Leave it to Jarrad Davis to rekindle memories of the Head Ball Coach.
There was 1997 when Steve Spurrier said, “I know why Peyton (Manning) came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.” And there was this one after the Gators won that 1997 game, 33-20, making Peyton 0-4 in his career against UF (lost as a freshman in relief, then starts in 1995-97): “We enjoy playing Tennessee because they really want to beat us.”
Spurrier was always in the Vols’ head. So was Urban Meyer, who went 6-0. Even Will Muschamp went 4-0 against Tennessee.
It’s been 11 years since the Vols beat the Gators and that prompted Davis, a senior linebacker who figures to be one of the two or three best in the country at his position this year, to jab Tennessee Monday at SEC Media Days. Said Davis, “It's always one of the funnest games of the year, because we win."
Of course, the Vols will hype that to no end in the days and weeks leading up to September 24 when Florida rolls into Knoxville for what will probably be the most meaningful Florida-Tennessee game since the Gators came back to beat the Vols, 21-19, in 2006 in Knoxville. While some may take the approach that it’s best to zip the lips, I’m from the Spurrier school of tweaking. No doubt the words of Jarrad Davis will be in the head of every Tennessee player from now until September 24. There will be plenty enough pressure on UT. What Davis said is probably nothing more than a tiny distraction, but the Vols have not handled hype well the last two years and they’ll have more than they’ve had since Phillip Fulmer was the coach this season. Sometimes it only takes the smallest of distractions to derail high hopes.
Kirby Smart is the latest Nick Saban clone to get a head coaching gig and it’s at his alma mater. Consensus among media is that Smart is the next Saban but they were saying that about Will Muschamp five years ago and we know how that turned out. Smart’s mission is to exceed the success of former coach Mark Richt, who averaged just a tad less than 10 wins a year for his 15 years on the job in Athens. That doesn’t stop the Georgia faithful from believing the Bulldogs will be among the best teams in the country from year one.
Confidence: Smart says, “The trademark for us is going to be a big, physical, fast football team.” What else is new? Georgia is always big, physical and fast but if they are going to succeed in living up to the unrealistic expectations of their fans, they better be able to dominate both lines of scrimmage. From everything Smart has said and done so far, he’s following the Will Muschamp blueprint, which is to think like Nick, talk like Nick and coach like Nick.
Reality: Georgia has only 12 seniors on a roster that has 63 scholarship players who are either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. The Bulldogs had only one receiver with any kind of separation speed last year and he’s graduated. They had a QB last year who was the master of the 2-inch pass in Greyson Lambert and he returns as the incumbent starter but who are we fooling? Jacob Eason didn’t sign with Georgia to sit. Sooner and not later he starts. He has a cannon of an arm but who’s going to catch the ball? For Georgia to win enough football games to win a championship, Sam Pittman has to turn that O-line into five beasts, Nick Chubb has to return healthy and capable of performing at the same level he was at before he got hurt, and Smart has to find
Prediction: Remember that Merle Haggard song, “If We Make It to December”? With Georgia it should be about making it to November. November starts with a roadie to Kentucky and closes with three straight homers. It’s September and October that should have the Bulldogs and their faithful concerned. North Carolina is quite capable of knocking them off their pedestal game one and if the Tar Heels don’t succeed, Ole Miss probably will in Oxford on September 24. The faithful like to think 11-1 is possible in the regular season. Donkeys could possibly fly, you know. If they win 9 it will be an extraordinary year. One of those losses will be in Jacksonville on October 29.
Center Brandon Kublanow: “Obviously the passing game is an important component, but at Georgia we have a reputation as a hard nosed offense and we take pride in our ability to run the football.”
Dan Mullen tries to tell people Starkville is the hidden gem of the south, the kind of place that everybody would find lovely if only they would give it a try. He’s gotten enough good football players to buy into what he’s selling the past seven years that he’s won 55 games, which almost qualifies Dan for walking on water status in the eyes of the MSU faithful.
Confidence: Mullen said, “We’re coming off consecutive 9-win seasons (actually 10 and 9), which never happened before. We’re had three 9-win seasons in the last six years so when you look at that, of changing the expectations – I know I said eight years ago I got up here and said we want to change the expectations of Mississippi State football – I think we’ve been able to do that. Our players have bought in and we’ve been able to do that and going to six straight bowl games and building a culture of winning.” Winning has always been hit or miss in Starkville. At least it was pre-Mullen. Now they actually expect to win every time they play. The Bulldogs lost Dak Prescott, but whoever plays QB is going to be good. Mullen has three guys who could start anywhere in the SEC other than Ole Miss or Tennessee.
Reality: The offense is going to be good. Count on it. Mullen runs that show and his units consistently move the ball. The questions will all be on the defensive side of the ball where there is a whole new staff headed up by former USC assistant Peter Sirmon. Sirmon has changed the Bulldogs to a 3-4. If they adapt and can get stops a 9-10 win season is possible.
Prediction: Because the November schedule is a gauntlet of Texas A&M, (at) Alabama, Arkansas and (at) Ole Miss it’s hard to go with anything more than 8-4. We said that last year, too.
Linebacker Richie Brown: “Coach Sirmon is great. He is an ex-NFL guy. He has done a lot for our defense already. He relates really well to the players. NFL guys tend to relate to us a lot better because they kind of know what we have been through. He is bringing new things to the table but we are still Mississippi State defense. I’m really excited for this season.”
