One of the most common reactions to Florida's 61-13 win over New Mexico State has been to caution that it may not mean anything considering the Gators beat Eastern Michigan 65-0 in their first game last year. That argument is not without merit. Put a sufficiently bad opponent opposite a mediocre team and the mediocre team can win a blowout. NMSU won't win many games this year, so the large margin of victory could be a mirage.
The comparison isn't totally apt, though. There are a few reasons why the opening win this year could be significantly less mirage-y than last year's opener. Since last year's defense was fine and this year's probably will be too, the focus of this post will be the Florida offense.
The Eye Test
I suspect a lot of the people making this comparison didn't watch much of either game, if they saw any of them. For instance with A&M-ASU and Bama-Wisconsin on at the same time on Saturday, I can't blame them. I must stress a point though: the offense looked categorically different.
What Jim McElwain used on Saturday was the most sophisticated passing scheme Florida has used since Dan Mullen was still around in 2008—and maybe longer. There was a decent amount of variety, and there were plays where you could tell that the design alone drew defenders to certain areas to spring receivers open. It felt more like watching the pass game of Georgia or, no surprise here, Alabama than anything the Gators have done in over half a decade.
The two quarterbacks also both looked good. Treon Harris looked like he had a better command of the offense than he ever did last year, and Will Grier impressed a lot of people with his apparent handle on it too. They were decisive, something Jeff Driskel never seemed to be, and they made a lot of good decisions.
It helped that they finally had a lot of good options to throw to. Having more than one good pass catching tight end was always an issue in the Will Muschamp era—some years, like 2014, the team had zero—but now UF has three. Last year, the receiving corps was Demarcus Robinson and a bunch of "just a guy"s. Robinson is back, but now converted running back Brandon Powell displayed big play ability and freshman Antonio Callaway showed promise. Last year, 14 different Gators caught passes on the season, but 14 different Gators caught passes on Saturday alone. Yeah, that's partly from emptying the bench in a blowout, but it just illustrates the larger number of options. I can think of at least four more players who are likely to get a catch before the year is out, too.
The big downside is the offensive line, which lost four players to the NFL Draft. Calling it "patchwork" would be kind, given that the starting lineup includes an FCS graduate transfer, a converted defensive lineman, and, once he gets healthy, a true freshman. It mostly did fine but had some bad breakdowns at times. Florida's first drive even died when a snap sailed over Harris's head and the offense couldn't overcome 2nd-and-23. Though the 2014 line seldom looked like one that had four future NFL players on it, its floor was always obviously well above the floor of this year's line. It's a very good thing that Texas A&M isn't on the schedule.
Kelvin Taylor looked good running behind that line, and his freshman backups Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite were fine for freshmen. Taylor did have to make defenders in the backfield miss at times, and that elusiveness will come in handy against better defensive fronts. The run game appears to be a step down from last year's attack that had the better line and Matt Jones alongside Taylor.
Here is where things really diverge from 2014 to 2015.
I'm going to be talking about what happened before each game entered garbage time, using the Football Outsiders definition of garbage time. That was the first half in '14 until a field goal made it 27-0 late in the second quarter, and it was the entire first half plus the first drive of the third quarter in '15 at which point a field goal pushed the lead to 24.
For starters, the 2015 offense was far more explosive in the passing game.
|Year||Runs 10+||Pct.||Passes 20+||Pct.||Explosive Pct.|
At times, it seemed like the Gators were trying to dink and dunk up the field against EMU with a bunch of swing passes and screens. That wasn't the case last Saturday. Though not all five of the big pass plays were true downfield throws, most were. There actually was a function vertical pass game rather than 2014's seemingly random deep shots, and it found some success. The run game wasn't as explosive, but again: Jones is gone, and the line isn't as good.
The biggest difference was in quarterback play. There is a reason why I chose to use Driskel's performance against EMU as a canonical example of a misleading stat line when making my success rate video. It definitely was a mirage.
|Player||Comp. Pct.||Pass Eff.||Yards/Att||Sacks||Pass SR|
|2014 Jeff Driskel||81.0%||135.0||6.4||0||28.6%|
|2015 Treon Harris||100.0%||289.9||17.0||0||71.4%|
|2015 Will Grier||86.7%||213.0||12.5||1||62.5%|
Neither Harris nor Grier have a screaming red flag like Driskel's sub-30% success rate. In fact, their success rates were excellent. Grier's YPA was double Driskel's, and Harris's was nearly triple. The passing efficiency from Saturday was ridiculous as opposed to Driskel's middling score from last year.
That's not to say that the two signal callers were flawless over the weekend. Harris's 37-yard completion to Powell was a floater that probably doesn't work against a good defense, and Grier's sack came when NMSU was clearly showing blitz and he just didn't handle it well. Grier fumbled on that sack, in fact, leading to a short field and an eventual TD for the Aggies.
I'm not here to tell you that it was like watching a rotation of Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel out there, because it wasn't. Both Harris and Grier are young and learning a new system, and they have plenty of lumps left to take. That said, their performances against New Mexico State were nothing—NOTHING—like what Driskel did against Eastern Michigan last year.
Looking great against NMSU may not prove anything, but at least Harris and Grier did look great against NMSU. Once you take a look at success rate, Driskel did not look good against EMU. Predictably, then, he didn't look good against the stiffer defenses of the SEC either. Harris and Grier cleared the bar of starring against a cupcake. That means it's at least possible that they'll perform well in conference play.
I still expect to see Grier win the job eventually, as Harris still showed some things like the floater to Powell or throwing in the middle of an unnecessary jump on one attempt in the second half that truly great quarterbacks just don't do. Grier displayed the more than adequate wheels that his high school tape showed on a 38-yard run in the second quarter, meaning Harris's mobility edge may not be as big as some people think. Grier needs to work on dealing with pressure, but his considerable height and arm strength advantages will allow him to do things that Harris simply cannot.
But whatever the case, Florida's 61-13 win over New Mexico State was considerably different than its 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan a year ago. The Gators' run game wasn't as good, and it probably won't be as good this year as it was last thanks to that shaky line. However, the quarterbacking play and overall pass game organization and execution was light years ahead of what the team went with last year.