The Florida Gators finished the first significant segment of their 2019 season on Saturday by shutting out Towson, 38-0. And they looked just about like they did through the first four games, with a few changes here and there.
Here are our Sunday morning takeaways from this game, which come without having given it or its highlights a second viewing.
Florida is (a lot) better than a lot of teams — but top-10 ones?
We’re five games into a season in which Florida was expected to be a top-10 team by most, with some — yours truly included — believing that contending for SEC and national championships were within the penumbra of possibilities if things broke right.
All five games have been Florida wins.
Three of those games have been blowouts won by an average of more than 30 points. The teams that lost those games are either FCS outfits or, in Tennessee’s case, a moribund FBS team — and all of their losses came to Florida at The Swamp.
Two of them have been close games won by a total of 12 points. The two teams that lost those games could yet make bowl games — they’ll have to do some work to get there — and also played Florida away from The Swamp; in Kentucky’s case, Florida was also missing a fair few important players, and lost Feleipe Franks in the middle of the game.
That, to me, is the profile of a team that probably deserves to be ranked — one that is clearly better than bad teams, and capable of being better than mediocre to good teams even in challenging circumstances — but not necessarily the one of a top-10 team.
And Florida gets three of those top-10 teams over this October gauntlet. So we are, I suspect, about to learn quite a lot about these Gators.
Florida is a pass-first team, and has to be
I know: Dameon Pierce looked good against Towson, and looked pretty good against Tennessees Martin and Knoxville, too. Maybe he should get as many or more carries than Lamical Perine, or be shuffled higher in the rotation so he sees the field earlier in games.
But Pierce’s success coming largely in second halves — and even more largely with the games mostly decided — makes me think that he’s ripping off runs that Perine could, or that Malik Davis might, or ... you get it.
And the problem for Florida’s run game is that no one is making the runs in the first quarter, or the first half. The Gators are averaging 3.04 yards per carry before halftime, and run nearly twice as well after intermission — when they’ve mostly been found success in garbage time and against reserves. (That seems to me like an indictment of the Florida offensive line, mostly, though there is certainly an argument that Perine has underwhelmed as a senior.)
Florida seems well aware of this, and I suspect that is part of why we saw a lot of creative attempts to get yards from playmakers on the ground against Towson. And with Florida facing stouter defensive fronts in the next month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Gators do more of that, and throw more screens — much like they did to move the ball against Mississippi State’s fantastic 2018 front — in the near future.
But at this point, Florida lining up and running the ball on first down is Florida begging to be put in disadvantageous down-and-distance situations. And so this team is a pass-first team.
Kyle Trask seems ready to lead a pass-first team — mostly
The good news is that Florida’s quarterback seems well-equipped to run that sort of team.
I still think Trask is an inferior quarterback to Franks, and I think the reasons Florida’s coaches had for starting Franks ahead of Trask — better physical tools, especially on deep balls, and more ability to work outside of the pocket both as a passer and a runner — are visible and valid. But I think, as I’ve been writing, that the drop-off isn’t a huge one, and that the way Trask plays might actually be better for this team.
That boils down to this: Trask seems like a better pocket passer than Franks has ever consistently been because he gets the ball out quickly to open receivers. He now owns the Florida record for consecutive completions because of that — and, in part, because none of the 18 straight passes he connected on went for more than 32 yards, and the only one that went for more than 20 was a Tyrie Cleveland catch-and-run — and has been tremendously effective because of that excellence in distribution.
Outside of his pocket passing, I’d argue Trask has been less impressive.
When Trask has (very sparingly) gone deep, he has met with his most mixed results. One (and maybe both) of his picks against Tennessee came on a deep ball that the kids might have called a yeet ball, and the other results include an underthrow that could have been a touchdown and an overthrow that should have been. Franks could have missed (and did miss) passes of that sort, but he’s also been a more reliable bomber over his career.
When Trask has (again, somewhat sparingly) been pressured, he’s been weirdly indecisive, and also once fumbled while being sacked. That isn’t exactly a sea change from Franks, but it’s also an area where he hasn’t improved on what Franks can do and has done.
Florida’s coaching staff seems to me to understand Trask’s skills — like, I’d argue, it understood Franks’s skills — and how to put them to best use. But Trask threw well against soft coverage from Kentucky, then aerated a terrible Tennessee team and a game-but-overmatched Towson team. There’s still some potential of him turning to a pumpkin — much like former Florida saviors Austin Appleby, Luke Del Rio, Tyler Murphy, Jeff Driskel, and Jacoby Brissett all did.
I want to believe that Trask’s path will be different — that his story ends after chapters that surprise me with their twists upward, rather than depress me with familiar downturns. I assume most Florida fans do, too.
But while I think he’s in a better spot than most previous Florida backups pressed into service, and I think he might be flat better than those players, I have my concerns, too.
How long can Florida bend without breaking?
I sent this tweet late in the game on Saturday:
Since Feleipe Franks's injury at Kentucky, Florida opponents have had 23 offensive drives against the #Gators. The results?— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) September 28, 2019
Three missed FGs
Two fumble recoveries
Two end of game
One turnover on downs
One made FG
I believe Towson had two more drives — ending in a punt and the end of the game — after it, bringing the total for points on Florida’s last 25 defensive drives to ... three.
Three points on 25 possessions is 0.12 points per possession, if you’re curious.
But my point in tweeting that was to note the results, not the process. Looking at the process find plenty of reasons to be at least a bit worried: Florida snaring six picks is probably a little lucky, opposing kickers going 1-for-4 is definitely slightly lucky, and snagging two fumbles — both on bizarre muffed snaps — is more luck than skill even if both of those specific recoveries were Johnny-on-the-spot efforts.
Will Florida have any other stretches of allowing three points on 25 consecutive drives this year? Probably not. And is that something that Florida should prepare for? Yes.
Florida’s been bending-but-not-breaking all year; even Miami and Kentucky, the teams to score touchdowns on the Gators defense, didn’t have flawless red-zone and plus-territory efforts. But Auburn is good enough to break Florida. So is LSU. So is Georgia. (South Carolina? Eh.) And so we probably shouldn’t expect bend-but-don’t-break efforts in those games, at least not on every drive.
Florida’s offense may be good enough to keep up in high-scoring affairs; we haven’t seen such a game as of yet this year, so we don’t really know.
I think we might learn soon, though.