You worry about teams like the Jacksonville University Dolphins. They aren’t good enough to win a national championship, but they are good enough to kill the momentum of a really good season that is about to find a new gear for the final five weeks before tournament play begins. This is why it was so important Tuesday night for the 2nd-ranked Gators (34-5) to stay focused and maintain that same business-like approach that helped them take out Florida State and Arkansas for a 4-0 record last week.
Florida’s 3-1 win over the pesky Dolphins (22-16) at McKethan Stadium wasn’t exactly a work of art, but it was the kind of game that allowed Kevin O’Sullivan to get work for five of his pitchers and juggle his lineup to get some guys experience they may need further down the line. O’Sullivan got good pitching – the Gators allowed only eight hits and didn’t walk a batter while turning in another error-less game in the field – and though UF didn’t exactly wear out the JU pitchers they got the job done. UF managed only seven hits, but coupled with eight walks and two JU errors, that was enough.
It was a blue collar type of win, the kind you need to make it through a long regular season and both conference and NCAA play. The Gators are as talented as any team in the country, but not every win is going to be of the spectacular variety. There are nights like Tuesday when a blowout of a less talented team isn’t going to happen, but that doesn’t keep the Gators from playing with a very high level of confidence and efficiency.
These Gators have a chance to be something very, very special.
THE STATE OF THE SEC WEST NATION
Spring has sprung so now it’s time to assess football in the SEC. Today we’ll start with the SEC West since it has been the dominant division in the league since 2009. Tomorrow we look at the SEC East.
Alabama: There will be quite a few new names in 2016 and new faces but isn’t that always the story at Alabama and isn’t the team Nick Saban puts on the field this year just about as talented if not more talented than the team he put on the field last year? Bama needs a new tailback. Big deal. They always have a stud and Bo Scarbrough will be the guy this year. They need a new center. That’s what they were saying when Barrett Jones graduated and we all know what Ryan Kelly did in his place. The Tide needs a new quarterback and the new guy will have little to no experience. That’s what they said about Blake Sims in 2015 (got the Tide to the final four) and last year about Jacob Coker (won the national title). Maybe the big question is this: Even with all these new guys in key positions, is there anyone in the SEC that can beat Bama?
Arkansas: The Razorbacks can score points. Ground and pound? Even with a new OL coach, three new OL starters and two stud running backs who will go in the first couple of NFL Draft rounds, they’re capable of lining up and grinding away this year. They can also throw. They’ve got a new QB. Who cares? They’ve got receivers who would make a rather keen 4X100 relay team and last year’s second string tight end (Jeremy Sprinkle) who’s better than the All-American (Hunter Henry) who left early for a second round NFL paycheck. The question isn’t about scoring. Bret Bielema teams get the ball in the end zone. Stopping people? That’s a teensy little problem they better figure out. Last year the Hogs gave up 46 in a win over Auburn, 52 in a win over Ole Miss and 51 in a loss to Mississippi State. If they aren’t vastly improved another 5-6 loss season is in the cards and that will light a fire under Bret Bielema’s rather wide tush.
Auburn: The State of the Auburn Nation is not good. They’re paying Gus Malzahn more than $5 million a year and they’ve squeezed the boosters for millions to keep up with those Joneses up in Tuscaloosa. Auburn is 15-11 in the last two seasons while Bama is 26-3 with a final four and a national championship. Another five or six loss season and Gus will be asking Gene Chizik for pointers about what you need to do to be a cracker jack analyst for the SEC Network. With John Franklin III at QB, they think they have the run-pass threat they need for the offense to light up SEC defenses. Funny, but that offense just doesn’t work if the QB isn’t a serious running threat but they think Franklin has what it takes. The guy who may or may not have what it takes is new DC Kevin Steele. He didn’t exactly wins friends and influence neighbors at LSU last year where the Tigers pretty much under-achieved defensively. Remember, this is the same Kevin Steele whose Clemson defense was rung up for 70 points in the Orange Bowl in 2011. There are a lot of folks who think Steele is a Peter Principle Guy – a great position coach who is in over his head as a DC. If he’s in over his head, then Malzahn’s head will be on the chopping block and Auburn will be looking for someone else who can keep up with the Tuscaloosa Joneses.
