The Florida Gators are not the best football team in the country, but they scored the best victory of any team in the United States in Week 1 of the college football season.
By Matt Zemek
Their 29-26 win over the defending Pac-12 champion Utah Utes showed how good Anthony Richardson can be at quarterback, and it showed that first-year head coach Billy Napier seems to be the detail-oriented, driven leader who can bring Florida football back to the top of the SEC in the course of time. It was a rousing win and an extremely encouraging collection of developments for a team, a coach, and a program which all have a lot more cause for optimism compared to one week ago. Now the Gators have to turn around and play Kentucky, a team which has supplanted both Florida and Tennessee as the second-best team in the SEC East. Kentucky won 10 games last year and captured a New Year’s Day bowl victory (in the Citrus Bowl versus Iowa). There once was a time when Kentucky was a routinely expected win. Not anymore. Florida will have a battle on its hands. Here is what the Gators need to do to win:
1 – Anthony Richardson as a passer
We know Richardson is a brilliant runner. Now we get to the point where Richardson has to find more ways to beat opposing defenses, so that they can’t focus on one part of his game and thereby limit his options on any given play. Richardson threw for a modest 168 yards against Utah. He needs to hit big passes down the field, because that is what defenses are going to give to him. They will try to take away the running game. Richardson’s next step in his evolution is being a lethal pocket passer who sees the bodies in the tackle box committed to stopping the ground game, and throwing over the top to send a message to middle linebackers and strong safeties: You can’t cheat too far up the field. I’m going to drop this ball behind you so that you can’t inhabit the tackle box before the snap. If Richardson can do this versus Kentucky or any other good team in 2022, it’s a game-changer for the Florida offense.
2 – Rush defense
Florida’s defense was physically outplayed by Utah’s offensive line in the second half last week. The Gators played a very good first half, but after halftime, the Utes committed to the ground game and hammered away at UF’s defensive front. Florida was lucky that Utah running back Tavion Thomas slipped and fell on second and goal in the third quarter. If he hadn’t, Utah probably would have scored more than 30 points, and the outcome of that game might have been different. This game against Kentucky requires a much more resilient performance from the defensive line. Kentucky cannot be allowed to control the ball and milk the clock, thereby keeping Anthony Richardson off the field.
3 – The big-play receiver
This relates to the above need to get Anthony Richardson more confidence as a passer. He needs a receiver he can trust down the field. Ricky Pearsall is likely that guy. He caught four passes for 67 yards against Utah, his longest catch being 23 yards. We need to see Pearsall or someone else get behind a defense and create a home-run play of at least 40 yards if not more. That will change how defenses play Anthony Richardson specifically and Florida’s offense generally. It would have major implications for the rest of the season.
Saturday‘s game kicks off at 5:00 PM CT (7:00 PM ET). You can watch this SEC football game on the ESPN Network.