Florida Gators: Mack Brown
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With so much perfect weather in Florida, fans are expected to flock to the Gators' eight open practices, starting on Wednesday.
Jeff Driskel and Will Grier: Quarterbacks get all the attention, and Florida's QBs will be no different. Driskel has inspired some love/hate feelings among Florida fans in his up-and-down career. This spring is his chance to reinvent himself as a take-charge veteran leader. More than any other player, Driskel can be the key to a successful spring if he commands Kurt Roper's offense, makes it look cohesive and helps his teammates do the same. Grier is that shiny, new toy that every kid wants to immediately take out of the box and play with. No one expects Grier to even challenge Driskel for the No. 1 job, but fans can't wait to see Grier's arm and how well he operates as Driskel's understudy.
Predictions: Roper's offense, with its simplified passing game, will suit Driskel and Grier perfectly. By the end of spring, fans will be treated to something they haven't seen much of in recent years -- well-timed passes on intermediate routes. Driskel, still recovering from a broken leg, won't run much at all, but Grier will show off his legs and athleticism whenever the pocket collapses.
Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane: You could say that Taylor is already a standout after starting several games in the second half of the 2013 season, but this spring is a chance for him to solidify his claim as the alpha dog of the backfield (especially with his top competition, junior Matt Jones, out for the spring due to a knee injury). Lane, a redshirt freshman with speed and a bowling ball-shaped body, reminds people of Maurice Jones-Drew. With Jones out and senior Mack Brown set as a backup, Lane will have an opportunity to burst onto the scene.
Predictions: Taylor will excite Gators fans by looking more like his father, UF great Fred Taylor. He'll improve his decision-making and blocking, show off his hands and become a weapon on swing passes. Lane will be effective as a change-of-pace back and have great success hiding behind Florida's big offensive linemen. He'll prove to be hard to tackle as well.
Alvin Bailey: Another spring, another reason for hope when it comes to the Gators' beleaguered wide receivers. Florida knows what it has in senior starter Quinton Dunbar, and the highest expectations are for the development of talented sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson. But Florida's Class of 2013 featured five WR recruits, and even though he redshirted, Bailey has the talent to explode in Roper's uptempo spread offense.
Prediction: Bailey's high school experience playing multiple positions will allow him to grasp Roper's offense better than most. He'll make headlines with his hands and shiftiness after the catch.
Predictions: Tabor will be effective with his quickness and long reach, but Poole's experience will give him the edge to take over as a starting cornerback. Spring will be just the beginning, as the battle will continue in the fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington will be a fit at nickel cornerback, and sophomore Marcus Maye will stand out as a ballhawking free safety.
The big fellas: A lot of time is spent in the spring with skill-position players working on reading blocks, running routes and refining coverages. It's hard for linemen to stand out, but more than most programs, Florida likes to put on the pads and run its first-team offense against its first-team defense. When that happens -- and fans should get to see it in the spring game on April 12 -- the best battle will be left tackle D.J. Humphries against buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. Fans can also look for one of Florida's redshirt freshmen defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, to emerge. It will be fascinating to see how they perform against 6-foot-8, 361-pound offensive tackle Trenton Brown, who will also spend some time this spring at guard. If Brown can improve his knee-bend and pad level, he could become a people-mover on the Gators offensive line.
Predictions: After some struggles in 2013, Humphries will resurface this spring. He'll show off solid technique in pass protection as well as good punch in the running game. He and the rest of the O-line will spend a lot of time with new coach Mike Summers teaching his approach. Fowler will take the next step in his development as a pocket disruptor and start finishing more plays. With senior starting DT Leon Orr out for the spring, Bostwick will emerge as gap-penetrator.
We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This week-long series concludes with a look at a sleeper candidate at running back.
5-foot-7, 222 pounds
Credentials: Lane came out of Winter Haven (Fla.) High School as the No. 15-ranked running back prospect in the Class of 2013. A four-star recruit, he was ranked No. 173 overall in the ESPN 300. But those rankings could have been higher had he not broken his leg and missed his entire junior season in 2011. The first pledge in Florida's 2013 class, Lane came back from that injury to run 205 times for 1,624 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2012.
How he fits: He's been compared to Maurice Jones-Drew, and one look at Lane's body explains it. He's compact, built like a bowling ball, and he runs like one. Lane has enough speed to make defenders miss but really frustrates opponents when he hides behind linemen before exploding to the next level. He's strong enough to initiate contact and drag defenders and strong enough to win a state weightlifting title in his senior year of high school (he benched 415 pounds). Lane is unlikely to suddenly compete for the starting tailback job at UF after redshirting last season, but his running style gives him a great chance to find niche in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's still-developing scheme.
