Before I kick off this year’s Picks & Pans, I want to say a few things about the anticipation for the upcoming season. Partially because before the season starts, there’s not a lot of comedy material out there to work with yet other than FSU and Miami just being themselves. But mostly because there’s a new sheriff in town and there’s a new pulse in the veins.
Because it’s finally here. All summer long – heck, all spring, all winter – fans have been counting the days left to Florida Gators football kickoff 2015. Many fans started counting the minute the South Carolina game was over last year, knowing that the head coaching position would be vacant before the weekend was out. Counting down, counting down.
Now I love my Gator football as much or more than anyone….but to me, those countdown dates were always way too CLOSE!
Last year in Gator athletics – from the lows of both major sports having the worst seasons in decades and having two of the most elite coaches in the nation walk away from UF with a ton of gas left in the tank (and with FIVE national titles in the trophy case with their names on them), to the highs of the school’s second-ever national title 3-peat, the hiring of Coaches Mac & White, slamming home 7 conference titles and the 25th SEC All-Sport Trophy, to the emotional powder kegs of sweating out the Muschamp firing watch, sweating out the weeks of Billy-to-OKC rumors, sweating out the coaching searches for the two major sports, sweating out ALL those elite prospects for months leading to football’s national signing day, sweating out Major League Baseball’s draft and aftermath to see how many of our lights-out signing class would opt for a minor league contract, sweating out to the last day of the softball regular season, sweating out to the last performer on the last rotation of the gymnastics national title meet, sweating out the spring attrition under a new football staff and whether anyone was picking up the new schemes fast enough to field a competitive team in the fall, and sweating out weeks of speculation over possibly losing half our basketball team and half our signing class in the wake of Donovan’s departure…
I feel like we Gator fans have not been allowed to breathe for the last twelve months.
While most fans were lamenting the supposed dead zone of summer, counting the hours until the fall opener, I was looking forward to the down time more than I ever had before. I always try to be present for the rest of life during the summer and off-seasons, but some years it is really difficult not to look forward with anticipation. But despite the absolutely overwhelming tonnage of unknowns and fevered anticipation of the 2015-2016 athletics season, I wish we had an extra month or two off the clock this year. Just to catch our breath. Just to relax and take it all in. Just to recharge, repair and repose.
Because we need it.
Because this year is going to be a season that rocks the UF athletics program. To the core. Totally new regimes in the two biggest sports on campus, both desperately needing to show up big in season 1 to keep recruiting alive and thriving. Trying for a 4-peat in gymnastics with a new head coach. Trying for a 3-peat in softball after losing the best player in the game. Trying to put the women’s tennis team and the men’s track team on top of the world again after a brief dip. Waiting to see if we can EVER break through that iron ceiling in baseball and win the College World Series. Fighting that swelling, uneasy feeling that the greatest athletics director in the history of the school, perhaps in the history of college sports, could be hanging up his spikes any year now.
So no matter how much we needed a longer break than the summer allowed, this academic year of sports odysseys simply can’t wait any longer. And while I am still fatigued from last year, it is being overcome by something. Something strange. I can’t quite put my finger on it – it’s almost lie…yes, yes it’s coming back to me now. Could this bizarre feeling be excitement over Gator football again? It’s so hard to tell, because I haven’t felt it since September of 2009. Last year, waiting for football season to start was like waiting on death row. Each week when the team did the Gator Walk, it was like the prison lights flickering from the drain of the chair of the previous inmate, with our turn coming up next. But there is serious buzz in the air this year. So many things are returning to the team this season. The forward pass. The expansion of the offensive plan beyond four plays. A defensive scheme that is not designed so that a single small mistake on any play will result in a touchdown. Energy on the team. Hope in the stands.
It’s here. Do you feel it? Then let’s go.
Louisville vs #6 Auburn (Atlanta)
This is a game that Arkansas fans would most like to pretend doesn’t exist. Both head coaches in this game used to hang their hat in Fayetteville. First up was Gus Malzahn, current Auburn head coach. Then-head Hog Houston Nutt had been at Arky for eight years and shared two SEC West titles and even took them to an SEC Championship Game but could not put them over the hump to actually win the conference title. Enter Gus and his super high school offense in 2006, and the Hogs raced to their first double-digit win season under Nutt, won the West and only a second half comeback performance – and a lot of unlucky breaks – to the eventual national champion Gators prevented the piggies from winning the league crown. The Hogs were poised to win the conference next season and compete for the national title. But…then…Gus sort of nudged a player revolt, turned his offensive kids against Nutt, and left after the season in a power struggle that found Nutt getting canned the next year. Don’t feel bad, Arkansas – he did the same thing to Gene Chizik at Auburn a few years later. But at least he went back to Auburn and turned them back into national contenders.
