Like most of you, I have a life. Well, as much anyone can have when they’re a huge fan of a college sports program. Particularly one that is ultra successful in so many sports, giving me a virtually year round stream of championship runs to follow. And on top of that I get to write about them, taking up even more hours of analysis, research, travel, data crunching, presser viewing, blogging…math…and then doing most of that to scout the competition, too, to drive projections, picks, snarky remarks.
But I sometimes aspire to do other things. Like leave the house. Engage in an activity that doesn’t involve a screen. See if the vocal chords still work. Get to know the other people who live in my home. And to this end, every year during football season I take one or two Saturdays away from college football to do things out in the normal world. Reacquaint myself with oral communication. The first Saturday out in the wild is always reserved for the Gators’ bye week. Nothing to miss. But in those years when I need to spend a Gator football Saturday out in the field, I DVR the game and watch it later in the evening. I naturally always choose Saturday on which we play the late-season patsy opponent so that I am assured of a peaceful afternoon without interruption and without the constant awareness that something potentially exciting or upsetting is happening in the game.
However, in recent years my peaceful Saturday afternoons and the pleasant evenings of delayed viewing have been interrupted by a text from a friend. A single text. It’s always from a different friend. It’s always a question. It’s always one or two words.
It all started in 2012. One early November Saturday I was at the park with my kids. I wore no Gator gear so that nobody knowing the score would congratulate me or give me a spoiler score alert. Then the phone buzzes with that chime unique to my text alerts. I take it out and check the message. Maybe somebody nudged me in Words With Friends.
That was text I received the year Florida needed a blocked punt return for a touchdown with two seconds left to avoid overtime against the lowly Rajin’ Cajuns. Then came 2013. I was at the store working through a Saturday honey-do list when that familiar music echoed in my pocket. Guess the little lady needed to add an item to the list. I couldn’t wait to see, because there are few things I enjoy more than traipsing all over town shopping for things that I don’t even understand (like dry shampoo or concealer…the latter of which makes me wonder if there are any dead bodies buried in the yard). But the text was from another friend.
I needn’t remind anyone what happened in the Swamp that day. FCS team. It predated the announcement by 51 week, but it was likely the game that got Will Muschamp fired. Then of course there was this past Saturday. Big dinner party and I was on the hook for groceries. Mexican night: tostados, tortilla soup and Mexican chocolate cake. I needed fresh tomatillos for my special green sauce, so I was at my favorite Aztec grocery, and my pocket starts to vibrate. Incoming. Yet another different friend. Despite the recent offensive struggles (slide the phone out), with Coach Mac at the wheel (swipe the screen open), I had absolutely no reason to suspect…
Well there isn’t much to say about the game, really. The defense played like they always play: lights out for the most part, with a few breakdowns that always allow the goose egg to be lifted from the scoreboard. The offense came out playing with ZERO energy, partly because many are banged up and playing hurt (although that did not seem to affect the defense’s energy level), but mostly because they simply did not take FAU seriously.
Some of Gator Nation is reacting with toxic delirium over the continued decline in performance at the quarterback and offensive line positions. But if we ground ourselves in the reality of this team and this season, even at their worst level of play over the last three games, they are playing above the level anyone thought they would at any time this year. And certainly better than anyone should have expected. But the wins have unfairly shifted expectations, and it is human nature to then expect what should never be expected. Having multiple linemen playing hurt does not help the issue, but the main ingredient at work here is that defenses have been watching us all year and have caught up to the little schematic tricks the staff developed to mask the deficiencies on the line, and there is only so much you can do to keep coming up with new mirrors and more smoke. When you add a new quarterback who is as limited or more limited than the line itself (and doesn’t have the arm strength or natural instincts that Will Grier has to bail out a lot of mistakes up front), then you have another concurrent dynamic of trying to scheme around the glaring weaknesses of another position, making it six players instead of five.
