Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bye Week 1: Torment in Tuscaloosa

Well Gators, now we know. Saturday was a test to see how we could fare against an elite power. And yet the 42-21 result simply served as another humbling reminder of how far we've fallen in five years. Bama remains the elite program that beat us on December 5, 2009. On the other hand, we are an empty shell of the team we used to be. I said last week that we had to play perfect and Bama had to hand us some gifts. They did their part, we simply didn't do ours.

Offense- I keep saying that this team will go as far as Jeff Driskel can take us. I now know I was wrong. Driskel went 9 for 28 with two picks against an elite defense on Saturday. It wasn't all his fault, and the drive killing drops by Dunbar and Burton and the fumble by Matt Jones didn't help. But it is time to at least try something else on offense in terms of our quarterback. Clemson didn't win on Saturday, but they at least had the courage to trot out a talented freshman quarterback to try something different when their veteran QB wasn't producing. I have no illusions that Treon Harris will throw touchdowns every play, and Driskel unquestionably has a better command of the offense than any freshman could, but the bottom line is he can't hit open receivers he can't play quarterback at Florida if we want to beat good teams. We know who Driskel is by now. If Coach Muschamp wants to be here in 2015, he owes it to the fans to at least show a willingness to try something different. And it doesn't stop with Driskel. We have to start getting touches to guys who might be able to make dynamic plays. Quinton Dunbar has proven he isn't that guy. I don't know if a guy like Alvin Bailey might be better, but I'd like to at least see him get the shot. Bama's first play went for a 87 yard touchdown to a dynamic running back. We've got a true freshman named Brandon Powell who showed some wiggle in Game 1 but hasn't been seen since. We've got a bowling ball of a tailback in Adam Lane and his next touch will be his first in 2014. Young guys like Bailey, Powell, and Lane are given opportunities in other offenses, but are shelved in ours and it is positively maddening.

Defense- In his first 3 years Muschamp always could rely on a great defense. This secondary is lousy and I'm as shocked as anybody. But we survived the two long touchdown throws in the first half. What killed us was the inability to stop Bama's power running game in the second half. You simply can't give up a third and 23 on a screen pass. I get that we were gassed because the offense was anemic in the second half, the two units are inextricably interrelated and I lay 75% of the blame for this embarrassing failure on the O, but the inability to get off the field on third down is now a two season issue and the defense is not without blame. Bama was able to easily neutralize our best receiver while we allowed Cooper to have 201 yards and gave up a record 645 yards of offense. That's pathetic defense and Boom can't survive with a lousy defense.

Special Teams- Thank goodness that Kyle Christy is back. Without him, that game would have been out of hand sooner. Bama even spotted us a missed field goal. But the kick returners looked hesitant to me and that lack of aggressive running is unacceptable.

That game couldn't have started worse and but for Bama's turnovers could have been a 65-0 outcome. We've got better talent than that. The question that Boom needs to answer going forward is whether he's willing to make some major personnel changes to try and utilize some of that younger talent. Like I said before, I'm ok with losing games going forward, but I want us going down fighting rather than rolling with the exact same cast of characters and hoping for a different result. He's yet to demonstrate that he's an outside the box kind of thinker, so my guess is I'll be disappointed on this point. But that disappointment won't last beyond this season because he won't be here next year if he doesn't shake things up.

To put a bow on the Gators through the first third of the season, I think we can still contend in the East if we get better on offense. But that is going to involve seeing some fresh faces in the lineup starting in two weeks up on Rockytop.

This was the lone game I won't see in person this year, which means I was actually able to see some other teams play-

- As a Gator fan, you couldn't ask for a better College Gameday setting than Tallahassee this past Saturday. It was a two hour infomercial on how bad FSU botched the handling of Jameis's most recent epic PR failure. For my money, I just can't name a college football superstar with less environmental awareness than Jameis Winston. In spite of his past run ins with the law and rape allegations (for which he's still being evaluated by FSU's student conduct committee), and all of the noise coming from the NFL regarding domestic violence, he decided last week would be a good one to publicly demonstrate his regard for the fairer sex. FSU couldn't have handled it worse, and Gameday held their feet to the fire. Amazingly, however, he still thought it wise to come out in full pads for warm-ups. What kind of raving psycho is this guy? And is there no grad assistant in charge of watching him on a full time basis now? Did nobody see him suiting up prior to warm ups? It was nothing short of amazing and an absolute demonstration of how tone deaf he is to the shitstorm that he's created. But hey, the Noles won so everything is cool now, right? I can't wait to see what he does next, and the lone solace I take is that he's costing himself a truck load of money and making his school look ridiculous in the process.

