THOUGHTS OF THE DAY; OCTOBER 16, 2018
THIS TEAM ISN’T CLOSE TO PEAKING
Think of a college football season as a 12-week grind in which the difference between winning and losing quite often is determined by three things: (1) Toughness, (2) confidence and (3) injuries or suspension. We’re seven weeks into the grind that is 11th-ranked Florida’s 2018 season but already we can see how toughness, confidence and a lack of significant injuries and/or suspensions have factored in turning the Gators into what should be a top 10 team that is a legitimate contender for the SEC East championship.
Toughness is a requirement in a 12-game season, particularly because there are going to be games like the one just played in Nashville when you have so many negatives to overcome. In the first half against Vandy, the Gators (1) turned the ball over on a first and goal situation, (2) gave up a 98-yard touchdown drive that included a 43-yard run from scrimmage, (3) got stuffed on a third and goal that made UF settle for a field goal when a TD was desperately needed, (4) gave up a 75-yard screen pass for a TD, (4) got called for holding on a first and 10 at the Vandy 24 then fumbled the ball away on the next play, and (5) had too many stupid penalties. Down, 21-3, with 6:42 left in the half, a team lacking toughness would have mailed in the rest of the game and started thinking about a bye week. The Gators instead channeled their inner Tebows, decided they were tougher and better than Vandy and came back to win by 10. While Dan Mullen and staff preach toughness every single day, strength and conditioning coordinator Nick Savage deserves a shout out here. He’s had a big hand in transforming this team from soft physically and mentally into a team that is going to be reckoned with the rest of the way.
Confident teams make big plays on a regular basis. It’s the teams that have little in the way of confidence that arrive at a situation that calls for a big play and then they can’t summon whatever it takes to deliver. On fourth and three from the UF 37 in the third quarter, Dan Mullen had the confidence to dial up a fake punt that Tommy Townsend turned into an 18-yard gain with 6:24 left in the third quarter. Two plays later, Feleipe Franks connected with Van Jefferson for a 38-yard TD pass that closed Vandy’s once 18-point lead to a single point. Only a confident coach would have made that call to fake the punt and only a confident team would have pulled off the game-changing play.
There were some suspensions in game one against Charleston Southern but the Gators could have beaten CSU with their third teamers. The injury to David Reese was significant as we saw in the Kentucky game when his presence in the middle was sorely missed. The Gators are #1 in the SEC in pass defense, allowing only 50% completions and only 160.1 yards per game. As good as the secondary is playing, imagine how good it would be with Marco Wilson, who tore an ACL and is done for the season.
There are still five games to go in this grind and a lot of negatives could hit suddenly to take the edge off a season that is starting to feel almost magical, but you get the feeling that the Gators aren’t anywhere close to peaking.
RANKING THE SEC TOP TO BOTTOM
1. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC): As if we needed a reminder that Alabama still hasn’t forgotten how to play defense, Nick Saban unleashed his troops against Mizzou and it was devastating. The Tigers came into the game one of the top scoring offenses in the country and averaging more than 500 yards per game. They left Tuscaloosa with 10 points and 212 yards. Yes, Alabama has the best offense in the country. By the time the SEC Championship Game gets here we might discover that the Crimson Tide also has as good a defense as you will find anywhere in the country.
Saturday: at Tennessee (3-3, 1-2 SEC), 3:30 p.m., CBS
2. LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC): Can Coach O get the Tigers to forget what they did against Georgia and focus in on sticking it to Mississippi State Saturday evening? Coach O will rely heavily on the leadership he’s getting from Ohio State grad transfer QB Joe Burrow to ensure the Tigers are zeroed in on Mississippi State. Burrow’s numbers (53.1% completions, 7.2 yards per attempt, just 6 TDPs) may seem quite average but he’s the only QB in the country with three wins over teams ranked in the top ten when LSU played them.
Saturday: vs. Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC), 7 p.m., ESPN
3. Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC): The Gators are averaging 211 passing yards per game, up from 179.5 per game last year. The Gators are averaging 7.9 per pass attempt, up from 6.3 last year. UF is averaging 197.3 yards per game rushing and 5.1 per carry, up from 156.36 and 4.3 last year. The Gators are averaging 408.3 yards per game of offense, up from 335.9 last year. Finally, the Gators are averaging 34.4 points per game, up from 22.1 last year.