Butch Jones has recruited so well and has so many experienced players (Vols return 57 lettermen and 17 starters) that everybody thinks this will be their year. They are the third most experienced team in the NCAA plus they won their last six games last season. Expectations are so high that if Tennessee loses 3-4 games (entirely possible) that Jones might get run out of town. This has the makings of an all or nothing at all love affair between Butch and his fan base for 2016.
Confidence: Jones says, “In terms of our football program, over the last 18 games, we’re 13-5, and the amazing thing, when you look at it being 13-5 over the last 18 games, is those five losses have come by a combined total of 25 points … The key for us is starting fast and finishing strong. Our first seven opponents have a combined record of almost 70 wins, and they’ve all seven of those opponents participated in bowl games.”
Reality: The Vols come into the season with a 6-game winning streak, but only one of those teams (Northwestern in the Outback Bowl) had a winning record. That hasn’t stopped fans and media from hyping UT as a top 10 team and in some cases a national championship contender. Jones says the high expectations are good: “I love it. That’s what you work for. You want high expectations. You want high standards.” Expectations were high last year, too, and the Vols lost four of their first seven games including a snatch defeat from the jaws of victory encounter with the Florida Gators. Every Vol has September 24 circled on his calendar because that’s the day the Gators come to Neyland. They better pay close attention to that game in Bristol (TN) with Virginia Tech on September 10. That one is losable and could have a lingering effect on a team with so much hype.
Prediction: From the standpoint of experience, the Vols are about as good as it gets. From the standpoint of speed on the outside, they’re going to see a lot of eight in the box. They can run the ball for sure, but they throw a lot of 2-inch passes. A 4-game stretch of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama will determine the season and 9-3 or 8-4 is what this crystal ball is saying. There will be a 12th straight loss to the Gators, too.
Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin: “The swagger never left. We might have lost a couple games and losing seasons but as long as I’ve been here I’ve never seen guys fold and shy away from anything and attack full speed during the season. We lost some games back-to-back but we always bounce back. That’s what Tennessee is, the way we bounce back and keep pushing.”
For a coach who has run off more 5-star talent at QB than just about anyone in the country, Kevin Sumlin is trying to prove he’s just like a cat by landing on his feet thanks to graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who had some success at Oklahoma. When Sumlin won 11 games in his first year in Aggieland with Johnny Manziel capturing the Heisman Trophy, the A&M faithful figured they would dominate the SEC for years to come. They’ve gone backwards since then so this is a pivotal year. It’s win or else for Sumlin. Sure, he’s got a buyout that’s in excess of $10 million but never forget, the only ones who have more money than Aggies are God and the Longhorns.
Confidence: Sumlin says, “I like where we are. I like the chemistry of this football team. I like where the locker room is. I like where their mind is.” He said that last year and the year before that and went a combined 16-10. That would work well at Vandy but Aggies have greater expectations. The talent is certainly there. The real question is do the Aggies believe in their coach?
Reality: It’s not exactly like Knight ripped and shredded everyone he faced when he was at Oklahoma. He threw for 25 TDs and was picked off 19 times in his career. As a junior, when he should have come into his own, he was beaten out by former Texas Tech walk-on Baker Mayfield. The Aggies like to think Knight is their savior. If anything saves them it will be a John Chavis coached defense that might have the two best bookend defensive ends in the country in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, who have combined for 33.5 sacks the last three years.
Prediction: With the wide receivers the Aggies have, you would think any Joe Schmoe from Kokomo could complete passes and lead a dynamic offense. That’s what they said last year when two stud QBs had enough and left the program, making Knight a necessity.
Defensive end Myles Garrett: “A confident leader as a quarterback … that is what we needed. We have a lot of young guys who have to prove themselves and Trevor has already proven himself. He is confident in himself. He can play at a high level and he’s beaten the best, which is right now Alabama (Sugar Bowl in 2013).”
Stacy Lewis of the LPGA Tour has a theory why the world’s top golfers are backing out of the Olympics in Rio and it has nothing to do with Zika. Lewis told the Golf Channel, “Those guys play for so much money and I think you kind of get lost in that at times. If I knew I had the potential of a $10 million paycheck (the FedEx Cup) at the end of the year, I’d probably do my schedule a little bit different too.”
Surprise of the day (inject a measure of sarcasm, please): Auburn’s Byron Cowart, Carlton Davis, Ryan Davis and Jeremiah Dinson won’t miss any time after their arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. All four will be set to go when Auburn opens its season at Jordan-Hare Stadium against Clemson.
In documents that have been unsealed, Penn State made settlements with alleged victims of former assistant coach/predator Jerry Sandusky dating all the way back to 1971. One victim says he confronted Joe Paterno after being raped by Sandusky and says Paterno’s response was “I don’t want to hear about any of that kind of stuff. I have a football season to worry about.” The more I know about this scandal at Penn State, the more I don’t want to know about it. Joe Paterno could coach football but the things I know about the man (not including this scandal) tell me he wasn’t exactly this bastion of integrity.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Of these four teams – Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M – which one is going to have the best year and which one will disappoint the most in 2016?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
From 1970-76, Grand Funk Railroad was one of the hotter acts in the US. They weren’t bad, but let’s face it, Hendrix died, Cream disbanded and so did The Beatles, and Philadelphia soul was churning out hits while Motown seemed to be jammed in neutral. Grand Funk hits the skids when Mark Farner left the band and got religion.