This has been a weird season.
The 2012 stanza of Florida Gators football has had a long laundry list of modifiers to describe its season in part or on the whole, but the most fitting and transcending adjective for the year in Gainesville is “weird.”
In the first half of the year, the media could not stop poor-mouthing the Gators, insisting that they were not as good as their ranking, not as good as their wins, whether they were ranked in the top 20 or No. 2, whether they were beating Tennessee or LSU. Then, after finally losing a game to another top-5 team, the media couldn’t stop giving Florida credit. Florida’s own Jesse Palmer personified this in the perfect microcosm: throughout the first half of the year, he never passed up a chance to remark that Florida was not as good as its ranking and couldn’t beat most of those around them in the top 10 (despite doing it every week or so); but now that Florida has struggled to score points against, let alone beat teams like Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State, he speaks up on the “BCS Countdown” show that he believes Florida — even in its injury-weakened state — could beat Oregon, the team that he has emphatically stated all season was the best in the country because it passed the eye test.
Perhaps it is true about these meaningless games against mid-majors and lower division teams: the talking heads don’t watch them and don’t consider them. Another thing that seems true about the media perspective (at least where Florida’s concerned): the best way to get criticized and downplayed is to keep winning; the best way to get pumped up and garner respect and accolades from the talking heads is to lose a game. Anything to create a story.
One of the weirdest things about this year is that it has become a game of “Scenarios.” You know that drinking game where you pose scenarios to your friends that have no chance of ever actually happening in reality, to see what they would do given the impossible choices. And then you drink. Well in football, one of the standard “Scenarios” questions is whether a fan would want to lose every game of the year except for beating their most hated rival, or win every game of the year except for one loss to their most hated rival. If the Gators can pull off the upset of FSU on Saturday, that scenario might actually happen: they would be only a bowl win away from winning all of their games except for one loss to their most hated rival. And then you drink.
The Jacksonville State game went exactly as I expected, and projected, and exactly as the Gators coaching staff planned. They controlled the game to an easy but unglamorous win, they did some self-scouting, rested some players, rotated heavily and did nothing outside of standard vanilla on offense or defense for the third-straight game, so as not to show FSU anything. The players as expected treated the game like the previous two: businesslike but not very emotional. They knew what they had to do and did it. Took care of business. Now they have the bigger fish to fry.
As for the FSU game, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it all comes down to Florida’s health. Even with the conservative vanilla offense, it was clear that the offensive line is still nursing a ton of physical hurt. As you watch the progression of each lineman’s block on each play, you can see pretty clearly that arms and legs are both betraying them. Recovering from injury requires healing as well as recovered strength, and from all appearances, neither has been reached in any measure across the line. Then there is the question of Jeff Driskel’s health. The dual-edge misinformation machine has already started. Coach Will Muschamp said Sunday he would evaluate Driskel at practice Wednesday and Thursday. Kirk Herbstreit reported definitively Sunday that Driskel is out for the FSU game. Herbie has no source inside the UF program, so he would have no way of knowing this unless someone in the program created a deliberate leak. On the sidelines Saturday, Driskel would often walk with a distinct limp, and often move about normally with absolutely no indication of injury. The wheels are turning in the UF Machine.
Regardless of covert strategies or possible things to come, this was a home finale worth savoring. Not for its glamour or glitz but because of what it signified. It concluded only the third season ever that Florida went 7-0 in The Swamp. It became only the seventh Gators team to ever start a season 10-1. It was the second shutout of the season, the first time a Gators team has accomplished that feat in the last six years. The shutout dropped Florida’s scoring defense at home this year to an average of 8.2 points per game. Perhaps the most significant note for the future prosperity of the program is this: Muschamp becomes only the third Gators coach in history to win 10 games in his second season at Florida. The other two were future Gator and College Football Hall of Fame coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. The biggest question that has surrounded the program since Meyer left is whether Muschamp is the right guy, a guy who will join those two legends in the same rarefied air of elite coaching majesty. This is a very significant mile marker to inform us that he is on the right highway to that same level of success.
