When 25th-ranked Florida Gators take the field against UMass Saturday night in The Swamp, it will mark the 10th anniversary of the Gators’ 34-7 season opening win over Southern Miss, the first rung of a ladder that UF climbed all the way to the national championship. The Gators were coming off a 9-3 season in Urban Meyer’s first year on the job and while expectations had been taken down a notch or two, there was electricity in The Swamp because it was the debut game for Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, part of a Florida recruiting class that ranked #2 nationally behind Southern Cal.
Tebow spent most of his first game as a Gator as Chris Leak’s designated runner in short yardage situations, a role that he perfected and without it Florida couldn’t have gone on to win the national title. Tebow scored a touchdown in the third quarter when he converted a bad snap and a mental error (he called the wrong formation) but still managed to bull his way into the end zone from a yard out.
Harvin ran the wrong route and then froze on Florida’s first possession, which caused an interception. After that, however, Harvin was dazzling. He ran for 58 yards on four carries and caught three passes for 33 yards. On three of Florida’s five TD drives, Percy had at least one play of 10 yards or more.
Florida’s defense held Southern Miss to one TD and 295 yards with Reggie Nelson picking off a pass in the end zone to thwart a potential TD. Leak was a methodical 21-30 passing for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
The Gators came into this game ranked seventh nationally which is where they would stay until they beat Tennessee in Knoxville, 21-20, in week three. Experts expected the Gators to blow the doors off Southern Miss but what they got was a solid but unspectacular performance, which typified the way they played all season. The Gators went 13-1 in 2006, but while they were winning in almost robotic fashion, Ohio State and Michigan were winning in blowout fashion. It wasn’t until Florida crushed Ohio State, 41-14, in the BCS National Championship Game that this team was really given its due as a truly great football team.
The big news: As expected, Antonio Callaway will be playing when the Gators open the season Saturday night against UMass. There will be no further punishment – that we know of – for Callaway’s admission that he was very high on marijuana when an incident occurred with a woman and teammate Treon Harris that got both Harris and Callaway suspended for months. While the woman hired an attorney and Title IX charges were brought forward, Callaway’s attorney said he had ample evidence to clear his client and that was backed up by a statement from State Attorney Bill Cervone. The only possible problems moving forward for Callaway could have been his admission of marijuana use and apparently that has either been taken care of internally or dismissed altogether since Callaway never failed a drug test after the alleged incident.
SEC FOOTBALL NEWS
#1 Alabama: In a rather interesting development, Nick Saban listed either Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett as his starting QB for Saturday night’s game with #20 Southern Cal in Dallas. Many Crimson Tide observers thought either Bateman or Barnett would be the odd man out in a three-way race with freshman Jalen Hurts but Saban’s comments at his Monday press conference indicate that Hurts and injured David Cornwell are no longer in the hunt for the starting job.
Arkansas: Everybody is healthy going into Saturday’s game with Louisiana Tech except for corner D.J. Dean, who continues to nurse a hamstring. Freshman running back T.J. Hammonds is practicing again after suffering a knee injury and sophomore DE Michael Taylor is on campus and in classes although there is still some paperwork that must clear before he’s eligible.
Auburn: Although John Franklin III lost the battle for starting QB to Sean White, Auburn OC Rhett Lashlee hasn’t ruled out playing Franklin elsewhere. Lashless said, “He is a phenomenal athlete so any way we can use him to tray and help we will, but right now he’s still playing quarterback” … Freshman WR Kyle Davis missed most of fall camp with a foot injury but he’s healthy and should play Saturday night when the Tigers host #2 Clemson.
#17 Georgia: Nick Chubb has been cleared to play with no restrictions Saturday when the Bulldogs open their season with North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. Before a gruesome knee injury last year, Chubb was one of the two or three best running backs in college football. It remains to be seen if he will have the same speed and ability to cut as he had prior to the injury.
Kentucky: The Wildcats list 10 freshmen on their initial two deep for their season opening game with Southern Mississippi. Freshman punter Grant McKinniss is potentially the starter but HBC Mark Stoops is unsure at this point whether to go with McKinniss or sophomore Bryan Kirche. Neither has ever punted in a college football game before. Freshman Eli Brown is listed as an either-or starter at weakside linebacker with sophomore Jordan Jones. All the other freshmen on the two deep are listed with the second unit.
#5 LSU: Now that the Tigers have switched to a 3-4 defense, the front seven heading into Saturday night’s game with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field will look like this: DE Lewis Neal and Davon Godchaux; NT Greg Gilmore; OLB Michael Divinity Jr. and Arden Key; ILB Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley … Divinity is the only freshman starter on either side of the ball and there are two other freshmen (OLB Ray Thornton; ILB Devin White) on the two-deep.
Mississippi State: Mississippi State released its depth chart for its Saturday season opener with South Alabama but there is no clarity at quarterback where it lists Damian Williams, Nick Fitzgerald or Nick Tiano as the probable starter against South Alabama Saturday night.
Missouri: The Tigers have settled on a starting O-line for their season opener at West Virginia: LT Tyler Howell; LG Kevin Pendleton; C Samson Bailey; RG Alec Abeln and RT Paul Adams. That unit has a collective three starts in Division I, all of them by Abeln.
#11 Ole Miss: According to the newly released depth chart, the Rebels will start with this O-line against #4 Florida State next Monday: LT Rod Taylor; LG Javon Patterson; C Robert Conyers; RG Jordan Sims; RT Sean Rawlings. Freshman Greg Little is listed as the #2 LT and redshirt freshman Alex Givens is listed as the #2 RT.
