Maybe the longest and most gut-wrenching offseason in 30 years comes to an end Monday when the Florida Gators start fall practice. The last time Florida fans were this nervous was 1984 when everyone anticipated that the NCAA was going to drop the hammer on the Gators for recruiting and other major violations. But even the expectation that the NCAA was going to rule harshly against Florida was overshadowed by the fact that Charley Pell had put together what amounted to an NFL team. The Gators were loaded and were expected to win big. This year’s team is a bit more of a mystery. There are no NCAA sanctions awaiting, but no one knows for sure how much damage was done to the Florida psyche by last year’s 4-8 season.
How much of the Florida swagger was lost in that disaster that ended with a seven-game losing streak? And how long will it take for the Gators to get it back? Those are questions that aren’t going to be answered in the first three weeks with homers against bottom feeders Idaho and Eastern Michigan and the first SEC game of the season against Kentucky, which typically does its Fido play dead trick every time it comes to The Swamp. We probably won’t have a real clue about this Florida team until week four in Tuscaloosa. How will the Gators respond the first time Alabama punches them in the mouth?
And how will Alabama react if the Gators prove they can take the punch and bloody mighty Bama’s nose when they punch back? What happens if all this happy talk emanating from Will Muschamp about quarterback Jeff Driskel proves true? What if the lights have come on for Driskel? And what if the offense suddenly has the element of explosion that we haven’t seen since 2009 when that Tebow guy was running loose? If the offense can put points on the board and Will Muschamp can get the defense to play like it did in 2012, can the Gators emerge as one of the teams to beat in the SEC East? Can they make it to Atlanta for the first time since 2009?
Is it football yet?
The new Amway (used to be ESPN and before that USAToday and before that UPI) Coaches Poll is out and last year’s national champ Florida State will begin the season at #1 followed by Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Auburn in the top five. South Carolina debuts at #9 with Georgia #12, LSU #13 with Ole Miss at #19 and Texas A&M at #20. The Gators didn’t make the top 25 in the first poll, which isn’t surprising even though most of the preseason magazines predict that Florida will finish the season ranked.
As for the top five, FSU deserves to be the #1 team. The Seminoles, after all, have the nation’s longest unbeaten streak (16 games) and they ran the table last year with a freshman quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy (Famous Jameis Winston). Until someone beats the Seminoles, they should keep their hold on the #1 ranking.
Unlike previous years when the BCS selected the top two teams to play for the national championship, this is the first year of a four-team playoff so there is room to squeeze in. This won’t be like 2004 when Auburn ran the table but couldn’t get a sniff of the national championship because Southern Cal and Oklahoma started the season 1-2 and finished the regular season unbeaten and ranked 1-2.
Early prediction: The four teams in the playoff will be Florida State (ACC), Oklahoma (Big 12), Ohio State (Big Ten) and whichever team from the SEC emerges from the SEC Championship Game with one or fewer losses.
The top 25: (1) Florida State; (2) Alabama; (3) Oklahoma; (4) Oregon; (5) Auburn; (6) Ohio State; (7) UCLA; (8) Michigan State; (9) South Carolina; (10) Baylor; (11) Stanford; (12) Georgia; (13) LSU; (14) Wisconsin; (15) USC; (16) Clemson; (17) Notre Dame; (18) Arizona State; (19) Ole Miss; (20) Texas A&M; (21) Kansas State; (22) Nebraska; (23) North Carolina; (24) Texas; (25) Washington.
The Las Vegas sports gambling website Bovada has released its odds for winning the Southeastern Conference in 2014 with Alabama 7/5 favorites to capture the SEC championship and 5/7 favorites to win the SEC West. Bovada lists South Carolina a 5/1 favorite in the SEC championship race but rates the Gamecocks and Georgia co-favorites at 8/5 to win the SEC East.
Florida is considered a 12/1 favorite to win the SEC championship and a 13/4 favorite to win the SEC East.
