As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, without a second look at tape. For Florida's 38-10 win over Mississippi, I was there, live in living color, from the middle of the Delta Zeta block, with thanks to Danny and Trevor and Leezus and her accomodating sisters.
How Florida Won
Stop the fight
After both teams traded quick, ineffective opening series, Florida threw the first real punch last night, a blind roundhouse that connected: Will Grier was a second from being crushed by Robert Nkemdiche when he tossed up what looked, in the seconds it took to travel downfield, like a 500 ball for Demarcus Robinson in double coverage.
Grier had struggled on deep balls in his young career. Robinson hadn't had a catch of more than 17 yards this season. But Grier threw this ball beautifully, and to the correct side of Robinson, and Robinson made a leaping catch while falling over the goal line.
WHAT!? A TOUCHDOWN? turned into WHAT A TOUCHDOWN! in a split-second.
Mississippi never punched back. And the Gators spent the rest of the first half battering the Rebels on the scorecard and sending them to the canvas. The Bryan Cox, Jr. fumble recovery — off a ball that Football Follies'd its way into the air on its own, seemingly — begat a swift touchdown drive. Brandon Powell broke a tackle and took a crossing route to the house. Florida put together a back-breaking 91-yard drive in the four-minutes before halftime.
About the only thing wrong with Florida's first half was that the Gators got one extra point after four touchdowns. And Florida's defense played well enough all night to make it true that the Gators scored the game-winning touchdown in the first quarter.
A week after The Stunner in The Swamp, we got an all-time shocker that surprised practically from first kick to final whistle — and the Gators didn't wait until the end of the night to get charged up.
The crowd stayed loud
I have been to, by my counting, 21 Florida home games since 2007, when I took in my first one as Florida obliterated Tennessee, including every home game in 2012 (yay!) and 2013 (nay!). So I was there for some games Vernon Hargreaves III missed, and I can't say what he said about Saturday night's crowd.
That's the loudest I've ever heard The Swamp ... wow— Vernon Hargreaves (@_VH3) October 4, 2015
While Saturday night's crowd may not have been the loudest I've experienced, though, it was definitely the loudest for the longest.
It roared for big plays, in disbelief and in recognition. It was pretty good about not overstepping its bounds with "BULL-SHIT" chants, though it started an "ORANGE ... BLUE" chat seemingly without prompting from the cheerleaders when a player was down. It tried gamely to make "MOVE BACK, YOU SUCK" work without the Dragnet theme, and failed amusingly rather than miserably. It intimidated Mississippi, left Chad Kelly looking skittish and shook, and helped the Gators take the yell out of the Rebels, one hit and one play at a time.
I did not get either "PUNT LIKE HU-MANS" (not my best) or "JOHN-NY TOWN-SEND" (I'll keep trying) chants started, despite my best efforts, but I think that's really a bit more on me than the crowd. I did take part in multiple full-throated renditions of the chorus from "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," directed at the red-clad fans who emptied out from the beginning of the fourth quarter onward, and I got in on a couple of "IT'S GREAT! TO BE! A FLOR-I-DA GA-TOR!" chants, and I got to dance ("dance") to "Commas" and "Party Like a Rock Star."
There is nothing, nothing, nothing like seeing the Florida Gators win (and especially win big) in The Swamp. And you don't know unless you go.
Will Grier makes the earth sick
After a week in which he was the only name singled out among the supposed many Gators dealing with a flu bug, Florida's redshirt freshman was disgusting on Saturday night. In the good way, I mean.
Grier completed 24 of 29 throws for 271 yards and four touchdowns, got all four of those touchdowns in the first half, did virtually all of his damage without resorting to the scrambling he used as a crutch in his first four games, and had the best performance in a game by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow last suited up.
That's faint praise, clearly, but there were very good games — John Brantley against Ohio State, Jeff Driskel against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Tyler Murphy against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas, Treon Harris against Vanderbilt — in that span.
What makes this one different is the quality of opponent — Mississippi is still allowing just 4.56 yards per play on the season — and the way in which Grier beat the Rebels: Through the air. For better and worse, Florida's had to use its quarterbacks' legs to maximize its quarterbacks in recent years, and hasn't had a competent passing attack for multiple consecutive weeks essentially for the entire decade.
Grier has thrown for 270 yards in consecutive weeks, something that Florida as a team did once under Will Muschamp (over the first two games of the 2014 season). But no single Florida quarterback has done it since Tebow did it.
