This is my first Sunday Rundown since the Florida-FSU game last year, because I didn't write one for the Birmingham Bowl. And this is, by some margin, my favorite recurring piece to write around these parts.
Hope y'all enjoy it as much as I do.
As always, this is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, without a second look at tape. And they're always different based on whether I was at a game or caught it on TV.
How Florida Won
Offensive execution paved the way
For the first time in what felt like a very long time, Florida's offense clicked on Saturday.
By the end of the first half, Florida had strung together five touchdown drives, all of which covered at least five plays and 50 yards. Both Will Grier and Treon Harris had accounted for two touchdowns, and of the two incomplete passes, both by Grier, one was a drop. Harris had a long touchdown pass to Brandon Powell; Grier had one to C'yontai Lewis. Harris led a drive capped by a short TD run; Grier did, too, taking in it for six himself on an option keeper.
The offense did scuttle a promising opening drive with a high snap that Harris couldn't corral, and did self-inflict a strip-sack of Grier that led to New Mexico State's first points, but that first half was about as good as anyone reasonably expected from Florida in a first game with a bunch of new faces running the show.
And the second half was almost as good.
Yes, this was just a season opener, against a bad New Mexico State team fed to the Gators for the purposes of an easy, confidence-building win. But there were two season-opening games under Will Muschamp in which Florida scored no more points in the game than Florida scored in either half on Saturday night.
As Florida fans vividly remember, it is possible to choke on cupcakes. This wasn't that.
The crowd was large and loud
Florida announced an attendance of just more than 90,000 fans for last night's game, and, for once, it didn't seem like a laughably inflated number. The student section was full and loud even prior to kickoff, and I was hard-pressed to find any empty seats in the stadium until the fourth quarter, when fans filtered out with the outcome well in hand; some tweets said that the Touchdown Terrace area had patches of empties, but that wasn't visible from my perspective. (I had a student guest ticket in the north end zone.)
But the crowd was loud, too, and appreciative of Florida playing offense very competently and defense almost as well. This was a relief and a return; it was what a night game in The Swamp against a feebler foe should be, with the Gators playing well enough to let the crowd help devour its opponent. (And I think night games are going to be one of the surer things for teams in the South for the forseeable future: It's so much easier to pack a stadium for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff, when it's "only" 85 degrees out, than to ask 90,000 fans to bear the brunt of 100-degree heat at noon or in the afternoon.)
Hopefully, this enthusiasm endures into next week's game against East Carolina, a far better foe, at least. But I would be very curious to see Florida against an SEC foe or Florida State at night later this year. It felt, last night, like a lot of younger fans were eager to lose their minds for the Gators; I'd love to see that in person.
Florida's got "two good ones" at QB
Harris played better than I expected at quarterback. Grier played better than I expected at quarterback. I think anyone trying to make the gulf between them vast will have to nitpick some Harris errors that context can help explain.
But, moreover, I don't think there's a crippling choice for Florida at quarterback.
Harris showed that he can be very, very effective in a system tailored to his strengths on this night, nimbly moving around on sprint-outs and play-action predicated on misdirection while reading the field. His throw to Powell was kind of a lollipop that Powell just had to sprint to get under, and he didn't rifle more than a couple of passes to receivers, but his throw on the run to Kelvin Taylor that produced the night's biggest play was a thing of beauty, and he was accurate until very late in his snaps — which could probably be explained in part by him starting with seven completed passes, sitting for seven drives, and then being reinserted late.
Grier, though, showed that he can be very, very effective without needing much tailored to his strengths. He showed impressive zip on his throws, and his only mistake through the air in the first half was putting too much mustard on a screen pass on his first snap. If Harris's throw to Taylor was one of the night's five best by any quarterback, I'd hazard to say Grier had three of the others, and probably at least half of the top 10. (New Mexico State's Tyler Rogers dropped a dime on the Aggies' lone touchdown pass; it was in the top five, for sure.)
And then there was that run by Grier, the 38-yard dash through the New Mexico State secondary that confirmed that he has wheels when he wants to use them. One of the perceived edges Harris held over Grier coming into this game was superior mobility, but that run, and Grier's effortless touchdown run on a beautifully executed read option, made it quite clear that Grier's no statue.
We didn't really see Grier throw on the run — and behind this offensive line, Florida's QBs will need to do that — and didn't see Harris run a lot of option, but I saw more than enough from both quarterbacks to be fine with either one being named Florida's starter on Tuesday. I also saw enough to be fine with both quarterbacks playing against East Carolina, and maybe even in a two-quarterback system this fall; there is enough disparity between their skill sets that forcing teams to prepare for both may have value.
I saw enough to prefer Grier, too — and the sentiments I've seen suggest most in Florida's fan base do, too, after finally getting a glimpse at what he can do with his arm. But Grier wasn't so good that he strikes me as the only defensible choice at starter, nor was Harris bad enough for there to be more than a little separation between the two players.
Mostly, I just think, as Jim McElwain told Maria Taylor after the game, that Florida has "two good ones" at quarterback. And two good ones is sure as hell better than none.
The indefatigable VH3
Vernon Hargreaves III played virtually every snap for Florida's defense last night, only exiting the game late in the fourth quarter as reserves came in. He also served as Florida's punt returner. And played on the kick coverage team. And caught a pass in an offensive cameo. And made one of the jaw-dropping, only-a-few-guys-could-do-that plays that his athleticism permits, skying over a receiver for an interception and returning it for 43 yards after weaving back and forth for 60.
Florida is clearly very interested in showcasing Hargreaves's versatility, and that's fine: He's one of the best athletes in college football, and he can help this team in a great many ways. But I recall Hargreaves limping off the field with minor injuries in what felt like half of Florida's games in 2014. And while Florida's roster really is deepest at cornerback, every non-defensive play that exposes him to contact in some form is arguably a bet that his performance on those plays is more valuable to him in the context of helping Florida win than his absence would be to maintaining his health and NFL Draft stock.
If the Gators want to play Hargreaves everywhere and see if he can generate Heisman buzz, well, more power to them; he's not going to win it, but he could definitely make headlines as a result. If this plan to use him for 60 percent of the snaps in any given game backfires, though, it's going to be U-G-L-Y.
Do the Gators have a tight end stable?
Florida tight ends on Saturday night: Seven catches, 100 yards, two touchdowns (both by C'yontai Lewis).
Florida tight ends in 2014: 26 catches, 237 yards, three touchdowns.
Florida tight ends (not including Trey Burton) in 2013: Four catches, 42 yards.
A position that has been ineffective to nonexistent since Jordan Reed's departure for the NFL became a focal point of Florida's offense on Saturday night, and it was more than welcome: Lewis got open repeatedly, DeAndre Goolsby showed his own talents and made a play in the open field, and Jake McGee played well despite often being used as a blocker. And Florida will continue to use multiple tight ends, I think, more because of the necessity of supplementing its offensive line than anything.
But that combined line was better than any Reed put up in 2012 (he had five catches for 85 yards in his best game) and better than all but two posted by Aaron Hernandez in his All-American season in 2009, back before, uh, everything.
For a team that still has a lot of questions at wide receiver and offensive line, and one that will end up starting a young quarterback, multiple good tight ends could be a blessing.
Money on money downs
Among the new and neat things in Florida's game day ambience was the instrumental to Bobby Shmurda's "Hot (It's Not Boy)" prior to third downs on defense. That wasn't the only song Florida ended up using — I heard Ludacris's "Moneymaker" and Lil Wayne's "Got Money" before the end of the night — but the focus on "money downs," also emphasized by a pair of assistants waving orange and blue signs that read "$ DOWN" on Florida's sideline, paid off: The Gators held New Mexico State to a woeful 1-for-12 performance on third down, and the Aggies actually converted more fourth downs than third downs.
