THOUGHTS OF THE DAY; SEPTEMBER 25, 2018
A few thoughts to kick start your Tuesday morning.
Two years after his death, Thomas Wolfe’s marvelous novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published, a tale about an author named George Webber who writes a book with references to his hometown. When Webber returns home, he receives a painful welcome from family and friends who are outraged that he would write about their home.
Ten months after he left Starkville following the best nine-year football run in Mississippi State history, Dan Mullen will return, this time as the head football coach of the Florida Gators. No, Starkville isn’t home anymore but for nine seasons, 69 wins and a school record eight straight bowl games it was. Both his kids were born there and until the move to Gainesville, it was the only home they had ever known.
When Mullen returns Saturday night, it will be shocking if there is a show of appreciation for what he accomplished during his time at Mississippi State. Mullen turned Mississippi State from a team everybody in the SEC wanted as a homecoming opponent into a team that actually made it to the number one ranking in the country and had a Heisman Trophy contender. Yet, the folks in Starkville will treat him like the people in the fictional town of Libya Hill treated George Webber. It’s going to be brutal. How soon they forget!
But don’t think for a nanosecond that Mullen actually cares. He’s fully focused on getting Florida football back to a consistent championship level and if you know Dan then you know that nothing else matters. Sure, he has marvelous memories of Starkville and the entire state of Mississippi, but that was then and this is now. Now he’s doing what he dreamed of doing even before he became the Mississippi State head coach and that is coaching the Florida Gators. The team he left behind is more experienced, has the home field advantage and a rather nice replacement coach in Joe Moorhead. Moorhead will be fortunate to maintain the level of success enjoyed under Mullen. Mullen, meanwhile, is going to win championships at Florida, something they can only dream about at Mississippi State.
Saturday night, Mullen will bring a Florida team to Starkville that is still in the process of finding itself. Each week is an adventure for these Gators who are still lacking the kind of consistency you have to have to win big in the Southeastern Conference. Although we don’t know if the Gators that looked so good in decapitating Tennessee will actually show up Saturday, we do know that Florida has a couple of advantages. First off, Mullen knows the Mississippi State personnel like the back of his hand, particularly how quarterback Nick Fitzgerald thinks and reacts. Fitzgerald was the guy whose best offers were Samford and Chattanooga before Mullen gave him a shot at Mississippi State. As Kentucky proved in sticking it to Mississippi State, if you neuter Fitzgerald you neuter the MSU offense. Second, Florida has had two weeks to get over its beat down at the hands of Kentucky. A Kentucky loss is still fresh on the minds of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Can they erase that memory in such a short period of time?
If the Bulldogs can’t, then maybe, just maybe Dan Mullen can go home again and leave with a big wide grin on his face.
A FEW STATS THAT MATTER: We’re only four games into the season so these numbers could change, either higher or lower, but we’re seeing a nice trend in some key stats.
Florida is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt, which is very good. Florida’s best year since 2009 (UF averaged 9.1 per attempt) was the Charlie Weis offense of 2011 that averaged 7.5 yards. The 2015 team averaged 7.2 and that was the only other time since 2009 the Gators averaged as much as 7.0 per attempt. The 7.0 mark is important because it’s considered the demarcation line between average and below average.
The Gators have already thrown for more touchdown passes (12) in four games than they did in 11 games (10) in 2017. To give you something further to compare, the Gators threw for 12 TDPs in 2010, 13 in 2011 and 2012, 11 in 2013.
Through four games, the Gators are averaging 189 yards per game rushing, which is more yards per game than any team since 2009 (UF averaged 221.79 yards per game). The 2014 Gators averaged 187.67 per game and the 2012 team averaged 187.69 per game. In the previous three seasons, the Gators ran for 156.36 yards in 2017, 128.23 in 2016 and 126.93 in 2015.
More important than yards per game is yards per carry and through four games Florida is averaging 5.77 yards per carry. The 2009 Gators averaged an exceptional 5.59 per rush attempt so what UF is doing so far is certainly trending in a very healthy direction. Since that 2009 team, the Gators have had only four seasons in which they averaged more than 4.0 per carry: 4.31 in 2010, 4.53 in 2012. 4.35 in 2014 and 4.3 in 2017. A 4.5 average is considered a healthy running attack.
The Gators lead the nation with 14 turnovers forced and they are second in turnover margin at +10. The 2017 team only forced 17 turnovers the entire season and finished with a -3 margin. At the current pace, the Gators are on track for the best season in turnover margin since 2012 when they were +12 in a 13-game season.
HEISMAN HOPEFULS: It’s not even October so it’s entirely possible that by November the Heisman Trophy race will be clogged by several players who are currently off the radar. That is a possible but not exactly a likely scenario. Right now there are three very solid front runners, three who are worthy of mention and a few guys who have plenty of work to do.
