Well that was a lot of fun, now wasn’t it? At some point in the second half it occurred to me that Florida fans haven’t been able to enjoy an easy, thoroughly satisfying bowl win like this since the Sugar Bowl following the 2009 season. When we got to watch the final minutes tick off the clock of Tebow Time. Of course, that is not a huge endorsement on its own. The Gators had only gone 3-2 in bowls between then and now, losing the only major bowl (Sugar) in an embarrassing game. However, Florida in addition to an unimpressive win over mid-major East Carolina, Florida did notch two wins against preeminent football powers Ohio State and Penn State. Those were five and six years ago, however, both against highly diluted versions of their former and present programs. One of those opponents was coached by Luke Fickell, an interim placeholder coach who is currently starting his first head coaching opportunity with Cincinnati after nearly 20 years as an assistant; one of the opponents was coached by a mentally feeble octogenarian who is currently dead, who coached that game less than a year before being forced to resign in disgrace, and just over a years before dying of old age. And of course, one of those years since 2009, Florida didn’t even qualify for a bowl.
Despite the lack of strong comparisons since the 2009 season, its sits better when you add the fact that it was Florida’s most important bowl win since the 2008 season-ending national title game against Oklahoma. In fact, when you exempt the four national title games, it is difficult to find a more important bowl game and *win* in the modern era. The only one I can imagine comes close is the 2005 season’s Outback Bowl, also against Iowa. History repeating. That bowl was only a 7-point win, but it was a Florida blowout in which the Hawkeyes put up 17 cosmetic points in the fourth quarter to make a 31-7 whitewash look respectable in the paper. It was a zenith-type performance on both sides of the ball that capped off a late-season offensive surge that kicked in the momentum for the first elite recruiting class of Urban Meyer’s head coaching career, and launched the team to the first national title in Urban Meyer’s career the very next season.
History repeating? Well, zenith-type performance to top off Jim McElwain’s second year might have capped a late-season surge but for a back-loaded schedule of powerhouse opponents and the loss of over half the starting team to injuries. And the recruiting class next month will not match the one inked by Urban Meyer in February 2006. But the Gators did finish the season with a big surge; it was just spread out across a longer period of time. Florida won three of their last five games by the score of 66-20, including a road win over LSU, and they finished the SEC schedule on a 5-1 run to win the East after trailing by 1.5 games in October. Fairly comparable given the difference in tasks in the two different years. And while the recruiting class won’t match the 2006 class that was ranked either first or second in the nation by all the major services, but the 2017 Outback Bowl has given the Gators’ recruiting just the goose it needed to infuse momentum into the stretch run, and as I will discuss later, could result in a very strong recruiting class that just a few weeks ago seemed impossible. Will this be enough to catapult the Gators to a national title next year, as in 2006? Time will tell. At this point, seriously competing for an SEC Championship Game win and being in the playoff picture is the realistic goal. And whether this bowl win sets us on that path in 2017, it was certainly exactly what the program needed.
But there is still more to do, of course. Finish strong with the recruiting class. Make the right coaching staff moves. Continue development of the talent, the focus, and the culture. Firming up that last piece may be the most critical at this juncture.
Some Serious Mental Work Due
In the march back to national relevance, the biggest mantra about this Gator team the last two years has of course been, “We are one good quarterback away from being elite.” But as much as that concept has ruled the fate and established the iron ceiling for this program the last two seasons, there is another that has prevented Florida from drilling holes in that iron ceiling and taking it to another level. And that is this: there are some players on this team that are still not giving it 100%. They have still not figured out that they should not – and CAN not – just try to get by on their athleticism and play-making alone. They have to do the grunt work. They have to do ALL the work asked of them when, especially when the ball is not in their hands and the play is not being run through them.
