PD’s Postulations: Thoughts on the bye week

Much of the talk during Georgia week, or any bye week that precedes it as we have this year, is typically filled with fan chatter on the game, the matchups, the series history, jorts, morons barking like dogs and other highfalutin topics. But not this year. This year it’s all about what is wrong. And mostly by extension, talk has centered as it has for the last few years in this increasingly Alabama-deifying Gator Nation, on what we want to be. We want our future state to be like Alabama’s present state. And we want it already to have happened in the one-day-past state (also known as yesterday). Much as Alabama fans viewed Florida’s state for nearly a quarter century before Nick Saban came to roost in Tuscaloosa … though that data seems to have been scrubbed from the Gator Nation hard drives.

So we want to be like Bama. But to be like Bama, we have to have a coach who will be like Nick. And to have that, we must first understand how Nick Saban came to be. The current incarnation of course, not the third year Nick Saban, heavens no. Not even the ninth year Nick Saban who won a national title at LSU, because we already know what it’s like to have a Hall of Fame coach pull a dine-and-dash on us, and we want something more substantial.

We want 2013 Nick Saban, the 19-year head coach. Or heck, even the 15-year head coach from 2009. He still won a natty, and decided to stick around for awhile — something the 2013 Nick may not do.

But how did the 19-year 2013 Nick Saban become who he is? Let’s trace his career and try to see what made him what he is. Then we can forget about a coaching search — we can just recreate the same impacts and influences that molded him into who he is today … and then we’d have to put it in the microwave or the Ghostbusters protection grid or the Flux Capacitor or whatever can make twenty years of experience and development get crammed into a couple of weekends on North-South Drive. We just need to remember to hook up the Kelly LeBrock doll and we’ll instantly have a head coach that wins championships every year and won’t just stand there and listen to this baloney about injuries and depth problems (he won’t, you know; he doesn’t stand for baloney!).

After all, it is Halloween week.

Tracking The Sabanator

After a few years as a GA at Kent State, Nick bounced around five mostly pedestrian schools over the course of eight years as a nebulous and nondescript defensive assistant (excepting one stint when he spent two years as a position coach instructing defensive backs at Ohio State). Then he landed a spot on George Perles’s Michigan State staff in 1983 as defensive backs coach. He was later promoted to defensive coordinator. The team was average to moribund for 4 years, going 23-22 with a defense as mediocre as the team’s record. In 1987, the defense made some strides along with the offense and the school went 9-2-1 and won the Big 10. He used this 1-year bubble of success to launch himself to a spot with the Houston Oilers as DB coach (yes, he has been coaching so long that he coached when the Houston Oilers existed … and it was in the middle of his career, not early). Soon thereafter, Michigan State was hit with major NCAA sanctions for “Lack of Institutional Control” under the Perles regime, including grade tampering, but none of the charges stuck to Perles.

Continuing his career trend of leaving quickly, Nick spent only two years at Houston before taking the head coaching job at Toledo. For one year. He went 9-2 and won a piece of the Mid-American Conference title, which was nice but just a single year in the MAC doesn’t turn many heads. When forming his Rockets coaching staff, one of the applicants he turned away was Urban Meyer. So much for his supposed perfection in always hiring the best assistants. He bolted again after the one year to become the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns under first-time head coach Bill Belichick. Though he was just starting his head coaching career, Belichick had been part of two Super Bowl-winning Bill Parcels teams in his previous six years as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator. And Nick surely benefitted from his tutelage.

However, it did not translate into much success on the field. In his first three years as the DC of Cleveland, Saban’s defenses were good but not special by any stretch and the Browns rang up losing seasons each year. In his fourth year, however he made a breakthrough, leading the league in fewest yards allowed per rushing attempt and driving the Browns to an 11-5 season and even a playoff win on the strength of three interceptions from his defense. As Nick is wont to do, he used that first year of success to propel him to a new job. This time he returned to Michigan State as their head coach.

