When we last left our caped crusaders, or something like that, we looked at the opponents on the first half of the Gators’ 2014 schedule. Now let’s examine the pluses and minuses of the second half opponents, which include the top three contenders for the East division crown facing the Gators in a four game span.
Missouri Tigers (homecoming) October 18
The big buzz around Missouri is that they lost seven starters on offense, and that will no doubt make it more difficult to repeat as East champions. However, they also lost seven starters on defense as well. As much as the offense made such a splash last year, I think Missouri’s rise from the basement to a 12-win season was actually spearheaded by the defense, particularly the defensive line. They return the interior of that line but lose their dynamic ends – one a first team All-SEC selection and the other the defensive co-MVP of the conference. That is not something an elite program can replace in one year very often, and Missouri is not an elite program. On offense, Matt Mauk has some good experience and is a solid signal caller in the Missouri scheme, but the Tigers only return one single skill player on this side of the ball. One. Again, elite programs don’t replace that sort of production and star power in one year very often, and well, as I said Missouri is just happy to be here.
Most importantly, their star quarterback James Franklin and all three of their Randy Moss-sized receivers are gone. They replace three pass catchers who were over 6’4″ with three receivers who are all shorter than 6’3″. In addition to the lost experience at the receiver position, that will have to have a negative impact. It will change the way they play or at the very least limit the things they can do (as many of you remember how many deep jump ball completions this offense cashed in on last year).
Finally, while Florida fans point to teams like Missouri and Auburn last year as examples of how a good program can launch from the back of the pack to the top of the heap in one year, schools like Missouri have to be cognizant of the flip side of that coin. With the massive personnel losses this year, the Tigers could very well come crashing back down to Earth in 2014.
Georgia Bulldogs (Jacksonville) November 1
This is the trendy pick to win the East and be a dark horse candidate for that potential second SEC team to sneak into the four-team playoff this year. They certainly have the schedule appeal to do that if they are good enough to run the regular season table, with a possible early Clemson win being a strong potential difference-maker on the playoff resume. The hype is not without merit. Many predict Todd Gurley will be the best running back in nation; I find him an excellent back but not on that level. I don’t think he will be in the top three in the SEC this year as far as rushers go. The Dawgs of course also have an outstanding second back in Keith Marshall (though he is coming off ACL surgery) and true freshman Sony Michel will play this year, barring injury. So they’ve got a big stable of good backs…has there ever been a year when they didn’t? Overall, their linebackers and skill players on offense are very good, but it bears noting that two of their top three returning receivers are recovering from ACL surgeries as well.
The Dawgs lose quarterback Aaron Murray – all-time leading passer – and incumbent Hutson Mason is a senior with limited experience and average performance when he did get meaningful snaps in real games. The bad news for Mason is that UGA must replace three of their five offensive linemen plus the tight end, so defenses will have the opportunity to pressure him into bad decisions if he will make them. Especially defenses with strong defensive lines and great blitz packages from the back seven (*cough*, Florida, *cough*). The scuttlebutt around Athens is that they are preparing – bracing, if you will – for the unknown quantity of Mason at quarterback. There is no confidence whatsoever around him being a great player, and the sliding scale is being projected in terms of how good does he have to be (or how bad does he not have to be) to allow the Dawgs to win with the running game and just enough defense. Trouble is, it remains to be seen how those four new blockers up front will impact the success of the running game as well, particularly against teams that are strong against the run (*cough*, Florida, *cough*).
