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Playing Nice: Florida

Talking shop with Andy from Alligator Army

alligator army

Sorry for getting this up later than normal. I’m teaching fifth grade nowadays (well student teaching) and this week was fall break so I went home to Baton Rouge for a few days.

Anyway, it’s Florida week and previewing tonight’s game with the Gators is our pal Andy from our Florida SB Nation sister site Alligator Army.

1. There’s probably no other place to start than at head coach. Brian Kelly and Billy Napier are going to be connected for as long as both are at these two programs. How do you evaluate Napier through his first six weeks and what would constitute a successful tenure?

I think Napier’s been decent with a couple of significant edges when it comes to in-game coaching, a very good recruiter with room still to grow, and a very good program-builder who may need to be great for his tenure to be considered great.

The in-game, game-day coaching has been okay but not much more than that so far. Napier’s offensive designs leave a lot to be desired when compared with Dan Mullen, whom I think has proved out as genuinely one of the best offensive minds in football, but he’s made up for some perceived deficiencies in play-calling and design that have gotten some Florida fans clamoring for a separate offensive coordinator to help him out by being aggressive (and fearless) enough to make gains on fourth downs and in critical moments.

The recruiting has been pretty good but not quite elite, with Florida adding two more four-star defensive backs on Thursday being emblematic of that effort for me: Napier and his self-dubbed “army” of assistants have definitely raised Florida’s floor for recruiting over what was going to be a program-hampering one under Mullen, but it will likely be adding the truly program-changing recruits — like, say, five-star defensive back Cormani McClain — that pushes Florida into that tier of perennial College Football Playoff contenders, if that happens. And we’re still mostly in the realm of the hypothetical there.

But while it’s early, I do trust Napier’s ability to self-evaluate and adjust if need be — although I think him getting credit for what’s been built at Florida is a bit much. Frankly, Napier’s inherited a lot of advantages that were not even largely his doing, like Florida’s gleaming new football facilities — the advantages of which accrue to Napier despite the push for them being begun under Jim McElwain and continued mostly under Mullen, with Napier’s finishing touches probably having been a bit overblown — and the filled-out staff that probably would have been hired by any successor to Mullen that Scott Stricklin had ultimately landed on.

What he did at Louisiana — which earned the drop of -Lafayette at Alligator Army back when the Ragin’ Cajuns took Florida to the wire in 2012 — was wildly impressive, though, and I think a lot of the elements of that formula will work when applied over time in Gainesville. And if there’s a force multiplier of having orders of magnitude more support at a pre-eminent SEC school that Louisiana could never have offered, there’s a chance that even the bullish forecasts might end up underselling Florida’s future.

2. When will Gator fans think they’re officially “back”?

This depends on what “back” means, and whether Florida fans will be content with mere SEC title and Playoff contention or whether the Gators will have to reclaim the form from the peaks of the Spurrier and Meyer years in which Florida was not just a juggernaut but one that was fun as hell to watch dominate.

To use LSU as part of a metaphor: Florida fans would have loved the shit out of 2019 LSU’s rampage, and would probably have done all the same proclaiming of that team as the best in college football history — which is arguable! — but also somehow turned that into Florida not being “back” if the 2020 and 2021 LSU seasons followed it. (This is also arguable in regards to a program’s consistency being the basis for it being “back,” but I think we would really have figured out how to discredit 2019 as a fluky peak instead of celebrating the magnificence of the accomplishment. We’re good at catastrophizing.)

For me, it’s not that deep: Florida making the Playoff once and getting to something like parity with Alabama and Georgia, which seem like behemoths that will remain so for the near future, is probably “back” enough. But I think there are substantial numbers of Florida fans who won’t accept less than actually winning a national title before being fully charitable with the designation.

3. Anthony Richardson looked like a Hesiman contender in the win over Utah but hasn’t looked like the same guy (minus some stat padding against Eastern Washington) since. Where has week one Richardson gone?