Against teams with better punters — New Mexico State's Greg Hutchins (...we're not related) and Anthony Torres combined to average under 35 yards per punt — or more to lose than these aggressive Aggies, forcing fourth down will be even more critical.
Playmakers produce in flashes
Florida's longest pass play was the aforementioned 43-yard catch-and-run by Taylor. Its longest pass play to a wide receiver was Powell's 37-yard TD catch. Its longest run by a running back was an 18-yard scamper by Taylor. None of those plays were the sort of truly "explosive" full-field ones that Florida fans got spoiled by during the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras.
And, okay, fair, but: Florida had nine players record a run of at least eight yards, including walk-on runner/receiver Case Harrison and true freshman wideout Antonio Callaway. And 10 Florida players had a catch of 11 or more yards, despite Demarcus Robinson not having such a play on the night.
It remains to be seen if players like Alvin Bailey and C.J. Worton can produce against teams that aren't New Mexico State, sure, but there was a lot more spreading the wealth and a lot less reliance on proven playmakers (Robinson, Taylor, and Powell combined for just 17 touches) than I anticipated. That's probably a good thing: It's easier to develop a bunch of options and winnow down than rely on a few go-tos and hope others emerge.
Woo boy, Cece Jefferson
This Vine is gonna stay open in a lot of windows this week, I suspect.
Florida's pass rush didn't look particularly explosive or disruptive on this night, though missing Alex McCalister's athleticism — routinely touted as freakish — probably played a major role in that. And Bryan Cox, Jr., in particular, had a few plays where his relative slowness compared to Dante Fowler, Jr. — in fairness, pretty much everyone is slow compared to Dante — cost the Gators.
But Jefferson looked very, very good, rocking the poor, improperly-leveraged lineman above, recording a pass break-up, and generally looking like anything but a freshman playing his first game of college football. The sky is the limit for him.
Alex Anzalone's flow
This is, of course, not totally about the guy's hair: Anzalone tied Jalen Tabor for a team-high in tackles with five, and had all of them in the first half, including two on Florida's first defensive series. More impressive: All but one of tackles happened essentially outside the box, and as a result of Anzalone hoofing it to help clean up plays. On a night when Antonio Morrison was almost invisible — he recorded an assist, and that was it — Florida's other starting linebacker still stepped up.
Both Good and Bad
Florida's defense was fine, I guess
Complaining about a defense that gave up 200 yards on 51 plays doesn't exactly make me feel great, but if Geoff Collins is going to have the hashtag BEE DEE ENN, it's going to come with Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye, and McCalister available. Without McCalister, Florida lacked a truly scary pass-rusher on this night; while Jonathan Bullard's sack was an impressive bit of power rushing, Justus Reed recorded his two sacks (!?) by cleaning up rushes, and probably three or four plays that could have ended in sacks actually finished with Rogers tossing the ball away.
And without Neal and Maye, Florida's safeties were the weak point of a secondary that has designs on transcendence. Nick Washington badly misplayed a run support on Larry Rose III's 30-yard run, New Mexico State's longest ground gain of the night, and Marcell Harris got burned for the Aggies' touchdown pass — one play after being similarly crossed up. (New Mexico State's longest play of the night, though, included an egregious hold on Harris, who read and reacted perfectly to a screen.)
Maye should be back next week, and would likely shore up run support. McCalister should be a shot in the arm for Florida's pass rush. But Neal is by far the Gators' best safety in coverage — almost by default, given that Florida refuses to shift Brian Poole to safety except when it has to and that no safety other than Neal is reliable — and we still don't know when he'll be back.
Florida had an excellent pass rush and good cornerback play early on last year and still got bombed by Alabama and Kentucky because of occasionally hideous safety play — and Neal was part of that, and Poole infamously gave up a third-and-forever conversion against LSU, so he's no silver bullet, either.
