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What do we know about the 2022 Florida Gators so far?

There is much yet to learn about these Gators — but there are also things we can state with some confidence.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Eastern Washington at Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I have been open, this summer and fall, about letting this Florida Gators season ride. I did not follow spring practices on a daily basis, did not have the time or brain bandwidth to devote myself to the intimate details of the projected depth chart this summer, have not rewatched any of this fall’s games in full — highlights don’t really count — and do not pick up the secrets and gems that I am sure are available on 13 different podcasts.

But I also think that there are some things we can be pretty confident about knowing, beyond just believing — and that some of this knowledge dovetails with what the conventional wisdom about this Florida team was at the outset of this season, while other parts undercut what Billy Napier has stated as goals and certainties about this program.

The first such known is the most important one.

Anthony Richardson is high-variance

In five games, Florida’s starting quarterback has been very good, bad, bad, great, and great but with one baffling error. That would be referred to as inconsistency or “being hot and cold” or “being streaky” or playing high-risk, high-reward football, but I’m going to use a term that’s a bit more analytical: High-variance.

What seems clear about Richardson at this stage in his development as a player and passer is that his ceiling is vertiginous but his floor is a valley. Richardson was excellent in spurring Florida’s win over Utah and superb at Tennessee and against Eastern Washington, but was actively harmful to Florida’s chances of winning against Kentucky and USF, with his inaccuracy as a passer magnified by an inability to do much as a runner in those games. (Being able to run, as he has done effectively in the Gators’ three other games, does seem to improve his passing.) And while he’s made a slew of awesome winning plays, it feels like he’s made about as many grave, game-changing errors, too — strip out the Hail Mary pick against Tennessee and he’s still thrown five picks to four TDs, and has also lost a crucial fumble — bringing the ledger closer to a balance of credits and debits than would be ideal.

Given other truths about, say, its defense, Florida may need Richardson to be risky this fall: It could still probably have overcome Kentucky if Richardson had hit a few more throws, and it was his arm and daring that played a significant role in keeping the pressure on Tennessee. If Richardson curtailed his errors but also sacrificed some big plays in doing so, I think Florida would probably be worse for it.

But those hypotheticals are less relevant that the hypothesis that Richardson can — and does — do the amazing and awful on consecutive snaps being proven out. Until and unless Richardson truly cuts down on the turnovers that have mounted and the mistakes that have led to them, it’s hard to know what you’re getting — except variance.

The Gators’ running game is very good...

I don’t think Florida’s got the best running game in the country — or even a truly elite one. But that running game is fourth nationally in yards per carry at 6.22, trailing Alabama, TCU, and option-happy Air Force, and inches per tote ahead of Ohio State, tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns, No. 22 in rushing yards per game, and tied for third with five rushes of 40-plus yards.

Those are good numbers! And while Florida lacks some explosiveness — it’s only No. 48 in run plays of 10+ yards, those five rushes of 40-plus yards are helped substantially by Richardson’s two notable long scrambles, and it hasn’t quite sprung supposed home run-hitter Trevor Etienne for house calls — it has done a fine job of accruing yardage, posting 136 or more rushing yards in all five games.

A great running game would probably have been more dominant against Kentucky and Tennessee, instead of being intermittently effective. But there’s no question that this is a very good rush offense.

...but the offense is a work in progress

Of course, you might want to revise any estimates of Florida’s running game in the context of it needing to buoy Florida’s inconsistent passing game — and its own inconsistency.

Richardson was good enough to be a credible threat as a passer against Utah — but that didn’t stop the Utes from loading the box and daring Richardson to make throws, nor did Kentucky and USF deviate much from that plan. Florida ran it well enough against a lot of even box counts to win in two of those games, but the dearth of explosive passing made things harder against both the Utes and Bulls, and was a proximate cause of demise against the Wildcats.

And yet: Richardson uncorking some excellent throws and forcing Tennessee to respect his arm didn’t really get the running game going in Knoxville: Richardson himself led Florida in carries (17 including sacks) and yards (62 including sacks), and none of Florida’s three primary running backs mustered 40 rushing yards or four yards per carry against a good but not elite run defense. On the way to those seasonal numbers that look great, the Gators have really only looked great on the ground in three of five contests — and if they have been good through the air three times, that’s only coincided with running the ball really well twice, and only once against FBS competition.

Florida has seemed to find something of a groove after Richardson’s first pick against USF, with more turnovers than punts on its drives since. But USF’s defense is atrocious, Tennessee’s clearly has weaknesses, and Eastern Washington’s is allowing almost 45 points per game. A little skepticism is warranted, at least for now.