South Carolina: Two players have left the team – starting CB Rico McWilliams and WR Christian Owens. McWilliams had 18 starts and 33 games in his career while Owens took a redshirt last year as a freshman. McWilliams left home for Louisiana to help his family due to the flood, then returned to Columbia only to leave the team for good. Owens says he wants to be closer to home. The Gamecocks open their season Thursday night in Nashville against Vanderbilt.
#9 Tennessee: The Vols lost their four games in 2015 by a combined 16 points including a 7-point overtime loss to final four participant Oklahoma and a 5-point loss to eventual national champ Alabama. Asked Monday if the Vols have learned to close out games, HBC Butch Jones responded, “We’ll find out. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on it … but we have to start fast as well.” The Vols open their season Saturday night against Appalachian State.
Texas A&M: The Aggies will be going against what is expected to be one of the most potent offenses in the country in UCLA Saturday night and they’ll do it with one of the least experienced defensive units in the SEC. The Aggies w
Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt HBC Derek Mason called for a “white out” for Thursday night’s season opener with South Carolina. It will be interesting to see if (a) Vandy has a full house for the game and (b) if South Carolina has as many fans as Vanderbilt.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL THOUGHTS ON A MONDAY NIGHT
1. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: Had Stanford been in the hunt for a national title, McCaffrey might have won the Heisman over Alabama’s Derrick Henry when he ran for 2,019 yards, caught 45 passes for 645 yards and returned punts and kicks for another 1,200 yards. He will be expected to replicate last year, but can he with a supporting cast that includes too many new faces including three O-linemen and a QB who threw only 9 passes last year? His numbers could drop off considerably. His Heisman candidacy is likely to be determined by a five game stretch of USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State and at Notre Dame. If he doesn’t come up big and Stanford loses a couple of games his Heisman race could be finished by mid-October.
2. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: While all eyes are on McCaffrey, Deshaun Watson and Leonard Fournette, the guy who could take the Heisman lead by midseason and never give it up is Mayfield who gets Houston in game one, Ohio state in game three and then follows that up with back-to-back games against TCU and Texas. He threw for 3,700 yards and 37 TDs and ran for 405 and 7 more TDs last year when the Sooners made the Final Four. His play caller is Lincoln Riley, who is using this year as a final audition before he gets a head coaching gig.
3. The feel good story is James Conner: As a sophomore at Pitt in 2014 he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns and was a first team All-America. He missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and showed how tough he was by never missing a practice in the spring even though he was undergoing chemo. He’s as big as he was before the cancer (235-240 pounds) and reports are that he hasn’t lost a step. Who knows if he will be able to return to the level he was playing at two years ago, but even if you aren’t a Pitt fan, shame on you if you aren’t pulling for this guy to come up big this year.
4. Vandy could be 4-0 heading into the Florida game … or 0-4: You know the Commodores can play defense, but the offense just flat out stinks and it’s hard to imagine that it will be substantially better this year than it was the last two. That South Carolina game Thursday night could be dicey and that’s followed by a Middle Tennessee team that is better than the Western Kentucky team that beat the Dores in Nashville last year, Georgia Tech and that funky option offense in Atlanta and a roadie to Western Kentucky. On paper that sounds like 4-0 but with Vandy’s offense it could be 0-4 or 1-3 before the Gators come to town. The fans and alums have been patient so far in Nashville but it wasn’t all that long ago the Dores were bowling three straight seasons under James Franklin.
5. Virginia Tech might end up being the surprise team of 2016: In the last two weeks I’ve talked to three people who know Justin Fuente very well and they conclude that the first year VaTech HBC is going to take the ACC by storm. A Vol fans will be shocked if VaTech beats Tennessee in the Battle of Bristol, which will be attended by upwards of 150,000 on September 10, but the people I talked to who I consider to be real experts told me they would be surprised if Fuente doesn’t walk out of there with a win that sets the football world on its ear. I asked the three of them what kind of record do they expect and all three replied 9-3 or 10-2.
RIP GENE WILDER
Gene Wilder died Monday at age 83. A fine comedy actor he is best known for his role in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” a couple of memorable films with Richard Pryor and in Mel Brooks films such as “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” Here is a clip from “Young Frankenstein” to remember him by.
If the San Francisco 49ers go ahead and cut QB Colin Kaepernick, it will be about far more than sitting out the National Anthem in the preseason. His skills have really diminished to the point that he’s not anything close to the QB he was even a couple of years ago. He’s gone days in the preseason when HBC Chip Kelly hasn’t called on Kaepernick to take even one rep and that alone should tell you plenty. Can he rehab his skill set and even if he does is there another team willing to take a PR hit by signing him?
A year ago the Denver Broncos had Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler as its QBs. Peyton retired and Osweiler will be the QB for the Houston Texans this year, leaving the Broncos to start Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick in the seventh round of the 2015 draft out of Northwestern. He has thrown one pass in a real NFL game in his brief career.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Two part question: (1) Other than Watson, Fournette and McCaffrey, who is next on your Heisman list and (2) who is your surprise team for 2016?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Phish doesn’t get a lot of radio play even on satellite but the band has a large and loyal following. Band leader Trey Anastasio performs mostly with his own band these days but he’s touring with Phish as well. This is a recent concert from The Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington.