Whitley: UF's chalks up a worrisome win

David Whitley
Gator Sports
Florida quarterback Emory Jones runs for a big gain Saturday against the Florida Atlantic Owls at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Jones was far from sharp, finishing with a touchdown and two interceptions in his first career start.

At least a few people went to bed Saturday night feeling pretty good about how the Florida-FAU game went.

Anthony Richardson. Todd Grantham. Malik Davis. Fans of quarterback controversies.

And Nick Saban.

For openers:College football: Gators run away from Owls, 35-14. Here are 5 takeaways.

Gators notebook: Mullen credits fan turnout at Swamp

FinalMore:Florida Gators 35, Florida Atlantic Owls 14

If Alabama’s coach got home and flicked on the SEC Network, well, let’s just say the Gators’ 35-14 win didn’t make him lose much sleep.

Why should Florida fans care how Nick slumbered?

Let’s be honest, everybody’s had Saban’s Sept. 18th visit to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium circled on their calendars for months. Alabama plays Mercer next week and Florida plays USF. The combined score should be about 130-0.

In other words, Saturday provided the first and last real clues we’re going to see when Alabama comes to town. We’d find out whether the Gators look capable of beating the Crimson Tide and being one of the SEC’s top dogs.

 Umm, no. At least not yet.

That’s not to say Gator Nation had nothing to savor Saturday night. Just having 86,840 fans show up and make The Swamp feel like The Swamp again was glorious.

 And 400 yards rushing? The Gators had more than 200 just once during the entire 2020 regular season.

Grantham’s defense didn’t look like the five-alarm fire drill it was last year. Granted, FAU and N’Kosi Perry aren’t KC and Patrick Mahomes. But unlike last year, it seems the defense can give the offense room to mess up.

There were some messes Saturday night. No surprise there. Opening games are opening games, and there will be kinks with a new starter and fleet of receivers.

“We missed some reads we shouldn’t miss, and some checks,” Dan Mullen said. “That’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to clean up.”

The worrisome thing is how much cleaning there is to do. Emory Jones made some throws you’d expect out of a guy who’s been on campus for four weeks, not four years.

He never took his eyes off his receiver on his first interception. The second one was into coverage. An FAU defender was a half-step away from intercepting a third pass and returning it for a score.

“I missed too many throws,” Jones said. “It’s a matter of getting more comfortable. I’ve got to lock in and do better.”

Contrast that with another SEC quarterback who was getting his first start Saturday. Bryce Young looked like Joe Namath in Alabama’s 44-13 demolition of Miami. And as bad as the Hurricanes looked, they returned 19 starters and would probably beat FAU by two TDs.

Saban’s defense treated poor D’Eriq King like a rag doll. The Gators are going to need a balanced attack in two weeks, and they appear to be halfway there.

Almost 75% of their offense came on the ground Saturday. Steve Spurrier was probably getting the heebie-jeebies watching Florida look like Oklahoma circa 1975.

“We’re going to do what we’re going to do,” Mullen said. “If we need to lead the nation in rushing, we’ll do that. We are going to do what our guys do well.”

When you have horses like Davis, you ride them. But Alabama can stack the line and make the Gators prove the QB can efficiently throw the ball.

Speaking of the QB — WE DON’T HAVE A QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY.

REPEAT. WE DON’T HAVE A QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY.

That was the party line after the game, and it’s true to a large extent. Jones knows the offense better than Richardson. One erratic start can’t erase the potential fans have been raving about for three years.

That said, Richardson had a stat sheet that would make Bo Jackson jealous. Seven carries for 160 yards.

“He’s exciting with the ball in his hands, isn’t he?” Mullen said.

That he is. But like Jones, Richardson has yet to prove his right hand can consistently deliver precision passes.

“This is the first game of the year,” Zach Carter said. “Guys have jitters, you know. ... You start getting better and better as the games go on.”

It is easy to overreact to Game No 1. It’s just that Game No. 2 won’t prove anything, and Game 3 isn’t against Tennessee or South Carolina. Then it would be OK for the offense to be such a work in progress.

Jones will certainly be more comfortable next week against the Bulls. And Mullen is calling plays from the vanilla section of his playbook.

But what if Alabama’s also holding back? What if Young had the jitters in his first start and is now ready to really start settling in?

For the next two weeks, those are questions that will keep Florida fans up at night.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley