The Gators will be playing East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on January 3. Birmingham is not exactly one of the garden spots of the earth and it’s going to be played at Legion Field, which is no longer one of the nation’s great stadiums. Forget the location and that it’s a lower tier bowl. Where it’s played and who the Gators are playing is irrelevant. What is important is that the 15 practices leading up to this game and the game itself will serve as audition time for Florida’s returning players and perhaps some of the assistant coaches as well.
Jim McElwain won’t do any of the coaching but he’ll do plenty of observing to see who gives maximum effort all the time, who responds to coaching, who’s self-motivated and things like that. The players who make the strongest first impressions are the ones most likely to see their names at the top of the depth charts in the spring.
As for the game, the Gators will be going against an East Carolina team that throws the ball about 60% of the time. Quarterback Shane Carden has thrown for 4,309 yards this season for 28 touchdowns and 11,564 yards and 84 touchdowns in his career. His primary target is Justin Hardy, the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver with 376 career catches for 4,381 yards and 34 touchdowns.
The Pirates are the #2 pass offense in the country, averaging 367.3 yards a game and X per pass attempt. They’ll be going against a Florida pass defense ranked #23 nationally that gave up only 194.2 yards and a mere 5.92 yards per attempt. East Carolina’s offense ranks #5 nationally at 532.8 yards per game and 6.78 yards per play. Florida’s defense is the best ECU will see all year. The Gators are ranked #9 nationally, giving up only 311 yards and 4.45 yards per play.
There was some talk that Oregon earned the top seed in college football’s first playoff with its smashing win over Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but Alabama quieted that notion with its 42-13 win over Missouri to win the SEC title. By winning in such convincing fashion, Alabama left no doubt that it would finish #1 in the final college football playoff poll with Oregon finishing second. Florida State moved up one notch to third and Ohio State moved into fourth and the playoff by whacking Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship.
Alabama and Ohio State will meet in the Sugar Bowl New Year’s Day in one semifinal, setting up a Nick Saban-Urban Meyer rematch, while FSU and Oregon will square off in the Rose Bowl in the other semifinal, pitting last year’s Heisman winner against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, expected to be the 2014 winner.
Alabama deserved to be the top seed after winning the brutal SEC West and then beating a very good Missouri team in the championship game. Alabama went 4-1 against the five SEC teams ranked in the top 19 in the final poll. The Crimson Tide also did it with a team that featured a quarterback who had thrown 39 passes in his career prior to this season, three new starters on the offensive line and three new starters at linebacker on the defensive side of the ball. From start to finish of the season, Alabama kept getting better and by season’s end proved itself as the most complete team. Oregon is an excellent team and certainly has a chance to win the national championship, but until the Ducks prove it on the field, Alabama deserves the top spot.
The final college football playoff poll:
(1) Alabama, 12-1; (2) Oregon, 12-1; (3) Florida State, 13-0; (4) Ohio State, 12-1; (5) Baylor, 11-1; (6) TCU, 11-1; (7) Mississippi State, 10-2; (8) Michigan State, 10-2; (9) Ole Miss, 9-3; (10) Arizona, 10-3; (11) Kansas State, 9-3; (12) Georgia Tech, 10-3; (13) Georgia, 9-3; (14) UCLA, 9-3; (15) Arizona State, 9-3; (16) Missouri, 10-3; (17) Clemson, 9-3; (18) Wisconsin, 10-3; (19) Auburn, 8-4; (20) Boise State, 11-2; (21) Louisville, 9-3; (22) Utah, 8-4; (23) LSU, 8-4; (24) Southern Cal, 8-4; (25) Minnesota, 8-4.
It would have been a shock to see Ohio State destroy Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten Championship Game with either Braxton Miller (missed the season with a shoulder injury) or J.T. Barrett (broke his ankle last week against Michigan) at quarterback. It’s even more stunning that the Buckeyes did it with their third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, a redshirt sophomore. The decisive win certainly helped the Buckeyes make it to the final four of college football’s first playoff, but the fact they did it with a third stringer making his very first start as a college quarterback made it all the more impressive.
Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit a couple of things: (1) Meyer is one of the truly elite college football coaches in the game today and maybe one of the best in history; and (2) his coaching staffs have always been superb at player development. From last year’s team, the Buckeyes had to replace four offensive line starters; Miller, last year’s Big Ten offensive player of the year who ran and passed for more than 3,000 yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns; 1,500-yard rusher Carlos Hyde, who scored 15 touchdowns; and five key players from the defensive unit. The Buckeyes were actually better offensively (507.6 yards per game and 73 offensive touchdowns) and by season’s end proved far superior defensively (ranked #15 in total defense) than last year’s team.
What’s scary is that if Miller returns – it’s rumored that he will graduate and go to Oregon to replace Marcus Mariota – the Buckeyes will have three quarterbacks who could probably start for any team in the country and play at a championship level. Nine starters will return on defense. Meyer admitted on ESPN that he thought 2015 would be the year the Buckeyes challenge for the national title.
