You probably have to go all the way back to 1990 to find a Florida football season in which there was so much uncertainty before the season opener. Emmitt Smith had bolted to the NFL and first year coach Steve Spurrier was going to start a former sixth string quarterback (Shane Matthews) over incumbent Kyle Morris (12 TDs, 18 picks in his career) and Purdue transfer Brian Fox. Everyone knew Spurrier was an offensive genius but without Emmitt and very little in the way of experience at receiver, general consensus was a bubble gum and baling wire approach to the offense while the defense kept things close. Well, we know how that turned out. The Gators went 9-2 while averaging 35 points a game and the defense did its part by holding opponents to 257.6 yards and 15.5 points per game.
So fast forward to 2015 and the Gators have a brand new coach in Jim McElwain with three years of college head coaching experience, the same amount Spurrier had back in 1990. As the Gators start their game week preparations for the Saturday night opener with New Mexico State, there is an incumbent quarterback (Treon Harris) who completed fewer than 50% of his passes last year and a redshirt freshman (Wil Grier), who hasn’t thrown a pass in a college game. The receivers are better known for their drops than their catches and the running game is Kelvin Taylor and a couple of freshmen. The O-line is the least experienced in all of Division I.
But, the defense is rock solid and everybody is hoping it will bend but not break and keep the Gators close enough that McElwain’s bubble gum and baling wire offense can score enough points to put together a really good season.
It sounds creepily familiar, doesn’t it?
In 1990, the Gators were thought to be a middle of the pack SEC team when the season began. They ended the year with the best record in the SEC although the league voted Florida ineligible due to violations that occurred on another coach’s watch before any player on the UF roster had ever suited up for the Gators.
Now, no one in his right mind is going to pick the Gators to finish with the best record in an SEC that has expanded to 14 teams from the 10 that were in place in Spurrier’s first year, but is it possible that McElwain can work some magic that makes fans forget five years of floundering offense? Can that defense do what the 1990 defense did and consistently give the Gators a short field to work with?
It’s probably too much to ask for a repeat of 1990, but it’s not out of the question that Florida could do better than the 6-6 most analysts are predicting.
Miami 41, Florida 16; September 7, 2002
Fans were starting to think maybe they had misjudged Ron Zook after Florida’s 51-3 season-opening win over UAB, but along came 2001 national champ Miami and its roster loaded with future #1 draft picks, most notably Willis McGahee, who ran over, under, around and through the Florida defense. McGahee blew through the Florida defense for 204 of Miami’s 306 rushing yards on a night when the Gators’ front seven had very few answers. Still, the Gators were in the game until late in the third quarter. Florida had cut Miami’s lead to 27-16 when Bam Hardmon returned an interception of Ken Dorsey for a touchdown and the Gators had the Hurricanes on their heels late in the third quarter with an 88-yard drive that began at the UF 10. But, on second and goal at the UM five, Rex Grossman never saw Maurice Sikes. Grossman threw over the middle for Carlos Perez but Sikes read the play, tipped the ball in the air, caught it and then raced 97 yards for a touchdown. Sikes picked off Grossman a second time early in the fourth quarter to give the Hurricanes the football on the Florida 48. Four plays later Ken Dorsey hooked up with Jason Geathers for the touchdown that sent Florida fans heading to the exits. Miami finished the night with 508 yards of offense while Florida, which had averaged 44.8 points and 527.5 yards per game in 2001, was held to 352. In Steve Spurrier’s 12 seasons at UF, the Gators lost only five home games by a total of 25 points. In Zook’s second game, the Gators lost to Miami by 25. Whatever goodwill Zook had earned with the season opener dissipated in a hurry.
Opening game: Vs. Wisconsin in Arlington, TX
Expectations: The expectations never change. Alabama expects to go 15-0, which means winning the SEC and then the national championship.
Reality: There is no lack of talent, but this is the least experienced team Nick Saban has had since he’s been at Alabama. There are questions at quarterback where Saban has three contenders but no #1 and on defense, where the Tide got exposed in games with Auburn and Ohio State. Even so, this team could win it all. It could also lose three times in the regular season.