Enter Bobby Petrino, current Louisville coach, in 2008. He finished the transition season strong, beating fierce rival and defending national champion LSU, then followed that up in 2009 by nearly beating the Tebow-led Gators (who were on their way to only their second undefeated regular season in school history) en route to an 8-win season, followed by a glorious 10-win campaign that landed them in the Sugar Bowl. Finally in 2011, they tied a school record with 11 wins, losing only to the two teams that played in the national title game, finishing #5 in the nation and signaling that the Hogs were once again poised for greatness. But…then…Bobby got in a motorcycle crash with a former Razorback volleyball player with whom he had an affair and to whom he secretly gave $20,000 and rigged the selection process so that she got a job on the football staff over 158 other applicants, oh and he lied to the media and the school about all of it until it was disclosed in a police report. And he was summarily canned.
Since those two almost touching of the clouds, the Hogs have gone 4-20 in SEC play, finishing next-to-last, last and last in the West.
There is also a big Florida connection here, with Louisville’s newfound power status the work of former Florida defensive coordinator and recently minted Texas head coach Charlie Strong, and with Auburn sifting through the Florida garbage cans in the offseason to recycle former Gator head coach Will Muschamp as their new defensive coordinator. And the game is being held in Atlanta in what was for decades referred to as “The Florida Dome” for all the basketball and football dominance the Gators displayed there. And yet with all this, still nobody gives a crap about this game.
Bluegrass Hog Rider: 31
#20 Wisconsin vs #3 Alabama (Arlington)
Who thinks that this game is only being held in Texas so that Wisconsin can invoke the Open Carry law, the only possible defense they could muster to keep this game close.
Nick Satan: 38
Wiscon Sin: 13
Texas @ #11 Notre Dame
Wow, can anyone even remember when is the last time both Texas and Florida started a season unranked in the Associated Press poll?
Last year….It was last year.
Still Urban’s Dream Job: 20
New Mexico State @ Florida
With all the unknowns about this team, this coaching staff and this season being housed in the hull of an oil tanker, the biggest buzz for Saturday’s game is over who the starting quarterback will be. From all reports, some known and many imagined, it is safe to say that the obligatory act of naming the starter was akin to setting off a series of nuclear blasts inside the football complex, the mushroom cloud of misunderstood mishegas reached all the way to the far reaches of Gator Nation. The implications and portents of having one quarterback take the opening snap instead of having two of them shove their hands under center and taking the snap simultaneously have rocked the House of Gator to its very foundation. After nine months of making every right move, Coach Mac finally took his first misstep. Naming a starting quarterback. What was he thinking? Why not just have them stand shoulder-to-shoulder to receive a shotgun snap, and whoever gets it, runs the play. Why not extend the protocol through the whole game? Don’t want to play favorites. There is always the tried and true Thunderhuddle approach. They both go into the huddle on the opening series, and well…two quarterbacks enter, one quarterback leaves. Instead of Circle of Life drills, they should have gone with the Loser Leaves Town cage match.
Just anything but naming a starter. Conjecture has been flying around like drones at an Amazon warehouse. Clearly this is the end. For someone. Or something. I mean, we all remember how meaningful it was when the fierce quarterback competition led to an opening day starter being named in 2012.
And remember, this week’s contest is the first and only “Green Game” of the football season. Florida was the first athletic program in the country to become carbon neutral, and each year they designate games of different sports as Green Games, to educate fans on sustainability and “going green”. During Muschamp’s tenure, almost every game was designated a Green Game. For four years, Gator fans learned what it was like to “go green” – specifically going green in the face whenever the Gator offense took the field, or going green with envy while the SEC won two national titles went to a third title game and the inaugural playoffs while Florida toiled in misery, and of course going green with envy watching FSU win a national title while Florida didn’t go bowling. And through these “Green Game” efforts, Gator Nation became intimately linked with the concept of sustainability: learning to sustain an emotional state of calm while suppressing murderous rage every time the Gators would run up the middle on third-and-long, or every time a co-worker would walk by in the office and quip, “Alabama just scored again”…training our stomachs to sustain our meal rather than let it come blasting up our esophagus every time the Gators threw to a tight end…and sustaining a straight face whenever we would lose Homecoming…twice in a row…and to Georgia Southern.
The Other Aggies, You Know the Ones That Stink (no the *other* kind of “stink”): 10