I think 2006 will bring a very difficult schedule. Urban Meyer's track record show improvement from year one to year two, so why shouldn't that trend continue? It can all start with a Florida team playing its bowl game with tremendous intensity --- the same kind of intensity the Gators showed in The Swamp against FSU last week. That produced a win that was sweet for the outgoing seniors but it is also a motivator for the returning players. They should know that winning this bowl game will set the wheels in motion for 2006.
Florida's win over FSU has recruits excited as they are jumping on board one by one and it has UF fans once again feeling good about the program. How could you not feel good about wins over Tennessee, Georgia and FSU, coupled with an unbeaten season at home? Meyer's team off the field has improved its public image as well as its GPA. This team is relatively young by many standards and returns five of its top six defensive linemen and loses only one top playmaker from its back seven. Defensively, the future is very bright after a top ten finish in 2005. Offensively Chris Leak returns with all his skilled players around him. Most schools would love to have a senior quarterback, multiple running backs and receivers with this much experience returning for another season. Add in Florida's strong special teams and you can see why Florida hopes for bigger and better things in 2006.
I believe that winning last week was much more important for Urban Meyer than for Bobby Bowden. While one coach is trying to keep his team together, Meyer is now seeing the fruits of his labor. Meyer stepped on campus with changes in everything that is being done inside the football program. With these changes comes doubt and sometimes resistance. But as time goes by, wins validate your program and everything you do. There may be a few more departures, but this team is officially Urban Meyer's now. That is what a win over FSU in your first try will get you. I think the players have bought in and that will only make year two that much easier to navigate.
What does Florida need to work on? The first thing is getting the bowl win. It does not matter where or who but UF needs nine wins more than any program in the country. It will give the Gators a top ten preseason ranking and fuel even more momentum in recruiting. Meyer has shown he knows how to prepare for bowl games and I expect UF to be all business. The offense needs to continue to develop in the spring with new offensive linemen. The Gators cannot afford to waste spring practice this year and need to find five guys and go with them in the right spots sooner than later. If the offensive line can develop then the offense will improve whether it's a mix of the spread and the split back or just a straight spread offense. The Gators have added run plays that take advantage of fast defenses like the trap and the counter trey. Florida did not even run these plays last spring from what I saw so expect that change in March and the ground game to take on even more importance. Finding the right parts at receiver may take until the fall with new recruits coming in next year. In the spring the Gators need to identify who is the best fit to play the slots and the outside spots. Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and Chad Jackson are the top three and if Bubba Caldwell is back then the top four should be set. Florida needs to refine its hurry up offense and spring is always a good time to do that. I look for UF to have a spirited spring that will prepare them for a big fall.
What lies ahead? Next year may be the most difficult schedule on paper in school history. Eight bowl teams and a road game at Rocky Top hilight year two for Urban Meyer. Adding a road game at Auburn and taking away a home game with Mississippi State really strengthens the Gators lineup. Florida will get Conference USA teams Southern Miss and UCF to start the season. George O'Leary will return everyone from a team that could win ten games this season. Tennessee and FSU on the road are two programs looking to bounce back next season and those are always tough venues. Urban Meyer's team needs to take the next step and win on the road next year and especially in conference games. Georgia loses D.J. Shockley, South Carolina must come to The Swamp and Tennessee will look to re-load under David Cutcliffe on offense. As always it should come down to the Gators road games at Tennessee, Auburn and in Jacksonville with Georgia.
My keys to the FSU game were very close to playing out. Let's re-visit them.
1. Who ever scores first and then one will win. UF scored first then got the second score to go up 14-0 which was too much for a struggling FSU offense. I did not think either team would make a big comeback and UF's defense made sure of that.
2. Number of Short fields (turnovers, special teams). Florida had three short fields while FSU only had one possession in Gator territory. For the first time in a big game (Alabama, South Carolina) the Gator defense held an opponent after a turnover to field goal attempt. Marcus Thomas would block the kick and the game was history. UF was +2 in turnover margin and won the field position battle due to solid special teams.
3. Running the football counts. Early on it looked like FSU would have the edge but UF shut down the Noles on fourth and one while Marcus Manson made some timely runs to keep the Nole defense honest in the second half.
Kudos to Dan Mullen: The much maligned offensive coordinator did not produce a 300 yard game, but it was not because he did not try. He called a solid game that featured balance. The one thing you can't do against FSU is become one dimensional. He ran the ball enough and even had called running plays to Chris Leak. I thought he managed the game well and should have had 300 yards passing if the offensive line would have held up at times and Chris Leak would have put more air on the ball to Jackson. Mullen has shown the ability to adapt the offense to the strengths of his team and that is a good sign for the future. I don't think the spread is dead but maybe the fact that the veer-option won't be the basis for the running game is on the back burner. One thing Mullen did a great job of Saturday was moving Chad Jackson around to get him one on one with safety Kyler Hall. This shows me he is a very creative mind and will continue to get better. It won't get easier to block guys next year but it will be easier for Mullen to game plan and identify what he wants to do week to week with the offense.
My first experience at Florida Field since 2002: Because of my television obligations I have not been at Florida field since the Miami game in 2002. Being on the field and seeing some of the ex-players and friends was a great experience for me this past weekend. The game is really fast now and even though UF dominated the game in the end, FSU's front seven was up to the task through most of the first half. I think there is a premium on offensive lineman in college football and schools may want to re-think the number of scholarships they give at that position. If you can sign more than what you need that seems to be a good idea. I also think more athletic guys need to move to offensive line from tight end and defensive line if we are going to see the days of 500 yards a game again. The SEC and ACC have great speed on defense and guys know they can go to the NFL right away playing defense in these two leagues. Football in the south is becoming more and more like the NFL because of the defenses. Look at the ACC you have Miami, Virginia Tech and FSU in the top ten but NC State, Georgia Tech and Clemson all have NFL players and speed on defense. In the SEC the Gators next year will face Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia and FSU all top 25 defenses this season. A quick passing game and a downhill running game will be a big part of the formula in the future against fast defenses.
Ex Gators Update: I talked with several players on Saturday and saw guys like Chris Doering, Noah Brindise and Shea Showers. Noah made the comment that because of personnel at UNLV they had to adjust and adapt there offense in WAC. Brindise works for former Utah offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. I thought that was quite interesting considering Florida went through some of the same adjustments. Brindise feels the future is bright for the Runnin' Rebels. My former teammate, GA Mangus, who was a backup quarterback from 1988-1991 is the head coach at Delaware Valley a division III school. In his fourth season of turning a dormant program around, he has his squad back in the National Quarterfinals this week against Rowan College. Last week he beat Athletic Director Jeremy Foley's Alma Mater, Hobart College, 21-14 in the playoffs. Mangus has been rumored from many division one openings at Temple and Wisconsin. Keep an eye on this ex-Gator as he moves through the coaching ranks.
This and That: Steve Spurrier fired Madre Hill as his running back coach. The ball coach wants more experience and don't be surprised if he is re-united with Gator running back coach Carl Franks. Franks, the former Duke head coach, currently coaches one of the best backs in the country in Andre Hall at South Florida. Charlie Strong and Larry Fedora (at Oklahoma State) have told me this week they have not been contacted by Middle Tennessee State. Strong really likes his job at Florida and it may take more than MTSU to pull him away from Gainesville. Fedora, who has a three year deal, is still building his system at Oklahoma State. One former Gator coach who is interested in MTSU is Ed Zaunbrecher. He is currently the quarterback coach at Illinois under Ron Zook.
Four players indicated this week that they may test their draft stock. Chris Leak and Marcus Thomas are doing it to see where they stand and how much they can improve. Dee Webb and Chad Jackson are very interested in leaving. I think both Webb and Jackson will make the jump to the pros this season. It is not a deep receiver draft and Jackson will test well at all the pro days. Webb who will test well, must make sure he can go on the first day. Remember Channing Crowder and Ciatrick Fason were third to fourth round guys. Even Alex Brown who was a senior and now one of the best ends in the league was a third or fourth round guy.
Finally give Urban Meyer credit for his recruiting. I don't know if all these guys will sign in February, but he has created a demand for the University of Florida. The more these kids commit the more the ones on the fence will have to make a decision. UF can only bring in 25, and I realize they can oversign but if you are a kid who has UF in your top three and you haven't committed soon there may not be room on the bus for you by signing day.