Well, despite the desires and pleadings of Gator fans everywhere, the season did continue Saturday. The Gators played South Carolina, more commonly known as the University of Florida head coach’s retirement plan (or severance package). And if ugly plays were bricks, this game would have been the Great Wall of China. And while the game was as hard to watch as a soccer game on the moon, there was actually genuine reason for optimism.
First and foremost, the players played hard and never quit. They are not going to let the rest of this season go gently into that bad night. This bodes well for the only thing the team has left to play for: beating FSU. They will be able to get some things at least to work this week against UAB, probably even win the game. Let them remember that they are in fact capable of winning. They may at this point need reminding that they are allowed to win. Then another week to get ready to protect the Swamp against the almost equally floundering FSU.
And they might have an extra boost of energy that week. The kind of boost that comes from knowing you have a rock star coach taking over. The kind of boost that comes from finally knowing that all this ugliness is going to start to be moved into the rear view mirror very quickly.
Look Back At It, Look Back At It…
Before we look too far ahead, though, we have to look back at that rear view, because what is going to be filling it up the next couple of weeks is still ahead of us. And watching the calamity on the field is like watching a freshly emerging baby bird trying to peck its way through its shell. There is some effort, then rest. Effort, then rest. Rest because the futility of trying sinks in, and because it’s been so difficult to get this far. But the poking and pecking and fighting to shed this old shell of 2017 (and to a larger extent, the last 8 years) will continue for a couple more weeks.
And I will try to go through this quickly, to spare us the agony of acknowledging the present while we try to pry our eyes off and cast them to the future.
Florida was held to 20 points or fewer for the 5th-straight game, which came as a shock to the college football world, which was largely unaware that Florida had scored over 20 points in any game this year, or maybe even in total. Two games were at home, two on the road and one at a usually Gator-friendly neutral site. For much of the game Saturday, Florida was averaging fewer than 2 yards per play on offense. For the 5th-consecutive week, and at least the 6th week this season, Florida’s opponents were bigger, faster, more talented, more athletic and played 300% smarter at every single position on the field. We will again have among the two most representatives on the SEC academic honor roll, so chalk that last one up to not being taught by the coaches how to play the game of college football. South Carolina came into the game with an offense nationally ranked even worse than Florida’s and racked up 469 yards of offense. They came in as one of the worst rushing teams in the nation, and gashed the Gators defense for 220 yards on the ground. Florida had more penalties than offensive possessions, though many were declined, leaving them with 10 yellow flags to 13 possessions. The Gators had 56 yards in accepted penalties, 78 yards rushing.
And what has been shown in sharp relief since Jim McElwain was fired…excuse me, since his mutually agreed upon exit…is that almost all the problems of this team have been caused by coaching incompetence and the small remainder by recruiting incompetence at a position or two. And the coaching incompetence was more like neglect or even abuse when you watch the plays being called that seem to be engineered to prevent forward movement. Even the game plan itself appeared to be prepared by the Carolina coaches. Florida entered the game having rushed for at least 165 yards in 6-straight for the first time since a streak that started in the 2008 national title game against Oklahoma, and yet we chose to hand the ball off to our running backs only 9 times.
Niiiine times, Mrs Bueller.
Instead, we had a very athletic running quarterback with very little experience and a glaring inability to throw a spiral, passing the ball 14 times with just a few designed runs. Proving that when McElwain left the building, he did not take his belligerence with him. I am sure Nussmeier was repeating this former boss’s favorite mantra when the offense puts forth an anemic performance: the plan was solid, execution was not.
He would be right, of course. The game plan was solid….for an NFL team.
But not for our personnel and especially not for any quarterback named Zaire or Franks. It doesn’t matter how solid the plan is for storming the castle if you don’t have a wheel barrow and a Holocaust cloak.
And as we are accustomed, we had play-makers like Kadarius Toney making a brilliant gain on one play, then only getting his number called once more in the game. We threw to Tyrie Cleveland once, half as many times as we threw to little-used running back Mark Thompson (even though one of those was intercepted by his own teammate, which apparently upset Mark because he tackled him to prevent him from walking into the end zone). I kid about that one, but it was definitely symbolic to see the old tried and true “Gator tackling another Gator to prevent a Gator touchdown” play make another appearance in the second half. I don’t know if we had any linemen blocking each other in the second half, but by then I was half in the bag already.
Again, I kid. I was completely in the bag.
And still, with all of that, Florida lost by only one score. And that includes yet another Florida touchdown this season denied because a ball carrier allowed a fingernail to strip the ball as he was crossing the goal line, and a second pick-six was thwarted by another hangnail that caught our defensive back in the back of the heel. Add those two scores and Florida would have won by 6 instead of lose by 8.
