What we are starting to see with Mike White is a coach who uses his personnel quite well and makes great adjustments from the bench as the game goes on. We have seen White at his best the last two games as 23rd-ranked Florida has scored double digit wins over Tennessee and Alabama to improve to 13-3 overall and 4-0 in the SEC. The Gators have been really good defensively all season, but we’ve seen White adjusting his personnel packages and halftime strategies in both games to turn tight ball games into comfortable wins.
This is a really well coached basketball team. The Gators play stifling defense with very little use of the hands. You don’t see the grabbing and reaching that results in silly fouls but instead play great position defense by moving their feet. That shows up in the free throw stats where the Gators have made more free throws (289) in 16 games than opponents have attempted (288).
The coaching also shows up in box scores like the one from Tuesday night when the leading scorer was freshman Keith Stone (averaging 4.6 per game) with 14 while Canyon Barry and Kasey Hill each had 13. Justin Leon, who scored 19 against Tennessee, scored only 4. Leading scorer KeVaughn Allen scored 6 and Devin Robinson scored 8. Allen, Robinson and Leon average a combined 33 points per game. When guys you depend on to score aren’t putting the ball in the hole and the guys off the bench get the job done, it’s a sure sign of good coaching and understanding which players work best in the right combinations.
The Gators have 15 games to go in the regular season but they have an RPI that’s third nationally. If they can go 8-6 or 9-5 in the 14 remaining SEC games then pick up a roadie at Oklahoma in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, this is a team that could be a top six – or better – seed when it’s win and advance, lose and go home time in March.
SO MUCH FOR ALL TIME GREATNESS
We can look at Alabama’s come up one game short 14-1 season one of two ways: (1) Alabama was really good but looked better than it really was because the rest of the SEC was way down; or (2) Alabama really was a great team but for a variety of reasons lost the national championship game to Clemson.
I’ll go with what’s behind door #1.
I think Alabama was an outstanding team and for much of the season played at a truly remarkable level, but when this team with so many future #1 draft picks got into the two games that mattered most, the lug nuts were coming off the tires. Against Washington, the offense only put up 17 points (defense got 7 on a pick 6) and there were too many misfires once close to or inside the red zone. Against Clemson, the defense was a no show and was picked apart for 420 passing yards by Deshaun Watson. The Alabama offense scored enough points to win (31) but with two minutes to go and an unbeaten season on the line, the defense was picked apart and the Crimson Tide gave up the game-winning touchdown with 1 second let on the clock.
The Washington game should have been a wakeup call. A whole bunch of Alabama folks want to pin the blame for the Washington game on Lake Kiffin but that’s ridiculous. Against Clemson, which has a better defense, Alabama scored 31 points all with its offense. Steve Sarkisian gave the Crimson Tide enough points to win the game but the defense choked.
Truly great teams don’t do what Alabama did in its two most important games. So, I give Alabama a really good grade for winning 14 straight games and making it to the national championship game but I halt at labeling this team as great, even with those gaudy defensive stats and even though there was a true freshman starting at quarterback. Good? Yes. Really good? Yes, but one game short of great.
And, even if Alabama had run the table, I’d still have some questions because there’s no way to sugarcoat it but the SEC was really weak this year. Top to bottom this is as weak as I remember the league since the 1990s when only Alabama and Auburn were the only consistently decent teams in the SEC West and the SEC East was Florida, Tennessee and the four dwarfs. Alabama was the only complete team in the league with offense, defense and special teams. There were teams like Florida and LSU that could play lock down defense and teams like Tennessee and Texas A&M that were capable of lighting things up on offense on given Saturdays, but nobody could put complete games together except Alabama.
When Alabama went head-to-head in the playoffs with two very good teams, we also saw that Bama had its flaws too. We just didn’t notice them because the SEC was really that weak.
So 2016 Alabama – really good but certainly not great.
QUARTERBACK PLAY WILL BE BETTER IN THE SEC IN 2017
One reason the SEC was so down in 2016 was the quality of play at quarterback but that should change in 2017. Here is a look at the current QB situations at all 14 schools.
