The Outback Bowl is finally approaching, and it’s time to take a close look at the Florida Gators. What better way to do it than to talk to someone who’s actually a Gators fan and has watched the team all season? We went over to Alligator Army, SB Nation’s Florida blog, and Andy Hutchins answered a few of our questions. They range from questions about Jim McElwain, Florida’s top players, and wait... was Iowa jobbed in the 2006 Outback Bowl??
Let’s get to it.
Max: Florida has gone 8-4 thus far in Year 2 under Jim McElwain. How does this fit in with fan expectations right now, and do Florida fans think he's still the right man for the job?
Andy: I try hard not to speak for fans other than myself when tasked with talking about Florida fans' expectations, because I know well that I'm a bit more patient and equanimous than some are. (I spent a rather long time explaining to pitchfork-toting folks that I was personally okay with Florida keeping Will Muschamp after 2013, for example.) But I think that while McElwain has certainly exceeded most expectations in regards to competing in the SEC East, he is either on par or lagging behind in regards to restoring Florida as a national power.
Florida has gotten out to hot starts in each of McElwain's two years, but the Gators' 10-4 record in 2015 was a 10-1 beginning followed by a 0-3 close, and the Gators' 8-4 mark this year is either a 6-1 start with a 2-3 finish or an 8-2 start with an 0-2 finish. Couple that with recruiting taking a noticeable dip and a still-struggling offense, and there are a lot of Florida fans already eager to consider ways that McElwain could be jettisoned after Year 3. They may not be the majority, but they yell loudly enough that the majority cannot ignore them.
For my part? McElwain's fine. I think he's had awful luck with being able to start a good quarterback -- Will Grier was one, but his downfall was his own, and those who have followed him were never seen as more than stopgaps, while future "saviors" Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are too green to be responsibly thrown into the fire at this point -- and some bad luck with injuries, especially this year on defense. While we haven't seen an explosive offense yet, I have seen more than enough flashes to wait and see if that turns into a truly pyrotechnic show, and I think Florida's likely to have a championship-caliber defense again under McElwain, so long as he survives a 2017 season that will likely not have one, as departures decimate that side of the ball.
Max: Austin Appleby will be starting for the Gators in this one, and Hawkeye fans are quite familiar with him from his days at Purdue. How has he performed this season after stepping in for Luke Del Rio, and who are the weapons that he goes to the most?
Andy: Appleby's been uneven, going from starring in his first half against Tennessee to staring down covered receivers at Vanderbilt to dicing up South Carolina to delivering picks right to Alabama defenders. There's no apparent rhyme or reason for why he does or doesn't play well, either, which is seemingly as frustrating as it could get -- except that many Florida fans found Del Rio's lesser arm and limited mobility even more vexatious than Appleby's frequent brain cramps.
Arrayed around Appleby, though, is maybe Florida's best collection of skill position talent since the Urban Meyer era, especially at wide receiver, where Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland are a potent 1-2 pair on the outside, and Brandon Powell -- who showed up in a big way against Alabama -- has been productive as a slot receiver when fully healthy. There are younger players, too, and a few tight ends with talent -- DeAndre Goolsby is probably the best receiver among them -- but Florida's issues through the air have not been the individuals on the receiving end.
Max: Florida has a handful of running backs with a bunch of carries. Who are the names that Iowa fans should know, and how will McElwain and Co. utilize them throughout the game?
Andy: Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine are Florida's starter and backup, respectively, and should probably get something like a 60-30 split of the carries, with Perine's reps more likely to come early than late in a contested game. Florida also has a burlier back in Mark Thompson, but his insistence on fumbling and limited vision helped knock him out of a contest for carries that Scarlett and Perine prevailed in over the first few months of the season. Look for both to run often, and off-tackle, and don't be surprised to see Perine sneak out in the flats, where he's hauled in several screens that have contributed to his 161 receiving yards on just nine catches in 2016.
McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier might also try Callaway and Powell on the ground, and have called runs and reads for Appleby very sparingly.
