Earlier this week I exchanged emails with David Wunderlich a Manager at SB Nation’s SEC site Team Speed Kills and someone who is also a Florida fan. David is a sharp football mind who has recently written some of TSK’s best work. I’m partial to his research on upsets, which coaches are doing the best job, and investigating where all the SEC quarterbacks have gone. Also, if you are on Twitter he is worth a follow @year2.
Without further ado...
1. Florida beat UMass 24-7 last Saturday. A lot of Kentucky fans probably only read the box score, saw Florida didn't pull away until 14 fourth quarter points, and just assumed Florida had an underwhelming performance. Whether that sentiment is accurate or not, what doesn't the box score capture about Florida's opening game?
A lot of it depends on which part of the box score you look at. UMass was purposefully deliberate, running one play every 32 seconds of possession on average. That helped keep the total number of possessions down, as there were 19 combined possessions if you don’t count run-out-the-clock drives at the ends of the halves. By contrast, there were 28 combined in UK-Southern Miss (again, not counting clock-kill drives). Florida also had eight penalties for 80 yards, and flags stalled a pair of offensive drives and enabled the only UMass touchdown. On that scoring drive for the Minutemen, UF misdeeds provided 35 of the 70 yards necessary for the touchdown.
Really, it came down to the Gators not finishing drives. They got within the UMass 40-yard-line on six of their ten drives, and they got points on five of those six. However, they settled for field goals three times and got stuffed on 4th-and-1 near the goal line on the one drive they came up empty. If UF had been getting TDs instead of field goals, no one would’ve looked at the score and winced. And again, two of those field goal attempts came with penalties shortly preceding them.
2. Florida has a new quarterback this year in Luke Del Rio. He finished the game 29-for-44 with 256 yards and two touchdowns. What were you initial impressions of Del Rio, and what kind of season do you project him to have?
Del Rio is in the discussion with Treon Harris for least powerful arm of recent UF quarterbacks, but he’s also in the discussion with Chris Leak for best pocket awareness. His decision making is his best quality, as he only took one sack on 45 registered pass plays and only had one attempt in 44 come anywhere close to a pick. Jim McElwain thought Del Rio threw a few passes too early because of first game nerves, and he hit a stretch in the second half where he was throwing behind receivers. He tosses a very catchable ball, as there only was one drop, so he’ll do better if he can stay settled. And even with those aforementioned issues, he still completed 66% of his passes.
He only had one deep toss, as UMass was willingly giving up short stuff to prevent big plays, and it fell incomplete. We don’t know much about his ability to hit guys on the second and third level. He seems unlikely to turn it over much, though, which is an improvement over the quarterback play of last year.
3. UK allowed 260 yards rushing against Southern Miss. Saturday night and showed little improvement from last season; meanwhile, Florida only rushed for 107 yards on 29 attempts against UMass. Are there concerns about the Gator's run game this season, or was the performance more of an outlier?
Florida’s run game was efficient but not explosive. The Gators had a 57.1% success rate with the run, not including sacks or clock-kill drives. Jordan Scarlett averaged 5.4 per carry with a 76.9% success rate on 13 runs, while Mark Thompson averaged 3.7 per carry with a 66.7% success rate on six rushes. Again, UMass was very much playing not to give up big plays, so that combined with a mediocre performance from the offensive line meant that UF only had one run go for at least ten yards.
Florida had 45 pass attempts versus 28 runs (counting the sack as a pass), and McElwain said that was the mix he wants for this team. Apparently the run game is just something to keep the chains moving and complement the pass. It did seem odd that UF wasn’t running it more, and even Steve Spurrier said he wanted to see more rush attempts while he was in the booth during the third quarter.
4. Cornerback Teez Tabor returns to the Gator's line-up this weekend after serving a one game suspension for August misbehavior. Why is he important to the Gator's defense?
Tabor is Florida’s best corner, and the Gators definitely need him. The first string secondary is excellent, but there is very little depth. A few young guys got pressed into service with Tabor sidelined and Duke Dawson going out for the game early, and two of UMass’s four longest plays in the game—including a 53-yard bomb along the sideline—came from them picking on reserve sophomore CB Chris Williamson. That 53-yarder accounted for more than a quarter of the Minutemen’s yardage for the entire game. With Tabor in the rotation, the chances of allowing plays like that decreases.
5. Speaking of Florida's defense, a quick look at the depth chart indicates a talented defense that also held UMass to 187 total yards. Presumably for the second year in a row, the Gator defense is better than the Gator offense. Which players other than Tabor should UK fans be aware of on that side of the ball?
The Gators have some nice options on the line that you’ve probably heard of before like Bryan Cox Jr. and Caleb Brantley. Freshman Jabari Zuniga had a nice debut, though, tying for team lead with a pair of sacks. The most eye-opening players were linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, the latter finally healthy after battling injuries for years. Davis had one of the 15-yard penalties on a late hit, but beyond that he had a fantastic game. He and Anzalone are an amazing team to watch.
6. Please share your prediction of the game, and what are one or two factors that will play the biggest role in the game?
It’s hard to predict what will happen with the Florida offense. Was Del Rio’s occasional inaccuracy really just first-game jitters or is he just going to do that sometimes? UF had three pass targets out suspended and a couple more out injured, and at the least the suspended guys will be back this weekend. Will having more targets open things up better? And will the run game continue to move the chains but nothing more, or will it be able to get some big gains like Southern Miss did?
I’ll be very interested to see what happens with Drew Barker against the Gator secondary. Barker was brilliant in the first half but went into a shell once he began throwing picks. If Florida's opportunistic ball hawks get an interception early, will Barker recover? Kentucky also did what a lot of teams seemed to in Week 1, which is underutilize an effective run game—Boom Williams had a 54% success rate and a 7.2 YPC average but only 13 carries. Will UK be willing to lean on the run a bit more so that the game isn’t all on Barker’s shoulders?
I expect this one to be close like the past couple of games between the teams have been. UK will probably punt more than it likes but will make up for it in occasional big plays. Florida will probably have to grind out drives in order to keep up on the scoreboard. I think Florida will win in the end, with Wildcat turnovers making the difference, but it’ll probably be by only one score.