It was hard to believe, after the Michigan game opening Saturday, that the second weekend could be even worse. Then came Irma. It is true that the storm caused the cancelation of Saturday’s Gator game but that was the least of Irma’s damage. The state of Florida took a beating beginning with incredible devastation in the Florida Keys. And it could have been much worse. Now, the focus turns to recovery and cleanup. Theoretically at this point, Florida will play Tennessee on Saturday, preferably in Gainesville.
While many will say that it is ridiculous to be thinking or talking about a football game in the aftermath of a major hurricane landfall in the state. I hope everyone weathered the storm well and rebounds quickly. However, Gator fans ARE thinking about the Tennessee game. And rightly so. Time will pass quickly and most of the storm damage will be cleaned up relatively quickly and life will go back to normal for most people. The football season will again be important to fans and for this season to move forward, Florida must play Tennessee somewhere. The game promises to have too big an impact on who wins the SEC East and therefore must take place. After Saturday, it will be virtually impossible for the SEC to work out a scenario that provides a date to reschedule this game. The two teams do not share either an off-week or a non-conference game week. The SEC will make every conceivable effort to get this game played on Saturday. At this point, UF plans to host the game as scheduled but we heard that midweek of last week as well. I am reasonably confident that this game will take place Saturday in Gainesville.
Which brings us to the game itself. Florida opened the week as an eight-point favorite in the game but that rapidly dropped to five points. That seems a little odd. Tennessee is 2-0. Florida is 0-1. Florida is favored by more Saturday than the offense even scored in the Michigan game. Florida will not win this game unless the offense is much more effective than it was in game one. The Vols defense was less than stellar against Georgia Tech in their opening game, but Tennessee got a tune-up game against Indiana State Saturday while the Gators lost their opportunity to work out the problems that were so visiable against Michigan. I am concerned that this little fact may end up being the difference in this game. If the Gators win Saturday, the entire team and coaching staff should be commended. Between suspensions and storms this team has had more than its share of distractions to prepare for and begin this season.
This is a HUGE game for head coach Jim McElwain. The vast majority of the Gator Nation felt McElwain had the team going in the right direction, until two Saturdays ago. Now, Florida fans are looking around at each other and wondering what just happened. A win by this beleaguered team over a scrappy Tennessee team would put the universe back in balance for the Gator Nation and suggest that McElwain does indeed have the program on the right path. A loss Saturday and this football team is in danger of coming apart and even that rarest of species, reasonable fans, will be correct to wonder if this was the right hire. This could translate into a disastrous win/loss record in 2017. There may not be enough team leadership to overcome too much adversity.
The most important thing Saturday is a sign that the offense does have a pulse. Even a high scoring loss might well be better than a low scoring win where the offense is yet again inept. McElwain inherited a roster with some pretty serious holes. He has not recruited at the elite level Florida has become accustomed to so far in his stint as head coach in Gainesville but should have patched the roster enough to be offensively competent. McElwain has the commitments in place to make this year’s class an elite class. If he can hold those commitments that is. These fine young men threw their lot in with what they believe to be a program on the rise back to the top. I am guessing that they will want to see signs that is going to continue before they sign their name on a letter of intent. Make no mistake that coach Mac is staring at the most critical juncture of his coaching career. What his team accomplishes or fails to accomplish in the next six weeks will go a long way to deciding whether Mac is an elite college football coach or if he should have remained at Colorado State. He will earn every penny of his salary between now and December.
So, how does Mac get this important win Saturday? Obviously, the offense must be much better than it was against Michigan. Hopefully, he and his staff have settled on a starting quarterback and that player got the lion’s share of the reps in practice. As worrisome as it must be for Mac to hand his career over to a redshirt freshman quarterback and live or fail with the results, I think that is what he must do. The upside with Luke Del Rio is probably not enough to win against some really good teams down the road. Plus, if you go with Del Rio and he gets hurt again what have you done to Felipe Franks’ confidence. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe Malik Zaire is going to be the answer for the Gators. Good defenses in the SEC will just bottle him up and make him beat them with his arm. I simply do not believe he is up to that challenge. So as nervous as it would make me, if I was Mac I would probably hand the ball to Franks, tell him the job is his and hope for the best.
It will be very difficult for the offense to get right unless the running game improves. It would help if Mac could get Jordan Scarlett back. For that matter, it would help the running game if they could get Antonio Callaway back to force safeties out of the box. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely for this game, if ever. To move the offense effectively with the weapons Mac does have at his disposal, the offensive line must play much better than it did against Michigan. Hopefully, the missed assignments by linemen were just growing pains learning a new position coach because that was not pretty. This unit was supposed to be a team strength. Did anyone see signs of strength from them in that game?
I think the defense must play better as well. I realize that defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s squad scored two touchdowns but they also let Michigan’s offense to stay on the field way too long. I thought the aggressive attack-defense Gator fans have become used to seeing was missing much of the game. Part of that is because Shannon doesn’t want to put his young defensive backs at too much risk early. That is understandable, but nearly every dominant defense you will ever see is an aggressive defense. I hope Shannon will let his secondary move up to the line and make receivers earn their way into their routes once he becomes more confident in them. I am hearing talk that Shannon’s traditional approach to defense is more of a read and react approach. That would be a mistake long term.
Rest assured Tennessee will come to play Saturday. They must be carrying a bit of chip on their shoulder the way everyone has written them off this season. Being underdogs in this game cannot sit well with them either. Vol head coach Butch Jones is coaching for his job this season and he and his players know this. Their run defense has been a bit porous so far. That is probably part of the reason they are not favored Saturday. If the Gators can take advantage of that weakness it might be enough to break the offense out of its slump and produce a win. A win Saturday puts the program back on the rails and would help calm the nerves of some important recruits. This is a big game for the future of Gator football. Take a deep breath and enjoy it Saturday.