We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team-specific sites with which to work during game weeks. This week's TURKEY DAY/HATE WEEK edition of the opponent Q&A features Andy Hutchins, managing editor of Alligator Army. We discuss which wounded Gators are most likely to play against the 'Noles, offensive difficulties, and just how ugly this game might be.
TN: Safe to say that Jim McElwain's first season as the head coach in Gainesville has gone swimmingly. Obviously, y'all have to be thrilled with the 10-1 record and SEC East title. How much of this success would you attribute to a dramatic increase in team quality, and how much to what seems to be a weaker schedule thus far?
AA: I think I'd lean far more toward the weaker schedule being part of why Florida's had so many wins in 2015, but I think it's not just the schedule being "weaker" that's helped: Florida also had the good fortune of seeing some of its more talented opponents (Tennessee, Mississippi) in the span when it had Will Grier to play quarterback. Treon Harris might not help Florida win those games, and Grier might have helped Florida win at LSU.
Any dramatic increase in team quality was really on offense, and was one that coincided with Grier taking snaps. With Harris at the helm, Florida has actually looked worse on offense at times than it did in 2013 and 2014, as any marginal improvement in his play on the four QBs (including himself) who largely muddled through Will Muschamp's last two years is mostly wiped out by the performance of the Gators' offensive line.
But the offense has mostly avoided costly turnovers, with a recent uptick under Harris predictably leading to poorer results. The defense is great, as expected. And while Florida's kicking game is an offshore rig fire, the emergence of Antonio Callaway as a dangerous punt returner and steadying presence of punter Johnny Townsend have made Florida excellent in some facets of special teams. This is a better Florida team than the last two sets of Gators, though some of that is based on performances that seem unlikely to recur with Harris. I think the 2012 Gators were demonstrably much better on average, but this team is much more like those than the 2013 and 2014 versions.
TN: At the beginning of the season, the Florida offensive line looked to be a major weakness of the 2015 team. How have the Gators avoided what realistically could have been a disastrous situation up front with paper thin depth and very little experience entering the year?
AA: The truest answer is that they really haven't; they've just managed to be good enough at everything else that a line that teeters on disastrous performance in virtually every game hasn't hurt them all that much. The line can't really run block, and had its most success in pass-blocking against teams it could scheme around with quick passing. With Harris not throwing screens as well as Grier does, though, that's not what it does anymore.
Florida's managed to stay relatively healthy on the line (if we don't count losing starter and prospective best lineman Rod Johnson to career-ending spinal stenosis in the spring as an injury), which is part of what has kept the line from disintegrating, but that unit has gotten worse as its nicks and bruises have accumulated, and I think FSU (and Alabama) are going to be sea changes in terms of the talent it will face, so I'm worried.
TN: How has the Gator offense changed with Treon Harris at quarterback as opposed to Will Grier? Where do you think Harris can succeed against the FSU defense, and what do you worry about with him?
AA: It's gotten worse. A lot worse. Is that answer enough?
Harris isn't nearly as good at making quick decisions as Grier, and isn't as accurate, so the things Florida could do to defeat a pass rush as it did against Mississippi, say, just aren't in the playbook right now. Harris is probably better than Grier as a thrower in only two respects: He throws a slightly more catchable ball, especially on intermediate routes, and he's shown more proficiency on the run, hooking up with Antonio Callaway a few times on deep balls.
What Harris can do, though, is run. He's been very good on designed draws and decent on scrambles when he breaks the pocket for the purpose of running rather than extending a play, and Florida's conspicuously not run a lot of read option with Harris just yet, which has me thinking that might be a surprise installed for the Seminoles. And Harris had a decent day running against FSU last year, tallying 41 yards on nine carries.
I worry about everything else. Harris running, though, is something I think Florida can make work.
TN: The Florida defense has again been, in a word, nasty this season. However, the Gators are dealing with a litany of injuries in the defensive front seven. We heard Jim McElwain's injury report on Monday, but give us your gut feeling on who suits up for Florida on Saturday night and how effective they'll be.
AA: My gut says that everyone but maybe Alex McCalister is at least in uniform and ready to play against the Seminoles. Jonathan Bullard played hurt against Florida Atlantic; why wouldn't he play on his Senior Day? The question, really, is one of effectiveness: Will Bullard be as explosive without his knees at full strength? Will Martez Ivey or David Sharpe be as mobile as they might need to be against an athletic FSU front? I think Florida's going to be at less than full strength, but if Bullard alone is close to it, that's massive.
TN: On a related note, if you had to pick one game to win, would you choose the Florida State game, or a win over Alabama for the SEC title?
AA: While a win over Florida State's obviously at least a little more likely than one over Alabama for an SEC title, it has to be a win in Atlanta. Florida's got 34 wins over FSU; it has "just" seven SEC titles. Scarcity and rarity matter, even to the point that I'd be okay with y'all spending an offseason crowing about beating the SEC champion.
TN: How do you expect the Gators to contain Dalvin Cook, and which match-up will be key to the overall success of the Florida defense?
AA: I'm really not sure that I do. Cook's a special, special talent, the evolutionary Warrick Dunn, and about the only thing that I think will stop him from getting 100-plus yards is one of the nagging injuries that have slowed him this season cropping up.
That said: I think Florida can limit his damage to a big run and a bunch of smaller ones by forcing him to bounce outside rather than find easy money between the tackles. While Cook's speed and quickness are elite, I think Florida's team speed on defense is quite good, too, and I'd rather see runs strung out to the edge, with a few getting turned upfield for first downs, than consistent success up the middle.
If Florida's line can win individual matchups against FSU's linemen, who are mostly young and green to my eye, then I think Cook's running probably won't be fatal to the Gators.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction for this one. The Gators opened as a favorite, but the spread has since moved about a field goal to leave the ‘Noles as slight favorites. How do you see this one unfolding?
AA: I think this one's close, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's ugly in the vein of the 2011 game that everyone on both sides seems to be remembering this week. I do think Florida's likely to play angry against a team that has had the upper hand over it of late, and I think Jim McElwain might turn the dial on his aggressiveness way up, which would make for a really interesting game of strategy, but I'm not sure whether that makes up for Florida's offense being the worst major unit involved in this game by some margin.
Let's say Florida State wins, but by a 17-13 score.
Thanks to Andy for his time and insight! Head over to Alligator Army for all things UF. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Our answers to their questions are here.