Saturday: Open date
4. Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC): A couple of key stats that tell the tale of Georgia’s loss to LSU: (1) Jake Fromm came into the game having hit 83-114 passes, which is 72.8%. Fromm was 16-34, the first time he failed to hit at least 50% of his passes since the Tennessee game in September of 2017. (2) Fromm was averaging 10.52 yards per pass attempt prior to the LSU game. He averaged a very pedestrian 6.1 yards per attempt (209 yards) against the Tigers. The Tigers also sacked Fromm three times (-21 yards) and picked him off twice.
Saturday: Open date
5. Kentucky (5-1, 3-1 SEC): Despite their loss to the Aggies, the Wildcats control their destiny in the SEC East. It’s pretty simple. Win the next four conference games and they are SEC East champs. That’s easier said than done, but they will get one step closer to that possibility Saturday because Vanderbilt travels to Lexington. If Kentucky loses that one, then they’re back to being the Mildcats all over again. Win and they’re eligible for something like the Birmingham Bowl, where if you lose you are required to stay a second week.
Saturday: vs. Vanderbilt (3-4, 0-3 SEC), 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
6. Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1 SEC): One reason the Aggies have won three straight close calls by a combined 16 points is punter Braden Mann, averaging a mere 54.5 yards per kick, which is tops in the NCAA. His longest is 82 yards and he’s launched 17 punts 50 or more yards. Usually punters with that kind of distance outkick their coverage, but Mann’s 27 punts have been returned a combined 69 yards, which is only 2.55 per attempt.
Saturday: Open date
7. Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC): In their four wins this season, the Bulldogs have averaged 321 yards on the ground. In their two losses, they have averaged 80. In other words, when Mississippi State can’t run the ball it doesn’t win because Nick Fitzgerald isn’t exactly the second coming of Drew Brees when it comes to throwing with anything close to accuracy. Saturday, the Bulldogs go up against an LSU defense that stuffed Georgia’s running game (113 yards, 3.77 per carry). MSU either has to figure out how to run against a stacked defense or Fitzgerald better figure out how to fit the ball into about an 18-inch window.
Saturday: at LSU (6-1, 3-1 SEC), 7 p.m., ESPN
8. South Carolina (3-3, 2-3 SEC): In the fourth quarter when they needed stops the Gamecocks couldn’t get the defense off the field, allowing Texas A&M a pair of 11-play drives – one for a field goal and one for a TD – that ate up 11:47 of the clock. In their last two SEC games (win over Missouri and the loss to A&M), the Gamecocks have allowed a combined 948 yards. South Carolina’s offense isn’t all that bad but it’s got to have opportunities that the defense isn’t giving them.
Saturday: Open date
9. Auburn (4-3, 1-3 SEC): For Auburn’s beleaguered offense, Saturday’s game at Ole Miss is a godsend. Auburn has problems blocking anyone and Ole Miss couldn’t play good defense if they allowed the two-deep on the field at the same time. The problem with Auburn’s offensive struggles is that they are putting the defense on the field way too much. As a result, you get games like the one last week against Tennessee, when the Vols averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt and brutalized the Auburn secondary. If the Tigers can’t win this one they may go in freefall because the only easy game remaining on the schedule is non-conference Liberty.
Saturday: at Ole Miss (5-2, 1-2 SEC), 12 noon, ESPN
10. Missouri (3-3, 0-3 SEC): Mizzou can take heart in the fact it became the first team this season to hold Alabama to fewer than 40 points. On the other hand, the Tigers embarrassed themselves offensively. Apparently, nobody in Missouri is singing the praises of offensive coordinator Derek Dooley the way they were earlier in the year. This week, Dooley and the offense should score a few on Memphis, which has real problems stopping people, but the question is can the defense find a way to stop Darrell Henderson, who has already run for 1,133 yards (13 TDs) and is averaging 10.3 yards per carry?
