GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Well, considering how many of their SEC brethren came up on the wrong side of the scoreboard in Week 1, the Florida Gators can at least feel good that they found a way to win Saturday night.
Albeit in less-than-convincing fashion against a Massachusetts team that is now just 8-41 as an FBS member.
The season opener was either a sluggish warm-up performance or an indicator of significant concerns, but that will become clearer this week as the Gators host Kentucky in their SEC opener at The Swamp.
Florida coach Jim McElwain offered a strong critique of his team after that game and no doubt has spent the first part of the week addressing those issues.
Here are five story lines to monitor for the Gators in Week 2:
1. More in store for the offense?
There is every reason to believe the Florida defense will be a force again this fall, but for the Gators to build on their strong first season under McElwain and staff, they’re going to need a whole lot more on the offensive side.
There was plenty of optimism in the preseason that the offense was indeed equipped to take that step forward, but the Gators’ performance Saturday night didn’t really validate those hopes.
That said, it was just one game. It looked like the Florida coaches went with a vanilla game plan so as to not tip their hand before the Kentucky game. It’s reasonable to expect that the Gators will be more aggressive Saturday than the plodding offense that showed up against UMass.
New starting quarterback Luke Del Rio looked comfortable in his first collegiate start, completing 29-of-44 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
But this is the week the Gators need to turn it on, as they face a Wildcats team that on Saturday gave up 554 yards to Southern Mississippi in a 44-35 loss.
It would seem a prime opportunity to see what this Florida offense can really do, while another lackluster performance no doubt would heighten concerns.
2. Message received by the offensive line?
As the offensive line goes, so goes the Florida offense.
Much of the blame for the Gators’ 2015 offensive struggles was pinned on shaky quarterback play down the stretch and a young offensive line learning along the way.
With Del Rio expected to allay the quarterback concerns, the onus is squarely on the line to play better. While Florida gave up only one sack in the opener, Del Rio faced a good amount of pressure and was chased from the pocket a number of times.
The bigger issue for McElwain, though, was the lack of energy he saw from the unit. He called out the offensive line for “moping” between plays and being sluggish to get set and ready to snap the ball. That’s not a positive review from the first game when everybody is supposed to be fired up to finally face live competition.
There’s no doubt the coaches have emphasized that point in practice this week, so it will be interesting to see how the unit responds.
3. 29 straight, but not so easy past two years
Florida has won the last 29 meetings with Kentucky, which ranks as the fourth-longest streak in the country for a series that is played annually.
And yet, that streak has looked to be in jeopardy the past two seasons.
When Kentucky last visited The Swamp in 2014, the Wildcats forced overtime on a 51-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal with 3:52 remaining. Florida ultimately won in overtime, 36-30.
And last fall, Florida held on for a narrow 14-9 win in Lexington, Ky., while being shut out in the second half.
McElwain has made a point to remind his players of all of that this week.
“Last year, we had to fight our tails off there to get a win, and I’m sure they’re going to take a look at this tape and come in here and take a look at us the last whatever, three games of the season a year ago, and say, ‘You know, we can beat these guys.’ I’m sure that’s what Kentucky will do,” he said after the season opener. “And you know what, we haven’t given them any reason not to think that.”
4. Replacing Dre Massey
After a month of steady preseason hype for junior college newcomer Dre Massey, the speedy slot receiver/kick returner/jack-of-all-trades went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the first game.
It’s a major blow for both Massey and the Gators, who planned to use him in a variety of ways.
Florida fans won’t quite know what they’re missing as Massey was injured on the opening kickoff Saturday night and did not have any passes thrown his way while trying to gut through the injury the rest of the half. But he was viewed as one of the Gators’ top offensive weapons, and they’ll need somebody to emerge as a viable third receiving option behind sophomore Antonio Callaway and junior Brandon Powell.
Who could that be? Junior C.J. Worton, who has been sidelined for a few weeks with a high-ankle sprain, may get a chance to return this week if he continues to progress. Also, touted true freshmen Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells will be active after missing time with some combination of suspension and hamstring issues. They join a group of promising young receivers that includes fellow true freshmen Josh Hammond (5 catches for 38 yards Saturday night) and Freddie Swain (2-11).
5. Not a tease: Jalen Tabor makes season debut
Star cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor returns to action after serving a one-game suspension to start the season.
And he’s back just in time to face a Kentucky offense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS last season in throwing 16 interceptions in 12 games.
Nobody brings more star power to the Florida defense than Tabor, and there’s no doubt the junior would like to make a quick impression after tallying 4 interceptions in 2015.
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.