From the outside looking in, the worst aspect of the Florida Gators football team is its defense. A basic observation, no doubt, but it rings true from head to toe from this perspective.
The Gators began their season with a shootout at Ole Miss, posting 642 total yards and 51 points compared to allowing 613 yards and 35 points right back. South Carolina followed that up with a more pedestrian 329 yards and 24 points, but the Gators allowed to Gamecocks to convert a miserable 5-of-6 fourth-down attempts and run 83 plays (36:23 time of possession) compared to UF's 53 (23:37).
This past Saturday, Texas A&M was able to defeat Florida by way of 543 total yards, including 338 from quarterback Kellen Mond, and another 160 from the rushing attack in the second-half alone.
Head coach Dan Mullen hinted at changes to come defensively after the A&M loss, saying he needed to "re-evaluate" that side of the ball. Speaking with the media on Monday, though, Mullen stressed that the issues aren't as bad as outsiders seem to think given the nature of the 2020 season.
"I think we have some guys that are pretty good. We’ve gotten better with our effort and our coverage in the secondary," said Mullen. "You get into it, of looking at that game and some of their explosive plays, heck they made plays."
A lot of them - particularly, a lot of big plays. Mond connected with sophomore receiver Caleb Chapman for a gain of 49 to set up A&M's first touchdown and a gain of 51 on A&M's final touchdown, shortly before the Aggies kicked a game-winning field goal. 17 of Mond's 25 completions went for over 10 yards on the day.
Mullen spent "more time" with the defensive staff on Sunday than usual in order to assess the defense, going player-by-player to determine mismatches, strengths, and weaknesses.
His takeaways? The Gators have simply been facing "great" offenses.
"You can’t mistake great offense for bad defense. So I think that’s one of the things that we’re doing well, that. I think the other thing we’ve done pretty well is understand game situations of when we need to get stops.
For example, you look at this last game and as we continue to grow, as we do it is understanding the team part of football is making sure we have the ball with four minutes to go in a tie game, with an opportunity for the offense to go win it. If you look the last two weeks, we had a big lead. Now I want a three-and-out and get off the field, everybody does. But I also don’t want to give up an explosive play to make it a one-possession game with four or five minutes to go when we can make it 30 seconds to go by the time that possession ends.
So I think our guys understand the game concept, the team concept and having the play maybe a different style of football this year with how the schedule is going to be than you might normally play within the year.”
The Gators did have the ball and were moving down the field as the game was tied and nearing the end, only for running back Malik Davis to fumble and turn the ball over at the UF 48 with 3:40 left. That's what lost Florida the game, in a vacuum, as A&M ran out the clock and hit a 26-yard field goal.
According to Pro Football Focus, however, Florida leads the nation by scoring on 70% of its offensive drives. The "different style of football" Florida's defense is playing this year, compared to its usual aggressive and disruptive demeanor, is that it's riding the coattails of an elite offense that made one of its few mistakes late against A&M. The Gators' defense isn't capable of meeting the standard of play that UF's offense sets, so Florida plays a lot of preventative defensive football to best eliminate opposing offenses from finding similar success.
That strategy didn't work on Saturday against Texas A&M, and it's hard to call the Aggies a "great" offense when you consider the Aggies scored 17 points against Vanderbilt in week one.
Mullen also made note that the team has been "short-handed" on defense, which is also true. Defensive tackle Kyree Campbell has yet to play this season for undisclosed reasons, defensive end Khris Bogle was inactive this past Saturday, STAR cornerback/safety Brad Stewart Jr. missed the first two games of the season, and so on.
Teams of every sport at every level will be expected to miss significant players this year though, whether it be due to injuries, COVID-19-related protocols, or any other reason. Florida isn't particularly in a unique situation here.
Mullen acknowledged the occasional mistake defensively, wishing the unit would be "stouter at times." But at the end of the day, if you think the Gators' defense isn't cutting it this season, Mullen will point you in another direction.
"Did [Texas A&M] make some great plays where we had a guy in great coverage and the quarterback throws a dime and they make a one-handed catch? Yes. We have a guy draped all over him and they make a leaping catch. That's great offense, too, that's not bad defense."