And you just can’t coach or scheme around a talent or experience gap forever. And you can’t really coach or scheme around physical limitations much at all. You can’t send in a play that makes Treon four inches taller. There are no formations that schematically add nine more months of weight training and strength to all of your linemen. There are no pages of the playbook that can give your linemen more experience with good technique so that their balance, leverage and angles are better. When it is third-and-5 and you need a sideline pass delivered quickly, on perfect target and with zip, you can’t just call the “Give Treon better mechanics and more arm strength” play. Some of these can be coached into the players, but not in one week of game prep. Or even a few weeks. All the staff can do is motivate them to play with much better energy and focus (won’t be a problem against FSU in the Swamp at night or against Alabama in Atlanta for the SEC title), and for Treon specifically, get him to go back to the days when he never turned the ball over. Because we can win with a quarterback who has limitations, but turnovers turn limitation into liability. Take away the end zone interceptions and his red zone fumbles and Florida fans would not have had to sweat out any of the last three games. That’s the biggest area for improvement this team needs going into the end of the season.
*This was the worst game of the season in the following offensive categories: fewest total yards (227 in regulation), fewest yards per play (4.1), fewest total plays (58 in regulation), fewest net passing yards (122), fewest rushing touchdowns (1), the most negative yards rushing (62), and the worst third down conversion rate (15%, 2 of 13). The Gator offense also gained its second-fewest first downs on the season (13) and registered its second-worst pass completion percentage for the year (47%).
*The first score of the day for Florida was the first touchdown the Gators had scored in the last 18 offensive drives.
*This was the 7th game this year without giving up a rushing touchdown.
*Though they surrendered a lot of first downs (18, the Gators’ third-worst effort this year against SEC opponents) and plays (84 – the most on the season – although more a function of an offense that couldn’t hold the ball all day long), it was the 7th game – and 4th in a row – allowing fewer than 300 yards. Over the last four games, Florida has given up an average of just 225 total yards per game.
*Saturday was the third time in the last two seasons that the Gators were held scoreless in the first half. Florida won two of those three games (beat FAU 2015, Tennessee 2014; lost to Missouri 2014)
*Only 8 times since the national title season of 1996 has Florida won a game while gaining fewer than 15 first downs. The Gators have pulled off this feat twice in the last three games (FAU and Vanderbilt)
*With 5 sacks on the day, the 2015 Gators become just the 4th Florida team since the turn of the century to have 5 or more sacks in 3 or more games in the same season (matching the 2001, 2005 and 2006 squads)
Closing Argument: The Quarterback Thing
Nary a moment goes by that another Gator fan does hang out a social media shingle because they want to be in the Will Grier Speculation business. And the range of speculation is as broad as it is incomprehensible. For the sake of sanity I will jump past all the NCAA infraction and appeal speculation and get right into the meat of the “What’s he going to do now?” sweepstakes.
Speculation goes so far as assuming Grier will transfer. And with that I ask: To what end? Maybe the mass confusion over the whole NCAA issue has cast a fog over everything else peripheral to it, because transferring makes no logical sense. He loves Florida and Florida loves him. The school and the fans have supported him 100% in this, while full well knowing he is the only person to blame in the entire scenario. He is the guy who could have gone anywhere, but chose to stick with his Florida commitment even after Will Muschamp was rumored to have zero chance of still being the coach when Grier was through with his redshirt year and ready to compete for the starting position. Even more remarkable is that he committed to Muschamp when he DID think Muschamp would be his coach for all four years.
But the more salient fact in play here is that transferring does nothing to change his eligibility status with respect to the NCAA suspension: no matter where he plays, even if he goes to an FCS school, he is ineligible to compete in a game until the seventh game of 2016. And if he did choose to transfer to another FBS school, he would have to add an additional year of ineligibility to the tally due to the transfer rules. And for a quarterback with his potential NFL draft status, it would cripple his future earnings potential to choose to play against vastly inferior talent and defensive complexity in the FCS subdivision just to avoid the additional year of sitting out.
So I honestly don’t understand from where any of the transfer speculation derives. I also don’t understand all the concern over what Florida will do for a quarterback next year. That concern ranges anywhere from nervous fidgeting to foaming-at-the-mouth Kermit the Frog spastic attack. But it is really quite simple:
*Treon will finish out the year, barring injury, as the starting quarterback. He has possibly four, but probably three games remaining in the season to continue to try to eke out victories with a ton of offensive limitations in the way.
*Grier will rejoin the team for spring practice and probably split the second team snaps. Treon will be the starter and get most of the reps and the staff will work diligently to develop him into a better pocket passer than he was in 2015. They will also most likely introduce some new packages to better utilize his skill set, while also focusing on getting Grier back into the groove, preparing Luke Del Rio for real playing time and starting to ramp up the newly arrived freshmen quarterbacks.
