College Football

Tiger Vs. Tiger Isn’t The Only Similarity

If you’ve never been to Clemson, you’re not alone. It’s a destination. You’re not going to accidentally end up in Clemson. In the northwest corner of South Carolina, Clemson is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the shores of Lake Hartwell.

While the university has always been known as “Clemson.” The town was originally called “Calhoun” until the 1940’s when the name was changed to Clemson. The town is pretty much only there because of the school and Princeton Review named it the top place in their “town and gown” ratings where they rank the relationship between the school and the town.

They once shot a Burt Lancaster movie in Clemson, the producer saying they were looking for a place “where nothing was going on.”

There’s no lack of support for Clemson Tiger sports and the football team though. The university is committed to having a nationally competitive program. And the fans do their part. Their football program is bolstered by the “ITPAY” fundraising organization founded in 1934 specifically to raise money to keep the team competitive. Originally it stood for, “I Pay Ten A Year.” Now IPTAY is just the moniker: it has raised over $360 million in the last six years.

The private fundraising group keeps them competitive with schools from the Big 10 and the SEC that bring in nearly $150 million a year from television rights, bowl revenue, ticket sales and student fees as well as private donations.

“If not for IPTAY,” one donor said, “We’d be Wake Forest or Duke.” And that means no football championships.

The Tiger’s Reeves Football Complex is a $55 million, 142,500 square foot facility with the standard football training spaces and equipment but also has a barber shop, a bowling alley, a nap room, outdoor basketball court and a miniature golf course.

LSU is equally passionate about sports and their football team. This year they unveiled a $28 million renovation to their “Football Operations” facility.

They’ve been playing football there since 1893. They’ve won 16 conference championships. They crank out All-Americans and NFL players on a regular basis. They’ve won three National Championships. And, maybe by coincidence, after their first national title was claimed in 1958 (awarded after the regular season), they went on to beat Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl.

In Baton Rouge they made nearly $87 million just on football in 2018 with a nine-win season. Over $22 million of that was from donations. They spent over $34 million running the Tigers football program that year. Their coaches made $14.3 million of that. They have one of the few college baseball teams that turn a profit.

Both schools call their teams the Tigers. Both football teams play in a stadium nicknamed “Death Valley.” Both of their coaches are from the South. Dabo Swinney is from Alabama, played at Alabama, coached at Alabama and got his MBA from Alabama. He’s the highest paid college coach in the nation at $9.3 million a year. Ed Orgeron is from Louisiana, started his football career at LSU. He’s been at a myriad of schools, including coaching at Arkansas, Miami, USC, Tennessee and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. He landed his first head-coaching job at Ole Miss. He’s making about $4 million a year.

And besides their southern roots, the similarities don’t end there. Both aren’t afraid to make a change, take chances and live with the consequences.

Much has been said about Orgeron hiring Joe Brady to revamp the LSU offense and build a passing game around quarterback Joe Burrow. That decision propelled Burrow to the Heisman Trophy and LSU to an undefeated record. It’s a big leap for a coach to scrap what he was doing, what he was comfortable with and take things in a whole different direction. The last time anybody paid attention to the LSU passing game, Bert Jones was the quarterback. They’ve had Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr. and D.J. Chark at wide receiver but never produced like the Tigers did this year with Burrow.

With much less fanfare last year, Swinney was equally bold with his quarterback. Deshaun Watson helped Clemson win the national championship and his backup, Kelly Bryant, was the natural successor for the Tigers. And he played great when he got his chance, compiling a 12-2 record in his first year as a starter, won the ACC Championship and put Clemson in the college football playoffs. But four games into Bryant’s second season, still undefeated, Swinney made a change to Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman. Sure Lawrence might have been the number one recruit in the nation but still, he was a freshman! Swinney’s instinct was right as Lawrence led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the National Championship. Swinney’s move allowed Bryant to transfer and play his final year at Missouri. But it also left Clemson without a real backup at quarterback.

“My job is to make decisions that put the team in the best possible path to win,” he said last year of his quarterback move, “and after four games he was the best player.”

So boldness won’t be an issue for either team Monday night. Burrow with throw it, and run it for LSU’s Tigers. Lawrence will throw it and run it for Clemson’s Tigers. Both coaches will reach into their bag of tricks, probably more than once, to change the momentum of the game.

When they square off for the National Championship Monday night, both teams will have played one game in the last five weeks. Both won their conference championship games on December 7th, and played in the National Semi-Finals on December 28th. It’s a one-year anomaly according to the College Football Playoff Committee. There were some quirks in the schedule and venues already booked in New Orleans that pushed the game back a week. Next year, the semifinals will be on January 1st and the title game played on the 11th in Miami.

While LSU is a favorite in this game, Clemson is vying to win their third national championship in four years. That’s dynasty kind of stuff that doesn’t normally fit in the ACC but Clemson is not your normal ACC school.

Writing this column got me pretty fired up to watch the game, and after all of the talk about quarterbacks, it’ll probably be defense that decides the outcome. As good as Clemson’s defense was last year, that’s where I think LSU’s is in 2020. Many of you know that I attended Clemson and played football there as a freshman. I could say something silly like, “I’ll take the Tigers,” but it’s the Baton Rouge version that will come out on top Monday night in a lower scoring game than you might think.

Bailey, Wuerffel Say FL/GA is Special

Now that the city has a new contract with the universities, maybe they’ll put their efforts into making something of the Georgia/Florida weekend. There’s been a tepid move in that direction with a party and a concert but I’m talking about something on a much grander scale. Not Super Bowl grand, but a festival weekend that brings people downtown and entices them to stay rather than tell them to just go home. (Same with Gate River Run weekend.)

