SUSTAINING THE MOMENTUM
What we’ve learned in the last two games is that Mike White has the Gators (10-4, 2-0 SEC) ready to turn the corner from the November-December roller coaster ride to a team that can get the job done on a night in-night out basis. The win over Alabama showed they can come back from major adversity. In the win over South Carolina they showed they’ve taken major steps in closing teams out. Their play in the final seven minutes of the South Carolina game was extraordinary at both ends of the court.
White has to be concerned that in the first two games the zebras have been calling touch fouls on Kerry Blackshear Jr. yet at the same time it’s often no body bag, no foul when he is surrounded by two or three defenders. Blackshear has a knack for getting fouled and when he gets to the line, he is money, but he definitely should be shooting more free throws. In the second half of the South Carolina game even the announcers were miffed that Blackshear was getting mugged and no whistle.
We’ve also seen a coming of age for both Andrew Nembhard and Scottie Lewis. Both of them have played their best games in the two SEC games. What has impressed me most about Nembhard has been his better understanding of when to shoot and when to keep the ball moving. When he takes good shots, he scores and in the past two games, he’s taken a lot of good shots. As for Lewis, he has 30 points and 19 rebounds in the last two games while playing lock down defense. Both Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr. and South Carolina’s K.J. Lawson were clearly irritated that Scottie forced them into bad passes and bad shots.
The Gators will go on the road Saturday to face a Missouri (8-6, 0-2 SEC) team that has struggled in two SEC losses without 6-11 Jeremiah Tilmon, who is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his foot. Florida will have to deal with Missouri’s efforts to slow the game down by milking the clock every possession then playing very physical defense at the other end. The best way to deal with a team like that is to get an early lead and force them to play at your tempo. If the Gators can do that, they’ll keep the momentum going and move to 3-0 in the SEC.
MORE THOUGHTS ON UF FOOTBALL, 2020
One of the reasons Florida is poised to overtake Georgia as THE team in the SEC East in 2020 has to do with adaptability – as in Dan Mullen’s willingness and ability to adapt; Kirby Smart’s rigid stick with the game plan and don’t deviate approach.
Mullen always has a plan but as he’s proven both seasons here at Florida, he’s capable of changing on the fly. Take a look at what he did in 2019 when he had to adjust the entire offense to what Kyle Trask does best – throw the ball accurately – after a true dual threat in Feleipe Franks went down in game three. Dating all the way back to 2006 when he adapted the offense and made it a hybrid to take advantage of the skill sets of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, Mullen has always been able to make the offense fit the personnel, not the other way around.
The knock on Kirby Smart is that he isn’t very flexible. His last three teams at Georgia have pretty much been a carbon copy of Alabama 2011-12 when the Crimson Tide bludgeoned teams with the running game, threw over the top when defenses packed the box to stop the run and then played stifling, straight up defense. Georgia’s embarrassing loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game was the perfect example of same old, same old meeting up with a team that is in a state of constant adjustment. Kirby tends to make the players adapt to the system rather than adapt the system to the players.
Mullen will likely adjust the offense again in 2020 when he has four returning starters on the offensive line that will allow him to be more creative and successful in the running game. Having a more reliable running game should also allow him to open the passing game up a bit more so that Trask can take deeper shots downfield. Florida is likely to be more of a 50-50 run/pass team in 2020 but the bread and butter of the offense is still going to be the passing game. We’ll also see more integration of Emory Jones into the offense, too. Mullen has a wicked enough sense of humor to revel in the idea that opposing defensive coordinators are going to have to defend two talented quarterbacks with different and effective skill sets.
In Athens, Smart hasn’t shown any inclination to changing his offensive philosophy, which might have something to do with Mike Bobo electing to coach for Will Muschamp at South Carolina (see below). Bobo knows how inflexible Smart is and chose to coach for Muschamp, who has been changing his own rigid philosophies to change with the times.
The window of opportunity has swung open for the Gators to re-take the SEC East after a three-year hiatus. If and win the Gators win the SEC East it will have plenty to do with Mullen’s willingness to adapt what he does to the personnel on hand.
THE PIRATE HAS LANDED AND OTHER SOMEWHAT INSIGHTFUL THINGS
(1) Just when it looked like Mississippi State was about to become the next Tennessee – you know how that goes: 7 to 10 coaches say no before UT settles for a very bad fit – athletic director John Cohen made the home run hire that Tennessee has failed to make in its four coach searches since firing Phil Fulmer after the 2008 season. Make no mistake about it, landing Mike Leach is a huge deal. For one thing, Tennessee (2017), Arkansas (2017, 2019), Missouri (2019) and OIe Miss (2019) all made at least serious overtures to hire The Pirate only to strike out for one reason or another. By landing Leach, Mississippi State has already energized the fan base, made the Bulldogs instantly competitive in the SEC West thanks to his Air Raid offense and poured water on the Lane Kiffin buzz from Ole Miss. Leach won at Texas Tech and Washington State. At Texas Tech, Leach was 84-43. In the 10 years since, Texas Tech is 60-65. In the three years prior to Leach taking the Washington State job, the Cougars were 7-29. Leach went 55-47 with 43 of those wins in the last five years. He will find recruiting much easier in Starkville than it ever was in Pullman, Washington. He has more talent within a 100-mile radius of Starkville than he could find in a 500-mile radius of Pullman.
