The novelty of Urban Meyer wore off long ago but when the Florida Gators come running out of the tunnel Saturday for their season-opener with Southern Miss, the expectations will be every bit as high as they were last year. The difference this year is that the high expectations are going to be tempered with a bit of reality.
Last year it was Urban Meyer rock star leading the Gators. You saw it at every Gator Gathering where record crowds greeted him with thunderous applause and where an autographed bicep of a fan in West Palm Beach became a tattoo of Meyer’s signature that same night. This year, the crowds weren’t nearly as big and were a little less enthusiastic. The autograph lines were half of what they were in the spring of 2005.
The crowds at the Gator Gatherings are not a true indicator, however. Meyer is still a very popular coach and he has cemented his relationship with Florida fans by graduating his players, making graduation (see Steven Harris) part of discipline, and bringing in a recruiting class that not only was among the top two in the nation in terms of talent but was 26-26 in qualifying. All those things make Gator Nation very happy.
The expectations this year will be every bit as high as they were in 2005, perhaps higher thanks to the infusion of talent by the freshman class and the undeniable fact that in Meyer’s two previous coaching outposts, there has been a significant increase in productivity in the second year. The expectations are high because Florida fans expect to win and win big. The 12-year run of Stevie Wonder ensured that the bar of expectation will always be set at the championship level and that anything less will be a disappointment.
But this year, while the expectations are high there is the sobering effect of a schedule that can be described no other way but brutal. The “tune-up” games — Southern Miss and Central Florida — are against teams that went to bowls last year and one (Southern Miss) has a reputation of making life tough for the big boys while George O’Leary has UCF believing they can play anyone, anywhere and at any time. Tennessee’s still on the schedule and so is Florida State, but there is that daunting stretch of Alabama, LSU, Auburn (roadie) and Georgia in Jacksonville, back to back to back to back. And Stevie Wonder will be bringing in the Chickens from Columbia in November, too.
There’s a twelfth game on the schedule — Western Carolina — and that’s a payday game for a D1AA team that will take its beating and six figure paycheck like a man before heading back to the friendly confines of the Southern Conference. The Western Carolina game eliminates one of the open dates the Gators had on the old 11-game schedule which means there’s only one this year — just before the game with Georgia.
Open dates are critical in college football. That’s when coaches have the luxury of making some serious changes. You can’t change a whole lot when you play on Saturday, Sunday is a day off and then Monday you’re back in game-plan mode for the next Saturday. This isn’t like pro football where a coach has his team for a regular eight hour shift on practice days. In college football a coach gets 20 hours a week with his team and four of those hours are the game itself. All the film work and on the field practice has to fit within those 20 hours.
Last year, when the Gators caught the injury bug and needed to make wholesale changes in the offense, they couldn’t really do anything until the off week before the Georgia game, and the rest of the changes that made the offense more amenable to the talents of Chris Leak were made the off week before the FSU game.
So now we have a schedule loaded with talented teams and minus one of the off weeks. That’s not a schedule. That’s a minefield.
And that brings us to expectations for 2006.
Florida has a more talented team than the one that Urban Meyer put on the field last year. There is more speed and there is more depth at most positions. The Gators certainly can’t afford a big hit at linebacker or on the offensive line but most positions have enough talented, able bodies to make it through a season even if players get dinged up or go down.
It is indeed the second year in the offense and it has been tweaked to better fit the talents of Chris Leak. There will be a lot of spread and maybe just a touch of option but not a whole lot when Leak is in the game. In those series when freshman Tim Tebow is in the game, the option will be a weapon that opponents have to prepare for.
Having Tebow as Leak’s understudy should actually have a very positive effect for Florida. Teams are aware that Leak is pretty much a reluctant runner although you can expect he’ll be more prone to take positive yards this year now that he’s being rolled out of the pocket and can see how the field opens up in front of him much better. But, basically, opponents will prepare for Leak as a thrower which means they’ll try to beat him with the blitz and disguised coverage packages.
Now comes Tebow. He can and will run the football and he has the timing and vision to run the option very well. Plus he can throw the football. Meyer has hinted that there will be a Tebow package in the offense and that Tebow is going to play. If Meyer uses Tebow much the same way Mark Richt brought along D.J. Shockley four years ago — letting him have a minimum of one series in each half of each game — then opponents are going to have to take valuable practice time (remember the 20-hour rule here) to prep for Tebow. It’s bad enough that you have to ready for the possibility of Leak throwing to Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Bubba Caldwell, Percy Harvin and Cornelius Ingram in some sets. Who are you going to double team? Now you have to worry that Tebow will take off and run or that Harvin will go in motion and Tebow will pitch it to him on the option.