This thought hit me like a brick on a certain play in the second quarter against Iowa, and it was reinforced like a whole load of bricks on another play later in the quarter. We’ll call this “The Future of Gator Football: A Tale of Two Plays.” The first play was when Jordan Scarlett shook a tackler 3 yards in the backfield and sprinted downfield for 46 yards, flipping the field and creating the first real momentum swing of the contest – certainly the first in the Gators’ favor. The play happened for two reasons: firstly because Scarlett, who has made a living this year by giving it 110% with the ball in his hands, juked and ran through a tackle, and secondly – and most importantly – because little Chris Thompson bully-blocked a bigger defender and plowed him out of the way for Jordan to tear down the open field. It was a potentially game-changing touchdown run but for one thing: Antonio Callaway gave almost no effort to blocking the last man standing between Scarlett and the end zone, and the defender blew past his half-hearted whiff and knocked Scarlett out of bounds. And we all know this offense without a quarterback: if we don’t score when we have the opportunity, we will not score a few plays later. And sure enough, a few plays later, there was another head-in-the-clouds Gator, DeAndre Goolsby, asleep at the switch, letting his only blocking responsibility run right past him untouched as if Gools thought the play hadn’t started yet – down went Appleby on third down, ending the drive.
The play where Callaway made a Queen Elizabeth Wave instead of a block was reminiscent of the “I Just Saw Magic” play against Tennessee last year, when it was Callaway racing down the sidelines with defenders closing on him on the sidelines with a good tackling angle. But he didn’t get knocked out of bounds like Scarlett did Monday – he went the distance for the touchdown because Brandon Powell sacrificed his body and dove across three defenders to effectively block them all from making the game-saving tackle.
But that’s not the second play in this tale of two plays. The second one came near the end of the second quarter against Iowa when Austin Appleby tossed a harmless-looking screen pass in heavy traffic to Mark Thompson. But a few good blocks and a few great jukes later and Mark was racing down the sidelines toward a potentially game-changing touchdown. But a couple of defenders had an angle on him to make the touchdown-saving tackle between the 5 and 10 yard lines. And we all know this offense: if Mark gets pushed out at the 5 right there, we are settling for a field goal try.
Sound familiar? But on this play, it wasn’t Callaway in position to make the block, but our own Mr Guts himself, Brandon Powell. And one of the smallest guys on the field – just like last year against Tennessee – sacrificed his body by diving at the ankles of the closest hotly-pursuing defensive backs, and knocked him off course. While Powell got trampled by the parade of trailing players, the defender he chipped was knocked just enough off course to not only miss the tackle, but to knock the other pursuing Hawkeye defender out of bounds just as he was diving to knock Thompson out of bounds.
For the past two years, we have always counted on Brandon Powell and Chris Thompson to sacrifice their bodies and their glory on a highlight reel to lay down the critical blocks to spring their teammates. And we could always count on Callaway and Goolsby to hand grenade a play here and there by not having their head in the game or by whiffing on that critical block on that critical play. I could add Ahmad Fullwood to that list, who gave up an interception and passed on a potential early deep strike for the Gators by half-heartedly waving a hand at a first quarter jump-ball instead of using his big 6’-4” frame to go up and get the ball.
This doesn’t happen on championship teams. This didn’t happen on Steve Spurrier’s teams or Urban Meyer’s teams at Florida. It doesn’t happen on Nick Saban teams. Because whenever it happened once, that guy caught the bench and didn’t see the field again for a long time. That’s what Mac did to Mark Thompson for fumbling in a couple critical spots earlier this year…because we had the depth at running back to be able to sit him down. And look what we had waiting on the bench all that time: all that talent doesn’t get you on the field if you don’t do the little things like block or secure the ball. Because that’s what a depth chart does: it gives the coaching staff the strongest motivational tool in the game. Mac has not had that depth chart at receiver or at tight end or any other spot on offense except running back. So he has been hamstrung a great deal in benching these guys until they get it through their heads to play at 110% on every play, even – and ESPECIALLY – when they are not the focus of the play.
However, in 2017, Mac will have finally had a chance to lean on that depth chart on the offensive side of the ball enough to start using it as a motivator at nearly every position. Even at quarterback. So players like Goolsby and Callaway are going to have to make a choice in the offseason to either take it up a notch to being fully invested in every single play, and every facet of the game, or they’re going to be watching the game from waste-level on the sidelines for a lot more of 2017 that they wish.