Grier is the most gifted thrower of passes Florida has had since at least Tebow, and maybe since Rex Grossman, whose arm is, I think, essentially unsurpassable. And his development this fall, which has seen him go from skittish scrambler to cool gunslinger on a quarter-to-quarter basis at times, would seem to have made this virtuoso performance possible: Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier have opened up Florida's playbook and play-calling gradually, and Grier has rewarded them by stepping up to the challenge.
I couldn't get to grading Grier's performance against Tennessee partly because of time constraints this week (and I will, eventually), but I also put it off partly because I was dreading going through his first three quarters of largely uneven play.
This week? I cannot wait to see his performance again.
Will Grier may not play like he did against Mississippi in every future Florida game. He will certainly have worse games. But he played a fantastic one — and there's still reason to believe he can get better.
At a minimum, I suspect that pesky "OR" on Florida's depth chart at quarterback might disappear this week.
On just about every snap of this game, it seemed as if Mississippi took something from Florida, and every Gator would bleed to get it back.
Whether that was related to McElwain's masterful mind games — which began last Saturday, with him "admitting" the Rebels should "beat the heck out of us" in his postgame press conference after one of the most stirring wins in program history — or to the fiery Dominique Easley (and Matt Elam) being in town, or to being counted out by national pundits, or to being written off as a flu-ridden squad, or to a level of discontent with their standing in the world, I don't know.
What I do know is that Florida is talented enough for that level of effort to create a level of performance few teams can match. Last night, the Gators faced the team with the most impressive win of the college football season — and chomped them to death, tearing the new most impressive win of the college football season out of the carcass left behind.
And I know I want to see that as many times as possible.
A makeshift miracle
I swear this isn't hyperbole: Mike Summers may be Florida's best position coach ever.
Florida's wideouts were great in the 1990s, and Steve Spurrier was a hell of a quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach as Florida's head coach. Bob Stoops and Charlie Strong were awesome defensive coordinators during their stints in Gainesville. Dan Mullen's the best non-Spurrier offensive coordinator Florida has ever had.
But none of those guys were "just" position coaches. Summers is. And he — and whoever in Florida's offensive brain trust was responsible for Saturday night's game plan — have made chicken cordon bleu out of the chicken shit most saw in Florida's offensive line prior to the season.
Less than six months ago, Florida played its spring game with six healthy offensive linemen. Three of those linemen — Travaris Dorsey, Kavaris Harkless, and Andrew Mike — essentially are not playing this fall: Dorsey played in Florida's first four games, per Florida's record-keeping, but I couldn't tell you when; Mike played in Florida's opener, likely in relief; Harkless hasn't seen the field.
With Trip Thurman returning from injury, and Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson, and Tyler Jordan arriving this summer as freshmen, and Mason Halter coming to Florida as a transfer from Fordham, Summers is working with an eight-man rotation — those four players, David Sharpe at tackle, Cameron Dillard at center and guard, and Antonio Riles, Jr. at guard — that is comprised of two redshirt seniors (Thurman and Halter), two redshirt sophomores (Dillard and Riles, the latter of whom is a converted defensive tackle), a sophomore (Sharpe), and three freshmen.
It held Robert Nkemdiche, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, to one tackle. It kept Grier clean enough, allowing just two sacks, to facilitate his stellar performance. It helped Kelvin Taylor run for 83 yards, even if it did allow a few free shots at him in Florida's backfield. And it passed its first true stress test with flying colors.
I'm genuinely unsure if Florida's going to see a better defensive front than the Rebels' this year: LSU, Georgia, and Florida State might be arguably on par with Mississippi, and Missouri's line and scheme have tormented Florida since the Tigers entered the SEC. Other defensive coordinators might also continue blitzing, something Mississippi's Dave Wommack perplexingly decided to largely stop doing after decimating Florida's first drive with extra blitzers. But none of those teams have a single player as superlative as Nkemdiche — and Summers, Nussmeier, and McElwain all deserve some credit for adjusting to mitigate the impact of extra rushers after that first drive.
If Florida's line can be this good for the rest of its games against the SEC East, I think Grier can be as good as he was last night more often than not. And if that happens, I think Florida can win the SEC East.
Florida's offensive line was always going to be the make-or-break unit for the Gators in 2015. So far, it's making the Gators fearsome.
Caveat: I don't think Florida's defense is actually the best defense in the nation on the basis of its performance to date this year, and I'm sure the stats will back me up on that.
But the defense we saw last night throttled what had been one of the nation's best offenses — and it could certainly be the best defense in the country by year's end.
Jonathan Bullard is a Lovecraftian nightmare. Antonio Morrison was the smoke monster from when Lost was a good show. Florida — a sentient organism that is comprised of as many players exist on one part of the field at any given moment — flies to the ball when it has any time at all to react. When the Gators aren't stopping and wrapping up, they're trying to rip the ball, or delivering hits so massive they hurt themselves in the process, or scooping up fumbles, or reading a quarterback's eyes and stopping right where a throw is going to be to high-point a game-sealing interception.
