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Florida vs. Ole Miss: Don’t shovel dirt on the Gators’ defense just yet

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Yes, Ole Miss aerated Florida’s defense. But that’s no great shame — and there were positives to see, too.

NCAA Football: Florida at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators’ season opener was an absolute barnburner — and an offensive explosion. 1,255 combined yards and 86 combined points aren’t exactly the numbers you expect from an SEC clash, much less one featuring a Florida defense that was expected to be good at a bare minimum.

While Florida’s offense has made national headlines thanks to the dynamic play of Kyle Squared, the defense has been called into serious question after its showing against Ole Miss — and for good reason.

Led by former Gator commit Matt Corral at QB, the Rebels put up a ridiculous 613 total yards, the most any team has against Florida in the Dan Mullen era and since a 2014 shellacking at Alabama. The secondary, typically an area of strength for a program that touts itself as DBU, was especially worrisome, allowing over 400 passing yards and consistently struggling to contain Elijah Moores. And while we can look at the ejection of senior safety Shawn Davis and the absences of Kyree Campbell and Brad Stewart as potential explanations, it’s hard to peg a collapse this total on any one absence.

But let’s not hit the panic button just yet.

Ole Miss entered 2020 after spending 2019 as a good offensive club, and could very well be one of the best offensive teams in the country if what happened on Saturday was not a mirage. Even in a 2019 campaign that saw the dismissal of coach Matt Luke, the Rebels still managed to average almost 450 yards and 26 points per game thanks to Rich Rodriguez and John Rhys Plumlee. And while their passing game was nowhere near what we saw on Saturday, the Rebels clearly have high level talent in that area, as Corral is a blue-chip QB and the likes of Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah are NFL-caliber playmakers.

And there’s certainly brainpower on the offensive side of the ball in Oxford. Former wunderkind turned bust turned legit coach Lane Kiffin has spent the last half-decade rehabilitating a rep as one of the best offensive minds in college football, while new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby spent many years working with the prolific Baylor teams of Art Briles — who inarguably piloted some good offenses before crashing the Bears on the shoals of scurrilousness — before helping UCF continue its recent offensive dominance. Needless to say, giving up some offense to the Rebels isn’t the end of the world, even if the final total is higher than anyone in orange and blue would like.

But it’s also fair to say that the defense didn’t play entirely bad either. While the pass defense was shoddy, the run stopping was fairly solid, all things considered. Down the stretch last season, Ole Miss were one of the top rushing teams in the country, with quarterback Plumlee putting on Khalil Tate-esque performances. He barely made a dent on Saturda, as the Gators were able to limit the Ole Miss rushing attack to less than four yards per carry and concede just a few big plays on the ground, none covering more than 20 yards. While it’s obvious that Kiffin wanted to air it out more — especially considering the lack of playing time for Plumlee, whose cameos in gadget packages early gave way to a day on which he threw as many passes as wideout Dontarrio Drummond — the Ole Miss run game ran into a unit that was pretty solid on the ground.

And from the annals of bending and not breaking, it’s worth noting that Florida’s defense tightened up when it mattered most, forcing a turnover on downs in the first quarter, stopping another points-likely drive with a pick, and only allowing two scores in the first half. Believe it or not, a majority of Ole Miss’s offense came after halftime, and by the point Kiffin’s boys got the rock in the second half, Florida was up 21 points. The Gators did cough up nearly 200 yards on the final three Ole Miss possessions of the game, but they also led 44-21 when the first of them began, and just under 13 minutes remained — the Rebels were technically in garbage time at that juncture.

Florida has to be heartened by what it got from some stars, too: Linebacker Ventrell Miller and edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. showed plenty of the reasons Florida’s front seven might have few worries on this Monday, while Kaiir Elam’s big blunder in coverage appeared to be slipping. No, Florida’s safeties weren’t world-beaters — but who was expecting them to be?

In the end, Florida’s defense lost to the Ole Miss offense on Saturday — but that was a challenging opener amidst a pandemic, so it’s completely understandable to see some rust and mistakes leading to a poor performance. And at the end of the day, the defense made enough stops for Florida’s elite offense to put away an inferior opponent with a quarter to play.

Given what we saw this weekend, it’s safe to say the Florida defense will absolutely need to play better on the back end if Florida is to survive better squads. But there’s no good reason to believe that this defense won’t turn it around — and the potential will be there for it to remind us that Florida could still field among the best defensive units in the SEC.