Randy Shannon is officially (finally!) Florida’s defensive coordinator and that’s an exceptional move by Jim McElwain. Shannon is a great talent evaluator, tremendous motivator and as he showed against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, capable of defensive game plans that daze and confuse. He’s exactly what the Gators need. UF will lose some great players to the NFL, but if you saw the young kids play in the Outback Bowl then you know UF isn’t going to miss too many beats on defense next year.
There will be other staff changes and by the end of the week we’ll probably be hearing some of them. This is the week of the coaches convention (in Nashville this year), the perfect time for interviews. Most people expect Mac will either hire a new OL coach or bring in someone to work with Mike Summers. Right now the eyes are on Alabama TE/OT coach Mario Cristobal and Philadelphia Eagles’ OL Jeff Stoutland, but don’t be shocked if Mac pulls off a serious surprise move here. I’m told by someone who tracks the movement of assistant coaches that there is at least one coach from a top eight program who is ready to make a move to the sunshine, blue skies, seashells and rainbows of Gainesville if only the money is right.
All in all, I wouldn’t be surprised to see three new faces on the coaching staff next year.
South Carolina hires Eric Wolford: Wolford, who was Steve Spurrier’s O-line coach in 2009 and spent the last two seasons with Chip Kelly and the San Francisco 49ers, has been hired as Will Muschamp’s new O-line coach at South Carolina. That ends any speculation that Florida OL coach Mike Summers might be bolting to rejoin Muschamp and OC Kurt Roper.
ADJUST, ADJUST, ADJUST!
In the first half of Saturday’s game with the Tennessee Vols, the Florida Gators spent about 15 or so minutes totally out of sorts. They turned the ball over nine times. They missed too many open shots and turned too many open looks into contested shots with bad choices or indecision. Defensively, they let the Vols shoot nearly 50%. About the only thing that kept the Gators in the game was their version of the Swiss Army Knife, Justin Leon, who has this habit of doing whatever is necessary to help the Gators win a game.
The first half was one of the poorest the Gators have played all season. What a contrast to a second half when Florida only turned the ball over twice, got the offense in synch and pressured the Vols into nine more turnovers. Florida finished the game with 32 points in the paint, 25 pounds off 19 Tennessee turnovers and had 27 points from the bench.
Florida’s 83-70 win was a textbook lesson in how Mike White adjusts as the game goes on. He spent the first half shuffling players in and out, just trying to hang in there with the hot-shooting Vols. At halftime, he adjusted the game plan and got the Gators in the right sets both on the floor and in their heads. The result was totally different. In the second half, Florida looked every bit the top 25 team.
Back to Leon. This is a guy who doesn’t have to score to impact the game. He is the epitome of hustle and never gives up on any play. He does the dirty work on the defensive end. He rebounds. He’s a great garbage guy. Oh, and if you leave him open, he will flat out burn you from the 3-point line where he’s shooting a team-high 45.5%. Saturday, he not only hit 3-4 on 3-balls and scored 19 points, but he contributed a team-high 6 rebounds, picked up a couple of steals and had a hand on what seemed an endless number of loose balls that went Florida’s way. He also has a knack for tipping loose rebounds to teammates. He doesn’t get credit for the rebound but he makes the rebound possible.
KeVaughn Allen must also be mentioned. He went unconscious in the second half when he scored 16 points and hit all four of his 3-pointers, finishing the game with 23 points to lead all scorers.
Florida is 12-3 and 3-0 in the SEC. They travel to Alabama Tuesday night and then host Georgia in a nooner at the O-Dome Saturday afternoon. There are 7 games before Kentucky comes to the O-Dome on February 4. If the Gators can manage 6 wins – that’s actually quite do-able – in these next seven games they will move up in the polls and have a chance to crack the top 15 nationally. This is a better team than anyone expected. They are quite capable of 23-24 regular season wins. If they do that, they’ll probably be a #6 seed or higher when March turns to madness.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME THOUGHTS
Why it’s Alabama
1. It’s Nick Saban. He’s been there and done that. Alabama has been there and done that. Yes, it’s the national championship game but it’s not like this is anything but what is expected in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide won it all last year, they were in the semifinals in 2014 and won it in 2012. If not for the “kick 6” at Auburn in 2013, Bama would have probably won it all that year, too. For Alabama’s fifth year seniors, this is old hat being in the national championship picture. The other players come to Alabama expecting to be in this position and Saban has them trained to understand that while this game is the national championship game it’s just one more ball game to win and they’ve been winning them forever. Alabama isn’t going to be overwhelmed nor will there be any sign of panic.
