Saturday, January 14, 2017

2016 Gator Football: A Year In Review

The 2016 Florida Gator football season gave graduating students like myself a great going away present as the Orange and Blue posted a 9-4 (6-2 SEC) record and finished No. 14 in the polls. What makes this season one for the books is for the second time in just three years, Florida lost out on a home game.

During my sophomore year in 2014, the home opener against Idaho was cancelled due to heavy rain. This year, it was Hurricane Matthew that postponed a contest against LSU. With this being a conference game of course, it could not just simply be cancelled. So the result was the senior day game against Presbyterian was nixed and instead Florida went to Death Valley for a makeup game. I'll get into that later though.

This Gator team was essentially what I have been used to as an undergrad these last three years. The offense became ineffective, the defense dominated, and key players went down with injuries left and right. The one positive change for Florida was that special teams was definitely the most consistent and effective unit this season.

Florida's offense yet again was a puzzle that could not be solved. They averaged 23.9 points per game while scoring 311 points on the year, ranking them 107th in total offense out of 128 D-I college football teams.

On the ground, they rushed for 1,667 total yards as a team and averaged 128.2 rushing yards per game. This would be good for 113th overall in the nation. The Gators employed a committee running back system split up between Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson, and Jordan Cronkrite.

In the air, the Gators totaled 2,805 yards and averaged 215.8 passing yards per game. This was a better offensive category for Florida, as the Gators finished with a ranking of 79th. As had been the case the last three seasons, Florida could not enjoy the benefit of playing just one quarterback the whole year.

Luke Del Rio looked to be a decent game manager through two games, but a knee injury against North Texas in the third game of the season messed with his psyche and he was never the same. Austin Appleby, the graduate transfer from Purdue, would do his best at the helm as Florida went 4-3 with him as the starter.

The Gator defense, on the other hand, was GOOD. They concluded the season ranked 5th in total defense as they gave up just 4.7 yards per play and 293 yards per game. Scoring against Florida was no easy task either, as opponents totaled 218 points and averaged just 16.8 points per game against the 6th best scoring defense in the country.

The Gators forced 24 turnovers (16 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries) to finish 32nd in turnovers gained. Among those turnovers, they were 14th in passes intercepted and took four of those picks back for touchdowns. The four pick-sixes were the most a Gator defense had recorded since the 2010 season.

In the red zone, just ask LSU how good Florida was. The Gators finished the season ranked 4th in red zone defense as opponents were 28 of 39 on attempts in this area of the field. Three of these stops came against LSU.

Florida was also 40th in bringing down the quarterback, recording 31 total sacks. Redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga led the team with five quarterback takedowns. Zuniga's feat etched him in Gator football lore as he became the first freshman to record five sacks in a season since Huey Richardson in 1987.

Special Teams
The kicking demons of last seasons were exorcised with the arrival of Eddy Pineiro on campus. The redshirt sophomore gave fans something to cheer for every Saturday with his swagger and poise on the field.

Having never played organized football before, Piniero had a great first season for the Orange and Blue. He nailed 21 of 25 field goal attempts (84%) with his longest being a 54 yarder against Kentucky. He was perfect on extra point attempts as he went 32 for 32. On kickoffs, 48 of his 66 kicks went through the end zone for touchbacks.

In the punting realm, the Gators had one of the nation's best punters in redshirt junior Johnny Townsend. Even though he was snubbed out of even being a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, Townsend logged in magnificent performances game in and game out.

Florida finished 11th in net punting, as Johnny averaged 47.9 yards per punt and totaled 3,065 punting yards. He pinned teams inside their own 20-yard line 27 times with fair catches being called another 18 times. His longest punt was 62 yards and was one of 29 punts he had sail over 50 yards. He had just one punt blocked, which came against No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship.

The 2016 Schedule
Going undefeated in all five (should have been seven) of their home games this season, the Florida Gators had much more tougher games on the road throughout the 2016 season. They posted a 2-3 record away from The Swamp, with all three losses coming by double digits. In neutral site games (Georgia and Alabama), they went 1-1 with both games being decided by double digits.

In the 2016 home opener, the University of Florida honored Steve Spurrier with the renaming of Florida Field to Steve Spurrier Field. It was a night game and rained for a good bit of the first half. Florida showed it still had some offensive issues to overcome while the defense dominated. The Gators needed a 14-point fourth quarter just to make it look like they were in control and won 24-7.

By far the hottest game in The Swamp with a 3:30 kickoff, this game was a romp. With all of us clad in orange, the Gators mauled Kentucky 45-7. This extended Florida's winning streak over the Wildcats to 30 straight games.  It was an accomplishment I was happy to have witnessed in person.