A team can get away with things against New Mexico State that it will be punished for against East Carolina, or Tennessee, or Mississippi. Florida had a good night on defense, don't get me wrong, but it also has mistakes to fix — and reinforcements coming. What we saw was a picture still out of focus.
No one died behind the offensive line
An example of the difference between seeing a game in person and on TV: I tweeted some praise for Florida's offensive line in the second quarter, and immediately got a ton of puzzled responses from people whom I assume were watching the game.
Minutes later, the line collapsed and helped produce the strip-sack of Grier, and my feelings changed.
But the overall impression I got of the line wasn't that of a trainwreck, but a young, mistake-prone unit that will have to get better as the season progresses. Is that ideal? Of course not. But it's far from the worst-case scenario, especially considering that Martez Ivey, surely part of Florida's rotation, was out for this game, and center Cameron Dillard left it with an injury. That sack on Grier was the only one given up all night, and Florida had just two running plays (other than the biffed snap to Harris early) go for losses.
The doom and gloom forecast for this offensive line did not come true last night. It may yet, but I'm going to be cautiously optimistic that Mike Summers can wring improvement out of this crew like he did last season's line until I see reason to believe otherwise.
Florida ought to go deep more often
Please take this to be semi-facetious, because it's how I mean it, but: I left a game in which Florida scored 61 points on offense, rolled up 606 yards, and averaged nearly eight yards per play wanting more big plays.
I wanted to see Demarcus Robinson behind the defense. I wanted to see more of Brandon Powell in space. I definitely want to see what Antonio Callaway can do after his impressive first night. And I want to see Grier throw wheel routes and out routes, given what I saw of his arm.
But the basic point here is that I think big plays were there for the taking and were not taken by design. I don't know if that will last, especially given McElwain's explosive Colorado State offenses; I just noticed it on this night.
Oh, you crazy kids
The virtue of sitting in the student section's end zone for a Florida football game is also the downside of sitting in the student section's end zone for a Florida football game: You will be sitting with fans whose passion can often outstrip their knowledge and comportment.
When the Aggies came out of the tunnel to come kneel and pray in the end zone, they got some scattered "FUCK YOU" responses and middle fingers along with lusty boos. When New Mexico State completed a brilliant touchdown pass right in front of that end zone, it got hit with a "BULL-SHIT" chant as if it wasn't obviously a TD. One person near me mused about how many fans were in The Swamp midway through the first half, guessing 50,000. (I gently corrected him.) Another group struggled to remember who the running back named Jones on last year's team was. (It took some effort to not laugh while providing "Matt Jones.")
I was at the game with a friend of mine who is now in law school, and sat with a graduate friend of his, who drove up from Orlando to see the game, and who (rightly) insisted on high-fiving after every score "Because we know what it's like to not have things to celebrate." Near the end of the game, I overheard someone in front of us trying to decide whether to leave to go to Midtown or back to the dorm.
There will always be Florida students and fans, it is helpful to remember, who are attending their first or fourth Gators game on any given Saturday, ones who don't remember John Brantley or Jeff Demps (or Matt Jones!), much less Rex Grossman or Lito Sheppard or Jevon Kearse. And that's fine! I hope all of their games are as fun as last night's was, and get them to come back for decades and decades.
But it's okay to just boo the opponent without being abusive. It's all right to appreciate the other team's big plays with shrugs and save the jeers for true bad calls. It's fine to ask the fans around you for their thoughts and try to learn from them.
You only go to your first Florida game once, after all. And someday, when it will be you lamenting those kids, you will wish you knew this earlier.
Ahmad Fulwood's invisibility cloak
14 different Gators had receptions. Fulwood did not. Florida quarterbacks had just seven incompletions on the night. Fulwood's one target might've been the only drop.
I'm not trying to pick on dude, but he's in real jeopardy of being completely buried on the depth chart, never to be found again.