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10 thoughts on Florida college football’s first half, plus 3 predictions

Let’s take a look at the Gators, Seminoles, Bulls, Hurricanes and Knights midway through the season.
 
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier picked a nice quarterback in Graham Mertz, but his offensive line has been underwhelming.
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier picked a nice quarterback in Graham Mertz, but his offensive line has been underwhelming. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]
Published Oct. 17, 2023|Updated Oct. 17, 2023

Midway through the college football season is a good time to reflect on what we’ve seen in the state so far and what we expect to see before mid-December. Here’s one pleasant surprise and one concern for five Florida teams (the Gators, Florida State, USF, UCF and Miami) plus three predictions for the back half:

Florida Gators

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz is one of the most accurate passers in the nation.
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz is one of the most accurate passers in the nation. [ JACOB KUPFERMAN | Orlando Sentinel ]

Pleasant surprise: I was skeptical when Billy Napier said he and his staff chose Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz out of two-dozen potential targets in the portal. I get it now. Mertz’s 76.2 completion percentage is third nationally and on track to shatter Florida’s single-season record (70.7% by Wayne Peace in 1982). Mertz is efficient (12 touchdowns, two interceptions), which, in theory, is enough to complement a strong run game and defense.

Biggest concern: Napier puts such a premium on a great offensive line that he deploys two coaches at the position. The results aren’t great. Florida ranks No. 107 nationally in sacks allowed (19) and tackles for loss allowed (45). They’re not all the fault of the line, but the group had questionable defections in the offseason and has underwhelmed this fall.

Florida State Seminoles

Even if you thought Florida State would be good, the Seminoles' 6-0 start has lived up to the hype.
Even if you thought Florida State would be good, the Seminoles' 6-0 start has lived up to the hype. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Pleasant surprise: Just because a team has playoff potential does not mean it will fulfill it. No. 4 FSU has done its part so far thanks to a 6-0 start with a rout of LSU and overtime triumph at Clemson. Only the Seminoles and Michigan are in the top 16 nationally in offense, defense and special teams, according to ESPN’s opponent-adjusted SP+ advanced metrics. After years of underachieving, FSU deserves credit for living up to the hype, if not exceeding it.

Biggest concern: It’s hard to nitpick Jordan Travis, but he’s only completing 63.2% of his passes (51st nationally). Four other championship contenders (Michigan, Washington, Georgia and Oklahoma) have quarterbacks in the top 10 in that stat, while Penn State’s Drew Allar (65.2%) and Ohio State’s Kyle McCord (64.1%) are higher than FSU, too. This is an area to monitor Saturday against No. 16 Duke and beyond.

USF Bulls

USF quarterback Byrum Brown is one of the most prolific players in the nation.
USF quarterback Byrum Brown is one of the most prolific players in the nation. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
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Pleasant surprise: Though Byrum Brown played well in his two starts at the end of last season, his progress has surpassed reasonable expectations — especially since it wasn’t clear until Week 1 that he, not Gerry Bohanon, would start at quarterback. Brown’s 309.7 yards of total offense per game rank 12th nationally ahead of Travis, Caleb Williams, Spencer Rattler and Tyler Van Dyke.

Biggest concern: After allowing the most yards per play nationally last season (7.43), USF’s defense has improved. But rising to 124th (6.45 yards per play allowed) and giving up 56 points in back-to-back games against American Athletic Conference newcomers Alabama Birmingham and Florida Atlantic isn’t enough growth.

UCF Knights

UCF's loss to Baylor remains inexplicable as the Knights continue in Big 12 play.
UCF's loss to Baylor remains inexplicable as the Knights continue in Big 12 play. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Orlando Sentinel ]

Pleasant surprise: The Knights rank third nationally in rushing yards per game (246.3) and per carry (5.96). That’s better than last year, despite the departure of top back (Isaiah Bowser) and an injury to starting, dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.

Biggest concern: Growing pains in the Big 12 were expected. An 0-3 conference record could have been, too. But the all-around issues that allowed UCF to give up 29 unanswered points to Baylor in the biggest collapse in program history? Those remain incomprehensible and don’t reflect well on the immediate future against a major-conference schedule.

Miami Hurricanes

Miami's last two Power Five games have looked too much like other recent Hurricanes teams.
Miami's last two Power Five games have looked too much like other recent Hurricanes teams. [ CHRIS SEWARD | AP ]

Pleasant surprise: Beating then-No. 23 Texas A&M was nice. Beating the uber-talented Aggies by 15 in a game that didn’t feel that close was a statement of what Mario Cristobal’s program is capable of.

Biggest concern: What if that victory was a mirage? Because the next two Power Five games looked a lot like old, bad Miami teams, filled with self-destruction from the staff (clock management vs. Georgia Tech, a 15-yard penalty from defensive coordinator Lance Guidry at North Carolina) and on the field (nine turnovers, 149 penalty yards and blown second-half leads).

3 lukewarm predictions I’ll regret come December

Florida State remains our pick to win the ACC and make the College Football Playoff.
Florida State remains our pick to win the ACC and make the College Football Playoff. [ DENNIS NETT | syracuse.com ]

1. FSU beats North Carolina in the final minute to win the ACC and make the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014.

2. Florida, USF and Miami all finish the regular season 6-6 to make bowls. It’s enough to preserve most of Florida’s elite recruiting class, inspire confidence in USF’s turnaround and lead to another offseason of questions surrounding Cristobal.

3. UCF gets its first Big 12 win against West Virginia next weekend.

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