BCS: Big Crazy Show
Not to over-play how weird the season has been, but the more Florida struggles every Saturday to beat vastly inferior opponents, the more they keep rising in the BCS poll. But that is the beauty of the poll that does not simply blow with the whims of human eye tests and short-term memory. Wins have consequences. So do losses. Gators-haters the nation over keep asking why Florida deserves to be No. 4 in the BCS poll when they have played so poorly on offense for the past month. Well, the answer is all over the top of the BCS poll.
First, consider the teams behind Florida that would presume to move ahead of them. One-loss Kansas State? Was blown out by an unranked five-loss Baylor team in what was only their second conference win of the year. It was the first time in the history of college football that a No. 1 team was knocked off by a team with a losing record. They aren’t just done; they have to leave the room. One-loss Oregon? Lost at home to a two-loss team that was more than a three-touchdown underdog. One-loss Florida State? Lost to an unranked five-loss team that has a losing league record in the worst BCS conference in the country. One-loss Clemson? They were blown out by that same FSU team. Two-loss Stanford? They lost to unranked Washington. Two-loss LSU? Yeah, Florida beat ‘em; didn’t even allow a touchdown and shut ‘em out in the second half. Two-loss Texas A&M? Yeah, Florida beat ‘em; shut ‘em out in the second half. Two-loss South Carolina? Yeah, Florida beat ‘em; blew ‘em out; didn’t even allow a touchdown again. Florida’s only loss? On a neutral field, by one score to one-loss, third-ranked Georgia which is an SEC title game win away from playing in the BCS championship game.
Wins have consequences. So do losses.
The Road Ahead
Florida at Florida State
The math is simple. If Florida beats Florida State, and USC beats Notre Dame, the Gators will face the SEC champion — either Alabama or Georgia — in the BCS title game. When the offensive line and the quarterback are all healthy, we know for a fact that Florida can beat all three of those teams and we might even have reason to expect it. However, the health of the Gators offensive weapons and protectors is still a giant question mark. This much we know:
1. Despite the health of the offensive line, and despite the level of play we have witnessed the last three weeks, the Gator offense will come out with the needle in the red, punching FSU in the mouth every single play and making every inch of grass a battleground. Even in its immensely reduced physical capacity, there was a marked difference in the level of energy and passion when the line faced the future-NFL-star-studded defensive from of Georgia than when it faced any of the following three cupcake opponents. You can expect the entire offense to be playing at a fever pitch once again. As long as that does not translate into turnovers as it did against UGA, the Gators will be in this game.
2. Despite what the offense is able to do, the defense will come out at a level of energy and execution to play its best game of the year. Think back to the games against LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas A&M. The defense Saturday will be that defense. It is better than the defense that held FSU to under 100 yards offense last year. It will be the defense that did not allow former top-5 LSU and South Carolina to score a single touchdown and if not for six turnovers on offense may have shut out Georgia completely. Despite any diminutive time of possession mustered by Florida’s offense, as long as they do not turn the ball over on a short field, it will be difficult for FSU to score Saturday.
3. Special teams will again be a weapon for the Gators, as they have been all season.
4. The coaching staff at Florida has found a way to win 10 games so far. In the first half of the season, they managed to beat three pretty complete teams, teams that have been in the top 10 in the nation, despite significant depth and talent deficiencies at most positions on the offense. In the second half of the season, they nearly managed a win against the current No. 3 team in the nation as well as beating all the others, despite not even having a single person on the offensive line healthy enough to play football, save for one true freshman. Whatever the injury situation that exists at quarterback and offensive line this Saturday, this staff will figure out the formula for a victory. Whether it comes to fruition is another matter.
That variability between a victory and a loss in Tallahassee will come down to execution, ball security and the bounce of the ball. The one loss the Gators suffered came because ball security collapsed and imploded. If the players can physically and mentally find a way to execute the game plan while securing the ball, I believe this staff will devise and deliver a game plan that will win the game. They’ve shown me that they can in every situation against the most difficult schedule in the nation — perhaps the most difficult schedule in history.
Specifically, while I can’t extrapolate the coaches’ ideas because I don’t know the depth of the injury situation, I can observe what the FSU defense and offense has that can be exposed and beaten.