After a few possessions, it looked to me like Chad Kelly just didn't want to play football anymore. And after he emerged from the locker room in the second half with renewed gumption, and both ran and threw the Rebels into range of their first score, Florida was faced with a first and goal at its own 1.
Three plays later, Hugh Freeze opted to kick a field goal ... and the ball was snapped from Florida's 5.
I didn't really understand Freeze opting to get points on that drive, rather than attempting to score a touchdown that could have plausibly kept the hopes of a comeback alive. But maybe he just didn't want his team to get shut out.
That looked like a possibility, after all. And Florida was doing it to an offense that was on pace to shatter scoring records after two weeks of football this fall, and one that gutted defensive coordinator Geoff Collins's Mississippi State defense for 532 yards and 31 points last fall.
The best defense in the nation? Let's leave a holistic judgment for the end of the season.
But the best defense in the nation on Saturday was Florida's.
D-Rob shows out
If — like me, or anyone else who has attended Florida practices over the last three years, or anyone who has read reports from Florida practices over the last three years, or anyone who watched Florida's game against Kentucky in 2014 — you were waiting for Demarcus Robinson to break out under McElwain, you got your wish on Saturday night, and then some.
His best catch wasn't the touchdown catch he pulled down while shielding the ball from two defenders on a bomb; it was his one-handed catch on the far sideline that was so casual — on replay, it honestly looks like he chooses to use one hand instead of two because he can — that I did not realize it was a one-handed catch. And I've tweeted about a few one-handed D-Rob catches in my day!
Robinson finished with six catches for 98 yards, well off his career highs from that record night against Kentucky, but he re-established himself as the threat in a wide receiving corps that is suddenly very solid in its upper ranks. (In Robinson, Antonio Callaway, and Brandon Powell, Florida has three players who have touchdown catches of more than 35 yards over the last two games, and that almost certainly has not happened against SEC teams since the height of Tebow's time.)
But it's Robinson, so effortlessly athletic that he is honestly beautiful to watch, who stands head-and-shoulders above Callaway and Powell, and it's Robinson that other defenses will now fear. Florida should keep feeding him, yes, but he will be valuable at least as a decoy from here on out — if teams don't respect him, they will be doing so at their own peril.
Is Florida the beast of the SEC East?
Prior to football actually being played this fall, and even after the first week of play, the conventional wisdom was that Georgia was by far the SEC East's best team, or at minimum a tier above all others. Tennessee had some buzz as a challenger to Georgia, and was a consensus second-place pick. South Carolina and Missouri both hung around the outskirts of the rankings. And Florida was thought to be behind both of those teams, having lost to them in 2015, and not far ahead of Kentucky, which took it to overtime in 2014.
And the SEC East was thought to be vastly inferior to the SEC West, which boasted seven teams that were thought deserving of national rankings, and a few considered credible College Football Playoff contenders.
Two Saturdays ago, Mississippi beat Alabama, verged on turning the game into one of Nick Saban's worst losses as the Crimson Tide's head coach, and sparked another round of Is The Alabama Dynasty Over? This Saturday, Alabama went into Athens and clobbered Georgia — while Florida, playing the team that beat Alabama, won by the same score the Tide did.
The transitive property is used poorly in sports, and rarely as poorly as it is in college football — but Florida beating Mississippi by 28 at home after Mississippi beat Alabama by a touchdown in Tuscaloosa, and on the same day Alabama beat Georgia by 28 on the road, suggests that Florida is, conservatively, a whole damn lot better than Georgia.
And Florida has already beaten Tennessee and Kentucky. And Missouri and (especially) South Carolina don't appear to be as good as conventional wisdom thought. And Vanderbilt is, well, Vanderbilt.
The SEC East is wide open, and Florida has to survive three more SEC games away from the delirium of The Swamp before November even begins, including a date with LSU that looms as a likely clash of unbeaten titans. But the SEC East is wide open, and Florida is alone atop it, and looks like the best team in the division — and maybe even the league.
The way "Florida has the flu" turned into a meme this week deserves a case study. A bit of generic coachspeak from McElwain on Monday snowballed into doom-and-gloom forecasts, and Friday night proclamations that Grier might not start.
Yeah, that didn't happen.
But everyone in attendance — and millions more watching — seemed to catch a different contagion: Confidence.