LSU: On Wednesday before the Texas A&M game, the screen door was an inch away from hitting Les Miles in the butt on his way out of Baton Rouge. By halftime of the game with A&M Les was living la vida loco. A month later, not only had Les beaten Texas Tech in the bowl game for win #9, but he had somehow jettisoned Kevin Steele as his defensive coordinator and convinced Dave Aranda to leave Wisconsin to come turn all those stud athletes in Baton Rouge into the SEC defensive equivalent of psycho killers. There is a reason why we call him Lucky Les. If anyone can survive a palace coup he’s the guy. If there is a team capable of neutering his year, it will be LSU. Aranda will turn the LSU defense beastly and there are rumors that Les has promised to take his thumb off Cam Cameron and the offense. If Les will allow the Tigers enough of a passing threat that opponents have to try to stop Leonard Fournette straight up, then LSU is capable of running the table. The big question is will Les let cut the offense loose or will he think he can with a Fournette right, Fournette left and Fournette up the middle offense?
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen is 55-35 in seven years on the job. No Mississippi State coach in history has ever had such a run of success, which brings us to this question: How long does Mississippi State really think Dan Mullen will stay in Starkville? Yes, he says all the right things about how he really does love living in a place that’s so flat you can see the upper deck of the football stadium some 25 miles away. And if he wants the freshest milk, the best ice cream and the most tender grass fed steaks cut to order, all he has to do is call the folks at the Ag school and they’ll give him whatever he wants and home delivered too. They love Dan in Starkville. So again, how long do they think they can keep him? At some point you would think he’s going to get tired of beating his head against the SEC West wall. He can win 9-10 games a year at Mississippi State. He’s that good a coach, but Alabama, LSU and the rest of the division aren’t going anywhere so it’s never going to be easier? Mullen lost Dak Prescott, two of his best three receivers and three defensive studs from last year’s team. The offense won’t miss a beat and folks are saying new DC Peter Sirmon, who used to be the DC at Southern Cal, made them forget all about Manny Diaz in about 17 seconds. State can win 9-10 games again this year but will Dan Mullen be around in 2017?
Ole Miss: There are whispers that Hugh Freeze is coated with Teflon. All those rumors and innuendos about how he cheats were supposed to be proven true but when the NCAA report came out, the only violations on Hugh’s watch in Oxford had everything to do with an agent and Laremy Tunsil. Now that the Rebels know they aren’t going to get jacked up and forced to fire Hugh, there has been a collective sigh of relief that has given way to optimism. Yes, the Rebels lost three first rounders and yes, they’re rebuilding the O-line, but there is plenty of talent. Ah, talent. How does Hugh Freeze convince enough talented kids to come to Oxford so they can survive losing guys who will play on Sundays? However he does it, Freeze has Ole Miss dangerous enough to have beaten Alabama on consecutive years and dangerous enough to have a legit Heisman candidate at QB in Chad Kelly.
Texas A&M: Four years of diminishing returns have those same fine folks who ponied up $475 million cash to turn dilapidated Kyle Field into a true palace are asking why they pay the big bucks to Kevin Sumlin? In his four years on the job, the Aggies have been a diminishing return. They got 11 wins and averaged 44.5 points per game in 2012. Each subsequent year has produced more losses and fewer points and there is talk that the Aggies might have to get by with a defense led by everybody’s All-American Myles Garrett and special teams in 2016. Perish the thought! Sumlin is 36-16 in four seasons on the job and while they would love to fire him, he skates with nine wins. Now, if the NFL or some other college job made Sumlin an offer he couldn’t refuse, there is this huge rumor that the Aggie faithful would waive the buyout.
GATORS IN THE RANKINGS
Softball: The Gators (41-3, 12-3 SEC) remained #1 nationally in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll. Other ranked SEC teams include #2 Auburn (41-4), #4 Alabama (38-8), #11 Kentucky (37-9), #12 Georgia (35-10), #13 Tennessee (33-10), #15 LSU (32-13), #17 Texas A&M (32-11) and #19 Missouri (29-12). Also ranked are #7 Florida State (34-4) and #20 South Florida (29-10). The Gators host South Florida at 6 p.m. today in a non-conference matchup.
Lefty pitcher Delanie Gourley was named USA Softball National Player of the Week after giving up just 3 hits and striking out 13 in 11 innings against then #5 Louisiana-Lafayette. The two wins over the weekend improved Gourley to 13-2 with a 0.76 ERA and 143 strikeouts.