1. Firstly, FSU’s defense is very vulnerable up the middle. Both on the ground and through the air in the short zones, the Seminoles are soft. The deep middle also has a nice Twinkie-like cream filling that can be eaten for lunch by any team who can execute the throw. They have only faced one team capable of exposing it, which was Clemson, and they gutted the FSU defense through the air and on the ground. North Carolina State also exposed their soft underbelly with their big 17-point second half comeback win earlier in the year. For Florida’s struggling offense, this weakness is as beneficial as the Gators could hope. Of the few things they can do to any degree of success right now, running between the tackles and throwing the short routes have been the Gators’ bread and butter both before and after the apocalyptic injury plague befell them. And on the rare occasions that Florida has had time to go deep, it has been down the middle and usually complete. The difficulty of course is holding blocks and identifying blitz looks and assignments against FSU’s strong defensive line and blitz-happy back seven.
2. Florida State’s offense has clear weaknesses. The Seminoles run very simple concepts in both the running and passing games. They have rolled their opponents this year simply by virtue of facing exactly zero teams with an even serviceable defense. They lost their best running back a few weeks ago for the season – the back that could stretch the defense and run with speed inside or outside. They replace him with true freshman James Wilder, who is a competent but plodding pounder, whom the Gator defense should be able to shut down. They have talented but unspectacular wide receivers who do not run precise routes and a quarterback who while mobile and elusive, is not an elite level scrambler, nor is he a great passer. The offensive line is not an SEC-level line by any stretch. With complicated coverages and disguised fronts, the Gators defense should be able to confuse EJ Manuel, and with secondary blitzes and delayed linebacker blitzes should be able to apply good pressure provided the secondary holds up throughout the day. Given how well the defensive backfield has played all year, it should be difficult for FSU to find many yards through the air.
3. Toughness, toughness, toughness. Florida State has suffered greatly from their cupcake schedule. Not only do they play in the weakling ACC, but this year in particular has been a banner season for extremely weak and talentless opposition in the conference. More glaring than talent deficiencies has been lack of toughness across the conference. FSU has had the luxury this year of something they have not had since the 1990s: taking the field each week against an ACC opponent that simply has no way to physically match up with them on any level. They have faced only two opponents who have come out and hit them in the mouth and played them physically tough. Clemson did it and almost ran them out of their own stadium, and FSU’s defense was visibly looking for any reason to give up. If not for some very bad strategic coaching decisions and a lot of quarterback errors in the second half, Clemson would have beaten them. Then of course North Carolina State came out of the locker room at halftime in their game and punched them in the mouth again and again and FSU could not do a thing to score or to keep NCSU from scoring. If the Gators can physically take over the game, injuries up front or not, they could control the contest and the outcome just as they have the last three weeks, and pilot the good guys from Gainesville to an ugly, scrappy, low-scoring win as they have much of the season.
4. Tightness, tightness, tightness. There is a significant potential for FSU to play very tight Saturday. Recall the Cocktail Party. Florida was sitting No. 2 in the nation with everything to lose. Georgia was written off by the national media, the local media and their own fans. Florida’s offense came in and played so tight they couldn’t even hand off the ball in the backfield without turning it over. This Saturday, the roles are reversed for Florida. Though they sit at No. 4, nobody has given them a remote chance of winning this game for weeks, including most Gators fans. The SEC or SEC East is not on the line. A spot in the BCS title game will not be on the line at game time and the odds of a spot opening up later down the line are slim. Meanwhile for FSU, this game is their entire season. It has been their entire season since the beginning of the year. This game is their one and only chance at earning respect from the nation, since this is their only really respectable opponent in 2012. The ACC title game the following week means nothing to them. It is even worse than the typical ACC title games because they won’t be facing the champion of the other division. … They won’t even be facing the runner-up. They will be facing the third place team, Georgia Tech, because North Carolina is on probation and Miami just self-imposed a title game ban in anticipation of their own looming NCAA sanctions. Their entire season and their entire mantra of being back to national competitive status — heck, their entire identity as a football program — is riding on this game. And with the injury woes at Florida, they know they will be expected to walk all over us. Every ounce of pressure in this game rests squarely on FSU’s back.
