Florida’s early 2021 schedule makes for nearly-silent offseason strategy

The lack of a spring game and the general lack of access to spring practice has been a sore spot for some Gator fans this offseason. I sympathize with the resentment. I wanted to get a preview of this fall’s team. Instead, about all we got other than press conferences was an Instagram live stream featuring stretching, drills, UF alums plugging their new books, and camera shots from a mile away of the actual football-like activities.

Scott Stricklin chose not to have a spring game because the Swamp was being used as a major COVID-19 testing and vaccine site. The normal-sized crowds that attend Orange and Blue games probably would’ve made at least some people shy away from getting those tests or shots, and such crowds are far more likely to do so than the random students running the stairs through the semester or even the TopGolf event that happened in late April. I get it, and it was a defensible decision on the merits.

But while I don’t think Florida went out of its way to restrict access to spring ball, I don’t think it went out of its way to give fans good access either. The live streams could’ve been a lot better without much additional effort. I think the program’s leadership realized that doing absolutely nothing different than last fall’s camp would’ve been a bad look and created even more fan frustration than exists now, but there wasn’t much creativity or imagination put towards creating fan satisfaction.

Most of that, and quite possibly all of that, is Dan Mullen’s general desire for secrecy. He is not alone in that respect among college football head coaches. I think they all would be fine with plenty of media around if and only if said media didn’t publish details of interest and only wrote fawning profiles. The days of that are long gone, so they’d rather just avoid prying eyes if it’s all the same to you. It’s not the same to you, though, nor is it to recruits. Therefore, they grudgingly let some media in some of the time.

If there’s anything more to it this year than last — and again, there may not be — it’s because of the way the 2021 schedule sets up.

Mullen has a dozen years of head coaching under his belt. One thing he has yet to do is beat Nick Saban. The absolute quickest way he can change the narrative about himself and his program and generate real, organic buzz on the recruiting trail would be to win the Week 3 contest against the Crimson Tide.

The two closest times Mullen has come to beating the Nicktator are the last two times they faced each other. In 2017, Bama needed a touchdown with 25 seconds to go to pull out a 31-24 squeaker over Mullen’s Mississippi State. Then last season Florida pushed the Tide harder than anyone else did, including a pair of College Football Playoff opponents, in a 52-46 SEC Championship Game classic.

Alabama is one of just four teams to have more 2021 NFL Draft selections (ten) than Florida had (eight). The team will be breaking in a second-year quarterback who, while phenomenally talented, has just 22 collegiate pass attempts to his name. And as per custom, Bama has a marquee Week 1 neutral site matchup. It’s against Miami this time, and while I am not tremendously high on the Hurricanes, they should be able to force Alabama to work for a while and not just sit on the ball for 60 minutes and sleepwalk out with something like a 33-6 win.

Meanwhile, UF has FAU in Week 1 and USF in Week 2. The Gators have the ability to straight-up out-talent those teams without showing too much. I fully expect to see Emory Jones run as little as possible in those games while handing off a lot to keep him healthy, which means the offense won’t operate at its highest capacity. If he hits 300 passing yards in either contest, it’ll be because guys are taking screens for 60-yard touchdowns. If he hits ten rushing attempts in a game, it’ll be because something went terribly wrong.

Mullen won’t care if you don’t like seeing vanilla offense. The point will be to get wins of literally any magnitude and hold back all the interesting stuff for Week 3.

I suspect we’ll see a lot of vanilla defense in those games too. After all, Todd Grantham’s defense going to one extreme or the other was a major factor in those two close losses. That side of the ball probably has some real changes coming too.

To be fair, the ’17 Bulldogs holding the Crimson Tide to just 24 points through 59 minutes was a terrific outing given how good Bama was and the talent disparity between the teams. However when it came down to crunch time, then-offensive coordinator Brian Daboll countered Grantham’s overly-belligerent blitzing perfectly as I outlined here a few years ago.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Grantham’s 2019 defense was noticeably less aggressive, at least in pass coverage. How noticeable? After the Gators’ Week 1 win, then-Miami offensive coordinator Dan Enos said, “Actually, they played a lot softer in the secondary than we thought they were going to play in the secondary.” While the new strategy blew up in the team’s face against LSU and on third down against Georgia, the ’19 UF defense is in the running for the best Grantham has ever coached.

It’s no surprise, then, that Florida’s trend towards soft pass coverage continued in 2020. It proved a disaster when facing Saban again in Atlanta. Not that anyone significantly slowed down the Alabama offense last year, but UF’s defense seemed to barely make the Tide’s offense break a sweat for much of the way.

So while the UF offense will look a lot different this year, Grantham and the defense are going to have to find a solid middle ground between blitz-o-rama and letting every five-yard-slant have an eight-yard cushion. We do know from the meager information out of spring practice that at the very least, the secondary got up on receivers more often. How exactly everything else will work out remains to be seen.

With major changes on both sides of the ball and a schedule that has two cupcakes leading into a potentially career-defining game for Mullen, I would expect nothing less than an attempt to remain as close to radio silence as possible. There’s no concealing much anymore come September 4, and certainly not anything on September 18. Until those dates, I don’t anticipate learning a whole lot about the full capabilities of the 2021 Gators.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2