Sunday, August 30, 2015

The 2015 Season- A New Beginning

Hello, Gators. I can't believe I'm going to do this again. I have to be honest, at three weeks shy of my 41st birthday I'm painfully aware at how pathetic it is that I remain blogging about a sport played by young men 20 years my junior. But while I do think that the end of the line is near, I just couldn't end it with the Boom Era. I'm hopeful to go out on a high note- which means you very likely have at least one more year after this one to look forward to...

You might recall that last year I ignominiously entitled the 2014 campaign as "The Season of Fun". Of course, it turned out to be anything but (other than that blissful Saturday up in Jacksonville). This year, I'm looking forward to a new coach and a new beginning for our beloved Gators. I'm not calling for us to win any championships, but I do think we stand the chance of actually being entertained for 12 Saturdays this Fall. So without further ado, here's how I handicap the team and our season-

No longer a dirty word among the coaching staff, I think the most exciting thing about this upcoming season is that we might actually try to score points on offense. I'd be lying if I told you I'd spent the offseason reviewing Coach Mac's offense at Colorado State, but he's unquestionably an offensive minded coach and that will be a refreshing change in Gainesville where, once upon a time, we used to score points in bunches.

The bad news is that I'm not sure that Coach Mac inherits much on offense. I'm hopeful that Will Grier lives up to his recruiting hype, but the fact that he and Treon are still dead even might mean we have two average QB's on campus. The really bad news is that we may see 3 or 4 quarterbacks play this year due to injuries. This O line is young and inexperienced, having lost 4 players to the NFL Draft last year (oh, how that talent was wasted in the offenses of the last 4 years). To make matters worse, our 5 star recruit who was likely going to start the first game, Martez Ivey, went out last week with a leg injury that could linger into October or longer. We simply cannot afford any other injuries up front.  On a positive note, this inexperienced group is coached by a good one in Coach Mike Summers, so I do predict improvement over the year.

In terms of running backs, Adam Lane's decision to transfer left us with one starter (Kelvin Taylor) with true freshmen and walk ons backing him up. I'm excited to see these freshmen play, but it would have been a luxury to have a bruiser like Lane backing up Taylor when we need a couple of yards on a big third down. At tight end, Jake McGee got another year after breaking his leg early last season and we're all hopeful that he and the backups can serve as good safety-valve options for whoever is playing quarterback.

We haven't had a true receiving corps at Florida since 2009. I like Demarcus Robinson a lot and Coach Mac loves Brandon Powell, but guys like Pittman and Fulwood have been on the field an awful lot without much to show for it. Keep an eye on true freshman Antonio Callaway as an up and comer to take some pressure off of Robinson. Word is he can fly.

I've heard lots of Florida fans lament that whatever happens this year, it can't be worse. The problem is, this is a line of scrimmage league and nothing good can occur on offense without a solid line. I think simply trying to score rather than trying to give the defense a break is a positive start, but if this O line can't block we're in trouble starting week 3.

This should be a solid defense again this year, though I think it will be a step down from last year. I like our D line, anchored by Jonathan Bullard. I think the linebackers will be good once Morrison comes back off injury, and Jarrad Davis and Jeremi Powell played well in spurts last year. I think the secondary will be the best in the country assuming Vernon Hargreaves doesn't get injured returning kicks. That said, teams knew last year that they didn't have to try too much on offense against Florida because our offense damned sure wasn't going to try to score.  This year may be different and the defensive stats will suffer as a result.

Special Teams
I think Austin Hardin is a good kicker and hopefully Johnny Townsend can be a serviceable punter. I think you can tell a lot about a coaching staff based on how the special teams units play as it is a real indicator of attention to detail. I think we'll know pretty early if this is going to be a weapon or a weak spot for the Gators.

Trying to predict a record for this team in August is like trying to review a movie that hasn't come out yet. But any exercise in stupidity is one that I'm uniquely qualified to tackle, so here's my approach- Below is our list of opponents in order of our likely ability to beat them:

1. New Mexico State
2. Florida Atlantic
3. Vanderbilt
4. East Carolina
5. at Kentucky
6. Tennessee
7. at South Carolina
8. at Missouri
9. Ole Miss
10. Georgia
11. at LSU
12. FSU

I think there's debate in terms of the 8-11 order, but after #4 I start to get a little nervous. I think 6-6 is an average season, 7-5 is a good season, and 8 wins or more is an absolute Year 1 home run for Coach Mac.  For me to view this as a good year it has less to do with win total and more to do with a visible improvement throughout the year. So please, keep in mind that we're building something here and not expecting any miracles.  Please also remind me I said this after we lose in overtime at Kentucky in week 3.

