This week's edition of the Opponent Blogger Q&A series features an excellent correspondence with Richard Johnson, the assistant sports editor of the Independent Florida Alligator and UF correspondent for the Florida Times-Union. We talk Will Muschamp's successor, Treon Harris, and the keys to a Florida upset at Doak on Saturday.
TN: A disappointing 2014 campaign for the Gators has resulted in Will Muschamp's firing, which leads to the obvious starting question of what the future looks like for Florida football. While I'm not necessarily asking you to predict who UF's next coach will be, I'd like to know if you think he'll fit a certain mold. Will the Gators be hesitant to hire a current coordinator? Will the next coach be offensive-minded in approach?
RJ: I think Jeremy Foley purposefully left some ambiguity in his statement when saying that the new head coach has to have a track record of offensive success. I think that the new coach probably will be an offensive mind, but offensive success opens the door to guys like Gary Patterson and Doc Holliday. Not saying those are names UF is considering, just giving a mold for the type of guy UF can pick, maybe he is a defensive mind, but has shown that he can stay out of the way of his offense and let it do its thing.
I think any hesitation about a current coordinator is something that comes from the fans, and quite frankly I think they need to get over it. If a coordinator is the guy then a coordinator is the guy. Yes, I know it hasn't worked the two times Foley's done it (Zook and Muschamp) but that doesn't mean it can't and I'd ask Florida fans to be open to that possibility. If a defensive coach does get hired perhaps he will come as a package deal with a coordinator who has a proven track record of offensive success, kinda like the Charlie Weis thing, but with an OC that can actually coach.
TN: Treon Harris took over for Jeff Driskel after a lack of improvement out of the latter this season and has seen some success as a true freshman. What does Harris bring to the table for the Gator offense, and what will he need to do to give Florida a chance to beat the ‘Noles in Tallahassee?
RJ: The main thing Harris does better than Driskel is throw the deep ball, above all else. His accuracy with the deep ball I think allows Florida to be a little less tight (key word "little") with playcalling. Harris really just needs to hold onto the ball. They're not asking him to really be Danny Wuerffell out there, he still is asked to be a game manager, but just a little bit less so than Driskel was.
He just needs to stay within himself and not let the moment get too big for him, and I'm yet to see him look truly rattled in a game he's started - granted, he wasn't asked to do much of anything against Georgia or South Carolina and Vanderbilt/Eastern Kentucky aren't exactly the '85 Bears.
He's got a knee contusion that may slow him just a tick in the running game but I'm not expecting it to be by a lot, he'll still start and do what he's asked to do. If he is taking the bulk of the carries against FSU though, UF is in trouble, it really can't have him get hurt, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said as much Tuesday.
"You know Jeff did a good job you know I really see his role being what it's been hopefully Treon goes out there and stays healthy and makes plays and we can go the distance with him."
TN: The outlier for the Gator offense, ranked 80th by F/+ to date, was a thrashing of the 23rd ranked Georgia defense on the ground. The Dawgs and the ‘Noles are similar schematically, and the Seminoles currently rank 20th on defense. What allowed Florida to have such success against Georgia, and do you see the Gators being able to replicate that performance on Saturday?
RJ: We live in a country where we put a man on the moon multiple times, but I don't think there's anyone alive that can give a quantifiable explanation for how Florida did what it did to Georgia. It's narrative-y and cliché, but they just wanted it more against the Bulldogs. They won a game passing six times. Six.
I think Bud hit on it in a post he had Tuesday about FSU watching Georgia tape. When the Seminole coaches turn it on, they'll see Florida running power left and right until kingdom come, and Georgia just not wanting it enough to set the edge with conviction and just letting Florida run all over them. Bud even made the point that it got a Georgia defender benched the next game because the performance was so poor. FSU is going to score, which until late in the game, Georgia wasn't really able to do. UGA wasn't able to force UF to get out of what it was doing because the Bulldogs weren't matching the Gators score for score. Florida will have to pass in this game, or the Seminoles will just boat race them.
TN: The Florida defense sits at 18th in the country to date and features some excellent individual players. In which match-ups against the Seminole offense are you confident with this group, and which concern you?
RJ: Vernon Hargreaves could be matched up against Randy Moss and I think he'd hold his own, the guy is just a phenomenal football player. They say they won't have him shadow Rashad Greene, I'm not sure how much I believe that, honestly. I do think Jameis Winston, who relies on Greene a little too much is going to test Hargreaves when he's on Greene and if he's not careful Hargreaves will get an interception out of it. Hargreaves played Amari Cooper about a well as you could have expected, but Cooper still got his because he's a cheat code (and on his biggest receptions he wasn't even being covered by Hargreaves). Greene is fantastic, consistently so, but he's not Cooper.
Rod Johnson is an impressive left tackle but I don't think he's faced an edge rusher like Dante Fowler yet and that's going to present issues for a young player. Sure, he may hold his own most of the afternoon, but he won't the whole day, and that's going to be an issue. I also like Jon Bullard against the interior of FSU's offensive line. He's a player that's really come along this year on the inside as a player with a lot of quickness at that position that may challenge and FSU line that was shaken up and has more size now on the interior. I know FSU's o-line is playing much better in its last two or three games, but I'm not ready to buy in 100%, Florida's d-line when it's on can really play.