When a Meaningless Bowl Game Means a Lot
I’m one of those who believe that except in rare cases, bowl games that don’t impact the national title have little if any meaning beyond a scratch in the record books. That seems to be a perspective shared by most players – certainly in the SEC – because bowl season is where we see team after team show up and play several levels below their season-long performance median because the players had national title aspirations and just couldn’t get motivated for such lesser goals.
But this was definitely one of those times: when a program on the rise needs a turbo boost into the off-season. It was doubly important to the phoenix trajectory of the Florida program because of the way last season ended and the similar loss of all momentum caused by blowout losses to FSU and Alabama to close out the season. And the big question that will soon be answered was just how big of a positive impact it had on the program long term, and on recruiting short term.
Even if Florida gets no real turbo boost from this win, the win was absolutely critical to progress because it prevented a huge move of the needle in the wrong direction. Florida was in a situation where had they lost, it would have hurt by denying UF any forward momentum, continuing the end-of-year slide. If the Gators would have won an ugly game, it may have had basically the same negative impact: denying momentum. The way they dominated Iowa wasn’t flashy but they absolutely destroyed a very good hot-streaking team in all facets of the game. I don’t think it sparks an avalanche of commitments or changes a lot of recruits’ minds, but I think it did move the needle in terms of changing the whole feeling of Gator recruiting at this juncture.
A loss or a close, ugly win and nothing would have really changed for us on the recruiting trail. Prospects who had doubts about us would still have them. I think winning in this kind of dominant fashion, and showing some really big flashes on offense gave a nice glimpse into what is possible for 60 minutes every week if we get a QB. It just changes the whole vibe of the Gator program right now, and especially the recruiting. Coaches and commitments are going to be walking around with a bounce in their step the rest of this off-season. And that is going to exude on the recruiting trail, too. It created a big change in the tone of Gator recruiting and we have already seen momentum starting to build there. Every one of the early entry commitments are on campus and enrolled in classes. More players across the target board are setting up visits. Many leans are looking more solid. Good things are happening, and winning the bowl in dominating fashion has sparked it. Sometimes second-tier bowls still matter.
AA was A1
Quarterback Austin Appleby was voted the Player of the Game by the broadcast crew in the Outback Bowl (not to be confused with MVP, which was earned by Chauncey Gardner). And to that I say, good for him! There were multiple threads opened up – entire threads, mind you – on the forums to slam the kid the moment Mac named him the starter for the bowl game. And all he did was go out and win the POG award. And he did so after keeping his head straight following two very early picks, one of which was a fluke on a batted ball that somehow bounced off a Gator’s foot and floated into the arms of a Hawkeye who was laying on his back, and the other was because a Gator receiver Tarzan swatted at a jump ball like Jane.
He’s not a great QB, and every game he played, he was criticized so heavily and continually that at one point I thought the words “Much Maligned” were his first and middle names. But the dude worked and tried his butt off for us this year and turned what almost certainly would have been a sub-.500 season into a championship season, dotted with some huge wins and punctuated with a dominating New Years bowl victory. We haven’t had a season this good since Tim Tebow was taking the snaps, and the most pivotal difference maker – against all odds and expectations – was Austin Appleby.
Something in the Way Staff Moves
There will likely not be any more big staff moves until after the national title game is over and this column is posted or at least already out of my hands, but the official naming of Randy Shannon as defensive coordinator was a big national sports news story, and for good reason. In addition to maintaining and possibly even improving the excellent coordination of the defense under Geoff Collins, it is yet another breath of fresh air into the Gator program this week. With the exception of the un-flipping of Alex Leatherwood by Alabama, the details of which are so infuriating, I would have to censor nearly every word of any commentary into one long edited beep, the Gator program has been in a sustained positive news loop since the Outback Bowl was wrapped up. And Shannon’s promotion is one that spells new blood and energy for the coaching staff and the recruiting staff.
It will also change the recruiting focus a bit, as the biggest difference that stands out between a Shannon defense and a Collins defense is that Randy’s D runs a lot more through the linebackers. A for instance: Geoff’s point of attack defense relied on defensive line penetration to make plays in the backfield. Randy’s focus is on the DL occupying offensive linemen and other blockers to allow the linebackers to penetrate.
