The Florida Gators are a win over Vanderbilt away from playing in the SEC Championship game. I am not talking about the Florida basketball team. I am talking about the Florida football team. You know, the team that looked dreadful last season under Will Muschamp? Yes, that team.
Jim McElwain led the Gators to a 27-3 win over UGA on Saturday. Florida scored at the end of the first quarter and never lost control of the game after that.
But before we get to the Vanderbilt game, here are the grades Florida deserved for its performance against UGA.
Let’s be honest, the offense was not great. Quarterback Treon Harris completed eight passes and missed a bunch of easy throws. He seemed to do his best work when he scrambled outside of the pocket and his receivers deviated from their original routes.
Running back Kelvin Taylor loves playing at EverBank Field. For the second straight year, Taylor rushed for more than 100 yards. He also added two touchdowns. Freshmen backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite shined in the game as well. I still think the Jordans should play more and alleviate Taylor’s load.
Overall, the offense is a work in progress, but it got the job done.
So much can be said about the Gators’ defense on Saturday. The main thing, obviously, is that the unit forced five turnovers. Four of those were interceptions of UGA third-string quarterback Faton Bauta. The key interception came in the fourth quarter when Keanu Neal picked off a pass in the end zone to seal the game.
Florida also shut down running back Sony Michel, who had only 45 yards on 13 carries. All night, UGA could not get any push to create open lanes for its running backs. One of the reasons why UGA coach Mark Richt decided to start Bauta was his ability to run. Well, he only ran three times for four yards. That was a total failure of the game plan for the Bulldogs.
No matter how much Florida’s offense struggled, the defense bailed the team out. This unit is so exceptional that the Gators can truly compete with any team in the country.
Special teams: B-
Let’s start with the positives. The turning point of the game came on a muffed punt by UGA’s Reggie Davis. Inexplicably, Davis called for a fair catch on the Bulldogs’ 5-yard line, and then he couldn’t control the football, which led to Nick Washington recovering the fumble in the end zone at the end of the first quarter. Those points were all that UF needed.
Gators punter Johnny Townsend continues to be invaluable for Florida. He punted five times and allowed a total of -4 return yards. That’s right. You and I had more punt return yards than UGA. It’s a truly underappreciated sports position, but if you have a punter that can flip the field like Townsend can, you better show him all of the love he deserves.
Now on to the bad.
Florida cannot kick a field goal to save its life. I mean, seriously. The Gators haven’t made a field goal since the Ole Miss game on Oct. 3. Kicker Austin Hardin has missed four consecutive field goals and also had an extra point blocked Saturday. It’s an obvious confidence issue now, but Florida doesn’t have many options behind him. The Gators picked up walk-on Neil MacInnes a couple of days ago, but the last time he kicked in a meaningful appearance was four years ago. Hardin needs to get it together before the end of the season.
Despite it being an ugly win for the Gators, Florida took care of business. McElwain is easily the SEC Coach of the Year favorite right now, and he’ll definitely get some votes for the national award. What he is doing with this program in Year 1 is incredible. In my opinion, he has already overtaken Richt as the best coach in the SEC East. Richt has proven that he can’t win the big games, and his time at UGA may be coming to an end soon because of it.
The Gators just keep on winning, and boy, was this a big one. Beating a rival like UGA by 24 points is satisfying, no matter if the win was ugly or not. This is a special team, and an SEC Championship in McElwain’s first year is a legitimate possibility.