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Playing Nice — Florida

We talk with long-time Florida blogger David Wunderlich about how the Gators are looking to date.

NCAA Football: Florida at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

1. Well, things looked pretty dire with the Kentucky streak ending, but Florida’s won a pair of nice road games since, including a nice win last week in Starkville. What’s the confidence level right now in this team?

The confidence level is rising, that’s for sure. There were real questions about whether Florida was even going to get to a bowl after losing to Kentucky, but that’s been reassessed now that the Wildcats look like the second-best team in the East. It still stings because the loss broke the streak, but there’s no shame in losing to this UK team. If you exclude Kentucky’s fluky defensive touchdown on the last play of the game, the Gators lost 21-16. That’s not that bad, and even with the weird TD Florida has come the closest of anyone against the Wildcats so far.

The biggest thing that has restored confidence is good game plans the last two weeks. The plan for Mississippi State was the best, which makes sense considering Mullen built the roster in Starkville. Florida played to its strengths and hid its weaknesses masterfully in that one, but the margin of victory of seven shows you that could only go so far.

Beyond that, a key defensive player who was out against Kentucky has returned in each successive game since — buck Cece Jefferson (suspended against UK), LB David Reese (injured), and S Shawn Davis (injured) — and each has shown his worth. They’re improving on both sides of the ball as they get used to the new schemes, but the defense is getting better as it gets its top players back.

2. Feliepe Franks has an impressive 12 touchdowns, but his completion rate and yards per attempt are still a little low. What are his strengths and weaknesses as a player?

Franks’s completion rate is low in part because of ten drops on the season. Eliminate those and he’s at 62% (up from 57%) with a YPA of 8.3 (up from 7.6), which are totally fine for what Florida needs from him. Most of the drops have come from tight ends and running back Jordan Scarlett.

Franks is having a better time in Mullen’s pass game because he’s not being asked to do quite as much. He still struggles with being late with throws at times though, which shows that he’s still thinking too much and not reacting. He also still misses open receivers; just about every game you’ll see an open receiver running upfield waving his hand because he doesn’t trust Franks to find him otherwise.

Even so, Franks is more than serviceable in the run game and usually makes the right read on option plays. He is getting pretty good at knowing when he can trust his strong arm to fit a throw into a tight window and when to hold off. He has issues in each game, but it’s never the same in consecutive ones. He fixes the last set, but as he’s not entirely there yet as a player, other issues will crop up. We’ve not yet seen his ceiling, which is encouraging from a big picture sense, but it also makes one wonder if we ever will.

3. The offense looks like it’s spreading the ball around a little. Who are some names that you think could be a focus this week against LSU?

The only constants with offensive usage are Van Jefferson being at or near the top of the targets list and Scarlett being at the top for running back carries. Everything else varies wildly from game to game. WR Josh Hammond had three targets all year and then led the team with five against Mississippi State. Who knows?

Mullen’s strategy of doing quick swings and screen passes to receivers because he doesn’t trust his OL against a physical front will probably be repeated, though LSU has better defensive backs so it may not work as well. The big beneficiaries there were Jefferson and Trevon Grimes. The run game seems set with Scarlett and Lamical Perine, though the former has been a bit disappointing so far. True freshman RB Dameon Pierce has excelled and therefore seen his role grow in each game. He may get a shot.

The one guy to watch is Kadarius Toney. He threw Florida’s only touchdown against MSU and is a threat receiving and running. He’s yet to have a game where he’s the featured guy, but his quickness and elusiveness mean it’s only a matter of time. Maybe when facing LSU’s defensive speed it’ll be his chance get more than four touches in a game.

4. On defense, the Gators struggled versus the run early, but have held down Tennessee and Mississippi State in recent weeks. What’s been working and do you expect this improvement to continue?

Against Kentucky, Florida tried using its base nickel package to stop the run and put a safety in the box at the linebacker level to make seven. It went miserably, as Kentucky road graded the smaller front seven and forced a ton of missed tackles. Since then Todd Grantham has been relying more on a true 3-4 front in obvious run situations, and it’s been much improved.

Reese’s return in the Tennessee game was also a huge boost since he’s basically never out of position against the run (unlike many other players in UF’s linebacking crew). Jefferson coming off suspension the week after Kentucky helped the run defense as well, though not as much as Reese since the other buck guys are pretty good at run defense.

I think the improvement has a chance to hold since quite a bit of it came from the return of skilled players like Reese and Jefferson rather than a scheme change that can be game planned around. Even so, LSU will be more physical than Tennessee or Mississippi State were, and Florida flunked its prior test against something tougher than those two. I can’t guarantee anything.

5. What does Florida need to do to win this, and how do you see it playing out?

Florida will have to do what it did against Mississippi State: scheme around the weakness in the middle of its offensive line and avoid giving up big plays on defense. It worked to a T in Starkville, but now LSU has the film to see what that looked like. The best case scenario for Florida probably looks very similar to that game with a comparable final score.

The worst case scenario for Florida is that the bad tackling from the Kentucky game returns in the face of LSU’s tough run game. Nick Brossette rushes for 8+ yards a carry while shedding arm tackles on every run, while Joe Burrow hits on play action against UF’s sometimes suspect pass defense as the defensive backs are increasingly called on to blitz to help with the run game.

Mullen pretty much coached a perfect game against LSU last year, so if he can repeat that, the Gators have a shot to win. I just don’t know where the team’s heads are at.

One defender said they went into the UK game going through the motions while expecting to win and that’s why they played so poorly. It sounded like an excuse at the time, but their much better performances since then lend it some credence. If they think they’re hot stuff because they shut down Mississippi State, they’ll get trucked by LSU’s run game. Franks is playing well, but a fully confident Franks is one who’s about to throw three picks in a game. I’ll say Tigers win by something like 27-20, but I can see a very wide range of possible outcomes. There is a wide space between Florida’s floor and ceiling and there’s no way to know where they’ll be at any given time.