After two seasons in mediocrity, the Florida Gators are ready to make a splash onto the national stage again. Florida is 6-1 overall and getting ready to for its annual rivalry game with Georgia on Saturday afternoon (3:30 PM ET, CBS). The Gators have blown out Ole Miss, played competitively in a night game at LSU and are in control of their destiny in the SEC East.
If Florida wins this game, they’re all but certain to be in the conference championship game come December. And if they keep winning out, they’re all but certain to get a ticket to the College Football Playoff. It’s a welcome case of a program climbing off the mat.
Following their Sugar Bowl season in 2012, Florida came crashing to earth. They had a losing season in 2013 and only qualified for the Birmingham Bowl in 2014. It got head coach Wil Muschamp fired and it cost Florida’s backers in Las Vegas some money, as the Gators went 10-13 against the spread (ATS).
No one ever disputed Muschamp’s ability to coach defense. It was offensive ineptitude that did him in and that was reflected in the totals line. In the awful 2013 season, Florida was 4-8 straight-up and also played just four games to the Over that season. This season, even with the defense still being strong and ranking #19 in the country, Florida has gone to the Over four times in seven.
The improved offense comes in spite of quarterback Will Grier being suspended for the balance of the season. Grier was posting solid numbers, with a 66% completion rate, 7.48 yards-per-attempt and a 10/3 TD-INT ratio. When he was suspended, Florida was written off a serious SEC title threat.
That proved to be premature. Just as Notre Dame overcame a forced quarterback change, so did Florida. The Gators inserted Treon Harris. In his lone start—against LSU no less, Harris threw a pair of touchdown passes. Florida lost 35-28, a non-cover as a (+6) road underdog. But the spark Harris provided suggests he can continue to play well against opponents whose defenses aren’t quite as rigid.
In spite of the narrow ATS loss last week, Florida is still 4-2-1 ATS. One big reason is that Muschamp left new coach Jim McElwain a stacked cupboard. The Gators’ recruiting classes ranked in the top five nationally in both 2012 and 2013, and those classes now provide the key players this year. The 2014 class ranked ninth. McElwain inherited talent that could compete at the highest level and he’s demonstrating he knows what to do with it.
And it still comes back to defense in Gainesville. Defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard is a highly regarded NFL prospect, and he’s got 4 ½ sacks and 10 ½ tackles-for-loss, establishing himself a disrupter supreme up the middle. Linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive back Brian Poole can both expect to be drafted by an NFL team next spring.
The offensive side has talent of its own, starting with tight end Jake McGee. Florida still might not be as explosive as some other SEC offenses, but they make good use of McGee, who has caught 23 passes. The need to respect McGee in the short passing game opens the field for Demareus Robinson and Brandon Powell on the outside. Kelvin Taylor carries the load in the running game.
Those are the reasons that Florida has come back and proven to be a good bet in the first part of the 2015 season. Now the question is, can they continue to win games and cover pointspreads as expectations change?
I would like to see more explosiveness from Florida before assuming they’re ready to take on the national elite. The good news is this—it’s debatable whether Georgia and an upcoming game against Florida State really represent “the elite.” Both are tough games to be sure, but you can make a good case that Florida won’t have to prove it’s elite until a potential SEC Championship Game against LSU, Alabama or Ole Miss.
Furthermore, the prices on Florida are staying modest, at least for now. The Gators are a short 2 ½ point favorite over Georgia, even the Bulldogs have lost Nick Chubb. The fact the price on Florida hasn’t jumped is undoubtedly due to the quarterback change. If you think the transition from Grier to Harris can be as seamless as the one between Malik Zaire and DeShon Kizer was for Notre Dame, you can have your cake and eat it too with Florida.
The game with Georgia is followed by a home game with Vanderbilt and a road trip to South Carolina. Florida will be favored in both games, and have to lay big points against Vandy. The same goes for the November 21 game with Florida Atlantic, the week most every SEC power schedules a cupcake. That sets up the season finale at home with Florida State on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Watch the Florida offense carefully on Saturday. That will tell you if they’re prepared to cover prohibitive spreads the following three weeks and to compete in a potential SEC Championship Game. We’ve seen the Gators improve. Now it’s time to see if they can reach the next level.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.