Alabama: Jalen Hurts was unbeaten until the national championship game as a true freshman when he threw for 2,780 yards and 23 TDs/9 INTs and ran for 954 yards and 13 TDs. It will be interesting to see if David Cornwell comes back for a fourth year when he has no shot at unseating Hurts. Hotshot freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa from Honolulu is thought by folks in Hawaii to be the second coming of Marcus Mariota.
Arkansas: Austin Allen is the senior incumbent who had a rather first year starter season as a junior in 2016 when he threw for 3,430 yards and 25 TDs/15 INTs. He’s got to learn to do a better job of protecting the ball, but he’s got a lot of skill people returning and has an OL that will be bolstered by C Frank Ragnow electing to return for his senior season. The backup is Ty Storey, who will be in his third season in the offense. He threw all of 4 passes in 2016.
Auburn: Whoever is the QB will be working with a new offensive coordinator as Rhett Lashlee took the OC job at UConn. Very strange. Starter Sean White (1,679 yards passing 9 TDs/3 INTs; 163 yards rushing, 2 TDs) is returning, but figure he will be riding the pine behind Baylor/juco transfer Jarret Stidham. Gus Malzahn’s offense isn’t fully functional without a quarterback who can run and throw. Stidham can do that and he should thrive in an offense with so many weapons.
Florida: Luke Del Rio (1,358 passing yards, 8 TDs, 8 INTs) is the only QB on the roster who has taken a Division I snap but does anyone in his right mind think he will start next year over redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask or true freshman Jake Allen? If the Gators expect their offense to at least take the step up to top 100 status, then one of the young guys better be ready to play.
Georgia: Georgia fans are expecting another one of those fabulous near national championship seasons because the whole defense is back along with runners Nick Chubb and Sony Michel plus QB Jacob Eason (2,430 yards, 16 TDs/8 INTs), who was force fed as a true freshman. Eason has the talent but is OC Jim Chaney capable of bringing it out of him. Don’t be surprised if Chaney goes somewhere else and Kirby Smart brings in a new OC.
Kentucky: Expect some sort of QB controversy in the spring. When Drew Barker (334 passing yards, 4 TDs/5INTs) went down with a back injury, Kentucky seriously upgraded the offense when dual threat Stephen Johnson took (2,037 passing yards, 13 TDs/6 INTs; 327 rushing yards, 3 TDs) over. Johnson can’t throw anything like Barker can, but Barker doesn’t run all that well and he’s fragile. Johnson is tough as nails. Still, Barker was a big time recruit when he first came to Kentucky and there is some staff loyalty to him.
LSU: Danny Etling (2,123 passing yards, 11 TDs/5 INTs) acquitted himself fairly well when he replaced Brandon Harris (139 passing yards 1 TD/2 INTs) and he will return as the incumbent with new OC Todd Canada, who has a rep as a quarterback whisperer. The Tigers also have two highly regarded QB recruits in dual threat Lowell Narcisse and pocket passer Myles Brennan. At this point, Harris says he is coming back. Harris doesn’t need a QB whisperer. He needs an exorcist.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have their guy in Nick Fitzgerald (2,423 passing yards, 21 TDs/10 INTs; 1,375 rushing yards, 16 TDs), who turned out much better than anyone expected in his first season as Dak Prescott’s replacement. Firtzgerald will thrive as a junior. Damian Williams might transfer, leaving Nick Tiano (RSO) as the only backup with any experience.
Missouri: Drew Lock has the strongest arm in the SEC and maybe the nation. There isn’t a throw he can’t make. How many QBs of 4-8 teams threw for 3,399 yards, 23 TDs/10 INTs in a brand new offense last year? Not many. Backup Marvin Zanders has bolted so redshirt freshman Micah Wilson and true freshman Reyoundous Estes will be the backups.