Now obviously any defensive lineman who can penetrate is not instructed in Randy’s defense to stand still and just occupy the blocker, but the design begets recruiting focus, which in turn dictates the flow. We can already see this year with our defensive tackle targets that we are bringing in bigger bodies – immovable objects. Coach Mac spoke to this after the Outback Bowl, the defensive side of the move to get bigger and stronger on the line of scrimmage. Collins wanted tackles like Easley; Shannon wants tackles like Omar Hunter. Both have their advantages.
I tend to lean toward liking Shannon’s concept here because of how often in the recent past (Muschamp used this same concept as Collins) we had DTs flying into the backfield only to miss a tackle or lose containment on mobile QBs. With the mobile QBs so prevalent in today’s college offenses, I’d much rather have faster and more athletic linebackers making penetration and chasing the rabbits out of the hole. Also, linebackers getting gap penetration are typically either untouched or just getting chipped; the DTs are far more often getting to the QB being twisted out of the OL’s attempted block, and often the OL is still engaged and trying to hang onto the block when the tackle reaches for the QB. This gives the mobile QB that extra beat to slip outside and extend the play.
If it’s a pocket statue QB like Jacob Eason, it doesn’t matter who penetrates, but there are so many running QBs in the SEC, and at national powers like Clemson, OSU, Louisville, FSU, etc., that I like to hedge our bets as much as possible. I also like the giant anchor DTs over the lighter, more athletic ones in the running game because they’re much harder to drive block or to redirect.
Another new defensive change may come as dictated by the depth chart rather than the coaching change. Collins and Shannon have different secondary concepts, but they both rely on a lot of man coverage. But due to our heavy NFL losses at defensive back this year, and the reliance on much younger, less experienced secondary players next year, Shannon will likely not being able to leave the corners on an island anymore – at least not as much and not early in the season However, there are some positives to this necessity. Primarily that there really is no such thing as a lock-down corner. At least not 100% of the time. We’ve seen it. Nobody in the country was appreciably better than Vernon Hargreaves, Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson the last few years, yet we saw all three of them get beaten and even burned like a gas-soaked match in their careers…in some games, quite a bit. And it’s not an indictment of their skills. Injuries happen. Turf gives. Cleats slip. Receivers grab or push at that perfect instant that gets illegal separation – and the refs are potluck on catching it. Playing more zone concepts in the backfield could lead to more yardage given up in the long run, but fewer explosive plays – and quite possibly more interceptions.
Nord to Death & The Summers of Our Discontent
While there is always a massive array of disagreement in the fan base over what should or should not be done every offseason, I think you’d have to look far and wide to find anyone who doesn’t believe it is crucial to bring one or two assistant coaches who can hit the recruiting trail and make it rain. And you’d have to look even farther and wider to find anyone who doesn’t finger Coaches Nord and Summers as the ones who need to find new homes on the support staff or at another university. Many also implicate offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, but I personally think he has rolled out some superb game plans the last two years that have been badly hamstrung by personnel deficiencies, and while I truthfully don’t know what kind of recruiter he is, Florida has landed a lot of top shelf offensive stars in his first two years and that didn’t happen by accident. We have young talent running around all over the field, just waiting for a good quarterback to stay healthy and eligible to become a scoring machine…and that didn’t happen by accident.
I think the recruiting issues of this staff can be deconstructed on many levels by the two highest profile recruitments of this fall: Jarrett Stidham and Alex Leatherwood. They have been viewed by many as massive recruiting failures, with no caveat for the relevant obstacles. That is, this staff has faced some long odds in the last two years of recruiting, but these two appear to have been among the longest. And oddest. That said, they did both involve massive failures on UF’s part, which underscore the need for immediate change.
The Stidham saga was pretty shocking from our end. The only explanation for our inaction for so long is that we were supremely confident about our freshmen, and after a few months became much less confident. If true, the focus should still always be to make the program better, and Stidham made the program better. We don’t and apparently will never again have any issue of approaching our 85 scholarship limit, so there is and was no reason not to go after him as hard as we could from the nanosecond he declared his interest in UF…which was as soon as he announced he was transferring from Baylor.
