A few thoughts to jump start your Tuesday morning:
THE OFFENSE WILL BE JUST FINE When Dak Prescott finished up his brilliant Mississippi State career in 2015, all expectations were for a significant drop off in the offense with Nick Fitzgerald taking over at quarterback. Prescott passed for 70 touchdowns and ran for 41 as the center piece of Dan Mullen’s offense from 2013-15. Fitzgerald’s best two offers other than Mississippi State were D1AA Mercer and Samford.
All Fitzgerald did as a sophomore starter in 2016 was throw for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs. The offense was fine although it went from more pass heavy to run oriented with Fitzgerald taking the snaps. It was the Mississippi State defense that backslid, giving up eight more points per game than it did in 2015.
The situation for Mullen as spring practice begins Thursday at the University of Florida probably reminds him a lot of spring in Starkville back in 2016 when he began anew with Fitzgerald. Kyle Trask is gone, taking with him numerous school passing records. Taking his place will be Emory Jones, who finally get his chance to be a starter in his fourth spring on campus, and Anthony Richardson, who spent his freshman year of 2020 understudying both Trask and Jones. Neither Jones nor Richardson have been able to demonstrate in games that they can throw anywhere near as well as Trask, whose accuracy was astonishing at times. Trask was a pure pocket passer who surprised everyone when he ran. Jones and Richardson won’t surprise when they take off running but they may surprise if they can make good, accurate passes to a still talented group of receivers even without the presence of Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes.
So the offense is going to evolve. It will definitely favor the run more and why not? In addition to having a pair of quarterbacks who can pick up big yardage whether on scrambles or designed runs, Mullen has the best group of running backs he’s ever had, enough that he’s going to have to creatively come up with ways to get more than one at a time on the field without making UF too predictable. It will not be ground and pound although the Gators might be more efficient at keeping the chains moving and the clock running in the fourth quarter, but the ability to run should create the ability for big plays in the passing game.
With an offensive line that could be beastly and should be much improved, Florida’s offense is going to be just fine in 2021. Even with the new faces taking the snaps, the Gators are going to be able to score points, no doubt about it. That shouldn’t be a concern as spring football beings.
The defense? Ask me what I think when spring practice concludes in a month.
CAN THE GATORS SCORE A MUCH-NEEDED WIN OVER ARKANSAS TONIGHT?
As evidenced in road wins last week over Kentucky and Missouri, defense isn’t exactly the calling card for 24th-ranked Arkansas (16-5, 8-4 SEC). The Razorbacks are going to give up their share of points – Kentucky scored 80, Missouri scored 81 – but they are also one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. With five double figures scorers among the 10 players who factor in Eric Musselman’s rotations, you can’t focus on stopping one single player and that’s the dilemma for Mike White and Florida (10-5, 6-4 SEC) tonight at Bud Walton Arena.
The way the Razorbacks run up and down the floor (82.8 points per game), it’s next to impossible to slow them down by simply taking out best scorer Moses Moody (16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds). If Moody isn’t making shots, then someone like Indiana transfer Justin Smith (11.6 points, 6-5 rebounds) or Jacksonville transfer JD Notae (13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds) will pick up the slack. The Razorbacks play at such a tempo they figure someone is going to have a hot hand every night. This will be a fast tempo game that lends itself to lots of points but the Gators are still going to have to get their share of stops if they intend to come out of this game with a win.
The Gators lead the SEC both in overall shooting percentage (47.4) and 3-point shooting (37.5%) so points shouldn’t be a problem, particularly if Tyree Appleby focuses on being a distributor who gets the ball to Tre Mann (14.5 points, 40.9% on 3-pointers) and Noah Locke (11.5 points, 42% on 3-pointers) on the wings. If they can make some shots and 6-11 Colin Castleton (13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds) can avoid foul trouble in the middle, UF should have a chance to score a win over a ranked team which will help their NCAA Net Ranking considerably.
SEC Basketball Update: The combination of bad weather and a positive test within the Tennessee program caused the SEC to split up its schedule. Instead of the normal Tuesday-Wednesday weekday schedule, there will be two games on Tuesday, two on Wednesday and three on Thursday. Still no word, however, on how Florida and Vanderbilt are going to make up three games lost to Covid-19, Missouri two or how Texas A&M is going to make up five.
Tuesday SEC games FLORIDA (10-5, 6-4 SEC) at #24 Arkansas (16-5, 8-4 SEC) #20 Missouri (13-5, 6-5 SEC) at Georgia (12-8, 5-8 SEC)
Wednesday SEC games
Kentucky (6-13, 5-7 SEC) at Vanderbilt (6-10, 2-8 SEC) South Carolina (5-9, 3-7 SEC) at #19 Tennessee (14-5, 7-5 SEC) Thursday SEC games #9 Alabama (17-5, 12-1 SEC) at Texas A&M (8-7, 2-6 SEC) Mississippi State (11-11, 5-8 SEC) at Auburn (11-11, 5-8 SEC) LSU (13-6, 7-5 SEC) at Ole Miss (12-8, 7-6 SEC)
WEEKLY HONORS FOR GATORS
Lacrosse: Cara Trombetta was named American Athletic Conference (SEC doesn’t sponsor lacrosse) Defender of the Week and Sara Reznick was the AAC Freshman of the Week.