But let's not jump to week 3 already, let's enjoy a night game in The Swamp to open the new season. New Mexico State is not good (2-10 last year), and in spite of all we have yet to learn about our side, I like the Gators big to open the Coach Mac Era- Gators 52-Aggies 10.

Moving on to my Week 1 picks-

South Carolina v. North Carolina (Thursday-Charlotte)- This will be a fun start to the season. Somehow, the Old Ball Coach always puts on a good show in these openers. His offense is having to replace 7 starters but his defense should be solid. I'll take USC purely on the Spurrier factor. Cocks 24-Heels 20.

Alabama v. Wisconsin (Jerry's World)- Nobody has amassed talent like Nick Saban the last 5 years. They'll be down offensively but they remain loaded on D with plenty of depth everywhere. I've seen Wisconsin referred to as a dark horse pick in the Big 10, but I don't think they have the stones to beat Bama out of the gate. Tide 30-Badgers 18.

Auburn v. Louisville (Atlanta)- Coach Boom will get a test right off the bat for his new defense on The Plains. Bobby Petrino will try to throw it all over the yard. The problem for Louisville is going to be trying to stop what could be a really good Auburn offense if their new QB is as good as projected. War Eagle 42- The Ville 24.

Texas A&M v. Arizona State (Houston)- This is a really interesting matchup. Both teams will score points but I like that The Chief (former Tennessee and LSU D-Coordinator, John Chavis) is now coaching the Aggie D. TAMU 35-ASU 27.

There are several other good ones this weekend but I don't want to strain myself in the first week. It is good to be back.

Go Gators!


Sunday, January 04, 2015

End of Season Addendum

Happy New Year, Gators. I know I said in my previous Report that I was done for the year, but spending a long holiday break with my household full of females leaves me in need of an outlet to talk football. You are that outlet, you lucky devils.

So, before I truly shut it down for good I had a few items I thought worth mentioning-

- What a great week it was for the Big 10. No, they didn't swap names with the Big 12 to provide more numerical honesty, but it was still a great week. First, Michigan immediately regained relevance by hiring Jim Harbaugh, unfortunately leaving the rest of us who just hired coaches envious. Not to say that Coach Mac won't be great, he's a solid 8. But Harbaugh is a 10. And while I thought it would shape up to be an awful week for Meyer (first having a real coaching rival at Michigan and then getting beaten by Saban again), all that guy did was show once again that he's in a different class among his peers. If we're honest, the majority of our anger against Urban stems from the fact that he's winning somewhere else while we've been getting roughed up behind the gym by the other big kids in school. I think I'm over that now, Gators, and am willing to admit that we were lucky to have him in Gainesville while we did (I'm still rooting for the Ducks though). As an honorable mention, Michigan State's unlikely comeback over a very good Baylor team added to the Big 10's haul for the week. Think about how much better this league is than 2 years ago with the addition of Franklin at PSU and Harbaugh at UM and both MSU and OSU finishing in the top 5.

- If the Big 10 had a great week, the Big 12's week was the polar opposite. Sure, TCU hammered Ole Miss and has a legitimate beef in terms of being left out of the Final Four. But the rest of the conference went just 1-5 and their pedigreed programs, Oklahoma and Texas, were embarrassed.

- Our friends in the ACC had a tough bowl season as well, amassing a 4-7 record. Clearly, the one everyone will remember is Oregon's dismantling of the Noles. Every fan in America other than those who pull for FSU were thrilled with the end of the streak. I was amazed by the story about the FSU players' cars that were vandalized after the loss. The bad news for those impacted is that the Tallahassee PD is on the case. Not exactly a group known for their crime solving abilities. A lot was made of FSU players not sticking around after the game to shake hands. I thought the Noles were unfairly called out by Herbstreit on this point. This isn't little league, and players don't line up and give each other high-fives and say "good game" on this level. I rarely see a majority of players hanging out and congratulating the other team so let's all ease up on calling the Noles "classless" for the aftermath of the Rose Bowl. This is college football. Classy left town a long time ago. If you don't believe me, follow Clay Travis on Twitter for about an hour and see the reactions he gets from fans across the country.

