The suspensions of Jalen Tabor and Treon Harris for Saturday’s matchup with the Tennessee Vols in The Swamp caused a flood of memories dating back to December 1, 2009. That was the morning Gator fans woke up to find Carlos Dunlap had been arrested for DUI just days before what promised to be an epic Florida-Alabama matchup of the top two teams in the nation in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Without the Dunlap distraction, I thought this game would have been white knuckles into the fourth quarter where, as the year before, Tim Tebow would have taken over and willed the Gators to victory. The far-reaching implications of the Dunlap arrest – Why did teammates allow such a vital cog in the defensive unit drink heavily with such an important game just days away? Why did so many teammates drop their guard and have a party on a Monday night of a game week, particularly the Monday night before the SEC Championship Game? – were enough of a distraction that all the advantages tilted strongly in Alabama’s favor. And, as we all know, Alabama won the game handily, ending Florida’s quest for a second straight national championship.
There is no SEC or national championship on the line Saturday when the Vols come to town, but Florida-Tennessee has a feel of importance like we haven’t seen in years. The Gators need the confidence a win over the Vols would give them prior to their October gauntlet of #3 Ole Miss, #25 Missouri, #8 LSU and #7 Georgia. The Vols haven’t beaten the Gators since 2004 and they haven’t been relevant in the SEC since 2007. They’ve had this game circled on their calendars since the Gators escaped with a 10-9 win in Knoxville last year, a game the Vols still can’t believe they lost. Preseason hype touted UT as a team capable of winning the SEC East. Lose to the Gators Saturday and the Vols will be feeling quite irrelevant again.
And this is where the suspensions of Tabor and Harris come into play. Neither one of these teams is loaded to the gills with talent the way they used to be back when the rivalry was one of the best in all of college football. Both teams are young and still feeling their way. Neither one can afford missteps or distractions.
Florida’s lack of experience and depth would likely be a factor even if Tabor and Harris were available to play, but without them those issues are exacerbated. What we don’t know now and can’t know until the Gators take the field is how much of a distraction the suspensions are going to be. The 2009 Gators couldn’t overcome the Dunlap distraction and that was with what amounted to an NFL team. This year’s Florida team doesn’t have nearly the talent nor does it have 40 or more players who had roles in winning a national championship, which is a very bad omen.
Should the Gators play with focus, enthusiasm and assignment integrity from the opening whistle Saturday afternoon, they still might not win the game but at least we’ll know that Jim McElwain has proven that the team is certainly bigger than two selfish players.
Last week: 8-2
FLORIDA 17, TENNESSEE 16: Without the distraction of the Tabor and Harris suspensions, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this one for the Gators. Without them, the Gators are a botched coverage or a sprained ankle by Will Grier away from disaster. Conventional wisdom tells me Tennessee wins this by 10 or more points, but something keeps telling me the Gators are going to defy the odds and send the Vols packing with their 11th straight loss to UF.
# 3 OLE MISS (3-0, 1-0 SEC) 47, VANDERBILT (1-2, 0-1 SEC) 10: The combination of Hugh Freeze’s strong friendship with Vandy coach Derek Mason and the glow of last week’s win over Alabama are probably the only two things keeping Ole Miss from lighting up the Commodores for 70 or so points.
#7 GEORGIA (3-0, 2-0 SEC) 61, SOUTHERN (2-1) 7: The idea Saturday is let the starters have some fun for about 22 minutes and then turn the game over to the scrubeenies because Alabama is coming to Athens next week.
#8 LSU (2-0, 2-0 SEC) 34, SYRACUSE (3-0) 3: Syracuse is down to what the local press is calling “Plan Z” at quarterback. Not a good thing when LSU and Leonard Fournette come to town. The more than 10,000 Tiger fans who have tickets are ,ore concerned that the Carrier Dome will run out of beer by halftime than they are about the outcome, which should never be in doubt.
#12 ALABAMA (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 49, LOUISIANA-MONROE (1-1) 10: Remember 2007? That was Nick Saban’s first year on the job in Tuscaloosa and it was also the year Louisiana-Monroe did the unthinkable and upset the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Lightning will not strike twice. This gets ugly early.
#14 TEXAS A&M (3-0, 0-0 SEC) 35, ARKANSAS (1-2, 0-0 SEC) 21: Bret Bielema has lost to two straight unranked teams since trashing Ohio State’s pansy schedule. The Aggies are ranked and much better than Toledo or Texas Tech. Make it three straight losses for The Mouth That Roared. Will this be the game when the Aggies show up on both sides of the ball?
#25 MISSOURI (3-0, 0-0 SEC) 17, KENTUCKY (2-1, 1-1 SEC) 12: Kentucky’s defense will look better than it is because Mizzou’s offense will continue to stink as long as Maty Mauk is the QB. You have to wonder how much longer Gary Pinkel will keep Drew Lock on the sideline. Mizzou’s defense is better than Kentucky’s and that will be the difference.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 27, AUBURN (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 24: At some point, you figure Auburn will come around but at this point in the season, Auburn is seen as a team on the decline and Mississippi State as a team on the rise. Dak Prescott will be the difference. If Sean White struggles early on, will Gus Malzahn panic and send Jeremy Johnson back into the fire?