Odds to Win the SEC: Alabama, 7/5; Auburn, 5/1; South Carolina, 5/1; Georgia, 6/1; Florida, 12/1; Ole Miss, 14/1; Texas A&M, 25/1; Missouri, 40/1; Tennessee, 50/1; Arkansas, 100/1; Kentucky, 100/1; Vanderbilt: 200/1.
Odds to Win the SEC East: South Carolina, 8/5; Georgia, 8/5; Florida, 13/4; Missouri, 10/1; Tennessee, 14/1; Kentucky, 50/1; Vanderbilt, 50/1.
Odds to Win the SEC West: Alabama, 5/7; Auburn, 4/1; LSU, 5/1; Ole Miss, 9/1; Texas A&M, 14/1; Mississippi State, 16/1; Arkansas, 33/1.
Kudos to former NBA and Duke All-American Grant Hill, who just made a donation of $1.25 million to his alma mater. Hill gave $1 million to the athletic department to help upgrade facilities and $250,000 to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. This is the second time Hill has made a sizeable donation to the school. He gave $1 million back in 2000 to endow a scholarship. Don’t you wish more athletes who make the big bucks in pro sports would share their good fortune with the schools that helped get them to where they are today? My hero for giving back is former Michigan State All-American Steve Smith, who had a fine 12-year NBA career. He donated $2.5 million to Michigan State to help fund a student-athlete academic center and then later donated $600,000 to endow a four-year academic scholarship for a student from his old high school.
The Tampa Bay Rays just traded lefty David Price (11-8, 3.11 ERA and 189 strikeouts), who won the 2012 Cy Young Award, for a starting pitcher (Drew Smyly) with a 6-9 record and a 3.77 ERA, a shortstop (Nick Franklin), who is a career .214 hitter (currently hitting .128) and shortstop prospect Willy Adames. The Detroit Tigers, who already have a 4.5 game lead over Kansas City in the American Legue Central, add a dominating lefty to a staff that already includes Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, without giving up anything of comparable value. As for the Rays, it’s a baffling move. Price isn’t a free agent until after the 2015 season so getting very little in return for a lefty with a career 82-47 record and a 3.18 ERA makes no sense at all.
Remember when Brady Quinn was supposed to be the next great thing? He’s calling his NFL career quits after six seasons in which he went 4-16 as a starter. His next gig will be with Fox Sports where he will cover both the NFL and college football ... There are three bidders for the Buffalo Bills – a group headed by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, billionaire Donald Trump and Buffalo Sabres (NHL) owner, Terry Pengula. Pengula has submitted a bid that is said to top the $1 billion mark. He is heading the downtown Buffalo redevelopment, which speaks to his commitment to the city, a good reason why he probably lands the bid ... Missouri redshirt sophomore wide receiver Levi Copelin will miss the entire season for failing an NCAA-mandated drug test. Copelin says he took an over-the-counter supplement that is available to the general public. Only problem is it’s on the NCAA list of banned substances ... Former Alabama running back Dee Hart, from Orlando Dr. Phillips, has transferred to Colorado State ... Texas A&M’s new locker room includes a barbershop ... If you think South Carolina is going to air it out now that Dylan Thompson takes over at quarterback, think again. The Gamecocks have All-SEC Mike Davis returning at tailback along with a healthy Brandon Wilds, junior Shon Carson and redshirt freshman David Williams, who is said to be a game breaker. It’s the deepest a Steve Spurrier team has been at running back since that 1996 three-headed monster of Eli Williams, Fred Taylor and Terry Jackson.
Will the Gators be able to use the disrespect card as motivation since they are starting the 2014 season unranked?
If we’re talking about altered states of consciousness, there are probably 20 songs with better and more descriptive lyrics than the Eric Clapton classic “Cocaine” but none of the other songs have that hard driving guitar lead. I’ve been to two or three Clapton concerts with folks who wouldn’t think of doing a line of coke, yet the moment they heard that first guitar rift of “Cocaine” they were jumping up and down and singing right along. The song, I guess, like the drug, is addictive. Next week, Surf’s Up and Hot Cars.