I'm going to start off this season providing a little background on Toledo and what they're looking like going into this season on both sides of the ball for those not aware of the team the Gators will face on August 31st, accompanied by some my predictions for the game.
Toledo, they are a team that has ventured back from several losing seasons (4; 2006-2009) in 2010 with a similar uprising to this Gators team. The graduating seniors on this squad have posted an overall record of 26-13 since the 2010 season. In 2010 they posted a record of 8-5 capped by a loss in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl against FIU. In 2011, they continued this success with another bowl eligible season finishing 9-4 with a shootout win over Air Force in the Military Bowl. Back In 2009, Toledo hired coach Tim Beckman who initially sputtered with a 5-7 finish but brought it together to regain bowl eligible status in 2010, eventually being hired as the head coach of Illinois in 2011 before their bowl game after a quick turnaround in Toledo.
This loss at the HC position did not appear to be a big hit to their program as they maintained a winning record through the 2012 season under coach Matt Campbell. Matt Campbell is currently listed as the youngest HC in the FBS at age 33, bringing a new fresh offensive mind to the Toledo football program. Under Campbell in 2012 Toledo ranked 32nd in the country in total offense with 445.2 ypg. and they return 5 all-MAC conference players on the offensive side of the ball.
Of these returning starters on offense, QB Terrance Owens who amassed 2707 passing yards on the season with 14 TD's and 8 INT's. Owens appears to be a similar type of QB to the Gators Jeff Driskel, proving he has an effective arm and very capable feet as a threat to run the ball. Owens rushed for 395 yards and scored 5 TD's in 2012, and these numbers likely would have been higher had it not been for an ankle injury he sustained midway through the season. Owens' season, sounds very much like Driskel's who suffered an ankle injury near the season's end against ULL. Owens, a senior, could be primed for a big season in 2013, barring injury, and he will prepare the Gators for a high powered passing offense in Miami in week 2.
Accompanying Owens in the offensive backfield is a player whom many people think was the best player on Toledo's roster in the 2012 season, running back David Fluellen. Fluellen totaled a massive 1498 yards rushing in 2012 and scored 13 TD's despite missing a majority of three games. Flullen could prove to be one of the best backs that the Gators could face in 2012, likely heading for the NFL following the 2013 season. He is a strong runner at 6'0" and 215 lbs that has breakaway speed. He turned in three 200+ yard games in 2012 and showed the ability to carry the ball upwards of 30 times. Fluellen has a very similar build to a player that gave the Gators fits in 2012, Todd Gurley of Georgia. Look for Fluellen to be the player Toledo leans on as they face the revered secondary of the Gators; he should be a great early season litmus test to see how far the Gators rush defense has gotten in the absence of Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter.
For Owens, he returns his top 6 receivers, with the spotlight shining on Bernard Reedy (SR.) and Alonzo Russell (SO.). Reedy put together a spectacular junior season as a 1000 yard WR, while Russell nearly missed joining him at 1000 yds. totaling 953 yds. receiving as a true freshman. Reedy is a smaller receiver at 5'9" 175 lbs. with 4.45 speed that demands the ball in his hands (88 rec. in 2012), and is a viable threat on the return team (3 KR TD's and 1 PR TD). Meanwhile, Russell provides a prototype target for Owens at 6'4" 190 lbs. This duo of receivers has proven last season that they are both dangerous threats in the vertical passing game. They are coupled with a veteran quarterback and stud running back, could really stretch the Gators' defense on opening day. The balanced attack will be very similar to what the Gators will see in week 2, although Stephen Morris appears to be much more comfortable as a pocket passer than Owens.
As far as predictions go, I have two scenarios:
- The Florida defense is as advertised, disrupting the Toledo passing attack by pressuring Owens relentlessly off the edges as well as up the middle, racking up around 5 sacks and causing turnovers downfield by way of interceptions. Fluellen has a modest day running the ball getting 85 yards on 28 carries, struggling to find much space in the interior of the Gator front seven. Despite making many mistakes, Toledo pulls out all the stops and gets in the red zone four times, getting two field goals, a touchdown on the ground for Fluellen and a turnover on downs. Owens finishes with under 200 yards passing on 17 attempts with 2 interceptions. The Gators dominate time of possession, keeping the Toledo offense off of the field a majority of the game.
