When Florida coach Jim McElwain looks at today’s Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, he doesn’t think it will take long to figure out who’s going to win the game.
Speaking at the final Citrus Bowl press conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort Thursday morning, McElwain said, “Any coach will tell you and it's not cliché -- it starts up front. End of discussion. You turn on the film and it's pretty simple. Whichever line is going in the direction they want to go, you're usually going to dominate the game.”
In other words, it’s about the blocking and tackling.
The Gators know their defensive line can dominate the Michigan offensive line. All you have to do is look at the stats. The Gators give up only 120.6 rushing yards per game and they’ve sacked quarterbacks 40 times this season. The problem is Michigan’s defensive line can also dominate Florida’s very young and inexperienced offensive line. Michigan gives up only 122.6 rushing yards and has sacked quarterbacks 30 times.
Whoever wins today will likely dominate the other team’s offensive line and get just enough push for the two or three touchdowns it will take. Conventional wisdom says that’s going to be Michigan since the Wolverines don’t have quarterback issues and averaged more than 4 yards per carry running the ball. Conventional wisdom got a boost this past week when starting right tackle Mason Halter was declared ineligible for the bowl game when he got a D in a course that required a C- to keep him on the field.
But conventional wisdom doesn’t always carry the day. McElwain and staff have had four weeks to patch things up on the offensive line. When he was the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, McElwain’s offenses always had a few new wrinkles to show off in the bowl games. The thought here is that Mac will come up with something new for Michigan, just enough to get the Gators to the 11-win plateau.
The fearless forecast: FLORIDA 24, Michigan 13
ALABAMA 38, MICHIGAN STATE 0
We already knew Alabama’s defense was this good. What some might be just now realizing is that Jacob Coker has evolved into a rather good college football quarterback and Lane Kiffin really is a good football coach. Coker sliced and diced that same Michigan State defense that held Ohio State to fewer than 150 yards, completing 25-30 passes for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coker knew exactly where to go with the ball and showed serious touch on the long ball, hitting Calvin Ridley with a pair of 50-yard bombs, one that set up a touchdown and the other for a score. Coker’s rise has everything to do with Kiffin, who didn’t get near enough credit last season when he turned Blake Sims into a record-setting All-SEC quarterback. Last year’s offense was pass heavy because the Crimson Tide had three NFL-caliber receivers including Amari Cooper, who was a Heisman finalist. Kiffin has adapted Alabama’s offense to the personnel this season, turning the Tide into a team that beats opponents into submission.
Alabama’s defense gave up 148 first half yards to Michigan State, then held the Spartans to 91 in the second half while looking like a unit capable of dominating any team in the country.
With the win, Nick Saban is now 9-0 against former assistant coaches, 2-0 against Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
CLEMSON 37, OKLAHOMA 17
Anyone who questioned Clemson’s #1 ranking in the polls and #1 seed in the College Football Playoff got an eyeful. Clemson’s offense was expected to be productive and it was even though the Tigers left a bunch of points on the scoreboard by settling for field goals and turning the ball over in the red zone. It was the defense that really came through in a big way. Although the Tigers gave up 311 passing yards to Baker Mayfield, the Oklahoma QB was harassed into plenty of bad throws, two interceptions and was sacked five times even though Clemson’s best pass rusher, Shaq Lawson, spent much of the game on the bench after hurting his knee. The Tigers gave up 17 points and 252 yards in the first half but pitched a second half shutout while giving up only 121 yards in the second half.
Derrick Henry of Alabama won the Heisman but there is no better football player in the country than Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who passed for 187 yards and 1 TD and ran for 145 yards and another TD.
The win over Oklahoma was worth a $400,000 bonus for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers remain the only unbeaten team in Division I.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Jimbo Fisher was probably saying that a lot Thursday afternoon when Florida State went down in flames to Houston, 38-24, in the Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Actually, it shouldn’t have been that close. Houston gave up a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter by playing way too loose in the secondary, but the Cougar defense did turn the Seminoles over five times including four picks of Sean Maguire passes. Houston keyed on Dalvin Cook, who came into the game averaging 7.9 yards per carry, and held FSU’s all-time single season rusher to 33 yards on 18 carries.
By beating FSU so decisively to finish the season 13-1, Houston almost guarantees a top 10 start to the 2016 season. The Cougars, who averaged 40.6 points and 486.9 yards per game, return 20 of the 22 players on their offensive two-deep including quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who passed for 238 yards and 1 touchdown against the Seminoles while running for 67 and 2 TDs. For the season, Ward threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for 21.