2. No one has more ways to beat you than Bama. The offense has weapons at every position and as good an offensive line as you’re going to find. The defense has scored 11 touchdowns this year (6 on interceptions and 5 on fumble returns) and special teams have accounted for 4 more TDs. What’s interesting about this Alabama team is to watch how each unit feeds off the other. The offense gets it going and the defense steps up its game. The special teams make a big play and the other units get motivated. But especially watch that defense. If someone makes a big play it is like chumming the water for a school of hungry sharks.
3. Bo Scarbrough has healthy and fresh legs. Alabama has plenty of runners and all of them have speed and power, but Scarbrough is an absolute hammer. He’s just a sophomore and he’s running the way Derrick Henry ran last year when he won the Heisman. Do you remember what Henry did to Clemson? Try 158 yards and 3 touchdowns against a Clemson front that was dominated by NFL talent. Henry was Alabama’s workhorse all season last year. This year, Scarbrough has been saved while Damien Harris, Jalen Hurts and Josh Jacobs have eaten up the bulk of the carries. Now nobody even comes close to Henry’s 395 carries last year (Hurts has 181), Scarbrough is the freshest. He’s a 240-pound hammer who is actually faster than Henry and he’s only had 47 carries (for 361 yards). There will be a steady diet of Scarbrough throughout the game and it will feel like a freight train hitting in the third and fourth quarters.
4. Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster make big plays in big games. There is a reason all three will hear their names called in the first round when the NFL Drafts in the spring. They are disruptive and the rest of the defense feeds off their energy. You can single out one of them and say you’re taking him out of the game but you can’t do that to all three. So it’s pick your poison. These guys are capable of making Deshaun Watson ordinary.
5. The offense isn’t going to miss a beat under Steve Sarkisian. I’ve heard all the talk about how it’s a “different voice” in the ear of Jalen Hurts but I don’t believe for a second that Sark hasn’t been a presence in the Alabama offensive strategy since he joined the staff. And I’m not all that sure (conspiracy theory here) that adding Sark AFTER the first playoff game isn’t part of a strategy by Saban to make the Clemson brain trust scramble all week to get a handle on how Sarkisian calls a game. They may get an idea of how he called plays when he was Pete Carroll’s OC, or when he was HBC at Washington and Southern Cal, but they have no idea how he will use his personnel. When he was at Southern Cal, he developed Heisman quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinhart. Sark is a well-known quarterback whisperer. Bet the ranch he and Jalen Hurts are already on the same page and you can also bet the ranch that Sark will spread out the Clemson defense and then throw into the seams.
Why it’s Clemson
1. Dabo Swinney is going to win a national championship. He’s been close last year and he’s back for a second try this year. Steve Spurrier took a licking and came back ticking after the 1995 loss to Nebraska so the second time was a charm for him. Maybe the same thing happens with Dabo. Swinney’s story is compelling. Players appreciate that he’s earned everything he’s ever gotten, that nobody ever gave him anything except a chance and he’s the one who made the most of it. He’s fiery and a superb motivator. Clemson will come into the game with a chip on its shoulder, ready to avenge last year’s loss. He’s got a talented team and he will have them emotionally ready to play at their highest level.
2. Clemson thinks it can beat the Alabama offensive line and force quarterback Jalen Hurts to play like the freshman he is. Clemson DC Brent Venables won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top coordinator and defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks (former Florida assistant) won the AFCA assistant coach of the year nationally. Plus the Tigers employ a DE coach in Marion Hobby. The result of a super coordinator plus outstanding coaching enabled the Tigers to overcome losing nearly all of its front 7 to the NFL last year. Nobody really noticed because they finished with 123 tackles for loss (third nationally) and 49 sacks (fifth nationally).