For four years, Nick struggled mightily to break .500, finishing just 25-22 over that time with only two winning seasons. However, in 1999 as many Gators will remember, he rode the cresting wave of backdoor recruiting, using a few years of signing large numbers of everyone else’s blue chip academic casualties to claim a 9-2 record and a Citrus Bowl berth against the Gators. Nick is Nick of course, so he seized upon this first taste of success to skip town in the night, taking the LSU head coaching job and not even returning from his interview to coach the bowl game.

His first three years he did well at LSU, but not great. He won eight, ten and eight games, but never better than 5-3 in SEC play. In 2001, he was the very fortunate recipient of some rescheduling luck. Although finishing with a 5-3 SEC record, which placed them in a four-way tie for just the third-best record in the league, they got a week off before the SEC title game while Tennessee played Florida in a 9/11 makeup game in The Swamp. It was Phil Fulmer’s career achievement, even more than winning the national title, to beat Spurrier in The Swamp and knock them out of the SEC and national title games they would have funneled directly to. It took every ounce of the team laying it out to beat the Gators by two points at their house, and the next week they were simply too pooped to pop and LSU won the trophy.

However, Nick won his first SEC title in 2001, and that was very significant. It signaled a significant step forward in Nick’s career.

Without that good fortune the next year, LSU returned to the pack at 5-3 and a four-way tie for fourth, but the machine had started. Nick’s career went from significant step forward to a sudden upward swing. In 2003, he led LSU to the SEC and national titles (the only loss coming to Ron Zook’s struggling Florida squad), and followed that up with a nine-win season that helped launch himself to the head coaching position for the Miami Dolphins. After spending two years trying to put that broken franchise back together, he went to Alabama where he won 12 games and the SEC West in his second season, and followed that with four-straight 10+ win seasons, two SEC titles, three national titles and he is on course for his third SEC and fourth national title with Bama, fifth natty overall in the last 11 years.

So is a thick dotted line across Nick’s chronological resume between 2000 and 2001, and a very clear solid line between 2002 and 2003. Between the years of 1995 and 2002, Nick’s record as a head coach at Michigan State and LSU was just .625, an average of 8-5 a season. That is certainly not bad, but nothing that anyone would call elite. Heck, it’s reason to be fired at most SEC schools after just a couple of years. And overall, he had been just an average journeyman coach at all levels for thirty years … THIRTY YEARS! But then suddenly in 2001 he started winning championships on the big SEC stage, and beginning with 2003, Nick took a quantum leap, with a record of 98-17 (.852), an average of over 11 wins a season, 3 SEC titles and 4 national titles – and on a course to win #4 SEC and #5 natty.

So what happened between 2000 and 2001 and more importantly between 2002 and 2003? What occurred then that made the lights come on and turn Nick into such a coaching genius? The only significant changes that occurred at those times in his career were these:

  • In 2001, Nick hired a new linebackers coach named Will Muschamp.
  • In 2002, Nick made Will his new defensive coordinator

While Saban had always been known as a defensive-minded coach, he was never considered anything along the lines of a genius until LSU came out of nowhere to shut down and dominate the unstoppable high-powered Oklahoma Sooners’ offense in the 2003 BCS national title game. And he’s been considered a defensive wizard ever since.

Thirty-two years into his coaching career, he dramatically changed his stars. That doesn’t happen very often. Has it ever happened to this anything close to this degree?

If it had been the influence of Bill Belichick, surely it would not have taken so many years for the genius light to click on … and it would have been very coincidental that it Ellen Griswold just happened to flip the right genius switch in the utility shed just as Nick Griswold was plugging in his rooftop Christmas lights for the tenth and final time … that is, that it randomly coincided with the years Will joined the staff then started running Nick’s defenses. Muschamp was so valuable to him that he took Will with him to Miami. But Will left to run Auburn’s defense before Nick left for Alabama. Maybe he could see that Nick was going to trade on his name forever and never let him advance to the next level as he was destined (maybe his friend Kirby Smart knows a little about that right now, too). Will then went and turned the Texas defense into a force on another level while Nick took Alabama’s program to another level.