SOUTH CAROLINA (1-2, 0-2 SEC) 30, UCF (0-3) 10: Nobody needs a get well game more than the Gamecocks. The defense will actually look good this week against offensively challenged UCF and Lorenzo Nunez will have a chance to build some confidence at QB.
COUNTDOWN TO FIRING DAY, WEEK FOUR EDITION
EXTINCT SPECIES LIST
1. Tim Beckman, Illinois
ON LIFE SUPPORT
1. Mike London, Virginia (1-2): There are two chances London gets the seven wins he needs to stay on the job – no way and no how. Boise State is the next nail in the coffin.
2. Kyle Flood, Rutgers (1-2): Flood is serving game two of his four-game suspension. Why not get ahead of the curve of finding a new coach by doing the smart thing and firing him now? And while they’re about it, fire the AD, too.
3. Trent Miles, Georgia State (1-2): If the Panthers lose to D1AA Liberty this week, Miles might not make it to the end of the season.
4. Kevin Wilson, Indiana (3-0): The Hoosiers have won three games by eight points against ridiculously inferior competition. Even if they beat Wake Forest Gump on the road to go 4-0, Wilson is in trouble. The Hoosiers are really bad and at some point that awful defense will be exploited.
5. Paul Rhoads, Iowa State (1-2): It’s a great two weeks ahead for Rhoads and I-State. The Cyclones can’t lose this week – they have an open date – and they get Kansas on October 3. If Rhoads loses to Kansas, he might as well clean out his office.
6. Darrell Hazell, Purdue (1-2): Losing to Bowling Green Saturday will be like tossing a couple of 50-gallon canisters of gasoline on an already raging fire. Purdon’t is in trouble. After Bowling Green it’s Michigan State, which is even more trouble for a coach has one foot out the door already.
7. Paul Haynes, Kent State: He won four games in year one, two last year and will struggle to get to two this year. The faithful wonder why a school that produced Don James, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel can’t win football games?
8. Mike Leach, Washington State: The Pirate goes against one of his protégés this week in California’s Sonny Dykes. It’s a dilemma for Sonny. He needs stats for his Heisman candidate Jared Goff but stats mean pouring it on his mentor. It won’t stop Cal from winning and from Wazzoo fans screaming for Leach’s hide.
ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST
1. Norm Chow, Hawaii (2-1): There are actually 2-3 more wins on this schedule, but that’s not going to help Norm. He’s 10-30 heading into Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin. June Jones is back in Hawaii, lacking gainful employment and is 62 years old, a full seven years younger than Norm.
2. Willie Taggart, USF (1-2): The good news is no game this week. The bad news is Memphis and Syracuse are next on the schedule. It would be shocking if USF gives Taggart a fourth year.
3. Doug Martin, New Mexico State (0-3): The Aggies have played their last two opponents close. That would be good if this were horseshoes.
4. Paul Petrino, Idaho (1-2): Now that he’s got the obligatory win for 2015 out of his system, Petrino can lead the Vandals to nine straight losses. Georgia Southern gets the losing streak going on Saturday.
5. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (2-1): The Buffs get D1AA Nicholls State this week. MacIntyre will go back to On Life Support the following week when Oregon comes to town.
VERY WEAK PULSE
1. Al Golden, Miami (3-0): When is 3-0 not good enough? When you are Al Golden and coaching at Miami. Had the Himmicanes lost to Nebraska last week after blowing a 23-point lead, Al would be On Life Support.
2. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (1-2): The Commodores are better than they were last year. So is Ole Miss, Saturday’s opponent. If Ole Miss hangs 60-70 points on the Dores, Mason could elevate to the Endangered Species List.
3. George O’Leary, UCF (0-3): If O’Leary were to do the smart thing and fire himself, as the interim AD he could name his own successor but that would make far too much sense. The Knights will go to 0-4 with a loss at South Carolina on Saturday.
3. Curtis Johnson, Tulane (1-2): The Greenies don’t play again until October 3 when they play host to UCF. The loser of that game could bypass the Endangered Species List and go straight to On Life Support.
SAVED BY THE BUYOUT
1. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (3-0): Since he got that ridiculous deal after going 11-2 in 2009, the Hawkeyes are 37-30. When you’re being paid $4 million a year, you should do better than 7-5 every year. Reality sets in soon and the Hawkeyes will lose some games but they owe Kirk too much to fire him.
2. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia (2-0): The Mounties will beat Maryland this week, but three of the next four are on the road to ranked teams including Baylor and TCU back-to-back. They moan and groan in Morgantown but it won’t do any good with Holgorsen’s huge buyout.
3. Charlie Strong, Texas (1-2): Things are going to get worse before they get better for Strong. The next four games are Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State. The interim AD says he’s in Strong’s corner, but will he be if the Horns are 1-6? And will the big money folks be willing to pony up the $15 million it will take to buy Strong out?
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Will the Gators overcome the distractions and send Tennessee back to Knoxville with an 11th straight loss to UF?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
The Main Squeeze released its second album “Mind Your Head” last week, another piece of quality work with exceptional vocals by Corey Frye with exceptional guitar from Max Newman. This is an up and coming band with a growing fan base. They will be playing eight dates in Florida from October 1-10. They’ll play stops in Pensacola, Tampa, Orlando, Tallahassee, Boca Raton, Jacksonville and close out October 10 in Gainesville. They’re terrific live.