After three games, the Florida Gators are still perfect with a 3-0 record.
But Florida’s performance was far from perfect in a 14-9 road win over Kentucky to open up conference play on Saturday. What did we learn from the Gators’ win over the Wildcats?
Here’s my answer:
1. Defense wins games: The offense has gotten most of the attention to start the season, but Florida’s defense showed why it’s considered one of the best in the country. Kentucky’s offense was held to 241 total yards after averaging 417 yards through its first two games. On top of that, the Gators finished with six sacks (Alex McCalister and Jonathan Bullard combined for four sacks) and two interceptions (Vernon Hargreaves and Quincy Wilson each picked a pass off). It’s not a coincidence that this marked the first game of the season that Florida’s secondary had all of its starters healthy. After Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles torched the Gators for 369 passing yards and three touchdowns in last year’s matchup, he threw for just 126 yards and no touchdowns this time. This defense is going to keep the Gators in games this season. The question is will the offense do enough to take advantage? The answer was yes on Saturday.
2. Will Grier is the favorite: I’m not sure Will Grier won the full-time starting job, but he definitely is leading the quarterback competition over Treon Harris. Coach Jim McElwain can’t deny that after Grier stayed on the field for each of Florida’s 11 offensive drives Saturday. Harris did not play in the game. But did Grier do enough to keep the job? McElwain didn’t give a concrete answer after the game. That’s not surprising as Grier was shaky at times against Kentucky, finishing 13-of-22 for 125 yards and one interception. The redshirt freshman also ran for 61 yards and a touchdown. But it’s important to note that Grier was under pressure for most of the game, which is one of the reasons he was forced to scramble for so many rushing yards. With Tennessee week upon us, I’m sure the Gators will want to stick with one guy moving forward. Grier might have already won that job.
3. Youth movement: Florida’s freshman keep impressing. It wasn’t just an early season cupcake game fluke. The Gators’ freshman class turned in another big performance against Kentucky to open up conference play. Freshman Antonio Callaway from Miami-Washington caught one pass for 34 yards and also returned a punt 37 yards. Callaway’s only catch was a beauty, snagging it with one hand as he ran up the seam. Freshman offensive lineman Fred Johnson from Royal Palm Beach High and Martez Ivey from Apopka High played on the field together as Florida’s tackles. When is the last time both of the Gators’ offensive tackles were freshmen? Freshman defensive lineman Cece Jefferson from Baker County High was a force, finishing with five tackles and half of a sack. The Gators are going to rely on these young guys to keep contributing.
4. Special teams issues: There are plenty of them. After kicker Austin Hardin missed two field goals against East Carolina last week, he had his only field goal opportunity blocked against Kentucky. Hardin has made just 3-of-6 field goal opportunities this season. The kickoff return team has not helped much either. Brandon Powell averaged just 17 yards per return against Kentucky after entering the game averaging 25.5 yards per return. Punting hasn’t necessarily been a big issue, but it hasn’t been great either. Johnny Townsend averaged 40.2 yards per punt against the Wildcats on Saturday. For a coach that values special teams and plays his best players in that phase of the game, McElwain can’t be too happy with the unit right now.
5. Tennessee week is going to be fun: There will be plenty of buzz surrounding Saturday’s matchup between Florida and Tennessee in the Swamp. Who would have thought the Gators would enter the game with the better record? The Volunteers enter with a 2-1 record after losing to Oklahoma in double overtime on Sept. 12. The Gators enter with a 3-0 record and a chance to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. There’s a streak that comes with this matchup, too. Florida has earned 10 consecutive victories over Tennessee. The last time the Volunteers beat the Gators was in 2004. If that streak holds on Saturday, Florida will be off to a surprisingly good start.