Florida football: No. 3 Gators hope to live up to expectations in home opener vs. South Carolina

By Adam Silverstein
October 2, 2020
Florida football: No. 3 Gators hope to live up to expectations in home opener vs. South Carolina

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

It’s one thing to be ranked the No. 3 team in the nation — like the Florida Gators were on Sunday — and it’s another thing to play like the No. 3 team in then nation. That’s the task ahead for Florida as it hosts SEC East rival South Carolina in the home opener at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

While the Gators’ No. 3 ranking may be somewhat circumstantial — Ohio State and the Big Ten are not starting play for three more weeks, Oklahoma suffered a surprising early upset and Georgia has major quarterback issues — Florida is nevertheless in the national spotlight thanks in large part to its incredible offensive performance last week against Ole Miss.

With yardage and touchdown records set ablaze in that game, UF should have a more difficult task on its hands against a more defense-focused team with a head coach that has all the motivation in the world to take down his alma mater and former employer.

1. Dan Mullen vs. Will Muschamp: It’s always a storyline when the Gators go against one of their former coaches, and it’s one Florida has been unable to escape in the South Carolina series since 2005 considering the Gamecocks went right from hiring Steve Spurrier to bringing Will Muschamp into the fold. As it stands, the history between Mullen and Muschamp is rather shallow. In fact, they’ve only met six times in 15 seasons with Mullen holding a 4-2 advantage with four straight wins when his offense goes against Muschamp’s defense. As head coaches, Mullen is 3-0 against Muschamp, though his average margin of victory is only 9.3 points in those meetings.

More important than that is the fact that South Carolina has been a tough out for Florida over the last two seasons. In 2019, the Gamecocks actually outgained the Gators 387-354 and won the rushing battle 217-154, holding the ball 4 minutes longer in the game. That said, Florida quarterback Kyle Trask did have four touchdowns in the game.

2. Kyle Pitts won’t dominate every week: What UF’s junior standout tight end did last week vs. Ole Miss (eight receptions, 170 yards, four touchdowns) was other-worldly, but that output is not sustainable from a single player. To wit, no tight end in Gators program history has ever eclipsed those single-game statistics, though Aaron Hernandez did catch eight and nine balls in his final two games but picked up far less yardage. Pitts is an incredible weapon for Trask, Florida’s redshirt senior signal caller. He may be the largest piece of the Gators’ offensive puzzle, but he’s nevertheless only one piece. The Gamecocks in particular have players with more size and length who will match up with Pitts better than the matchups fronted by the Rebels last week. “They have some long corners and big safeties,” Mullen said earlier this week.

Trask is the straw that stirs the drink of the offense right now, and after one week, he has Florida leading the nation with 8.7 yards per play. Again, not something that is likely to stand up over a 10-week SEC season, but still impressive considering it was against SEC competition. Trask himself has a lot to live up to after that first performance: 30 of 42 passing, 416 yards and six touchdowns is not something that is going to happen weekly. But if he can stay at or around hitting 71.4% of his passes, that will bode exceedingly well for the Gators. The question is whether South Carolina has some defensive backs who may be able to take a bit better advantage of some of those misthrows that Ole Miss dropped last week.

3. Who is available to play? Great question. You tell me. Mullen said Wednesday during the SEC teleconference that he will not discuss Florida’s injuries with the media for the remainder of the season. This came after redshirt sophomore QB Emory Jones was spotted on campus this week with brace on his throwing hand. The guise for Mullen’s decision is based on COVID-19 testing; the Gators had previously said they will not disclose positive tests ahead of games.

Seniors defensive back Brad Stewart Jr. and defensive lineman Kyree Campbell were both left off the team’s initial depth chart last week and were expected to miss the Ole Miss game, though no reason was provided by Mullen. As such, many believed they were facing disciplinary suspensions, especially once they were added back to the depth chart — as reserves — this week. However, right as kickoff was taking place, redshirt senior Buck Jeremiah Moon — listed as a starter — was deemed inactive, as were redshirt sophomore DL Dante Lang and redshirt senior DB Quincy Lenton.

So who will be out and active for Florida this week and going forward? Your guess is as good as ours. If Jones is indeed out for the Gators, there will likely be a mixed reaction from the fan base. On one hand, Jones is a dynamic athlete who has made some big-time plays during his limited appearances. On the other, the insertions of Jones occasionally throw off the rhythm of the offense behind Trask. Either way, the obvious hope is that any injury to Jones would keep him out of action temporarily if at all.

4. The defense needs massive improvement: Say what you will about Florida’s spectacular offensive output vs. Ole Miss, its defense left a hell of a lot to be desired. The Gators gave up a record 613 yards in that game, including 443 through the air. So much for “DBU,” huh? Well, not quite. Let’s have at least a little bit of perspective.

Not only did the shortened offseason with limited tackling practices likely mean that defenses were behind offenses to start the season, Florida was missing four starters against Ole Miss — at least one at each level of its defense. By all accounts, those defenders should be back vs. South Carolina, and UF now has a full game under its belt.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is not one for excuses, though. “At the end of the day, you have to be honest. We made too many mistakes, and we didn’t play to our standard,” he said. “Right or wrong, for whatever reasons, it doesn’t matter. You are who you are. We didn’t play to the standard [that] we played the last couple of years, and [we] just made too many mistakes [vs. Ole Miss].”

There’s also this question: Is it possible Ole Miss was among the best offenses that Florida will face all season? Either way, it’s clear South Carolina is not. Coupling that with the Gators’ improved depth chart for the game should result in a greater effort on Saturday. If not, win or lose, there will be major questions about how this team will hold up against more intense competition.

Be sure to check back with OnlyGators.com early Saturday morning for a full Florida vs. South Carolina preview, including a game prediction, against-the-spread pick, notes, stats and much more.

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