The experts give 12th-ranked Florida (10-2, 7-1 SEC) no chance to beat 2nd-ranked Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) Saturday afternoon in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta. If you look at the last month of the season when Alabama has gotten steadily better and Florida’s offense wandered off the reservation and got lost in the woods, you can’t disagree. The Gators are 18-point underdogs and you almost have to wonder why it’s not more.
It’s all too easy to point a finger at Treon Harris, then play the what if game and ask what if Will Grier were here? First off, Will Grier isn’t here but second, even if he were still playing and the Gators came into this game undefeated, Alabama would still be favored. Maybe not by 18 points, but Alabama would still be favored.
And the reason is simple. Alabama is right where it was predicted to be way back when and Florida is about four games beyond what everyone expected. The reason Alabama was so highly regarded in the preseason is exactly why Alabama is so good now. Nick Saban has built a team with great depth, physical strength and talent that is fundamentally sound in every phase of the game. The reason Florida is four games beyond what reasonable people expected can be summed up in two words: Jim McElwain. In his first year on the job, McElwain has squeezed, prodded, pleaded, pushed and pulled the Gators into playing as hard as they can and as well as they can for 12 consecutive weeks. The result is a 10-2 record that you would have been crazy to predict back in August.
Alabama is where Alabama always is ever since Nick Saban got past that tacky first year when the Crimson Tide went a ghastly 7-6 and that’s in the national championship hunt. Florida is just getting its sea legs back after spending the last five years doing the equivalent of hanging heads over the side of the boat and barfing up lungs.
For now, Alabama is what Florida aspires to be – the program that’s in perpetual reload and on the short list of potential national champions every single year. In the future, Alabama will be looking at Florida at no worse than an equal. For all of Alabama’s tradition, facilities and fanatical devotion to football, we’ve seen what happens when Florida gets its collective act together. Florida was the dominant program in the SEC – not Alabama – from 1990-2001 and again from 2005-09. Yes, Alabama did win that 2009 national championship but Florida dominated those five years and if there had been a do-over for the 2009 misstep, the guess here is that Florida would have won a rematch of that SEC Championship Game and gone on to win its third national championship in four years.
Step back a moment in time and remember Alabama when Gene Stallings was the head ball coach from 1990-96. The Crimson Tide ride a dominating defense to the 1992 national championship, but that was Bama’s only shining moment. Florida, coached by Steve Spurrier, won the SEC in 1991 and 1993-96. The Gators lost the first ever SEC Championship Game to Alabama in 1992 but the Gators won the next four SEC title games and three of the wins were over Alabama. The Gators played for a national title in 1995 then won in 1996.
During the five years (2005-09) when Urban Meyer was in reasonably good health and most of his good coaches hadn’t departed to become head ball coaches somewhere else, the Gators went 57-10 and won both the SEC and national championships in 2006 and 2008.
So, we’ve seen what happens when Florida gets the right coach in place, which has everything to do with why the Gators have outperformed everyone’s expectations but Jim McElwain’s this season. Mac is the right coach to right the Florida ship and put the Gators in championship contention every game and every year. He expected Florida to win this season. He expects Florida to win even bigger in the future, particularly when he can field a roster that (a) fills all the holes and (b) can match talent with anyone in the country including Alabama.
Jim McElwain expects to beat Alabama Saturday afternoon. Call it wishful thinking if you want, but he expected to be playing Alabama in the SEC championship game back when nobody else saw the Gators doing much better than 6-6. For the Gators to actually beat Alabama, stars and planets may have to align but as long as the Gators (a) show up and (b) believe they can win there is a chance.
We haven’t seen donkeys flying lately, but there is a chance.
Last week: 6-3
#2 ALABAMA (11-1, 7-1 SEC) 27, FLORIDA 7: For Florida to win this game, (1) Treon Harris can’t turn the ball over, (2) Kelvin Taylor has to run for close to 100 yards, (3) the Gators have to get at least 1-2 first downs every possession to give Johnny Townsend a chance to flip the field, (4) hold Derrick Henry to 110 or fewer yards and (5) sack Jacob Coker at least four times while getting a pass rusher in his face on every attempt. Oh, and there is that teensy matter of points. The Gators have to be able to score at least three touchdowns. That’s the part that concerns me. I don’t think the Gators can score. Figure this is close for three quarters but the Gators will give out of gas in the late going.
THE 2015 DUMB AND DUMBER AWARD
If there were such a thing in college football, this year’s co-recipients would be LSU athletic director Joe Alleva (Dumb) and school prez F. King Alexander (Dumber). Alexander said that the decision to retain Miles (only 111-32 in 11 years as the HBC) came at halftime of last Saturday’s LSU-Texas A&M game. Alexander said the influencing factors were the gigantic show of love from the full house at Tiger Stadium and having to answer why LSU would spend more than $30 million ($15 million buyout for Les, $3 million buyout for LSU assistants, $5 million to buy out Jimbo, $6 million to hire Jimbo and another $4 million for assistants) for a football coach to a legislature scrambling for the funds to keep LSU a viable academic institution. Of course, Alexander didn’t mention the fact that Jimbo said no. Had he said yes, Alleva and Alexander would have thumbed their noses at the fans and the legislature to hire Jimbo Fisher. A great idea would be to extend Les Miles’ contract by at least five years and fire Alleva and Alexander.
