The Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series.
Disney China opened in Shanghai.
And the King of Pop was still alive.
Brett Faahh-vruh played for the Minnesota Vikings, the United Football League made its debut, with the Las Vegas Locomotives defeating the Florida Tuskers 20–17 in overtime to win the first UFL championship game, and the New Orleans Saints were putting the wraps on their first ever NFL championship season.
That was the world in 2009. That was the lay of the land the last time the Florida Gators swept the SEC East in football. The Gators were defending national champions en route to only the second undefeated regular season in program history. It was the last time the Gators had both a great offense and a great defense. Or even a balance of “good” on both sides of the ball. It was the last time the program had what most would consider a strong coaching staff. It was the last time the team or program had a clear direction or a unified focus. It was the last time Gator fans could look around the Eastern division and see no team that could challenge them and no program on track to do so in the near future. It was the last time Florida traveled to the Florida Dome in Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game, and the last time it headed into Rivalry Weekend with legitimate national championship aspirations.
All of these things are now once again part of the Gator world in 2015.
Welcome to the new normal. Same as the old normal.
The Walls Have Ears
In last week’s column I did not want to put any additional focus on the game performance or three-week performance trends of the Gator’s quarterback. He was being picked apart on every message board and in every article across sports media. No need for me to pile on or repeat what everyone already knew. But I was asked in the discussion thread of last week’s column what I thought had to happen to make the Gator offense move again, and specifically what Treon had to do.
I am happy to say that the analogy of the blind squirrel finding a nut still holds true, because what I suggested was exactly what we saw on the field in Columbia Saturday afternoon. And it was responsible for moving the offense once again and sustaining drives to the point of owning the time of possession better than any other game this year. Clearly the Gator Country walls have ears because how else could Coach Mac and the Florida staff have possibly known to focus Treon’s efforts on this pivotal task? Happy to do my part to help the team.
Sarcasm phasers set to Stun.
So what was the difference? What I said last week was that the common suggestion of rolling him out every play and tailoring most of the plays to let him throw on the move and improvise simply won’t work because defenses have already schemed to shut that down. They send defensive ends and/or linebacker streaking upfield around the tackles to cut off any attempts to sprint Treon out or move the pocket. We are not a good enough run blocking line to make them pay for this with runs inside the tackles and under that edge-setting outside rush. We could try a few things like a shovel pass to expose the vacated spots, but with so many defenders in the box, success rates were not going to be much greater without stronger blocking from the offensive line.
So the only way to move the ball more effectively, and move the chains in a way that keeps the defense rested and increases scoring opportunities, was for Treon to stay in the pocket. He was going to have to do what he is uncomfortable doing: standing between the linemen, trying to find passing lanes to see his open reads, and when he sees them – throw the ball. After that, throwing it on time and with velocity and accuracy would be gravy. This was to my way of thinking the only way the offense was going to improve. And that’s exactly what happened.
Facing a bad South Carolina run defense was mitigated by having multiple offensive line starters either nursing injuries on the bench or playing hurt. So the forward pass was going to have to move the offense. And when Treon stayed in the pocket, this is exactly what happened. It didn’t happen every time of course, but persistence paid off. He hit a number of downfield passes, and while most of them had too much loft and were a tad late, a few of them were right on time and thrown with authority into tight windows. There is still a lot of work to be done, such as knowing not to throw into triple coverage in the end zone, and developing better pocket awareness, however for the first time in a few weeks, we saw not only progress but significant progress from the quarterback position. And against FAU this week, Treon should be afforded more time to work in the pocket and build more confidence in a real game. The coaches helped him a lot with designed quarterback runs in select spots throughout the day, and targeting the tight ends more than last week, and they will continue to design the game plan to put him in the best position to make plays.
We should see the improving performance trend continue against FAU, and then FSU comes to town. Night game. Contention for a playoff bid hanging in the balance. The stakes go back up. Every player in orange and blue will bring their game to the next level. Much will rely on how healthy the offensive line is by then, but regardless, we will see just how much this improvement will net the team when the competition level is turned back up.
“This is not a defense that is going to finish first in the nation or in the SEC in any categories, and it’s not going to throw any shutouts. But it is a defense that is as dominant as any other in the country when it is focused.”
That’s what I wrote last week after the Vandy game. We saw this demonstrated once again. Through three quarters, Florida was headed for its fifth single-digit defensive performance in eight SEC games. They had surrendered zero points and less than 50 total yards. But the game was well in hand at 17-0 and the defense lost some focus. Just two big plays got the Gamecocks back in the game but more shockingly into double digits. Many panicked. Most did not however because most have been paying attention to this defense all year, and they knew as soon as they checked back into the game (it should be noted that there were a lot of backups in the game during the fourth quarter, too), it was back to goose eggs and turnovers for Carolina.