And I don’t know enough about the recruitment to know where the disconnect and failure was. And I doubt many do, or else we would be reading about it on GC. Was it Mac? Nuss? Hughes? Someone else? I have no idea, but there was a massive failure in decision making. The fact that we went after him guns a-blazin’ at the end indicates we wanted him badly (I just don’t know when we decided we wanted him badly – maybe we didn’t want him badly in September, in which case waiting so long to give him the full court press was not a recruiting failure as much as a massive error in judgment).
The Leatherwood saga was a much different situation, as we had been working him hard for a long time, and in point of fact we did do everything needed to flip him. Because he committed to us and de-committed from Alabama – called them and made it official and everything. And frankly I am very impressed that we did, because we really had no business getting the time of day from a kid who has been silently or out-loudly committed to Bama since two years before Mac arrived at UF. BUT we had some massive breakdowns in strategy and/or effort by some coaches after he flipped – and a catastrophic act of negligent stupidity by Summers for deciding to “give him space” – essentially ignoring him – the whole time Bama was putting the mobster moves on him to (literally) force him back into the Bama fold.
While I think that Mac should have lit Summers’s posterior on FIRE and forced him to be all over Leatherwood last weekend, instead of pulling a Brent Pease and mentally going trout fishing in Montana instead, I don’t actually know that Mac didn’t do this. Part of how angry Mac sounded when he repeatedly announced last weekend that we were going to get tougher and stronger on the line of scrimmage may very well have been rage against Summers for failing so miserably at his job that week with Leatherwood. And massively fail at his job he did.
I am eternally enraged with Summers for this inexcusable incompetence and wish him to be placed as far from the UF program as humanly possible. He would have to be the best OL coach in the country to balance out being a recruiting non-entity, and he is not even a great OL coach…in plain fact, the jury is out on whether he is even a good OL coach. But this past week has proven that he is not just a non-entity; he is a recruiting liability. And he must go. Now. My assumption is that the reason Summers would interview for a step-down move to South Carolina is because his replacement is on the way and this is Mac’s way of giving Summers the dignity or appearing that it is his decision to leave. And with Mac clearly pushing hard to raid the Bama staff of multiple assistants and possibly support staff, moves would have to be made to fit them in. If they come, Summers and probably Nord go. If they don’t come, we shall see if there is a Plan B.
With less than a month before national signing day 2017, recruiting is coming down to cases for the Gators. The moment of truth, so to speak, for what will be about a third of the class. With ten in the commitment column as of this writing, although we will likely be able to take nearly 15 more, I think we get ten more, and those ten will be crucial to the overall quality of the class.
I know that will disappoint or upset some folks – the fact that we will sign less than the max and we will fly into another football season far below the 85 scholarship limit – and they’ll lament our being short-handed again, and I get that and I also hate playing at a built-in numbers disadvantage every year….
BUT, when Mac said he is building this thing the right way, that’s part of the equation. They’re going to recruit from their strength position. They’ve already been through that year-and-change stretch of the rebuilding process when they had to just go get bodies so we would have enough players to hold a real practice, etc. We are not in a Florida-in-2008 situation where we can pick and choose everyone we want with rare exception, but we ARE in a position to be choosy and we are not going to take any reaches or projects just to fill up the scholarship limit. We are only going to sign the kids we know will fit and help push the program to the next level. That means although we will have 27-30 scholarship spots open this year, we’re going to be turning some kids away in February and leaving some slots unfilled (or given to deserving walk-ons) for the next year. And we will fill them next year with kids we absolutely want.
As for the class we will be signing, I understand that people hate that we are sucking hind teat and coming in a close-but-no-cigar second place on some of the best players in the country this year (so do I), but I am looking at the guys who are still on the board and have us in their final two choices this year and, well, woof – we really do have an outstanding class in the wings. Top-10 class (and I mean on an evaluative basis, not according to the entertainment sites which will do their best to make signing day into a reality TV drama)? Probably not – probably just outside the top 10. But when you consider what we have on campus already, it would be a class that will add to and bolster this program very well right now. It will be the kind of working class group that every program needs, even elite programs, assuming we get a more star-studded class next year (which it is shaping up nicely to be at this early juncture, assuming we have a strong 2017 on the field).
