A 6-0 start and the inside track at the SEC East crown. Who predicted Florida to start the Jim McElwain era like this?
The Gators continued to prove people wrong in a 21-3 road win over back-to-back SEC East champs Missouri on Saturday. We learn more and more about the Gators with every game that passes.
What did we learn this week?
1. Defense, defense, defense: How good is Florida’s defense? Really good. The unit continues to impress, holding Missouri to just three points and 257 total yards Saturday. The Gators have held their opponent to 13 points or less in four of their six games this season. In addition, Florida has forced 13 turnovers, which is good for about two per game. The defensive line can get pressure with four rushers and the secondary is as deep as it gets. All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves gets most of the attention, but cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson make it one of the deepest position groups on the team. This defense is elite. What does elite mean? The unit is good enough to keep the team in every game it plays.
2. Offense still needs work: Jim McElwain has refused to praise the offense this season, even after impressive performances. Now, we see why. Florida’s offense is definitely improved, but it’s still a work in progress. Take away the Gators’ two scoring drives that accounted for 157 total yards in the first quarter, and Florida recorded 180 total yards the rest of the game. On top of that, the Gators accumulated 92 yards in the second half. With an inexperienced quarterback, offensive line and group of receivers, inconsistent play is part of the process. But the positive takeaway is that the Gators avoided turnovers against the Tigers. In fact, the Gators haven’t committed a turnover over the past 10 quarters. That’s a sign of progress.
3. Kicking is a problem: Starting kicker Austin Hardin wasn’t great when he was healthy, but backup Jorge Powell hasn’t been much better. Powell was shaky, missing his only field goal attempt against Missouri. He also booted a kickoff out of bounds against the Tigers. It seems like McElwain has even lost a little trust in his kickers, as he opted for a fake field goal instead of going for a 40-yard field goal with a 21-3 lead early in the fourth quarter. Even if Hardin returns from his leg injury, the problem won’t be fixed. Hardin made just 3-of-6 field goal attempts over the first three games of the season before his injury. The kicking issues haven’t come back to haunt Florida yet, but it will put the Gators at a disadvantage in close games.
4. Healthy Gators: This is mostly luck, but the Gators have found a way to stay relatively healthy this season. Florida is halfway through the regular season and it has been able to avoid serious injuries to its major contributors. Linebacker Alex Anzalone (shoulder) is the only starter who has missed extended time so far and he’s expected to return at some point this season. With a lack of depth on the Gators’ offensive line and running back positions, both groups can’t afford to lose any players and they haven’t so far. Health is definitely a factor in winning and losing, and it’s helping Florida this season.
5. Inside track at SEC East crown: I’m not sure many predicted this, but the Gators have a good chance at making their first appearance in the SEC championship game this season for the first time since 2009. Florida is the only undefeated team in the SEC East. Kentucky is the closest to the Gators in the standings as the only other team in the division with one conference loss, but Florida owns the tiebreaker with a win over the Wildcats earlier this season. Georgia and Tennessee were the preseason favorites to win the division, but both already have two conference losses. If the Gators continue to prove everybody wrong, they will find themselves playing for the SEC title after being picked by the media to finish fifth in the SEC East.