Chris: Kyle Pitts is a monster.
Before his injury in the second quarter against Georgia, Pitts had a good shot to be the best player in college football this fall. He didn’t generate any Heisman hype of note beyond his first four-touchdown game — though he deserved some — but many analysts and fans alike recognized the unbelievable talent he possesses and puts to use. And though the Florida offense did just fine without him, he reminded Gator Nation that he’s the best player on this team in short order on Saturday.
On Florida’s first offensive drive, Pitts caught a deep pass from Kyle Trask and used his underrated speed to turn it into a 56-yard touchdown. In the second half, he snagged two more touchdowns, utilizing the elite size and athleticism that makes him unguardable in the red zone. In all, Pitts finished with five catches for 99 yards and three scores. To play that well after a two-week hiatus is just ridiculous. Florida’s offense is elite without him, but when their ultimate weapon is back in action, the Gators are near unstoppable.
Pitts > Trask
Andy: More than ever, I believe Kyle Trask is in the midst of the best season we’ve ever seen a Florida quarterback have — not the best season since, the best ever.
The best ever for a program with three Heisman winners who redefined quarterback play, a quarterback every Florida fan thought was jobbed of a Heisman, a No. 1 recruit who actually lived up to his hype, an NCAA passing leader, and at least a couple more memorable throwers. Florida’s never really minted NFL-dominating passers — and Trask isn’t seen as likely to take the NFL by storm — but it has churned out zeitgeist-defining college quarterbacks, and Trask is having a better season than any of them.
The dirty little secret is that he’s not the best player on his team.
Kyle Pitts, given all of his talents and his deployment in Dan Mullen’s offense, is still by some margin the best player the Gators have this fall. He maxes out the physical talents a tight end can have and matches all that athleticism with an incredible understanding of how to play the position as a receiver and a growing body of work that acquits him well as a blocker. He can dust a former five-star cornerback on one play, Moss a different player on another, and run a slant so perfect against great coverage that his hands are exactly where they need to be to catch a throw to the only open window on a third.
And he’s better at what he does than Kyle Trask is at what he does. Think of it this way: If there were an NCAA Football 21 — and, yes, I wish there were, too — then Pitts would be a 99 overall at tight end, with formidable numbers in both the physical and technical categories; Trask, for all his own gifts and acumen, would probably be somewhere in the high 90s, but it’d be hard to imagine him getting to a 99 even if you maxed out stats like Awareness and Pass Accuracy, given his physical limitations.
This is not to say that Pitts is more important than Trask, or deserves the Heisman — which is really more about prominence and production than individual greatness — more than his quarterback. Trask is the guy who’s getting sized up for statues because QBs do so much more for their teams than TEs, and while Pitts is making Trask’s job easier, Trask is also helping make Pitts look phenomenal. Pitts is just a better tight end than Trask is a quarterback in the sense that transcendence or complete optimization of a position is better than greatness that isn’t quite transcendent.
But while quibbling about which Kyle is better is a fun argument, it’s the confluence and coexistence of these two greats that ought to be celebrated most. At two of the 11 positions on offense, Florida is fielding arguably best performer of all time and getting arguably its best season of play ever. Don’t take that for granted.
Special Teams Making Special Plays
Chris: It hasn’t been much of a factor throughout the season, but Florida’s special teams unit put on a show against the Wildcats.
On the Gators’ first drive of the game, it was a bold and excellently run fake punt that kept the offense on the field, extending a drive that ended in a touchdown. And at the end of a sleepy first half, it was the special teams that swung the game firmly into Florida’s control.
First came a perfect coffin-corner punt from Jacob Finn to pin Kentucky at their own one yardline. The ensuing drive was a quick three and out, leading to another perfect bit of special teamery — brilliant trickery, in this instance — from the Gators. The return team set up around Xzavier Henderson on the right side of the field, but the punt actually wound up in the hands of Kadarius Toney on the opposite side. The fake return offset Kentucky’s coverage unit, allowing Toney to make a few cuts and take the kick back for a touchdown.
While the special teams weren’t as impactful the rest of the way, they were certainly effective down the stretch. (Evan McPherson was excellent, hitting two of three field goals, while also limiting Kentucky to one kick return the entire game — and yet he did miss a field goal against Kentucky again.) While special teams doesn’t always affect games, it certainly played a role on Saturday, and that could be a big advantage for Florida going forward.
Sturdy Defense Led By Front Seven
Chris: This defense has been the biggest question mark for Florida all season, seemingly changing in quality every single game. After a disappointingly mediocre performance against a lifeless Vanderbilt, the defense was far stouter against this week’s offensively challenged competition. While the Wildcats got a few yards, especially early, their between-the-20s progress amounted to next to nothing on the scoreboard.
And a lot of the credit for this impressive defensive showing goes to the front seven.
I’ve noted multiple times this season how much better the defensive line has played when compared to past weeks, and they continue to impress by that metric. Brenton Cox ruined an early Kentucky drive with a monster sack, Zachary Carter was a force once again, and the play of linebackers James Houston IV and Mohamoud Diabate made a huge difference. The Wildcats did rack up 159 yards on the ground, but the defensive front stuffed the run countless times, especially third down.
A noteworthy improvement for this defense is their performance on big downs: On third and fourth down, Kentucky went a mere 4-for-16. To win games, the defense has to get off the field on these “money downs,” and Florida has done a much better job of that in recent weeks. They also did a better job of forcing turnovers against the Wildcats, coming away with a hat trick of interceptions.
While it’s fair to point to Kentucky’s offense and especially the abysmal play of Terry Wilson (and Joey Gatewood in his cameo appearance) as supplementary reasons for Florida’s excellent day, it’s a great sign to see Florida’s defense not play down to its competition, like it did at times against Vanderbilt.
...So You’re Saying There’s a Chance?
Andy: The problem with Florida’s still probably fatal flaw of a defense showing signs of life, of course, is that it sparks hope.
If you believe Florida’s offense is great, you can talk yourself into the Gators scoring 30-plus against any team — possibly even Alabama in the SEC Championship Game or Clemson in the College Football Playoff. And from there, you only need to imagine a couple of breaks coming out in the Gators’ favor to talk yourself into Florida staging upsets.
Florida’s defense has often seemed incapable of getting breaks — either catching them in the football sense or forcing them in the tennis sense. It never really stopped Ole Miss or Texas A&M, gave up 28 points to a Georgia offense quarterbacked by two deeply flawed players, and hemorrhaged yardage to Arkansas and Vanderbilt. And I don’t know if stopping a Kentucky offense that has proven eminently stoppable is a great feat.
But Florida forced turnovers and made its own breaks — that sequence of sacks to push Kentucky out of field goal range early and the three-and-out to set up Toney’s punt return, notably — in ways that you could see translating on other fields. Shawn Davis might pick off an overthrow; the Gators could force an opportune three-and-out.
And it’s so, so tempting to say that those breaks are what Florida needs to pull off victories in five-set matches. Florida doesn’t need to win 6-0, just 7-6, and if this team can cover for its sins with pick-sixes or fumble recoveries, its chances of pulling out narrow victories get better, and its paths to glory get wider.