By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Florida Gators football opens in 2014
reclamation project season with a pair of non-conference home games as has been tradition for the program in the recent past.
Florida kicks things off against the Idaho Vandals under the lights at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. in a contest that will air live on ESPNU.
There is perhaps no better opponent for the Gators to face coming off the program’s worst season since 1979. The Vandals went 1-11 in head coach Paul Petrino’s inaugural campaign with their sole win coming on homecoming, 26-24 over Temple.
|FLORIDA GATORS||IDAHO VANDALS|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Paul Petrino (Year: 2)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 1-11 (N/A)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Sun Belt (2014)|
|Common Opponent (FSU): 0-1||Common Opponent (FSU): 0-1|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: 115th (18.2 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 123rd-last (46.8 ppg)|
After spending nine years in the Western Athletic Conference, Idaho was forced to search for a new home as the league dropped football in 2012. One of two remaining programs, the Vandals played an independent schedule in 2013 and are now an affiliate member of the Sun Belt Conference. UF is 12-0 all-time against Sun Belt teams and has never squared off against UI on the gridiron. Georgia Southern, which in 2013 handed Florida arguably its most embarrassing loss in school history, joined the league in 2014.
Who’s Coming Back?
Idaho returns redshirt sophomore quarterback Chad Chalich, who threw for over 1,200 yards and completed 61.4 percent of his passes last season before having his campaign end after seven games due to injury. Though Chalich was not an “air-it-out” signal caller, averaging only 6.7 yards per catch, he did not have much time to get the ball out. Chalich was sacked 30 times in seven games, getting downed downed once every seven times he dropped back. He helped mitigate some of that by being a capable runner, one who rushed for over 100 yards in his team’s sole victory last year.
A quarterback’s best friend is a dynamic wide receiver, and Chalich hoped wideout Dezmon Epps would hold steady as his primary target. Instead Epps, who led his team with 980 yards on 79 receptions last season, was booted from the program on Sunday after being arrested for a DUI in April. Sophomore Deon Watson (24 receptions, 279 yards in 2013) will look to take another step in 2014 and do his best to replace Epps.
Idaho’s biggest loss aside from Epps, which was obviously not known entering the offseason, is its leading rusher from 2013. James Baker, who racked up 617 yards on 143 carries, was a dynamic back who played in 11 games and started four, rushing for six touchdowns (half of the Vandals’ ground scoring) over the course of the campaign.
The Vandals love to throw the football, though they do not do it remarkably well due to a variety of issues starting with protection. This year, the offensive line should be solidified as it will be led by Mike Marobe, who has started 36-straight games and is on the watch list for the Rimington Award, given annually to the nation’s best center.
Defensively, Idaho has a front seven that is very aggressive and capable. The Vandals return six of their eight linemen and will hope to build on their success up front. The secondary, however, was major problem for Idaho in 2013. Cornerback Jayshawn Jordan and free safety Bradley Njoku combined for 143.5 tackles, indicating that plenty of passes were allowed to be hauled in over the course of the year. (Comparatively, Florida sophomore CB Vernon Hargreaves III had 38 total tackles last year.)
The Gators and Vandals shared one common opponent in 2013 – Florida State. Both teams fell to the eventual national title winners. Idaho was routed 80-14 on Nov. 23, and Florida was upended 37-7 one week later during the last game of the regular season.
One week after dealing with the Vandals, the Gators will host the also-struggling Eastern Michigan Eagles, which also struggled in 2013 by finishing 2-10 and losing its contests by an average of 35.4 points per game. The Eagles’ lone win came against Western Michigan by a three-point margin at home. That contest is set for Sept. 6 at 4 p.m. and will be UF’s first game on the new SEC Network.
|FLORIDA GATORS||EASTERN MICHIGAN EAGLES|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Chris Creighton (Year: 1)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 2-10 (1-7)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Mid-American|
|Common Opponent (Toledo): 1-0||Common Opponent (Toledo): 0-1|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 121st (45.2 ppg)|
After spending six years at Drake, head coach Chris Creighton takes over EMU hoping lead the program back to the prominence it once had in the 1950s. The Eagles have won a pair of games each of the last two seasons but finished 6-6 in 2011, its best record since going 6-5 all the way back in 1995. Florida is 12-1 against MAC teams with its lone loss coming to Miami of Ohio.
Who’s Coming Back?
Sophomore QB Brogran Roback, a four-star prospect, returns for Eastern Michigan after first taking over following a poor performance from then-first-stringer Tyler Benz against Northern Illinois last year. Benz left the program after the season due in large part to the coaching change. Roback proved to be aggressive, but capable, last season when he connected on 59 percent of his attempts and averaged 11.6 yards per completion. He did have his low points, however, including a 1-of-12 showing against Bowling Green and 9-for-22 performance against Western Michigan.
The Eagles also return senior RB Bronson Hill, who once rushed for 283 yards against Toledo as a sophomore in 2012. Hill gained 125 yards or more in four games during the 2013 campaign, proving to be a capable runner on an often-underperforming team. Hill totaled 1,093 yards on 195 touches last fall, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
The one upside for Eastern Michigan is that it returns the majority of its skill players with the exception of Benz. The Eagles are also without Pat O’Conner, a defensive end who recorded 31 tackles (five for loss) with four sacks last fall. However, EMU is relatively deep on its defensive line and the program’s pass rushing should not be affected too much by O’Conner’s departure.
While this Eagles squad is far from where they want to be, there are several things the team does well like play well up front defensively. Eastern Michigan also returns the majority of its secondary, a talented group that at times has been able to provide enough coverage to allow the front seven to get to the quarterback. Creighton’s Drake team last year not only stuffed the run but also had good numbers against the pass, sacking the signal caller on six percent of his drop backs while allowing a sub-60 percent completion rate and about 10 yards per completion.
The offensive line might have the highest upside on the other end of the line of scrimmage but will be facing a formidable front that will likely limit its effectiveness. If the offensive line cannot protect Roback, it will be a long, long day for the Eagles.
EMU and UF faced just one common opponent in 2013 in Toledo. The Gators handily defeated the Rockets 24-7 in their season opener, while the Eagles fell at their hands 55-16 in early November. Toledo outgained Eastern Michigan 729-309 on the day.