- The SEC tied its own record with 7 bowl wins, matching the totals from 2007 and 2013, with the SEC East improbably going a perfect 5-0 while the West managed just two victories. Some have used this to make the argument that the SEC's run as the pre-eminent conference in the country is over. To that I say, Really?  Alabama stockpiles talent like no team in the country. Auburn was a play away from a national title last year and just hired the best defensive coordinator in the country. LSU was the youngest they've ever been under Les Miles in 2014. Georgia wins 10 games even when they suck. Arky has finally figured out how to win and has it going in the right direction again. Both Mississippi teams were relevant this year for the first time since segregation. Tennessee played over 20 true freshmen and has a top 10 recruiting class coming in to follow up two prior top 10 classes. Steve Spurrier still is calling ball plays in Columbia. And Florida has come out of its four year hiatus of refusing to play offense. While we may not run off seven consecutive national titles again like we did from 2006-12, there's still no conference with the same facilities, pseduo-religious zealot fan base, and consistent regional high school talent like the SEC. If anything, now that other conferences are catching up and will have more than one dominant team with a soft in conference schedule, I like our chances even more going forward.

Speaking of our Gators, a hearty "Thank You" should go out to D.J. Durkin and the rest of the staff for the effort they got out of our guys Saturday. Leaders like Dante Fowler and Max Garcia should be lauded for pulling this locker room together. I never thought we'd win that game, and we truthfully did our best to find a way to lose it.  We scored our last points with over 11 minutes left in the third quarter and hung on for dear life on defense after Treon went out and it became obvious that we weren't scoring any more points on offense. If you read the Report this year you saw multiple mentions of Adam Lane based on his performance in the last Orange and Blue game. The kid got 8 carries all year but then was our best offensive player in the bowl game. I wish Matt Jones luck on the next level, but I'm really excited about the prospect of seeing more of that bowling ball that wears #22 in 2015.

I also wish Jeff Driskel luck at wherever he ends up. That kid was snakebit from day one in Gainesville but never said or did anything wrong off of the field. I hope he finds the right opportunity to finish his career on the right note, but I did think it was funny in the fourth quarter when the ESPN announcer mistakenly referred to him as Brantley. The similarities between the two are striking.  I don't know that Treon Harris can get us to Atlanta unless he improves as a passer, but like with Adam Lane I'm looking forward to seeing someone other than #6 take the first snap in 2015.

Turning to next year, the coaching staff seems to be coming together nicely and hopefully they'll hit the ground running when the recruiting dead period ends in ten days. We need offensive linemen and lots of them, and have the fewest commitments of any SEC school at this point. It would be huge if guys like Bullard and Morrison return for another year, but either way I like this staff's chances of hauling in a Top 20 class with the promise of early playing time in a prospect laden state like Florida. Going forward I think we'll see recruiting classes returning to perennial top 10 rankings.

I already mentioned that I like our running backs for next year. Our secondary will be the best in the country. Seriously, I'll take Vernon over every corner in the country, and the depth around him is staggering. Our receivers will be the best we've had in 4 years and I finally think we'll have a head coach who is willing to use them which will, in turn, make it easier to lure more to campus. The big questions will be our offensive line depth and the front seven on defense. But obviously you can lose a bunch of ballgames if you're not stout on both lines of scrimmage in this league. The schedule will be brutal again in 2015, but we can worry about that next Fall.

Enjoy the offseason, Gators. We're 1-0 in 2015 so we're already starting off better than last year!


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

End of Season Report

Hello, Gators. I know I say it all the time, but these football seasons seem to go by faster every year. We certainly had an interesting season. Going from what I'd hoped would be the "Season of Fun", Muschamp instead found it to be the "Season of Done" (see what I did there?). As in most setbacks in life, there are certainly lessons to be learned here. There are two major takeaways for me:

1. You can indefinitely suck at offense if nobody really tries to change anything;

2. Defense no longer wins championships.

I won't dwell on Coach Muschamp anymore, I feel like I did that in the last Report to the best of my ability, but the college game has definitely changed. When Bama is winning the Iron Bowl 55-44 you know that a premium has been put on offense and a team relying on ball control offense coupled with a stout defense is no longer going to win a championship. Take a look at the Final Four in terms of Total Offense: Oregon is 2nd, Ohio State is 4th, Bama is 8th and FSU is 26th (notably, Baylor is ranked 4th and TCU is 6th). By contrast, Oregon is the only Final Four member ranked in the Top 10 of total defenses (7th) while Bama is 42nd (Nick Saban has to be pissed deep down inside at this miserable showing), Ohio State 46th and FSU is 57th. So you can't be awful on defense, but if you can't score points in bunches you don't stand a chance.

