GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida announced FCS foe Northern Colorado as one of its 2017 opponents, the matchup didn’t elicit much excitement.
But, man, are the Gators glad to have this game sitting on the schedule in Week 2.
After their dismal season-opening performance in a 33-17 loss to Michigan on Saturday in Arlington, Texas, the Gators return home humbled and hungry with a prime opportunity to build confidence before the start of SEC play.
Northern Colorado, out of the Big Sky Conference, opened its season with a 41-14 win over the College of Idaho, an NAIA school. Going from playing a non-NCAA program one week to an SEC opponent on the road the next is a lot to ask from the visiting Bears.
That said, it’s not just about winning this week for Florida.
Here are the five things Florida needs to do and show Saturday night in The Swamp:
1. Pile up the points
Confidence is so low and frustration so high right now regarding Florida’s offense that anything less than 500 yards and 50 points against an overmatched FCS opponent would be yet another disappointment.
The Gators have to unleash offensively Saturday night. It won’t change any opinions about the offense, not until they show it against an SEC-caliber opponent, but it will buy the slightest bit of patience from the fan base.
Northern Colorado gave up 215 rushing yards and 336 total offensive yards to an NAIA team last week. The Gators have to pounce, plain and simple.
2. It starts up front
Despite all the preseason praise for Florida’s offensive line, there was always a wait-and-see caveat for those that had seen the same group struggle the last two years.
Well, cautious optimism turned to caustic pessimism after watching the unit get manhandled and overpowered by Michigan.
Again, opinions won’t change this week no matter what they do against an FCS foe, but the line has to dominate Saturday night and rebuild at least some of the confidence it lost in Texas over the weekend.
3. Let it fly with Feleipe Franks
Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks will make his second start for the Gators after being yanked in the third quarter against Michigan.
The season-opening loss was in no way his fault, but the rookie QB still has plenty to prove. He looked jittery and had his stumbles and fumbles against the Wolverines.
If the coaches are convinced Franks is their best chance to win games this year, they need to fully invest in him and give him a full game to establish himself.
And that means taking off the bubble wrap. Yes, he had a 34-yard completion on his first pass last Saturday, but the Gators didn’t let Franks take any true deep shots and show off his cannon arm.
They need to be aggressive and let him air it out this week while showing that this offense may have some potential yet.
With that being said, Franks has to deliver on his end. The coaches don’t need to be reevaluating the position on a week-to-week basis. If he’s their choice, he needs to seize the job.
4. The ‘Get-it-to List’
Yes, there is a theme here. This game is all about the offense.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is under fire from a frustrated fan base right now. His offenses have ranked 111th and 116th nationally in his first two seasons, and the Gators managed only 3 offensive points and 192 yards in their opener after having months to put a compelling game plan together.
The most frustrating part, perhaps, was their failure to even get the ball in the hands of their playmakers.
Yes, the struggles of the offensive line submarined the entire operation, but there was no creativity in the play calling, not adjustments to work around the porous protection.
And almost no touches for high-upside slot weapons Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney.
There’s no excuse for that. Jim McElwain has talked often about how those two can add another dynamic to the offense. Now is the time to show it.
5. Growth in the secondary
Veteran safety Nick Washington looks to be limited by his ailing shoulder(s), and the Gators haven’t yet announced the status of sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner. He was in a walking boot with crutches after the game Saturday.
Florida is already relying on its freshman defensive backs in a big way, but the onus is even greater on those guys to step up and show out if the established guys ahead of them are hurt.
Freshman safety Shawn Davis got beat on a deep touchdown by Michigan, but he’s shown tremendous upside through the preseason and has the potential to be a solid player in his first year. Freshmen cornerbacks Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson got a lot of run in their collegiate debut and need to continue to grow.
McElwain commented Monday that freshman Brad Stewart, who played mostly on special teams Saturday, will need to step up along with sophomore Jeawon Taylor.
Just like with the offense, this is a chance for those guys to load up on confidence against a lesser opponent and get ready for the greater challenges that await after this week.
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