As season number 107 for the Florida football Gators approaches, Gator Nation is abuzz with passion, prognostication and palpitation. Foresight, frenzy and fear. Breakdowns, boo-yahs and bed-wetting. It is that third concept in each group that I’d like to address today: the highly emotional practice of trying to anticipate what the imminent season holds, that which is so often overtaken by fear and loathing in Gainesvegas.
This is not to serve as a comprehensive analysis of our opponents, and certainly not game match ups and breakdowns. Those will wait for the actual game weeks. This is simply an attempt to put Florida’s season expectations into balanced perspective and to quell the fears – most of them irrational, but nonetheless ubiquitous and unavoidable for invested fans – concerning the perceived danger of playing many of our opponents this year.
We know well the potential foibles of the Gator team this year. Will the offensive line sustain health, headiness and high level of play? Will UF-caliber wide receivers emerge to give the Gators a productive passing portfolio? Will Jeff Driskel develop, distinguish and dominate? Will Florida be able to replace Mike Gillislee with a reliable running back rotation? And will the young, largely untested, middle of the defense be able to step up, stabilize and something else beginning with an “s”?
I believe all of those questions will be answered with a “yes,” and the degree to which they are will determine how far the Gators go in 2013. But what of the opponents? The daunting schedule that every year causes Gator Nation to fret, sweat and curse on the ‘net. The buildup to the season creates a false drama concerning the competition that makes crazy things happen. Things like Gator fans bombastically begging to play preseason top-5 Ohio State in the BCS title game at the end of the season all the while shivering in terror over the thought of playing Toledo at the beginning of the season.
But friends, Romans, countrymen: lend your ear to my jive. I am here to tell you there is much less to our opponents than meets the eye. They will be strong; they will be challenging; one or more of them may even beat us. But there is no reason to live in fear of any of them. And there is no reason not to believe that all other things being equal, that Florida can’t beat every one of them. Following is a bird’s eye view of the particularly daunting Gator opponents, and why they should not strike such fear into the hearts of Gator fans.
The fear factor says that Miami has a very potent offense that could pierce the young Gator defense, catching them early and unrefined in a track meet at home. But for all the hype over the powerful Miami offense, it was only ranked 36th in the nation last year despite playing against a pathetic ACC schedule. Georgia’s offense was ranked 22nd against a schedule of the best defenses league in the country, and struggled mightily to move the ball against Florida despite being given twice the usual chances by a charitable Gator offense. The ‘Canes offense was also inefficient, as they were just 49th in the country in scoring offense. Then there is the one-dimensional predictability of their offense. As bad as the Gator passing attack was last year, Florida’s yardage totals were still a 56%/44% split between run and pass. Miami’s was an unbalanced 67%/33% in favor of the pass. And they’ll be throwing this unbalanced passing attack at a Florida defense that gave up less than 200 yards per game through the air and surrendered an average of just one touchdown pass every two weeks.
Now add to that the fact that they have a new offensive coordinator and their only team strength will be going through some inevitable measure of growing pains. On the other side of the ball, Miami returns the 120th-ranked defense in the country to try to hold down Florida’s significantly improved offensive personnel. Anyone who saw the Hurricane spring game knows they looked even worse than 120. Perhaps it is because their secondary only returns one player, and while they return five of their front seven, that is where they badly needed an infusion of new and improved talent.
The fear factor says that Tennessee can’t stay down forever and their new coach is going to have them playing at a much higher level this year. The Vols return eight starters on defense. But this was a unit that finished dead last in the SEC and 107th in the nation. In a league where defense always rules the day, the Vols’ is utterly atrocious. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee was second in the league on offense, but they lost over half of their starters there, including their quarterback, all three wide receivers and their tight end. Oops. It’s been six years since Tennessee won more than seven games (and only once in the last six did they even win seven). Only once in the last eight years have they won ten games. There is no reason to believe they will approach either of those totals this year.
The fear factor says that despite heavy losses, LSU is going to be great again and they are almost impossible to beat in Baton Rouge. Fact is, Red Stick has not been the magical fortress it is always made up to be. True, LSU has won three of the last four, but two of those were coin flips won by four points. And the Gators have won in four of their last seven visits to Tiger Stadium, and eight of their last twelve. In fact, since the first match on the bayou in 1937, the Gators hold a winning record on the Bengals’ home turf. Regardless of the history of the series in Baton Rouge, the Gators have to face the team on the field, not the teams of the past. And the LSU program that has lived on defense, had its defense gutted since last year, losing eight starters.
They return seven starters on the offense, but their offense was not good – tenth in the SEC and 85th in the country. With a below average offense and a defense in major rebuilding mode, they will have to rely on special teams heavily this year to keep them in tight ball games. They also try to replace their punter and place kicker this year. Last year the Tigers won ten games, the third-straight season of ten or more victories. With a schedule that includes Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M and TCU, to reach the ten win mark again, they will likely have to beat Florida. The last time LSU won ten or more games in four-straight seasons was never.
The fear factor says that Georgia’s offense will be strong enough to balance out their defensive losses to beat the Gators again. Reality tells us that although they return nine starters off a powerful offense, it was not nearly as good an offense last year as so many Gator fans want to believe. They were still only the third best offense in the conference, and #22 in the land. Perhaps that was most clearly demonstrated by the fact that they played three strong defenses last year, and were basically inept against two of them (South Carolina and Florida).
But despite how good, or even great their offense could be, the problem Georgia has is on the defensive side of the ball. They were gutted as badly as LSU, losing eight starters as well, only their defense (32nd in the nation) was not nearly as good as LSU’s (8th) to begin with. They will try to replace two of their three starting defensive linemen, three of their linebackers, and half of their four defensive backs. And they lost all of their star players. The Bulldogs have won two straight games against the Gators. The last time they beat Florida three-straight years was 1989.
The fear factor says that Spurrier may have his best team and finally could have a quarterback he can depend on. The reality in Columbia, however, is that this is what they have said the last three years. True, South Carolina has done great the last three seasons. But this year they lose over half their starters on both offense and defense, as well as their punter and kicker. Spurrier loses half his defensive line and all three linebackers. On an offense that was pretty bad (82nd in the nation), among the six lost starters are all three-star skill players at running back and wide receiver. The Gamecocks won eleven games each of the last two years and did not win the Eastern division either season. They will likely need at least ten wins, possibly eleven, to win the East this year. The last time they won over ten games three seasons in a row was never. In fact, their program only won ten games once before in its history.
So the bottom line is that while Florida has losses in personnel they must replace up the middle on defense, all of the Gators’ better opponents are trying to replace at least as many starters at significant positions and all have their own challenges to approach their level of success from last year. And from where I sit, their challenges are more significant than those facing the Gators. So have beer, not fear as the season grows near.