Florida is also really adept at getting the ball off opponents. It seems every game UF has a punchout from behind or a strip while the offensive player is stood up in a gang tackle situation. If FSU has any players that are particularly fumble-prone that's going to be an issue.
The obvious mismatch for Florida's defense as it is for most of FSU's opponents is Nick O'leary. The age old conundrum presents itself for UF's defense: I question how well linebackers Antonio Morrison and Mike Taylor can hang with him if they take him up the seam, but Florida plays a lot of nickel. I question how well a nickel can stay on him if he decides to get physical with him.
The Noles would be wise to test the Gators deep in the middle with safeties that are iffy in coverage with numerous breakdowns aside from Hargreaves thanks to inexperience and ineptness. Safety Keanu Neal levels some big hits, but he's not that sound of a tackler fundamentally on a consistent basis and is coming off of a high ankle injury although he did play against Eastern Kentucky.
I also want to see what Treon Harris is able to do against Florida State's secondary. He hasn't faced one that has the individual talents of PJ Williams and Jalen Ramsey specifically and he is still yet to be asked to actually go win the game with his arm (don't count Tennessee, the running game brought UF back when Harris was inserted into the game). The windows he's going to be throwing into aren't going to be as big and they'll close much faster than he's used to, how will he handle it?
And these last two things may not be individual matchups, but for a Florida State team that many get down on for starting slow, it may have found the perfect opponent to cancel that out. UF's defense has been especially slow starting. Since its last bye week, and excluding Eastern Kentucky, the Gators have averaged 142 yards allowed in the first quarters and 208.7 in all the remaining ones combined, including the overtime period against South Carolina.
Jameis and FSU have herculean third and long efforts, Florida has inexplicably given up 7-18 third downs of 15+, it's an insane stat for a defense that talented. UF also needs to find a way to stay on the field on third down on offense. The Gators are 100th in the nation in third down conversions on offense. They've had higher than a 35% conversion rate five times. Two came in blowouts against Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky, another came in a pretty complete victory over Vanderbilt. Another came against Missouri, in a game played largely in garbage time situations, and the fifth came in the inexplicable Georgia game. That's really bad.
TN: How have Florida's special teams fared to date? Are there any unmentioned players you'll have your eye on as key impact guys for the Gators?
RJ: Florida's offense has often needed help in the Will Muschamp era, and in a perfect world that help would come from a punt return game that could set the team up on the plus side of the field more often than not. In the past three seasons, that has not been the case. This question is actually pretty timely because I looked this up today for a story I was writing on UF's return teams.
The NCAA ranks individual punt returners as long as they meet the criteria of averaging 1.2 returns per game in 75% of the games their team has played. In 2011 they ranked 56 players, in 2012 they ranked 75 and in 2013 they ranked 66. Florida did not have a returner ranked in any of those years.
This year is different, Andre Debose is ranked fifth in the country in yards per return and has come through for Florida pretty consistently this season, UF will need him to do so again Saurday against a Florida State team that ranks 61st in punt return yardage allowed on average. Debose is not much of a threat horizontally, it's more north-south top end speed with him, the Noles must stay in their lanes on protection or he'll take it the distance.
Frankie Velez and Austin Hardin are pretty solid in the kicking game, not as shaky as they were last season. They've only missed three this year, two of them came against Kentucky and the other was a low trajectory short yardage kick that got blocked against South Carolina.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. What's the blueprint to a Gator upset in Doak, and will they carry it out to success?
RJ: Florida's going to get a couple turnovers, I feel pretty safe saying that especially with the way Winston has played this year, but UF has to find a way to get turnovers late in the second half, especially if the game is close or FSU's making another trademark comeback. As far as I can tell, once the Noles get it going, nobody's been able to stop them.
On offense, Florida's going to run and it is going to have success doing so especially up the middle with Max Garcia at center anchoring the offensive line, but this team cannot waste big play chances, they just can't. If they go deep it has to be a completion, getting behind the down schedule for UF isn't a good thing.
The Gators also have to get points whenever they're on the plus side of the 50, I think they can get by with 3s in some places instead of 7s because of their defense but they have to keep scoring late into the game. UF doesn't really have a red zone scoring problem, they score 92% of the time in that area and 59% of those scores are touchdowns, the problem is they don't get in red zone that much, only 39 times all season, that's 84th nationally.
Florida's defense is good, but Florida is not a team that's going to put up a number on the board and then be able to prevent Florida State from matching it. They have to continue to put up points to win this game.
That being said, I don't think they'll be able to. I think Florida hangs pretty tough for most of this game, but I don't think you'll ever really think that UF is going to win. A little of it may be because Florida State's won games the way it has but another is because of what we know about the Gators. The Gators may have a late score they end up covering with, in a game they should have otherwise have lost by 10-14.
Big thanks to Richard for a great Q&A! Follow him on Twitter for links to his articles and more Gator analysis.