And it was clear yet again, for who knows how many games in a row, but certainly a good 5 to 7 consecutive seasons in the last 8 years, that this team has the worst strength and conditioning program in the SEC, possibly in the Power 5. And there is no small connection between the fact that we are physically pushed all over the field every week and the fact that we have nearly double digit players being lost to injury every week. Most injuries are fluke accidents, but poor strength and conditioning can contributes significantly to injuries in a contact sport. There is of course the obvious fact that the stronger the muscles are around the bone, the less likely that bone is going to be bent in a way that fractures or tears things you don’t want fractured or torn. Then there is the simple physics involved when two objects collide. Hammers don’t often get bent, but nails do. When people are getting blocked by stronger players, tacklers don’t have as many clear angles to pummel ball carriers. When people are being blocked by stronger players, they go backwards or down instead of forwards. Legs get bent the opposite direction of planted feet. People getting pancaked get injured a lot more frequently than the guy crashing down on top of them as the spatula. You get the picture.
But there is an upside to being the only program in the nation that has doubled as a med school case study: Recruits should be excited because the signing class certainly has a lot of opportunity to play immediately. Not because of lacking talent on the roster, but because of this invariable recruiting pitch: “It doesn’t matter how many guys are ahead of you on the depth chart when you enroll. Every single one of them will be injured and lost for the year before mid-terms.”
Good Times Ahead?
Speaking of recruiting, what our current elite class of commits and leans could use right now is a big shot in the arm from an announcement of new rock star coach. One that gets them actually much more excited that the one they love and committed to.
In years past it has been easy for the coaching search at Florida to be followed closely by recruits, fans, players…office furniture…the homeless. Jeremy Foley had all the coach-hunting stealth of Chris Farley at an open bar. But Scott Stricklin has not only kept the lid very tight on the goings on, whenever there is a rumor of something happening, he has been quick to tweet out a misdirection that cannot be pinned down as to which direction he wants us to turn. “Quiet” has been the word thus far. So quiet, it lulled me into a poetic mood.
In this coaching search
Silence is golden
To bring us back
To days that were golden
Games full of points
And defensive violence
Are one hire away
With the sounds of silence
But, real or imagined, in the past few days there arose such a clatter, Gator fans sprung from their beds to make their wif-fi bill fatter. It could happen any minute, any hour, any day: the RED BOX will appear and the Chip will fall where he may.
The front burner has had so many pots on it the past two weeks, it’s hard to keep track. I can, however report some insider intel I have on the Bob Stoops candidacy with authority. News may break late tonight, but tomorrow it will be reported by all the news outlets as a done deal: Stoops to Florida. Then Bob will hold a surprise press conference to announce that he’s just been given a raise and a contract extension by his wife.
And all eyes will again turn back to Chip Kelly.
The Big Splash
We’ve been waiting for our big splash hire since Urban Meyer stumbled into Shands Hospital and confused the initials E.R. with E.N.T. It seems that finally we may be in position to get that big splash. And the first one on the diving board appears to be Chip Kelly. With no current team to coach, he could be interviewed and hired any day. The other big splash Gator fans are deeply crushing on is Scott Frost. He would cause our interview and potential hire to be postponed until early December.
Whether the timing or the outcome is the focus, or whether we should prioritize one over the other, Frost/Kelly is going to be bigger than Frost/Nixon. Frost may be the next greatest coach in football, but it is all just promise at this point. Kelly may not have all the intangibles or vigor for recruiting Frost has, and he’s older, but he’s no soft-lens promise of what dreams may come; he’s the proven article. The reservations on Frost include the complete unknown as far as whether we can land him, with the job at his alma mater about to come open. He may also have NFL aspirations. The reservations on Kelly also involve NFL aspirations, or interest in staying long term even without the NFL beckoning (he’s never stayed anywhere for more than four years. But there is also some concern about his spread-option offense that relies heavily on a running quarterback that made him so successful at Oregon. Particularly because our only roster quarterbacks, as well as our program-changing signal caller coming in with the class of 2018, are not running quarterbacks.
To the best of my limited ability, I want to dispel that concern. Remember that he wasn’t successful at Oregon because he invented a new offense. And that’s not the only offense he can run. He is a legitimate football genius and ran that offense because those are the kinds of athletes he had and could recruit out of California.
And his offense didn’t work because nobody knows how to stop it, but because the play calling is smart and timely. Every play is set up to take advantage of the defense that is on the field for that play, and each play has multiple options/choices for the quarterback depending on what the defense does before and after the snap. This is true both for run plays and pass plays.
And those concepts are what he applies to any offense he creates. And he creates his offenses to fit his personnel, whether it’s a spread option or a spread passing scheme. So for whatever list of concerns anyone might have about the coaching candidates, the schematic mismatch of a Chip Kelly offense and Florida quarterbacks can be stricken from it.