Billy Napier is not scared of fourth downs

A confession: I have long thought that Florida fans who embraced and adopted an off-hand quip from Billy Napier after a successful bit of on-field aggression have largely overestimated just how much “Scared money don’t make money” guides Napier. It was a great sound bite then, and it sounds good as an ethos — especially to fans whose self-esteem is derived in part from their football team being a swashbuckling, fearless bunch — but it has seemed to me that Napier is actually more about being smart money.

The Gators’ ultra-aggressive approach to fourth downs, though, suggests smart money might be tied to not being scared.

Florida is only tied for 26th nationally with 12 fourth-down attempts, but has converted eight of them (tied for 15th) — and, crucially, has maintained faith in its offense in a variety of circumstances.

Against Utah, Florida’s two fourth downs were both fourth-and-short tries well into Utah territory; that’s plainly good process. Against Kentucky, Florida persevered with that trust on its three last drives, going for it on fourth down in its own half three times and only converting once.

And even after not going for it on fourth down against USF and then both failing on its first fourth down and missing a field goal early on against Tennessee, Napier cranked the dial all the way to the right against the Vols, going for it six times and hitting on five tries.

This was arguably aggression for aggression’s sake — Florida going for two down 11 was of a piece with the fourth-down tries, even if that baffled many fans — and could be compared to the standard-bearer for fourth down forwardness, as Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss has only gone for six or more fourth downs four times in three years and only converted five tries thrice. But it was also a savvy read of the game state: Napier correctly assessed Tennessee’s offense as one that would put up something like the 38 points it did on Florida, and thus tried to put Florida in position to score more than that many points, perhaps compensating for two pointless drives early on (and a field goal that inspired little confidence) by aggressively going for touchdowns.

If we play a counterfactual game, Florida could easily have kicked field goals on two drives that saw Napier go for it on fourth down; add those two kicks, which would have been from under 40 yards, and turn Adam Mihalek’s longer miss into a make, and Florida would have gotten nine points on those drives ... instead of the seven it ultimately got.

The upside on going for it in football is always scoring at least twice as many points as a field goal earns, and sometimes scoring almost three times as many points. Florida has a good enough offense — and, in a nimble quarterback who has flashed unstoppable traits on fourth downs and two-pointers this year, a situational skeleton key — to give itself a great chance on any given fourth down of a reasonable distance. The most compelling reason not to keep taking those chances would seem to be fear of bad outcomes.

But Billy Napier ain’t scared of those. Not yet, anyway.

Florida’s defense has a long way to go

Has there been one fully impressive, no-caveats effort from Florida’s defense this season?

Utah did everything it wanted to do until Cameron Rising threw a pick. Kentucky recovered from a poor first half to do the necessary controlling of the line of scrimmage in the second half. USF frankly embarrassed a run defense that often looked completely overmatched against purportedly less talented players. Tennessee did everything it wanted to do apart from a singularly excellent punch-out by Ventrell Miller and one pressure-based stop. And Eastern Washington got its yardage and failed on its own merits more than Florida dictating terms early on, though the Gators did stiffen after some early struggles.

That’s not good.

But it’s probably not terrible that a team recovering from an era that featured enough poor performance to make Grantham a four-letter word among Florida fans wasn’t a quick fix. While Patrick Toney and his staff (which includes some well-regarded assistants, led by the legendary Corey Raymond) have not wrought miracles, there have been enough flashes from some younger players to maintain flickering hopes, and the presence of Miller seems to shore up much of the blinking-red-light awfulness of the run defense when he is out.

Instead, it seems like Florida might be caught between an era of stalwarts who have mostly been below average-to-good and only rarely scratched great — Miller, Amari Burney, Brenton Cox, Jr., Trey Dean — and a hypothetical future of stars like Kamari Wilson and Devin Moore taking over. (That assessment is maybe not entirely fair to the old guard — who’s to say Cox or Miller or Gervon Dexter wouldn’t be significantly better if they could play fewer snaps on a deeper defense where they could stand out without getting worn out? — but assessing defense through the lens of individual failure is also impossibly hard without full knowledge of defensive calls and responsibilities, which fans will never obtain, so we’re left to speculate.)

Cycling in more of the younger players who will be Florida’s future defensive vertebrae should be one of the goals for this team this fall — and because doing so might well improve the present, I’d love to see a youth movement.