Will’s Fast Track

Unlike Nick, who took seemingly forever to ascend through the coaching ranks, it was just following Will’s first year coaching FBS football when Nick tapped him to be his defensive coordinator at a top SEC university. Will had spent just two years coaching at Division II and one year at an FCS school, making a string vertical move between schools each year. Just one year at LSU as linebackers coach was all Nick needed to see to make Will his right-hand man in charge of his defense, his program’s lifeline. It certainly was not offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who had been running the offense all three years of just puttering about in the second tier of the SEC (and whose offense was even dominated by a struggling Florida team for their only loss in their national title year of 2003). And it only took two years running defenses at LSU and two at Auburn (and one in the middle in Miami, of course) for the self-proclaimed most elite program in the country, Texas to lock him up as their next head coach. And those three years at Texas was all Jeremy Foley needed to see to bring him in to be Florida’s next iconic program leader. Will was just always a defensive genius, and it was always very well known, and always coveted as the next big thing in coaching.

Everyone attributes Will Muschamp’s defensive prowess in great part to his tutelage under Nick Saban. However, what if reality is closer to what the historical record suggests: that it was in fact the other way around?

I guess we may find out over the next few years. And we will find out if he can translate his defensive genius into the Full Monty of CEO head coach and lead Florida to championships.

But there are more pressing issues at hand.

This is Georgia Week!


I won’t get into the concept of this game being a must-win in the scheme of getting to Atlanta, but you know that since Missouri lost to South Carolina, you’re all thinking about it in the back of your mind … even you guys who think our season ended in Miami know that there is a tiny glimmer of Gator spirit and hope flickering in the deepest, darkest recesses of your mind. Come on, you know it is there. Let it live.

I will just address what needs to be done to beat the Dogs this Saturday.

The most crucial thing the Gator coaches must do dovetails nicely with the surrounding Halloween motif: create the best costume. Invent the best disguise they can. Now some may want to pause here to make the obligatory joke about the Gators dressing up for Halloween as a team that can score. But to the reality of Saturday’s victory and what is needed to bring it to Gainesville: deep cover.

Far more important than being more aggressive or overly creative, and even more important than getting the offensive line to recognize and execute their assignments at a higher level (or at all), is the need for mystery. And we are not talking about Spurrier-in-his-heyday-esque trick plays every other snap. This is simple Crash Davis baseball fundamentals. You have to throw the heater when the batter is thinking curve ball, and when the batter is looking for smoke, you have to call up Uncle Charlie. You can break down the LSU and Missouri game films in great granularity and go scientific on why each play did not succeed, but at the heart of the matter on every play was this: the defense always knew what was coming. Maybe not the exact play, but they knew when we were going to run and when we were going to pass. And unless you hold an egregious talent and speed advantage (like that which FSU holds over nearly all their ACC opponents this year), that is more than half the battle for a defense. From their personnel groupings, to their pre-snap motion to their physical orientation to the line of scrimmage, and certainly to their down and distance tendencies, the Gators have been broadcasting nearly every single play they are going to run as if it were Radio Free Europe.

That has to stop. No, that has to be reversed. Nothing could help this offense more than to be unpredictable on a play to play basis. Spurrier rarely played teams who were more talented, but when he did he often stole big plays simply by passing when the OL were purposely giving run blocking tells and running when they were in overt passing stances. He beat #1-ranked FSU in 1997 largely by having his rocket-armed quarterback throw short and his weak-armed quarterback throw deep, and then at the very end when the defense caught on, he reversed it to seal the victory. The Zooker beat a better Georgia team one year simply by bubble screening them all day. It is not as if the bubble screen had magically become indefensible – they simply kept calling it when Georgia was not expecting it. It is a concept just that simple. And this fact is what gives me the most hope for out-adjusting the Bulldogs Saturday. Because Georgia and Florida both took the bye week to do the same thing: address serious flaws and try to fix them, redirect them and/or reprogram them. Given the problems each team is facing, this is much easier to do for Florida than for Georgia.

