NCAA FOOTBALL: Delinquency Equals Defeat?

It's been impossible this offseason for any Florida Gator football fan to not notice the supercharged activity of the police blotter in Knoxville, Athens and Columbia, along with a number of incidents in non-SEC locales like Tallahassee and, farther north, Columbus (Columbus, Ohio, not Columbus, Georgia).

The waywardness at a number of programs contending for the 2005 national title (on the above list, only Columbia sports a program not able to make a big run; yet even then, South Carolina obviously has the attention of Gator fans for an obvious, but very different, reason) can't help but make one ask: how will these encounters with the law affect each team's performance in 2005? A related question is this: will squeaky-clean programs enjoy a marked advantage over the Tennessees and Georgias of the world?

Since we're talking about improper behavior, the answer, quite frankly, is irresistible: the devil is in the details. It's fair enough to say that on many occasions, the controversy and negativity surrounding in-house embarrassments wind up devouring a team, which needs chemistry and cohesiveness to succeed. But on other occasions in past decades (and Gator fans know this well, in an all-too-unfortunate way), the Miamis and Florida States of the world have run afoul of the law... and into the national championship winner's circle. Think of 1999 and the Peter Warrick-Sebastian Janikowski soap opera as the most recent example of how a college football champion was in many ways propelled by players whose off-field conduct was as horrid as their on-field play was ruthlessly overwhelming. Long story short, this can cut both ways.

In examining the wayward programs over the offseason, the finer points are the ones that matter.

Georgia and Ohio State haven't suffered the raw numbers of losses experienced at Tennessee, but the problems experienced by the Bulldogs and Buckeyes might be more significant than the ones felt in Knoxville. Georgia is a team and a program that, with the departure of locker-room leaders in David Greene and David Pollack, enters 2005 in need of a character boost, an infusion of integrity to keep the ship afloat. Offseason incidents in Athens only put even more pressure on Coach Mark Richt and quarterback D.J. Shockley to instill character throughout the team, and with respect to Shockley, that's a very huge question mark. Georgia's 2002 SEC title team was celebrated for its leadership up and down the roster, but now, it seems as though off-field incidents can reasonably be associated with a potential leadership gap that will leave the Bulldogs in bad shape when they encounter truly difficult situations in the 2005 season.

Ohio State's off-field problems are significant because those problems have affected the status of a key player --- quarterback Troy Smith --- who has been suspended by coach Jim Tressel for the season opener against Miami-Ohio. Without reps in that game, Smith will be rusty for a remotely significant game against Texas. That fact alone makes Ohio State a team that stands to lose much from improper conduct among its players.

Florida State is a unique case study in its own right, because the Wyatt Sexton case ---which involved bizarre behavior --- has now been determined to be the result of Lyme Disease and not personal egoism taken to the extreme. The Sexton incident is also important, of course, because the Seminoles are now left with entirely untested performers at quarterback. The Noles get hit hard just because of Sexton's loss.

Tennessee is the high-profile program with the most scars, so one might think ---especially from a Florida Gator perspective --- that the Vols might stand to be the biggest loser of all. But that might not be the case. First of all, most of the Vols' suspended players were reserves or, at the very least, players who had yet to make their mark on the UT program. Secondly, one of the key losses --- scrambling quarterback Brent Schaeffer --- is minimized by the presence of Erik Ainge, who should be an exceptional signal-caller for Phil Fulmer this season. Third, the depth of the sting of embarrassment felt by Fulmer and his players just might make Tennessee's head coach, not the greatest of strategists (something every Gator fan has known for a long time), that much more able to play to his greatest strength as a coach: his ability to motivate. Tennessee's greatest successes have come when Fulmer has had loads of motivational ammo, and 2005 could be that kind of year.

Finally, it's instructive to note that Florida, Tennessee's main rival in 2005 for the SEC East, is a team that will sink or swim not based on motivation, but on technical excellence. The Gators' success this year is predicated on their execution and precision in running Urban Meyer's offense. The purpose of making this perhaps-obvious point is that Florida's freedom from criminal behavior won't necessarily translate into on-field advantages. Florida's challenge is about performance more than it is about attitude, though attitude will have something to do with the way Chris Leak and all the other Gators perform this fall. In the end, Tennessee is not only the team least likely to be harmed by off-field controversies; the Vols just might benefit from them.

And before putting this topic to rest, what about high-profile programs that are controversy free (other than Florida)? I'd pose two examples to show that the details, again, are what count:

Texas and USC have largely escaped the embarrassments found in Knoxville and Athens, but when you look at the way those teams fare in the biggest of big games, a deeply-entrenched culture has governed those two programs' performance levels, particularly (as a point of comparison) against Oklahoma. Whether Mack Brown's Longhorns were perfectly good boys or cutthroat hooligans, it probably wouldn't make one bit of a difference against the Sooners. On the other hand, the Trojans --- whether composed largely of choirboys or crazies --- would probably still rally around the example of Matt Leinart on gamedays, playing well no matter what the situation. Until shown otherwise, Texas and USC --- in really big games --- would probably display the same basic on-field personalities they've always had, regardless of the police blotter activity in Austin or LA.

Devilish behavior can't be relied on as a clear predictor of success or failure: the devil lurks always --- and only --- in the details... at least when we're talking only about wins and losses.


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