Today, I had a chance to sit down with the wonderful Andy Hutchins, who manages SB Nation’s Florida blog, Alligator Army. He answered all my questions about the Florida fan base and the upcoming game. Here they are.
Nick: Happy game week! Explain how the Gators fan base feels right now about this one. Are they confident in a win? How do they feel about the suspensions that have been coming down?
Andy: I honestly think Florida fans have gone from confidence to doubt to fear, maybe in the span of a week. There was never a deep fear of Michigan -- we remember that Citrus Bowl drubbing, but we also know this is a very different Michigan team, with almost none of that day’s players around -- but there’s now just so much uncertainty about who will be on hand that it’s eroded what confidence anyone had.
Also, surprise: Fans are upset about both suspensions and the dumb things players do to earn them!
Nick: Two storylines from the tail end of the offseason have been the ongoing suspensions of some Gators players and the back-and-forth jawing between Jim Harbaugh and Jim McElwain in the media. The suspensions obviously matter, but what do you make of the back-and-forth between Harbaugh and McElwain?
Andy: I think that it’s probably more fair to call it sniping than jawing. I don’t think there’s any love lost between Harbaugh and McElwain -- Harbaugh doesn’t have too many fans outside of his immediate circle of influence, seems to me, and McElwain, a guy generally disdainful of artifice that isn’t his own, seems particularly unimpressed by Harbaugh’s promotional strategies -- but the back-and-forth has struck me as grousing that doesn’t name names rather than pointed criticism.
And will it matter on Saturday? No. Just on every day thereafter, as columnists spin stories out of it and of the outcome.
Nick: How confident are you in this pass offense of Florida?
Andy: While I’d obviously be more confident if Antonio Callaway were around, and/or if I could be absolutely certain no more suspensions will happen between now and kickoff, I am bullish on what this passing game can be.
Newly-installed starter Feleipe Franks has a live arm and the height to see over the defense, things that you can take for granted as a fan of teams other than post-Tim Tebow Florida but cherish as one of said fans. If Florida’s supposedly significantly improved offensive line can keep him upright, the play designs that have routinely gotten players open under McElwain might just turn into actual big plays instead of opportunities missed by previous passers.
Now, could that go wrong? Of course. Franks is green, and he was bad in the 2016 spring game before being middling to good in the 2017 spring game. All reports suggest that he’s been pretty good in practice, but I sincerely believe Florida had a real choice between him, Malik Zaire, and Luke Del Rio, so I don’t know that he’s set the world on fire.
Believing in Florida’s line is believing before seeing at this juncture. And Callaway has been this team’s best receiver by a substantial margin. But, again: Bullish.
Nick: I can’t let you go without asking a prediction. Who wins this one? And do you feel like Florida is going to have a great season this year once they get everybody back on the field?
Andy: Two days ago, I would’ve said Florida with only a little hesitation, though Florida in a close-ish game. Now, I’m fully torn: Florida will be without a couple of reliable contributors with Callaway and Jordan Scarlett out, but Florida is also going to be seething mad and intent on kicking some ass, I think, based on how frustrating this month has been for all involved. If that compensates for losing those stars and the lack of depth generated by the other suspensions, Florida might be just fine -- but I still think I have to pick Michigan in a close one.
Beyond this weekend, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. Maybe not everyone gets back. Maybe Franks is actually really, really good. Maybe some freshmen emerge. Maybe the defense doesn’t take any steps back. I think it’s likely that Florida essentially reboots after this game, and I’m excited to see that -- but I sure as hell won’t claim to know how it’ll go.