The three guys in front:
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: The best player on the best team in the country has put up incredible numbers. But, just imagine what they would be if he ever played a full game taking all the Bama snaps. That might not happen all season long so if you want to watch Tua play, be sure to watch the first half. So far, Tua is 58-80 passing for 1,033 yards (12.9 per attempt) and 12 TDs (zero interceptions) and 103 rushing yards (5.72 per carry) for two more TDs.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: Considering he’ll be throwing against Texas Tech’s defense this weekend, the former UF quarterback could put up numbers that defy belief. He has the big arm, the ability to see the whole field and Big 12 defenses just waiting to be dissected. Through three games, the numbers are 71-95 passing (74.7%) for 1,117 yards (11.8 per carry), good for 14 touchdowns (three picks).
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State: He could become Tua’s biggest challenger if he lights up Penn State in Happy Valley this weekend. Through three Urban-less games and one with the Urbster on the sidelines, Haskins is 87-115 passing (75.7%) for 1,194 yards (10.4 per attempt), good for 16 touchdowns (only one pick), and 28 rushing yards for a TD.
The next three guys:
Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma: The $5 Million Man (that’s his first round signing bonus from the Oakland A’s) is keeping the Oklahoma offense super charged. The numbers are going to be good all year, in part because Lincoln Riley calls the plays for the Sooners and because defense is not exactly the forte of the Big 12 Conference. Texas looms in a couple of weeks and a great game against the Longhorns could send Murray’s stock soaring. He is 60-88 passing (68.2%) for 1,028 yards (11.7 yards per attempt), good for 11 touchdowns (only two picks) with 36-240 rushing (6.67 yards per carry) and three TDs.
Benny Snell Jr., RB, Kentucky: If Tua were not playing lights out for the number one team in the country, Snell would be the leading contender for SEC Player of the Year and would be in the top tier of the Heisman contenders. If Kentucky keeps winning and rising in the rankings, his Heisman stock is going to continue to rise. So far he is 87-540 yards rushing (6.21 per carry) for seven touchdowns with three catches or 15 yards and 1-1 passing for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse: There is a reason Syracuse is off to a 4-0 start and it begins with the triggerman of Dino Babers’ track meet of an offense. If he puts up big numbers this week at Clemson, Dungey will remain on the second tier of Heisman hopefuls. With an upset, his hopes could go higher. Dungey is 58-91 passing (63.7%) for 763 yards (8.4 yards per attempt) for nine touchdowns (only one pick); 51-354 rushing (6.94 per carry) for four touchdowns.
These guys have a lot of work to do:
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford: He’s played in three of Stanford’s four games, running for 254 yards (4.31 per carry) and two TDs with 4-27 receiving. Unless he starts putting up numbers like last season, his Heisman hopes will continue to fade.
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: He was good but not great in Wisconsin’s last two games (loss to BYU, win over Iowa) and he hasn’t scored a TD in either game. To remain in Heisman contention, Taylor has to play his best in big games and so far he hasn’t done it. He has 628 rushing yards (6.16 per carry) for five TDs in four games.
A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College: Purdue held him to 59 yards (3.11 per carry) and zero TDs. He’s a long shot at best, but when he gets it going he’s capable of putting up astonishing stats. His season numbers are 78-491 rushing (6.29 per carry) and four TDs, 4-27 and one TD receiving.
McKenzie Milton, QB, UCF: He may have killed his chances by throwing three picks against D1AA Bethune-Cookman. To get back into the Heisman conversation he has to play nearly flawless and the Knights can’t lose. His season numbers are 66-103 passing (64.1%) for 895 yards (8.7 per attempt) with nine TDs (three picks) to go with 147 rushing yards (6.39 per carry) for three TDs.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: For someone who grew up idolizing Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and the Baltimore Orioles, this is a painful season. As of Monday, the Orioles were a mere 59-1/2 games behind East Division champ Boston. Barring something unforeseen, the Orioles will be farther behind than any team in Major League Baseball since divisional play began in 1969 … The baseball broadcasting world is a little less colorful today as Kenny “The Hawk” Harrelson has called it a career at age 77. The Savannah native played nine years in the big leagues, dallied with making it on the PGA tour for awhile (he played in the 1972 British Open) and then found his niche in life as a broadcaster who did radio and television work … Four rookie QBs drafted in the first round will be starting next Sunday: Sam Darnold (Jets), Baker Mayfield (Browns), Josh Allen (Bills) and Josh Rosen (Cardinals) … Does a red hot Tiger Woods give the edge to the US team at the Ryder Cup this weekend in Paris? And, should we read anything into the fact American Ryder Cup teammates Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson finished in the last four spots at the Tour Championship? … Ryan Fitzpatrick played the first half like a QB ready to go back to the Tampa Bay bench. In the second half against Pittsburgh Monday night, Fitzpatrick played like a QB who isn’t ready to relinquish his starting job to Jameis Wintston. In the 30-27 loss to the Steelers, Fitzpatrick threw for 411 yards and three TDs.