By staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
Who: University of Alabama at Birmingham (7-3) vs. Florida (3-6)
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Gators by 10.5 points
Calling all fans
Some of the Florida players sent out a Swamp call to their fans this week, imploring them to show up and support them today. The Gators say they haven’t quit, and they want the fans to show they haven’t quit either at the tail end of this disappointing season. “I just want to see people in The Swamp still supporting us,” senior running back Mark Thompson said. “At the end of the day, they’re fans of the Gators. We’re the Gators. We’re going to play for them and hope they cheer for us. Hope it will be a good atmosphere. Go out there and have some fun.” Given all that’s happened with the program over the past month, including a five-game losing streak the Gators are riding, there could be a lot of no-shows for a non-conference game. If it turns out to be an embarrassingly small crowd, the players will know that many of their fans have given up on them.
UF job still attractive
It may not seem possible to some, but whoever turns out to be the new Florida coach will be inheriting a good situation, interim head coach Randy Shannon said earlier this week. “It’s a very talented young team. A lot of talent on this team that is young,” Shannon said. “Our future is really big here. Scott Stricklin and those guys are doing a tremendous job of getting us through this process. They want what’s best for the student-athletes. In all my years being a part of (coaching), these last three years have been great for me. To experience it, when you’re an outsider, you understand how much pride they take in this university. That’s the one thing about this university, you have the complete support of a lot of people, a lot of alumnus across the United States.”
UAB is not your typical late-season non-conference pushover for the Gators. The Blazers are a good team in the midst of a good season. In UAB’s first year back following a two-year shutdown of the program, the Blazers are 7-3 and bowl eligible. This is an explosive offensive team and one also with a sturdy attacking defense. And the Blazers are heading in the opposite direction of the Gators. The Blazers have won five of their last six games and are finishing the season strong. This isn’t an SEC caliber team, but it’s pretty close to it. So, it’s going to be another difficult challenge for a Florida team that’s been decimated by suspensions and injuries.
Back to Franks
Florida is once again making a change at quarterback. As the Gators prepare to host UAB at 4 p.m. today, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks once again finds himself as UF’s starting quarterback. Franks entered in relief of graduate transfer Malik Zaire, who appeared to suffer a knee injury that has him listed as day-to-day. With Florida’s wide receiver corps close to full strength, Franks will have a strong arsenal at his disposal, as UF looks to snap a five-game losing streak. And if Franks falters, the Gators could turn to wide receiver Dre Massey at quarterback for the first time in his UF career. “You have to go with Franks right now because you don’t know, Malik’s day-to-day. We have to develop somebody else,” Gators interim coach Randy Shannon said. “The last two to three weeks Dre Massey had taken snaps at quarterback. He was a quarterback in high school.”
UF shuffling the line
The losses of Zaire and freshman running back Malik Davis aren’t the only aspects that will plague Florida’s offense today against UAB. The Gators are also without starting offensive guard Brett Heggie and center T.J. McCoy, and the rest of the offensive line will be shuffled heading into today’s match-up with the Blazers. For a team that has repeatedly struggled with procedural penalties this season, the rotations on the line likely won’t make things easier. “You rotate them guys between guard, center and the other guys play tackle. So one guy plays left and right tackle, one guy moves from guard to center, just moving around,” Shannon said of the shuffle. “You just have to make sure, because if something happens in the game you have to have someone ready to go.”
Eerie similarities to 2013
When the Gators take the field, multiple aspects aside from the opponent will resemble the conclusion of Florida’s 2013 season. The Gators would finish the year with a 4-8 record in year three under Will Muschamp, with the lowest point coming in a 26-20 loss at home to Georgia Southern. Muschamp returned the following season, meaning the 2013 Gators still had a head coach to play for. Considering the upheaval and dysfunction that has plagued the Gators in 2017, a loss to the Blazers wouldn’t come as a shock. Yet Florida is aware of what’s on the line, and it doesn’t appear the Gators plan on taking UAB lightly. “They’re an FBS program, they’re a Division 1 program. They’re bowl eligible. I mean they got a lot of great guys on their roster,” UF linebacker Cristian Garcia said. “We’re coming out here to win and we’re not taking this team lightly at all because they’re 7-3 and we’re 3-6.”
Savoring each second
While the Gators will finish the season with a losing record, they have long odds of making a bowl game. With the field expanding each season due to the introduction of new bowls, each year more teams make a bowl game without a winning record. In 2015, three teams with losing records made bowl games at the end of the regular season. Although reports have suggested the Gators may pass on a bowl invitation even if UF were to win out, Shannon said the team is enjoying each game and embracing each minute on the field. “There’s a lot of guys missing on this football team that was a part of this football team. A lot of times guys tend to bond together and start thinking about those guys who’s not fortunate enough to play because each and every day you only get one chance and at that point in time something could be taken away from you,” Shannon said.
Today’s game questions
• Will the beleaguered Gators be greeted by a half-empty Swamp today?
• Can the struggling defense hold UAB tailback Spencer Brown to less than 100 yards rushing?
• Will the sputtering offense have a chance to get into a rhythm against a defense that maybe is not quite as strong as the Gators have faced in the SEC?
• Can the Gators hit some explosive plays in the passing game?
• Will the unproductive play continue for the UF special teams?
Florida 24, UAB 23
Florida’s defensive front vs. UAB tailback Spencer Brown:
Brown had to like what he saw on tape of the Florida defense this week. The Gators have been gutted up front in the running game the past three weeks, giving up more than 200 yards rushing in losses to Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina. Brown is a big (235 pounds), fast, durable back who seems to get the most out of each carry with the way he breaks tackles. He is the focal point of the Blazers’ spread offense. He’s rushed for 1,177 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and seems to grow stronger as the game goes along. He’ll be facing a UF run defense that has seemingly been outmanned in recent losses. Injuries have played a role, but so have broken assignments, with some players getting out of their gaps, which has led to some explosive runs. Shannon said this week that the defense will either have to focus on stopping Brown or dual-threat quarterback A.J. Erdely in the running game. Brown figures to be the one with the target on his back today. If the Gators can slow him down, the defense has a chance to have some three-and-outs and get off the field.