They should have shut them out, sure. But like I said, they aren’t going to throw any shutouts. Frankly the Gator offense has as much to do with that as the defense. They are going to dominate when they need to.
*Though the first time since 2009, this marked the 11th time the Gators have swept the East division in football since divisional play began in 1992. No other East program has come close to that mark.
*Were you looking for more consistency out of Treon Harris and the offense Saturday? Well Treon had a career-high 19 completions on the day and the Gators converted the most first downs on the season (11) and all three of their scoring drives were longer in time of possession than the longest drive of the season up to this point.
*The 4 sacks marked the fourth time this year the Gators have hit or eclipsed that number in a game, topping the dominating 2012 Gator defense in that category.
*Jim McElwain with 9 wins tied a Gator record for most wins by a first year coach, matched only by Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Galen Hall and Ray Graves – three coaches with national title trophies at Florida (yes, the 1984 team has a national title trophy, just not from the AP or UPI), and one coach that Spurrier credits for being the architect of Florida football.
*For those scoring at home, this was Florida’s 700th win in program history. A new century mark is always worth celebrating.
Closing Argument: The Playoff Shuffle
Much has been made and debated on the playoff rankings and on Florida’s chances of climbing those polls and getting into the top 4 in the final poll. My position has always been that if the Gators win out, they are in; if they don’t, they are out. Arguments abound as to what teams would take Florida’s spot, and why, even if the Gators finish as the 1-loss champ of the nation’s best league with wins over ranked FSU and top-4 ranked Alabama. However, my underlying reasons for calling it a win-and-in scenario for UF has nothing to do with comparing 1-loss teams and their resumes, but rather comparing the remaining schedules of all the teams involved and recognizing that odds are almost a lock that the current playoff ranking will not vaguely resemble the final ranking.
Below is the top 15 current playoff ranking, with each team’s record against other teams currently ranked in the 25-team poll, and the games they have left against those 25 ranked teams (games with asterisks are conference title games, of which the Big 10 still has three teams vying for who will face Iowa).
First thing that jumps out is that among the top teams, Florida has tied for the worst record against ranked other teams. Ohio State of course has played nobody. Of the current top 4, Clemson has the easiest path, with just a potentially overrated UNC team waiting in the ACC title game. So assume they are in (although they could be out).
Notre Dame has the next-easiest path, also with just one ranked team left – however it is probably a better team than UNC, and it is a true road game as opposed to a neutral site league title game. Alabama has to play Florida, so to win out, they will knock them out as a matter of course. Ohio State, after a whole season of playing zero ranked teams would have to beat three of them to get into the playoffs. Between them and Iowa, one of them will fall behind Florida, possibly both.
Then there are the other teams competing with Florida to move up to that last playoff spot when it is vacated – which sure as the sun rises in the east, it will be. Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor all have two games against other fairly equal Big 12 teams, none of which would constitute as big a win as beating Alabama. Michigan State is already behind Florida and would have two games to win against ranked teams and a bad loss to Nebraska to overcome. Stanford and Michigan both have two potential games to win against ranked teams and very large fleas to scratch off. They won’t be jumping a 1-loss Florida.
It’s impossible to know what will happen and if the chips will fall right or wrong for Florida, but there are so many chips out there, it is impossible to rule out the axiom that any 1-loss SEC champ will be in the playoffs, no matter what. Florida’s biggest obstacle is not the other teams ranked ahead and around them: it is beating FSU and Alabama.
Even with the struggling offense, when you balance out the defense and special teams as well as being SEC-tested vs ACC-tested, I think Florida is simply a the better team. And they get the Semis at home at night and the Swamp will be the most electric it has been since FSU visited in 2009 for Tim Tebow’s last home game.
As for Alabama, don’t worry that for the last two weeks the Tide have been playing like the New England Patriots and Florida appears to be just scraping by against the two weakest dregs of the SEC. The conference title game is nearly a month away. Three long weeks. Like in the playoff picture, things can change a lot. Clemson has been for weeks everyone’s favorite to fill one of the slots in the national championship game, but suddenly all the talk is around how North Carolina is looking good to knock them off in the ACC championship game (which the Heels might not even make it to). At the beginning of the season, UNC looked completely inept in losing to the same South Carolina team whose only other wins this season are against 4-6 Vanderbilt and winless UCF. Just three games ago, Florida buried Georgia alive without even working up a sweat and Alabama almost lost to a 3-3 Tennessee team, needing a touchdown with just 2:24 left in the game to squeak out a 5-point win. Florida and Alabama face off in three games for the conference crown: how much will the complexion of the teams change between now and then? As much as it has in the last three games?
We will find out. And it will be fun to watch.