- My apologies to Missouri. Apparently, The Gator Report has now accumulated the power to single-handedly derail otherwise sound football teams by simply expressing admiration of their past performances. It happened first with USC and Georgia, then Missouri became the latest example. Look out Bama, you're probably next.

- Congratulations to Dan Mullen and his Dirty Dawgs who took care of business in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night. They were shaky playing with the lead late, but anytime you can pull yourselves ahead of LSU in the West is a good night. They've got the week off and then host Texas A&M the following week for another shake-out Saturday in the supremely talented West.

- Hats off to Vandy as well. South Carolina was obviously still basking in the joy of the win over Georgia when they found themselves down two TD's early against the Dores. They won, but in giving up 34 points to a formerly awful offense the Cocks showed that they're clearly vulnerable atop the East.

- Ohio State had the week off and Urban apparently spent it doing an interview with HBO about his near death experience coaching Florida in 2009. I totally get it. It must have been hell trying to coach a team with that much talent. Good thing he's at OSU now and won't have to worry about managing that many superstars anymore. By the way, Virginia Tech lost again.

Tomorrow I'll celebrate my 40th birthday and am grateful that next weekend will feature a couple of games to enjoy without the stress of watching Florida play offense. Here's what I'm looking forward to seeing-

Arkansas v. Texas A&M (Arlington)- Arky has it going on the ground and it will be interesting to see if the Aggie defense can stop their power running game. It will also be interesting to see if Arky can stay with their game plan if the Aggies' offense builds an early lead. It is amazing how far a little success can elevate a team's confidence and I think Arky will give TAMU all they want. Aggies 42-Hogs 24.

Georgia v. Tennessee- The Vols had the week off to heal after Oklahoma's defense hammered them the week before. Georgia essentially had the week off in their 66-0 pasting of Troy. I was amazed at the number of starters still in for Georgia in the second half, you'd think Mark Richt would learn about risking injuries at some point. I think UT is definitely improving, largely because they've committed to playing so many young guys, and you can bet that the Vols will have Georgia's full attention after last year's close Georgia win (34-31 in OT). But I think Todd Gurley is a weapon that the Vols simply don't have an answer for. Dawgs 34-Vols 17.

South Carolina v. Missouri- This is probably the most interesting matchup of the weekend in the conference because of so many unknowns. Mizzou has to get off the mat after an embarrassing loss to an Indiana team that they should have hammered. South Carolina better find some answers defensively after their showing in Nashville because they're hosting the best quarterback they'll see all year in Maty Mauk. This game went to double OT last year before USC pulled it out, I expect a similarly close game this year and am going against my gut and picking the Head Ball Coach to come up short in this one. Tigers 33-Cocks 27.

Like I said, I'm grateful to have the week off from Florida football, but I'm still looking forward to the trip to Rockytop in two weeks. I think it is pivotal game of the season for Florida. With a win, we still have all of our goals ahead of us and host the rest of the October slate in Gainesville. Lose, however, and the fragile psyche of this team may be lost along with any hope of Boom returning in 2015. I'm hopeful the coaches spend the next two weeks figuring out preventing the deep ball on defense and getting Harris ready to play early at quarterback. If we keep trying the same approach and expect a different result, we're simply defining insanity.

Go Gators!


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Week 4: Bama Bound

"Georgia Lost. Tennessee Lost. We won." Those were the words my grandfather called to tell me just before I went to write this week's Report. Thanks for the perspective, Pa, as always you're right. Now, it sure wasn't pretty Saturday night, but give credit to Kentucky. That's the best Wildcats team I remember seeing and they're going to beat some people they usually don't this year. But Florida had some culpability for the close game as well. My observations are as follows-

Defense- We dropped at least 4 picks, some of which would have very likely gone for touchdowns or, in the case of the one we dropped in overtime, could have brought the game to a quicker conclusion. I thought our run defense was very good. Any time you hold a conference team with quality backs to under 100 yards and less than 3 yards a touch you've had a good night.

Offense- I've said it multiple times already this season, but we'll live and die on Driskel's play. He was awful throwing the ball in the first half, but his receivers didn't help him out early with two drops in the first quarter. He does not throw the deep ball well. As a result of pressure, he hit a wide open Kentucky corner near the end of the first quarter to kill a promising drive. He looked better in the second half, however, and made a clutch throw in the first overtime to keep the game alive. I thought our running backs were great. A fresh Matt Jones in the second half is beastly and Taylor had a couple of great runs when the hole wasn't there.