*Treon will start the first 6 games of 2016, barring an unforeseen effort by Del Rio to win the job. Del Rio will be the backup with the true freshmen headed for redshirts. Grier will be worked more and more into the reps and possibly spend time on the scout team or the look team to give him more snaps.
*Barring tectonic changes such as Treon or Luke making quantum leaps in their abilities and performance, or Will taking a precipitous nosedive in his, Grier will start Game 7, the first game he is eligible to return to the playing field. He will be the starter from then until he leaves UF, barring injury, illness or suspension.
Now that is the plan and certainly it is what is most logical and intuitive. But even adhering to this progression, many Gator fans are freaking out a little (or a lot) about how we can possibly survive such a run with an unsettled quarterback situation. Easy: the same way we have done all year. Treon has gone 5-1 as a starter this year, including 4-1 since Will was suspended. And he was possibly a single finger poke of a would-be game-tying touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway from being 6-0 and the quarterback of an 11-0 football team right now. The first six games of next season are against lowly UMass, a Kentucky team that went straight down the toilet the second half of this year, helpless North Texas, mental block Elevenessee, Vanderbilt which is always pathetic early in the season and only sneaks up on teams late in the year when better teams have been beaten down by the real opponents, and an LSU Tigers team that may very well be breaking in a new coaching staff. All but the two Tennessee opponents are in the Swamp. None of those opponents should scare anyone. With Treon Harris at the helm, a 6-0 start is very likely, and 5-1 seems like a worst case scenario.
Then Grier takes over against Missouri – the last team he faced and beat – and it is in the Swamp, where Will last led the Gators to a curb-stomping of the #3 team in the nation. And those Tigers are assured to be breaking in a new coaching staff next year. Then they get a bye week to prepare for a Georgia squad that may or may not have already fired its coaching staff by that point in the season. And they finish out at always unpredictable Arkansas, at home against South Carolina (another new coaching staff), hapless Presbyterian and at Florida State (which, if LSU is breaking in a new coaching staff, might also be bringing a new staff into this season).
And no matter who the quarterback is, the offensive line will be much improved with a full year of experience, development and training, and with an entire second line of depth ready to play against SEC-level opponents. And with stronger push and more holes to run through, what defense wants to face the two Jordans as seasoned veterans with Lamical Perine and/or Mark Thompson coming in now and then to give them a rest?
In addition to the Treon/Grier confusion at the starting position, a lot of folks are racking their brains and asking question after unanswerable question to try to figure out how the quarterback depth chart will shape up and shake out in the near and distant future. Will Grier transfer? Will Treon transfer? Will 2017 commitment Jake Allen de-commit if we sign Feleipe Franks this February? Wither Luke Del Rio? Well there’s really no mystery here, either.
*Grier is the starter as soon as he’s eligible again, allowing for the caveats mentioned above, so he stays put.
*Harris will stay at Florida after this season, too, because he knows he will start the first 6 games next year and treat that as his chance to win the job from Grier or at least audition for the job at another school if he loses his starting position and chooses to transfer.
*Del Rio will be the backup for the first 6 games unless he can beat Treon out, which is probably a long shot.
*Franks will come in January and redshirt to put on size and strength and learn the system and be ready to compete for the backup spot in 2017 and the starting spot in 2018 after Grier enters the NFL draft early as a likely top-10 pick.
*Allen comes in 2017, redshirts to put on size and strength and learn the system and will be ready to compete for the backup spot and possibly the starting spot in 2018, depending on how fast Franks develops.
*From that point on…well at that point it is already way too far into the future to make any reasonable predictions because as we have seen the last several years at UF, the quarterback depth chart can change in one day, even in one play. And all of the above points are subject to change if someone makes a rocket ascent in performance or a rocket splashdown descent in performance, none of which are foreseen right now. But predicting what will happen with a bunch of student athletes – or trying to project what crazy thing will happen next in the world of the Florida Gators – is a losing proposition.
And before closing, I wanted to comment on two of the players who have been taking the biggest beatings from fans this year: Treon Harris and Mason Halter. They are both having significant difficulties playing to an SEC level. But before you utter your next critical thought about either of these two, just imagine where our offensive line would be without Halter this year. Imagine where our entire offense and in fact our entire team and our very 2015 season would be without Treon Harris.
Some fans are so upset that we have to play with these two in the starting lineup.
Well just imagine if we had to play without them.
Life is very, very good.