He’s still around — and, man, y’all missed the Tennessee game, huh? Because he was better in that one than he was against Utah, and probably better when adjusting for opponent than he was against Eastern Washington, too.

The problem is that Week 2 and Week 3 and maybe Week 6 Richardson are all still possible outcomes for the guy, and that the utterly absurd stuff he can do on the field is about as common as the utterly atrocious mistakes he can make, with a lot of good and bad mixed in with those flabbergasting poles. As he gets more experienced and mature and comfortable in this Napier offense, I do think those bad outcomes will dwindle, but Napier and Richardson both have to be careful to not overly restrict him and risk the magic dwindling at the same time. Richardson often makes amazing plays outside of the structure of Florida’s offense and with his legs, for example, but the guess here is that there could be a lot more rolling of the pocket and keeping on run options than there has been, which would increase Richardson’s comfort and the offense’s potency.

But Florida’s probably still factoring Richardson being far and away its best quarterback into its deployment of him — rightly, I think, despite backup Jalen Kitna flashing against Eastern Washington — and I can’t really fault that preservation of a QB1 with legit NFL hopes.

4. Offensive line has been iffy at best for LSU this season. Does Florida have the personnel up front to get the Tigers off schedule?

Yes and no. Or no and yes? Florida’s best four pass-rushers are probably all above-average even for the SEC, but none is a consistent terror, with Brenton Cox’s boom-or-bust results persisting despite the best efforts of his Florida career being a fine microcosm of what’s going on up front. If Cox, Gervon Dexter, and, say, Princely Umanmielen all have good stretches, LSU could struggle for stretches — but then again, Jayden Daniels defeats pass rush with his legs all the time.

Florida figuring out a way to stop the traditional run game — and especially, uh, a counter that LSU is almost certainly not running dozens of times in this game, I hope to Tebow — with Dexter and Desmond Watson gumming up the works would be more crucial to getting LSU in disadvantageous down-and-distances, though, and I do think there’s a good chance of the Gators doing that early on before the fatigue that has been a major issue for a thin and overworked first-string defense sets in.

5. This is LSU’s first trip back to The Swamp since the shoe game. Neither team is ranked, both are sitting in the middle of the pack in the East and West divisions, and have new coaches in year one of a rebuild. With all that said, what kind of atmosphere are you expecting Saturday night?

It’s going to be crazy. None of that stuff really matters in this series, which got to be a rivalry around the late 2000s and has morphed into a much more bitter one in the wake of Hurricane Matthew and all that went with it. Add in something from the roulette wheel that determine this year’s Florida-LSU weirdness — which probably won’t involve a skeleton cat, an impromptu Mannequin Challenge, Kyle Trask throwing a scare into that 2019 team, a game-winning field goal in thick fog after a shoe throw and one of the weirdest interceptions in recent memory, or last year’s track meet, but who really knows? — and you know everyone in attendance is going to be hoping in their heart of hearts for chaos.

Plus, it’s a night game in The Swamp, which will have about 70,000 fans in attendance who want to prove that the environment is every bit as inhospitable as a night game in Tiger Stadium is. If these two teams were truly awful, maybe the atmosphere would ebb a bit, but I think intensity is the order of the day for some time to come.

6. Finally I am on the record as saying “bet the house” on Florida in both the 2020 game and the 2021 game. Do you or your readers blame me personally for the past two results? Would you triple down and bet the house AGAIN if I advised you to?

Why would we blame you personally when we can blame Marco Wilson and Todd Grantham? And I wouldn’t triple down or bet the house on this year’s result ... but the house I live in is currently uninhabitable thanks to a fire, so maybe I should?

Jokes aside, I think Florida’s offense is due for a good performance at home against an SEC team, and think Richardson carving up LSU last year in relief of Emory Jones is maybe his least-remembered bit of excellence. If Florida can contain Daniels or wring a couple of turnovers out of pressure, I could see a double-digit win — which surely means that this will instead be the sort of bloody, hypertension-inducing back-and-forth game that the last team with the ball wins by less than a touchdown. Can’t wait!