Number 11- It was a great night for the Number 11, both current and former. Thad Bullard was the most ferocious Mr. Two Bits that The Swamp has ever seen. Florida finally has a top flight receiver again in Demarcus Robinson after a long drought. And Coach Spurrier had a pretty good day as well, right Georgia?

Special Teams- In spite of the missed field goal, Velez made a clutch kick in the second OT, Kyle Christy is an elite punter again, and we're a threat to take every kick to the house. We also got close to blocking a field goal which was encouraging.

Like I said, it wasn't as pretty as a 65-0 blowout, but beating a conference team for the 28th straight time is impressive, no matter how you get there. Before we talk Bama, here were my other notes on the weekend-

- To show how miserable the national slate was Saturday, Gameday was in North Dakota for a Division II (I know they call it something else, but I don't care) game featuring ND State and something called Incarnate Word which may or may not be an institution of higher learning. The spread was 52 and the Bison covered. Next up is FSU/Clemson which could feature a similar mismatch.

- Congratulations to Vandy on its first win and finally scoring an offensive touchdown. It took a missed short field goal by UMass as time expired to get the win, but I recommend that all Commodore fans enjoy it. There might not be many more.

- How does Ohio State beat Kent State 66-0 and still lose the weekend? East Carolina beat Virginia Tech. On the bright side for the ACC, former Gator QB Tyler Murphy had 191 yards rushing in Boston College's upset over USC. Remember when I told you the Trojans were back last week? Never mind.

- Steve Spurrier is the nightmare that won't go away for Georgia fans. Nobody gets up for the Dawgs like SOS, one of the many reasons I so miss that man on our sideline. Mark Richt is unrivaled in his ability to secure top-end NFL talent and managing to piss it all away in terms of big wins.

- My apologies to Missouri, I underestimated them. Maty Mauk is a major playmaker and their defensive front is flat nasty. Don't sleep on the Tigers chances to get back to Atlanta.

But enough of the past. The SEC saw it fit to send Florida back to Tuscaloosa again this year and so the dress rehearsals on this season are all done now. Since struggling a bit with West Virginia, the Tide has rolled against two successive patsies. If you've never been to Tuscaloosa for a big game, you might not be aware that over 75,000 will be in their seats a full hour before kickoff. In other words, they crowd is on you right after you get off the bus. Our defense will be the best that Bama has faced so far, so the jury remains out on their new quarterback Blake Sims. Unfortunately for us, he's got one of the best receivers in the country in Amari Cooper and a big boy offensive line with a stable of physical backs running behind it. Fortunately for us, he's also got Lane Kiffin in his ear so we've at least got a chance come Saturday defensively.

On offense, it is obvious to say but Jeff Driskel has to play better. I also think we've got to let him run more so that he can take advantage of his athletic abilities and keep the defense honest. Bama's secondary is their weakness, and they'll be without their starting free safety for the first half due to his being ejected in the second half of last week's game for targeting. I expect Bama to try and take away Robinson so the other receivers will have to be involved. Turnovers will be a killer in this one and we just can't afford any. We also can't afford to give up anything big on special teams and probably need a big play in this phase to pull off the upset. We've got to play loose and act like we've got nothing to lose on Saturday because truthfully we don't. Nobody expects Florida to win at Bama.

With our defense I think this stays a close one through at least three quarters, but I don't think we're good enough yet to expect a win in Tuscaloosa. For me, having a chance to win in the fourth quarter would be a great step in the right direction and will pay dividends going into the bye weekend. I'm picking Bama 27-17, but you never know. Just ask Georgia, USC and Virginia Tech.

We've got a marginally better weekend in terms of games, but there's still not much meat on the Saturday sandwich-

FSU v. Clemson- The Noles took the week off and Jameis didn't get arrested, so that's a major positive for the Garnet 'n Gold. FSU pounded a much better Clemson team in Death Valley last year and Clemson has already been embarrassed this year by Georgia. Clemson also had the week off so I expect them to at least play well early. Let's face it, FSU isn't the same as last year either and has some defensive tackle depth issues after the Citadel's O-line chop blocked two of them out of the game two weeks ago. But make no mistake, the Noles aren't losing to Clemson. FSU 38-Tigers 20.

West By God Virginia v. Oklahoma- WVU squeaked one out over Maryland Saturday while Oklahoma handled Tennessee. Cross country trips are tough for the visitors and you can bet that the Mountaineer faithful will be ginned up come 7:30 Saturday night. This should be a long one with lots of points on both sides, but OU has more defensively than WVU. Sooners 42-Moutaineers 33.

LSU v. Mississippi State- LSU has pitched two straight shutouts while the Dirty Dawgs have been beating up on their usual weak non-conference schedule. LSU is young across the board and MSU is looking to finally get a respectable win in the West. Unfortunately for Dan Mullen, they're not good enough to go into Tiger Stadium and win. LSU 27-MSU 18.

