THOUGHTS OF THE DAY: MARCH 1, 2019
THE STREAK IS MOSTLY ABOUT THE DEFENSE
To understand how the Florida Gators (17-11, 9-6 SEC) have transformed from this team that might have been sitting on the NIT bubble into one that both Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have solidly in their NCAA brackets, you first have to go back to February 9 when the Gators lost their third straight game to Tennessee to fall to 12-11 overall, 4-6 in the SEC. That night in Knoxville, Tennessee got just about any shot it wanted, hitting 28-53 overall and 6-14 from the 3-point line. Florida may have forced Tennessee to play at a slower tempo than Rick Barnes would have wanted, but that’s about all the Gators did. That night Tennessee looked like it could beat anyone in the country while the Gators looked like they were capable of losing to anyone.
Maybe that game wasn’t exactly rock bottom for the Gators, but it was whatever is next. What has happened in the five games since – all Florida victories – is a case of Mike White and his staff coming up with a defensive scheme that has allowed the Gators to compensate for their vertical challenges and other physical limitations. It is almost as if being the shortest and least physically imposing team in the Southeastern Conference has worked to Florida’s advantage. The defensive scheme isn’t exotic but it does confuse opponents who never know where the next double team is coming from or if the Gators are in a man-to-man or a matchup zone. It has allowed White to get away with playing essentially a 4-guard lineup since injuries have deprived him of the depth in the post to play two bigs at the same time.
Typically it takes opponents nearly all ten allotted seconds to get the ball across midcourt against some sort of zone press and then it’s not unusual for at least one re-set of the offense because the pressure rarely comes from the same place on consecutive possessions. The result is a lot of ill-advised shots, quite often from at least 2-3 feet deeper than the comfort range.
Florida’s defensive numbers during the 5-game winning streak are impressive. The Gators have allowed just 60.4 points per game. Opponents have made 108-263 from the floor overall (41%) and they are a miserable 29-102 (28.4%) from the 3-point line. In the five games, the Gators have scored 89 points off opponents’ turnovers while opponents have scored just 34 off UF miscues.
Of course, when a team has Florida’s physical limitations, it is always a game away from disaster and that has to be avoided, particularly Saturday evening when Georgia (10-18, 1-14 SEC) comes to the O-Dome (8:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Gators have fought so hard to get to the point where one more SEC win essentially locks up their NCAA bid. A loss to a Georgia team that has lost nine games in a row and has won only two games in 2019 wouldn’t bring Florida’s NCAA hopes to crashing halt, but it would force the Gators to do some work next week against #13 LSU and/or #4 Kentucky then maybe win a game or two in the SEC Tournament.
If the defense shows up like it has the last five games, however, the Gators should be in very good position to lock up an NCAA bid for the third straight season.
Saturday’s SEC games
Georgia (10-18, 1-14 SEC) at FLORIDA (17-11, 9-6 SEC)
#13 LSU (23-5, 13-2 SEC) at Alabama (17-11, 8-7 SEC)
Ole Miss (19-9, 9-6 SEC) at Arkansas (14-14, 5-10 SEC)
#4 Kentucky (24-4, 13-2 SEC) at #7 Tennessee (25-3, 13-2 SEC)
South Carolina (14-14, 9-6 SEC) at Missouri (12-15, 3-12 SEC)
Mississippi State (21-7, 9-6 SEC) at Auburn (19-9, 8-7 SEC)
Vanderbilt (9-18, 0-15 SEC) at Texas A&M (12-15, 5-10 SEC)
WINTHROP UP NEXT FOR UF BASEBALL
Following two midweek encounters (win over JU, loss to UCF) in which Kevin O’Sullivan got a lot of innings for the kids on his pitching staff, the Gators (6-4) get back to their normal rotation with a 3-game home stand against Winthrop (3-3) of the Big South Conference this weekend. Tyler Dyson (0-0, 3.68 ERA) gets the start tonight (6:30 p.m., SEC Network+) with Tommy Mace (2-0, 3.21 ERA) going Saturday and Jack Leftwich (2-0, 1.64) closing things out Sunday.