They of course have a new defensive coordinator, who took the first opportunity he could to get the heck out of Tallahassee after just one year (who wouldn’t?). Even though he is an upgrade from Todd Grantham, this is Year 1 in new system. As a team, you almost wish you would return fewer starters that nine (which Georgia does) when you have a new system because new starters don’t have as much to un-learn. Pruitt is also a style clash with head coach Mark Richt. Pruitt is trying to bring a tough guy coaching style to the defense and Richt runs his program about as milquetoast as any players’ coach could possibly be. It will be interesting to see how those two styles balance out, either complementing or clashing with each other. UGA’s best hope for a strong defense is for Pruitt to work his reputed defensive back coaching magic on the backfield in Athens, because the corners and safeties are error prone and they lost their most promising athlete in the off-season when former Gator target and heavy lean Josh Harvey-Clemons was booted from the program in February. If not, I think the secondary is going to be a huge source of vulnerability all season long. It is going to hurt them against Clemson in Game 1, it will hurt them when Spurrier tries to cut them up through the air in Game 2 and I certainly hope it hurts them against Florida in Game 8 against Florida. I think Georgia – like moat SEC teams every year – is going to have to win some close games this season. They’ll have to try to do it with a new kicker and a new punter.
Vanderbilt Commodores (Nashville) November 8
Vanderbilt lost their head coach, the only head coach that has brought them to a consistently high level of success, they only return one skill player on offense and lose their entire defensive backfield. James Franklin worked wonders, even miracles you might say, but he did so with a great smoke and mirrors act and a freight train of dirty play on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Dirty play that ultimately cost Florida a win against Georgia in 2012 and a shot at an undefeated season, along with possible SEC and national titles. It took a century for this school to win nine games two years in a row, and it will be another century before it happens again. It took the Commodores 22 years to beat Florida, and it will take at least that long for them to do it again. Vanderbilt’s little run of success is over and their little win streak over the Gators ends at one.
South Carolina Gamecocks (home) November 15
There is a lot to like about South Carolina, and at the top of the list is Steve Spurrier, who is going to maximize the production of the squad no matter what the player turnover or negative mismatches on the field. Running back Mike Davis ran for 1,183 yards last year and is back for more. His numbers are like the player himself: very good, but not great. But he is all Spurrier needs in his offense, as long as he gets good quarterback play. Dylan Thompson has a good bit of experience “chunking it” around Williams-Brice Stadium and on the road, and he will play behind a very strong offensive line, one of the best in the conference. He has shown the ability to make the throws, but to run the Spurrier system (and stay on the field and out of the dog house), he will have to what he has never been able to do in the past: play well consistently. Therein lies the rub.
They only lose a third of their starters, but those they lose are very critical losses. Losing all-world defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (yes, they invented that category just for him) and stud defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has to be a significant blow to the South Carolina defense. The entire unit flowed through the pressure, disruption and stonewalling of the defensive line and they anchored that line. Losing QB Connor Shaw – the most successful quarterback in school history – could be a crushing blow. Thompson is a fifth-year senior with a lot of playing experience but he has done very little with those five years and has never taken the reigns when given multiple chances with injuries to Shaw and Spurrier’s traditional quick trigger finger pulling his starting pitchers. The team also lost by far their best receiver in Bruce Ellington, so Thompson will not have a stud receiver to lean on – in the early going at least.
South Carolina will be very tough once again this year, with Spurrier going for his fourth-straight double digit win season, which would of course be yet another Gamecock record. But just like in his Florida coaching days, his Carolina teams usually find some way to lose to one or two teams that have no business beating them. So if the East is coming down to Florida and South Carolina as the season wears on, the chances are always high that the ‘Cocks will sort themselves out of the race all by themselves. And Carolina won’t even need to lose to a clearly inferior opponent, because Florida is the only team in the conference (or nation, really) with a tougher schedule. The Gamecocks get the second-toughest pull from the West with Auburn and Texas A&M to go with Clemson out of conference, only slightly less daunting than Florida’s draw of Alabama and LSU and the only other decent ACC team, Florida State. The SEC schedule makers never do any favors for the Gators or their former head coaches.
Eastern Kentucky Colonels (home) November 22
This completes the triple header of what may be the worst trio of out of state cupcakes Florida has ever played in the same season. While the Colonels did finish 6-6 last year, they are an FCS program, and without 24 injured starters, Florida will never lose to an FCS school. Eastern Kentucky was blown out last year by Coastal Carolina, Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State. Blown. Out. This will be a week of sitting starters for healing or avoiding injuries before going to Tallahassee, and naming the score before cutting the Colonels their check and sending them on their way.
