Unbelievable! Truly unbelievable. While I did pick the Florida Gators to win the game midweek, I certainly did not expect anything like what I saw Saturday night. This was the total dismantling of what we believe to be a very good football team. Ole Miss thought they were coming to Gainesville to pick up another win and then turn their attention to winning the SEC West and making the playoffs. Florida had different plans.
The Gators controlled this game from the opening kickoff. Looking at the stats, the total yardage was close to even but that was very misleading. One of the Rebels’ long drives came very late in the game when the outcome had long been decided. The Gators were opportunistic on offense. Ole Miss wasn’t. The Gators were also opportunistic on defense. The four forced turnovers played a big part in the outcome. And, with the exception of the missed extra point, the special teams were not bad either. In fact, at initial glance, the game looked like the Gators’ first complete game in quite some time. It might not be quite as complete as it appeared.
In truth there are still areas that must improve. The offensive line has been bemoaned all offseason as a clear liability. That is no longer the case. The line gets better each week. Pass protection has certainly improved. The Rebel defensive front has been one of the best in the SEC at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That was the biggest concern for Florida coming into the game, according to the sports media. Yet, Will Grier was 24-29 for 271 yards, touchdown and no interceptions with plenty of time in the pocket most of the night. Gator Nation appears to be witnessing the emergence of a star at quarterback but give a lot of that credit to the O-line. There is much room for improvement in run blocking, however. Gator running backs are still averaging only three yards a carry. That needs to change. Watching Alabama play Georgia on Saturday you got see what good run blocking looks like. The Gators should be averaging four to five yards a carry, not three. Still, it isn’t like the Gator run blocking is horrendous. There were some holes and good runs Saturday just not enough of them. Run blocking just needs to keep improving.
Defensively, Florida shut down the highest scoring team in the SEC. Seven of the Rebels’ ten points and a chunk of their yardage came on that late, meaningless drive. Up until Saturday, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly was showing up on the Heisman watch lists of the pregame shows. The Gators probably ended that campaign. With all due respect, 26 of 40 with a touchdown, an interception and a fumble while your team gets blown out are not really Heisman numbers. Florida also held Ole Miss to just 69 yards rushing and a paltry 2.1 yards per carry. Run defense will be critically important with Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb still ahead in October. The defense holds the key to whether this season is just the turning of the corner or something surprisingly special.
We have learned one thing without question in the first five weeks of the season. Coaching matters. There is more to coaching than just Xs and Os. Teams develop cultures and mindsets. Losing can become a culture of its own. So can winning. The Florida Gators had become engulfed in a culture of losing. Tennessee is struggling with a culture of losing as well. Butch Jones has been working for nearly three years to change the culture at Tennessee with little success. Head coach, Jim McElwain seems to have already changed the culture at Florida but it is too early to know for sure. We have only seen five games of the McElwain era but it’s been a very good five games. Gator fans couldn’t wait for the New Mexico State game hoping to see some immediate changes. They wanted efficiency on offense and some semblance of an identity on the offensive side of the ball. They got it. Game two was not quite the step forward and improvement that fans were hoping for but Florida came away with the win. There was some trepidation going on the road to Kentucky but McElwain managed a hard fought road victory with a young team against an improving Wildcat squad. Week four saw another supposed step up in competition as the highly hyped Tennessee Vols came calling. It wasn’t pretty but Florida rallied for an impressive comeback. Ole Miss was to be that huge jump up several steps in competition. This was the game that Florida was expected to lose and perhaps lose big. That, of course, did not materialize and the Gators throttled the Rebels. The Gator Nation is now altering their expectations for the 2015 season.
Before we give into the euphoria of such a win let’s take a short trip back in time to last season. The Gators dominated a very good Georgia team in a game most thought would be a blowout loss for Florida and Gator fans thought the team had finally put all the pieces together and were ready to win out in 2014. That, of course, was not the case. Florida regressed right back to where they were before the Georgia game and the losses continued to pile up. This year’s Gators do not feel like that. I get that. But I’m not ready to start talking championships just yet. Last year Florida beat up on a Georgia team that I think failed to take the Gators seriously and prepare properly for the game. That could be the case here with Ole Miss. I don’t really think it is but it could be that the Rebels just came into Gainesville flat. The thing about being a great team is that you have to prove it again EVERY week. Each week and each opponent brings its own particular challenge and this week is no different. Florida is coming off a huge emotional win. They face a road game against a team that may have just found their quarterback.
A monumental matchup looms the next week against LSU and probable Heisman Trophy winner Leonard Fournette. This week’s game is the prototypical “trap game”. It will be up to McElwain and staff to make sure that the team prepares for this week’s game properly and waits until next week to ponder LSU. There is no option of teleporting forward to championship seasons. They have to be built one game and one week at a time. This is the area where I believe this coaching staff will excel.
My preseason prediction was 8-4 with 9-3 a possibility if certain things, like injuries, went our way. This thing could derail fast with the wrong injuries. Barring that, I now lean more to 9-3 with the possibility of something really special if the team stays mostly healthy, prepares each week like McElwain expects of them, and continues to improve all season. Before the season started, I heard Lou Holtz say on a radio show that he knows Jim McElwain and that his team will improve each week of the season. So far that has been correct. If it continues, nothing is impossible. That said, I want to see this team temper their emotions over their new success and go beat a tough Missouri team on the road before I even start talking about contending for the SEC East.