(1) It’s a numbers game and that’s why the Orange Bowl game with Virginia is important for Dan Mullen and the sixth-ranked Florida Gators (10-2). Put simply, not only is it a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game played in Miami, a prime recruiting ground, but it is 15 practices that will further the development of a very young football team. Add those practices to the 15 the Gators will have in the spring and 25 more in August and it’s 55 opportunities to improve. “You have 15 spring practices and 25 training camp practices before you play again,” Mullen said Thursday when the Gators arrived in Miami. “The momentum a bowl game and a bowl win can do for you builds yourself up through this huge developmental stage until you get on the field again.”
(2) The Gators (7-4) return to the O-Dome for the first time in a month Saturday when Long Beach State comes to town (12 noon, SEC Network). It’s been a head-scratcher of a pre-SEC for Mike White, who knows when the Gators are making shots like they did in the Charleston Classic, they can play and beat anyone. When they throw up enough bricks to qualify for a union card as a mason like they did last Saturday against Utah State, they can also lose to anyone. At some point, the Gators have to start making shots. They’re getting plenty of open looks but all the coaching in the world can’t make the ball go in the basket.
(3) If John Hevesy’s history as the offensive line coach at Mississippi State is an indicator of things to come, then the Florida Gators should have a vastly improved running game in 2020. Go back to 2012, a year after MSU lost a bunch of veterans and Hevesy had to work with a line made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. The Bulldogs averaged only 144.15 yards rushing per game – a drop of more than 30 yards per game from the previous season – but those same kids only allowed 19 sacks. A year later, those more experienced O-linemen paved the way for a running game that averaged 189.92 per game and the year after that they averaged 233.08. In both 2013 and 2014, MSU allowed a respectable 23 sacks per season. Contrast that to 2019 when UF is averaging just 120.25 yards rushing per game with an inexperienced and young O-line. They still allowed only 24 sacks, which is respectable when you consider everybody knew the Gators were going to throw the football and Kyle Trask was learning on the fly. With four starters back next year, backups with a year or more in the system and help on the way in talented (and very large) kids signed, Hevesy’s O-line should be exceptional in 2020.
(4) The stat category that jumps out at you when you study Florida Orange Bowl opponent Virginia is sacks. The Cavaliers have gotten to opposing quarterbacks 45 times this year, which ranks sixth nationally (the Gators have 46, which ranks fifth). They have allowed 38 sacks, which ranks 119th (the Gators have allowed 24, which is tied for 63rd). The Cavaliers had seven against D1AA William and Mary, six each against Conference USA Old Dominion and ACC foe Virginia Tech. They gave up eight in their loss to Notre Dame. Virginia gets the bulk of its sacks from its linebackers (Jordan Mack 7.5, Noah Taylor 7.0, Zane Zandler 5.0, Charles Snowden 4.0) and they like to bring a safety up the middle on a blitz (Joey Blount 3.5). When Virginia gave up eight sacks in its loss to Notre Dame, the Irish did it almost exclusively with a four-man rush. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham much prefers a four-man rush and with a healthy Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, the Gators figure to spend a lot of time harassing Virginia QB Bryce Perkins (3,215 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions).
(5) I’ve spent the better part of the last weel listening to a good many concerned Gators who seem to think Dan Mullen has to make drastic changes in his coaching staff for the Gators to compete on the recruiting trail. While I understand the concerns, I am convinced that the problem can best be resolved by the hiring of a personnel superstar such as Mark Pantoni. Pantoni was the guy who coordinated recruiting for Urban Meyer at Florida. When Meyer took the Ohio State job in 2012, Pantoni followed him and remains in the position. Despite the fact the Buckeyes have had a lot of assistant coaches come and go and Meyer has passed the torch to Ryan Day, recruiting has remained at an elite level. I believe the reason for that is Pantoni, who I think is the best in the business at identifying talent that fits not only what the coaches want on the field but in the culture of the program. Here is where Ohio State’s recruiting classes have ranked since Pantoni became the personnel director: 2012: 5; 2013: 2; 2014: 3; 2015: 7; 2016: 4; 2017: 2; 2018: 2; 2019: 14; 2020: 3. The 2015 class included Joe Burrow. The 2019 class was a transition class because Meyer announced his retirement. Now Meyer was a dynamic closer, that’s for sure, but he was in position to close because Pantoni got the Buckeyes in position to recruit the right guys. Mullen is quite happy with his coaches and I’m not sure he perceives a need to make any changes to his staff. I do know that adding a personnel director as capable as Pantoni can make more of a difference than changing coaches.
(6) Just as the University of Florida is not the kind of place for on-the-job training by a head football coach, neither is the University of Miami. Everyone from those obnoxious never spent a day in a college classroom alums to the higher ups in the administration have to be asking themselves “What the hell were we thinking when we hired Manny Diaz?” Indeed. A school that has won five national championships since 1983 and has all the talent it needs to win big within a two-hour drive of the campus shouldn’t be reduced to hiring a head coach who has never been a head coach before and should never lose to two Conference USA teams (Florida International and Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl Thursday) or an absolutely rotten Georgia Tech team. When the 2020 season began, a whole lot of people who know about such things thought Miami had good enough talent to go 10-2 or 11-1 but instead The U finishes up at 6-7 with far more questions than answers. As of Thursday morning, it was being reported that offensive coordinator Dan Enos was being fired, but the problems go far deeper than just a bad offensive coordinator. The U is digging itself such a deep hole that it might take years upon years to recover.