Opening game: Vs. UTEP in Fayetteville
Expectations: They’ve bought into Bret Bielema’s Ground Hog offense that closely resembles what he did at Wisconsin and now they think it’s possible to win the SEC West.
Reality: Anything better than nine wins depends on upgrading the passing game enough to keep that eighth defender out of the box. If new coordinator Dan Enos can add a little mystery to the offense and the passing game, the Hogs could get to the 10 or 11-win plateau.
Opening Game: Louisville in Atlanta
Expectations: The addition of Will Muschamp and a revamped defensive staff have sent expectations through the roof. They’re thinking 15-0 with SEC and national championships.
Reality: We will know by the end of September just how good the Tigers are defensively. They face Louisville, (at) LSU and Mississippi State among their first four games, three teams that can put points on the board. If the defense meets expectations, then Auburn will be one of the nation’s elite teams because any Gus Malzahn-coached offense will score.
Opening game: Louisiana-Monroe in Athens
Expectations: It’s Georgia. It’s preseason. Everybody looks at the roster and says “This is the year.” They say that every year.
Reality: It’s Georgia. It’s the preseason. Everybody has looked at the Georgia roster and declared this is the year but they say that every year and Georgia figures out a way to lose games it has no business losing (see Florida last year). This year will be no different, plus Alabama is on the schedule. Opponents will stack the box to stop Nick Chubb and take their chances with the Georgia passing game.
Opening game: Louisiana-Lafayette in LexingtonExpectations: They measure expectations in Lexington differently than they do in places like Tucscaloosa and Auburn. They have visions of the Birmingham Bowl or the Weedwacker dancing in their heads for 2015.
Reality: The Florida game (September 19) is circled as the single most important game on the schedule. The Wildcats better be paying attention to games one and two because they could lose to both Louisiana-Lafayette and South Carolina to start the season 0-2. An 0-4 start is possible because Missouri comes to town the week after the Florida game. Kentucky has to be 2-2 by October; otherwise it will be another losing season.
Opening game: McNeese State in Baton Rouge
Expectations: Tiger fans are eternal optimists so they believe they can go undefeated in spite of Les Miles’ tendency to lose a game or two that he shouldn’t.
Reality: Any team with Leonard Fournette is going to be really good. The Tigers don’t lack for the talent to go 12-0 in the regular season but questions at quarterback make you think 9-3 is more like it. If the quarterback(s) play well LSU might have enough talent to override one or more 60-minute Les Miles brain farts.
Opening game: Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg
Expectations: The Bulldogs got a taste of what it’s like to sit in the #1 seat nationally for a few weeks last year. They don’t think they’ll be sitting there this year but they do believe their doormat days are a thing of the past and 9-3 or 10-2 is possible.
Reality: Put Mississippi State in the SEC East and the Bulldogs probably win it. They live, however, in the SEC West where anything better than 7-5 this year should be celebrated. If they can somehow win nine games, Dak Prescott will be on the Heisman podium.
Opening game: Southeast Missouri State in Columbia
Expectations: These fans probably have the most realistic expectations in the SEC every year. They know they have a good coach in Gary Pinkel and they expect to have a good football team. Pinkel consistently delivers. Championships are icing on the cake.
Reality: Everybody has the Tigers penciled in for third in the SEC East, which is no different than either of the last two years when Mizzou went to Atlanta. The schedule is conducive to a 6-0 start. The Tigers could lose to Georgia and still win the SEC East.
Opening game: Tennessee-Martin in Oxford
Expectations: If everybody can stay healthy and if Hugh Freeze can find a quarterback, then Ole Miss has a legitimate chance to win the SEC West and maybe even make it to the College Football Playoffs.
Reality: Those are two big ifs for the Rebels. If the quarterback play is SEC caliber then the Rebels can put 22 players on the field as talented as any 22 in the conference. But what if the quarterback stinks? And what happens if there are injuries? They dream of 15-0. An 8-10 win season seems more likely.
Opening game: North Carolina in Charlotte (Thursday)
Expectations: Pre-Spurrier, getting to a bowl game every three or four years was acceptable. Now they expect to go bowling every year and believe one day they’ll win the SEC. It won’t be this year however.
