College Football in the SEC is finally back!
Returning to televisions around the country this upcoming Saturday, the highly anticipated return of the Florida Gators—and the entire SEC—marks the end of a wildly unpredictable offseason.
Kicking off step one of that goal on Saturday, the Gators head to Oxford to face the Ole Miss Rebels in what can be considered a tricky matchup.
With the inability to get a grasp of how Ole Miss will operate under new head coach Lane Kiffin come the 26th at noon, the Gators players and staff are in the dark for their first matchup of the year, a notion not lost by Gators head coach Dan Mullen.
“One of the hard ones is when you have a whole new coaching staff," Mullen explained on Monday. "Everybody’s brand new. So you’re kind of trying to mix and match what they’re going to do offensively, what they’re going to do defensively, what they’re going to do special teams wise. Watching all these different other teams from where people have been in the past and then you’re trying to watch their personnel. It’s always tricky.”
Despite the unknowns, Florida goes in understanding the multitude of options—especially offensively—that Ole Miss possesses.
Likely to trot out two quarterbacks on Saturday, the Rebels will look to maximize the skill sets of John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral in the new offensive scheme. With neither being declared as the starter, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham stressed the need to be prepared for each.
“We’ve got to be ready to play both,” Grantham stated.
Plumlee, who stands at 6-foot, 200 pounds, is a highly-athletic dual-threat talent who put together an impressive true freshman campaign last season.
Adding to an already effective Ole Miss running game including the one-two punch of Jerrion Ealy—104 carries for 722 yards and six touchdowns—and Snoop Conner—81 carries for 512 yards and five touchdowns—Plumlee rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on 154 attempts as a true freshman.
In doing so, Plumlee showcased an extraordinary ability to make plays on the ground for the Rebels, one noted by Florida’s newly-named offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach Brian Johnson.
“He’s very dynamic as an athlete and makes a bunch of game-breaking plays," said Johnson. "Luckily, I don’t have to be coach Grantham this week.”
With uncanny escapability and improvisation under pressure, Plumlee fits the mold of quarterback play that has given the Gators fits in recent memory, including losses to Joshua Dobbs with Tennessee and Terry Wilson with Kentucky in the past five seasons.
Containing Plumlee is crucial to Florida’s success, and starting defensive back Marco Wilson emphasizes that as a focal point.
“We just have to make sure that we contain him. We’re well aware that he can run; the guy is fast. We’ve got to make sure we keep an eye on that. Don’t get lazy in our techniques upfront and make sure we hone in on that.”
Adding 910 yards, four touchdowns, but three interceptions through the air, Plumlee has his moments of good and bad in the passing game. However, those duties are often cast-off on Plumlee’s counterpart, in Corral.
Once a commit to the University of Florida prior to Mullen’s arrival to the program. Flipping from the Gators to the Rebels as part of the 2018 recruiting cycle, Corral saw limited action in year one.
A year later, last season as a redshirt freshman, Corral saw action in 10 games. On the year, Corral was the Rebels leading passer in nearly every statistical category, going 105 for 178, 1,362 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. While Plumlee brings the highlight-reels and unpredictability, Corral brings the arm and passing efficiency to the table for Ole Miss.
The Rebels offense is one that can be resurrected under the offensive prowess of Kiffin in 2020 with four returning starters on the offensive line, Elijah Moore highlighting a young but potentially talented receiving corps, and the aforementioned talent at the running back and quarterbacks positions.
However, the bright spot defensively takes a harder look.
Returning their top two leading tacklers in Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones at linebacker and getting back some other talented pieces lost to injury last year, Kiffin and company are set up with a foundation to work with.
On the contrary, a lack of depth at nearly every position makes the defensive unit their weakness, and one Mullen looks to exploit come Saturday.
Offensively, Florida is slated to have its way with the Ole Miss defensive unit. Despite a shortened offseason training program due to COVID-19, the abundance of veterans for the team plays into Florida’s favor. With an experienced offensive line, Florida’s play-calling should fall back into a near-even split between running the rock and slinging around the pigskin to align with Mullen’s long successful smash-mouth spread concept.
Defensively, Florida will look to bring the pressure as always under Grantham’s tutelage. However, the discipline to stay in their lanes will be crucial for the Gators’ success against the dynamic Plumlee.
In UF’s first action of last season against Miami, missed tackles and mental mistakes loomed large in a game that came down the wire. With a lack of preparation this offseason, more of the same is not an unlikely occurrence, especially with kickoff being at noon.
With the need to continuously adjust the game plan on a drive-by-drive basis for the quarterback that lines up under center (in the shotgun), Grantham and his defense could have their hands full.
Ultimately, Florida should have the upper hand against a team still attempting to build itself up to prominence. While Ole Miss is a formidable opponent—at least for Florida’s defense—mental mistakes and early season woes will undoubtedly occur on both sides.
In the end, the team that is more equipped to handle these ups and downs in game one is the squad that looks to be vying for a national championship berth, rather than one rebuilding from the ground following a 4-8 season.