Saturday: vs. Memphis (4-3), 4 p.m., SEC Network
11. Ole Miss (5-2, 1-2 SEC): If Ole Miss were bowl eligible (they’re in the NCAA jailhouse) they would be a win away from bowl eligibility. That’s pretty remarkable considering they won a game they should have lost Saturday against Arkansas thanks to the exploits of QB Jordan Ta’amu, who was 26-35 passing for 387 yards and two TDs; 17-141 rushing for another TD. Ta’amu needs to have another game like that Saturday when Auburn comes to town although he’ll be without one of his top targets. Wide receiver D.K. Metcalf (26-569, 5 TDs) will miss the rest of the season after undergoing neck surgery.
Saturday: vs. Auburn (4-3, 1-3 SEC), 12 noon, ESPN
12. Tennessee (3-3, 1-2 SEC): Tennessee has certainly improved since the debacle with Florida with a respectable performance against Georgia and a road win over Auburn. So, call that two steps forward. Now for the one step backward moment. Saturday, the Vols play Alabama and as Jeremy Pruitt is about to discover, Nick Saban doesn’t take it easy on his former staffers. This will get ugly early. Tennessee will be without linebacker Jonathan Kongbo the rest of the season due to a torn ACL.
Saturday: vs. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC), 3:30 p.m., CBS
13. Vanderbilt (3-4, 0-3 SEC): For 25 minutes, the Vanderbilt faithful, which numbered fewer than the Florida faithful at Vanderbilt Stadium of all places, were dancing in the aisles. Then reality struck, Florida got its collective act together and the Commodores got kneecapped. The last five games are against SEC opponents, which means there is every good chance the Commodores will avoid (again) going to a bowl game. Florida ran for 292 yards on Vandy. Imagine what Benny Snell Jr. is going to do in Lexington this weekend.
Saturday: at Kentucky (5-1, 3-1 SEC), 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
14. Arkansas (1-6, 0-4 SEC): As bad as things are in Fayette Nam, they got worse on Monday when it was announced that their best running back – Devway Whaley – will be out a few weeks after undergoing ankle surgery. Fortunately, for the Hogs, they won’t need Whaley on Saturday when Tulsa makes the 90-minute bus ride for a low expense, high paycheck game. If the Hogs can’t beat Tulsa then you can all but bet the farm they won’t win another game this year.
Saturday: vs. Tulsa (1-5), 12 noon, SEC Network
ELSEWHERE IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Former Gator Jordan Cronkrite ranks 7th in rushing in the NCAA with 94 carries for 757 yards and six touchdowns … Southern Cal’s rise off the mat to three straight wins has plenty to do with the maturing of true freshman QB JT Daniels, who has thrown for 710 yards and six TDs in the last three. Daniels skipped his senior year in high school to enroll at Southern Cal … Third-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) has been established as a 17-point favorite over unbeaten and 16th-ranked North Carolina State (5-0, 2-0 ACC) … Seen on Twitter Saturday night regarding the Miami-UVa football game by someone with the moniker Bum Chillups: “The Cavaliers must have painted “UVA ADMISSIONS OFFICE” across the goal lines in Charlottesville because not one Hurricane has gotten in tonight.” While that might seem funny, there are darn few UVa players who could get in school if it weren’t for lowered standards for athletes … Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com has the Florida Gators ranked #9 in his power poll that ranks all 129 Division I college football teams. His first four are Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith Monday. On Sunday, Smith’s defense was torched for 346 passing yards by Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in the Bucs’ 34-29 loss to the Falcons … Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks (NFL), Portland Trail Blazers (NBA) and Seattle Sounders (MSL) died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The co-founder of Microsoft was 65 years old … I’ve been following the college basketball corruption trial in New York quite closely. Just my opinion, but I think there is a really good chance the Feds have completely overplayed their hand and the Adidas executives on trial are going to skate. Now, does this mean Adidas is pure as the driven snow? Or that Nike and Under Armour are bastions of integrity? Not in the least, just that I don’t think the Feds can prove these guys broke any laws. NCAA rules, perhaps, but laws? Nope … The Milwaukee Brewers went up 2-1 in their best-of-seven National League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday night … Last week Mason Crosby missed five field goals and an extra point as the Green Bay Packers lost by eight to the Detroit Lions. Monday night against San Francisco, Crosby hit four field goals and three extra points including the game-winning field goal as time ran out.