MUSCHAMP ON THE MOVE
If you are prone to wager on such things, put a 10-spot on Will Muschamp coaching somewhere other than Auburn next year. He’s the front runner to take over for Steve Spurrer as the HBC at South Carolina and if he doesn’t land that job, he’s the odds-on favorite to be the DC for Nick Saban at Alabama or DC for old buddy Kirby Smart when he takes over as the head coach at Georgia. South Carolina AD Ray Tanner has always been a Muschamp admirer so there is an extremely good chance he is announced as the head man in Columbia no later than Monday or Tuesday.
For Muschamp to have success as a head coach, two things have to happen:
1. He’s got to stop trying to be the next Nick Saban and concentrate on being the first Will Muschamp. I’m sure there are traits and qualities Nick Saban has that are worth emulating, but as we’ve seen from Jim McElwain, another former Saban assistant, in forming your blueprint for success you take the best ideas you’ve come across in your career and blend them in with your own to come up with a plan that is uniquely yours. If you spend your time asking yourself “what would Nick do?” then you’re probably doomed to failure.
2. He has to do a Spurrier. When Spurrier was going good, he simply turned the defense over to his coordinator and said, “Handle it! Handle it!” When Spurrier only had to concern himself with the offense, he was really at his best. Muschamp can coach up a defense. He needs to quit micromanaging and find a coordinator he can trust enough to turn the offense over to completely.
DESHAUN WATSON’S CHANCE TO WIN THE HEISMAN
Consider this weekend Deshaun Watson’s chance to win the Heisman Trophy, but he will have to have help. For the Clemson QB to overtake Derrick Henry in the minds of the Heisman voters he has to (a) play lights out and win against North Carolina Saturday in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte and (b) get some help from the Florida defense. If the Gators succeed at stuffing Henry and making him very average in the SEC Championship Game, it could be just the edge Watson will need.
COUNTDOWN TO FIRING DAY UPDATES
While there has been a lull in firings since last weekend, it’s probably not the last of the changes.
Missouri interviewed several candidates including California coach Sonny Dykes and Bowling Green coach Dino Babers before deciding on defensive coordinator Barry Odom. Odom turned down an offer to coach Memphis earlier in the week. Mizzou gave him a 5-year deal.
Virginia swung for the fences and missed with Mark Richt, but remains one of the most attractive vacancies. Cal coach Sonny Dykes has interviewed, but the name to keep an eye on is Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm, whose focus has been on the Conference USA championship game.
Sonny Dykes wants out of California so bad he’s got his name everywhere. He has interviewed at Missouri, Virginia and South Carolina and there are at least two other schools where he tried to get in the mix. I think he would take the Rutgers job if offered and that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Maryland signed former Florida DC D.J. Durkin to a 5-year, $12.5 million deal. I’ll be surprised if that works out.
Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is the new head ball coach at Memphis. That’s a good hire for Memphis and it’s good for Norvell to finally get out from under the wing of Todd Graham.
Kirby Smart will be coaching at Alabama through the College Football Playoffs, which means it could be January 12 before he takes over full time at Georgia. Since recruiting is critical, especially with a change in coaches, Smart is taking a huge chance but it could be a sure sign that he’s convinced Auburn DC and old buddy Will Muschamp to join him in Athens. Muschamp knows the ropes and could probably convince all the defensive commits to stick with Georgia and maybe some of the offensive recruits as well. Urban Meyer coached Utah through its Fiesta Bowl game after the 2004 season and took over at Florida a day later. Even with full month and the notoriety of having been the head ball coach of an undefeated team, Meyer’s first recruiting class turned out to be very average. Mark Richt leaves Georgia with an outstanding group of commits, so Smart has to have something up his sleeve if he intends to keep the recruiting class intact. Landing Muschamp as his DC and probable assistant head coach might allow him to do that.
With Will Muschamp almost certain to be coaching somewhere other than Auburn as either a head coach or defensive coordinator next year, don’t be surprised if Gus Malzahn turns to Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt spent 10 yeas coaching high school football in the state of Alabama so he would be a good fit.
With D.J. Durkin taking the Maryland HBC job, that means 56 former Florida players or assistants have gone on to become a head coach in either college football or the NFL since 1950.
San Diego State went 9-3 and won its division of the Mountain West Conference behind the quarterback play of Maxwell Smith. If the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the quarterback that got run off at Kentucky after the 2013 season. He’s injured and won’t play Saturday when the Aztecs play Air Force in the MWC Championship Game.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Now that Mark Richt is the new head coach at Miami, who does it hurt more on the recruiting trail: Florida State or Florida?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Before he had sung so many songs that he couldn’t hit the high notes any longer, Kenny Loggins used to put on one of the more entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. Today’s music is his homecoming concert in Santa Barbara after finishing his 1980s tour. He could still hit the high notes then.