Kansas State v. Auburn- We've got a good one on Thursday night with the Tigers visiting the Wildcats in Manhattan. K State won 8 games last year and is one of those sneaky teams that nobody ever thinks about. I think it is interesting for a while, but Auburn has too much to trip up in Kansas. War Eagle 42-Wildcats 20.

I'm looking forward to Saturday because we finally get to see how we stack up against an elite team. Enjoy this one Gators, getting a shot to beat the best program in the country on their home field is something a lot of teams can only dream about. I'm hopeful we make a good showing.

Go Gators!


Sunday, September 07, 2014

Week 3: SEC Opener

Well, Gators, we finally have a game under our belts. The day started with another 3 hours of rain in God's Country but Mother Nature was merciful and we had a perfect day for football come kickoff. You couldn't ask for a better opening effort coming off of the 2013 disaster. Here's what I saw-

Defense- You just can't do better on defense than forcing four turnovers and pitching a shut out. I thought we gave up a little bit up the middle on the ground early, but keeping a team to 80 yards rushing in 34 attempts while only giving up 45 yards through the air is impressive. Eastern Michigan is terrible offensively, but I thought the defense played fast and had great intensity the entire game. The pick 6 by freshman Duke Dawson was a great sign of things to come for this young secondary.

Offense- 65 points and 655 yards of total offense with no turnovers is just what the doctor ordered for Gator fans. Kurt Roper's scheme is light years ahead of the garbage we've suffered through the last 3 years and I can't wait to see it against real competition. As expected, we are loaded with talent at tailback and the spread scheme left gaping holes that yielded long runs by our explosive backs. We could have run for 500 yards if we wanted to against that talent and I was happy to see us rely on the backs to carry it rather than Driskel. He'll run more in bigger games, he's too big of a weapon not to, but I thought it was really smart to keep contact with #6 to a minimum. Treon Harris is electrifying and you can see why he was able to beat out Will Grier in just a month of being on campus. We'll live and die this year with Driskel, but we have much to look forward to with Harris waiting in the wings. It was great to see receivers running in open space and I loved the production of Robinson and that we spread it around to Dunbar and Pittman as well as the backs coming out for routes.

Special Teams- Debose is a weapon with the potential to score every time we receive a punt or kick. We were perfect on field goals and Kyle Christy averaged over 48 yards on all 3 punts. I'm hopeful we can get a few punts blocked this year, but with Debose awaiting each return I can see why you'd focus more on blocking for him than selling out for a punt block. About the only negative were the two kickoffs that were shanked out of bounds. Good offenses make you pay when you spot them on the 35 to start a drive.

Overall, the only real negatives were the injuries. I hate to see Jake McGee go down for the year in his first game as a Gator. We're now back to being paper thin at tight end though Clay Burton proved himself as the starter with a team leading 7 catches on Saturday. To me, the bigger immediate injury is the loss of tackle D.J. Humphries for 2-3 weeks. If we have to start a freshman at tackle in Tuscaloosa, even one as highly recruited as David Sharpe, we are starting the game behind the 8 ball offensively. We really need a clean game in terms of injuries this weekend.

Before we talk about Kentucky coming to town, here were my notes on the other happenings from Saturday-

- The PAC 12 had a great weekend. USC is clearly back. They've still got some tests down the road with visits to Arizona, Utah, UCLA and home games against Arizona State and Notre Dame, but a matchup with Oregon for the PAC 12 title with both teams being undefeated is now a real possibility. The Ducks are impressive and I'm extremely confident in my pick that they'll be in the Final Four.

- On the other hand, the Big 10-ish(to borrow from Pat Dooley) had a disastrous second week. All 3 primetime games featuring their marquee teams of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan went to shit. With their combined remaining schedules featuring no out of conference redemption opportunities, they may have played their way out of a chance to have any representation in the playoff. But there's a lot of football to be played yet and it will be fun seeing the anguish on Urban's face the rest of the way with the dumpster fire of an offense they're rolling out each week.

- Charlie Strong is in for a long year. The Horns endured another beating at the hands of BYU and Charlie's team has been decimated already by injuries and dismissals (he's dismissed 8 players already since arriving). I hope the Texas faithful give him time, but it has to be tough watching your old rivals in College Station lighting up the scoreboard and playing in the premier league of college football. Good luck, Charlie.

- Tennessee looked good again. Arky State isn't terrible but the Vols offense is rolling early. They played 21 freshmen in week 1 against Utah State and I think Butch Jones has it going in the right direction finally on RockyTop.

