— If you are already weary of the verbal run-up to college football season, if you are sensing more of a coronation than competition, if you want to see things really shaken up, we have some good news.
The No. 1-ranked Florida Gators can be defeated.
(Full disclosure: We’re not convinced the Gators actually will be defeated in 2009, but that’s another matter).
You have heard about the Florida defense, returning not only the 11 starters, but the entire two-deep roster. (Has that ever happened?) You have heard about the Gators’ blinding skill-position speed, enough to field a 4x100 relay team. You have heard about the mostly forgiving schedule (no Alabama or Ole Miss during the regular season, Tennessee and Florida State at home).
And you may have heard about quarterback Tim Tebow (just a few times).
But here’s something you haven’t heard much: What if Florida stumbles? What if the Gators have a bad day and the opponent plays out of its mind? What if there are injuries to key personnel?
Of course, you can apply that thinking to any good team. There are no unbeatable teams. Some of the most-hyped outfits in college football history (1983 Nebraska, 1986 Miami, 2005 USC) have gone down. It can happen to Florida, too.
The SEC hasn’t had a repeat champion since 1997-98 (Tennessee). The Gators never — not once — have had an unbeaten season in the school’s football history. During each of the Gators’ three national title seasons, somebody rose up and played a picture-perfect game to snatch victory away from Florida (Florida State in 1996, Auburn in 2006, Ole Miss in 2008).
So there you have it. Here are some logical candidates to defeat Florida:
Now how does it happen? How do you beat Florida?
Take the lead (and hold it)
The Gators are an excellent front-running team. Games often get out of hand once Florida goes up by two touchdowns, then shifts into free-wheeling attack mode on defense.
Bottom line: Much of Florida’s success in the Tebow era occurred when the Gators simply pounded opponents into submission. The Gators have been far less efficient in tightly contested games that required a comeback.
Limit the big plays
Of course, the Gators are going to make some big plays. With Tebow, Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and true freshman Andre Debose (remember that name) on hand, the Gators can’t be shut down completely.
But instead of double-digit big plays, what if the Gators were limited to, say, six of them? The chances for an opponent’s success goes up exponentially.
In 2006, Auburn was the only team to defeat Florida. The Tigers did it again in 2007. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp talked then of making Florida “bleed for the yards’’ while maintaining a disciplined, patient approach on defense. It worked beautifully. (And it must be noted that Muschamp moved on to Texas, the only team last year to defeat Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford during the regular season).
Win the turnover battle
Opponents must play mistake-free football and find ways for Florida to make the big mistake.
Tebow can’t score without the ball. Nothing is more frustrating to him and the Gators than facing a team that moves the chains. Auburn and LSU (2007) worked that plan to perfection in defeating Florida, which was prone to surrendering yardage on the ground during its losses in recent years.
Let’s get physical
By guarding the perimeter and forcing action to the center of the field, then allowing the linebackers and secondary to unload, the physical play can become a definite factor in the fourth quarter of a tight game.
So if an opponent can take the lead … and if it limits the big plays … and if it can win the turnover battle … and if it maintains a ball-control offense … and if it plays with a physical edge …
(Yes, that’s a lot of if’s).
Well, then, the Gators might have a problem.
We can say this with certainty. If Florida is off its game, and the opponent follows the formula, the Gators can be beaten.
That’s not exactly a stunning revelation in a sport that routinely produces crazy results on any given Saturday, but maybe it provides some perspective (and hope) heading into opening weekend.
Florida might be an overwhelming favorite. But it’s not a done deal — far from it.
Q: What’s your surprise team this season?
— Michael from Easton, Pa.
A: Not a total stunner, but a mild surprise. I like the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to win the ACC, make the first BCS bowl in program history and finish in the Top 10. Most prognosticators are going with Virginia Tech (at least before Darren Evans’ season-ending injury) or perhaps Florida State to win the league.
Coach Paul Johnson’s “flexbone’’ offense is a major problem for opponents. Junior running back Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards, 12 touchdowns, nine 100-yard games last season) is the real deal. Don’t forget sophomore Roddy Jones (8.5-yard average, 214 yards against Georgia). And definitely remember Louisville transfer Anthony Allen, a junior big back who set the Cardinals’ single-game record for rushing.
Here’s an interesting statistic: 37 of Georgia Tech’s 40 touchdowns last season were scored by freshmen or sophomores. To me, that suggests the Yellow Jackets are just going to get better and better. Georgia Tech’s resurrection begins now.
Q: Do you think the prognosticators have LSU underrated with all the talent they have and the fact it appears they have cured their quarterback issues? Also, the Tigers have a new defensive coordinator that appears to be doing a good job so far.
— Kenneth from Jacksonville, Fla.
A: LSU is not a consensus Top 10 team, Kenneth, but I think that’s partially a product of its competition in the SEC West.
Alabama is loaded, even though it must replace the quarterback and few other pieces. The talent level with the Crimson Tide is quite impressive, and it looks like Alabama is here to stay for several more seasons.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss is everyone’s chip Top 10 pick this season. For good reason. Jevan Snead, the quarterback, is one of the nation’s best players, and the Rebels have several all-SEC level players up and down the lineup.
However, anyone overlooking LSU should do so at their own risk. The Tigers also have a boatload of talent and if sophomore Jordan Jefferson continues his progression at quarterback, they will be just fine. LSU’s offensive line is terrific and there’s the usual array of quality players at the skill positions, most notably running back Charles Scott and wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
Defense? That’s the key issue. Last season, for the first time in program history, two teams scored at least 50 points against LSU (while Ole Miss and Arkansas each put 31 points on the board). John Chavis, formerly of Tennessee, is the new defensive coordinator and he should get things straightened out. He’s very experienced in the SEC and I’m expecting LSU’s defense to be much better.
LSU has a difficult schedule — including road dates at Ole Miss and Alabama — so winning the SEC West might be a tall order. But LSU will have plenty to say about who wins the SEC this season. By season’s end, particularly if Jefferson plays to his potential, LSU could be at the top 10 level.
Q: What do you think of USC starting a true freshman at quarterback?
— Brett from Davis, Calif.
A: I don’t have a major problem with it. Matt Barkley was one of the premier prep players in the nation and played at an elite program (Mater Dei). He entered school early and had a full spring of work at USC, so he already was on the fast track.
But make no mistake. There was a huge mitigating circumstance. Aaron Corp, named starter in the spring, suffered a cracked fibula on the third day of training camp. That, more than anything, might have swung the decision because Corp’s mobility has been severely compromised.
USC coach Pete Carroll was quick to say Barkley’s ascension wasn’t “a one-game thing.’’ And all eyes won’t necessarily be on USC’s opener (Saturday, San Jose State), but on the huge Sept. 12 trip to Ohio State, a likely season-defining moment for both programs.
Carroll isn’t the type to bench a quarterback, so this decision could effectively be a three-year plan if Barkley plays well.
Barkley will be surrounded by a talented offensive cast, beginning with a stacked backfield (Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable, et al), a nice receiver in Damian Williams and an offensive line that returns four starters. He’s as well-positioned as any true freshman — maybe ever — to have success.
So let’s see what the kid can do. I don’t think USC misses a beat.
Q: Given the youth of the Michigan team (quarterback in particular) and an untested offensive line, what are their chances of having a winning season?
— David Kitchen from McKinleyville, Calif.
A: I think Michigan makes a very large leap from last year’s 3-9 disaster — and that means a winning season, plus a return to a bowl game.
History tells you big things are usually in store for elite coaches in their second season with a new program. Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Jim Tressel (Ohio State) and Urban Meyer (Florida) won national titles in the second season after laying the foundation with mediocre debuts.
Rodriguez himself began 3-8 at West Virginia in 2001, then improved to 9-4.
The regression at Michigan was somewhat predictable (although not at a 3-9 level). The Wolverines looked headed for a down cycle, plus Rodriguez had to endure the inevitable adjustments to a new system and new coaching staff.
Michigan is not ready to compete for a Big Ten championship, obviously. Ohio State and Penn State are top dogs in the league and Michigan, luckily, gets both of them at home. The Wolverines do have four difficult Big Ten road games — against Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin — and may not be favored to win any of them.
Then there’s the pivotal non-conference game against Notre Dame — big for both programs, actually.
I see 7-5, maybe 8-4 in a best-case scenario, for the Wolverines. That’s not up to Michigan’s traditional standards, but at least it’s a return to a bowl game. The Wolverines must be positioned for Big Ten contention in 2010. Rodriguez has made some recruiting inroads to suggest that’s a possibility.