Max: Alright, let's get to the important stuff - Florida is really good is on the defensive side of the ball. Who can we expect to make a huge impact for the Gators on defense?
Andy: Hey, Florida's offense is impoten ... wait, important? Oh. Gotcha.
Florida's strength is its secondary, which might have two first-rounders at corner in Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Tabor's quicker, and Wilson is stronger, but both players have the size and savvy to make any receiver's existence a quiet one for an afternoon, and this is assuredly their last game in a Gators uniform, which inclines me to think they'll be looking to show out. The safety spot is closer to a weakness after a season-ending injury for Marcus Maye, with veterans Nick Washington and Marcell Harris helping bring along freshman Chauncey Gardner, but all three of those players have shown promise here and there, and Iowa's passing attack might not be the one to aerate the Gators' defensive backfield, I think.
In the front seven, I expect defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, another soon-to-be NFLer, and defensive end CeCe Jefferson, who has at least one more year to wait until Sundays, to hold their own, and I'm hoping that Florida's crop of young linebackers -- Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and David Reese -- can step up and allow Jarrad Davis, the Gators' lion and leader on defense, to sit out a game that poses a serious risk to his NFL career, given his recent cycle of injury and reinjury. Davis might well play, given the month of rest since an SEC Championship Game that he left after getting hurt, but he has nothing left to prove to either Gator Nation or NFL evaluators that can be proved on a Monday afternoon in Tampa, and I sincerely believe he should sit out of this contest.
Max: Are there any weaknesses the Hawks can exploit when they're on offense?
Andy: One thing I don't think Florida does particularly well on defense at the moment is defend the edge in the running game. The Gators began the year with veteran linemen who knew how to do that and did so consistently, but wear and tear have robbed the Florida front of some of those players, and robbed some players of the ability to do so consistently. If Iowa sees freshmen defenders on the edge, it should consider running at them.
Other than that, it's hard to pinpoint clear weaknesses. Florida's linebackers aren't great in pass coverage, but few college teams have linebackers who are -- outside of Tuscaloosa, perhaps -- and the safeties can all step up in their stead. A lack of consistent pass rush with just linemen rushing is another minor quibble, and Florida's lost the linebackers -- Davis, who has not been fully healthy since midseason, and Alex Anzalone, out for the year -- who were most effective as extra blitzers at the season's outset.
Max: Iowa doesn't throw the ball a whole ton because they remarkably have next to no weapons in the receiving game, but they very well might have two 1,000 yard rushers by the end of this game. How would they be best served to attack the Florida defense in the running game?
Andy: Again, I think Iowa ought to run to the outside. Florida can be stout up front with Brantley and Joey Ivie, but has struggled to set the edge without fully healthy versions of Bryan Cox, Jr. and Jordan Sherit. Bowl practices may have accelerated the development of Florida's ends in run support, but I think that's exactly where LeShun Daniels, Jr. and Akrum Wadley should be aimed.
Max: Admit it - Iowa should have won the 2006 Outback Bowl.
Andy: Iowa should definitely have had another offensive possession at the end of the 2006 Outback Bowl. I'll concede that much.
But, c'mon: Y'all beat Florida so badly three years prior that Ron Zook eschewed a Heisman-caliber quarterback's throwing to have a defensive back try throwing to him. Ref-aided revenge was only fair, right?
Max: Finally, prediction time. What's your pick and why?
Andy: I think Florida matches up pretty well with Iowa, though I do think the Hawkeyes' running game could be big trouble for the Gators if it can keep dangerous down-and-distance situations at bay. The Gators don't have the pressure of playing a rival or for an SEC title to deal with in this one, and Appleby, while not nearly a great quarterback, has at least had moments of glory.
I'm picking Florida to win, 24-17, in a game that may be closer than that score indicates.
Thanks to Andy for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on Florida football, check out Alligator Army and check them out on Twitter at @AlligatorArmy. Go Hawks.