The U.S. Marines have asked to sponsor a preview of the Outback Bowl, so when your country calls, who am I to say no? Rather than give the usual run-of-the-mill preview telling you who plays at what position I thought I would mix it up a bit and give you my top five keys to watch that I feel will determine the winner. We'll count down to number one.
5. Florida's Struggling Offense
The story of the year for the Florida Gators has been their inability to find any offensive continuity since Tim Tebow left for the NFL. Quarterback John Brantley saw most of the snaps passing for just over 2000 yards. The Gators will work Trey Burton and Jordan Reed in as well mostly as a running option since that's something Brantley doesn't do well. Florida averaged just 356 yards and 29 points per game this season, but that was greatly inflated against their weaker opponents. The Gators looked absolutely horrible on offense against their better competition.
4. Can Penn State Stop The Run
The Gators employed a running-back-by-committee this season. Three different running backs rushed for over 300 yards, and none of them broke 600 yards. Trey Burton also chipped in 347 yards himself. Jeffery Demps led the team with 531 yards on 89 carries, but he's still not sure if he's even going to be playing due to an injured foot.
Florida likes to run the ball having opted to keep it on the ground 56% of the time. Penn State has had trouble in stopping the run against teams like Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State. Brantley only averages six yards per pass attempt, so if Penn State can shut down the running game the Gators will have trouble moving the ball.
3. Florida Missing Multiple Players
Besides the possibility that they might miss Jeffery Demps, the Gators are going to be without star cornerback Janoris Jenkins who had three interceptions this season. His replacement will likely be true freshman Cody Riggs. Starting right guard Maurice Hurt will also miss the game after having season ending knee surgery. The Gators will also have to play without Terron Sanders and Lawrence Marsh, two experienced defensive tackles that were major contributors this season.
And to top it all off, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was hospitalized this week with severe abdominal pain. His status for the game is not known at this time, but you can bet he's not spending much time this week gameplanning on the practice field.
We've spent the last few weeks discussing Florida's offensive struggles in great detail. But let's not leave out Penn State's problems. The Nittany Lions struggled throughout the first half of the season, though they did make a lot of improvement in the second half when Matthew McGloin was inserted at quarterback.
The Gators were fortunate that their defense forced a lot of turnovers that set up their offense with short fields. In a game where points are going to be hard to come by, taking a possession or two away from the other team can be a huge swing.
1. The Urban Meyer Factor
When Urban Meyer announced his intention to retire after the Outback Bowl, the game suddenly went beyond just x's and o's. While Florida fans instantly became enamored with their coaching search, Penn State fans just wondered amongst themselves what affect this would have on the game.
Will the Gators be fired up and riding an emotional high wanting to send their coach off into retirement with one more win? Or do players feel betrayed? Do they sense their coach hasn't really been interested for some time?
It's my sense that it's probably closer to the latter than the former. Insiders said the Florida freshmen didn't take it well. I'm sure Meyer gave them all extra assurances after he briefly retired after last season. I suspect the seniors gave up months ago and started looking ahead to the NFL after it became apparent there was nothing left to play for. For the underclassmen, they are in a position where they are playing this game for Urban Meyer, but they know that after Saturday, Will Muschamp will be running the show. So where do their allegiances lie? Are they going to work within Meyer's system, or will they be trying to make an impression for the incoming coach?
There's also some pretty weird distractions going on. Brantley has been openly exploring his options to transfer out of the program. And while the Gators were busy preparing for the game, Meyer flew up to Connecticut in order to try out for a job as an analyst on ESPN. Add up all of this and I really wonder if the Gators have their heads in this game.