Thoughts of the day: February 28, 2014

A few thoughts to jump start your Friday morning.


The Gators accomplished their #1 goal for 2013-14 – win the SEC championship – without firing a shot. They didn’t have to because Arkansas took care of some business of its own to beat Kentucky at Rupp, handing #1-ranked Florida the outright SEC title. This is the third SEC title in three years for Billy Donovan and Florida’s senior class of Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete and it might be the one they remember more than the others because none of the experts really gave this team a chance competing against Kentucky’s latest one-year rent-a-team that publications such as Athlon and Sporting News predicted to win the national championship. Another reason they will probably remember it more is because this is a team that lacks a superstar. There is no one individual who carries this team on his back but instead it’s a collective effort of four seniors and a bunch of young guys who know and understand their roles. In the case of this year’s Florida Gators, it’s the team that is the superstar.


I’m relatively certain that some of the people who labeled Kentucky’s freshmen as the “greatest recruiting class in history” would love to walk that back and perhaps find another way to say they were impressed with the collection of talent that wound up in Lexington. They are a talented bunch but maybe they should hang around three years and see if they can do better than that Florida recruiting class of 2004. All Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green did was win three straight SEC tournaments and back-to-back NCAA championships. As for the “greatest of all time” I think that honor still goes to the UCLA class of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Kenny Heitz, Lynn Schackleford and Lucius Allen. They won three straight national championships and only lost two games in three years. Two games. That’s as many as Kentucky lost this year to Arkansas.


There is still work to do, but by virtue of that win over Kentucky in Lexington Thursday night, Arkansas has played itself into contention for the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs probably need to win two of their last regular season games to atone for five SEC road losses but with Georgia and Ole Miss at home and a roadie to Alabama in the season finale, they have a chance to finish the regular season with 21 or 22 wins. Besides two quality wins over Kentucky, the Hogs also have non-conference wins over SMU and Minnesota and that should squeeze them in on Selection Sunday. If … they win at least two of their last three.


Here are two questions that will have to be answered during the 15 days in March and April that the Gators are allowed to practice: (1) Cameron Dillard came to Florida to play center, but there are whispers that he will start the spring behind Max Garcia, who played both guard and tackle last season. It’s not unusual that a redshirt freshman would start out as a backup, but given all the injuries on the offensive line last year, it would seem that Garcia might have to be prepared to slide to another position if the injury bug strikes again. If that happens, will Dillard be ready to step in and play? (2) Keanu Neal tied for the team lead in special teams tackles last year with five. This season, the safety position is thin and Neal has to be ready to step in and play. He spent most of his high school career playing a hybrid safety/linebacker. At UF he will have to be a safety who plays coverage, often one-on-one against spread teams. Can he cover a slot or tight end in space?


When the Alabama defense has been really good, the Crimson Tide has had a nose tackle who can play two gaps who forces a double team on every play. Can Brandon Ivory and/or Darren Lake step up their game in the middle in 2014? If they can’t Alabama’s defense isn’t going to be dominant … Vanderbilt lost two highly productive senior wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. Rising sophomore Jordan Cunningham is the only returning Vandy wide receiver with more than 10 catches last season. Can he give the Commodores at least half the production of Matthews (112 catches for 1,477 yards)?


For the first time next season, the SEC will allow something other than the band playing music between plays. It’s been done in other conferences for the past few years but the SEC is changing with the times. The last straw, apparently, was Georgia’s game at Clemson last year when the PA system blasted ear-splitting music between plays, which had the dual effect of revving up the crowd. I guess I’m too much of a purist. I think it’s a bad rule in any conference. One of the things that makes the college game so much more fun to me is the band cranking up in between plays. It seems to me that this is just one step toward changing the atmosphere to one that’s more like a pro game. There is a reason I rarely go to or even watch an NFL game on television and atmosphere has plenty to do with it.


Whether the Arkansas coach, who has this ongoing habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, is sitting on a very hot seat right now could be debated although losing nine straight games and going winless in the SEC has not settled well with the folks who write the checks in Fayette Nam. What can’t be debated is that public perception of Bielema, never good to begin with, is nose diving since his insensitive “death certificates” remark while trying to defend his dumb stance on the “Saban Rule.” There is a huge cloud of negativity around the coach and as Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated points out, Bielema has complicated losing with his own big mouth. Only three years ago, Arkansas was thought to be a perennial challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. That was before Bobby Petrino’s fall from grace, but the people who write the checks remember the good times and probably won’t have much tolerance for another losing season.


Mel Kiper and most of the experts have Johnny Manziel not only going in the first round but in the first 7-8 picks of the May NFL Draft. Not everybody is impressed, though. Ron Jaworski, who spent 17 years playing quarterback in the NFL doesn’t think Manziel is good enough to go in the first three rounds. Jaws thinks Johnny Football runs around too much and says, “In the NFL, he won’t last three games playing that style. He’ll get hurt.” Russell Wilson did all right with that style last year, if memory serves me right. The jury is still out on Johnny Manziel and while I don’t have 17 years of NFL experience to back me up, I’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks who ran around like Johnny Football. Wilson, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young come to mind immediately. They did all right.


“Brothers and Sisters” was the Allman Brothers’ first album after the death of Duane Allman. It was also the last album for bass player Berry Oakley, who died in a motorcycle accident just three blocks from where Duane died – also in a motorcycle accident – in Macon, Georgia. When Duane died, Dickey Betts took over as the band leader. He wrote four of the seven songs on “Brothers and Sisters,” which spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard album charts, including “Jessica.”

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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.