GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators are 3-3 at the halfway mark of the season and are getting ready for the home stretch.
After starting 3-1 and perfect in conference play, the Gators trudged into their bye week fresh off back-to-back close home losses to LSU (17-16) and Texas A&M (19-17).
The top of the SEC East is still in sight — barely — and the road to a bowl game is still relatively obtainable.
Florida’s final five games are as follows: vs. No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville (Oct. 28), at Missouri (Nov. 4), at South Carolina (Nov. 11), vs. UAB (Nov. 18) and vs. Florida State (Nov. 25).
SEC Country writers Jordan McPherson and Ryan Young weigh in on the first half of the season and provide a glimpse of how they think the final five games will unfold.
Overall thoughts on first half of the season?
McPherson: The Gators have not played to the level I expected heading into the season. Granted, the nine suspensions and the injuries didn’t help, but I had this team pegged at 5-2 (4-2 after Northern Colorado was canceled) at worst heading into the bye, with losses coming against Michigan and LSU. The young defense has made strides and is starting to find its identity. The offense, on the other hand, still has a ways to go.
Young: Definitely not what I expected. I bought into the preseason confidence that the offense would be better. Yeah, Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway are gone, but I think Malik Davis has made up for Scarlett’s absence. There’s only so many carries to go around. Callaway hurts and would have made an impact, but this offense has deeper concerns. I think the Gators would be in a better position had Luke Del Rio stayed healthy. That’s the major What If for this season, in my opinion. But as it is, the offense and QB play have been major disappointments.
Midseason MVPs on both sides of the ball?
Young: Malik Davis all the way. He looks like a legitimate star already, and I shudder to think what this offense would be without him. I think he’ll enter next season recognized as one of the elite running backs in the SEC. On defense, I’ll go with Marco Wilson. The defensive ends have been awesome, but they cancel each other out when it comes to an individual honor. Wilson, meanwhile, has ranked near the top of the conference in Pro Football Focus’ advanced cornerback metrics. He needed to be good right away with the Gators’ lack of veteran options at that spot, and he’s been better than good.
McPherson: I’m going with running back Malik Davis on offense and linebacker David Reese on defense. Davis stepped in seamlessly for suspended running back Jordan Scarlett and has proven he has the potential to be a premier back in the SEC. Reese, a sophomore, leads the Gators in tackles (53), has been one of the more consistent players from that young group all season, and is serving as a valuable leader in a linebacker group that has just five players with extensive playing experience.
How would you handle the QB position?
McPherson: With Florida still needing three wins to secure a bowl game and still having an outside chance of making waves in the SEC East race, I would be doing whatever it takes to put the best team on the field. To me, that means giving Malik Zaire a chance to see what he can do while the Gators still have a chance in the East. Remove Feleipe Franks’ his two wow-factor plays — the game-winning touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland against Tennessee and the 79-yard run against Texas A&M — and his production has been minimal this season.
Young: I’m on record saying that Florida has to at least try Malik Zaire before it’s too late. This Georgia game is a chance to change the narrative of this season. Beyond that, this team could be battling just to get bowl eligible. Feleipe Franks has looked like the same limited QB every week without any signs of tangible progress. The Gators know what they’re getting with him and the last two games it wasn’t enough. If Zaire fails, fine, go back to Franks and go all in on trying to get him ready for 2018. But I don’t understand not even trying Zaire when Franks has shown through six games he can’t elevate this offense.
Expectations for final 5 games
Young: I don’t think Florida has much of a chance against Georgia, but the final four games are winnable. As long as the coaches remain content with the status quo on offense, though, the South Carolina and Florida State games are also very loseable, obviously. I think at some point a QB change is made, for one reason or another.
McPherson: It’s a tough road, no doubt, but the magic number is three for a bowl berth. That is attainable if the Gators find a semblance of a passing game and get a few key playmakers (i.e. Cleveland and Kadarius Toney) healthy. Outside of Georgia, I think Florida has a realistic chance of being competitive and possibly winning four of its final five games if the defense plays the way it has the last two weeks and the offense finds ways to move the chains. I’ve been saying that about the offense for a while now, so who knows?