Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope to find mojo after loss, two weeks sidelined

By Adam Silverstein
October 30, 2020
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope to find mojo after loss, two weeks sidelined
Football

The oddities of the 2020 college football season continued for the No. 10 Florida Gators as the team, fresh off a tough-to-swallow comeback loss at Texas A&M, has been unable to not only play its way past the defeat but step on the field at all. With COVID-19 running through the program and affecting more than three dozen people in total, Florida was forced to postpone two games and see its scheduled off week float away.

The Gators will now play seven straight games without a break to end the regular season, assuming another outbreak does not hit the program or COVID-19 does not affect one of their opponents. In other words, whatever preparations Florida had made for the strange, twisted season have already been upended.

Nevertheless, it is back in action on Halloween when it hosts Missouri in a game the Gators hopes serve a number of purposes. Namely, Florida needs to find its momentum after Texas A&M was the third team in as many weeks to exploit its defense and prove that it may not be the College Football Playoff contender that fans and analysts though when the season began.

The Gators and Tigers will square off at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday with the game airing on an SEC Network alternate channel. (Additional viewing details will be available in our game day preview.) For now, let’s take a look at what you need to know entering the game.

1. Bouncing back while undermanned: For what it’s worth, Florida has been successful following losses under head coach Dan Mullen with a 3-1 record in such situations. This game, though, presents different obstacles as the Gators deal with a roster potentially ravaged by players unable to suit up due to COVID-19 isolations and quarantines. As for who is actually available on Saturday, your guess is as good as ours. Mullen was mum when asked to indicate whether his team would have most of its players or was suffering losses at a specific position. “I think you need 53, is what they say? The league says if you have 53 you’ve got to play. I’m sure we’ll have 53 guys ready to play,” Mullen said Monday.

Mullen did not indicate whether any Florida players experienced serious symptoms from COVID-19 or were hospitalized. He did say that the team had a positive test on Saturday but would not go into further detail even after the program announced Tuesday that there were six new cases inside of the last week. No matter who is available, it is going to be difficult for UF to get back into game mode considering the program was not only out of action for two weeks but mostly out of the facility. By the time the Gators step on the field, it will be 21 days between games.

2. At least the offense is confident: That’s what coordinator and play caller Brian Johnson expressed Monday night after the team’s first practice in weeks when asked whether he had any concerns about Florida’s tremendous offensive output being slowed by time off. “I think we’ve got some smart guys who have played a lot, so certainly, I think that helps in terms of putting a game plan [together] … and putting those guys in a position to be successful,” he said. Johnson was hopeful that the Gators would jump right back into their normal rhythm, concentrate on not making crucial mistakes and “be full systems go” at kickoff.

He did not have any plans to scale back the offense, reduce the play sheet or hinder anything else Florida does offensively from a game-to-game basis. Instead, Johnson was focused on the Gators being clean and crisp during practice to ensure that the offense would not be slow or underdeveloped after so much time sidelined. “Guys had really good energy,” Johnson said of that first practice. “… It was kind of business as usual. I think they were excited to get back to playing football and have some sense of normalcy.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask was equally positive about where his side of the ball stood entering Saturday’s game. Though he admits that the team was frustrated after the loss to the Aggies, he said the Gators are motivated to right their wrongs on both sides of the ball. “Obviously, it’s frustrating after a loss. You want to get back out there and get a victory,” he said. “But on the other hand, [this delay] gives you time to reflect on what you did wrong and what you can do better going into your next game. … We treated it like a bye week.”

3. Key returns could impact entire defense: After missing the first three games of the season for undisclosed reasons, it appears as if senior defensive tackle Kyree Campbell will make his debut on Saturday. Though OnlyGators.com was unable to confirm Campbell’s availability, the Associated Press reported that he is expected to return to the field, as is sophomore linebacker Khris Bogle, who missed the Texas A&M game.

Though Campbell’s absence has not been the sole reason for Florida’s defensive struggles, he was a big hole in the starting lineup. His return not only impacts the defensive line but the rest of the unit as well as it should allow players to shift to more natural positions or take pressure off certain individuals who have struggled early in the campaign. Though defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did not confirm Campbell’s availability, he did say (in vague terms) that adding experience and talent to a defense is an obvious avenue for improvement.

4. About that defense … yikes. Florida’s defense is ranked 69th in scoring (33.3 points per game) and 95th in total defense (495.0 yards per game). That’s out of 102 ranked teams. Another way to put it is that UF giving up nearly five touchdowns and 500 yards per game; would you ever think you’d say that about this team’s defense? The only Power Five programs with worse total defense entering Week 9 are Nebraska, Maryland and Ole Miss. Not exactly powerhouses. The Gators are also 101st in third-down defense (.587), giving Third and Grantham new life after the program was at least a respectable 40th in that category last season.

As for what the fix will be … again, your guess is as good as ours. Neither Grantham nor Mullen has provided specifics on what Florida will do to improve defensively other than both saying that the scheme the program uses is sound. Grantham said he is pleased with the effort that his defense is giving but wants to see more of a playmaking mindset from his players with them showing increased physicality on the field. It appears as if both are chalking up most of the issues up to execution, and there’s something to be said for that. However, it’s quite obvious that the problems are deeper than surface-level.

Mullen has said over the last few weeks that he is paying a bit more attention to the defensive side of the ball and spending more time with those coaches in meetings. “‘Are we asking guys to do [the right] things?’” Mullen asked, rhetorically, this week. “I think one thing that we spend our time on is, ‘Are we sound or not?’ I know what we’re doing is sound. We’ve got a great coaching staff and I know our scheme is sound. … What we’ve got to do is make sure we’re moving the guys into the right spots to be able to make plays.”

5. Don’t be too blue: There will be plenty of it on the field Saturday as the Gators will don blue helmets for the first time since the 1960s as part of the revival of a throwback uniform the team wore last season. Florida should look sharp in blue helmets, blue jerseys, white pants and old-school black shoes. The question is whether they will play to the level of their dress.

6. The first of many: As mentioned, this will be the first of seven straight regular-season games that the Gators aim to play in order to close out the 2020 season. Making it even more important is that Florida has its rivalry showdown with Georgia next week. Luckily for the Gators — if you want to call it that — the ever-shifting SEC schedule necessitated the Bulldogs moving their game with Kentucky to this week. As such, Florida and Georgia both lost their scheduled by weeks ahead of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Remember: The Gators still control their own destiny. A win over the Bulldogs would give UF not only the tiebreaker but a leg up on UGA considering it also has a loss on its resume. Whether the SEC will get two teams in the CFP is a question for another day. What’s at stake first is a spot in the SEC Championship Game, and if Florida can regain its momentum this week and carry it into a win over Georgia next week, suddenly it is right back in the driver’s seat of the SEC East.

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