UF SOFTBALL BOUNCES BACK WITH TWO WINS
After suffering their first loss of the season Wednesday night against UCLA, the 3rd-ranked Gators (20-1) bounced back with a 1-0 8-inning win over New Mexico and a 2-1 win over 20th-ranked Oregon Thursday in the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, California.
In the win over New Mexico, Jade Carraway doubled to right center field to score Hannah Sipos from second with the game’s only run in the bottom of the eighth. Natalie Lugo pitched the first 7 innings for the Gators, allowing no runs and 4 hits while striking out 13. Kelly Barnhill came on to pitch a shutout 8th, striking out all three batters she faced to earn the win.
Barnhill pitched a complete game against Oregon, allowing 3 hits while strikeout 9 to improve her record to 11-1. Oregon got its only run in the top of the fifth but the Gators answered with 2 in their half of the inning, scoring on an RBI single by Kendyl Lindamin that drove home Carraway and an RBI single by Jaimie Hoover that scored Haven Sampson, pinch-running for Jordan Roberts, who had singled.
The Gators will face their toughest back-to-back games of the season today when they face #2 UCLA at 12:30 p.m. and #5 Washington at 8 p.m.
BIGGEST PRE-SPRING QUESTION MARKS: SEC WEST
ALABAMA: After the way Clemson torched Alabama for 41 points in the national championship game, Nick Saban overhauled his coaching staff. The Crimson Tide has six new faces on the coaching staff including both coordinators. Steve Sarkisian takes over as the offensive coordinator while Pete Golding was promoted to DC after Tosh Lupoi “left” for a position on the Cleveland Browns staff. We won’t know until after the spring – if then – if the coaching staff changes indicate a change in both offensive and defensive philosophies.
ARKANSAS: Where to begin with Arkansas? The Hogs lost 10 games last year, the worst season in school history. The offense was the worst in years and the defense couldn’t get anyone off the field. It was a revolving door at QB so the hope is that grad transfer Ben Hicks, who played for Arkansas HBC Chad Morris at SMU in 2016-17, can bring stability to the position. His ability to get the offense going depends on his ability to stay upright. The Hogs gave up 31 sacks last year and three of the starters on the O-line are gone so retooling the O-line will be the most important problem area that has to be addressed in the spring.
AUBURN: Jarrett Stidham left early for the NFL and most experts think he will be a better QB in the pros than he was a good fit at Auburn. The candidates to replace Stidham are weak armed Malik Willis, who is a fine runner, athletic redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman and high school 5-star Bo Nix, listed as a dual threat but definitely more of a thrower than a runner. The Gus Malzahn offense only works well with an efficient guy at QB, preferably one who has a good arm but quick feet, too. Most of Auburn’s 2-deep returns from 2018 but the Tigers have to find someone who can pull the trigger at QB in the spring if they expect to avoid another disappointing season.
LSU: LSU calls itself “DBU” but even a school with a history of churning out defensive backs who go on to play for pay on Sunday sometimes hits the skids. This spring the Tigers will be replacing three starters and a valuable guy off the bench from the secondary. There is talent – there always is at LSU – but not a lot of experience. Nothing will be more important this spring than finding starters and adequate backups in the secondary.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs led the nation in total defense in 2018, led by one of the nation’s nastiest front fours. All four starters on the D-line have graduated and all four will play for pay next year with two quite possibly going in the first round when the NFL drafts in May. The Bulldogs also have to replace three starters in the secondary, but that secondary got plenty of help by a front four that put constant pressure on opposing QBs. The Bulldogs will find players who can do an adequate job in the secondary but can they find the front four in the spring that will prevent a serious dropoff in production in the fall?
OLE MISS: Scoring wasn’t a problem for Ole Miss in 2018. Of course, the Rebels were clueless when it came to stopping anybody which is why Wesley McGriff and most of the defensive staff are gone and former Colorado HBC Mike MacIntyre has been brought in to turn things around. Eight starters and 19 of the 22 on the defensive two-deep return. Depending on your point of view, that’s either a good place to start or the worst possible news. Either way MacIntyre has his work cut out for him this spring.
