It is July and we're still a month away from the start of fall practice, but the questions are never ending. You've got questions. I've got answers. Here are ten questions and my responses from recent instant messages and emails:
Q: When do you think Bobby Bowden will retire?
A:There is a rumor that Bwana Bob, patron saint for wayward boys and convicted felons, secretly died at age 106 eight years ago and that they bring his cadaver out of the deep freeze on game day and place him on the sideline, hustling him back to the freezer shortly after game's end before he starts smelling a teensy bit fleshy. The real answer to this question is that he will hang up his whistle one day after Joe Paterno calls it quits up in Happy Valley, providing of course, that Bwana Bob still has the record for most wins. It's all about ego now for the former aide de camp for General Black Jack Pershing in World War I. He desperately wants to leave the game as the winningest coach of all time, although it should be noted that all of JoePa?'s wins were at the Division I level and Bwana Bob has a bunch of wins from his days at Howard College (which became Samford U). I do believe that there will be a number of Nolettes who will wish he retires at some point in the season when he has a senior moment and starts muttering about how football has changed since the days when Bear Bryant's star tailback was Forrest Gump. It will be quite interesting to see if the faithful from St. Bob's Home for Wayward Boys start getting restless after game one in the annual renewal of the Wide Right Bowl in Miami. All the publications have the Nolettes highly ranked. One would think that three years of Trixie at quarterback would have tempered their enthusiasm.
Q: I think Miami screwed up when they hired Larry Coker. I think this is the year that it starts to really show. Do you think they lose three or four games this year?
A: I think that reports of the demise of the University of New Jersey at Coral Gables are grossly premature. While I do not think they are as good as they were two years ago when they lost to Ohio State in the national championship game, I think they will achieve better results in 2004 than they did in 2003 even with the loss of six first round draft choices. Losing the disruptive influences of Kellen Winslow both on and off the field has to help the team. I believe the Himmicanes got so caught up with trying to get the ball to Winslow that the offense became very predictable, plus I believe Winslow's post-game act got old real quick. It didn't help things at all that Frank Gore went out before midseason. Gore was not only their best running back but their best blocker in the backfield. Brock Berlin should be better this year. It's hard to imagine that he could be worse than he was last year, but I wouldn't be surprised if Kyle Wright overtakes him in August. I look for Devin Hester to become a gamebreaker at wide receiver. While they lost two big offensive linemen, they still have the best offensive line coach in the business in Art Kehoe and they may have the best left tackle in all of college football in Eric Winston. Because of a shortage of linebackers and a lot of fresh but talented faces on defense, I expect the Himmicanes will pound the ball on the ground to keep the defense fresh. I can see one loss, and perhaps two. Three or four? No way, especially if they get both Willie Williams and James Bryant in school. I think Coker is a fine head coach who lets his assistant coaches coach. Give the guy a break. He's 35-3 with a national championship and a runner-up in three years. Bad coaches don't do that sort of thing. The real question about his long term success will be determined by his ability to recruit at the same level Butch Davis did. If he can bring in the talent consistently, Coker will be a long termer with a brilliant record.
Q: Do you think Georgia could win it all this year?
A: As much as I absolutely despise the Poodles (my only regret is that General Sherman didn't salt the earth and make Athens a desert for all time), I have to give Mark Richt credit for building a staff and a program that is going to be a contender for top five finishes in the nation for years to come up at the Jim Harrick School of Ethics. The Poodles won 11 games last year with an offensive line that was all freshmen and sophomores, a group of wide receivers whose slippery hands could have been used in Crisco commercials, and running back by committee. The offensive line has a year of experience, the receivers can't be that bad two years running and the running game will be better because the line is better. On defense, Brian Van Gorder is probably the best coordinator in the league who isn't a head coach (see Nick Saban). The defensive line has David Pollack back and it will be dominant if the tackles stay healthy. The linebackers and secondary are championship caliber. The Poodles get both Tennessee and LSU at home, so that's a huge break. The only thing that might stand in the way of the Poodles and a national championship is that first game in November at the Gator Bowl. Richt is 0-4 against UF. Until they prove themselves capable of beating the Gators, they won't get the chance to play for the big one.
Q: Can LSU repeat as national champions?
A: The fine folks at Huey Long State U are going to discover just how good Matt Mauck was now that he's fled early to the No Fun League. Mauck wasn't the greatest passer, the best runner or the best at anything. He just beat people. Jamarcus Russell has far more talent than Mauck ever had, but will he command the same kind of respect in the huddle? Will his teammates follow him as they would Mauck? In terms of overall talent, the Tigers have enough talent on both sides of the ball to repeat as national champions, but the dropoff in leadership at quarterback could hurt them early in the season. The Tigers play the Poodles and Florida on the road in back to back games in October. A young quarterback in these two hostile arenas does not bode well. The Tigers will have to come up with two remarkable defensive efforts to win both these games, but they do have two of the best defensive players in the nation in corner Corey Webster and middle linebacker Lionel Turner, plus Saban is the best in the SEC and one of the two or three best in the country at coming up with a defensive game plan. I expect one loss, perhaps two, but if LSU can sneak out of Poodlesville and Gainesville with two wins, they could run the table.