As great as the Florida defense has been at home this year, the Gators have also been very tough on the road, but with different end results. While giving up just 8.2 points per game in The Swamp, they have surrendered 17.8 points per game away from The Swamp. And they have been remarkably consistent, giving up 20 points once and 17 points three times. It would seem a very likely proposition that the Gators will hold FSU to 17 points Saturday. However, the 17.8 points per game is not just a function of playing on the road, but also the opponents. The four road foes of the Gators have averaged 28, 38, 40 and 46 points per game, respectively, when not facing Florida. These four opponents have combined to score over 30 points 28 times this year, over 40 points 21 times, over 50 points 9 times, better than 60 points twice, and they have even cleared the 70-point mark once. And these are four SEC teams facing SEC defenses all but a few weeks of the season. But against Florida: 20 points once and 17 points three times. It is highly unlikely that FSU would approach those scoring averages if they played a full SEC schedule as opposed to a full slate of ACC cream puffs.
With a normal Gators offense, 17 points allowed would spell victory against almost anyone in the country. But this Florida offense, in its current state of injury, struggles to score half that many no matter who the opponent. But it bears remembering that even at their physically weakest point in terms of injuries, the Gators were an end zone fumble away from scoring what would have been 17 points normally, or 18 points with the likely 2-point conversion, against the most talented and certainly the most amped-up defense they have faced all year in the Georgia Bulldogs. And that was away from The Swamp in the state of Florida (which also describes Tallahassee). Given everything I have seen this year, especially the injury factor and the superior game plans the UF staff have devised every week, for a Gators win, I will set the dividing line at 10 points. If the Gators score more than 10 points, I believe they will win; if not, FSU will win. Obviously I think the Gator defense holds FSU to 10 points or less. Probably 10 exactly. That will be the key, in my opinion.
Notre Dame at Southern California
The common wisdom is that USC’s hopes of upsetting the Irish were knocked out the moment Matt Barkley was knocked out of this game. However, this may give USC the edge it needs. To begin with, Barkley has regressed all season and has been playing very poorly of late. I was frankly worried he would throw more passes to the Irish than to the Trojans Saturday. But with the backup signal caller taking the snaps, Notre Dame is faced with a guy running point for whom they have no film. They have no advance intelligence on his weaknesses, strengths, tendencies, nothing. And given the fact that preseason No. 1 USC has now lost everything else the season had to offer — the national title, the Pac-12 title, the division title, the city champs title — their only saving grace will be to beat the hated Irish and ruin their season. They will have and utilize miles of freedom to take chances and go for the home run on offense and defense over and over again. What have they to lose? And let’s not forget that Notre Dame should have lost to 4-6 Pittsburgh just three weeks ago – at least four times. They also should have lost to BYU, Stanford, Michigan and Purdue. Even running a wildcat offense all day, USC has a legitimate chance to upset the Irish.
Oregon at Oregon State
Anyone who thinks that Oregon can jump Florida if the Gators beat FSU should rest easy. Beating 4 teams in the top 10 (and South Carolina will be back in the top 10 if they beat Clemson) and losing very close to a fifth will not be overcome by Oregon’s paltry resume of beating a few top-25 bubble programs. What’s more, they face their nemesis for the second week in a row Saturday: a team that can play defense. The Beavers are giving up 18 points a game. The Stanford Cardinal that just held Oregon to 41 points below their season scoring average entered the game against the Ducks giving up 17 points a game. And they will be playing their second-consecutive difficult game, which Oregon has not done once this year. And if Stanford beats UCLA Saturday, Oregon will not even get the chance to get that last BCS point boost (which would be outdone anyway by UF’s point boost for beating another BCS top-10 team in FSU) by playing in and winning the Pac-12 title game. Of course if they do make it to the title game, they would have to beat a UCLA team that just proved its mettle by dispatching USC and Stanford. If Florida beats FSU, it is virtually — if not mathematically — impossible for Oregon to jump the Gators in the BCS poll.
SEC Championship Game
Since that is still a week away, and though it is impossible to believe that either Georgia or Alabama could lose to Georgia Tech or Auburn, I will leave this review for next week. Because if Notre Dame loses Saturday and Florida wins, the SEC title game will decide which team faces the Florida Gators in the BCS championship game.
And then you drink.
Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.