Even though FSU had one of the younger teams in the country, a 10-3 finish without making the ACC championship game and a bowl loss to a team from a non-Power 5 conference makes for a very disappointing season for the fine folks in Tallahassee.
CATCHING UP WITH JEFF ROTH
The former Florida nose tackle (1984-88) is now the general manager of the Twin Peaks Restaurant on International Drive in Orlando. He’s still an avid Gator fan and has fond memories of his years at UF even though he recalls how NCAA sanctions crippled the team from 1986-88. “We had great teams in 1984 and 1985 (18-2-2),” Roth said Thursday evening, “but then came the sanctions and there went the depth. We were so thin on the defensive line (in 1988 it was Roth at the nose along with Rhondy Weston and Trace Armstrong) that we had walk-ons for depth. Whenever we’d get the other team off the field, we’d just hope and pray the offense could get even one first down just to give us a rest.” Here’s a photo of Jeff with some of his talented and friendly servers.
CHANCE FOR A STATEMENT WIN FOR AMANDA BUTLER’S GATORS
If you are in or around Gainesville Sunday then you might want to catch Amanda Butler’s Florida women square off with 8th-ranked Mississippi State at the O-dome. The Gators are 12-1 and winners of 12 straight games, the second longest winning streak in Florida women’s basketball history. In Wednesday night’s win over UCF, a game played in Jacksonville, freshman Eleanna Christinaki came up one assist short of a triple double, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. For the most part, this is the same Florida team that finished 13-17 last season. Christinaki, a 6-0 freshman point guard from Greece, is a difference-maker on both ends of the court. This is Butler’s most efficient offensive team in years and defensively. They probably will lead the SEC in floor burns.
BOWLING FOR DOLLARS
Tennessee 26, Northwestern 14: On the return trip to Knoxville, Vol faithful will make a pit stop at Stuckey’s in Hahira where they will consume mass quantities of gourmet corn dogs and curly fries while discussing the national championship they will win in 2016. Amazing what beating Northwestern in the Outback Bowl and a 6-game win streak, mostly against nobodies, will do for the SEC’s most delusional fans.
Ohio State 30, Notre Dame 24: The Fiesta Bowl could be renamed the Fiasco Bowl thanks to the dilemma this game presents for Urban Meyer. He is named for a pope and his mama always wanted him to coach at Notre Dame. Maybe she never saw the portrait of Woody Hayes that Urb has had hanging in his home for years. Will he feel pangs of guilt when he beats the Irish?
Iowa 35, Stanford 33: Conventional wisdom says Stanford wins this game and
Christian McCaffrey puts on a show. McCaffrey might put on the show but this has been an Iowa kind of year. The Hawkeyes will be smelling roses when this one is over.
Ole Miss 44, Oklahoma State 33: It will be an upset in the Sugar Bowl if these two teams combine for fewer than 1,100 yards. Ole Miss gets the edge because while the Rebels give up a ton of yards, they force a lot of turnovers and convert them into points. Chad Kelly and Laquon Treadwell will play pitch and catch into the Sugar Bowl record books.
CONFERENCE BOWL RECORDS
Big Ten: 3-2
Big 12: 1-2
Conference USA: 3-2
Sun Belt: 2-2
Mountain West: 4-4
Lance Thompson, who served as Auburn’s interim defensive coordinator during the preparation for the Birmingham Bowl, will coach linebackers for Will Muschamp at South Carolina. Muschamp has loaded up his staff with three outstanding recruiters in Travaris Robinson, Bryan McClendon and Thompson.
Expect Mark Richt to start filling up his coaching staff sometime around Sunday. There is a hot rumor that LSU defensive backs coach Corey Raymond will be bolting for Miami. Raymond makes $310,000 a year at LSU.
LSU has seven draft eligible juniors. The word out of Baton Rouge is they’re waiting to see what Les Miles does about coordinators. Does he keep Cam Cameron, whose contract expires March 31, as his offensive coordinator? Will he promote popular D-line coach Ed Orgeron or bring back Bo Pelini to replace the departed Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator? If Miles makes the right choices he could have a national championship contender next year. The wrong choices and his roster could be gutted by early entry into the NFL.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says he is no longer curious about the NFL. That’s good because the NFL isn’t the slightest bit curious about him.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Are you surprised with the relative ease in which both Clemson and Alabama won their semifinal games to advance to the national championship game?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
The Gators play Michigan today so the music is from one of Motown’s greatest, Stevie Wonder. Today’s music is Stevie’s Live in London Birthday Concert Special on CBS from 1989.