The Billy Napier era begins Sept. 3, when No. 7 Utah visits The Swamp (7 p.m., ESPN). The game marks Florida’s first home opener against a top-10 opponent since 1969, when No. 7 Houston visited The Swamp. Florida will be hoping for a similar result to that game, which saw an unbeaten Gators group beat the Cougars, 59-34, behind the performance of Cuban Comet national player of the week Carlos Alvarez. Whatever happens, the game against the Utes, one of college football’s most disciplined and best-coached outfits, will serve as a tremendous barometer of where Napier’s program is as he begins his tenure. in Florida.
Another great barometer will be whether the Gators can reverse a number of statistical trends that have followed the program over the past few seasons. Here’s a look at 5 statistical trends Florida needs to reverse in 2022.
1. A run defense ranked in the bottom 5 of the SEC
Todd Grantham’s last two defenses at Florida ranged from mediocre (2021) to terrible (2020), and nowhere was the problem more apparent than in run defense. The Gators ranked 71st overall and 10th in the SEC against the run in 2020 and 85th and 12th in 2021. How bad was last season? LSU ran for a season-high 321 yards against the Gators, upsetting Florida, 49-42, in Baton Rouge despite having a limping coach and a slew of injuries. South Carolina, with a D-II transfer making his first career start at quarterback, ran for a season-high 284 yards in walloping Florida, 40-17. Dan Mullen was fired just over a week later. If Florida hopes to be better than the 6-win outfit the program had a season ago, it had better get back to basics, match the gaps and make clean plays against the run.
2. Special teams that are once again “special”, not among the worst units of the SEC
Heading into the 2020 season, the Gators were one of the SEC’s top programs from a special teams standpoint. Over the past decade, Florida has produced multiple All-SEC punters and All-SEC offensive linemen and 1 All-SEC return player and has ranked atop the SEC in special teams efficiency, per SP+, 3 of 10 years . Last season? The Gators finished a program-worst 97th in SP+ special teams efficiency. Florida had the worst kickoff coverage team in the SEC in terms of net punts, the first time that’s happened in a century. And while the field goal unit was expected to take a step back after future Bengals legend Evan McPherson left for the NFL, the Gators had a punt blocked and came back for a game-winning drive at Kentucky, capping their season of woes. But hey, at least Jeremy Crawshaw didn’t finish last in the league in shooting. His 44.1-yard average landed him on the All-SEC first team, even if the net was just 38.3 due to a punt coverage unit that ranked among the SEC’s worst (11th ). Florida isn’t a deep team, which often hurts special teams units, but Napier and the Gators staff need to figure out how to get more out of that group in 2022.
3. A turnover margin difference of minus-9
Florida must finish better than 115th in the nation and 13th in the SEC (ahead of Kentucky) in turnover margin in 2022. The Gators came up empty in turnover production in losses to Alabama, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina . They weren’t much better at taking care of the football, and turnovers doomed them in losses to Georgia (3 turnovers led directly to 17 Georgia points) and LSU (4 turnovers, including an Anthony Richardson interception 4th quarter to kill Florida’s last drive). The Gators have averaged 24 carries per season this century, the SEC’s best number, and Florida’s 22.2 receptions rank third in the SEC over the last 10 years. Revert to the mean and Florida is fine, but the Gators need to be better in this area in 2022.
4. 70.6 penalty yards per game
The Gators ranked 13th in the SEC (ahead of Ole Miss) and 119th nationally in penalties per game in 2021. That’s shameful stuff and a trend that needs to be reversed in year 1 under direction of Napier. To emphasize better discipline, Napier’s staff has had SEC officials at practices — not just scrimmages — all preseason and has provided players with videos of all their individual penalties in 2021. Players have told him, a husband, that the penalty videos were enlightening and, in some cases, embarrassing. It should be noted that this is a recent trend — Mullen’s 2019 and 2020 Florida teams, which won an Orange Bowl and advanced to an SEC Championship Game, respectively, ranked in the top 3 in the SEC for most few penalties taken. The discipline fizzled out last year and Napier, who likely knows these numbers, should see a quick fix here.
5. Another year outside the top 50 in total defense and passing rate
Hardly anywhere to go but for a Florida defense that spent a second straight year outside the top 50 in total defense. Florida finished 51st last year, marking the first time since the stat was measured that the Gators spent consecutive years outside the top 50.
How bad was Grantham’s era by Florida’s defensive standards?
From 1990 through the end of the 2017 season and Grantham’s arrival, Florida finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense 22 times, more than any national program except Alabama and Ohio State. Grantham’s defenses finished in the top 20 twice, then fell off a cliff in 2020, when they finished 83rd and Florida managed to lose 4 games despite boasting one of the best offenses in Florida history.
Florida’s success rate defense (which measures the number of plays, down and distance, the opposing offense has, which can be considered successful in terms of the next down that is a first down, touchdown, or favor down and distance) wasn’t’ Much better: The Gators ranked 61st (of 76) in pass defense in 2020 and 55th in 2021. Yuck!
Patrick Toney is considered one of the game’s brightest young minds. He and co-defensive coordinator Sean Spencer must improve the production of this unit in 2022, or a bowl game will be difficult.