This was not the Florida of Will Muschamp's making — despite the conveniently-ignored fact that Muschamp recruited virtually every major contributor to this team, and hired the man doing the most wizardly work with a position group. This team never seemed to teeter, to give ground, to leave itself grasping for answers with plays amounting to almosts and what-ifs; it took a good team by the collar and shook it like a bully does the shy guy in middle school, and took lunch money in the form of a win.
I don't really go for bullying in a social context other than sports, but the truth about sports — and about football more than most — is that the aggressor often wins by virtue of aggression and little else. I believe it is easier to win football games with might than with magic — and, while that veers close to justifying "might makes right" hand-waving I'll never go for in any context, it's also a belief backed by two decades of watching takers succeed more than most other personality types in sports.
Florida played with the force of a thunderclap on this Saturday night. It reverberated, and everyone in attendance and paying attention caught the good vibration. It will be interesting to see how long it echoes.
Both Good and Bad
It's Kelvin Taylor's rushin' attack
Since Florida's trip to Kentucky, Gators running backs have carried the ball an even 50 times.
Kelvin Taylor has 46 of those carries.
Taylor had another excellent game on Saturday night, powering through holes and scrapping his way to 83 yards on 27 carries despite losing 14 yards on plays that got gummed up in the backfield. (Florida's offensive line remains better at pass-blocking than run-blocking; those losses were not really Taylor's fault.) But with Jordan Scarlett seemingly glued to the bench due to ball security issues and Jordan Cronkrite only cameoing in this game for the purposes of relieving Taylor and punching in a late touchdown, it is quite clearly Taylor's show for Florida's running game right now.
That will mean using Taylor's assets — great vision, very good agility, and good instincts for when to hit the hole — and trying to mitigate his weaknesses — a lack of great quickness and top-end speed, and a penchant for trying to make too much out of plays where there is nothing at all to be made. It will mean winning with four-yard runs or losing with two-yard runs — stretching singles into doubles rather than banging balls off the wall.
Right now, and especially with Grier being a man on fire, Florida can win with that. If Grier's performance ebbs, or if Florida's defense has a bad day — hi, Leonard Fournette — I'm not sure that will be enough.
Also, when I was five (or six?), my brother and I stole a copy of NES classic Rush'n Attack that was meant to be a Christmas present for us out of our mom's stash of them in our garage. Ain't got shit to do with this, I just thought that I should mention.
If you're gonna chant it...
I am absolutely not going to re-litigate the "Move Back, You Suck" controversy here; I think I made every point I wanted to make about the chant in general in that linked piece. But, as literally anyone could have predicted, there were, in fact, "Move Back, You Suck" chants at Saturday's game — and they were laughably bad.
Without the band cueing it, no one had any clue when to chant it — so the student section was starting on different beats, producing destructive interference rather than an organized chant. I am not exactly surprised that an attempt to make a chant work in a 20,000-person student section without the help of the band — whose original chant being co-opted strikes me as the real loss here, if anything actually is one — but I was also amused by it.
While I don't care for the chant, I will give this advice: Students, if you do care about it, find your absolute loudest friend, sit with him or her, and tell everyone before the game starts that you all want to chant it on his or her cue. This might require getting to the stands prior to, say, kickoff, and will certainly require showing up before the second quarter — but, hey, isn't saving your sacred juvenalia worth it?
If you're gonna go for it...
Florida went for two twice after a missed extra point by Jorge Powell and failed twice, and the only thing I remember about either of those plays was Treon Harris sweeping left and looking for a hole. It is okay to use the good plays when going for two, I think.
Maybe, though, Florida is saving those plays for fourth down. The Gators didn't go for it on any of those against Mississippi one week after staging a comeback almost entirely on those downs against Tennessee. Yay for preserving a meaningless statistic!
This was a weird week around here, partly because it was a weird week for me. We obviously lost Trevor — to an awesome opportunity that I am still stoked for him to have — and that cut into what we were able to do this week. But I'm also in the process of taking on some responsbilities in the SB Nation network that require me to devote some of the time I'd otherwise pour into Alligator Army elsewhere — and, until the middle of the week, I was in the process of planning something that I didn't plan for nearly far enough in advance.
Then I got rear-ended while driving to a trivia night, of all things, on Thursday. And while I'm fine, really — no damage to my car, because I got love-tapped by a Smart Car, and likely no other lasting ramifications — that shook me up considerably.
I think we did a really good job of covering Florida's win over Tennessee at the beginning of last week. I think we also did a bad job of previewing Florida's game against Mississippi — and I regret that, even if it ultimately amounts to not having published a lot of the same "I have a bad feeling about this" trepidation that colored my 25 predictions.
That's on me. And I'll get it fixed. (But, like, really.)