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Florida vs. Tennessee, Sunday Roundup: Gators vault to national lead in takeaways

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But don’t count on the Gators’ thievery to continue.

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Gators now kings of forcing turnovers

No FBS team in America has forced more turnovers than the Florida Gators.

Florida’s up to 14 takeaways in four games, and boasts a +10 turnover margin, with that staggering rate of 2.5 takeaways per game behind only those posted by Kansas (3.0!) and Fresno State (2.75) so far this year. Unbeaten North Texas, LSU, and UCF are the only other programs averaging at least two net takeaways a game.

And that’s cool. But it may not be sustainable.

Florida, after all, has somehow recovered 10 fumbles — three more than any other team nationally thus far this year, and more than three times as many as it recovered last year, when it picked up a paltry three.

So far as anyone has been able to determine, fumble recovery rates are largely luck, with next to no skill or repeatability baked into them. Forced fumble rates are likely to be significantly luck-based, too, as there’s only so much that defenders can do to get the ball out of the grasp of a runner or a quarterback, and even less that they can do to force a muffed snap.

And so I wouldn’t count on the Gators running up huge turnover margins for the rest of the season, even if they’ve been able to do that so far.

Florida was lethally efficient and helpfully explosive

Tennessee played a terrible game on Saturday, handing the ball over to the Gators in great situations over and over. Florida started drives from the Tennessee 7, 19, 21, and 49 — all within the first 32 minutes of play — and had another drive start from its own 38 after a turnover on downs.

Florida also made good use of those drives, scoring three touchdowns on six total plays on those three drives inside and just outside of the red zone and turning the one starting in Tennessee territory into a great punt that pinned the Vols back far enough that they ran themselves into a safety.

The Gators only (“only”) scored 24 points on possessions immediately following Tennessee’s six turnovers, but they also kept control of the game because of those turnovers.

And when Florida wasn’t making quick work of short fields, it got explosive plays on long fields. The Gators scored touchdowns of 65, 40, and 47 yards — two of them on one-play drives — and used a 34-yard run from Kadarius Toney to spark a field goal drive.

Florida did not do a great job of keeping the chains moving on this night, and actually finished 3-for-11 on third down and with fewer first downs than Tennessee (a factor of short fields, to be fair).

But Florida also generated great field position and made explosive plays, and so Florida scored its most points ever at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee’s first half was atrocious

Multiple people suggested last night that Tennessee’s first half box score was among the worst they have ever seen, including ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore. It’s tough to argue against, that, given how ugly it is on paper or the screen.

But that first half was worse than the box score would indicate. You don’t get that one of those fumbles was of a touchdown that turned into a touchback, and you don’t have any indication that Tennessee tried a surprise onside kick after that field goal that led directly to the safety.

Also: Tennessee turning it over on downs and having that onside kick recovered were bad outcomes from good process! The Vols were in no man’s land before that fourth down, and didn’t convert it because of a drop; their onside kick was well-timed and legitimately surprising, and it took one hell of an individual effort from Lamical Perine to thwart it.

A better Florida team probably leads by even more than a 26-3 score at halftime. But this one got that lead from that half, which was more than enough to put the game away.

Freddie Swain is a big-play machine

Freddie Swain would’ve been about seventh on my list of potential consistently explosive players for Florida this year, well behind Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson, firmly behind Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney (more on him in a second!) and likely behind even Jordan Scarlett and Malik Davis.

Yet Swain has four touchdowns through four games — all but one of them covering more than 18 yards — and is averaging 24.1 yards per catch (twice what he managed last year!) ... and 24.1 yards per touch when factoring in returns.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense, because Swain is not Florida’s fastest, quickest, or shiftiest skill position player, but he has a knack for getting open and making defenders miss, and has shown good hands this fall. And in a good offense that takes shots or on a team with effective and aggressive special teams, that can obviously pay off.

So good for Swain on proving me wrong.

Kadarius Toney, flash or fizzle

Speaking of Toney: He, too, has some big plays this fall and as a Gator; his 34-yard run last night was just the latest in a career with a bunch of them. And Toney’s averages — 13.3 yards per carry over four of them this fall, 11 yards per catch over four of those this fall — look gaudy, too.

But Toney’s averages reflect one carry for 34 yards and three others for 19 and catches of 19, 15, seven, and two yards. And he is also averaging a wholly pedestrian 18 yards per kickoff return on two tries after getting his first chances there on Saturday.

Toney should get the ball more, because he’s a versatile player who can unlock a lot of looks and concepts on offense and because he possesses great athleticism that makes every touch a potentially huge play. It has not been as simple as handing him the ball and having a huge play magically transpire, though, and calls for Toney to get more work should be cognizant of his potential for boom and bust.

Dameon Pierce does it again

With Florida up 40-21 after a late Tennessee touchdown, the Gators gave the ball to Dameon Pierce on the next drive. It was not 40-21 for long.

Pierce’s 47-yard run around end — keyed by great blocks from Tyler Jordan and C’yontai Lewis — was his second career touchdown, third run of 25 or more yards on the season, and fifth run of 10 or more yards on just 21 carries this year.

Pierce is averaging 10.7 yards per carry, which is sixth nationally, and though he’s done almost all of his work against tired defenses in the fourth quarter, that sort of production and explosiveness would be fantastic against air.

Pierce is also Florida’s leading rusher. He’s the third-stringer!

I’d guess he is very much assured of not redshirting at this point, so it is worth wondering whether Florida might give Pierce more carries as the season wears on or elevate him in its running back rotation. Both Scarlett and Perine are averaging six yards per carry in their own right, and are better and more experienced pass-blockers, which matters, but Pierce’s performance almost demands more touches.