TEXAS A&M: While the Aggies have to replace five of their front seven defensively, that’s not nearly as big a problem as getting the offensive line to figure out it’s legal to pass block. The Aggies gave up a whopping 37 sacks last year and that was with a pair of three-year starters in Erik McCoy and Keaton Sutherland, who have graduated. For the Aggies to contend in the fall, O-line coach Josh Henson has to find five guys who can get the job done in the spring plus find some adequate backups.
SEC FOOTBALL STUFF
It was a busy day at Auburn. Linebackers coach Travis Williams has been promoted to co-defensive coordinator. Defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson added the title of recruiting coordinator. Brett Whiteside was named director of football operations and administration. Jorrell Bostrom was promoted to a new role that will put him in charge of all player-related activities … Former William and Mary offensive coordinator DJ Mangas has joined the LSU staff as an offensive analyst … Even though all of Missouri’s seniors can transfer out and play immediately without having to sit out due to the 1-year bowl ban handed out by the NCAA, not one senior has elected to leave. So far … Following his release by the Montreal Alouettes and subsequent ban by the Canadian Football League, the chairman of the Alliance of American Football has offered Johnny Manziel a tryout.
CAREER RECORDS OF SEC FOOTBALL COACHES
(1) Nick Saban, Alabama (237-63-1; 146-21 at Alabama)
(2) Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (92-27, 9-4 at Texas A&M)
(3) Dan Mullen, Florida (79-49, 10-3 at Florida)
(4) Gus Malzahn, Auburn (62-30, 53-27 at Auburn)
(5) Will Muschamp, South Carolina (50-38, 22-17 at South Carolina)
(6) Joe Moorhead, Mississippi State (46-18, 8-5 at Mississippi State)
(7) Ed Orgeron, LSU (41-36, 25-9 at LSU)
(8) Mark Stoops, Kentucky (36-39)
(9) Kirby Smart, Georgia (32-10)
(10) Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (24-38)
(11) Barry Odom, Missouri (19-19)
(12) Chad Morris, Arkansas (16-32, 2-10 at Arkansas)
(13) Matt Luke, Ole Miss (11-13)
(14) Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (5-7)
DABO SWINNEY SAID IT
Speaking to the South Carolina legislature, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney talked about his calling to be a football coach:
“I think to be great at something, you should be called to do it. And you know, I know I was called to coach, and I’m passionate about that. And you should be called, not just elected. You should be called and passionate about the common purpose. Through that common purpose, you find common ground. Our team had a belief in a positive outcome. Even in the Bible, it says iron sharpens iron. One man sharpens another. And listen, you ever seen iron sharpen iron and see the sparks that fly from time to time? That’s okay. So just like in my team room, being here in this room, there are many different people in this room, different races, different religions, different political beliefs, different backgrounds, different communities. But I would just say to you today; we’re all on the same team. We’re all South Carolinians. You’re all on the same team. You’re not competing. When teams compete against each other, it’s hard to be successful.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Notre Dame will face seven opponents who will be coming off a bye week in 2019 … Former Florida and South Carolina assistant Brad Lawing has joined the Georgia State staff as the D-line coach … This just in from the more money than brains department. It cost Nebraska $6.54 million to make Bo Pelini go away. The final payment on Pelini’s buyout was made Thursday. Nebraska is still paying off Mike Riley ($6.25 million) and former athletic director Shawn Eichorst ($762,000) … Former Baylor D-lineman Shawn Oakman was acquitted by a Texas jury of raping another student in 2016 … Toni Harris, a 5-7, 164-pound safety, signed a letter of intent to play with Central Methodist University in Missouri. She will be the first female football player in school history … Jason Witten has un-retired. He will leave the broadcast booth to return to suit up as the Dallas Cowboys tight end in 2019 … Heisman Trophy QB Kyler Murray came in at 5-10-1/8 and 207 pounds at the NFL Combine.