Who he's competing with: Florida has no shortage of options at tailback. Matt Jones was the starter last season, but torn cartilage in his knee required two surgeries. He's expected to be healthy and a big factor in the competition this fall but will sit out the spring. When Jones got hurt last season, true freshman Kelvin Taylor became the starter and improved throughout the second half of the season. Considering Jones' health, Taylor is the prohibitive favorite to be Florida's starter in 2014. Then there's senior Mack Brown and junior Valdez Showers. Brown proved he can be a reliable backup last season, while Showers made a successful conversion from safety to running back and showed promise as a change-of-pace back who can be a threat catching passes out of the backfield. Finally, true freshman early enrollee Brandon Powell hopes to use spring football practices to give the Gators something they lack -- an explosive home-run threat who can stretch the field in every direction.
What needs to happen this spring: The outlook at tailback is rather muddled. Lane has plenty of competition, so he'll have to stand out in spring practice and be consistent in order to carve out a role. The ideal situation for Lane, and for Florida to take advantage of so much talent at the position, would be a committee. Good thing the reins are in the hands of Roper, who did just that at Duke. Last season the Blue Devils made use of four running backs (two primary ball-carriers and two complementary backs) as well as two quarterbacks who could run. That kind of committee approach could work perfectly at UF this season. Of course the Gators would be just as thrilled to lean mostly on one back if Taylor becomes a star or if Jones gets healthy and taps his vast potential. But one thing is certain: Florida is going to run, run and run some more in 2014.
The circus surrounding college football recruiting has grown to epic proportions, and he clearly bristles at the thought of ranking classes or players before they don cleats.
"You judge a recruiting class after it’s been on your campus for two or three years," he's said. "Everybody wants to judge it in February and rank them and say this class is great. That’s ridiculous to be able to rank a class in February when these guys haven’t even stepped on campus yet and been through a spring practice and been in fall camp.
"I’ve been around a lot of guys who were two-stars who ended up playing in the NFL for a really long time. They were really good players. And I’ve been around some five-stars who couldn’t play."
With that sentiment and the passage of four years, we review Florida's 2010 class.
It ranked No. 1 in the nation with four five-star players, 15 four-star recruits and 17 players from the ESPN 150 (including 11 of the top 50). ESPN called it "simply one of the best classes ever."
Matt Elam (No. 2 ATH): Like Floyd, Elam played right away and became a team leader at safety for the Gators, starting every game of his final two seasons. And like Floyd, Elam was a first-round pick after three years in college.
Dominique Easley (No. 1 DT): Easley's flame burned bright on and off the field. His magnetic personality made him a team focal point right away, and his ability to torment offensive linemen made him a standout on the field. If it weren't for two surgeries on torn ACLs in each knee, Easley would be a lock for the first round of the NFL draft this May.
Ronald Powell (No. 1 ATH): The No. 1 overall player in the country, Powell was the headliner for Florida's vaunted class. But he never truly lived up to the hype, compiling modest stats and suffering two torn ACLs in the same knee. After a healthy season as a fourth-year junior, Powell hopes to be picked in the middle rounds of the upcoming NFL draft.
Mack Brown (No. 4 RB): He was supposed to be the first premier running back then-coach Urban Meyer had ever recruited, but it took Brown time to adjust to the college game. He finally contributed as a junior and will be a key reserve in 2014.
Chaz Green (No. 4 OT): Started nine games as a redshirt freshman and 10 games as a sophomore before missing last season to injury. He's expected to be a key member of UF's O-line in 2014.
Jaylen Watkins (No. 5 CB): He never got the hype of some teammates, but Watkins quietly had a solid career at UF. He started 28 of 48 games played in four seasons at cornerback and safety.
Cody Riggs (No. 7 CB): Like Watkins, Riggs has proven to be a versatile member of the Gators secondary. After redshirting the 2012 season due to injury, he'll be back as a senior this fall.
Leon Orr (No. 8 DT): Returns for his senior season after finally breaking through as a starter last season.
Michael Taylor (No. 12 OLB): Became a starter in 2013 after two seasons as a backup. He'll return for his final year.
Gideon Ajagbe (No. 23 OLB): Never a factor at linebacker, he finally saw action last season after switching to fullback.
Neiron Ball (No. 28 OLB): A quiet contributor, he made seven of his nine career starts in 2013 and will be counted on this fall.