(2) A friend who knows both Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp well, tells me that Kirby put the full court press on Mike Bobo to return as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Georgia, but Bobo elected to work for Muschamp at South Carolina instead. That’s a serious upgrade for South Carolina and it represents a great opportunity for Ryan Hilinski to get coached up. Hilinski has an NFL arm but definitely needs some refinement in the decision-making areas of the game. I was also told that Kirby’s inability to land Bobo – or any other decent offensive coordinator – had plenty to do with Jake Fromm deciding to go to the NFL rather than stick around one more year to be coached down by James Coley. I’ll be very interested to see how Carson Beck handles Kirby going all out to land a graduate transfer QB. Beck was counting on Fromm being gone and being the QB as a true freshman, just as Jacob Eason and Fromm were before him.
(3) All is not well with our fine friends in South Florida. This will be a serious winter of discontent down at the University of New Jersey at Coral Gables. A 6-7 season against ACC competition has folks thinking Manny Diaz just doesn’t have the right stuff to be the HBC of the Canes. It was thought that the addition of Alonzo Highsmith to the staff could smooth over fractured relations with local high school coaches, but Thursday Highsmith told the Miami Herald that it’s a “no go.” Highsmith is the exec VP for player personnel with the Cleveland Browns. Apparently, Miami offered him a position with a much lower salary than it would take to lure him from the pros. Also, Highsmith didn’t want Diaz micromanaging his every move. All told, there is serious trouble brewing in Coral Gables. If Diaz can’t right the ship in a hurry against a schedule that includes D1AA Wagner, he’ll be unemployed before November next year.
(4) It only seems like a month since Clemson and LSU won their semifinal games in the College Football Playoff. They face off Monday night in New Orleans with LSU favored by six points. While I think Clemson is probably the only team in the country capable of beating LSU, I think LSU is going to win its first national championship since 2007 and the fourth in school history. While I expect an epic battle of the two best quarterbacks in the country – Heisman winner Joe Burrow and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence – I give LSU the edge because I don’t think the Clemson secondary can deal with the LSU wide receivers. And, on those plays when Clemson manages to cover the LSU wide receivers, Clyde Edwards-Helaire coming out of the backfield and tight end Thaddeus Moss are extraordinary targets (92 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns).
GOOD QUOTES FOR FRIDAY
From Jayson Jenks of The Athletic, one of Steve Spurrier’s more memorable quotes: “How is it when Georgia signs people, they get the best players, but when the two teams play, we have the best players? Something just happens to them when they get to Georgia, I guess.”
Another brilliant Spurrier zinger, this one about Jadaveon Clowney getting a speeding ticket:
“I didn’t know Jadaveon’s car could go that fast. He doesn’t have a pretty car like those FSU guys used to drive.”
A Lou Holtz quote about coaching pro football: “Professional football is just like coaching. You get fired an awful lot. They tell you the story about the first day God created the earth. The second day he created the sun and the stars. And on the third day, the 49ers fired him.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Some interesting bowl attendance stats courtesy of the Associated Press. The Birmingham Bowl had an announced attendance of 27,193 but only 9,679 actually had their tickets punched. The New Mexico Bowl had an announced attendance of 18,823 but some estimates had the crowd at more like 6,000. The Cotton Bowl crowd of 54,828 was the smallest since 1948 and the Sugar Bowl drew only 55,211, the third sub-60,000 crowd since 2013. Twenty-three of the 33 second and third tier bowl games were played before crowds of less than 75% of capacity … Saturday’s AFC playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens will be the first in NFL history to feature five former Heisman Trophy winners – Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry for Tennessee; Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and Robert Griffin III for Baltimore … Former Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema could be named defensive coordinator on Joe Judge’s staff with the New York Giants … Atlanta Falcons tight ends coach and former University of Florida tight end Mike Mularkey has decided to retire … Former Gator Kadeem Telfort, who was at the heart of the credit card scandal that helped derail the tenure of former Florida coach Jim McElwain, has committed to UAB. Telfort plead guilty to a reduced third-degree felony charge for his part in the scandal. He’s played at Garden City (KS) Community College since then.