(Photo credit: Florida Gators)
As the dust clears and the euphoria begins to wear off following Florida’s massive 29-16 victory over Tennessee, it’s time to begin unpacking the win. What did we learn? What does the win mean? And where do the Florida Gators go from here?
Our five takeaways:
Jordan Castell is the real deal at safety
It’s rare to see a true freshman step into a starting role and thrive the way that Jordan Castell has at Florida, and it’s another bullet point in one of my favorite arguments: the best players on the field are Billy Napier’s handpicked players. Castell was everywhere on Saturday night, racking up ten tackles (four of them solo) and flying all around the field to make plays at various levels. He also saved a touchdown, running stride for stride with Tennessee’s Dante Thornton and batting away the bomb as it landed in what was a two-score game midway through the third quarter. Growing pains are likely to rear their head as they are with any true freshman, but there’s sky-high promise with this kid- as we suspected there would be.
Graham Mertz continues to do everything asked of him
Graham Mertz is starting to build quite a case against Paul Chryst and Wisconsin for malpractice. The former Badger-turned-Gator was incredibly efficient at the controls of the offense for the Gator, going 17-20 in the first half with two of those incompletions being smart throwaways. He’s not a Heisman Trophy contender and he isn’t ever going to be, but Florida can win a lot of games if he continues to distribute the football the way he did against Tennessee, spreading the ball around to Ricky Pearsall, Kahleil Jackson, Caleb Douglas, Jonathan Odom, and (before his injury) Tre Wilson. It would still be nice to see him land a deep ball every now and then to force defenses to respect that ability and back out of the box, but it’s generally difficult to find much to gripe about with Mertz. He’s been great so far through three games.
Passing of the baton at kicker
Kicker Adam Mihalek will forever occupy a small niche in Gator history as the guy who saved Florida’s anti-shutout streak against Oregon State last year. But after struggling against Utah in the opener, he was on the hot seat heading into the Tennessee game- and then that seat burst into flames. He mishit a field goal attempt, which fell well short from 46 yards out, and an extra point came out low and got blocked. At that point, Billy Napier finally had enough and made the switch, replacing Mihalek with Trey Smack- and Smack delivered, drilling an extra point and short field goal with ease. Now, there’s no telling what kind of accuracy Smack will have from beyond 40 yards out, or how he’ll handle pressure kicks, but it simply felt like a move had to happen here- and it did. I wish the best for Mihalek, and I hate to see college athletes fail, but I’d be stunned if he ever kicked in a meaningful situation for the Gators again.
How about Austin Armstrong’s Florida Gators defense?
The turnaround from year one to year two has been night and day for Billy Napier’s Gators. Patrick Toney installed a new scheme upon arriving, bore the brunt of the fanbase’s frustrations when the “it’s gonna get worse before it gets better” mantra played out in the form of the single worst defense Florida’s ever fielded since World War II, and promptly bolted for the NFL. He does deserve a cursory shoutout here, as this new defense is still the skeleton of his brainchild. But the “creeper defense” that Austin Armstrong deploys- featuring a dizzying array of stunts and blintzes from all different angles in a 3-3-5/4-2-5 hybrid look- has yielded instant results. Joe Milton was harassed and thrown to the ground several times, including once on a killer interception that Devin Moore returned into the red zone. Most importantly, Tennessee finished the game with 16 points- the thirds-fewest in Josh Heupel’s tenure in Knoxville.
The Swamp helped the Florida Gators win this game
If ever you doubt the ability of a college football crowd to impact a game, rewatch this game. I even condensed it down for you! Florida’s blue-clad fans lured Tennessee into numerous false start penalties, plus killed twenty seconds on the Vols’ last drive of the first half as Joe Milton ran from player to player screaming because they couldn’t hear the signals. The Swamp’s inhabitants also forced Tennessee to waste two timeouts on its final drive of the game, which the Vols really could have used down 13 points late. Just how loud was it? More than once with the Gators on defense, my Apple Watch warned me that I was in a dangerously loud environment (over 100 decibels). Oh well. I’ll deal with the consequences of that fifty years down the road.