Because Florida’s problem is that its offense has been easy to stop. It has been easy to stop because it has been easy to predict. Even if the defense does not know if it is run or pass, a bland standard blitz or “send one more than they have to block” strategy will stop the play cold unless someone falls down. Primarily because UF is limited by its atrocious OL play to trying to use such a small part of the field. If they can however establish any threat of using more of the field — both horizontally and vertically — they can buy the OL an iota of cushion. If the defense has to read the play to react, and if there is a penalty for dictating the action, rather than reading and reacting — neither of which have been a reality for a single play for the UF offense the last two weeks — then the Gator offense will have room to operate and can move the ball.

The Georgia issues however are not nearly as easy to work around. Theirs is a defensive problem of simply not having the experience to play soundly at SEC game speed. They can certainly make adjustments that can help their players be in better position to succeed, but it is not as simple as keeping the offense off-balance. The Bulldogs’ defense has had a tough time containing offenses when they do know what is coming; if Florida can vary its attack and keep UGA guessing, it will be in serious trouble. True, if the UF offense — and specifically the OL — plays like it did against LSU and UM, they can just send seven and eight guys into the backfield and shut them down that way. However, the UF coaches have seen that movie for two straight weeks and then had two straight weeks to diagnose and address it, so rest assured that this was the first and foremost problem they sought to solve. Even if the OL can do nothing to hold back the rush, the UF staff will certainly have devised a few ways to get around this. If UGA can then counter these moves with their own, then the chess game goes on and UF’s staff will go to their next move.

On the side of the UGA defense, however, it really comes down to a more fundamental obstacle. You can teach a player new schemes, new coverages, new line stunts, etc., but you can’t teach a season of experience in two weeks. You can’t fast-forward the collective instincts of the secondary by six months in just two weeks. You can’t erase the green defensive back’s tendency to bite on a fake or concoct the linebacker’s instinctive ability to read the correct gap a split-second faster in two weeks. And on down the line.

Certainly the UGA offense is not without its issues, but that goes for UF’s defense as well. However, whereas Florida’s defensive deficiencies the last two weeks were not the major contributor to the losses, neither were UGA’s offensive drawbacks.

Overall, while Florida’s outlook may appear bleak, Georgia’s looks as bleak or perhaps worse. At least anecdotally. UF is coming off back-to-back losses to Missouri and LSU — two top-10 teams. UGA is coming off back-to-back losses to Missouri and Vandy. Losing to then-top-10 LSU (close, no less, in their house) is by far more respectable than losing to probably the worst Vandy team in fifteen or twenty years. Which Florida has not done since 1987. And both teams lost to an ACC also-ran. Sure the loss to Clemson looked far more impressive at the time than a loss to Miami, but after seeing Clemson struggle for a few weeks and then get eviscerated at home against FSU — and considering that Florida dominated the still undefeated ‘Canes but for the game-changing five turnovers — perhaps those two losses were pretty even. What is more, while Florida entered the season with faint hopes at repeating the 2012 magic and flirting with an SEC and national title championship game run, the Bulldogs outright expected it. They were three yards, five seconds and one play (or three plays if they had only spiked the ball) away from what would have been an easy national title game win last season, and now their 2013 season is reduced to nothing but trying to beat Florida and Georgia Tech to avoid a year of complete humiliation. Although Florida’s morale is in serious wane, Georgia’s must be in complete free fall.

Besides, it’s the Cocktail Party. It’s the football equivalent of Wednesdays on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” And you know what Wednesday is on “The Mickey Mouse Club”…

It’s Anything Can Happen Day.

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David Parker
One of the original columnists when Gator Country first premiered, David “PD” Parker has been following and writing about the Gators since the eighties. From his years of regular contributions as a member of Gator Country to his weekly columns as a partner of the popular defunct niche website Gator Gurus, PD has become known in Gator Nation for his analysis, insight and humor on all things Gator.