Turning to the upcoming weekend, we've got another night game to look forward to in The Swamp. I'm hopeful the crowd is a little bigger given the combination of a night game, the SEC opener, and an the re-emergence of an exciting offense. This is definitely the best Kentucky team we've seen in several years, with the Cats already matching their win total from 2013. Their offense started hot in the first quarter Saturday, scoring 14 points in their first two drives, but then managed just two field goals the rest of the game. Their best offensive weapon, running back Braylon Heard (a Nebraska transfer), sat out the Ohio game with an ankle injury. In his first game he touched the ball twice scoring two touchdowns and averaging 6 points and 58 yards a touch. In case you're unfamiliar with the metrics of football statistics, this would be deemed "really good". Their backup "Boom" Williams had a nice 53 yard TD run against Ohio. Their QB, Patrick Towles, is an effective passer, physically strong and a good runner. He ran it 22 times against Ohio so we'll have to play sound in the pass rush. Their best receiver, Ryan Timmons, had 10 catches for 95 yards this weekend so Vernon Hargreaves will need to put a blanket on him. Defensively, the Cats are physical as well as quick up front, so our freshman tackle better strap it on early.

All that being said, this is still Kentucky. They've not beaten Florida since 1986, haven't won an SEC road game since 2009 over Georgia, and have lost 16 in a row in the conference. Barring a complete meltdown by Florida, we should get another glimpse of Treon Harris in the fourth quarter Saturday night. They just don't have enough horses to come to Gainesville and beat Florida at night. Gators 42-Kentucky 10.

The pickings are slim this weekend with most big name teams getting in one last tune up before their conference schedules kick in. Here's the best of what's out there-

South Carolina v. Georgia- The Cocks got down early to ECU but got it done behind the power running of Mike Davis which is where Carolina's offense starts and ends. Meanwhile, Georgia rested this past weekend back in Athens and will come into Columbia extremely confident. Georgia won 41-30 against a better Carolina team last year and I predict USC goes 0-2 in the conference after this weekend. I'd love to be more optimistic about the Dawgs getting a conference loss, but this Carolina defense is no match for Georgia's offense and Mike Davis can't beat UGA alone. Dawgs 45-Cocks 17.

Mizzou v. Central Florida- UCF had a bye week to get over the last second loss in Ireland to Penn State while Mizzou may have found their offensive groove at Toledo. I was impressed with UCF in their opener and I think this one will be close. In the end I'll take Maty Mauk and the Tigers to get it done in a close one, but wouldn't be shocked by an upset here. Tigers 27-Golden Knights 24.

Oklahoma v. Tennessee- I know I said that Butch Jones had it going in the right direction on Rockytop, but this is asking a lot of an extremely young team. I think the Vols avail themselves better than they did at Oregon last year, but Oklahoma has too much to expect an upset in Norman. Boomer Sooner 42-Vols 20.

UCLA v. Texas- UCLA has struggled to validate their ranking thus far, but a matchup with the current version of the Longhorns is perfect medicine for a team looking for confidence. Bruins 33-Horns 10.

Texas Tech v. Arkansas- The Hogs need this one bad if they have any hope of making a bowl this year. The Red Raiders had a tough time fending off the UTEP Miners 30-26 on Saturday while Arky hung 73 on Nicholls State. I think the Hogs get it done on the road for what will be a good win for the conference in terms of evening things up with the Big 12 after Oklahoma beats the Vols. Hogs 30-Red Raiders 20.

Vandy v. UMASS- The Dores are pathetic, having yet to score a touchdown in two games. The Minutemen, by contrast, are coming off a heartbreaking loss 41-38 against Colorado after being handled by Boston College 30-7 in week 1. I've never seen the Minutemen play a down, but at this point you'd have to be crazy to pick Vandy. Minutemen 20-Dores 9.

While the slate of games is fairly pathetic this week, I'm only concerned about what happens in The Swamp come Saturday. I'm rooting for no injuries and this team to build more confidence before we have a real examination as to what we have for a team come next week. But before I sign out for the week I invite you to join me in recognizing that September is National Dystonia Awareness month. Those of you who have read The Report for a while know that I'm very involved in a local charity called Tyler's Hope for a Dystonia Cure ( Dystonia is a disease that affects over 300,000 in North America and, more importantly, is one we can cure. Orange is the official color of National Dystonia Month so I invite you in joining me for an "Orange Out" this Saturday. No self respecting Gator fan would wear blue when we're playing Kentucky anyway, so don your best orange this Saturday, support the Gators, and know that you're supporting Dystonia awareness as well.

Go Gators!