Ugly games need loving too. I’ve often heard that, or something along those lines. And that game was extremely ugly, at least from an offensive standpoint. The Florida Gators football team managed only 258 yards of total offense to go along with a generous 4 turnovers. Defensively, Florida was spectacular allowing Vanderbilt only 175 yards but with all due respect the Commodores offense shuts itself down. All that mattered in the game was coming away with the win and clinching the SEC East title and the Gators DID accomplish that goal.
That means, regardless of what transpires over the next three games, Florida will play in the SEC Championship Game in Jim McElwain’s first season as the head coach. That is quite an accomplishment. The Gator Nation should ignore the lackluster performance against Vandy and just enjoy the win. Florida is often sluggish against Vandy after emotional victories over Georgia, although as often as the Gators beat the Bulldogs it should be old hat by now.
There is some explanation for the Vandy game. Vanderbilt does have an excellent defense. Injuries left the Gators offensive line, which was patchwork to begin with, extremely thin and reshuffled for this contest. That, in turn, allowed a decent defense to keep pressure on Treon Harris and to hold the Gator running game which had finally produced a solid 5 yards plus per carry against Georgia back down to a paltry 2.7 yards per carry against Vanderbilt. This will need to be a one game aberration if the Gators want to continue winning. It will be very difficult to beat the likes of FSU and Alabama with an anemic running game.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Without a doubt, this season already qualifies as special. The Gators return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2009. That had to be considered the top “realistic” goal coming into this season. Yes, there is still a chance, slight as it might seem, for 2015 to be even more special, but even if that does not transpire this season has been more than most fans expected.
This ugly homecoming win only needed to be a win. Style points were optional. That’s a good thing because ugly it was. Teams seldom win games where they lose the turnover battle by a number as large as four. Treon Harris struggled with his accuracy the vast majority of this game which is the one big concerned I had about Harris from what I saw last season. He must improve in that area. He also must find Jake McGee. It was not good that McGee had zero receptions Saturday. And, in my humble opinion, more plays need to be designed to get the ball in to Antonio Callaway’s hands. I don’t care if you have to line him up in some kind of wildcat formation, he needs several opportunities with the ball each game to make plays. He is without doubt the most explosive playmaker on the Gator offense.
All of this must be figured out quickly. It’s funny, but just a week ago we were all thinking that going into the FSU game at 10-1 was almost a certainty. After nearly losing to Vandy and with South Carolina playing their best football of the season, that is no longer a given. Even if the Gators do manage to beat the Gamecocks and Florida Atlantic, FSU has a very good defense and a stumbling bumbling offense will not score much in that game but then the Gators might not score much either. While I believe that Florida in the playoff in 2015 is dreaming, it still remains at least a possibility. The Gators have to view this as a playoff run until there is another check in the loss column. So for now, the task is to find a way to win out.
Regardless of what happens in the next three games, the next goal in line for this team is SEC Champions. Even that seems a little out of reach right now. The opponent in Atlanta will almost certainly be Alabama, which means the SEC is back in balance. Florida vs Alabama is the natural state of the SEC Championship Game. Unfortunately, the Tide seems to be playing the best football in the country right now. If Alabama can hold Leonard Fournette to 31 yards, how is Florida going to run the ball successfully against them? The simple truth is that the Gators probably will not. Which means Florida will be forced to turn to the passing game. Harris will need to be much more efficient and effective than he has been the last two games for that to be successful. Alabama is too good on offense for even the great Gator defense to completely shut them down and good enough on defense to keep the struggling Florida offense in check. In my opinion, the Gators will need to win the turnover battle decisively in that game to emerge as conference champions. But, stranger things have happened.
Right now, coach McElwain just needs to get his players focused on the task at hand which is a tough SEC road game. The injury bug has bitten this week and the Gators will likely be without some key players Saturday including possibly the great Jonathon Bullard. With Jordan Sherit out for the first half of this game due to a dubious targeting call and Joey Ivie out with an injury the defensive line will be thin. This late in the season, injuries are to be expected and teams must find a way to work around them. Luckily the Gators have talent ready to step up behind them but there will not be the usual rotation available to avoid getting worn down as the game progresses. It will be important for the offense to have some sustained drives to give the defense a chance to rest. I would have figured this game to be a loss last season based on the above information but I feel completely differently with this new staff. While I expect the game to be closer than fans would like, I think the Gators will again find a way to win and keep the impossible dream alive for at least a couple of more weeks. Ain’t this fun?