Normally, our previews will run a little earlier than a couple of hours before kickoff. Normally, I won’t spend an entire Saturday wondering whether suspensions might make the words I write moot after I publish them, though.
The first game of the Dan Mullen era should be a relatively comfortable win for the Florida Gators, if we’re being honest.
Florida is favored by as many as 42 points — which is a lot, more than the Gators scored in any game in 2017 — over Charleston Southern in its Saturday night tilt. That’s possibly a testament to oddsmakers’ faith in Mullen’s coaching helping to turn what was a punchless offense for much of predecessor Jim McElwain’s tenure into a potent attack, but it’s also possibly a testament to just how overmatched the Buccaneers are.
Charleston Southern, after all, is No. 192 in the time-tested Sagarin ratings; Florida, even after a 4-7 season of woe and misery, is merely No. 35.
When Florida has the ball
Ultimately, the Gators’ chances of being great this season may well depend on whether they have or can develop a quarterback who can consistently move the ball through the air. Feleipe Franks, installed this week as Florida’s starter for at least this game, will get the first cuts at being that player for Florida this fall.
But while Franks has an increasingly attractive set of wide receivers and tight ends to throw to — thanks to the arrivals of transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes and recruits that include Lucas Krull and Kyle Pitts — it would seem that Florida has the personnel necessary to be good even without featuring the forward pass. A formidable corps of running backs led by Jordan Scarlett — returning from a suspension that kept him off the field for all of the 2017 season — is probably the Gators’ greatest asset entering this fall, with three backs (Scarlett, Malik Davis, and Lamical Perine) who have 100-yard performances merely forming the front line of a six-deep crew that also counts sophomore Adarius Lemons and talented true freshmen Iverson Clement and Dameon Pierce among its members. (So deep is that rotation, in fact, that Clement has worked at defensive back in some fall practices.)
That depth, Florida’s veteran offensive line, and Mullen’s penchant for using his quarterbacks as runners all point to the Gators being a run-first team in 2018, even though that would be accomplished through the spread-heavy system Mullen has run to great success over the last two decades.
Charleston Southern, by contrast, is not well-equipped to stop that sort of approach. Mullen’s Mississippi State team ran over the Bucs for 281 yards and three touchdowns in a 2017 opener despite completing just better than 55 percent of their passes, and that defense didn’t really get better as the year went on: The Bucs went 6-5 in 2017, and would give up 343 rushing yards in a 38-0 shutout at the hands of FCS power Kennesaw State in November.
I expect Florida to take chances and throw deep early and often in this game as a means of testing out Franks’s capacities in a game situation, but Florida should be able to ride Scarlett and his fellow backs to offensive success on this night.
Major edge: Florida
When Charleston Southern has the ball
The Buccaneers’ scheme is an odd one, even for the wilds of college football in 2018: Essentially, it’s an option scheme, but one run out of shotgun- and pistol-style sets rather than a flexbone or wishbone formation. There’s lots of motion, and more running than passing, and lots of opportunities for defenders to make the wrong decisions and be punished for their lack of discipline.
But Charleston Southern either thrived or flat-lined with that offense in 2017. Three times, including one game against NAIA Point University, the Bucs put up 52 or more points; in their other eight games, they failed to score 24 points, and they were shut out by Mississippi State, Indiana, and Kennesaw State.
Florida, even though its defensive talent is not at the high-water marks of its peak years under Will Muschamp, Urban Meyer, or Steve Spurrier, should have as good a collection of defenders as any team the Buccaneers saw a year ago. And Florida’s coaches have had an entire offseason to plot how to stop the Charleston Southern offense, an asset for Todd Grantham and company even if a run-heavy scheme is likely to blunt the effect of Grantham’s blitz-heavy approach.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Charleston Southern break a big play or score points. It would be very surprising to see sustained success for the Bucs.
When both teams are kicking
Florida’s special teams are turning over their most important specialists from last fall, and moving on from top-tier kicker Eddy Piniero and top-flight punter Johnny Townsend may mean some dyspepsia for fans early on this season. But Florida has a couple of candidates at kicker — recruited freshman Evan McPherson and old hand Jorge Powell — and Johnny’s younger brother Tommy Townsend at punter, and should be able to give all of those booters live reps in relatively low-stress situations this Saturday.
Florida’s coverage, return, and block teams, meanwhile, may be one of the surprises of the fall for fans. Mullen’s approach to special teams derives from mentor Meyer’s emphasis on them, and he’s repeatedly suggested that the Gators will play a lot of starters and talented players on special teams units, a potentially seismic change from Florida’s approach to special teams under McElwain. Florida might also be more aggressive on special teams under Mullen, gambling for blocks and staging big returns; that, too, would be a welcome change for many who chafed at Florida’s refusal to go after blocks and despaired at the inefficiency of its return teams.
I’m sure Charleston Southern has special teams units, too, but let’s be real: Neither you nor I is likely to care about them unless they make a major play that makes this paragraph look foolishly Florida-focused in retrospect.