Maybe no one knows what Jim McElwain is capable of more than Greg McElroy. McElroy went from an obscure backup in 2008 to quarterback an unbeaten national championship team in 2009. McElroy was an on the field extension of McElwain, who was the Alabama offensive coordinator. He made smart decisions with the football and didn’t try to be something he wasn’t. It was the perfect combination and Bama prospered.
Now an SEC Network analyst, McElroy goes against the conventional grain when it comes to the Florida Gators. Maybe it’s all that time spent in the quarterback room with McElwain or seeing how the coach adjusts to situations during games, but there is a confidence that you don’t hear from other analysts. McElroy thinks the 2016 Gators are going to be just fine.
“They play hard, they play tenacious defense, they fly to the football and they’re intimidating,” McElroy said on the SEC Network set Monday, adding, “And they just lost some good players and you know what, there’s players that are just as good coming right behind them that will fit into new roles. This Florida team: nobody’s talking about them but I genuinely believe they are as good as Tennessee right now.”
Everybody’s talking about Tennessee. Nobody’s talking about Florida except the guy who knows and understands McElwain better than any of the other analysts. He’s just one voice, but it’s not a voice heaping praise on the Tennessee Vols or the Georgia Bulldogs, and that alone is refreshing.
Last year, with what was judged to be the 124th most experienced team in all of college football, Alabama won the national championship. This year, the Crimson Tide has the 116th most experienced team. Alabama will be breaking in a new QB. They had to do that last year. There will be two new O-linemen and a brand new tailback. Over on defense, five starters have moved on to the NFL, which means the six returning starters will be this year’s most likely candidates to play on Sunday in the future. In other words, new year, new team, same expectations. Nick Saban has transformed Alabama into a frightening juggernaut by recruiting better players than anyone else and following that up by developing them. Great players. Great coaching. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Crimson Tide dominates.
Confidence: Saban said, “Our team has had a very good offseason. I’ve been very pleased with the progress that we made. We obviously lost some really, really good players from last year’s championship team, good leadership, good people. Great team chemistry. All the things that are intangibles that are difficult to build and our challenge is to recognize as they develop because those things just don’t’ happen overnight. You know, it’s a work in progress and it’s certainly been the case with our team this year.” Translation: “We are loaded to the gills and if our coaches do their job I feel badly for anyone that gets in our way.”
Reality: Saban said, “For the third year in a row I’m standing up here talking about somebody’s going to be a new quarterback for us. Somebody’s got to win that job.” Translation: “It doesn’t matter who takes the snaps we expect to win all our games.” You could say something similar about several positions and the reality is it doesn’t matter who Alabama plugs in at any position it will be a talented kid who is well coached and on his way to a shot at the NFL.
Prediction: This is how you put in perspective what Alabama has done since 2008. Since then, Alabama is 88-11. SEC bottom feeder Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has won a grand total of 86 games since 1994 and if the Commodores make it to six wins this year, all of Nashville will be celebrating. In Tuscaloosa, if Alabama fails to win 14 games and doesn’t win a national championship, many of the faithful will be placed on suicide watch. Considering what Saban has done since he became the head coach in Tuscaloosa, it would be foolish to predict anything less than the final four.
Defensive end Jonathan Allen: “I’ve seen a lot of hunger in this team. The biggest thing at Alabama is that if you don’t have hunger then you’re not going to start this year. Coach Saana is not going to do anything that is a detriment to the team so you have to come with intensity every day and prove you deserve to play. So, I really haven’t seen any complacency so far this year.”
