In a sense, Saturday night was a rebirth for the Florida Gators.
A new coach, a new scheme and, in many ways, a new team.
The Gators opened up their 2011 campaign looking to make a statement, and their 41-3 victory over Florida Atlantic did just that. Florida was strong in all phases of the game, showcasing a promising offense, swarming defense, and a deadly special teams unit.
The stars of the evening were Florida's two most dynamic offensive playmakers, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
Rainey, who has been a disappointment for much of his college career, dazzled with 151 yards from scrimmage. He scored three different ways—a 14-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, a 14-yard run in the second that included a highlight-reel spin move, and a touchdown return of a blocked punt in the third quarter.
Demps, the world-class sprinter whose future with the football team was in doubt, showed that he is every bit committed to playing football as he ever has been. He scored two touchdowns on runs of 20 and 35 yards on his was to 111 yards.
Florida's offense used a very limited playbook. After the game, Chris Rainey said, "We only did like six plays—that's it—the whole game."
On the defensive side of the football, the Gators dominated an obviously overwhelmed Owls offense. FAU accumulated only 137 yards of offense, including just 30 rushing yards. Florida's defensive line looked especially strong against the run, but their pass rush seemed a bit lacking.
Part of that was due to the absence of defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd, who was declared ineligible by the Gators prior to kickoff. Reasons for this move have not been announced as of this writing.
But the rest of Florida's defense played superbly. Only one Owls play went over 15 yards, and it seemed like every completed pass was followed by a swarm of Florida defenders. It was an encouraging sign for a team whose secondary is one of the major concerns.
Another major concern was whether John Brantley's confidence would be restored on offense. Despite throwing two interceptions, Brantley looked exponentially more comfortable in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense than in the spread Florida employed last year. He appeared confident, poised, and was making markedly better throws. He finished 21-30 with 229 yards and a touchdown to go along with the two picks.
“My confidence is pretty high right now. The team played well; the offensive line blocked amazing," Brantley said after the game.
With one more out-of-conference tuneup remaining, Florida faces one big question.
Will their success Saturday night translate to their games against SEC opponents?
But if the game against FAU is any indicator, Florida looks to be in much better shape than last year, when they finished 8-5.
Next Saturday, the Gators face the UAB Blazers at the Swamp. The 7 PM game is the final chance for Florida to correct mistakes before facing Tennessee in their SEC opener in Week 3.