3. Deshaun Watson is the best quarterback Alabama has faced in each of the last two years. He threw for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns against Alabama last year plus ran for 73 yards. He’s actually thrown for more yards this year than last and he’s got fresh legs because he hasn’t had that many designed runs this year. Well, that will change tonight. Clemson will make the Alabama defense accountable for the QB and Watson is not easy to contain. He’s got great downfield receivers and he can make all the throws. As long as he doesn’t get greedy by trying to get too much, he can be lethal.
4. Clemson’s linebacking crew is extraordinary. Ben Boulware, Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel have combined for 262 tackles, 31 tackles for 123 yards of losses, 10 sacks for 78 yards of losses, 3 interceptions and 6 forced fumbles. They rarely get fooled and all three maneuver well in traffic without letting blockers get to their legs. If they stay upright, then they get to holes quickly and stuff running plays.
5. Clemson is going to spread the field and try to isolate its fast, athletic receivers on the Bama secondary. They will be counting on Watson to (a) avoid the rush and (b) deliver the ball accurately. Clemson is confident it can move the chains throwing the short stuff to Ray-Ray McCloud, Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow enabling Mike Williams (90-1,267, 10 TDs), TE Jordan Leggett (39-641, 7 TDs) and Deon Cain (33-630, 9 TDs) to work downfield. At some point, Clemson is going to have to make some downfield strikes in the throwing game. Dabo knows you can’t beat Alabama throwing short stuff.
The sayer says sooth: Clemson really THINKS it can win this football game. The Tigers have the talent, they’re well coached and they’re hungry to avenge last year. They believe they are a win in a national championship game away from becoming a dynasty of Alabama proportions. Alabama, however, KNOWS it’s going to win this game. People are already poised at their computers to point the blame at Lane Kiffin for forcing Nick Saban to fire him and bring on Sark as the OC. That’s like a mosquito bite on an elephant’s butt. The sayer says Alabama 28, Clemson 17.
Sonny Dykes should have taken one of those job openings he interviewed for back in December. California fired him after four years and a 19-30 record. Everyone is speculating that firing Dykes was the first step in California hiring former Oregon, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly. If Cal can’t hire Kelly, watch the administration turn its attention to someone like Les Miles.
Did you see that Hail 64-yard Hail Mary that Aaron Rodgers threw to Randall Cobb on the last play of the first half of Green Bay’s 38-13 win over the New York Giants? That one play cooked the Giants’ goose. They weren’t the same afterward.
I feel bad for the Oakland Raiders. The team that was hosed by Houston, 27-14, Saturday would have beaten the Texans handily if Derek Carr hadn’t broken his leg in game 15.
Chris “Ethel Merman” Berman will no longer be part of ESPN’s NFL coverage. Now if they would only figure a way to muzzle Dick Vitale.
Having watched the replay, I think Grayson Allen tried to trip Boston College’s Connar Tava. The ACC reviewed it and says Tava was tripped but they’re not sure it was intentional. I’d bet the ranch that Allen did it intentionally. He’s a thug.
Beward of North Carolina moving forward. Theo Pinson is back from a broken foot and he’s the heart and soul of the Tar Heels. They were very good before. Pinson makes them Final Four material.
Speaking of Final Four material, pundits say Florida State could make the Final Four in 2017. In football maybe. Leonard Hamilton will figure out a way to lose some games he shouldn’t and the Seminoles won’t make the Elite Eight.
Tuesday night the UConn women will attempt to tie their own longest winning streak in college basketball history by knocking off USF. The Huskies have won a mere 89 in a row.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
What are your predictions for tonight’s national championship game between Clemson and Alabama?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
If you are a serious follower of the blues, then you know the name Mighty Sam McClain, who died in June of 2015. He really wasn’t “discovered” until the 1980s, when he was already in his 40s. Today’s music is Mighty Sam’s performance with the Blues Masters at the 2014 Crossroads Festival. This guy was one of the truly great blues singers of all time.