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September 13, 2010

Florida offense remains a work in progress

In Week 1, Florida's offense was embarrassing. And for the first 29 minutes of Saturday's game against USF, it remained embarrassing.

But a TD with 47 seconds left in the first half seemed to energize the offense, and the Gators dominated the second half to come away with a 38-14 victory.

Florida scored 31 second-half points and carry a mountain of momentum into Saturday's game at Tennessee, the SEC opener for both schools.

When the Gators begin to break down tape of the Vols, they'll notice Tennessee's lack of depth overall and lack of playmakers on offense. Oregon exposed the Vols' shortcomings in a 48-13 rout Saturday night; the Ducks, too, dominated the second half, scoring five touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to turn a close game into a laugher.

But while Florida should feel good about its chances of winning for the seventh time in its past nine trips to Neyland Stadium, it seems extremely doubtful that the Gators will be able to match Oregon's point total. Despite its strong second half against USF, this offense remains a work in progress without Tim Tebow, who made his NFL debut Sunday with 2 yards on two carries for Denver.

Florida still is finding its way in the passing game. The Gators lost their top three receivers from last season and no one has stepped up to be the go-to guy. Frankly, if the defense keeps forcing turnovers (nine in two games) and tailback Jeff Demps keeps averaging 12.5 yards per carry, Florida no doubt will win its next two games, against the Vols and Kentucky. But after that looms a trip to Tuscaloosa, and unless the Gators can play a whole game on offense like they played in the second half against USF, it could get ugly.

But that second half against the Bulls lends hope (and, no, we're not saying USF is equal to Alabama -- not even close).

"It feels a lot better," junior quarterback John Brantley told reporters after the game. "You feel a lot better leaving the game knowing all cylinders were working pretty well. We had more rushing yards than passing yards [251 to 172], which is a good thing. It puts you in a better mood."

Brantley is a vastly different kind of quarterback than Tebow, the main difference being that he is no running threat. Thus, a lot of Florida's offensive staples the past few seasons -- the read option, the shovel pass to the tight end -- have to be discarded (though the coaches stubbornly ran the shovel pass a few times Saturday, only to see it stuffed each time).

"We're more of a blue-collar team," coach Urban Meyer said afterward. "It's different. It's different for me. A little more traditional. It's what I think we are. I still don't know. We're still searching. It's kind of where we want to be."

This season, instead of the focus being on the quarterback, it needs to be on Demps. He's the fastest player in college football -- he's the reigning NCAA 100-meter champion -- and has scored on 60-plus-yard runs in each of the first two games. Quite simply, the guy's a jet, and with Florida's experienced offensive line -- the five projected starters still aren't healthy, though they might be for Tennessee -- and a deep stable of backs, the Gators can probe and probe with the run, then hope Demps finds a crease. His speed should be an especially big weapon in the second half, when defenses presumably are worn down.

Senior center Mike Pouncey, for one, knows what the Gators have in Demps.

"Obviously, we found out who our playmaker is on offense," he told reporters Saturday afternoon.

Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, in his second season on the job, seems to understand, too.

"I'm not saying we have arrived; I'm just saying I think we've started the process," he said after the game. " That wasn't a great feeling last week [212 total yards against Miami of Ohio, including just 23 through three quarters]. We started out real shaky [against USF], but kind of found our groove. I feel better about that."

As good as the running game can be, though, Brantley and the passing attack eventually need to come around. Brantley takes care of the ball -- he hasn't thrown an interception since 2008, a span of 12 games -- and has a strong arm. But at times, he seems too set on throwing to junior Deonte Thompson, the team's leading returning receiver. There is some talent -- albeit untested -- at the other receiver spots, and once Brantley becomes more comfortable with those guys, this truly will be an explosive offense.

The question for the Gators and the rest of the SEC is whether that comfort level is reached this season or next. The Gators have to hope the process truly begins in the next two weeks.

The little guy comes up big again
Week 1 of the season saw 39 games in which FBS schools played FCS opponents, and the FCS schools went 2-37. But both wins came over Big Six conference schools (Jacksonville State over Ole Miss and North Dakota State over Kansas).

There were 25 such games in Week 2. FCS members doubled their victory total, and one win -- James Madison over Virginia Tech -- was the biggest shocker of the weekend; it was just the second time that a FCS school beat a ranked FBS team.

The other three FCS winners were Liberty over Ball State, Gardner-Webb over Akron and South Dakota over Minnesota. Liberty and Gardner-Webb are in the Big South, which gets an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs for the first time this season.

As for Minnesota, it's coach Tim Brewster's second loss to a FCS team in his four seasons; his Golden Gophers lost to North Dakota State in 2007, Brewster's first season.