Softball: Third baseman Charla Echols was the SEC Player of the Week. Volleyball: T’ara Ceasar was the SEC Offensive Player of the Week and Elli McKissock was the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
JUST HOP ON THE BUS GUS … AND OTHER COACHING THOUGHTS
“Just hop on the bus, Gus, you don’t need to discuss much” – From Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
The love affair between Gus Malzahn and Auburn was tempestuous at best. They loved him those three times he beat Alabama, openly talked about getting rid of him when he didn’t beat Nick Saban or lost to Georgia. When he lost to Kirby Smart and Nick in 2020, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion other than how many folks it would take to raise the $21.45 million of go away money need to finalize a well-publicized divorce. It wasn’t that Gus was a bad coach because he wasn’t, just that he had the misfortune of trying to share a state with arguably the greatest college football coach of all time who has Alabama on an unprecedented run of 163-17 with six national championships since the 2008 season.
The Gus Bus has resurfaced in Orlando where UCF has given him a 5-year deal worth $2.25 million per. It’s not that he needs the money. He gets to keep the entire $21.45 million that it cost Auburn to send him packing. In many ways, UCF is a better job than the one from which Gus was just pink-slipped. He doesn’t have to share the state with Nick Saban, doesn’t have to play Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M every year, and there are enough good football players in the state of Florida that he can win championships in the American Athletic Conference. Given that the College Football Playoff is on the verge of expanding to at least eight teams and quite possibly 16, Gus might just have UCF in the national championship hunt. As long as Nick Saban is the coach at Alabama, you can bet the farm Gus Malzahn will have a better chance to make the playoff at UCF than Auburn will with Bryan Harsin as its head coach.
Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin are both former head coaches at Arkansas State who worked under UCF’s brand new athletic director Terry Mohajir. Mohajir took over at UCF a week ago, tasked immediately with finding a new head football coach to replace the departed Josh Heupel. Since Harsin was already gainfully employed at Auburn – hired by those zany folks who seem to think he will beat Nick more than Gus did – Mohajir found Gus on his speed dial, gave him a call and offered him the chance to keep UCF relevant.
This is where this story gets really juicy. Back in 2017, Scott Frost led UCF to a 13-0 season that had athletic director Danny White proclaiming the Knights as the national champions. Never mind that Alabama, which Gus Malzahn beat in the regular season, beat Georgia to win the official national championship. In winning that 13th game to seal the perfect season, UCF beat Auburn and Gus Malzahn, of all people.
So when White got hired at Tennessee to clean up the dysfunctional mess created by Phil Fulmer, he hired Heupel, who was Frost’s replacement at UCF. Heupel went 12-1 in 2018, a loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl preventing a second straight unbeaten season. Heupel went 16-7 in 2019-20, losing games he should have won because his defensive coordinator (Randy Shannon) kept figuring out ways to give up two or three fourth quarter touchdowns. It’s not an understatement to say that UCF fans weren’t exactly donning sack cloth and ashes to repent for whatever sins brought on the decline of the last two seasons under Heupel.
Like Harsin, who has to deal with fans who can’t understand why Auburn can’t beat Nick, Heupel will have to deal with fans who think Tennessee should be better than 7-41. That is the Vols’ collective 16-year record against Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, the three teams UT fans demand their head coach beat. Like Auburn, Tennessee fans truly believe they are a whisker away from relevance and championships on a yearly basis.
Barring a miracle of the walls of Jericho tumbling down proportions, Harsin and Auburn will be negotiating a divorce settlement in three or four years. Heupel’s offenses will put points on the board but that won’t stop the Vols from doing a yearly oh-fer against Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn is a better football coach than the one he replaced and a better coach than the one who replaced him at Auburn. Not only that, he doesn’t have to beat Alabama every year, something Bryan Harsin and Josh Heupel better do if they intend to stay on the good side of the lunatic fringe that makes up their fan bases.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: The Philadelphia Eagles are going to trade Carson Wentz sometime in the next few days. Although he had an inconsistent 2020 when he threw for 16 touchdowns while completing 15 passes to the other team in what was a very bad year for the Eagles, Wentz has had a very productive career. He was paid $39.4 million in 2020, the second year of a four-year deal that is worth $128 million. If he’s in Philadelphia much longer, the Eagles will owe him $10 million just because he’s still on the roster. I keep thinking that at some point owner will figure out that it’s absurd to keep throwing money around like this. But then I’m reminded that Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder are multi-gozillionaires who prove my late grandmother’s theory that some people have more money than brains.