Eight wins a year does not get that job done. Fans need to see progress in the program on the field in order to better focus their energies on the current and the future rather than the past. I think there are five key elements to making that happen, and making 2004 not only a big year for the Gators, but a turning point for the program and a springboard to national contention in 2005.
1. RE-ESTABLISH THE SWAMP
Perhaps nothing the Gators do this year would be more meaningful than making it clear that winning in Gainesville is something opponents can forget about. After five losses in the previous twelve seasons, the Gators have come up short the same number of times in the past two campaigns. They've been blown out at home; they've lost heartbreakers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. And, even some of the victories have been anything but artistic. With a relatively weak home schedule, only a sweep would accomplish this goal. That means knocking off a superb L-S-U team, taking care of potential speed bumps in Kentucky, Arkansas and South Carolina. And of course, winning the two pre-season games with Middle Tennessee and Eastern Michigan… or is it Eastern Tennessee and Middle Michigan?
2. STARTING BLOWING PEOPLE OUT
Obviously inferior opponents have been clobbered of late. Shoot the combined score against FAMU and San Jose State was 128-to-6! But what the Gators have to start doing is putting better teams away when the opportunity presents itself. Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are examples of games that could have been big wins that turned out not to be. There are a couple of reasons why I think this is important. First, big wins resonate throughout college football. When you blow some people out, you create some intimidation. Some future opponents may think as much about not getting embarrassed as they do about winning. Secondly, big wins mean much more meaningful playing time for your younger players. Failure to post more big wins are a big part of why Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius Chad Jackson and Andre Caldwell combined for fewer offensive plays than any of Florida's top three receivers last year. Similar stats will match up with the playing time in the secondary and on both sides of the line.
3. DOMINATE SPECIAL TEAMS
When Ron Zook was hired at UF, a big part of his resume was his success in the NFL (and at Florida) in coaching special teams. Yet Gator special teams have been anything but in the two years. While the kicking improved last year, Florida had no returns for touchdowns while Gator opponents returned four kicks all the way. Another year of inconsistent unproductive play on special teams will begin to undermine Coach Zook's credibility as an on-field coach. No amount of recruiting success can overcome that perception.
4 & 5. DO TWO THINGS FOR THE FIRST TIME
Everyone can define progress in his own way. To me, for the program to show progress Florida must not only be better in personnel, the results must improve. The best way to do that is to accomplish things in 2004 that were not done the past two years. There are four ideal places to do that; any two of these would be undeniable signs of the Gators return to prominence:
- Win nine or more regular season games (tougher in an 11-game season)
- Win the SEC East and earn a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Title game. Tying for first and staying home (like last year) does not qualify
- Win in Tallahassee. Would anything be better than ending an 18-year drought at Doak Campbell?
- Earn an upgraded bowl bid. Isn't it time Florida left the state for a bowl? Gators have been in-state six of last seven bowl games.
So that's my blueprint for Gator success in 2004. You may have other items which stand out in your mind and that's fine. I think Florida has the personnel to be a 9-plus victory team this year, but also see cause for concern, especially if the top three items are not addressed.
SOUTHERN CAL/VIRGINIA TECH SOLID START
For those of you who read my last column and thought, "hey, Larry's pretty sharp most of the time and if he says 18 ½ is too much to give Virginia Tech then I'm betting on it" you are most welcome.
I thought it was a pretty good season opener and a solid effort by both teams. Tech will struggle if they cannot find a running game to support Randall, while USC just didn't look as impressive as they were last year. But it is just opening day, and they did find out they had lost Mike Williams very late in the week. While I think Oklahoma, LSU and FSU have better rosters top-to-bottom, I think Southern Cal has the weakest schedule of the top contenders.
THE MOST FEARED COACH IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL?
It was an amusing little segment in the recent "Sports Reporters" program on ESPN. One panelist referred to the Head Ball Coach as the most feared coach in college football. Feared by every coach on the hot seat, that is. The point being every program viewed as an underachiever will hear the media bringing up Spurrier's name after every loss. Not all of the following situations make sense for S-O-S, but among the schools who could be in the market: North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Colorado, South Carolina, Texas, UCLA, Brigham Young, Illinois and Notre Dame.
Don't forget to email me your questions and comments, but please do not include attachments! Many emails this week had them and had to be left unopened. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, I look forward to you joining me on the radio, Sunday nights from 6:00-to-8:00 on Gainesville's WSKY-FM 97.3 (877/975-9825 toll free)