Winning any SEC game sure beats losing any SEC game. Beating the rival Tennessee Volunteers is a lot better than living with a loss to the Big Orange. Yet, if a win could feel like a loss, last Saturday's game sure came close for the Florida Gators. They got the result they needed, but they should be very, very concerned about their 2017 team and the larger state of their program.
Florida's box score numbers didn't look horrible. That's because Butch Jones is not that good a coach. Florida was able to throw and complete a 63-yard pass behind the Vols' defense on the final play of regulation. Without that play, Florida would have gained only 317 yards in four quarters against a UT defense which allowed over 500 RUSHING yards (535) and 650 total yards (655) against Georgia Tech on Labor Day. Given that Florida uncorked a 74-yard run early in the fourth quarter (on which it fumbled at the Tennessee 1), the Gators produced just 243 yards on all but two plays. Quarterback Feleipe Franks would have ended regulation with fewer than 150 passing yards (149) had he not hit his 63-yard game winner.
Any clear-eyed Florida fan would look at the Tennessee game and see a team which scored just six points through three quarters and was fortunate to still lead. That same Florida fan would acknowledge that if Jones fed star running back John Kelly in the red zone, the Vols probably would have won. (Did we say Jones isn't that good a coach?)
The suspensions which preceded the Michigan season opener remain a concern. The status of Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett (plus other less notable players on defense) is unknown, which makes it hard if not impossible to expect them to play this weekend against Kentucky. Florida might own a 30-game winning streak against the Wildcats, but the Gators' offense does not appear ready to solve a Big Blue defense which smothered Jake Bentley (a better quarterback than Franks) on the road in a Week 3 win over South Carolina.
How can the Gators get a win in Lexington, which figures to be much harder than most of their previous trips to the Commonwealth?
The three keys feature the conceptually simple, but do involve one more complicated item:
1) Commit low-impact turnovers, gain high-impact takeaways.
Ideally, Florida will commit no turnovers, but with a flawed and limited offense, expecting perfection seems overly optimistic. What Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier must stress to Franks and the rest of the offense is that if they make mistakes, they need to be the kinds of mistakes which carry comparatively little cost.
An example: Throw an interception on a 3rd-and-10 deep ball from midfield, not a 3rd-and-10 red-zone pass or a first down pass anywhere on the field. Throw an interception which becomes a good punt, not an interception on a seven-yard out route which a cornerback can easily return for a pick-six. Florida fumbled on the Tennessee 1 in Week 3 -- that kind of mistake, if replicated, will likely lead to defeat. If Florida is aggressive in situations -- and in specific ways -- which won't be costly, the Gators can commit one or two turnovers yet not pay a price for them. Making the right kinds of mistakes (and avoiding the wrong ones) figures to matter in this game, much as it figures to matter in every SEC East game this year. The offenses aren't very good. The defenses are competent at worst (save for Missouri). Most SEC East games will be competitions to see which teams make the less severe gaffes... and take advantage of the opponent's bigger errors.
Florida needs to win those fights against Kentucky more than any other battles on the field.
2) Simplify the game -- and the task -- for Franks
Dropback passing, when Franks has to read the field and go through a full series of progressions, did not go well for Florida against Tennessee. The best plays were quick hits passes, screens, and quick slants in which Franks didn't have to think very hard or very long. This must become more central to Florida's passing game, especially on the road and in the first half of the season. Later in the year, after a bye week, the plan for the Cocktail Party against Georgia and (after that) the rivalry game against Florida State can be ambitious and complicated, but the Gator offense (which did not get a chance to fine-tune its methods in Week 2 due to a cancelled game against Northern Colorado) has not evolved to the point where Nussmeier can give Franks a complicated platter of tasks. Moreover, the lack of Callaway and Scarlett significantly hampers what Florida wants to do on offense.
Fans will want coordinators to be aggressive and creative, but if an offense is clearly hamstrung -- partly by a lack of talent (especially on the offensive line) and partly by circumstance (the suspensions, as yet unresolved) -- a coordinator can't do everything he wants. More single-read throws, more quick-hitting throws, more throws which reduce the risk of Franks having a ball tipped (forcing a ball into a crowded passing lane or a tight window) should form the foundation of the Gators' attack. Safe extended handoffs to speedy wide receivers such as Tyrie Cleveland and Brandon Powell -- enabling them to make moves in one-on-one situations -- offer the right mixture of cautiousness and playmaking potential.
3) Adopt and apply an underdog mentality
Florida is the two-time defending SEC East champion and the owner of a long winning streak against Kentucky, but McElwain needs to do a lot of work during the week to reset his team's mindset for this game. Teams (and athletes) which feel they have something to lose, something precious that might be taken away from them, play with the fear associated with that worry about losing. The far better framework for athletes is to view situations as opportunities, as chances to prove a powerful point and make a positive statement.
Florida has done nothing to show that it truly is the class of the SEC East. It won a game, but little more, and if anyone thinks Florida is on an automatic track to yet another SEC East title, they are relying far too much on reputation, history and old assumptions. Florida is a team in trouble. This doesn't mean the Gators can't overcome their troubles just as they have done in the past, but it does mean that this team can't fall back on the patterns of 2015 and 2016. This team must make its own history and write its own tale of redemption and achievement.
That means starting from zero, thinking it has done nothing, and pursuing this game as an opportunity rather than timidly entering it as the hunted on a night when Kentucky desperately wants to end a 30-game streak. Attitude must supplement the Xs and Os if Florida is to beat Kentucky, a feat which -- if achieved -- would lend a lot more legitimacy to the idea that Florida is ready to once again defend its division title.