1. For starters, any updates on the status of Florida's group of suspended players and whether there is any chance of some availability this week?
I’m not a lawyer, but I think I have this much correct. Gainesville police have filed sworn complaints against all of the suspended players. Seven of them have two third-degree felony counts against them each and the other two have a lot more than that. The state attorney’s office is now deciding on who will get charges and who will get pre-trial diversion. That can be a long process.
In short, there’s no chance any of them will play this week, and it looks probable that none will play at all this year. Between the suspensions and health issues, Florida is down to roughly 70 scholarship players, give or take.
2. Speaking of availability, any word on Tyrie Cleveland after the ankle injury on Saturday?
Jim McElwain announced on Monday that Cleveland has a high ankle sprain and likely will be out for the LSU game. It’s a big blow to the pass attack because he’s the only receiver to consistently get separation on deep routes. There’s a reason why he was the one who caught the deep heaves against Tennessee and Vandy. With him out and Antonio Callaway probably never going to take a snap for UF again, the Gators are down their two best receivers. They will now have to lean on speedy slot guys and some outside receivers who would seem to be mostly just possession-type guys.
3. After last week's performance against Vanderbilt, is it safe to assume that Felipe Franks has locked down the starting quarterback position for Florida?
Franks does have the starting spot locked down because Luke Del Rio is now out for the year with a collar bone injury he sustained against Vandy. Del Rio had taken the job back from Franks in the Kentucky game, but that’s over now. Malik Zaire looked lost in his quarter and a half against Michigan, which makes sense considering he’d only been on campus for about two months. Florida also tried to run an entirely different offense with him than what Franks and Del Rio do because their skill sets are so dissimilar. The team clearly had less practice running that stuff, so Zaire wasn’t the only one seeming out of sorts.
Del Rio is out for the year and Kyle Trask, the redshirt freshman Franks beat out in the spring competition, is also gone for the year after foot surgery. That leaves Franks out in front by a mile with Zaire the backup and a true freshman who’s supposed to redshirt this year as the emergency third stringer.
The game hasn’t slowed down entirely for Franks yet. He’s late on passes a few times a game and is lucky to have only thrown one pick so far. Still, he has the biggest upside of anyone on the roster. Once the game does slow down for him and he can do more than one read-checkdown-scramble, he’ll be a really good one.
4. On the defensive side of the ball, Florida seems to have really fallen off. Jut a question of personnel losses?
A lot of it is personnel losses. The line has some depth and experience, but the rest is fairly dicey.
The linebackers are all second-year players except for a senior former walk on who, while not short on heart and effort, is a former walk on. They only play about five total and lack depth with two freshman suspended and a third out hurt. They are decent enough in run coverage, though not always, and no one appears to know what he’s doing in pass coverage a lot of the time.
The secondary only has two former Muschamp recruits left. While Duke Dawson and Nick Washington are good, if they were as good as the other Muschamp secondary recruits who are already in the NFL, they’d also be in the NFL. Sophomore Chauncey Gardner also is back after looking good late last year, and it seems in the Vandy game that he’s finally remembered how to tackle. Most of the rest of the rotation is true freshmen, and it’s always an adventure with true freshmen in the backfield. Marco Wilson, brother of former Gator and now-NFL corner Quincy, is the best of the bunch.
Some of it also is a difference with Randy Shannon versus the departed Geoff Collins. Collins was more creative than is Shannon, who prefers to keep things straightforward. The youth may be a reason why they’re relatively vanilla so much, but they also rarely blitz. Shannon’s not terrible, but he’s probably not as good as Collins was.
5. Jim McElwain has had the best start to his tenure of any SEC coach in recent history, in terms of record. And yet there still seems to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction from Gator fans. How real is that, and do you think that catches up to him?
I wrote about this a bit after the Kentucky game. The problem is that when McElwain defeats lesser competition, it often can be too close of a game. He’s 9-1 in one-score finishes, but six of the wins are over teams he should’ve beaten by a lot more. When he’s gone up against elite competition, the game is rarely close. His two losses each to Michigan and Florida State were blowouts. His first SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama was by 14 and the second was by 38.
Beyond that, Florida fans love offense. The offense has not been much better under McElwain than it was under Muschamp, and Mac was supposed to be able to fix that. There are a million reasons why it’s still been bad, some McElwain’s fault and some not, but Gator fans would rather win 48-42 than 13-7.
He could find himself in a Mark Richt-like place down the road where winning nine or ten games isn’t enough without any hardware to go with it. And even then, he keeps winning the East where Richt did not. With recruiting picking up late in the 2017 cycle and looking great for the 2018 and 2019 cycles, he may have a roster as talented as the Muschamp teams were in a couple of years. As he’s a better coach than Muschamp was at Florida, he’ll likely be around a while.
6. Best guess on how this all turns out on Saturday?
It will probably be higher scoring than last year’s game because both defenses have fallen off from where they were in 2016. Matt Canada should be able to use misdirection and motion to get receivers open, particularly against the linebackers. Florida’s offense will lean on the run since they’ve discovered they have a pretty good back in true freshman Malik Davis. The UF offensive line isn’t as good as the coaches thought it was in fall camp, but it should be able to hold its own on Saturday.
The key, just like last year, will be finishing drives. Both teams are about the same in red zone defense, and they’re good but not great. Florida has scored on 100% of its red zone chances, though, while LSU has only scored on 73% (ignoring the Chattanooga game). Now, LSU gets almost two more red zone trips than UF does per game, and that will probably bear out with how bend-and-try-not-to-break the Gator defense is. Whichever team underperforms its current rate of finishing drives will go home with the L.