(7) Christmas Eve we lost a terrific young man who just happened to be a very talented writer and reporter in Edward Aschoff. When the news broke that he had passed away from complications of something called multifocal pneumonia, I don’t know anyone who wasn’t stunned beyond belief. He was just one of these talented young guys that we all expected to see continue his steady rise to the top at ESPN. I thought he was going to someday be ESPN’s next Stuart Scott, but like Stuart Scott, he is gone way too early. Those of us who got to know him during his time in Gainesville when he was working for Gator Bait and then for the Gainesville Sun while he was a student at UF always enjoyed his impeccable taste in clothing, his enthusiastic personality and his love of the Gators, Ole Miss (he was from Oxford but the Rebels took second place behind UF) and soccer. Everybody on the Florida beat was so happy for him when he landed the gig with ESPN. He started out as Chris Low’s sidekick on the SEC beat but that was just the beginning. Nobody gave him anything. He earned it all through hard work and a keen understanding of the people of whom he was writing and reporting. Reading the many glowing tributes from co-workers, I’m not the least bit surprised. Edward had a way of impacting everybody he came in contact with. To think that he’s gone at the all-too-young age of 34 just doesn’t seem right.
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF SOOTHSAYER
LSU (13-0) 45, Oklahoma (12-1) 30: Having faced Jalen Hurts when he was at Alabama gives LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda an advantage that hasn’t been talked about much. On the flip side, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has no clue what he’s in for with Joe Burrow and that dynamic LSU offense. I’m not sure Oklahoma can hold LSU to fewer than six touchdowns. I believe Dave Aranda can hold Oklahoma to 30 or fewer points.
Clemson (13-0) 35, Ohio State (13-0) 24: Clemson played the first five games of the season bored but since that close call with North Carolina, they’ve beaten teams by an average of 52-10. I hear all the talk about Ohio State being the most complete team in the country, but have you taken a look at Clemson? The Tigers have the been there, done there advantage in this one and I don’t think Justin Fields has had to deal with a Brent Venables defense. I know Ohio State has never had to deal with Trevor Lawrence. Close for three quarters but when the game is on the line, Clemson’s experience (Lawrence is 28-0 as a starting QB) and the game breaking speed of Travis Etienne will be the difference.
THE SEC SOOTHSAYER
Texas A&M (7-5) 35, Oklahoma State (8-4) 32: If Oklahoma State had QB Spencer Sanders and all-interplanetary WR Tylan Wallace, this wouldn’t be close. Of course, if Okie State had those guys healthy, the Cowboys wouldn’t have finished 8-4 and they would be playing in a much better bowl game than the Texas Bowl. The Aggies are 7-5 and losers of their last two games but nobody in Aggieland is particularly concerned. Jimbo Fisher has been pointing all along at 2020 and 2021 as the seasons in which the rebuild would have them consistently in contention to win the SEC West title. Saturday, they’ll outscore Okie State and finish 8-5. Some folks will call that disappointing, but Jimbo knows better and so do Aggie fans who really know what’s going on.
GOOD QUOTES FOR FRIDAY Bill Shea of The Athletic with Pete Denzis of ESPN on ESPN’s dominance of the bowl schedule: “ESPN will televise 35 of the season’s 40 bowls, and it owns 14 of them. The network will add three more bowls to its collection of owned-and-operated games next season: New bowls in Myrtle Beach and at Fenway Park, and the Cure Bowl played since its 2015 launch in Orlando, Denzis said.”
Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports on why we have head-scratching College Football Playoff scheduling that sees the semifinals on Saturday instead of either New Year’s Day: “Jamming the Rose Bowl contract with ESPN through 2026 before agreeing to go to a four-team playoff was a legacy of financial muscle flex by outgoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. The late SEC commissioner Mike Slive responded by spearheading a mirroring Sugar Bowl deal in the New Year’s Day night slot, as to not be completely outflanked. Those games are either honoring tradition or holding up progress, depending on where your allegiance and bank accounts lie.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, who began his career at Georgia, has declared for the NFL Draft. He is expected to be taken in the first round … Georgia is down a third offensive lineman for its Sugar Bowl game with Baylor. Guard Ben Cleveland will miss the game due to academics. Tackles Andrew Thomas and Issaiah Wynn are sitting out to prep for the NFL Draft … ESPN named its all-time All-America football team. While I have no problems with Roger Staubach being named the first team quarterback – you had to see him to believe him – I am miffed beyond belief that Peyton Manning was chosen as the second team QB over Tim Tebow. That might be the dumbest thing ESPN has ever done. It’s also mind-boggling that Lawrence Taylor was selected first team and Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas was chosen second team. I saw them both in person and Taylor couldn’t sniff Derek Thomas’ jock. And no Lee Roy Jordan? Give me a break.