The losses by Akron and Ball State, while embarrassing, aren't as bad as the losses by Minnesota and Virginia Tech. Indeed, of the six wins by FCS schools against FBS teams this season, four have come over members of a Big Six conference.

Grid bits
Maybe South Carolina needs offseason turmoil every year. The Gamecocks had numerous issues in the month leading up to the start of the season, but they're 2-0 after pounding Southern Miss in the opener, then shutting down Georgia on Saturday. Defense was supposed to be the Gamecocks' calling card and it surely was Saturday, as they held Georgia to 253 yards and six points. Georgia was without star WR A.J. Green, and his absence is glaring because no other Bulldogs wide receiver must be double-teamed. The Gamecocks have a gimme this week with FCS member Furman, then get Auburn and Alabama back-to-back; the Tide game is at home, though the Gamecocks do have a week off after the Auburn game. The first two weeks certainly make it seem as if the Gamecocks are legit SEC East challengers, but we should know for sure after the visit from the Tide.

No one questions Georgia Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt's ability to deftly run the option, but the guy is a horrible passer, as Saturday's loss at Kansas -- which was coming off a loss to FCS member North Dakota State -- again showed. Nesbitt threw for 116 yards and a TD, but he was just 5-of-15 throwing the ball. That makes him 6-of-21 on the season, a completion rate of 28.6 percent. If you add in the last game of last season, a loss to Iowa, Nesbitt is 8-of-30, which is a completion percentage of 26.7. Nesbitt and Tech play North Carolina next week.

Everyone points to Florida State's defense as the biggest culprit in the Seminoles' struggles the past two seasons, and that unit certainly deserves blame for the 8-7 record since the beginning of last season. But don't let the offense escape blame, specifically the rushing attack. For all the talk about FSU's excellent offensive line, a closer look at some numbers reveals that line struggles against "good" defenses. Florida State ran for 36 yards against Oklahoma on Saturday in a 47-17 loss that wasn't that close. Last season, in its six losses (all to bowl teams), the Seminoles averaged 98.5 rushing yards. Take out the 180 rushing yards against Georgia Tech -- which was 68th nationally in rush defense -- and FSU's average dropped to 82.0 yards.

Colorado's 24-3 win in its opener over Colorado State made some folks think the Buffs might be good enough to save Dan Hawkins' job. Then came Week 2. The Buffs were well, they were slaughtered 52-7 by California. And Nevada hammered Colorado State 51-6. Colorado gets Hawaii and Georgia in its next two games and plays four of its next five at home. The Buffs probably need to go 3-2 in those five to have a legit shot at a bowl bid.

Going into Saturday's game at Connecticut, FCS member Texas Southern had been outscored by an average of 53 points per game in its past five games against FBS teams. That average actually rose Saturday, as UConn won 62-3.

Baylor is 2-0 for the first time since 2005. But that's nothing compared with Temple, which is 2-0 for the first time since 1981.

Dominique Davis wasn't officially named the starter at quarterback for East Carolina until late August, and the decision has made new coach Ruffin McNeill look like a genius. McNeill had been defensive coordinator for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and when he was named coach at ECU -- his alma mater -- he brought along Tech inside receivers coach Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator. Riley installed a version of Leach's "Air Raid" attack, and given that ECU was a running team under former coach Skip Holtz, there were questions about how effective the Pirates could be offensively. Those questions have gone away, for the most part. ECU is 2-0 and has rolled up 963 yards of offense in its two games. (ECU had 39 first downs in Saturday's win over Memphis. Yep, 39.) Davis has thrown for 627 yards and eight TDs while completing 64.3 percent of his passes, and also has rushed for three scores. He is the former starter at run-oriented Boston College; he flunked out last year and went to a junior college before heading to East Carolina. Davis and the Pirates get reeling Virginia Tech this weekend. ECU beat the Hokies in 2008.

Virginia Tech received bad news Sunday when starting DT Kwamaine Battle was ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

As for the effect Virginia Tech's loss had on Boise State, the Broncos remained No. 3 in the coaches' poll but still lost 26 points despite not playing this week. The AP poll has no bearing on the BCS, but Boise State went from eight first-place votes in last week's poll to one this week. Interestingly, Virginia Tech received four votes in the coaches' poll.

What happens when two triple-option teams meet up? Boring football. Navy beat FCS member Georgia Southern 13-7, and the teams combined for 302 total yards. They had rushed for a combined 843 yards in their openers, but presumably because of the familiarity with the opposing offense, they managed just a combined 182 rushing yards Saturday.

Stats don't always mean everything. Consider North Texas. In two games, against Clemson and Rice, the Mean Green have outgained their foes 882-773 and have 14 more first downs. Yet they're 0-2 after Saturday's one-point loss to Rice.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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