Ole Miss: When Chad Kelly’s season came to an end with an ACL, Hugh Freeze didn’t hesitate to pull the redshirt of Shea Patterson (880 passing yards, 6 TDs/3 INTs; 169 rushing yards) who seems to have a skill set very similar to 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Will Jason Pellerin stick around for his redshirt sophomore season? The Rebels are bringing in a juco recruit in Jordan Ta’amu and a high schooler with a big arm in Alex Faniel.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have their QB of the future in Jake Bentley (1,420 passing yards, 9 TDs/ INTs). When they pulled the redshirt off him at midseason he transformed the offense and got the Gamecocks into a bowl, which is somewhat of a shocker. Does Brandon McIlwain (600 passing yards, 2 TDs/1 INT; 127 rushing yards, 2 TDs) stick around or play baseball where he’s thought to be a top prospect? Incoming freshman Jay Urich has a big arm but he needs 30 pounds of muscle before he’s SEC ready.
Tennessee: Joshua Dobbs is gone, leaving behind what should be a QB fight between Quinton Dormady (356 passing yards, 1 TD in 2 seasons as a backup) and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano in the spring. Dormady is the pocket passer with the big arm while Gurarantano is dual threat and has a skill set similar to Dobbs.
Texas A&M: The Aggies did well as long as Rent-a-QB Trevor Knight was healthy but when he went down their season went down in flames. He is gone and that means either the Aggies go with Jake Hubenak (884 passing yards, 6 TDs/2 INTs) or true freshman Kellen Mond, one of the better dual threat QBs in the country at IMG Academy in 2016.
Vanderbilt: Kyle Shurmur was much improved (2,409 passing yards, 9 TDs/10 INTs) but he is immobile and holds the football way too long. But if he makes as much progress from 2016 to 2017 as he made after a freshman year in 2017 the Vandy offense should improve. Some. Maybe. Maybe not. The backup is Wade Freebck (77 passing yards, 1 INT).
Improved: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina
Treading Water: Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
In one of the strangest moves in the coaching carousel, Mississippi State and Louisville traded defensive coordinators. Todd Grantham is leaving Louisville for Mississippi State and Peter Sirmon is the new DC at Louisville. On the surface, MSU came out WAY ahead. Louisville’s defense gave up 322.2 yards and 23.8 points per game in 2016, while Sirmon’s MSU defense leaked like a sieve, giving up 459.1 yards and 31.8 points per game.
For a day or so, the faithful in Nashville thought Vanderbilt HBC Derek Mason might take the California job. It was a mixed reaction when he tweeted he’s staying at Vandy. There was a worse reaction when OC Andy Ludwig missed out on a HBC job and an OC on the left coast.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was really thrilled by the national championship game. “I fell asleep,” Harbaugh said, “but I heard it was an incredible game.”
National champion Clemson’s total athletic budget last year was $83.5 million, which is 38th nationally. In the semifinals, Clemson beat Ohio State ($167.2 million athletic budget) and in the championship game knocked off Alabama ($148.9 million).
Amile Jefferson (broken foot) is done for the year and Coach K might be done for the year after back surgery. Duke just got hosed by Florida State in Tallahassee. My over-under is at least 10 losses this year. Currently Duke is 14-3.
I will be shocked if LSU (9-6, 1-3 SEC) basketball coach Johnny Jones is gainfully employed at the end of the year. Missouri’s Kim Anderson (Mizzou is 5-10, 0-3 SEC) probably gets the hook too although he should be given a pass considering he took over a mess made by Frank Haith (formerly Miami, now at Tulsa). I keep waiting for the NCAA to run Haith out of business. He’s slimy.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Was Alabama a great team that simply had a bad day at the office Monday night or was the Crimson Tide made to look better than it really was by the mediocrity of the rest of the SEC?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I started listening to David Sanborn when he came out with his album “Hideaway” in 1981 and I’ve been listening ever since. I found his 2016 concert from France by the David Sanborn Electric Band. Sanborn is at his best but so is Marcus Miller, who just might be the best bass player on the planet.