GC VIP Stadium Road Audibles — 9/18/23 Edition

I want to both react appropriately and completely overreact to Florida’s win over Tennessee. Let’s be measured first before letting the imagination wander.

The game felt like a proof of concept for the way Billy Napier wants to win games. The offense was crisp, if not explosive aside from Trevor Etienne’s long run, and built up a lead throughout the first half. The defense needed a minute to get its balance, but once it did, it made big plays when it mattered.

And because the offense possessed the ball so much before the break, the defense didn’t fade despite Tennessee suddenly controlling the game so much. The Volunteers had the ball just under 12 minutes of the third quarter alone. Despite that, they came away with only three points because the Gator defense didn’t give up the big play and forced a pair of turnovers on downs. Napier then played keepaway by burning up more than 12 minutes of clock for just three points in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

Is it encouraging? Absolutely. Napier finally won a rivalry game, and he won it the way he wants to win it. He did admit to going too conservative on offense in the second half, but UF went up three scores early in the fourth quarter, there wasn’t much reason to do anything differently than what they did. Some more effort at scoring in the third would’ve been nice, but the endgame ultimately was fine.

Now, the big win over LSU in 2012 felt just as much like proof of concept for Will Muschamp, but it wasn’t an easy glide to glory from there. One game is just one game. The win over Tennessee could be more proof of the Volunteers having regressed than Florida’s improvement, just as the outcome against Utah wasn’t a sign that the Gators were irrevocably sloppy in their execution. Heck, remember how last year’s Utah win was followed up by the putrid showings against Kentucky and USF? Anything can happen in one game.

Here are a few other quick takeaways that aren’t exactly leaps:

  • Austin Armstrong was a far better choice for defensive coordinator than Patrick Toney was. Maybe some or even a lot of last year’s problems were from Mullen-era holdovers not having their heads right, but the overall strategy and deployment of talent is worlds better this year.
  • The defense might not just be good considering what it was last year. It might be good good.
  • The youth and transfers continue to lead the way, showing ever more that Napier and staff have a terrific eye for talent.
  • But there are some critical veteran holdovers too, and Kingsley Eguakun might be chief among them.
  • The people who picked Graham Mertz as the worst quarterback in the conference look even more foolish now than they did in August.
  • Anyone who predicted a cratering season and Napier getting fired just wasn’t paying attention. Stewart Mandel is the most prominent of these — he foresaw a 3-9 record and a pink slip — but it was clear if you wanted to see it that it wouldn’t require much defensive improvement to comfortably make a bowl game.

Now, with the cool-headed stuff out of the way, here is how this win changes the season outlook. Not just that Florida won, but how it won.

The biggest conceivable prize for the season is on the table: a win over Georgia and a trip to Atlanta. It’s not probable or close to it, but I never would’ve said it was possible until after Saturday night.

The Gators came out and had a terrific first half after a little bit of sputtering. The first offensive drive wasn’t a work of art between the false start on the first play, a hold later on, Napier getting predictable with the run calls once inside the Tennessee 30, and the missed field goal. The defense then gave up a fairly quick score. But after that, Florida went on a four-TDs-to-none run to take a commanding lead.

Georgia’s defense is too good to repeat that verbatim, but the Bulldogs have been slow starters this year. If Florida comes out prepared again like it did in this game, and then doesn’t get too conservative in the second half like in this game, then a win along these lines is possible. Again, not probable. But possible.

Winning the East would probably require going 7-1, and I am not sure that’ll happen. UGA’s toughest two league games are, at this point, the Cocktail Party and a late home game against Ole Miss. I am not ready to trust the Rebels, so I think the Gators get one mulligan — most likely LSU. That’s it.

But also, South Carolina doesn’t have an offensive line, Kentucky hasn’t been great while playing two horrendous MAC teams and an FCS outfit, Vandy just lost to UNLV, and Arkansas just lost to BYU. I never believed this year’s schedule was as hard as some folks made it out to be because I just wasn’t that high on teams like Carolina, UK, and Arky.

The late November game at Missouri is a concern, as road games in the cold are Florida’s kryptonite. Mizzou is feisty and has some good players, most notably wide receiver Luther Burden, so I am taking nothing for granted there. It’s also sandwiched between LSU and FSU. You’d think that if the division was on the line that would focus the team, but the Gators are never good in chilly weather.

Anyway, this year’s Florida team could still blow a couple coverages and turn it over four times on the road at Kentucky and lose. I don’t think they will, but, for the umpteenth time, anything can happen in one game.

Still, the method by which they beat Tennessee opens up possibilities for the rest of the season. Get excited.

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