The game has not yet changed

As part of our recovery from this summer’s fire, which totaled two cars that were in our driveway, my family bought a 2021 Subaru Outback, which is by leaps and bounds the newest, nicest car that this family has owned in its existence. My mom lobbied heavily for a Subaru in part because of its safety features, which include but are not limited to side mirror cameras that chirp when cars are nearby or a perceived lane change occurs without a turn signal, some means of eye-tracking that allows for chirps when the driver appears to be looking anywhere other than directly at the road, and a persistent, insistent chime if the car is in drive while a seat belt is not engaged that is not smart enough to realize that if a car is traveling half a block at 15 MPH and then is put in park, it’s pretty damn likely that the driver is, say, simply stopping to pick up mail from a communal mailbox without turning the car off and back on, rather than getting on I-95 without a restraint.

I appreciate that these warnings are meant to keep me safe, and that annoying me is the only way that they can effectively do that. I resent them, but I get it.

Florida’s special teams performers need the equivalent of that array of safety features.

Despite Napier’s purported emphasis on special teams — and the silly rebranding of those units as “Game Changers” — Florida is bad in that realm. The kick return team has been abysmal, the kickoff team has been just okay, the punt returning has been bad, and the placekicking has been both good and bad, but is certainly trending the wrong way.

About the only true strength has been the punting, which has been nearly nonexistent, as the Gators are 125th nationally in punts per game. And it might paradoxically hurt Florida if that number were better, as leaning more on Jeremy Crawshaw — who, to his credit, is averaging about 45 yards a punt, which would be a top-25 stat if he qualified — would mean Florida’s offense lining up for fewer fourth downs.

The fixes for some of these woes would seem simple: Florida should take out far, far fewer kickoffs, and maybe consider lowering that number to zero for a while; replacing Mihalek with Trey Smack on kickoffs seemed to help against Eastern Washington, as Smack booted several touchbacks and Florida allowed just 30 yards on two returns; fair-catching most punts rather than risking muffs like the one Xzavier Henderson had against Eastern Washington at least eliminates most of the risks in that regard.

But if they really are that simple, and amount mostly to coaches giving consistent directions and players obeying that guidance why aren’t they being immediately instituted? Your guess being as good as mine makes me think the staff needs to start making more annoying noises — maybe it’s only once the basics have been mastered that Florida’s special teams can start changing the game.

Florida is a rebuild, and Billy Napier is rebuilding

This might be the most important truth other than the one about Richardson: Florida isn’t close to where it likely must be to compete for championships, and Napier is aware of that.

The best evidence we have for the former is obvious: Two losses, and to teams that will probably not be in the College Football Playoff. But the best evidence for the latter is how Napier handled Florida’s first two wins, by repeatedly suggesting that Florida had a lot to work on after the triumph over Utah and doing a fair bit of don’t-be-glum cheerleading after the USF game. Managing fan expectations is a task that is mostly beyond any coach’s grasp, but managing team expectations is almost entirely on coaches, and the fine details of that can be the difference between a team getting up for big games but overlooking underwhelming foes — sounds familiar, that — and a team performing to its standards week in and week out.

The great teams in college football right now have reached that latter realm, for the most part, and Napier has clearly signaled his interest in getting there with the Gators. How he does that — or doesn’t — will be fascinating. But nothing he’s done suggests that he is unaware of this team’s weaknesses or has mistakenly measured the distance from here to the mountaintop.

That’s the good part of this truth. The bad part? Florida could well go 6-6, get clobbered by Georgia, and lose to Florida State in a way that cedes a lot of shine to the Seminoles.

I wouldn’t blame Napier — who is still mostly coaching Dan Mullen’s players, and can currently count as his impact newcomers a very good offensive lineman and a receiver whose talents this offense has yet to fully unlocking — for all that much of 2022’s results, but time has taught me that I am also (far) more forgiving and patient than most Florida fans. While avoiding a losing record would be somewhat impressive to me, I think it would register as somewhat underwhelming to many — and at a time when big-money boosters’ backing of pseudo-affiliated NIL collectives seems quite important, a couple wins could be the difference between keeping well-heeled benefactors wheeling and dealing and no longer being able to sell six-figure endorsement opportunities.

That these are discussions at all, though, is reflective of where Florida currently sits in the cycle of competitiveness. Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State have transcended these sorts of worries — for the most part, anyway — and are dealing more with maintenance of what has been built than blueprints for progress. (And the downside to that is a bad season doing a lot to damage perception: Clemson having an off year last year and being a bit of an afterthought this year as a result is fine evidence of that.)

I trust that Napier realizes all this, because he’s been open and transparent about that. I can’t really imagine him deviating from the path he’s trying to walk, either.

But that road looks long.