“This conference, and it’s not a surprise, but this conference is loaded up on defense,” Urban Meyer said.
The Southeastern Conference isn’t the Metro Athletic Conference or the Mountain West Conference, where Meyer earned a reputation for being an offensive artist at Bowling Green and Utah. The naysayers at the time of Meyer’s hiring at Florida said his spread offense wouldn’t work nearly as well in the physical SEC, and so far, they’ve been proven right.
The Gators are fourth in the conference with 383.1 yards per game, but they’ve averaged 10 points in their two league losses. Against LSU, Florida benefited from five turnovers and still scored just 17.
“Do I think (the offense) can work? Absolutely,” Meyer said. “Do I think we have a lot of work to do? That’s rather obvious. We do have to adapt.”
The No. 16 Gators (5-2, 3-2 SEC) were expected to spend at least part of last week’s off week searching for adjustments to boost their offense, but Georgia coach Mark Richt doesn’t expect to see a vastly different product when the No. 4 Bulldogs (7-0, 5-0) face Florida on Saturday.
“I think they’ll have a few things new, but I would be very surprised to see any kind of wholesale change,” Richt said. “It would be very, very difficult to change what you’re doing in a two-week period. I think they’ll just be working hard to be better at what they do.”
The Gators have especially struggled against speedy defenses like the one Georgia has, their coach said, and the statistics prove it. Against Tennessee, Alabama and LSU, Florida averaged 259.7 yards and 12 points and scored only three touchdowns combined. Only one of those touchdowns came on a drive longer than 32 yards.
Most of the frustration in Gainesville, Fla., has been directed at junior quarterback Chris Leak, whose numbers have dipped in Meyer’s system.
Leak led the SEC in passing yards (266.4 per game) and total yards (273 per game) and was 16th in the country in pass efficiency rating last year. This year, he’s fourth in the league in passing yards (225 per game) and 52nd nationally in efficiency.
“I think everybody wants to put everything on Chris, and I have said this before that surely Chris has got to improve, but we’ve got to block people better for him and we have got to get people open,” said Meyer, who added that replacing Leak with backup Josh Portis is not an option. “What has happened is that Chris will be fundamentally set, but we’re not beating man coverage. Then all of a sudden, he’s not (set) and we’re beating man coverage.”
One of Leak’s problems is he often has been knocked around or is afraid he’s going to be knocked around. The Gators have given up 24 sacks, most in the conference.
“I don’t think we as a staff did a good job (against LSU) of getting him adequate protection and other things to help him be successful,” Meyer said. “I’m disappointed not as much with Chris Leak as I am with our offense and our preparation by our coaching staff.”
Richt offers the same argument all Meyer’s supporters point to -- the spread offense takes time to teach -- and said it’s too early to pass judgment.
“I think the history with Coach Meyer’s offense with Bowling Green and Utah is the first season was not as prolific as it became in the second year in the system,” Richt said. “I think it just takes a little time to find out.”
In Meyer’s second seasons at his previous stops, his team averaged at least 65 more yards and 10 more points per game. The Gators also will benefit next year from being able to customize the roster more toward the system and the return of wide receiver Andre Caldwell from a broken leg.
“When everyone is healthy, I think (the offense) fits,” Meyer said. “It’s a completely different offense from what we ran last year at Utah, and it’s completely different from Bowling Green. I think the biggest differences are the defenses we’re facing.”