Twenty bucks to the first person to confidently proclaim what exactly he or she thinks they’re in for Saturday when Florida visits Arkansas.
The Razorbacks are lights-out offensively one game, then dead as, well, dead, the next. Defensively, they stop the pass with some skill, but they can’t seem to slow down anyone on the ground. Special teams have been a mixed bag, what with the best punter in the conference and zero return game.
Florida’s defense on the other hand, looks stunning. It’s No. 2 in the nation in limiting scoring and stopping the run. The offense is middle-of-the-SEC-pack. Florida’s done all this against such powers like North Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The only solid team the Gators have played this year, Tennessee, beat them by 10 points.
Somehow, somewhere, there must be some concrete edge, though, for one of the teams. Let’s look at it.
Luke Del Rio was good for the first three games of the year. Of course, those opponents were the aforementioned teams of North Texas, UMass and also Kentucky. Then he got hurt, missed two, and has thrown 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions since returning. He threw for just 131 yards last week against a Georgia team that’s just ‘meh’ in passing defense in the SEC. Arkansas’ defense is good. Del Rio would have to return to early-season form to make an impact against the Razorbacks’ secondary.
Austin Allen, in the meantime, has been excellent every game this season, except two. The season-opener against Louisiana Tech left something to be desired (it was his first career start) and last time out against Auburn left him battered and bruised. He’s supposedly fully healed from the beatdown the Tigers put on him, which is important against the best set of cornerbacks in the SEC. Arkansas is a team that needs to pass to open the run, instead of vice versa.
Edge: Arkansas, easy.
Florida rolls a two-headed attack for the most part. Jordan Scarlett and LaMichel Perine provide the punch. Mostly, it’s been a pillowed-punch, as the two have combined for fewer than 800 yards this year. Throw in third running back Mark Thompson and it’s out around 1,000. Still, running the ball isn’t what Florida does especially well. More like just good enough to keep teams honest.
The Razorbacks counter with less depth, but more talent. Rawleigh Williams III remains one of the better backs in the SEC and Devwah Whaley has shown he can be competent, with flashes of game-breaking, behind him. Still, Arkansas is a team that’s just 12th in the SEC in rushing yards (which is behind Florida) and tied for last in rushing touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t because Williams and Whaley struggle, though, so they get the nod in a vacuum.
Florida was supposed to have a star at wide receiver. And while Antonio Callaway has been good, and is probably better than the numbers he’s put up, the statistics haven’t backed up the preseason proclamation. Still, his 73 yards per game are nearly double that of anyone else on the team (it’s also third in the SEC) and he remains a danger in space. Brandon Powell is opposite him and has just one fewer catch, 27 to 26. De’Andre Goolsby has more catches and more yards at tight end than Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle, but isn’t the red-zone threat. It’s a decent unit. Not a great one.
The crew Arkansas brings to the table, however, is a great one. Drew Morgan is top five in the SEC in receptions. Keon Hatcher is top six in touchdowns. Jared Cornelius is third in yards-per-catch. And Sprinkle is behind only Ole Miss’ Evan Engram in scores by a tight end. They allow Allen to spread the ball and generally assault the back seven. Florida, though, provides the stiffest test they’ll face this year back there, Alabama included.
Martez Ivey is the reigning SEC Lineman of the Week. Unfortunately for Florida, that’s about all the good news their line has had this season. Florida has taken a beating for inefficient ground game. It has not, however, had trouble protecting its quarterback. The unit’s nine sacks allowed is second best in the SEC. Two of those came in the Tennessee loss — the only team with what could be termed a good defensive line. Definitely TBD here.
Arkansas’ isn’t any better. The front five nearly got Austin Allen hurt badly last time out against Auburn, a common theme for most of the games this season. Frank Ragnow, the center, was named to the Pro Football Focus Dream Team, at least, but it makes you wonder how bad the offensive line would be without him.
They aren’t especially attacking. They aren’t overly big or overly fast. They’re just good. They’d have to be to have the No. 9 rushing defense in the nation, which starts up front. Jabari Zuniga, a freshman, is the closest thing to a star in a group that is largely unheralded individually. Zuniga leads the team in sacks and tackles for-loss. Caleb Brantley can also disrupt things in the middle. They keep up what they’ve done and Allen could be in for a long afternoon.
Arkansas is the reverse of Florida. There is individual talent along the line, but they just haven’t been able to get cohesion. Deatrich Wise Jr. is still an early-round NFL talent. Jeremiah Ledbetter has put himself in the draft conversation. McTelvin Agim remains an athletic freak. At some point it feels like, even if just for one game, things will come together. Still, it’s the second worst rush defense in the conference and a unit with just two sacks in four SEC games, both against Ole Miss.
Jarrad Davis is one of the overlooked linebackers in the SEC. In a league loaded with individual talent, Davis goes largely unrecognized in the college game. And he’s still a projected first-round pick. He can cover, tackle and get to the quarterback. Alex Anzalone is a prototype third-team All-SEC guy. He isn’t quite as good as Davis and the other elites in the league, but he’s also just barely a step behind. This is the heart of the Florida defense, coached, coincidentally, by former Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon.
No one has been able to fill the void left by Dre Greenlaw’s injury. Brooks Ellis is trying valliantly, but it appears teams have figured out he’s a step slow and have taken advantage of that. As Arkansas plays only two linebackers at a time more often than that, that leaves a big gap in the second level of the defense. Ellis can tackle if he gets his hands on the ball-carrier. But everyone else who has stepped in has struggled to find themselves in the right position.
Edge: Florida, easily
Jalen Tabor, for my money, is the best cornerback in the nation. And yes, I’m aware of the gentleman up at Michigan. That makes two straight years the Gators have had the best player at the position in college football. Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye are playmakers back there, too. Ball hawks and tacklers and cover guys, Florida has the second best pass defense in the nation for good reason.
Arkansas is torn. Its cornerbacks are good, mostly. They cover well, being the fourth-best pass defense in the country. But a lot has been made about Arkansas keeping its edge, and well, the secondary guys are largely responsible for a lot of that. More is needed at safety, where Santos Ramirez and Josh Liddell have had disappointing seasons.
The only punter who can state a claim for being the SEC’s best besides Arkansas’ Toby Baker is Florida’s Johnny Townsend. The two have the same number of punts this season, but Townsend carries a slightly better yards-per-punt average. Kicker Eddy Pineiro has 10 field goals this season and is competent. Florida does less than nothing in the punt return game (dead last in the SEC at fewer than four yards a return).
Baker might be the best player on the roster this season. He can change a game with his punts. Adam McFain has held down the kicking job for a couple weeks, including booting a 50-plus-yard field goal against Auburn, the Razorbacks’ only highlight. The return game is negligible.