The Leap from Good to Elite; Can the Florida Gators Make the Jump?

Justin Shorter hugs Trent Whittemore after a touchdown. Photo Courtesy SEC, Credit-Kelly Chase

What will these next two weeks tell us about the Florida Gators? They’re 2-0 with potentially one of the most spectacular offenses in school history and a defense, that while loaded with veteran talent, is suspect through the first two games. If you go by rankings alone, the 4th-ranked Gators (Associated Press poll; UF is tied for third in the Coaches poll), the roadie to 21st-ranked Texas A&M followed by the homer with 17th-ranked LSU should cruise through these next two games as they set up the ultimate showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville on November 7.

But games aren’t played on paper and one or both of these games could prove to be more than just a speed bump along the way on this 10-game virus inspired gauntlet of all Southeastern Conference games. Win both and the perception nationally is that Florida is indeed a challenger for the SEC title and potentially a berth in the College Football Playoff. Lose one of the two and the Gators are still in good enough shape to win the SEC East. Lose them both and Florida can all but forget about the playoff and probably the SEC East, too.

So, much is at stake and the burning question is are the Gators ready to take that great leap forward to go from really good to elite? That’s what it is going to take to become a championship caliber team. Good teams go 8-2 and 7-3. Great teams can have a one-game hiccup and go 9-1.

Elite? To get there the Gators have to run the table. The Gators did that in the 1995 regular season only to have their national championship aspirations destroyed by a Nebraska team that most experts say is one of the two or three best teams in college football history. The Gators also ran through the 2009 regular season unbeaten only to lose to eventual national champ Alabama in the SEC title game.

Kyle Trask hugs Kadarius Toney after a touchdown. Photo Courtesy, SEC; Credit-Courtney Culbreath

This is the year that Dan Mullen was pointing towards when he took the Florida job. What he has done in the first two seasons is fairly remarkable, certainly better than expected considering he took over a team that had gone 4-7 the year before and a recruiting base that was left shaking on its foundations by the previous coaching staff. The 10-3 record in 2018 that included a kneecapping of Michigan in the Peach Bowl raised eyebrows. Last season’s 11-2 that concluded with an Orange Bowl win over Virginia was another big step forward.

The 21-5 mark with wins in New Years Six bowl games at the end of both seasons is quite an accomplishment considering Mullen did it with a patchwork of players left over from the previous staff, some strategically good transfers such as wide receivers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes and edge rusher Jonathan Greenard plus solid if not spectacular recruiting. Four of the five losses can be pegged with the quality label. In 2018 the Gators lost to a Kentucky team that won 10 games and to Georgia, which came within a whisker of knocking off Alabama in the SEC title game. The two losses in 2019 were to eventual national champ LSU in a close call in Baton Rouge and another loss to Georgia.

The two losses to Georgia are the ones that have stung the most because to make the leap from very good to elite the Gators first have to start winning the SEC East. Georgia has won the last three division titles and is the obstacle the Gators must get past to take the next step in Mullen’s plan to restore Florida to a championship-level program. As the flamboyant wrestler and passionate Gator fan Ric Flair might say, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Right now, Georgia is the man.

In Kirby Smart’s four-year tenure, he’s turned Georgia into a true national power and has recruited four- and five-star players at an astonishing rate. While Mullen’s first three recruiting classes haven’t had the spectacular acclaim as those at Georgia, he’s methodically built the Florida roster into one that is very capable of challenging the Bulldogs. For the first time since he arrived at UF, Mullen has a roster that hasn’t any real holes. In a season in which depth is more of a requirement than ever before due to Covid-19, Mullen has quality starters and the two- and three-deep are filled with players who are capable of stepping in if someone has to miss a game due to injury or the virus.

Shawn Davis celebrates a stop. Photo Courtesy, SEC; Credit-Courtney Culbreath

To dethrone Georgia, the Gators have to get to November 7 poised and ready to score a win and take charge of the SEC East but first they have to take care of business by getting past the Aggies and LSU these next two weekends. The Gators can’t win the SEC East by winning these two games since there will be six remaining on the schedule, but they can certainly lose any shot at a title so there will be real pressure for the first time. How the Gators handle pressure will go a long way toward telling us if this team is ready for prime time or heading for just another good season.

