Let the healing begin

When Florida’s season began three weeks ago, no one thought game three against Tennessee would be a healing game, but that’s what you can call next Saturday’s game with Tennessee, a game that should tell us plenty about the Gators.

The Gators will be coming off a bye week and it is the SEC opener for both schools. UF is 1-1 after a victory in the home opener against Toledo and last week’s road loss to Miami while Tennessee is 2-0 with home wins against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky. While the Gators will be taking the week off, the Vols travel to #2 Oregon to take on the multiple-uniformed, ultra fast Ducks.

The Gators need healing because they were expected to be heading into this matchup 2-0. When the season began, most Gator fans were counting on week three to produce an easy win over a depleted UT team with yet another new coach (Butch Jones, fourth coach since 2008) at the helm.

As that famous football writer William Shakespeare famously wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men…”

The Gators are reeling after a shocking loss to in-state rival Miami, a game that may have exposed weaknesses in many areas in which the Gators probably considered strengths.

Embedded with highly-regarded transfers Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska), as well as an experienced core solidified with some young, heralded talent, the offensive line was expected to be a strength this season whereas inconsistency made it a bit of a liability last year. Unfortunately, injuries to Jon Halapio (hasn’t played this season) and DJ Humphries (missed half of the Miami game) forced Moore to play out of his normal position and the depth was also adversely affected. Consequently, quarterback Jeff Driskel was quite often under pressure and the offense was never really in sync.

The maturation of Jeff Driskel as a quarterback remains something of an oft-discussed topic by Gator fans. Most expected maturation as a leader, passer and game manager. His results against Toledo – at least statistically – showed Driskel to be an efficient passer and effective game manager. No cause for alarm. But Toledo is no Miami. And stats don’t always tell the story. One who might simply read the stats Driskel put up against Miami without having seen the game might wonder, “Why the uproar?”

The alarms sounded early and often at Miami because Driskel seemed all too frequently out of sorts in the pocket. He made several of bad throws and quite a few decisions you know he would like to have back. In clutch situations, he was woefully inaccurate. He lacked touch on a surefire touchdown pass then failed to see open receivers on the next play when he threw into triple coverage for an interception. He still doesn’t seem to have the pocket presence he needs  — he takes unnecessary sacks – and ball security remains an issue.

In the running game, Matt Jones and Mack Brown lacked explosion and showed little to no “wow” factor against Miami. Despite the fact that the offensive line did struggle most of the game, there were several times in which the line provided open running lanes that faded away like a 1st grader’s water color painting left outside during a storm because neither Jones nor Brown attacked the holes with any urgency or purpose. Perhaps Jones is still not completely healthy, and perhaps we’re seeing one of the reasons why Brown never saw the field his first three years in Gainesville. But Kelvin Taylor looked great against Toledo, even if it was garbage time. He’s the son of one of the best Gators ever to don the Orange and Blue, and the fans want to see him. Maybe Tennessee will be his coming-out party; his Alex Brown moment.

Coach Will Muschamp and staff will have the luxury of an open date, affording them an extra week’s preparation for Tennessee and there are some positives to build upon. The Gators DID move the ball against Miami and dominated almost all the statistics with the notable exception of the final score and turnovers. There is no doubt that the extra week will give the Gators much-needed time to work on their issues, especially ball security. It has to grate at Muschamp and staff that if you take away one or two of those five turnovers, the Gators are 2-0 and UF fans aren’t gnashing teeth and thinking about tossing Bud Lite bottles at the DVR (for those of us brave enough to re-watch the game and smart enough to realize it was that freaking device’s fault we lost).

Win against Tennessee and the fans will come back down to earth and Muschamp will be able to restore some confidence in a team that still has a lot of youngsters playing key roles. A win equals healing, something the Gators need.

As for Tennessee, Butch Jones has the Vol faithful believing. The combination of some unexpected early recruiting successes and two convincing wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, have raised spirits to their highest point since Casey Clausen directed the band playing Rocky Top after that shocking UT win over the Gators in 2001. LuLu and Junior were proud Vols that night and they think Butch is the greatest thing since the TVA brought cheap electricity to eastern Tennessee.

Regardless of what happens to the Vols this weekend in Eugene – it shouldn’t be pretty – it’s doubtful the UT faithful will have their enthusiasm doused. They are drinking the Kool-Aid in Knoxville where you can drive on streets named for Phil Fulmer and Tee (I still hear Alex Brown’s footsteps) Martin. A win over Florida and maybe they rename Knoxville “Butchville?” You didn’t think I was going to go with Jonestown, did you?

Unfortunately, for our pumpkin orange-clad SEC brethren next weekend in Gainesville will be a second straight week when reality trumps expectations. Losing to the hated Gators a ninth straight season won’t settle well among fans desperate for Florida-Tennessee to become a real rivalry once again. In the long haul, Butch Jones might be that guy who can make the third week in September a reason to circle the calendar once again. He’s a charismatic guy with a solid history of success, unlike his two predecessors, whose greatest claims to fame are their last names. At some point, you figure he will turn things around for Tennessee. It’s just doubtful it will be next Saturday.

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Thor Kolnes
Sports and writing have always been passions of mine. I was unfortunate enough to be born in Cincinnati, Ohio and even more unfortunate to be born with an unwavering sense of loyalty. I chose the Gators in a Cub Scout meeting as a young boy after my parents moved us to Florida and I have never looked back. Suffice it to say the loyalty to the Gators has paid off but the Bengals and the Reds are withholding their dividends. Geographical determinism made me a Reds and Bengals fan, but God's grace made me a Gator.