Go all the way back to April 9 when the Gators were about to start their third game of the weekend against SEC bottom feeder Tennessee. The Gators had lost two in a row to the Vols, relief pitching was in short supply and nobody was hitting.
When that third game of the weekend began, Florida was teetering on the verge of consideration for 2017’s single most overrated college baseball team. They were 20-11, 5-6 in the SEC and had the talking heads discussing that UF might even struggle to make the NCAA Tournament. The Gators won game three and it’s been night and day difference ever since.
Fast forward to the weekend just completed by winning two of three from Kentucky and we see a team that is not only one of the hottest in the country but showing the kind of all around play that usually results in a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
Show of hands here: How many of you believed the Gators would be sitting 40-15 (21-9) with SEC championship rings on order after the final regular season series?
I know I didn’t think they would turn it around the way they did. I thought Florida would snap out of the doldrums and show a lot of improvement but I certainly never thought they would win six straight SEC series to clinch their fourth league championship in Kevin O’Sullivan’s10-years on the job. The Gators head into this week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama as the #1 seed. Forget the tournament as a measuring stick for anything. It’s great if the Gators can win it but if they are eliminated early on (first game is Wednesday at 5:30 against the winner of Tuesday’s Auburn-Ole Miss game it will have little or no affect on their national ranking or seeding. Florida is currently ranked fifth nationally and has the #5 RPI, which makes the Gators a mortal lock to host an NCAA regional and a super regional if they advance beyond the regional.
Not bad at all for a team that started the year with seriously unrealistic expectations. Nobody in the country lost more pitching than Florida from 2016 – two first rounders (A.J. Puk and Dane Dunning), a second rounder (Logan Shore), a third rounder (Shaun Anderson), a fourth rounder (Scott Moss) and a 10th-rounder (Kirby Snead) – and the Gators also lost the country’s fastest center fielder in Buddy Reed and slugging first baseman Peter Alonso in the second round.
If you consider what the Gators lost from last year, it becomes fairly evident that this might go down as the best coaching job in the Kevin O’Sullvan era. He’s done it with only one returning starting pitcher (Alex Faedo, 7-2, 2.89 ERA), a completely retooled bullpen and he’s weathered a terrible hitting slump. Maybe only #1-ranked Oregon State can match Florida’s three starting pitchers (Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar are the other two). He’s got a lefty killer in the bullpen in Nick Horvath, a really good setup man in Garrett Milchin and a closer in Michael Byrne who has 13 saves and a 1.93 ERA.
As for the hitting slump, the Gators are hitting the ball consistently now. J.J. Schwarz has raised his averaged from .248 to .286 since the Tennessee series. Jonathan India, who was hitting .228 after Tennessee, has come off the injured list swinging a very hot bat. He raised his average 24 points to .276 against Kentucky. Friday, Mark Kolozsvary knocked in five runs as the Gators bounced back from a Thursday night drubbing to pulverize Kentucky, 14-3. Saturday, it was Nelson Maldonado’s turn with four RBIs in a 6-4 win that gave UF the SEC title. Ryan Larson was below the Mendoza Line last year when he hit .161. He’s hitting .320 this year and has been UF’s most consistent hitter since the Tennessee series.
This is a very hot and very dangerous Florida baseball team. The SEC Tournament is a vehicle for teams with something to prove so they can earn their way into the NCAA Tournament. The Gators know they’re in and know they’re hosting. The only thing Hoover can do for them is keep the momentum going.
GATORS WIN SEC ALL SPORTS TROPHY … AGAIN
For the 16th time in the history of the All-Sports Trophy, the University of Florida has swept all three categories – men, women and overall. No other school has ever won all three in a single year. Florida has won the overall title 27 times. The men have won 20 times while the women have won 23 times. Florida has won 234 SEC titles in history, most of any school.
Florida came home with five SEC titles in 2016-17 to tie Arkansas for the team high total. Florida won in baseball, women’s golf, softball, men’s swimming and volleyball.
Here is the finish for the overall sports trophy:
2. Texas A&M
7. South Carolina
12. Ole Miss
14. Mississippi State
GATORS WILL HOST ALABAMA IN NCAA SOFTBALL SUPER REGIONAL
The #1-seeded Gators (53-7) hit a speed bump Sunday afternoon when they dropped a 1-0 decision to Oklahoma State, but they bounced back behind Delanie Gourley to knock off the upstart Cowgirls and win the Gainesville Regional, 5-0, in the championship game. Gourley, who no-hit FAMU in the Florida’s first game of the tournament, pitched a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts and only one walk to improve to 20-4 on the season while lowering her ERA to 0.71.
The Gators will host SEC rival Alabama (45-16 and #16 national seed) in a best-of-three super regional next weekend. Neither the Gators nor the Crimson Tide are really wearing the cover off the ball lately but both teams have outstanding pitching. The game one matchup of Florida’s Kelly Barnhill (23-2, 0.33 ERA, 310 strikeouts in 161-2/3 innings) and Bama’s Alexis Osorio (22-7, 1.23 ERA, 316 strikeouts) will pit two of the nation’s hardest throwers against each other. Game two will feature Gourley (20-4, 0.71 ERA, 217 strikeouts) against Sydney Littlejohn (17-8, 1.36 ERA, 181 strikeouts.
For the Gators to make it to Oklahoma City for the Womens College World Series, they’ll have to hit the ball consistently better than they did this past weekend. Florida has the best pitching in the country (0.71 ERA) and the Gators are also the top fielding team (only 21 errors in 60 games, .986 percentage), but they still have to put the ball in play if they’re going to win a third NCAA title in the last four years.