Adding to the pressure that’s on the Gators’ shoulders are the desperate situations at both Texas A&M and LSU, both 1-1 on the season. The Aggies got their doors blown off by Alabama last week while LSU was shocked by Mississippi State in the season opener. One more loss and both the Aggies and Tigers can kiss good-bye any championship dreams.

The Gators are certainly capable of winning these next two games, particularly if the defense starts playing to its potential. Neither Texas A&M or LSU seem capable of stopping Florida’s high-flying offense led by the Kyle-to-Kyle connection. Trask to Pitts might be the nation’s most lethal passing combo. Kyle Trask has thrown 10 touchdown passes in two games, six of them to Pitts. Both have gone from off the radar to serious Heisman Trophy candidates with their play but more importantly, they have become nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Throw in an emerging running game with Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis that seems ready to add a serious dimension to the offense and the Gators could take on the look of unstoppable.

Kyle Trask has thrown 10 TD's in two games. Photo Courtesy, SEC; Credit-Courtney Culbreath

Scoring points doesn’t seem like it will be a problem as long as Trask is pulling the trigger and Pitts is roaming through secondaries as the ultimate nightmare matchup. Stopping the other team from scoring? That’s what has Florida fans feeling edgy. They know teams that have to win in shootouts generally stumble at a time when they least can afford it. UF fans won’t rest easy until the defense shows it can get opponents off the field, a real problem through the first two games. Florida has allowed 15 third down conversions in 31 attempts and five fourth down conversions in seven tries. Those numbers are a huge red flag and spell trouble if they continue.

The Gators gave up 613 yards and 35 points to Ole Miss in the season opener and while they held South Carolina to just 329 yards last week, the Gamecocks ran off 83 plays and held the ball for more than 11 minutes in the fourth quarter. South Carolina didn’t have the explosive offensive plays of Ole Miss, but the Gamecocks kept plugging away and keeping the chains moving.

What the Gators need is a real leader on defense who can be a tackling machine while at the same time the traffic cop who gets everyone in the right place. Middle linebacker Ventrell Miller, who was the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after he made 15 tackles in the Ole Miss game, has the tackling part down pat but can he be another David Reese, an unparalleled leader who was like a coach on the field? Miller can’t do all the tackling but he should get some help when Jeremiah Moon is back up to full speed. Moon missed game one due to Covid-19 and out of gas by the time the fourth quarter arrived against South Carolina. If he’s at full speed, he is a versatile linebacker who can stop the run, rush the passer and play in space. Amari Burney, who was moved to linebacker (played safety last year), has yet to play with consistency, but the physical talent is there. Getting those three going would certainly improve the Florida defense enormously.

Ventrell Miller (51) has emerged as a leader of the defense. Photo Courtesy, SEC

The Gators have eight sacks in two games but the pass rush has to become more consistent to help a secondary that played the first two games minus Brad Stewart, who will be in the lineup against the Aggies at the STAR position which he will share with Marco Wilson. Brenton Cox Jr. is a terror off the edge. It only took the first half of the Ole Miss game for everyone in the SEC to see what Cox is capable of doing. He’s been doubled up and sometimes tripled up ever since. He’s gotten some help from Zacharay Carter, who won SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after the South Carolina game, but the Gators still need another serious edge rusher. Khris Bogle, who was playing at less than 100 percent against South Carolina, looks to be that guy and Moon will also make it so that teams doubling Cox will pay a severe price.

There is ample talent on the defensive side, but the Gators have yet to put a complete game together. The defense made strides against South Carolina, but the Aggies and LSU are far more potent offensively than the Gamecocks so the time to make serious improvement is now.

Get through these two games with wins and the Gators will be in excellent shape with only bottom feeder Missouri standing between them and a Jacksonville showdown with Georgia that probably will decide the SEC East championship. Win them both and the Gators truly establish themselves as potential national contenders. Win only one and the season isn’t over, but the path to the playoff becomes murkier. Lose them both and the Gators are simply a really good team for the third straight year.

There is a fine line between really good, great and elite. The path to elite starts Saturday against the Aggies.

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