In his three years in the Southeastern Conference, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has seen the Razorbacks go from 3-9 to 7-6 to 8-5 and in conference play improve from 0-8 to 2-6 to 5-3. When Bielema and the Hogs went 0-8 in his first year in Fayette Nam, folks were laughing. Nobody is laughing now. The guy can coach. Maybe he doesn’t land a top 10 recruiting class every year, but he went 68-24 and to three straight Rose Bowls at Wisconsin with a lot of guys who never had a lot of stars after their names when they were recruited. He can coach and if you’re looking for someone other than Alabama or LSU that might win the SEC West, circle Arkansas and call the Hogs your dark horse. Offensively, the Hogs are going to score a lot of points. The questions are on defense but a lot of folks who follow Arkansas think serious improvement is on the way.
Confidence: Bielema says, “So we went 0-8, 2-6 and last year to go 5-3 I look at the three losses and realize we lost in overtime to A&M, lost a heartbreaker on a game-winning field goal against Mississippi State and led Alabama at half and couldn’t close out. I realized we’re getting really close to where we want to be … It’s because the players in the program and coaches we brought in make a huge difference.”
Reality: Bielema knows the Hogs are pointed in the right direction and they will be better this year than they were last year. He said, “At Arkansas, we’re not built very sexy; we’re just kind of a work in progress. We need a lot of time in the bathroom to get ready and come out and look great. But when we do, we’ll stop time. At some point, we’ll get to where we want to be and when we get there, it just means a little bit more.” At Wisconsin, Bielema’s reputation was ground and pound. Last year Arkansas averaged 35.9 points and 465.5 yards per game. The Hogs averaged 5.1 yards per running play, 9.3 yards per pass attempt and 6.83 yards per offensive snap. The offense will be fine and the Hogs would love it if someone tried to play them eight in the box. The defense has to figure out a way to get stops and can’t allow 27.4 points and 391.6 yards per game again.
Prediction: Arkansas returns nine starters on defense including tackling machine Brooks Ellis and terror off the edge DE Deatrich Wise Jr. The improvement has to come on the defensive side, but if it does, nobody is going to want to play these guys. The schedule is one of the toughest in the country but Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU all have to come to Fayette Nam. If the Hogs get through September (Louisiana Tech, at TCU, Texas State and Texas A&M at a neutral site) unbeaten, 10 or more wins is entirely possible.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr.: “We are very moticated and our goal is to start the season the way we finished last year. Why is because we want championships and have an outstanding season and if we have a season like the end of last season we have great things coming.”
The last two seasons Kentucky has built up the hopes of the faithful with fast starts and then let them down with rotten finishes. Another fast start and woeful finish will not only keep the Wildcats in Lexington while most of the SEC is bowling, but it will also have head ball coach Mark Stoops sending out his resume to land an assistant’s coaching job. It’s not that the Wildcat nation expects all that much of their football team. It’s not basketball, after all, but they got a taste of what they consider the good life under Rich Brooks, who took them to exotic locales such as Nashville and Memphis for lower tier bowl games. Shreveport and Birmingham might not seem like garden spots of the earth to the rest of the SEC, but when you’re Kentucky and it’s football, you can’t be choosy.
Confidence: Stoops says, “We’re doing the things necessary to take the next step. I’ve never been one to – I’m not a pessimist, but I’m not going to sit up here and boast about a team if we’re not quite ready. We’ve done the work. We have the pieces in place. We will take the next step.”
Reality: The only two stats that matter in football are PF and PA, as in points for and points against. The last time the Wildcats had more PF than PA was 2010 and that was Rich Brooks’ last year before he retired. Kentucky went bowling that year, too. To remedy the PF, Stoops brought in Eddie Gran as his OC and Darin Hinshaw to coach the QBs. That should help the point production. Now if the Wildcats could only stop somebody. They gave up 27.4 points per game last year and there was a stretch of four straight losses when they gave up 30, 42, 52 and 27 points. Vanderbilt even scored 21. Should Stoops intend to be a head coach next year in Lexington, he’s got to (1) score enough points that folks think the Cats are sexy and want to come to the stadium and (2) win six games and go to a bowl. Shreveport looks like a resort to these guys.