GATORS ADVANCE TO WOMEN’S TENNIS SEMIFINALS
The top-seeded Gators beat 9th-seeded Oklahoma, 4-1, Sunday to move into the semifinal round of the NCAA Women’s Championships in Athens, Georgia. That is the good news. The bad news is they face their 2017 nemesis Vanderbilt in the semifinals today. The 4th-seeded Commodores beat the Gators on the last weekend of the regular season to capture the SEC championship and then knocked off the Gators again a few days later in the SEC Tournament.
For the Gators, this is their 25th appearance in the semifinal round. Sunday’s win improved UF to 25-5 all time in quarterfinal matches.
WOMEN’S GOLF MOVES UP TO #13
By shaving 20 shots off their first round score, the 3rd-seeded Gators moved up t #13 at the NCAA Womens Golf Championships in Illinois. The Gators were 14-over par (302) on Sunday and they are 46-over at the halfway point. UF is 23 shots behind Northwestern, which has a two-day score of 23-over par 599.
ALL-TOO-EARLY COACHES HOT SEAT
I won’t be coming out with my first Countdown to Firing Day full list for another couple of weeks, but my all-too-early On Life Support Group is shaping up like this:
1. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
3. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
4. Todd Grantham, Arizona State
5. Butch Jones, Tennessee
6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
7. Brad Lambert, Charlotte
8. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern
9. Paul Haynes, Kent State
10. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
BEST RUNNING BACK DUOS IN SEC HISTORY
Gridironnow.com rated the top running back duos in the history of the SEC and placed the Auburn duo of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at the top of its list. They were good, but #1? I know it’s hard to compare eras, but consider Georgia’s 1942 combo of Flatfoot Frankie Sinkwich (won the Heisman) and Charley Trippi. Sinkwich ran for 828 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing for 1,456 and 10 TDs (Georgia ran single wing). Trippi ran for 787 yards and passed for 602, accounting for 11 TDs. Gridirronnow.com rated them #3. They had Florida’s three-headed backfield of Neal Anderson (916 yards, 7 TDs), John L Williams (793 yards, 3 TDs) and Lorenzo Hampton (693, 5 TDs) at #9, which is way, way too low. If you saw that 1984 team then you are well aware the Gators could run over, under, around and through any defense in the country. I also would take Auburn’s 1979 duo of Joe Cribbs and James Brooks over Cadillac and Brown.
Here is how I would rank the best five duos (or threesomes) ever in the SEC:
1. 1942 Georgia: Frankie Sinkwich and Charley Trippi
2. 1979 Auburn: Joe Cribbs and James Brooks
3. 2016 LSU: Leonard Fournette and Derius Guice
4. 2004 Auburn: Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown
5. 1984 Florida: Neal Anderson, John L Williams and Lorenzo Hampton
Former Gator Billy Horschel won the AT&T Byron Nelson Classic on the first playoff hole when Jason Day missed a four-foot putt that would have sent the playoff to a second hole. Horschell and Day were both 12-under for 72 holes. The win earned Horschel $1.4 million while Day’s paycheck was $810,000.
Horschel’s payday Sunday was more than the entire purse ($1.3 million) of the LPGA Kingsmill Classic, won by Lexi Thompson at 20-under par. Thompson’s winnings totaled $195,000. The four-way tie for ninth at the Byron Nelson was worth $195,000 each to Matt Kuchar, Joel Dahlmen, Cameron Triangle and Nick Taylor. The purse at the Regions Tradition on the Champions Tour was $2.3 million (won by Bernhard Langer, $345,000).
Former Alabama football coach and all around good guy Gene Stalling is at his home in Paris, Texas recovering from a stroke he says he suffered last Thursday.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated says Ole Miss can get hammered by the NCAA but not Baylor. Writes Staples, “Will the NCAA punish the Ole Miss football program for the distribution of an alleged $37,310 in cash, goods and services to players and recruits? Sure. The NCAA has rules against paying people for being good at a sport. But it has no rules against any of the awful things that happened at Baylor. States have rules against those things. So does the federal government. The NCAA does not.”
Rawle Alkins will drop out of the NBA Draft and return to Arizona for his sophomore season. Alkins’ decision could mean Pitt grad transfer Cameron Johnson winds up at Kentucky.
The cancer, which ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe, seemed to have beaten back in 2016 has returned. She plans to continue working while receiving treatment.
The venerable Los Angeles Coliseum has sold its naming rights to United Airlines for 15 years and $70 million. Per Sports Business Journal, this is the biggest naming rights deal in history for a college stadium or arena. After its recent fiasco involving a passenger being dragged off one of its planes, United needs a lot of good publicity. I’m not sure it’s going to get very much out of this one.
Every football coach in the SEC West earned more than $4 million last year. LSU will pay Ed Orgeron more than $3 million which makes him the lowest paid coach in the West but he’s still one of the 37 highest paid coaches in the country.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Which five Southeastern Conference football coaches are in the most danger of losing their jobs in 2017?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Tampa-born David Sanborn still rates as the greatest living saxophone player in my book. His 1982 album “Backstreet” is one of 32 Sanborn has released over the years. The final track on the album is his cover of “Neither One of Us,” which you might remember as a song originally recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips back in 1972. That song was written by former Ole Miss quarterback Jim Weatherly, who also wrote “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “he Best Thing That Ever .