Have the Seminoles played like a championship team? Not really, but they’ve won 29 games in a row and won the national title last year which counts for something. Whether they’ve played like champs or not, they’ve found ways to continue winning and that’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world. As the Gators found out in 2009 when they tried to go through the entire season unbeaten after having won the national title the year before, it’s never as easy the second time around. When you’ve won it all the year before, you get the other team’s best shot every single week. In 2009, just winning never seemed good enough for the Gators and by the time they faced Alabama in the SEC Championship Game they were ready to crack and they did. So give the Seminoles credit for making it 29 straight games with out a loss. Even though it’s against ACC competition, which isn’t exactly the greatest in the world, it’s still an accomplishment to win that many in a row with everybody trying to knock you off your perch.
They’re in the final four and they deserve to be there. Now, let’s see how they handle an Oregon team that will be faster and more skilled than any team they’ve faced all season.
The lack of a conference championship game certainly didn’t help the Big 12 but the greater share of blame for either TCU or Baylor not making it into the final four belongs to the conference commissioner and whoever backed him when he changed the rules late in the season. It was established protocol – Art Briles of Baylor brought this up on the podium when he confronted Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby after Baylor beat Kansas State Saturday night – that in the event of a tie for the league championship, the winner of the head-to-head matchup would be declared the conference champ. Bowlsby somehow got that changed in the last couple of weeks, thinking perhaps it would help TCU’s chances to get in since TCU was ranked higher than Baylor at the time even though Baylor had won the head-to-head.
Then came Saturday night. Baylor, ranked #6, beat Kansas State, ranked #9, while #3 TCU was hammering an Iowa State team that finished the season 3-9. Bowlsby handed TCU a co-championship trophy Saturday afternoon then handed Baylor a co-championship trophy Saturday night. So, the Big 12 had co-champs. Ohio State, meanwhile put a man-size whipping on Wisconsin, making the choice for the College Football Playoff Committee a legitimate conference champ vs. co-champs that didn’t play a conference championship game.
Ohio State jumped from fifth to third, Baylor jumped from sixth to fifth and TCU dropped from third to sixth. Now, Ohio State might have jumped TCU and Baylor anyway, but the potential controversy of choosing between TCU and Baylor made the vote in favor of Ohio State a whole lot easier.
Baylor, meanwhile, has every reason to be seriously perturbed with Bowlsby.
Expanding the playoff could be done instantly and without adding an extra week to the playoffs or requiring the Big 12 to expand to 12 teams. The conference championship games would count as the first round. That would secure spots in the playoff for the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC. The Big 12 champ would be included but would have to play a first round game against one of three at-large teams on the same day the conference championship games are played. Four winners would advance to the semifinals.
The in crowd:
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: His performance against Arizona left no doubt that he’s the best football player in the country this year. Mariota completed 25-38 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 33 more, good for three touchdowns to lead the Ducks to the Pac-12 title. For the season, Mariota’s extraordinary numbers are: 254-372 for 3,783 passing yards, 38 touchdowns and only two interceptions; 669 rushing yards for 14 touchdowns and one pass reception for 26 yards and a touchdown. He’s a junior but there’s virtually no chance he will back next season.
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin: Although he was a bust in the Big Ten Championship Game (26 carries for 76 yards and only the second game this year without a touchdown), Gordon still came up with one of the great seasons in college football history – 309 carries for 2,336 yards (7.6 per carry) and 26 touchdowns; 17 catches for 151 yards and three more touchdowns. During the 2014 season he had six games with 122 or more yards, four games of 205 or more yards and one game with 408 yards. Gordon could come back next season but because he’s a running back and running backs typically have shorter careers, he’s expected to go pro.
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He won’t win the Heisman but he will win the Biletnikoff Trophy and will make it to the Heisman podium. In the SEC Championship Game he caught 12 passes for 83 yards against a Missouri defense set up to take the deep threat away. Cooper caught the underneath stuff, served as a decoy and threw some nasty blocks. For the season, he caught an SEC-record 115 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran five times for 23 yards. He’s expected to go pro after this year.
4. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State: Mississippi State finished seventh in the final rankings and the Bulldogs wouldn’t have gotten there without Prescott. If he comes back for his senior season he will be one of the preseason favorites for next year’s Heisman. This year he will be on the podium thanks to 211-345 passing for 2,996 yards and 24 touchdowns to go with 195 carries for 939 yards and 13 more touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 35 yards and a touchdown.
5. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU: Boykin was a wide receiver as a sophomore in 2013. This season, playing quarterback in a new offensive scheme, he completed 279-461 passes for 3,714 yards, 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions plus he ran for 642 yards and eight touchdowns. Like Prescott, if he comes back for his senior season he will be considered one of the preseason Heisman favorites.
The out crowd:
Did the college football playoff committee get it right with the final four and if not, who should have been included?
Since the Gators will be playing in the Birmingham Bowl, it’s only fitting for today’s music to be from St. Paul and the Broken Bones, which is a throwback to the rhythm and blues music of the 1960s and 1970s. These guys put on an incredible show. They’ll be live at the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on December 27 and they’ll be at the Beacham Theater in downtown Orlando on January 15. Today’s song is the old Otis Redding soul classic, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”