A few thoughts to jump start your Thursday morning:
THE 2021 DEFENSE CAN’T BE ANY WORSE … CAN IT? Statistically, at least, Florida’s 2020 defense was the worst in school history. The Gators gave up 370 points and 428 yards per game, the most points in a season since the 2007 Gators gave up 331 and more than 40 yards per game worse than the 1971 Gators.
We can offer up dozens of reasons how it was the Gators went from seventh nationally against scoring and ninth in total defense in 2019 to a team that couldn’t get off the field in 2020. Some reasons are valid and some are just excuses but no matter how you analyze the stats it doesn’t change the fact that Florida was very good in 2019, downright awful in 2020.
Some have suggested Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham find a barrel, toss in all the tape of 2020, douse it with gasoline, set it on fire and then stay until the fire goes out to make sure there are no salvageable remnants of a season gone bad. We can rationalize that with one defensive stop against Texas A&M, LSU and Alabama the Gators would have gone 11-0 and made the College Football Playoff. That doesn’t change the fact the Gators stunk nor does it change the fact that any of the playoff teams would have lit up the UF defense.
With Dan Mullen calling the plays the Gators are going to score a lot of points. He is as gifted a play caller as you’re going to find and in 2021 he’s going to have another offense capable of lighting up scoreboards even without Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. But can they stop anybody? A dominating defense would be great, but there aren’t many of them in this era of spread offenses with dynamic playmakers all over the field. How about this for 2021: one more stop per half and an average of two turnovers forced per game (Gators got 16 in 12 games in 2020)?
That might sound modest, but just that small improvement could probably lop off a bunch of points and yards per game. Given the way Mullen’s offenses can put points on the board, a couple of extra stops and two turnovers per game would put the UF offense on the field four more times. You do the math.
The silver lining to the dark defensive clouds of 2020 was the Gators played a lot of kids who return in 2021 with a year of experience under their belts, joined by an infusion of talent that should at least give the Gators a shot at improvement. Can a year of experience and some newbies make the Gators a year better?
They can’t be any worse than last year, can they?
THE GATORS AND THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
The last time the Gators (10-5, 6-4 SEC) were off for a protracted length of time following Keyontae Johnson’s collapse in Tallahassee, they returned to the court to play two games at a high level to open up 2-0 in SEC play. When Texas A&M comes to the O-Dome Saturday, the Gators will be playing for the first time in 10 days.
There wasn’t much pressure when the Gators took to the floor against Vanderbilt after that 17-day layoff back on December 30. Not much was expected and it was considered somewhat miraculous that the Gators played well even though they had missed nearly two weeks of practice time following the FSU game. When the Aggies come to town Saturday, the circumstances are much different than they were back then, however. This time, the Gators have to be in their must-win mode and they cannot allow the pressure to get to them.
There is pressure because the Gators are still solidly in the NCAA Tournament picture but that could change in a hurry if they aren’t able to finish out the season strong. No announcement has been made regarding makeup dates for the road games lost to LSU and Tennessee and no one is even certain the SEC will figure out a way to accommodate. If the games can’t be made up, then the Gators have only six regular season games remaining – three at the O-Dome and three on the road. A 3-0 record at the O-Dome and at least one win on the road will send the Gators into the SEC Tournament almost assured they will be marching to the madness. If the Gators have to go on the road to play LSU and Tennessee they will need a minimum of five wins the rest of the regular season, otherwise they’ll have to pick up at least one in the SEC Tournament.
The NCAA Net Rankings have the Gators No. 27, which means if the Selection Committee picked its teams today, the Gators would find themselves either a No. 5 or 6 seed. Here are the SEC teams that would have a reasonably good chance to make it in if the committee met today: 8. Tennessee; 9. Alabama; 25. Missouri; 27. Florida; 28. Arkansas; 40. LSU. The rest of the SEC teams are: 63. Auburn; 64. Ole Miss; 72. Mississippi State; 80. Kentucky; 96. Georgia; 106. South Carolina; 133. Texas A&M; 147. Vanderbilt.
In the Kenpom.com rankings, the Gators are No. 28 nationally. SEC teams ahead of UF are: 9. Alabama; 12. Tennessee; and 26. Arkansas. The rest of the SEC teams: 29. Missouri; 41. LSU; 60. Auburn; 61. Kentucky; 65. Ole Miss; 66. Mississippi State; 80. South Carolina; 90. Georgia; 125. Texas A&M; 131. Vanderbilt.
Jerry Palm of CBS has the Gators a No. 6 seed, facing 11 seed Minnesota, coached by former UF assistant Richard Pitino, in his Hinkle 1 bracket. If the Gators were to win that first round game, they would advance to face the winner of No. 3 Texas Tech and 14 seed Belmont. Also in from the SEC, Palm has Alabama No. 2 in Hinkle 1; Missouri No. 2 in Bankers Life 2; Tennessee No. 3 in Bankers Life 1; and Arkansas No. 10 in Bankers Life 1. Palm has LSU a No. 11 in Hinkle 2 in a play-in game.
Joe Lunardi of ESPN has the Gators a No. 7 seed, facing 10 seed North Carolina in the Region 3 bracket. With a first round win, Lunardi would have the Gators facing the winner of No. 2 seed Houston and 15 seed UMBC and its 5-2 (yes, 5-2, that’s not a typo) point guard Darnell Rogers. Also in from the SEC, Lunardi has Alabama No. 2 in Region 1; Missouri No. 3 in Region 2; Tennessee No. 4 in Region 3; Arkansas No. 9 in Region 4; and LSU No. 10 in Region 2.
