THE SUNDAY EVENING QUARTERBACK: SEPTEMBER 1, 2019
There is that old joke that Florida fans are happy to tell in the presence of their Florida State buddies – the distance between Gainesville and Tallahassee is 150 miles and 150 SAT points. Now you can add a new twist to an old joke – the distance between the optimism that Dan Mullen is going to take the Gators to a championship level and the doom and gloom associated with Willie Taggart and the Seminoles is about the same as the distance between planet earth and Mars, which is something like 140 million miles.
We are only one game into the 2019 season but already the images of Florida and Florida State football and their second-year coaches are of one program on a collision course with championships (Florida) and the other (FSU) cratering and on its way to rock bottom. While Mullen exudes confidence and optimism, Taggart's demeanor is that of somebody completely overwhelmed by his circumstances.
Despite the shaky first game in which the Gators squandered opportunities that turned a probable blowout of Miami into white knuckles until the last 12 seconds, Mullen came away with a win, which is vastly superior to the alternatives. Although the Gators made far too many mistakes – both physical and mental – the positives of a 24-20 win over a Miami team that might not lose again until an ACC championship game encounter with Clemson far outweigh the negatives. As Mullen pointed out there wasn't a single mistake the Gators made that can't be corrected and because the Miami game was moved up a week to accommodate television it provided a teaching week to work out the kinks. With no game to prepare for and D1AA UT-Martin coming to Gainesville on September 6, Mullen and his staff spent last week focused on eliminating the errors instead of going immediately into game week preparation. It's very hard to get better when you're in game week prep.
So maybe that win over Miami wasn't a masterpiece. It will only be a big deal if the Gators keep making the same old mistakes over and over again. That is unlikely judging from what we've seen of Mullen in the past as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator, as Mississippi State's head coach and last year's 10 wins in his first season as the HBC at Florida.
Mullen gives you every reason to believe that he is indeed the right man at the right time for Florida football.
The same can't be said about Taggart and Florida State, not after last year's 5-7 record and especially not after the way the Seminoles collapsed in their game one loss to Boise State. The Seminoles roared off the starting line like a Ferrari but finished like a Yugo on the side of the road, hood up, steam rising from the engine awaiting a tow truck that's already two hours late. When the Seminoles sprinted out to that 31-13 lead in the first half, it was one explosive play after another. As they gasped for air in the second half, the FSU secondary must have made Boise State freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier (407 passing yards) feel like he was shooting fish in a barrel. The FSU defense was supposed to be a strong point but strong defenses don't give up 621 yards. Strong defenses don't allow the opponent's offensive line to open holes trucks would be proud to drive through.
And when that 36-31 debacle came to a merciful end after 23 straight Boise State points, there were no explanations for a 1-12 performance on third down by FSU or for the inability to prevent Boise from pounding away and moving the chains. Taggart post game Boise State sounded like the post game Taggart of 2018 when he guided the Seminoles to their first losing season since the Gerald Ford administration and the first season without a bowl since the first year of the Reagan administration in 1981.
Whereas optimism for Mullen has much to do with record setting fundraising efforts for an already rich University of Florida athletic department, the despair over Taggart is largely responsible for lack of fannies in the stands (barely 50,000 was the official count Saturday) and the sad shape of the FSU athletic department finances. They aren't broke but they can't afford the buyout of the four remaining years of his contract which is 85% of $20 million ($17 million).
As Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports wrote, “Unless the school holds the most lucrative bake sale in history to raise money for that buyout, they're stuck with Taggart. Make the best of it.”
LET THE SECOND-GUESSING BEGIN IN BIG ORANGE COUNTRY
Do you remember when large numbers of students up in Knoxville raised hell when then University of Tennessee athletic director John Currie was on the verge of hiring Greg Schiano? With Schiano scrapped, he almost had Mike Leach signed, sealed and delivered to leave Washington State for Knoxville only he got torpedoed, lost his job and Phil Fulmer was hired as the athletic director. Left to his own devices, Phattus Maximus passed on Leach and hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Like Willie Taggart down at Florida State, Pruitt went 5-7 in his first year, which was actually a one-game improvement over what Butch Jones did in 2017. And, unlike Taggart, Pruitt didn't bring to an end a 42-year streak of winning seasons or a 37-year streak of bowl games.
