A sad ending to a wonderful baseball season carries the silver lining that some of you have been waiting for since January: football season is almost here. That means it’s time to start our breakdown of each of Florida’s opponents.
Last year, I predicted that Florida would go 8-4; in fact, they went 6-5 (with the rainout against Idaho). I had them losing to Georgia, but beating South Carolina and Missouri. I’m as stunned as anyone that they completely destroyed the Bulldogs, but I should have known better than to trust Muschamp in big games in the Swamp.
But that’s all in the past, and now it’s time to look ahead to a new season, with a new coach.
NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES
Coach: Doug Martin, 3rd year (4-20)
2014 record: 2-10
Last meeting: Florida 70, New Mexico State 21 (1994)
All time series: Florida, 1-0
The skinny: New Mexico State is Florida’s latest bit of schedule padding, agreeing to six figure paycheck in exchange for a beating of Herculean proportions. They’re a cupcake, plain and simple. Doug Martin came in two years ago and began to rebuild the program. His method was simple: demolish the current structure, and start over from the ground and build up. Translation: weed out as many current players as possible, and sign as many high school recruits as possible to fill the voids. But even if it turns out to be successful, Martin’s construction project of New Mexico State is a four year plan, and Florida catches them in year three of it. It’s not going to be pretty.
Offensive breakdown: Relatively speaking, it’s not a terrible offense. QB Tyler Rogers had some good performances last year, including 36-52 and 404 yards against Texas State, and 32-47 and 333 yards against New Mexico. But he also had some awful ones, like 14-31 with 86 yards against LSU. He was extremely inconsistent, throwing at least one pick in every game and at least two in nine of the Aggies’ 12 games. He figures to be a little better this year with some experience… but a little better than what he was last year won’t do any good, considering that Florida employs one of the country’s best defenses.
The running game will feature Larry Rose III, who rushed for 1,102 yards last year as a freshman. But behind him, there’s little proven production. Xavier Hall was next with 342 yards. That’s a big drop off. Really big. Rose is a solid back, sure, and he may get some yardage if his line blocks for him, but the Aggies have nobody else to turn to behind him. Same goes for their receiving corps. Teldrick Morgan led NMSU with 891 yards; nobody else even accumulated 500 receiving yards.
Bottom line: this is an offense that might win the Aggies a couple of shootouts in the Sun Belt. But unless they find some spark from somebody we don’t know about yet, they’ll have a rough day in the Swamp.
Offensive Grade: D. It’s the better of the two units on one of the five worst FBS teams in the country. That’s as strong an endorsement as it’s going to get from me.
Defensive breakdown: It’s awful. It’s just an absolute mess. Even by Sun Belt standards. In 10 of their 12 games last year, New Mexico State surrendered 30 points or more, and one of the two games they didn’t give up 30 was against the 1-10 Idaho team that escaped an opening week beatdown in the Swamp… and the Aggies gave up 29 in that game. They also gave up 40 or more in five games, including 63 against LSU and 68 against Arkansas State. Comically enough, the Aggies use a bend but don’t break philosophy. The idea is that they’ll give up some yards in between the 20’s, but lock down in the red zone and make clutch stops in crunch time. In fact, NMSU’s red zone defense was so bad that it qualified for dead last in the Sun Belt. It promises to be little better this year.
The Aggies promoted linebackers coach Zane Vance to defensive coordinator this year, and he figures to tinker with different looks for his new unit. He had some success in his previous stint at Kent State by disguising his coverage schemes, and using a lot of zone blitzes. But coaching creativity only works when you’ve got serviceable players. NMSU’s entire defense could only muster five sacks the entire year, as Stephen Meredith “led” all Aggie defenders with two. The front seven is wholly undersized and extremely thin. They’ll have to rely on Meredith, Stody Bradley, Kalei Auelua, Noah Brown and Josh Gibbs to step up and make plays, because there’s nobody behind them.
If there’s a strength on this defense, it’s the secondary, which finished sixth in the country in pass yards allowed per game. But I take that with a grain of salt for two reasons: one, they played in the Sun Belt, and two, when your rush defense is literally the worst in the country (128th in rush yards allowed per game out of 128 FBS teams), who needs to throw? Anyway, the Aggies will have to replace Winston Rose, who recorded four of the team’s ten picks last year. Adaryan Jones and Jerrion Burton will step in and try to fill his shoes, while Jaden Wright and Jacob Nwanga will return to their safety positions.
Defensive Grade: F. Really, giving the Aggies an F is generous. This is by far the worst defense Florida will face all year- and they play Florida Atlantic.
New Mexico State wins if… they run the ball, try to strip the ball on defense and hope for the best. By taking time off the clock and shortening the game, you magnify the importance of every Florida possession. And if you are able to take off four minutes of clock per drive and force a couple of turnovers, you could make the Gators nervous.
Florida wins if… they don’t show up completely wasted. The only conceivable way Florida loses this game is if they literally hand the ball to NMSU defenders and fall asleep on defense. Don’t do that.
What to watch for: Will Florida score 70 points? It’s the first game under Jim McElwain, and he’ll be looking to make a good impression on our admittedly impatient fan base. There’s little doubt that Florida will eclipse 50 points against this horrid defense. What they get beyond that is going to be a good indicator of whether McElwain is an Urban Meyer type brute who just likes scoring points for fun, or if he has the ability to show mercy to teams who didn’t do anything to irk him.
On a more serious note, the emergence of new faces is always something to watch for in a season opener, even if it’s against a team of practice dummies like New Mexico State. C’yontai Lewis had a big spring at the tight end position; let’s see if he makes some plays in a live game. The guy everybody’s going to be looking at is QB Will Grier, and understandably so; he came into Gainesville with huge expectations, but was redshirted last year. Now it’s time for him to show Florida fans why he’s so hyped up.
But other than that, there’s really not much to watch for, other than placing bets on whether Kelvin Taylor rushes for 200 yards or not. Passing windows are going to be bigger for Will Grier than they will be the rest of the season, Demarcus Robinson won’t have much trouble getting open, and running lanes will be bigger for Florida’s backs than they will be the rest of the season. However many hundreds of yards the Gators pick up is in no way an indication of how they’ll perform against the good teams.
New Mexico State overall grade: F. The Aggies easily qualify as the worst team on Florida’s 2015 schedule, and may be the worst team they’ve played since Florida Atlantic in 2011.
Overview: In one corner, you’ve got a proud SEC program that’s smarting from the aftereffects of its worst coach since the 1970’s, tired of losing, and littered with talent across the board. In the other corner, you’ve got one of the worst teams in college football that’s midway through a rebuilding project that might get them to 6-6 when it’s been completed. Put the gloves on, ring the bell, and let’s fight. This is like Muhammed Ali in his prime vs. a nine year old, though, so don’t expect the fight to last too long.
What else would you expect from an opening game?
Projection: Florida 63, New Mexico State 3