FLORIDA BASKETBALL THROUGH THE EYES OF …
Jay Bilas, ESPN, on ranking the Gators No. 28 nationally: “The Gators are a puzzle. With Keyontae Johnson this a top 15 team. Without him, Florida has performed very well and surprised with how tough and together it has been. Yet, after winning four in a row and looking like a corner had been turned, the Gators dropped a game to South Carolina at home. Tough ones against Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri remain before the SEC tournament. Florida wins with defense and toughness. When playing pretty is in the picture, losses follow.”
Eamonn Brennan, The Athletic on the Gators and the NCAA Tournament: “Florida had been on a pretty nice run — four straight wins, including a blowout of Tennessee and a win at West Virginia in that impressive mix. Had the Gators made it five against South Carolina on Wednesday, we would have moved them up to the should be in category. Alas, they did not. Thus they were not. This feels like a pretty Florida thing to do, given the last few years of Florida men’s basketball; for every step forward, there is always at least a quarter-step back.”
SEC Wednesday scores #16 Tennessee (14-4, 7-4 SEC) 89, Georgia (12-7, 5-7 SEC) 81 Ole Miss (11-8, 6-6 SEC) 80, #10 Missouri (13-4, 6-4 SEC) 59 LSU (12-6, 7-4 SEC) 94, Mississippi State (11-10, 5-7 SEC) 80
SEC Saturday games Texas A&M (8-7, 2-6 SEC) at FLORIDA (10-5, 6-4 SEC)
Vanderbilt (5-10, 1-8 SEC) at Mississippi State (11-10, 5-7 SEC) Auburn (11-10, 5-7 SEC) at Kentucky (5-13, 4-7 SEC) #16 Tennessee (14-4, 7-4 SEC) at LSU (12-6, 7-4 SEC) Georgia (12-7, 5-7 SEC) at #11 Alabama (16-5, 11-1 SEC) Arkansas (15-5, 7-4 SEC) at #10 Missouri (13-3, 6-3 SEC) Ole Miss (11-8, 6-6 SEC) at South Carolina (5-8, 3-6 SEC)
PAT FORDE ON HOOPS COACHES WEARING OUT THEIR WELCOME In his weekly Forde Minutes column, Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated offers the following takes on coaches who, if they haven’t already worn out their welcome, are getting close to it:
John Calipari, Kentucky: “… there is a 0% chance the school will fire Cal—it would cost a fortune, and his track record is too good. The issue will be whether he wants to keep going at a place where the very large, very loud fan base is questioning every single element of his coaching philosophy.”
Frank Martin, South Carolina: “It would be a major surprise to see Martin get fired; he’s improved the product and hung that Final Four banner, and South Carolina just spent a fortune firing Will Muschamp. But at age 54, Martin theoretically has many good years left; where does he want to spend them?”
Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt: “The question is whether athletic director Candice Storey Lee has the financial backing to make a second big move in a matter of months, after firing football coach Derek Mason and hiring Clark Lea.”
Will Wade, LSU: “This is another instance in which the school has stood by a heavily implicated coach and essentially told the NCAA, “Catch us if you can.” We’ll see whether NCAA Enforcement can pin a major allegation on Wade.”
Bruce Pearl, Auburn: “And at least among certain booster segments, there is a high tolerance for enduring scandal. Some of them will want to retain Pearl no matter what comes out of the infractions case.”
Bill Self, Kansas: “Self is the most accomplished coach ensnared in the scandal and still has considerable support, but the allegations are major and could result in huge penalties. Would Self ride out a multiyear postseason ban? Would the school want him to?”
Archie Miller, Indiana: “If the Hoosiers finish this season strong, Miller would go into 2021–22 with some cushion. If not, he will be on the hot seat.”
A FEW THINGS TO THINK ABOUT …
Since 2016 when Kirby Smart became the head football coach, Georgia has invested $175 million in football facility upgrades and new construction ... It should be noted that Georgia will experience a $55 million shortfall in its 2021 fiscal year budget.
These are the latest numbers for the roster carnage at Tennessee in the last few weeks. Already transferred out to a new location: 16; in the transfer portal: 7; early entry NFL Draft: 3; undecided about draft but not coming back: 1; departed but no announcement of plans: 1; seniors who may or may not come back: 5; transferred in: 2; announced they are returning: 6.
Following the Wildcats most recent loss to Arkansas, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tap danced around being critical of the zebras who called a foul that gave Arkansas the two free throws that won the game, saying, “That was a game-ending call. You guys could tell me. You probably saw it. If it was a foul, it was the right call. If it wasn’t a foul, it was the wrong call.” I saw the play in question. It was NOT a foul. Ron Groover (imagine that) blew the call. There was a clean block (hand on top of the ball) and should have been a jump ball.
One further example of just how ridiculous it is what Nick Saban has done at Alabama. Before Alabama’s impressive run to the 2020 national championship, the last previous national title for the Crimson Tide was 2017. There wasn’t a single assistant coach on the 2017 staff that was on the staff last season. On that 2017 staff, there were only two holdovers from the 2015 championship team.
ONE LAST PITHY THOUGHT: UCF has a new athletic director in Terry Mohajir, who arrives from Arkansas State. His first order of business will be to hire a new head football coach. Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel makes a valid point when he says if the new AD goes for a young coach, UCF will be looking for a replacement in three or four years. If Mohajir shares similar thoughts, then don’t be surprised if the new head coach is either Gus Malzahn (age 55), who he hired at Arkansas State in 2012, or Gene Chizik (age 59), who won a national championship at Auburn with Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. Would those two consider working together again? That would be interesting.