North Texas
The second night game of the season was another fun one for me as I donned my trademark Steve Spurrier visor for the first time. The Gators shutout the Mean Green 32-0, but again the offense struggled. On top of that, Luke Del Rio suffered a knee injury at the end of the third quarter. He would never recover mentally.

at No. 14 Tennessee
By far the toughest weekend for me due to personal reasons, the Gators added to my woes as they blew a 21-3 lead to the Vols in the second half. The crowd at Neyland Stadium that afternoon got to Florida, as Tennessee scored 35 unanswered points and ultimately won 38-28.

This was Austin Appleby's first start, but the first loss to Tennessee in 11 years can't be pinned on him. For some reason, Florida's offensive play calling became super conservative in the third quarter and Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs picked apart the Gator defense.

Tennessee did prove that "a duck could pull a truck", as this game was their version of the National Championship. What made this tough loss even harder for Florida fans to stomach was that the Gators' chances of becoming life champions had been dashed.

at Vanderbilt
It was bad enough that this game was slated for a noon kickoff, but it was also evident that Florida had not moved past the Tennessee loss. The Gators needed an interception from safety Nick Washington to seal what was still a close game in the fourth quarter. They only won 13-6, with Jordan Scarlett accounting for Florida's only touchdown. The offense looked bad as this was one of Austin Appleby's worst games of the season.

It was in this game that I sported my classic Florida Gator button down shirt with my Spurrier visor, an outfit which became a favorite among all my friends. Looking at the game now, it was an afternoon kickoff that featured some rain. This was the second time in three seasons that Missouri was the homecoming opponent, and the Gators did all they could to avenge their 42-13 blowout loss two seasons ago.

Both Quincy Wilson and Jalen "Teez" Tabor took back an interception for a touchdown while Antonio Callaway shocked us all by returning an onside kick for a touchdown. Florida convincingly won the game 40-14, despite Luke Del Rio throwing three interceptions in his return.

A game I was actually able to attend this time because of a free ticket from a friend, Florida-Georgia this season was a blast! I could write a whole article alone about the great moments we had while tailgating and staying at my buddy's house in Jacksonville. As expected, I donned the visor and long sleeve to the game.

As for the game itself, Florida yet again defeated Georgia as they won 24-14 for their third straight victory over the Bulldogs. It was honestly a tough game to watch offensively and probably would not have been that thrilling had I been watching in on TV.

at Arkansas
This game was a bloodbath. Florida came into Fayetteville ranked No. 11 and got absolutely rocked. They lost 31-10, with their only score coming from a Duke Dawson pick-six. The Gators rushed for 12 total yards and Luke Del Rio suffered and played through a shoulder injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season. I do commend Del Rio's bravery though. My hat goes off to him for his perseverance.

South Carolina
The final home game of my undergrad career was fittingly a noon kickoff. I donned my visor and long sleeve one last time and went out to support the Gators on Senior Day. With Appleby back in command, the Gators stuck it to ex-coach Will Muschamp and won 20-7. For once, I could be happy after a Muschamp loss in The Swamp.

at No. 16 LSU
So much trash talking and controversy surrounded this noon makeup game as it took place in Baton Rouge and not Gainesville. Despite LSU athletic director Joe Alleva's incompetence and lack of understanding, Florida agreed to the unfair terms LSU offered just to get the game played. It was simple: a win clinched the SEC East and a loss left it in the hands of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game.

Florida had one touchdown the whole game, which was a 98-yard strike from Appleby to true freshman Tyrie Cleveland in the third quarter. The ending of this game would forever go down in Gator football history, as Florida used a goal line stand to stuff the Tigers with no time left on the clock. It was a thrilling way to clinch the SEC East, and I was glad that I was able to see Florida beat LSU on the gridiron during my undergrad career.

at No. 14 Florida State
Once again, the Seminoles manhandled the Gators in this primetime affair. Appleby was sacked six times and the offense was atrocious. Florida's only touchdown came on a fumbled punt that Marcell Harris scooped up and took into the end zone.

Harris's fumble recovery cut the lead to 24-13, but only delayed the inevitable 31-13 loss. Florida was embarrassed for the second straight season (and the third time in the last four years), and I graduated never seeing a football win against Florida State.

No. 1 Alabama (SEC Championship)
It was worse than last year as Alabama steamrolled Florida. The Gators scored on the opening possession to lead 7-0, but that was quickly erased. Alabama scored on both a pick-six and a blocked punt as Appleby through three picks... IN THE FIRST HALF.

