TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE GIANT STEP BACKWARD
Just when it seemed the Gators had turned the corner and were well on their way to becoming the basketball team everyone envisioned back in October, they played probably the worst defensive game they’ve played in the Mike White era at Missouri (9-6, 1-2 SEC) Saturday night. The Tigers hit 12-19 from the three-point line (63.2%) and 32-52 overall (61.5%) in bludgeoning the Gators (10-5, 2-1 SEC) 91-75 and the game really wasn’t all that close.
Defense on the perimeter was non-existent, but so was the defense in the paint where the Gators were outscored 40-14. Heading into the game, Missouri was shooting only 42.6% from the field and a miserable 30.5% from the three-point line. Missouri’s three inside guys were scoring a combined 12.1 points per game. They scored 26 against the Gators but what has to distress White is they combined to hit 9-14 from the field overall and 3-5 from the three-point line. No excuse for that. Those three aren’t very good.
Despite an 0-7 start shooting the ball and a lack of any inside presence except for Kerry Blackshear Jr. (22 points), the Gators actually played well enough to win the game offensively. The Gators put up 75 points, hit 10-23 (43.5%) from the three-point line and 25-32 from the foul line. With any kind of defensive effort, the Gators should have had a chance to win the game.
In their SEC opener against Alabama, the Gators were gutsy in their comeback from a 21-point deficit. In that game, they were good at both ends of the court in the second half and both overtimes, which is why they came out with a win. To come back against Missouri would have required some of that same determination, particularly at the defensive end, but you can’t come back to win from a 15-point halftime deficit if you’re simply trading baskets and that’s what the Gators were doing in the second half. Someone had to play some defense and it didn’t seem anyone was quite up to the task.
The Alabama and South Carolina wins gave the impression that the Gators were starting to mature as a team, ready to leave behind the silly mistakes that young teams make. The Missouri loss was like taking a rather giant step backward and it comes as the Gators begin an extraordinarily difficult four-game stretch – Ole Miss on Tuesday, #5 and unbeaten Auburn next Saturday, at LSU and then Baylor, which could be on a collision course with the #1 ranking prior to their O-Dome meeting with the Gators January 25.
The Gators have the collective talent to be an outstanding team, but until they can deliver the effort at both ends of the floor every single night, we might be in for more two steps forward and one large step backward.
THE YEAR OF THE TIGER CONCLUDES TONIGHT The college football season ends tonight and one thing is certain: the national champion will be undefeated and it will be the Tigers. The only question remaining is will it be the LSU Tigers (14-0) or the Clemson Tigers (14-0)?
On paper this is a superb matchup of LSU’s record-setting offense, led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and Clemson’s defense, which is actually better than last year when the Tigers ran the table and won the national championship. I’ve watched both teams numerous times this season and took the time over the weekend to watch once again their semifinal wins (LSU over Oklahoma, 63-28; Clemson over Ohio State, 29-23). I think Burrow and Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence are easily the two best quarterbacks in the country. I think LSU has better receivers and Clemson has a game-breaker running back in Travis Etienne. Defensively, Clemson is better, but LSU is exceptional.
My conclusion: Clemson is probably the only team in the country capable of beating LSU but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I like LSU to win because I think Burrow is having maybe the best season any quarterback has ever had throwing the football and he has too many exceptional receivers for Clemson to cover them consistently. I also believe this is going to be a game in which Clemson will find it too difficult to account for LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who I think will have an impact in both the running and passing games.
If Clemson wins, Dabo Swinney will have won three national championships in four years and will likely be considered every bit the equal of Nick Saban as the best coach in the college game. On this night, however, I believe Ed Orgeron is going to elbow his way into the conversation of best coach. If LSU wins, nobody is going to say he’s better than Nick or Dabo but he’ll be on everybody’s short list when they name the best.
I think this will be a Coach O kind of night. Geaux Tigers.
LSU 37, Clemson 28
MINDFUL OR MINDLESS MISSIVES ON MONDAY
(1) Former Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman is the new kid on the Georgia block, having enrolled as a grad transfer. While Newman is certainly a step up from Stetson Bennett IV, a quarterback who missed all of the season after brain surgery (Dwan Mathis) and an incoming freshman who had a disappointing senior season in high school (Carson Beck), he’s not exactly the second coming of Joe Montana. In the games against the three best teams Wake Forest faced and lost to in 2019 (Virginia Tech, Clemson and a very average Michigan State team), Newman was 34-76 for 454 yards (5.97 per attempt, which is well below average) for five touchdowns and five interceptions. At Wake Forest he was coached up by Dave Clawson, who is highly regarded as an offensive innovator and quarterback guru. At Georgia he will be coached up by James Coley. Former Georgia/Miami head coach Mark Richt has already stated Newman will be “the best quarterback in the SEC.” Apparently Mr. Richt doesn’t watch much SEC football. For those with short memories, remember how Kelly Bryant was going to tear up the SEC when he transferred from Clemson to Missouri. How’d that work out?
(2) Two grad transfer quarterbacks to keep a close eye on the next couple of days are KJ Costello (Stanford) and Anthony Brown (Boston College). Costello could wind up at LSU although there are some folks who believe he will transfer to Michigan. Costello was injured much of 2019, but in 2018 he threw 29 touchdown passes and averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt. When Brown went down with a season-ending injury against Louisville in game #6, it pretty much sealed the fate of Steve Addazio (fired at BC, but now head coach at Colorado State). Brown had nine TDPs in six games in 2019, 20 in 2018. He could still come back to BC but he’s got a lot of offers from Power 5 programs. He’s a possibility for Florida State.
(3) Ten UCLA players have entered the NCAA transfer portal, which brings to 63 the number of players who have departed UCLA since Chip Kelly was named head coach in December of 2017. Kelly is 7-17 in two seasons on the job, 0-8 against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll. He would already be gone if UCLA could afford to fire him.
(4) Transfers, going pro or staying put in the SEC – Alabama RB Najee Harris is staying for his senior season, He ran for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for 304 yards and seven TDs in 2019 … Former Texas A&M/Arkansas QB Nick Starkel is off to San Jose State. Starkel threw five interceptions against San Jose State last season … Arkansas State corner Jerry Jacobs, who had four interceptions in 2019, will be a grad transfer at Arkansas … Kentucky running back A.J. Rose (826 yards, six TDs in 2019) is sticking around for his senior season … Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia (23-27 field goals and 104 points in 2019) will come back for his senior season ... Texas A&M corner Debione Renfro and wide receiver Kendrick Rogers are off to the NFL.
GOOD QUOTES FOR MONDAY
From Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated, Coach O talking about the people who make fun of his distinctly Cajun accent: “I want to thank those people, because those people give me internal motivation. All the naysayers, doubters making fun of the way I talk, it just motivates me internally. You’ve been around me. You can understand me. People say they can’t understand me. That’s not true. I lead a meeting with 50 people. I think they understand me every day. I think some of it is exaggerated. I think the truth is starting to come out, which I knew at some point or another it would. Winning helps.”
From Mark Heim of Al.com, new Mississippi State coach Mike Leach on coaching in the Southeastern Conference: “I like playing against crummy coaches better than really good ones … All those guys I know, Nick (Saban) and Jimbo (Fisher). This conference is loaded with quality coaches. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
From Tyler Horka of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen on why he hired Mike Leach: “We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he’s charismatic, but he is. We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he’s got a great sense of humor, but he does. We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he’s exceptionally bright, but he is. We did not hire Mike Leach because of his dynamic personality, but he’s got one. We did not solely hire Mike Leach because he’s a visionary and a pioneer in the modern game of college football but indeed he is. We hired Mike Leach because he’s a disciplinarian. We hired Mike Leach because he’s a brilliant tactician. Most of all, we hired Mike Leach because he’s a proven winner.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS: I’m still trying to figure out how the Houston Texans could play so well in bolting out to a 24-0 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs and then collapse the way they did in the final three quarters. Are the Chiefs that good that they can hang 51 points in three quarters or is the Houston defense that bad? … What Derrick Henry has done running the football the last two playoff games (377 yards, one TD; one TDP) reminds me of what he did in carrying Alabama to the national championship in 2015. Then, as in Tennessee’s two playoff games, everybody knew Henry was going to get the football but nobody could stop him … Consider what a storyline if the Titans make the Super Bowl in Miami. The Miami Dolphins gave up on Tannehill and traded him to the Titans where he was supposed to be a backup to Marcus Mariota … Jimmy Johnson will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. I have to wonder how many Super Bowls the Dallas Cowboys night have won with Jimmy as the head coach if Jerry Jones hadn’t let his ego get in the way. I’ll show my age a bit here. I remember him as the defensive coordinator at Picayune High School in Mississippi when I was a sophomore in high school covering the McComb Tigers and getting my first college football assignments for the Enterprise-Journal.