In case you're wondering, Colorado State has the 17th ranked offense in terms of yardage in 2014 which is why Jim McElwain (heretofore to be deemed Coach Mac in the Report) is now residing in Gainesville. Now what remains to be seen is how quickly he can turn it around. This is an awfully tough league. Add in LSU as your annual West matchup and FSU as an every year opponent and Coach Mac has his work cut out for him. But I've got no issues with the hire, I just hope Gator fans give him time before they start booing him in games. To me, there are only two elite, slam dunk coaches in college football: Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. Sorry Gator fans, I know we have our issues with the Ohio State coach, but if you needed any further proof of his talent have a look at what he did on a neutral site against a good Wisconsin team with only a week to coach up his third string quarterback. Dude is a stud.

Job One for Coach Mac is getting recruiting back on track. Why a quarterback who had originally committed to Boom de-commits the day after Coach Mac is hired is beyond me, but I'm not worried about a QB that shows that type of decision making prowess. I don't think there's any chance he can land a top 5 class with the time he has remaining and the eventual coaching turnover we'll see in the next few weeks, but we can't afford a putrid year recruiting. Dante Fowler, Matt Jones, Antonio Morrison are headed to the NFL and may be joined by a few others before it is all said and done. We've got to get a quick infusion of talent to replace them.

Just as significantly, Coach Mac needs to put together a great staff. Having just paid the highest buyout in college football history, I have no doubt that Jeremy Foley will provide him with the resources he needs to make the hires he needs. I think we'll see 3 or 4 current coaches retained, but that's pure speculation. I also think you'll see an upgrade in facilities in the next few years to try and keep up with the arms race elsewhere in the conference. With a $110Million budget, there's no excuse for us to fall far behind.

Judging by his press conference and the reaction I've seen from fans, I think he'll have no trouble building excitement over the off season among the fan base which has been starved for offensive action for the last five years. But from there, next season is anyone's guess. The schedule doesn't get easier, with a tough early out of conference matchup against Eastern Carolina, Western opponents LSU and Ole Miss, and an improved SEC East. I also wonder if you can really topple Nick Saban and Alabama using one of his former coordinators. We tried it once with a defensive guy and we all saw the results. And make no mistake- If you can't beat Alabama, you can't win a national title. That said, we've got a long ways to go before that's our realistic goal. I'd settle for seeing Atlanta again in early December by the 2016 season.

In terms of our bowl game, I'll be shocked if we come out with much emotion at noon on January 3rd in Birmingham. East Carolina has the 7th ranked offense in the country, which ought to scare every Gator fan off the bat. The record of interim coaches in bowl games for Florida isn't impressive, so you've got to hope that the kids who will be playing in Gainesville next year for Coach Mac use the game as an opportunity to solidify starting spots for 2015. But I wouldn't hold my breath. It is a lot to ask for a bunch of coaches who are looking for work elsewhere to rally a team that knows that they'll be coached by a majority of other guys next year (particularly when many of your team leaders are also exiting).

You'll note that I got 3 out of the Final 4 correct (Bama, FSU and Oregon), missing badly on Oklahoma. I think TCU and Baylor got a raw deal, but they can blame their conference in my opinion, as the Big 12 spent millions branding the phrase "One True Champion" only to chicken out and name co-champions even though Baylor beat TCU on the field. I'd be shocked if a Texas or Oklahoma would have been passed over like Baylor and TCU were, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Big 12 got back into recruiting mode so that they could re-establish a championship game in the near future.

I'm going to take Bama over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Urban is a great big game coach, but he couldn't beat Saban with Tim Tebow at quarterback, so I don't give him much of a chance of getting past Nicky and his high octane offense with a third string QB starting for the Bucks. Bama 38-Buckeyes 24.

I'll take Oregon to finally beat the Noles even though the Ducks have not done well against legit out of conference opposition. The Noles penchant for slow starts is a killer against an Oregon squad who does nothing slow. Still, the Noles will make this one close before the Ducks pull it out. Ducks 42-Noles 35.

In Dallas, I'm picking the Tide even though Blake Sims will go down as the worst quarterback to win a championship for Alabama. I just think the Tide's depth on the D line is the perfect remedy for Oregon's hurry up offense and while Bama doesn't go to the ground and pound often anymore, they still have some bruisers in the backfield and will win the day with a balanced attack. Alabama 31-Oregon 28.

Here's to better days ahead, Gator fans. I hope you all have a great holiday and I look forward to checking back in after a long spring and summer respite from football.

Go Gators!