I applaud the Gators' effort, especially that of linebacker Jarrad Davis (who's status was questionable leading up to the game). However, Alabama was just too good. The Tide won 54-16, making Florida 0-3 against them during my undergrad career.

Iowa (Outback Bowl)
In a game I was very nervous about, Florida proved me wrong. The defense showed out under interim (and now permanent) defensive coordinator Randy Shannon while Austin Appleby played moderately decent.

The Gators avoided the same bowl fate of the 2015 squad as they had a couple offensive touchdowns to complement a dominating defensive performance. They routed Iowa by a score of 30-3 and earned America free blooming onions from Outback Steakhouse.

And now the stat leaders of the 2016 campaign:


Passing Yards: Austin Appleby (1,447) (Graduate)

Passing Touchdowns: Austin Appleby (10)

Completions: Austin Appleby (127)

Interceptions: Luke Del Rio (8) (Redshirt Sophomore)

Rushing Yards: Jordan Scarlett (899) (Sophomore)

Rushing Touchdowns: Jordan Scarlett (6)

Receiving Yards: Antonio Callaway (721) (Sophomore)

Receiving Touchdowns: Antonio Callaway/DeAndre Goolsby (3) (Junior)


Tackles: Marcell Harris (73) (Redshirt Junior)

Tackles For Loss: Caleb Brantley (9.5) (Redshirt Junior)

Sacks: Jabari Zuniga (5) (Redshirt Freshman)

Interceptions: Jalen "Teez" Tabor (4) (Junior)

Fumbles Forced: Taven Bryan (2) (Redshirt Sophomore)

Fumbles Recovered: Taven Bryan (2)

Quarterback Hurries: Jabari Zuniga (11)

Pass Breakups: Duke Dawson (7) (Junior)

Special Teams

Field Goals Made: Eddy Pineiro (21) (Redshirt Sophomore)

Longest Field Goal: Eddy Pineiro (54)

PAT's: Eddy Pineiro (32)

Touchbacks: Eddy Pineiro (48)

Kickoff Return Yards: Chris Thompson (283) (Senior)

Punt Return Yards: Antonio Callaway (218)

Punts: Johnny Townsend (64) (Redshirt Junior)

Punt Yards: Johnny Townsend (3,065)

Punts Inside the 20: Johnny Townsend (27)

Graduating Seniors
Here are all the true and redshirt seniors who will be leaving the Gator football program:

NFL Draftees
Here are all the Gators who have declared for the draft as well as seniors who may get drafted:

  • Jalen "Teez" Tabor - Cornerback (Junior)
  • Marcus Maye - Safety (Redshirt Senior)
  • Caleb Brantley - Defensive Lineman (Redshirt Junior)
  • Quincy Wilson - Cornerback (Junior)
  • Jarrad Davis - Linebacker (Senior)
  • David Sharpe - Offensive Lineman (Junior)
  • Alex Anzalone - Linebacker (Redshirt Junior)
  • Bryan Cox Jr. - Defensive Lineman (Redshirt Senior)

Finally, here a couple players who will be leaving the Florida Gator football program in the offseason. I wish the best to them wherever they go!

Final Takeaway
The 2016 season saw slight improvement for the Gator football program as they try each and every day to undue the damages of the Muschamp era. Coach McElwain's first bowl win at Florida is good progress along with a second consecutive SEC East division title.

Some ways to build off this success now would be to:

  1. Get a legitimate quarterback and develop him (whether it's Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, or newcomer Jake Allen)
  2. WIN the SEC Championship
  4. Earn a bid to a New Year's Six Bowl
  5. Banking off the first point, field a competent offense that can consistently put up more than 30 points a game.

If Florida and Coach Mac can accomplish even half of these five goals that I have listed, than 2017 will be a fun season for Gator fans everywhere.

Author's Note
It was fun covering the Gator football team during my four years of undergrad at the University of Florida. After receiving my LSAT score, there is a good chance I will not be attending UF for law school. If that is the case, then this is more than likely my final Gator football article.

It has been an incredible ride writing about this team, and I am blessed to have been able to make the time to write these game recaps. I will be a Gator forever and will support this team through thick and thin. Thank you Florida football, you have tested my patience but also given me moments I will cherish for a lifetime.

All in all, Florida finished with a 30-21 record during my four years of undergrad. What I am about to conclude with is based off of total instinct and not statistics. In 2017, I would not be surprised if Florida went undefeated or made the College Football Playoff somehow now that I have graduated from the university. Knowing my luck, I feel like this will happen (but we will see).

Regardless if I'm right or not,  I'll be patiently waiting for September 2nd.



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