Trey Burton (No. 30 ATH): Played every skill position on offense during his four seasons and was a consummate leader.
Quinton Dunbar (No. 42 WR): Has been a solid starter for most of the last two seasons and looks to do the same as a senior.
Darrin Kitchens (unranked LB): Was a valuable reserve for the last four years.
Jonathan Dowling (No. 1 S): Was kicked off the team and transferred to Western Kentucky, where he became a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection. He's skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
Josh Shaw (No. 3 CB): Played in 10 games with one start as a redshirt freshman before transferring to USC. He emerged last season, finishing third on the Trojans with 67 tackles and four interceptions.
Gerald Christian (No. 2 TE): Played eight games for UF after redshirting, then transferred to Louisville and caught 26 passes for 401 yards and four TDs last fall.
Chris Dunkley (No. 7 WR): Redshirted, then transferred to USF. He finally got playing time in four games last fall after being plagued by suspensions.
Ian Silberman (No. 3 OT): Never rose above the level of reserve in three seasons at UF. He graduated in four years and transferred to Boston College.
Chris Martin (No. 10 DE): After an arrest for marijuana possession, he transferred to two junior colleges, then transferred to Kansas and was dismissed after an arrest for an alleged robbery.
Jordan Haden (No. 44 S): Enrolled early but transferred before his first season. Haden has played the last two seasons for Toledo.
Robert Clark (No. 48 CB): Played two seasons before transferring to Louisville, where he caught 23 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown in 2013.
Tyler Murphy (No. 54 ATH): Started six games at QB as a junior in 2013, graduated, then transferred to Boston College for his final season.
Lynden Trail (No. 63 DE): Redshirted and saw no action in 2011 before transferring to Norfolk State.
Michael McFarland (unranked TE): Redshirted, then transferred to USF, where he's worked his way up the depth chart. Was second on the team with 23 catches for 288 yards and two TDs in 2013.
To do that Florida needs several players to step forward. Unknowns need to become contributors. Depth players need to become starters. Standouts need to become stars.
Here are five Gators who have to step up on offense in 2014.
LT D.J. Humphries: It's no coincidence that everyone on this list struggled in 2013, either with injuries or performance or both. Humphries came to Florida with such pedigree, such advanced technique that he was never supposed to be the kind of player singled out in this manner. But he definitely fell into the third category as he struggled on the field before succumbing to an injury. Humphries started the first six games of his sophomore season before being taken out of the starting lineup against Missouri in Week 7. A sprained MCL cost him the final five games of the season. Now the Gators need Humphries to shake off the memories from those last couple of games and be the stalwart left tackle who protects Driskel's blind side. Humphries should devote his spring and fall practice sessions to polishing his technique, but at 6-5 and 285 pounds, he would benefit greatly from an offseason at the training table and in the strength program to add another 20 pounds and improve his upper-body strength.
WR Andre Debose: After a tearing his ACL in preseason last fall, the senior is expected back for his sixth season of eligibility. As many times as exasperated fans have thought "it's now or never" for Debose, the 2014 season really is it. Debose has teased Florida with his talent throughout a career filled with peaks and valleys. He was the nation's No. 2 receiver in the Class of 2009 and prompted then-coach Urban Meyer label him the "next Percy Harvin" before he ever put on cleats. Debose missed that first season with a knee injury and has just 29 career catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns. He's never started more than four games in a season, but he did prove to be an excellent kickoff returner. He's also a solid deep threat in the passing game, as all four of his career touchdown catches went for 64 yards or longer in the 2011 season. Now, more than ever, the Gators are desperate for a reliable veteran who can make plays at receiver. Debose has never impressed his coaches with his work ethic, but perhaps another long season on the sideline has helped mature a player who is obviously gifted.
WR Demarcus Robinson: Several receivers have come to UF in the last few years as the next big thing. It's almost become a running joke that a freshman emerges every spring looking the part of an instant contributor, if not a starter. Rarely has it carried over in games that count. Robinson did just that last year, following in the footsteps of previous spring stars like Latroy Pittman and Frankie Hammond Jr. and then finishing 2013 with five catches for 23 yards. Along the way, there were questions about his maturity and consistency. But there's no questioning Robinson's size, speed and hands. For Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, the extra attention he'll pay to Robinson this offseason could pay big dividends if he can put it all together in his sophomore season.
In coming up with this list, two positions stood out for very different reasons -- no running backs or tight ends were included.
Florida has a stable of capable tailbacks it can turn to this fall. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor got plenty of experience in 2013. There's a reliable senior backup in Mack Brown. Former starter Matt Jones is a wild card looking to return from last season's knee injury. And redshirt freshman Adam Lane is a promising prospect.