The rub of course is that not all of the prospects who have us in their final two will sign with us. If we signed them all, we’re quite possibly a mid-top 10-type class. But we won’t sign them all. We never do, even in our best years. Just how many of them choose Florida will determine the class strength and in some measure dictate the speed of our continued ascension into the SEC and national echelon.
Getting Dawged in Recruiting?
Much is being made right now about the class that Kirby Smart is putting together in Athens. He’s a very good recruiter. No doubt. But we shouldn’t forget that UGA’s situation is helping him a ton right now. Their entire class last year was basically sewn up when he was hired. All he had to do was keep them in the fold, which was easy since everyone in the world was saying he was a huge coaching upgrade from Helen Hunt.
Of course, we saw he is a big step down from Richt in the coaching department. But Richt still had most of this year’s class on the hook – Kirby needed only to reel them in – they weren’t already sealed and delivered like last year, but like most southern power programs, you know what your class looks like to a great deal when the kids are juniors.
Most importantly though, Kirby also has the built-in advantage of being in a top-5 recruiting state in terms of level of high school competition and number of blue chip recruits each year, while being the ONLY college football presence in the state. This state is all Dawg. And Georgia Tech isn’t even a distant second. In south Georgia, it’s UF and then FSU; in the talent-rich Atlanta metro area, it’s UF and then probably Alabama; in north Georgia, it’s Tennessee and even Clemson before Tech.
Contrast that to the situation in which Florida finds itself. Even as the academic, athletic and financial flagship university in the state, UF is guaranteed almost nothing in home-state recruiting. Besides FSU and Miami and all the other FBS schools in the state, it is the most heavily recruited state in the country by out-of-state programs, and it isn’t even close in that category. And with Florida being such a transient and transplant-heavy state, there is very little state pride involved with the school choices. Most states have strong state pride at work, and nearly all southern states have it on a rabid level. Pressure in Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana to stay in-state is immense. All of these aspects have made it possible for dozens of out-of-state schools to not only cherry-pick but even to establish strong pipelines to many powerhouse high school programs in the sunshine state.
Palmetto State Parallel?
Before closing, I wanted to share a thought that came to me when anticipating the fast-approaching national title game. It started out with my reflecting on the journey that Dabo Swinney made from new Clemson head coach to being a national power and playing in two-straight national title games. Of course, the point was contrasting it to Coach Mac’s early success and possible trajectory.
Swinney took over a very talented but under-achieving team under one of the lesser Bowdens – Tommy is kind of like Billy or Stephen Baldwin (Terry has become Daniel, for obvious reasons). It took Dabo 2 years to win a division title; it took Mac 1. It took Dabo 4 years to win a second division title; it took Mac 2. It took Dabo 4 years to win 10 games; it took Mac 1, and he did it again in Year 2 (counting the cancelled Presbyterian game that was an automatic win). It took Dabo 4 years to win a conference championship, 8 years to win a second conference title, and 8 years to appear in his first national title game; Mac is still working on those. The takeaway of course being that Swinney took awhile to get things rolling at Clemson. Mac is ahead of him on the all the Year 1 and Year 2 timelines. A lot of Gator fans are swooning over how great Dabo has done at Clemson, but it didn’t happen overnight. And he has the added advantage of…shall we say extra help on the recruiting trail.
But that got me thinking about that other school in South Carolina. The one with the first year head coach who looks very familiar to Gator fans. And I considered the following:
*In Dabo Swinney’s first season as head coach at Clemson, they finished 7-6, placed third place in their division, and lost to South Florida in a minor bowl game.
*In Will Muschamp’s first season as head coach at South Carolina, they finished 7-6, placed third place in their division, and lost to South Florida in a minor bowl game.
Earlier in the column, there were a lot of things about Florida crushing Iowa in the Outback Bowl and how it may signal some very good history repeating for the Gators….could this symmetry in the state of South Cackilacky signal a bit of history repeating itself, as well? I guess we will see in time. But I would put my money on history repeating in Florida first.