- The Florida defense experiences a Furman or Miami like lapse in preparation, allowing Toledo to out swinging and put points on the board early with a few short passes that go for long gains coupled with some pounding runs up the middle by Fluellen who can't seem to be brought down by any single Gator. The coverage tightens up like a vice grip going into the second quarter as the Gators defense steps up a little earlier than halftime this year. However, the Gators struggle to get to the Owens, who continually gets the ball out in under a few seconds (very similar to Bowling Green's approach in 2012). The Gators force 2 turnovers, one interception and one fumble recovery off of a botched handoff. Issues in the kickoff coverage gleam over the Gators as Reedy takes two kicks back for returns of more than 40 yards. Time of possession is more balanced amongst the two teams, still leaning in favor of the Gators. Despite putting up points early, Toledo only ends up scoring 17 points in the whole game, all of which came early in the first half.
While this Toledo offense is very much high-powered and seasoned with veteran All-Mac stars, the defense (ranked 113th in 2012 in total defense) leaves too many holes for the Gators. Even with Matt Jones and Jon Halapio out along the line, the Gators should still be able to move the ball without much struggle against the Toledo front seven in the ground game. Toledo loses their top two tacklers from 2012, as well as their top performer in tackles-for-loss, and return very little in the linebacking corp other than a sophomore who showed promise at the end of 2012 in Trent Voss. They return a very modest pass-rush in returning sack leader Jayrone Elliot and a key DE coming off of an injury from 2012 Christian Smith. They have many gaping holes in their secondary which lost three starters to graduation. As far as corner back they return one starter Cheatham Norrils who finished All-MAC and seems to be one of the few experience DB's on the Rocket defense. They also return a name that some Gator fans may recognize in junior CB Jordan Haden, Joe Haden's brother who transferred to Toledo from the UF back in 2010. As expected for a smaller school, they face a massive disparity in overall size in comparison with the Gators, and this could ultimately mean the difference in the result of the game.
This matchup is more than ideal for the Gators as they get to face a well oiled machine of an offense to test their juggernaut of a defense, as well as a very weak defense to experiment on with their developing passing game. Jeff Driskel should be able to have much longer time to pass against this weaker pass rush, especially since the offensive line has developed a higher level of chemistry even in the absence of Halapio. I do not expect Driskel to leave the pocket very often on scambles. What I do expect, is a much more competent passing game, with Demarcus Robinson itching to break out, and Quinton Dunbar showing his maturity and route running ability on the field. While the running game still appears to be a question of who will get carries and how many will they get, I can see four different players getting carries, with Mack Brown having the most, but not by much. The O-Line should clear out wide holes for the backs to run through as they get to face a defensive front that is not ranked among the country's best for the first time this year.
For statistical predictions on the offensive side of the ball I expect:
- Jeff Driskel to throw for over 250 yards passing
- Four different backs, Mack Brown, Mark Herndon, Trey Burton and either Kelvin Taylor or Adam Lane to get carries in addition to Jeff Driskel and possibly Solomon Patton on a jet sweep or two, totaling to over 280 yards rushing.
- Several WR's getting catches, with most of the receptions concentrated in the top three receivers: Dunbar, Burton and Robinson. Others like Patton, Latroy Pittman, Ahmad Fulwood and Raphael Andrades see the field as well.
- The TE's show off competent blocking ability, with Clay Burton standing out, displaying an improved set of hands and more agile footwork.
- The offensive line shows improved cohesion and depth from last year. Most importantly pass protection is vastly improved. Harrison takes command of the unit and displays his leadership.
- The Gators put up more than 40 points for a more exciting and balanced offensive attack in an opener that finally manages to 'wow' the home crowd.
A final note worth talking about is that Toledo has never played a school from the SEC in its 92 years as a football program, so it's safe to assume Matt Campbell is prepping his team as hard as ever for facing an SEC powerhouse like the Gators on the home turf of the Swamp.