Image Credit: ESPNI
The Florida Gators had their winning streak extended to 12 games and the Southeastern Conference East Division under its thumb on Saturday … and then they let the Tennessee Volunteers off the hook.
Florida’s 38-28 collapse in Knoxville, Tennessee, may have shifted not just the season but the division as a whole. It gave hope to a program that looked ready to crumble (again) and proved that the Gators themselves still have an incredibly long way to go.
Here are four things we learned on Saturday.
1. An indictment of the coaching staff: There’s perhaps no greater indicator of the half-to-half differences for Florida on Saturday than coaching. The Gators entered with a seemingly sterling game plan, jumped ahead 21-0 and then thought they could coast the rest of the game. Even graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby admitted that the game plan didn’t change “at all” coming out of the break. So while the Vols scrambled to make second-half adjustments, Florida sat there content with its 21-point lead. Appleby claimed UF kept its “foot on the gas pedal” in the second half, which is simply inaccurate. More accurate is what junior running back Mark Thompson said: UF was lackadaisical and comfortable coming out of the locker rooms. It was obvious that head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier were calling a cautious game offensively, due in large part to the Gators’ constantly poor field position.
Speaking of coaching, sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway fielded a punt not once but twice inside the five-yard line (a cardinal sin), and freshman running back Lamichal Perine returned a kickoff after catching it in the middle of the end zone.
“We got guys that want to go make plays. They got to understand: You don’t do it by yourself, you do your job,” McElwain said. “It’s really an interesting thing. Once you start to get a bunch of guys that are out there trying to do their own thing, that’s when it fails. Especially on a team. You want to go play tennis and be singles? Go do that. But this ain’t tennis.”
There were three special teams penalties on punts. There were blown assignments defensively (we’ll get to that) and poor tackling attempts all over the field. There were drive-continuing penalties. There were third-down drops. And there was a span of seven straight series where Florida ran four plays or fewer before punting or turning the ball over.
“It really isn’t [hard to turn it around] when you just buckle down and make a play, and we never did offensively — the whole second half, especially the third quarter, that was kind of miserable,” McElwain noted.
The Gators were two-faced on offense and defense in the contest, while continuing to be wholly inefficient on special teams. All three phases contributed to the collapse. That’s an indictment the entire coaching staff, plain and simple. Oh, and McElwain is now 1-5 against ranked teams.
2. Best defense in the nation? Laughable, man: If you want to talk about coaches deserving some questioning, let’s turn our attention to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. But before we go in deep, let’s make a couple concessions. Yes, his defense was exhausted from being on the field nearly the entire second half. Yes, one touchdown was given up because Florida’s supposedly best player, junior cornerback Jalen Tabor, tripped in coverage and left a receiver wide open.
But the best defense in the nation, at least one purported to hold that crown, does not give up 38 consecutive points (28 on four straight possessions) over 400-plus yards of offense — no matter the circumstances. No matter that it had some massive red zone stops earlier in the game. It finds a way to buckle down, to get the ball back. Adjustments are made so a couple bad series do not become a snowball rolling down hill prepared to wipe out your entire team.
Collins was gifted some of the top defensive talent in college football. This is no argument. That talent, despite departures, has been gashed for up 38 or more points in two of its last five games, dating back to the 2016 Citrus Bowl. We take it back to last year because that’s the last capable offense Florida faced before Saturday.
Because on Saturday, after giving up 17 points through its first 14 quarters of the season, the Gators allowed 21 in just over one quarter and 35 in two. The only team in the nation not to allow a passing touchdown going into Saturday gave up four in 18 minutes. That’s failure.
And what exactly is this defense going to do when its best players depart after this year? To say recruiting on that side of the ball has been lackluster is an understatement, particularly when you consider the resume of the coaches bringing in those players.
3. If you talk shit, you better back it up: This is literally a theme that I’ve been writing about since the offseason when it became quite obvious that Tabor was not about to stop talking. What I didn’t expect was for the rest of the team to join in and provide additional bulletin board material the week of the game. If you think motivation from the opposition’s smack talk doesn’t matter, you obviously didn’t hear Dobbs and Tennessee coach Butch Jones quote Florida junior CB Quincy Wilson on the field after the game.
“I don’t know if it helped us or hurt us or anything like that. A lot of the chirping stuff is not necessary, but if that’s what gets you going, that’s what gets you going,” said senior linebacker Alex Anzalone.
Newsflash for Anzalone: You don’t have to guess, it hurt you. And luckily McElwain came to that realization … even if it appears he did not care to tell his team that before the week began.
“In life, being humble, there’s a lot of good things in that. As I said, ‘Back it up.’ They didn’t back it up, did they? There might be a lesson,” McElwain said.
Yeah, there might be.
4. Sure, there is a chance to turn it all around: Every player that spoke to the media after the game noted that no Florida team has won a national championship without first suffering a loss. That’s true. But if this Gators team truly wants to have national title hopes, it has a ton of lessons to learn from Saturday’s failures.
Appleby said Florida obviously “has a lot to fix,” while Anzalone admitted being the UF team that lost to UT “really hurts.” Both are true. McElwain hopes that the Gators take this as an opportunity to grow even more.
“It tests who you are as a person. It tests who you are as a man. In failure, some of the greatest lessons you can ever learn about who you are and what you’re all about are taught,” he said. “This was a good football team we played. They beat us today. That’s the way it is. We can’t change it. So how do you not make it two? You go back to work and you take care of [it]. There’s really no secret formula, but when you go ahead and start feeling sorry for yourself [that’s not it]. … We’ll see who we are and what we’re made of. And I’ll be interested to see.”
As will Gator Nation.