Men’s Track and Field: The Gators remained #2 in the coaches’ poll. Other ranked SEC teams include #1 Texas A&M, #5 LSU, #7 Arkansas, #8 Georgia, #9 Alabama, #11 South Carolina and #24 Tennessee.
Women’s Tennis: After a blowout of Georgia in Athens to capture their 29th Southeastern Conference championship in school history, the Gators moved up to #3 nationally. Other ranked SEC teams are (4) Georgia, (5) Vanderbilt, (11) South Carolina, (12) Auburn, (20) LSU, (21) Mississippi State and (23) Kentucky. Also ranked The Gators will face the winner of LSU-Kentucky Friday in the SEC Tournament in Baton Rouge.
Women’s Track and Field: For the second straight week the Gators are ranked #9. Other ranked SEC teams include #2 Arkansas, #4 LSU, #5 Texas A&M, #8 Kentucky, #11 Mississippi State, #16 Tennessee and #24 Auburn. Also ranked are #13 Miami and #20 Florida State.
Men’s Tennis: The Gators moved up two spots to #11. Other ranked SEC teams include (6) Georgia), (13) Texas A&M, (18) Arkansas, (20) Kentucky and (25) Mississippi State. Next up for the Gators is the winner of LSU-Vanderbilt Friday morning at the SEC Tournament in Columbia, South Carolina.
Florida’s Diego Hidalgo was selected SEC Player of the week after four wins last week while Alfredo Perez, who went 3-0, was selected Freshman of the Week.
HARGREAVES TO MIAMI IN SPORTING NEWS MOCK DRAFT
The Sporting News has only done a mock of the first round with only one Gator being selected.
Round 1, #13: Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Miami Dolphins
3 GATORS IN MEL KIPER’S 3-ROUND MOCK
Round 1, #14: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Oakland Raiders
Round 3, #74: Jon Bullard, DE, Tampa Bay Bucs
Round 3, #75: Keanu Neal, S, Oakland Raiders
The NCAA just did something right. No, really. I’m not kidding. Starting August 1, 2017, schools will be able to pay for transportation and meals for up to two parents/guardians during a recruit’s official visit.
Basketball Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, 31-62 in three years as the head coach at Loyola (Chicago), is being investigated after 10 of the team’s 12 returning players have either transferred out or put in requests for scholarship releases.
How do former Canes view the U’s new head coach, Mark Richt? Last year 80 former players were on hand for spring game weekend. Last weekend, 300 were there including Edgerrin James, Russell Maryland, Randal Hill, Jesse Armstead and Randal Hill. Season ticket renewals are at 85% and there have been 6,000 new season ticket packages sold. An indoor practice facility could be in the works too. “We all know we got a gift from Georgia,” says former Cane Dave Heffernan, who was a Richt roommate when they played college ball at Miami.
Maybe Johnny Manziel will get the hint that he’s about to squander any chance he has to play professional football again. When agent Drew Rosenhaus, who has represented some serious slugs in his day (Terrell Owens and Warren Sapp come to mind immediately) drops you, you are all but persona non grata.
Milt Pappas died. He’s best remembered as the pitcher the Cincinnati Reds got in a 1966 trade with the Baltimore Orioles for Frank Robinson. Pappas went 12-11 in 1966. Frank won the Triple Crown, won the American League MVP and was MVP of the World Series for the Orioles, who swept the Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale-led Los Angeles Dodgers. Pappas pitched a no-hitter for the Chicago Cubs in 1972, won 209 games in his Major League Baseball career and had the fewest walks of any pitcher in baseball for eight years.
Duke basketball transfer Derryk Thornton Jr. is probably going to wind up at Kansas. He will have to sit out a year but he’s a great fit in the Bill Self system.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
You know the experts are all going to pick Alabama to win the SEC West. How do you see the division finishing 1-7 next fall?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
They used to say James Brown was “the hardest working man in show business.” Now that JB is gone, I’d have to say Warren Haynes wears that title and wears it very well. Whether he’s touring with the Allman Brothers, the Warren Haynes Band or Gov’t Mule, there aren’t too many nights when Haynes isn’t playing in front of a live audience somewhere in the world. Today’s music is a live performance by Gov’t Mule from January at Island Exodus VII.