Running back? Meyer has been saying this is a real area of concern but the look on DeShawn Wynn’s face when he comes off the practice field tells you something different. Then you look at the rest of Wynn. He doesn’t jiggle anymore. He used to, but he looks like the heavyweight champ because he’s in the best shape of his life now and it’s a contract year for him, remember. If he doesn’t tear it up this year, he’ll never get drafted by the play for pay boys. Expect the DeShawn Wynn we thought we had back at Miami in 2003 not the one that was hot and cold the last two years.
So the offense has more weapons which means that the line has to hold up for it to work as it should. Normally, you would think that a line that lost four senior starters would be devastated, but this group might end up better than last year’s group of veterans. There is strength and toughness in the center-guard combination and that’s where the experience is plus most of the linemen are in their second year in the system. Consider Steven Rissler the critical component. He’s the team leader and the guy that makes all the line calls. He’s smart and tough, just what the offense needs in a center, especially an offense with a line that has newbies at the tackles. If the three guys in the middle do their part, then the tackles only have to be average for the offense to succeed. That’s the good part of the spread. Rissler is the guy that can’t go down. If he stays healthy, the line should be good enough and perhaps it can become exceptional with the on-the-job experience gained as the season progresses.
The defense is good enough to win nine games without a lot of offensive input as long as the linebackers stay healthy. The situation in the secondary isn’t such a concern largely because Florida will be able to get so much pressure on the quarterbacks with the front four. Remember, Florida’s defense ranked ninth in the nation last year and that was with Ray McDonald out most of the year, Joe Cohen playing on a hip that he was rehabbing as the season went along and Jarvis Moss playing only in pass rush situations because he was still recovering from a lingering staph infection in the bone. Ray Mc is healthy now. Joe Cohen is healthy. Jarvis Moss is the “Nightmare on Elm Street” at 6-6, 260, ready to play every down and just waiting to tear some quarterback’s head off.
This is an ideal situation for Charlie Strong, who makes the defensive calls. He can use Brandon Siler and Earl Everett or Reggie Nelson on the blitz judiciously because he doesn’t need to bring extra people to get pressure on the quarterback. With the wrecking crew of Moss and McDonald at the ends to go with the consistent push in the middle led by Marcus Thomas, Siler and Everett can drop in coverage or Strong can use them along with Nelson for shock value at just the right time. Siler, Everett and Brian Crum can do what linebackers are supposed to do, hang around the line of scrimmage and make tackles because the defensive line isn’t going to give many creases for running backs.
While there isn’t great depth at cornerback, this is not a situation of tremendous concern largely because the pressure will be good enough that Reggie Lewis, Ryan Smith and Tremaine McCollum aren’t going to have to cover for long periods of time. Most breakdowns in the secondary are the result of little or no pressure which gives the advantage to the receiver. If Florida gets pressure, the corners will be fine. And at the safety positions? Let’s just say that before the year is over, Reggie Nelson and/or Tony Joiner will deliver at least one Lawrence Wright to Joey Kent type of greeting to some unsuspecting wideout trying to cross the middle of the field.
So what’s the verdict? What can we expect from Version II, Florida Gators, Urban-style?
Here’s the fearless forecast: Florida can win nine games with the defense alone but the defense will get help. Figure the offense will have to win at least one game in there so let’s say 10-2 is a very realistic goal given the schedule. If the Gators can avoid injuries in the offensive line and at linebacker and DeShawn Wynn decides that good isn’t good enough, that great is better, then 11-1 isn’t totally out of the picture. It’s do-able.
Okay, how about 12-0?
Are you kidding? This is the SEC folks, the conference with the big stadiums, tradition and teams that play hard and tough. Okay, Vandy is in the conference but every conference needs a Vandy and after all, the Commodores did win the state championship in Tennessee last year. This is not a conference that adds a couple of really good teams and then says it’s the best top to bottom in the nation. As my grandmother once said, you can put a necktie on a pig but all you got is a pig with a necktie. But 12-0? The stars will have to align and peace will rule the planets first.
We could use a little world peace.