Of course, nothing goes well with Chips than a Frosty beverage. And Scott Frost would be almost as big a splash hire as Kelly, and as previously noted, perhaps the better long-term hire. Impossible to know. The big caveat with him is whether or not he has deep enough interest in Florida to push all our Chips, er, chips into the center of the table.
Early in the process, Gator Country reported that there was substantial initial communication between “our people” and “his people”. Although no direct contact was made with Frost – and none would be until after his regular season is over – communication is always done through back channels with people who can communicate the target coach’s position on things. It was reported that those communications included talk about assistant coaching staff, salary ranges, and other telling details. This was very encouraging because this was not just general interest inquiry kind of stuff. Scott Stricklin didn’t just see Scott Frost on Facebook, think he was cute and sent him a friend request. He said, “Pick you up at eight. Wear something nice.” And Frost didn’t just suggest what kind of restaurant to go to; he was ordering main course, side items, drinks and appetizers, both on and off menu.
So at least through preliminary communication steps, the decision-making struggle between Kelly and Frost is real. Not to say we won’t hire someone else altogether, for reasons of our own or theirs. There are a couple other big splash hires out there as well, but these are the two with the most heat right now, so we have to talk about them before everything changes again.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about our competition for our next head coach. Because the (at this point comical) pipe dream of John Gruden aside, the big Power 5 schools with coaching openings this year are all going to be courting the same pool of candidates. That would be Tennessee and almost certainly Nebraska, Texas A&M and Arkansas. Nebraska is a legitimate threat to beat Florida out for Frost, but only because he is a former star player from there. We all know he has moved his family to Florida and may very well want to lay down roots there. Florida is the only chance for him to do that, short of staying at UCF and trying to build them into a Power 5-levell conference power, and ultimately join a Power 5 conference (the Big 12 has expressed interest).
But some Gator fans are fearful that Tennessee could beat us out for Kelly, Frost, Norvell, Carvel, Ben & Jerry’s and The Last Star Fighter. Some Gator fans need a hobby. But I am here to tell you that unless the candidate is a UT graduate, or a Tennessee son who would sacrifice significant professional success and benefits to live in the state he loves, Florida is never losing a coaching battle to Tennessee. Same rule applies to Nebraska, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
But it is even more difficult for Tennessee to compete because of their cash position. As recently as 2013, the UT athletics department was over $200 million in debt. While I am sure the SEC Network payouts have allowed them to pay some of that down, they are still going to be paying multiple head coach salaries the next few years and I doubt they have been giving all that SEC money to their creditors while putting the rest of their athletics programs on hold (while the rest of the SEC speeds down the road in the multiple arms races across all sports).
And I mean…$200 million….that’s Dr Evil money….that’s President Tim Robbins falling out of his chair laughing because it’s 2013 and that much money doesn’t even exist, kind of money. Regardless of how much money they can muster to spend, we will be able to top it, if needed, to get our man.
Recruiting’s About to Get Fun Again
Stricklin said that whoever the next coach is, Gator football is going to be fun again. Well, so is recruiting. Recruiting under McElwain had been anything but exciting before the huge signing day bonanza in February. And this past summer was one of the most exciting and enjoyable recruiting stretches in years, maybe ever. But it’s about to get better and constant.
Jim McElwain had many good qualities in recruiting, by far best of all: relationship building. He was elite in his ability to build relationships and trust with the players and high school coaches, which is why he was enjoying such a windfall in the classes of 2018 and 2019. But this is Florida. The state and the school. And the head coach at Florida shouldn’t have to take 3 to 4 years to build relationships in order to start bringing in the very best recruits at every position.
The coach at Florida should come into recruits’ living rooms like a rock star, guitars blazing, and not only bowl them over, but get them excited about being a Gator immediately. And aggressively pursue them until they say “Yes”.
Building relationships makes everything easier, and for some recruits it’s a 100% must, but you can build the relationship while you’re knocking them over with energy and sales pitch. It doesn’t have to take 3 to 4 years of sitting on each family’s couch, sipping mint juleps and talking about the daisies in the fields.
The Florida coach absolutely has to be sincere in his relationship building. The recruits and especially parents will often see right through him if they’re not. But it has to be on schedule. Like a quarterback’s throws have to be on time. It has to be a 90-minute action movie, not a 3-hour period piece set around an Elizabethan-era high tea.
And regardless of who we ultimately hire this time around, I am very confident that with Scott Stricklin making the decisions and running the show, that we will have a rock star coach once again, and yes, being a Gator in football season is going to be fun again.
I know it is difficult to see it from here, and after all we have been through, it may be difficult to believe it. But we are in the darkest night before the dawn now. We just have to know it’s coming.
As Oscar Wilde said, we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Look at the stars. There might be some frosty chips falling soon.