Fearless Forecast II: And The Winner Is ….?

When Florida faced off with Wyoming in The Swamp in last year’s season opener, everybody expected the Gators to blow the doors off the Cowboys so a 32-14 win was considered comeuppance for Gator fans with ever so high expectations. Some Gator fans might be thinking big time blowout Saturday when Version II, Florida Gators, Urban-Style gets cranked up, but they might want to rethink that opinion.

Florida could have and should have blown Wyoming smack dab out of the ball yard last year and the reasons why they didn’t are far too numerous to go into. Let’s just say season Version I, Florida Gators, Urban-Style was a year-long attempt to find make all the parts fit. The fact that Florida won nine games in year one of the Urban Renewal Project is a testament to Meyer and his staff because there were far too many ill-fitting pieces yet somehow, they got the job done, especially at the end with back to back wins over Florida State and Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

So now we come to Version II and there are a lot more answers than there are questions so that alone should indicate that a really good season is in store for the Gators. But there’s that nasty little problem of the schedule. It’s downright brutal and it starts Saturday evening with Southern Miss, a team with this very nasty habit of making life tough on the big boys.

The Golden Eagles aren’t exactly the “we’ll work for beer” types that hold up signs at interstate exits on the college football road map but they aren’t afraid to travel anywhere and play anyone for a really nice paycheck. There’s a reason for that. Southern Miss is a teacher’s school. Always was, always will be. It’s the largest school in the state of Mississippi but only about a third the size of the University of Florida if you want to do some student population comparisons. It’s located in Hattiesburg, a lovely city of about 35,000 that owes its existence to the railroad that connects down to the gulf coast and the college.

This isn’t a rich school with a huge endowment and its alums, while loyal, aren’t typically well to do or professionals. They’re teachers and teachers, particularly teachers in the state of Mississippi, don’t have deep pockets so while a lot of alums give, it’s not nearly enough to make sure all the checks don’t bounce. So for Southern Miss to play Division I football and make the athletic budget balance, the Golden Eagles typically take their dog and pony show on the road for at least two or three big time paydays every year.

Usually, they lose in those games, but not always and it’s really rare that they’re totally outclassed. Coach Jeff Bower has figured out how to field a tough team every year with under the radar type of talent. It’s a tribute to how good a coach he is that the Golden Eagles can hang with some of the best teams in the country with a collection of players that for the most part, had to be developed once they got to Hattiesburg.

That’s what the Golden Eagles will bring to The Swamp Saturday. Don’t go looking for blue chippers up and down this roster but don’t expect to find many duds either. You’ll find a bunch of tough, hard nosed kids that believe they belong.

That’s what makes these guys so dangerous. They believe they belong. They believe they can play. There are a lot of players on this roster that carry a chip the size of Mount Rushmore on their shoulders, believing that they could be and should be playing on television, in the big stadiums and for ranked teams except for recruit ranking systems that rated them one star back when they were in high school.

Guys like that feel that they have something to prove and what better way to prove it than taking it to the big boys in their own back yard? That’s what the Gators will be facing Saturday.

If it’s just a question of size, speed and talent — at least talent that flew well above the radar out of high school — then the Gators have this one hands down. There was a coach here at Florida that believed that if you had all the Jessies and Joes you won all the time and while that’s certainly an important element in the big scheme, talent, while extremely helpful, doesn’t always equate to winning the game.

Certainly not in the first game of the season. There is a reason why coaches say the greatest improvement they see in their team is in the week of practice before game two and after game one. That’s because a lot of really good teams come out of the chute perhaps a little bit over-confident or a little bit under-prepared and those are the kind of teams that a Southern Miss can knock off before high-tailing it out of town with its sizeable paycheck.

Florida better be ready to duke it out with the Eagles because they will not be intimidated by the size of the crowd or the game-day frenzy at The Swamp. If anything, all the frenzy will only make them more determined to make sure all the beer at the party goes flat early. You can count on the fact they will be ready to play and you can count on the fact that they will feel like country cousins with something to prove now that they’re in the big city, rubbing elbows with the rich kin.

The Gators should be in a right frame of mind Saturday. Meyer has paced them throughout the week to bring them to the right mental edge at just the right time. Maybe it’s because he used to coach at a couple of those “will play anyone, anywhere and anytime for a big paycheck” schools that he knows the kind of game the Golden Eagles can bring on opening day. He’s said on a couple of occasions that Southern Miss was the best team his Utah Utes played in 2003, a year in which the Utes played four Top 20 teams.

Just because the Gators are in the right frame of mind doesn’t mean they will overwhelm this Southern Miss team, though. The Gators could play much better than the season opening effort last year and still have a closer game on their hands. There was never real doubt that the Gators would win the game with Wyoming and maybe there won’t be any doubt in this game with Southern Miss, but it will be a tougher game against a tougher opponent.

Where Florida has the edge is speed and size on the outside and that’s where the Gators will need to exploit the Eagles. There is no way that Southern Miss can simulate the speed of Bubba Caldwell, Percy Harvin, Jemalle Cornelius and Jarred Fayson. There is also no way they can simulate long striders like Dallas Baker, Cornelius Ingram, Kenneth Tookes and David Nelson.

To counter, Southern Miss will probably do its own version of smoke and mirrors. If it goes according to previous Southern Miss scripts, the Golden Eagles will try to give the Gators multiple looks and probably do just the opposite of what they’re showing. On those times when it looks like they’re bringing the house, they’ll probably drop seven into coverage and when it looks like they’re dropping 10 and rushing one, they’ll probably bring everybody but the strong safety.

The two critical players for the Gators are going to be center Steven Rissler and quarterback Chris Leak and the word of the day for both of them is RECOGNIZE.

If Rissler can recognize what Southern Miss is doing up front and get the offensive line in the right calls, then Leak should have adequate protection and Florida should be able to mount a reasonably good running game. Leak has to recognize who’s got the single coverage and get the ball to him. Southern Miss can’t double up on everyone. They’ve got to pick and choose who they’re going to double and take their chances that they can disguise the coverage so Leak has a hard time picking out who’s covered one-on-one. On every single play when the Gators are in a three-wide or more set, there will be at least one receiver with single coverage that really should command a double team and that’s the guy that has to get the ball in his hands. If that happens, Florida will be successful.

Expect Florida’s defense to take care of business and it will all start with the front four. If the Gators can get pressure without resorting to the blitz, then Florida can make life very unpleasant for the Golden Eagles, whose quarterback just might be Stephen Reaves, the son of ex-Gator great John Reaves.

On special teams, the Gators should be lights out. If the way Eric Wilbur has been hitting his punts in practice in August, then that phase of the game should be very solid and the kickoff coverage unit should be very, very good. The area to watch for is in the return game where Percy Harvin may get a chance to light it up on both kickoff and punts.

FEARLESS FORECAST: It’s pretty close for a half and then the Gators start finding their stride in the third quarter. Florida plays great defense throughout and Leak starts finding the single coverage on just about every play, turning it into a solid Florida win. Let’s go with something like Florida 31, Southern Miss 10, a good way to start the season with just enough superlatives to please Meyer and staff and just enough mistakes to make them ratchet up the coaching a notch next week.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.