Reality: After last year’s fall from 11-win grace to 7-6, expectations have been lowered significantly. A repeat of 7-6 wouldn’t be considered a bad thing. An 8-win season would have fans dancing in the aisles. Getting to the 8-win level might depend on Lorenzo Nunez developing early as a QB.
Opening game: Bowling Green in Charlotte
Expectations: Vol fans are so starved for a winner that last year’s 7-6 record has visions of championships dancing in their collective heads. They’re talking 10 or more wins in Knoxville and those are the conservative fans.
Reality: If Oklahoma in game two isn’t enough to temper expectations back to the land of reality, then the four game stretch of (at) Florida, Arkansas, Georgia and (at) Alabama will. Of course, the Vols could beat Oklahoma and go through that gauntlet at 4-0. Donkeys could also learn to fly.
Opening game: Arizona State in Houston
Expectations: The Aggies are the mirror image of Auburn. They have an offensive genius for a head coach and they’ve ponied up $1.5 million to bring in someone with a defensive clue. Aggie fans believe John Chavis walks on water.
Reality: If Chavis walks on water, the Aggies can contend for the SEC and a spot in the College Football Playoffs. But what happens if the defense is beyond fixing in one year? And what happens if there is a quarterback controversy between Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray? The Aggies could be extraordinary this year. They could also struggle to get to eight wins.
Opening game: Western Kentucky in Nashville
Expectations: James Franklin had Commodore fans thinking championships are possible. Derek Mason has Commodore fans hoping they can avoid an 0-8 record in SEC play this year.
Reality: The Commodores went 3-9 last year with an 0-8 SEC slate. There is only one surefire win on the schedule (Austin Peay) so anything more than three wins should be celebrated.
Speaking to the Orlando Sentinel about the offense during his three years at Florida, Jeff Driskel (now at Louisiana Tech) said, “At times, you can only do what the coaching staff asked you do. At times, we were asked to play conservatively and control the time of possession. I don't think it was a lack of talent. At times, it was lack of executing plays and at times it was lack of play calling. There were times when we just wanted to punt the ball and get [the opponent] inside their 10-yard line.”
Boise State said it didn’t know Sam Ukwuachu had a history of violence with women. Baylor coach Art Briles says he didn’t know anything either. So how is it that Florida coach Will Muschamp knew and wouldn’t touch the troubled defensive end, who will spend 180 days in jail for sexually assaulting a former Baylor soccer player? Baylor president Ken Starr has ordered an independent review of the athletic department. He should start by ordering a lie detector for Briles.
How long has it been since there was a hotter golfer on the planet than Jason Day? With three wins in his last four starts and a combined -39 in his last two (PGA and Barclay’s), Day is crushing anything and everything in his path. He averaged 326 yards off the tee and 1.67 putts per green in winning the Barclays.
On a weekend in which a freshman tight end got a DUI and a freshman punter was arrested for urinating on a campus light pole, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema declared he hates Auburn. Perhaps he should tell his players how much he hates them getting arrested a week before the season opener.
Tennessee safety LaDarrell McNeil has a neck injury that will probably keep him out all season. That’s the third starter to go down before the season even begins for the Vols.
Illinois fired head coach Tim Beckman one week before the season begins. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit coach the season while Illinois seeks a new coach. Illini alums want Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck should be smart enough to hold out for a better job than this graveyard for coaches.
Which SEC fans have the most unrealistic expectations for 2015: Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee or Georgia?
One of the greatest guitarists I ever saw live was blues legend Johnny Winter, a who Rolling Stone Magazine rates at #63 in its list of greatest guitar players of all time. Winter grew up in Beaumont, Texas and made a name for himself on the club circuit before his big break came when Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper asked him to tour with them in 1969-70. In the 1970s, Winter played with legend Muddy Waters and went on to produce three Grammy Award winning albums. Winter’s albums were outstanding but his music was best appreciated live. We’ll call this “Screaming Guitars Week” and choose music by some of the better but perhaps under-appreciated guitarists. Today’s music is Winter’s “Still Alive and Well” album from 1973.