A: If not for a couple of leaks in the press about his whereabouts on a January weekend, Bobby Lowder would have successfully run another coach off at Aubrin, bastion of athletic integrity. T-Tubs under-performed last year with a team that had the talent to win it all and was within a press leak of the imminent hiring of Louisville's Bobby Petrino of being out of a job. The embarrassing disclosure saved T-Tubs for at least one more year. While there are a few holes to fill, the overall talent is there to have a great season in 2004. Of course, one of the big holes is at quarterback where Jason Campbell will once again look great against the Louisiana-Monroes of the world, then stink it up against any team that gives a multiple look. Translation: He couldn't read a defense spelled CAT if you spotted him the C and the A. But, even with a change at QB, I question whether T-Tubs could be a big winner. What he has proven over the years is that he can take a team that has not so much talent and win seven games, and then take a team that has a lot of talent and win eight. With every T-Tubs coached team, there are always at least three or four losses that just can't be explained. This year will be no different. The real question is can Aubrin afford to run him off after the inevitable 7-5 or 8-4 campaign considering the amount of negative publicity generated by Lowder's foray in January? My guess is seven wins and Aubrin is stuck with T-Tubs, but six or fewer and he's toast.
Q: What do you think is the key game for Florida this year?
A: There is no question in my mind that the single most important game for the Gators is game three up in Dollywood against the Smokey Mountain School for the Dentally Impaired. A win at Neyland Stadium in the first SEC game of the year would give the Gators the kind of confidence boost they will need with a team that will likely have at least half its two-deep slots filled by freshmen and sophomores. This is the kind of game that could set the tone for the entire season. A strong performance and a win on the road could have the same kind of propelling effect that the 1969 season opener against Houston had for Coach Ray Graves and the Super Soph Gators (59-35 UF victory). The Super Sophs went on to a 9-1-1 record. A win in Dollywood could be the first big step on the road to a nine or ten win season. This is a VERY winnable game for the Gators. I expect UT to come out running the ball, throwing only when necessary. I believe if Florida can stuff the run, it will be a Gator victory. I do not believe the huge crowd at Neyland Stadium will have any effect whatsoever on the poise of Chris Leak. On a side note, Gator fans should be warned to avoid the restrooms at Neyland Stadium on game day. The novel effect of recently installed auto-flush urinals and toilets is expected to be more fun for the Dollywood faithful than an early morning ride down the highway looking for road kill, so expect long lines.
Q: Can Chris Leak win the Heisman Trophy this year?
A: If a sophomore quarterback were to win it, it would have happened in 2001 when Rex Grossman had one of the best seasons ever for a college quarterback. So, my answer is no, I don't think Chris can win the Heisman this year because he will be just a sophomore. What I think he can do, however, is lay such a strong foundation that he will be an odds-on candidate to win either his junior or senior years. This is such a poised, hard working kid. When you combine the poise, work ethic and talent, it would be hard to imagine that he won't win the Heisman at least once. While the voters are supposed to give the Heisman to the best college football player, I think there is a built-in bias against sophomores. Like Rex, Herschel Walker should have won it as a sophomore but voters stated that they had a hard time giving it to a sophomore. There is a tendency also among Heisman voters to make this a lifetime achievement award, ala Gino Toretta (Miami, 1991) and Eric Crouch (Nebraska, 2001), plus we have an incumbent Heisman winner in Oklahoma's Jason White.
Q: Do you think that Larry Fedora will make any difference at all with the offense this year or will it be more of the same of the past two years?
A: After watching the spring game as well as talking to a lot of folks in the coaching profession, I think that we're in for a pleasant surprise with Fedora calling the shots. Friends in the media in Dollywood have told me that when it appeared certain that Randy Sanders (UT offensive coordinator) was heading to the No Fun League after the 2000 season, Phattus Maximus (Phil) had only one name on his replacement list — Larry Fedora. I've talked to others who tell me that Fedora will be a hot commodity for a head coaching position after what he does with the Gator offense this year. In the spring game, I liked how he had Chris Leak rolling left and right out of the shotgun. Since Chris isn't exactly the tallest quarterback out there, I liked that this created passing lanes for him, but I also liked it because it opens up the field a little bit more for him. I think Leak not throws the ball on the run very well, but he also makes very good decisions. I think we'll see far more play action this year, and perhaps more I-formation than we've seen in the past two years. We may see Leak throwing less but putting up bigger numbers because the offense could have the same kind of balance we saw with the 1984 Gators. If you weren't around in 1984, you missed a tremendous offensive team that could dominate a game through the air or on the ground.
Q: Other than Leak, who do you think will emerge as the big star on the offense?
A: That's an easy one. I think this is going to be Ciatrick Fason's year to take the SEC by storm. If C-4 gets his hands on the ball 15-20 times a game, he will be as good if not better than any back in the SEC. I guarantee you that every time he touches the ball, he puts the fear of God into every defensive coordinator in the league because C4 can do things that are just instinctive and can't be taught. Great breakaway runners have one trait in common other than speed, and that is the ability to break instinctively to open space. Ciatrick Fason can do that. On any play that he gets past the line of scrimmage, he is a threat to take it the distance. He showed in the LSU game last year that he's a real threat out of the backfield as a pass catcher. That's got to be a scary thought: C4 with the ball 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage with only one or two defensive backs to beat. He is also a fearless blocker who is unafraid of a blitzing linebacker. Chris Leak knows that if C4 is in the backfield, his back is covered.
Q: Who will be our breakout player on defense?
A: I think there will be two, Earl Everett and Reynoldo Hill. Everett has bulked up into the 224-228 range (he played at 206 last year) and it wouldn't surprise me to see him tip the scales at somewhere around 230 by the time August gets here. He's already got sprinter's speed. The extra bulk will help him deliver bone crushing hits and he will use his speed to be the most disruptive linebacker on the pass rush since the days of Alonzo Johnson. I believe Reynoldo Hill is going to pick up where Keiwan Ratliff left off at cornerback. He's got the great closing speed you want from a corner and he is a very solid 190 now, up about 18 pounds from when he arrived on the UF campus. If you check his records from high school and in junior college, he's always been a ball hawk. I think he could set the tone for a young secondary by becoming a shutdown corner.