Prediction: Getting to six wins is going to be a serious challenge with a schedule that opens with Southern Miss and follows at Florida, who the Cats have not beaten since the Reagan administration. There is also that teensy matter of playing Alabama on the road, Mississippi State, Georgia and both Tennessee and Louisville on the road. Getting to 6-6 is a monumental task. The Cats will be better but they still might not get bowl-eligible.
Running back JoJo Kemp: “Guys don’t want that same feeling guys have had before, going 5-7, going 5-7, being so close and not being able to finish ... Guys really don’t want that same feeling.”
After two straight trips to Atlanta, there was no reason to expect the Missouri Tigers would go in the tank last year in what can only be described as a Roseanne Roseannadanna season. You know the type: “It’s always something. If it isn’t one thing it’s always something else.” Maty Mauk got suspended – twice – and there was the near strike over racial issues on campus. If it wasn’t one thing, it was something else and it was enough that Gary Pinkel elected to retire. Barry Odom is the new coach. He’s a Missouri guy who coaches defense and works cheap. He’ll need lots of patience this year.
Confidence: Barry Odom says, “I know I got a group of guys coming back that are anxious and excited bout getting the 2016 season started. And when I have the opportunity to tell people about the University of Missouri and get them on campus and show them my feelings towards the place, Mizzou is in a good spot.” It’s good to have confidence and guys anxious to play, but this is a team that was the worst offensive team in the SEC and one of the worst three offensive teams in the country last year. They make Vanderbilt seem like the second coming of Nebraska 1995.
Reality: It all starts with QB where there is a commitment to Drew Lock, who averaged 5.1 yards per attempt last year and threw more interceptions (8) than TDs (4). There were reports last year that players desperately wanted Marvin Zanders, a dual threat QB with serious wheels. The O-line was supposed to be a strength for Mizzou last year and it stunk. There are four from that O-line gone now, which could be good news. If Missouri’s QB play isn’t dramatically improved, the Tigers are going to stink offensively once again. The defense will be just fine. The Tigers gave up just 16.2 points and 302 yards per game last year.
Prediction: The schedule is not kind with roadies at West Virginia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee and a season ending game against Arkansas. The defense will get a lot of stops but the offense isn’t going to scare anybody. The receivers are slow and the RB they hoped would carry them didn’t make grades and is still in juco. A 4-8 record would be an accomplishment.
DE Charles Harris: “When we have freshmen coming in we show them a clinic tape of Michael Sams and Markus Golden. We show them the guys who came before us and sowed the seed of who we are. If you watch the highlights you will get a feel of the tenacity that is required to be at Mizzou and be in the defensive line.”
Every year Money Magazine does a section called “Best Colleges for your Money,” which rates the effectiveness of a degree earned compared to the cost of earning that degree. Last year, the University of Florida ranked #8 among publicly-funded universities and was the #30 school overall. This year, Florida is #6 among the publics and #15 overall. Ahead of UF in the public category are Michigan, California (Berkeley), Texas A&M and UC-San Diego. Some of the other public universities in the state that compete at the Division I sports level: Florida State, #197; South Florida, #356; UCF, #408; North Florida, #564 and Florida International, #572.
A Federal Appeals Court won’t rehear Tom Brady’s Deflategate Case, which means the 4-game suspension will stand. Even with Brady suspended the first four games, the Vegas odds makers favor the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl.
Art Briles expects to be coaching again in 2017. Would any Division I school hire him after what went on at Baylor?
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Greg McElroy believes the Gators are every bit as good as the Tennessee Vols. Is he just blowing smoke because Jim McElwain was once his offensive coordinator or does he know of what he speaks?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Jason Isbell, who used to front for Drive-By Truckers, pretty much defies description. Maybe the best way to describe him is a cross between Southern rock and roll and progressive country. His 2015 album “Something More Than Free” won a Grammy Award and made it to #1 on the country, folk and rock charts. Today’s music is a live performance from Boston from earlier in the year.