The tight end position, however, is a sore spot that produced all of four catches last season. Florida relies on two former defensive linemen in Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton. Colin Thompson looks the part but has seen his career plagued by a nagging foot injury. Florida's best hope might be an early entry freshman in DeAndre Goolsby.
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Will Muschamp is a head coach who needs results right away, and the Gators are expected to try just about anything to achieve them -- uptempo, no-huddle, spread, zone read. You name it.
After three years of a pro-style offense that had a heavy emphasis on downhill running, there will be changes.
Practice time will be at a premium, but Roper has a plan.
He'll start with incumbent quarterback Jeff Driskel and find what he does best. Then Roper will do the same with his offensive line and skill positions.
"I think you’ve got plenty of time through spring practice and through fall practice to make those decisions," he said. "So you get 15 opportunities in spring practice to make those decisions, and then you get 29 practice opportunities in the fall to keep making those decisions and finalizing going into fall camp.
"So everything moves fast, but you've got to figure those things out."
Here are some keys to Florida's offense next year.
Run, Driskel, run
Look for the read-option to come back at Florida in 2014. It won't take Roper long to see that Driskel's best success as a college QB came mostly on the ground.
One of former offensive coordinator Brent Pease's goals for 2013 was to get Driskel comfortable as a pocket passer, but it didn't happen in his injury-shortened season. In his two full games, Driskel ran 17 times for just 38 yards (2.2 yards per carry). Then he was hurt a few minutes into Game 3. It was a lost season. But if those first two games were any indication, the Gators weren't planning to use as much of the read-option that Driskel had good success with in teaming with tailback Mike Gillislee in 2012.
Look for Florida to turn Driskel loose, hope he stays healthy and not worry about redshirting incoming freshman Will Grier or a possible second QB signee who would likely be a dual-threat athlete.
Pray for the offensive line
This is where it all starts, and there's no doubt Florida has a lot of room for improvement. With D.J. Humphries, Max Garcia, Tyler Moore, Chaz Green and Trenton Brown, Florida has the makings of a capable line. But only one of those five -- Garcia -- played a full season in 2012. The injury bug hit the OL as hard as any position, so it will be critical for this group to miss as little time as the injury gods will allow. There is some size and talent on the bench, but zero starting experience.
Changing to more of a spread offense should benefit this unit more than any other on the offense, as it struggled mightily in pass protection throughout the last two seasons. The comparative simplicity of zone blocking will also help more of Florida's inexperienced players get on the field sooner. The Gators redshirted three offensive linemen in 2013 and hope to sign four or five more this year.
Another technique -- cut blocking -- could be incorporated next season, depending on Roper's scheme and the yet-to-be-hired offensive line coach. After Florida lost to Georgia Southern in November, Muschamp lamented how the cut block "negates talent" of the defense. In 2014, the Gators might prefer to be on the other side of that equation.
Any receivers who can get open?
This has been one of the most confounding problems at UF since Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez thrived as Tim Tebow's favorite targets in 2009. There are plenty of decorated recruits on the roster. The wideouts have had proven position coaches such as Pease and Joker Phillips mentoring them. In steps Roper, who has produced 1,000-yard receivers in four of six seasons at recruiting-challenged Duke. It's time for some of Florida's talented youngsters to step forward and demand the ball, and there is at least one starting job available.
The tight end position took a huge step backward when Jordan Reed left early after a solid 2012 season. Florida lacked any semblance of a down-the-middle pass-catching threat in 2013, as Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton combined for four catches. The Gators have commitments from three TE/H-backs, so don't be surprised if a freshman emerges.
Bigger-play running backs
Tailback is one position that won't keep Roper awake at night, as the Gators have a bevy of talented runners. Florida entered the 2013 season expecting Matt Jones to become one of the SEC's best running backs. And while hopes are still very high for Jones, the Gators believe they found another featured back in Kelvin Taylor after Jones was lost for the season with a knee injury. Mack Brown gives UF a reliable backup, and the coaching staff is excited about the potential of Adam Lane, who redshirted last season.
Where Florida's tailbacks can improve is in hitting more big plays. Taylor averaged 4.6 yards a carry and Brown averaged 3.7. But explosive plays are more likely to come from Jones or little-used Valdez Showers, who averaged 8.6 yards per carry. The Gators are also hoping to sign a speed back who could play right away and complement the group of grinding runners already on the roster.
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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.
The Early Offer: March 12
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35