The 2011 Florida football team has gone through a tale of two seasons.
Starting the season off with four straight wins was somewhat expected. Beating the likes of FAU and UAB were expected. The Gators looked very good in their two opening games, outscoring their opponents 80 to three.
Then came the SEC schedule. Florida caught a break when Tennessee lost their star receiver, Justin Hunter, to injury. You hate to see an opponent go down early in the game with a season ending injury, and Tennessee looked out of sync in Hunter's absence. The Gators edged the Vols, wining the game 33 to 23. The win was a good confidence boost to this young Gator roster.
The first road SEC game for the Gators came to Kentucky. The Gators punished the Wildcats on the ground totaling over 400 rushing yards. The Gators limited Kentucky to ten points, but allowed over 100 yards on the ground for the first time. The defense forced three turnovers, including a fumble return for a touchdown. The Gators leaned heavily on their duo of speedy running backs for their first four games and against these lesser opponents that did the trick.
Then came Alabama. Senior quarterback John Brantley began the game with the most productive start to a game of his career. Before going down with a high ankle sprain, Brantley was 11 of 16 for 190 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
In the absence of Brantley, the Gators have rotated two true freshmen quarterbacks, both with little success. After losing Brantley the Gators have been outscored 72 to 17, and have lost control of their fate in the SEC. Similar to last season the Gators started hot only to lose three games in a row going into a bye week at four and three.
With all of this being said let's get into the overall grades for the Gators this season.
Passing: 97th (178 ypg)
Rushing: 45th (175.7 ypg)
Scoring: 71st (26.9 points per game)
Through the first four games of this season, Gator fans were all talking about Chris Rainey, and how dominant he had been. Rainey has arguably been the Gators offensive MVP through the first half of the season, but John Brantley's injury should put some perspective on just how important he is to this offense.
Something very few Gator fans imagined would happen did, they are all awaiting the return of the much maligned senior to save the Gators season. Brantley came under fire last season when he was largely ineffective. What the casual fan doesn't notice is that it is hard to be effective when you only come in on third and long when everyone in the stadium knows that you are throwing the ball.
The injury to Brantley has brought the Gators offense to a stand still. The duo of Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, while talented, are simply not ready or at the level to compete against SEC defenses week in and week out. Without a real threat in the passing game defenses have been able to focus on shutting down Rainey and the Gators rushing attack.
Florida's offense has taken a huge hit the past three games which will impact their overall grade.
MVP: Chris Rainey / John Brantley
Scoring: 18th (18.9 ppg)
Rushing: 47th (120.7 ypg)
Passing: 19th (168.4 ypg)
Total: 13th (289.1)
Remove two games and this Gator defense has been one of the best defenses in recent history. The shutout win against UAB was the first time the Gators had held an opponent scoreless since a 2006 victory over Western Carolina.
Starting two freshmen and six sophomores on defense this is one of, if not the youngest unit in college football. Considering their age, the defense has performed better than expectations.
After starting the year out strong, Florida's defense was manhandled in consecutive games against Alabama and LSU. The way that both teams were able to punish the Gators on the ground and force their will on the defense was disheartening for a unit that had excelled to that point. Missed tackles and being dominated on the defensive front were to blame for the back to back poor performances.
The unit made strides towards correcting their problems against Auburn. The Gators held Auburn to just two touchdowns, with one coming on a short field after forcing a punt. The defense forced a season high 9 punts against Auburn, and showed a toughness that had lacked in their previous two outings.
The only real lasting negative from the defense is their inability to create turnovers. The Gators have not forced a turnover since the third quarter of their game against Kentucky. 13 straight quarters without creating a turnover will not help the offense and has the gators with a negative seven turnover margin for the season.
This is a young unit that will need to continue to regain their confidence and play physical football.
MVP: Jon Bostic / Matt Elam
The Florida special teams started strong and have quickly gone down hill. The opening kickoff was returned by Jeff Demps for a touchdown only to be called back for holding nowhere near the return. Florida blocked a punt against the Owls and returned it for a score. This is the only touchdown that has been scored on special teams the whole year.
Florida has found a new punter in freshman Kyle Christy. Christy made his first appearance against Auburn and showed a very strong leg, keeping the Tigers backed up on their side of the field. Total Christy punted seven times for a net average of 46.14 yards per punt.
Caleb Sturgis, who left the game with a leg injury, has been solid all season. Sturgis is 15 of 16 on his field goal attempts and has hit on all 19 extra point attempts. Sturgis leaving the game caused the Gators to go for it on a fourth down, rather than trotting a true freshman punter out for his first field goal attempt. Sturgis missed most of last season with a back injury and was having a nice comeback this year.
The Gators had a strong sense of how important special teams play is when Urban Meyer took over the team. The same strong special teams play continued with the only miscue being allowing Alabama too many yards on kick returns. Until the Auburn game. Coupled with a lack of offense, the special teams were directly responsible for the Gators loss. The Gators could not field a punt cleanly all day and the result were points for the Tigers. The punt return game was so bad the Gators would have benefited from placing all 11 men on the line and going for an all out block and letting the ball roll wherever it was going to go. To lose a game because of poor special teams play is inexcusable at a program like Florida and will need to be addressed.
MVP: Chris Rainey
Taking over for a Florida legend in Urban Meyer is no easy task, especially for a first time head coach. Will Muschamp is know for his fiery demeanor on the sideline as a coordinator and he has brought that same passion and enthusiasm to Florida. Muschamp made his first of many good moves in bringing in Charlie Weis to run the offense and Dan Quinn to assist Muschamp with installing a pro style attacking defense.
Weis may have had one of the most difficult jobs in the country by coming to Florida. Weis was faced with the task of installing his pro style offense with player recruited to run a spread option attack. To say that Weis has had to improvise in order to fit these players into his offense is an understatement. Until Brantley went down the offense was producing and were very effective, even against Alabama for a half.
The Gators are the most penalized team in college football, being hit with 61 penalties this season. Some of that can be put on youth and inexperience, but the brunt of the blame must be placed on the coaching staff and how they have failed to coach a disciplined football team both on and off the field.
It has truly been a tale of two seasons.
The season before John Brantley went down the Gators looked strong, confident, and electric.
The season after Brantley's injury they have looked lost, inept, and overpowered.
This team may depend on its play makers in the backfield, but no player has had a bigger impact in his absence than John Brantley.
The Gators have played their way out of controlling their own fate in the SEC and should be thanking their lucky stars that the bye week came when it did.
Overall there has been more good than bad, beating the teams you were supposed to beat, losing to two that you were supposed to lose to, and a tough loss at Auburn that shouldn't have been a loss. The Gators are a team in transition, but the first half of the season is much of what was expected before the season began.