FSU (Tallahassee) November 29
FSU returns a good number of their offensive starters (7), but they must replace their two best players behind Jameis Winston in Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman, and also lose their backup running back James Wilder Jr as well as productive receiver Kenny Shaw. Rashad Greene and Christian Green will be the top receiving targets, both seniors, and their offensive line returns mostly intact, as does the every reliable tight end Nick O’Leary. So their offense will still be good enough with Winston throwing the ball to muscle out the ACC dregs that litter their conference schedule again this year. Losing the 6’5”, 240 pound Benjamin form the receiving corps may be a tough loss to overcome when they play the only two decent teams that virtually bookend their season: Game 3 against Clemson and the final game against Florida. The Semis also lose the better half of their defensive line in end Mario Edwards and tackle Tim Jernigan. Behind them, they only return one linebacker and two defensive backs. So again FSU will have vulnerability on defense, especially up the middle. But as always, they play almost nobody all year capable of exploiting this weakness.
And that paper-thin schedule is looking easier every day. This year Notre Dame was thought to be a rare upgrade to their opponent list, but they are losing players left and right before the season even starts and could be out of the rankings before September is over. They likewise get the Irish luck of pulling new conference member Louisville onto the slate the year after their all-star coach and quarterback both leave for greener pastures. Once again it looks like they play a season consisting of two good opponents – Florida and Clemson – and those games are spaced very far apart to allow them to have all spring and summer to prepare for one, and nearly all season to prepare for the other. Still, even an injury-shredded Florida defense owned the FSU offensive line for most of the first half of their 2013 game, and confused and battered Winston into an ordinary player. That is until the lack of Gator offense, defensive fatigue and of course Kelvin Benjamin recognizing that he was not going to get flagged for throwing our defensive backs to the ground on every play, all kicked in. With a healthy defense again and a healthy and potent offense, and the very best players on offense and defense missing from the FSU roster except Captain Crab-legs, this game may resemble the one in Tallahassee in 2012. That’s when Florida physically manhandled them and won going away while completely shutting down the legs and arm of the quarterback EJ Manuel, who was a first round NFL draft pick the following summer and an NFL starter the following fall – just as Wintson will be following this game.
A final note on the Semis. It is tough to repeat as national champions. Very tough. It is impossible to repeat as a Heisman winner if you are not a running back for Ohio State. That has been almost scientifically proven: if Tebow and Manziel can get the Heisman from the Heisman voters in their dynamic seasons following their Heisman campaigns, then I am convinced that nobody can do it. But especially not a guy who has received so much bad press as Jameis Winston. The voters ignored a mountain of character issues – and a rape charge – to give him the award last year; but it is difficult to believe they will ignore the self-aggrandizing, arrogant trash-talking and law-breaking offseason that he had this year – on top of all the bad press The Heisman Trust received for giving the award to such a shady character last December. But most of all it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain excellence for an entire season after winning a national title and after winning a Heisman Trophy. Winston was as single-handedly responsible for winning the national title for FSU as Cam Newton, Vince Young, Hershel Walker or anyone else was for their clubs, and he and FSU are trying to do just that: pull the double repeat. Ohio State did not win the national title in either 1974 or 1975 when Archie Griffin won the only consecutive Heisman Trophies, so FSU and Winston are attempting to do something that has never been done before. In fact, no school has ever repeated as national champions the year after winning the title and having a Heisman winner. So history tells us – shouts in our faces, really – that FSU has absolutely no shot at repeating as national champions in 2014.
And that is a beautiful thing.
If you want to know how I see these games falling in terms of wins and losses for the Gators, tune in to Part Three of this series and I will try to put it together with the rudimentary data we have this preseason on the Gators and all the other teams they will face this year.