon Clowney wasn't his best, but he had a slow start to last season, too. Plus, he was sick. We here at the SEC blog will give him a pass this week (but only this week!). The defense faces a tougher task in stopping Georgia's offense Saturday, but it'll be interesting to see how the Bulldogs defend running back Mike Davis, who could be a budding star. Trending: Up
Texas A&M: When Johnny Manziel was throwing the ball, he actually looked pretty good. For a player known more for his time away from the field during the offseason, he looked like someone who took all of his practice time very seriously. He didn't put up eye-popping stats, but he went through his progressions and didn't lock onto receivers. But he can't pick up silly taunting penalties anymore. Just be the Johnny Football who wowed us last year. Also, the defense might have been down a few starters, but to give up more than 500 yards to Rice is unacceptable. Trending: Same, but close to trending down
Florida: No one really wanted to see a bowl of vanilla ice cream sitting in the middle of the Swamp Saturday, but that's exactly what you got when Florida's offense took the field. The passing game opened up a little more in the first half and backup running back Mack Brown looked very good, but it was a bit of snoozer in the second half. The defense was outstanding against that uptempo offense, but the offense was pretty boring. With the return of starting running back Matt Jones and more on the line Saturday, I expect that to change this weekend against Miami. Trending: Same
Georgia: The Bulldogs did not have a very good Saturday against Clemson. Offensively, they put up more than 500 yards, but the offensive line struggled in pass protection and top wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is out for the season after tearing his ACL. On defense, the Bulldogs couldn't tackle and failed to contain Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bulldogs had 10 missed tackles Saturday (they totaled 106 all last season). More work needs to be done in Athens than originally thought. Trending: Down