But he did lose to Georgia State Saturday. Badly. The final score was an 8-point margin but it was worse than that. Far worse. The worst loss for a Southeastern Conference team since Florida went belly up against Georgia Southern back in 2013. John Adams, the fine columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel and an astute observer of the Vols and the SEC called it the worst loss in school history. This was, after all, a Georgia State team that has absolutely zero in the way of tradition and one that went 2-10 last year in the Sun Belt Conference. When you bottom feed in the Sun Belt, you are only half a rung higher on the Division I ladder than will take a serious beating for a paycheck independents such as UMass and New Mexico State.
This raises this very serious question: If Pruitt and the Vols suffer through a third straight losing season – two for Pruitt and one for Butch Jones – will Fulmer admit he made a huge mistake by hiring a head coach who prior to Tennessee had never been a head coach at any level? Or, will he try to convince the creamsicle clad faithful that the Vols are still relevant and simply must be patient?
Patience could be a requirement since the buyout is $5 million. That's not a lot if gauged by the standards of the Gus Malzahn buyout at Auburn ($42 million) or Taggart's at FSU ($17 million), but the Tennessee athletic department isn't exactly swimming in cash these days. They're still paying off Jones and a slew of other fired coaches in other sports, plus they would have to compensate Pruitt's assistants then offer up cash incentives to not only lure a new head coach but assistant coaches as well.
Do you think the idea that Mike Leach could be the coach has crossed more than a few minds in the last 24 hours in Vol Country?
BAD VIBES FOR MIZZOU, SOUTH CAROLINA, OLE MISS AND ARKANSAS
We'll start with Mizzou since the Tigers' 37-31 loss to Wyoming was the second most embarrassing loss for an SEC team over the weekend. Missouri's D-line got pushed around all night as Wyoming ran for nearly a gozillion yards (okay, it was only 297 but it SEEMED like almost a gozillion). You think that's bad? Mizzou managed only 114 rushing yards (2.71 per carry) against a Wyoming D-line that AVERAGED 256.5 and whose biggest player weighed in at 276 pounds. Kelly Bryant threw for 423 yards but before anyone sings his praises, he also turned the ball over twice (interception and a fumble) and the turnovers were converted to 14 Wyoming points.
This is not a good Missouri team and it lacks the incentive of a bowl game to keep the players motivated due to NCAA sanctions. Now, Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterkel can scream until his face turns blue about the unfairness of the NCAA, but that won't change the fact that this team might be fortunate to win six games.
Given a schedule that includes Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson, there is no wiggle room for South Carolina, which makes the 24-20 loss to North Carolina even more painful. Even with a win over the Tar Heels, this South Carolina team would have been, at best, 7-5. Now the Gamecocks are looking at 6-6. If they're lucky.
It's a well known fact that South Carolina AD Ray Tanner and probably 90% of the boosters and alumni who have met Will Muschamp like him. Will is an engaging guy who it's hard not to like, but he's coaching at a place where the only real pocket of success was by a true coaching genius (Steve Spurrier) and even Spurrier's success hit the wall toward the end. However, Spurrier had just enough success that the South Carolina boosters think 10 and 11-win seasons are possible in Columbia on a regular basis and that's just not going to happen. So, the question for South Carolina is will they give Muschamp a mulligan if he doesn't get 7-8 wins against a ridiculously tough schedule?
On to Ole Miss, which lost to Memphis. That's better than losing to Georgia State or Wyoming, but it's a bad loss just the same since the Rebels were held to 173 yards of offense. Ole Miss fans would prefer to win, but if they have to lose, they'd prefer that to be in a shootout like last year's 48-44 loss to South Carolina. That's what they thought they were getting when RichRod was signed on as the offensive coordinator. Scoring 10 points on a Memphis team that gave up five touchdowns a game last year isn't going to cut it for Matt Luke. This has the look of a 3-9 team.
And then there is Arkansas, which had to hang on for dear life to beat D1AA bottom feeder Portland State, 20-13. SMU grad transfer Ben Hicks, who played for Chad Morris at SMU, averaged 4.9 yards per pass attempt while completing less than 50% of his throws. The Hogs went 2-10 last year, worst record in school history. There might be three winnable games remaining on the schedule. It's going to be another very long year in Fayette Nam.