A few thoughts to jump start your Tuesday morning:
Go back to November 7 when Georgia needed only seven plays and actual time of possession of 2:26 on its first two possessions to hang 14 points on the Gators. Florida, it seemed, was one punch away from going down for the count but what we discovered in the final 56 minutes of football is this Gator team is, if nothing else, resilient. They counter-punched their way out of the corner and then spent the rest of the game bludgeoning the confidence out of the Bulldogs.
On that day in Jacksonville, Florida played its best game of the season. Despite giving up 136 yards and two touchdowns on those first two Georgia possessions, the Gators dominated the rest of the way on offense, defense and special teams. Florida outplayed Georgia on the field and Dan Mullen and staff completely, overwhelmingly outcoached Kirby Smart and his assistants.
The final score was 44-28 but don’t be fooled by the 16-point margin. It wasn’t that close. Georgia got a second quarter TD on a pick six and then an offensive touchdown late in the third quarter well after the game had been decided. This was an epic beatdown.
Despite losing Kyle Pitts on a second quarter targeting call that you’ll have a hard time convincing Florida fans wasn’t a deliberate (and successful) attempt to take him out of the game, Kyle Trask had a rather Heisman-worthy game in which he completed 30-43 passes for 474 yards and four touchdowns to four different receivers. That Georgia defense, which many had claimed was the nation’s best, was shredded for 571 yards. Florida averaged 7.1 yards per offensive snap.
That same defense, so maligned by Ole Miss in game one and Texas A&M in game three, found its sea legs after the second Georgia score and held the Poodles to 146 yards the rest of the way. Once past those first two series, the Florida defense completely dominated the action. Georgia couldn’t run the ball and the passing game was completely ineffective. Florida sacked the Georgia quarterbacks three times and picked off three passes.
As bad as it was, it could have been worse. Much, much worse.
It’s worth bringing up that Georgia game for a couple of reasons. First, the Gators are going to be facing an Alabama team that is capable of scoring bunches of points in a hurry. When Alabama hits a couple of big plays, it’s almost as if a feeding frenzy has begun that forces opponents to wilt under the enormous pressure. Some of it, for sure, is psychological. You can play Alabama perfectly five straight plays but on the sixth someone will bust loose for 50 or more yards and it doesn’t seem there is anything that can be done to stop it. Some of it has to do with Alabama’s abundance of superior athletes. Just like every season it seems, there is no shortage of talent that will someday play for pay on Sundays in Tuscaloosa.
That brings us to the second point. If the Gators get slapped silly for a couple of big plays early on by Alabama Saturday night in Atlanta in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, will they have the resilience to bounce back as they did against Georgia? And if it is the Gators who strike for a couple of quick touchdowns for an early lead what will they do if Alabama counters with a big play? Will they have it in them to gather themselves psychologically, put the big play behind them and then play practically error-free the rest of the way as they did against Georgia?
Perhaps as much or more than any team in college football, Florida has the capability of matching Alabama touchdown for touchdown. Trask has to be on his game as he was against Georgia. Pitts not only has to create mismatches in the secondary but force so much attention that it opens things up for the other receivers. Kadarius Toney needs to be as elusive as he’s ever been. Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter can’t have alligator arms going across the middle because those Alabama DBs will strike them. Can the UF offensive line protect again? They gave up four sacks and eight pressures against LSU but prior to that game they had allowed only 10 in nine games. If Alabama gets to Trask four times Saturday night there is every good chance the Gators will wind up on the short end of a big score.
Then there is the defense. Alabama has scored 40 or more points in nine straight games, 35 or more 23 in a row. Nobody has stopped the Alabama offense in two years and maybe nobody can stop them completely, but can the Gators force a few punts? Can they get pressure off the edge and make life uncomfortable for Mac Jones so he doesn’t have time to find Devonta Smith? Can they keep Najee Harris to 4.0 yards per carry or less? That’s a tall order for a Florida defense that hasn’t played consistently well all season. Nobody else has held Alabama down. How can the Gators do it?
Florida wasn’t perfect against Georgia but the Gators didn’t need to be. They were simply good far more often than not. Against Alabama, it might take something closer to perfect. It will at least take Florida’s best game since Georgia to hang with the Crimson Tide and even that might not be enough. To win will take that much more.
BETTER NEWS FOR KEYONTAE JOHNSON We still haven’t any answers for why Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the floor of the Tucker Center in Tallahassee Saturday morning, but at least he’s back in Gainesville now, being treated at Shands. There was a USA Today report quoting his grandfather that Keyontae had been placed in a medically induced coma and was expected to be brought out of the coma Monday afternoon. The two-sentence update offered by the University of Florida acknowledged that Johnson had been air lifted back to Gainesville. Obviously, he wasn’t in a coma because the update said he was responding to simple instructions.
Keyontae is still reported in critical condition but the fact he was responding Monday was a sign that there is at least a measure of improvement.
Keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
LET’S GO COACH SEARCHIN’ NOW, EVERYBODY’S LEARNIN’ HOW … Vanderbilt has hired Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who is a former Vandy player (last season was 2002). He’s done a great job at Notre Dame this year but he’s coming into a league where all the trends are toward offense. The only real success Vanderbilt has had in decades was when James Franklin was the head coach from (2011-13). Franklin is an offensive guy who was the OC at Maryland prior to coming to Vanderbilt. In each of his final two seasons at Vandy the Commodores averaged more than 30 points a game. He was replaced by Derek Mason, who was a defensive coordinator at Stanford. In five of Mason’s seven seasons the Commodores didn’t even average 20 per game. The trend in college football is all on the offensive side of the ball. Hiring a defensive coordinator, even if he has been successful at Notre Dame and even if he played at Vandy, seems a longshot. How is Clark Lea going to stop the Alabama passing game with the kind of athletes he can recruit at Vanderbilt?
Sunday, Auburn fired Gus Malzahn, who will have to make ends meet for the foreseeable future on $21.7 million that he’ll get from his buyout. Auburn wants to compete with Alabama, which is why Gus was fired even though he’s the only coach in the SEC with multiple wins (3) over Nick Saban. This is why the report coming out of Al.com that Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has emerged as the leading candidate to replace the Gus Bus seems a bit bizarre. Steele has been a fine defensive coordinator at Auburn. In his past, however, Nick Saban demoted him as DC after the 2007 season and Dabo Swinney fired him at Clemson after his defense gave up 70 big ones to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl. As a head coach at Baylor, Steele was 9-36. This does not seem like the splash hire Auburn needs if it intends to level the playing field with Saban in the state of Alabama.
Maybe the reason Steele has emerged as the leading candidate is because Hugh Freeze said thankee but no thankee and elected to stay at Liberty. Freeze recently signed an extension at Liberty through 2005 that will take his salary to $4 million. And, Liberty is the place that gave him a chance to rehab his image, to the point where now everybody in the world is willing to overlook past sins to hire him. Another coach who was said to be high on the Auburn list was Oregon’s Mario Cristobal. He’s working on a contract extension and raise. He has an $8 million buyout but if it wasn’t a problem for Auburn fire Gus with his $21.7 million buyout then $8 million shouldn’t be a problem.
And what about Gus? Since Auburn will be paying him out the wazzoo ($10.85 million is due within 29 days … the clock is ticking) and money is not going to be an object, expect Gus to land a head coaching job somewhere. Would he take on the ultimate rebuild of Louisiana-Monroe? There is enormous talent in the area. It’s the Fun Belt Sun Belt, which showed this year it can go toe-to-toe with the big boys … okay the Big 12 (3-0).
Arizona is open and there seems some sentiment for Rick Neuheisel, who would be a strange choice. There is an enormous gap between Arizona and the other five teams in the Pac-12 South. A splash hire is a necessity but there aren’t a lot of head coaches on the West Coast looking to make a move. As for assistants, other than Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who played collegiately at BYU, coached for Pete Carroll at Southern Cal and was once the head coach at Washington and Southern Cal, there isn’t one out there who really stands out.
Pay close attention to Virginia Tech today. Athletic director Whit Babcock has called a press conference to talk about the state of the football program. He’s said that HBC Justin Fuente’s job is not in jeopardy, but at midnight Monday, Fuente’s buyout dropped to $2.5 million. There are more than a few Virginia Tech boosters and alums who are hoping that Babcock will come to the press conference to announce it’s time to make a change.
SOME SEC STUFF Vanderbilt’s loss to Tennessee concluded the first winless season in school history. Due to Covid-19 issues Vandy’s final regular season game with Georgia (7-2) has been postponed. The cancellation also eliminates a chance for Sarah Fuller to extend her extra point streak to 3-3 after her 2-2 performance against Tennessee.
One name that might be heard during Kentucky’s search for an offensive coordinator to replace the fired Eddie Gran is Garrett Riley, the SMU offensive coordinator and younger brother of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.
Fifth-ranked Texas A&M (7-1) is a 14-point favorite to beat Tennessee in Knoxville Saturday ... Missouri (5-4) is surprisingly only a 2-point favorite to beat Mississippi State (2-7) on the road in Starkville … Ole Miss is a 1.5-point road dog at LSU.
A COUPLE OF PITHY THOUGHTS: Isn’t it amazing that if the three non-championship games are played Saturday, the Southeastern Conference will have played 68 of the 70 games it scheduled. Meanwhile the Big Ten (Plus Four) had to amend the rules so 5-0 Ohio State could play in its league championship game. Over in the Pac-12, Oregon (3-2) is replacing Washington in the league championship game because Washington’s entire offensive line – starters and backups – is in quarantine … SMU and Texas-San Antonio won’t be playing in the Frisco Bowl this weekend because of Covid-19. I know you’re heartbroken that you won’t get to see that clash of titans.