It’s a mystery why the City of Jacksonville, from a government standpoint, has always seemed to take the game for granted. Closing streets, bringing in vendors, food trucks and all kinds of entertainment would entertain and contain the fans in town for more than just a football game.

Because it is more than just a football game. It’s a cultural happening.

Private enterprise will make it happen whether the city gets involved or not. School icons Champ Bailey and Danny Wuerffel are already a part of that.

They’re hosting “The Player’s Reception” on Friday night, a tailgate party in the Channel 7 parking lot across the street from the stadium. It’s the third one Bailey has hosted and the first where he and Wuerffel have joined forces.

The idea is to connect former players, fans, and corporate leaders to network, have some fun, raise money for charity and give guys a chance to make a positive transition out of football.

“I was paying attention to business after playing and thinking how can I use the game to give back,” Bailey said this week. “Who can I help by doing this? Getting everybody in the same room: players, fans, and corporate execs. I’ve gotten value and opportunities, in every meeting I’ve ever had. Face to face, that’s important.”

“I have a ton of respect for Champ as a player and a person,” Wuerffel said from Atlanta where he’s the Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries and coming off shoulder surgery. “It’s a way to reconnect with former players and engage with fans and help some guys.”

Bailey, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy winner, acknowledge the transition out of football, no matter when it stops, is a tough one. Bailey says giving guys a chance to connect with other players and business leaders equates to “local hero marketing.”

“It dominates your life,” Champ said of playing football at a high level. “If you’re not consumed with the game you don’t have a chance to be a great player. But it gets in the way of learning something new outside of football. You need to know the impact you’ve had and how that provides other opportunities.”

“When everything is going for you, it’s easy to get caught up in the ride of it,” Wuerffel added. “It’s a tough transition. Whether it’s high school, college or the NFL. So much of your life is tied up in this one activity. How do you navigate forward?”

Wuerffel is no stranger to using the popularity of the Florida/Georgia game to raise money and awareness for Desire Street Ministries. The 9th annual “desire cup” golf tournament will be contested this Friday at the TPC at Sawgrass with a dinner Thursday night.

“The momentum around the Florida/Georgia game give us a chance to achieve our goals,” Wuerffel said. The tournament is sold out but their fundraising continues with a “19th hole donation” available on the ministry’s website.

Neither Danny nor Champ knew much about the legendary tailgating going on at the game. As players they knew the hotel, the bus and the inside of the stadium. Because he was playing, Bailey said last year was the first time he had been to a tailgate.

“I had never been to Georgia/Florida,” he explained. “I had never tailgated because I was playing. I got to see so many people I hadn’t seen. That rivalry is so big, a lot of different people are going to be there.”

“It’s got that combination of significance in the SEC, the fans are extra hyped, and it’s in Jacksonville,” Wuerffel said. “I was less in tune with the peripheral stuff. I felt more uniqueness as a fan after I was finished playing in the game.”

His first trip to the game brought a quick awareness to the uniqueness and sheer scope of what happens before kickoff.

“I came in on a boat,” he recalled, getting off at Metropolitan Park. “I still had to get over to the stadium. Back then, I couldn’t walk anywhere without Gator fans converging on me. I put some pom-poms in my hat so It looked like I had long hair. I think I put on sunglasses. I put a big hood over the hat. It was wild.”

Having very different experiences as players in the game didn’t diminish their respect for the contest. Wuerffel was 4-0 against Georgia. Bailey went 1-2 against the Gators with an interception. “They were just better than us,” Bailey explained. “Spurrier had it figured out.”

Growing up in Folkston, Bailey was well aware of the rivalry from an early age. He went to the game once when his older brother Ron was on the Bulldogs roster.

“That rivalry meant something on the border,” Champ said. “There are a lot of Gator fans in my home town. My idols went to Florida. But I was always a Bulldog. It meant something to me since I can remember football.”

In a weird quirk of his career, Bailey has been on teams with all three Heisman winners from Florida. He was a teammate with Wuerffel in Washington when Steve Spurrier was the Head Coach there. And he was a teammate with Tim Tebow in Denver.

Both Wuerffel and Bailey think playing in Gainesville and Athens are the best home venues there are. But both said this game should stay in Jacksonville.

“It’s a unique thing,” Wuerffel explained. “It’s more convenient for Florida fans I know. You play plenty of home and away games in your career. Not many opportunities to play a neutral site game.”

Bailey agreed.

“To be able to play in it and now go to it. I hope it never leaves Jacksonville,” he said. “That location on the river, it’s something special. I’m interested in that game thriving. I’m interested that town thriving. I basically grew up there.”

Mullen Has Florida Headed in Right Direction

Regardless of the outcome of last night’s game in Baton Rouge, Dan Mullen’s tenure at Florida so far has been nothing but positive.

Riding a 10-game winning streak going to LSU after beating Auburn last week at The Swamp, Florida was undefeated through their first six games in 2019 for the fourth time since 2006 and only the 10th time in school history.

And Mullen is at the center of the Gators resurgence.

“It’s cool and great to get this program back to where it should be,” quarterback Kyle Trask said this week. “All of the outside noise comes with the success we’re having.”

That outside noise is in the form of being ranked and as Mullen noted, playing the biggest games of the week.

“We were the biggest game in the country last week and we’re the biggest game in the country this week again,” Mullen said. “That’s what makes you want to play at Florida so you can play in the biggest games each week.”

When Florida went looking for a coach to replace Jim McElwain, Mullen was the easy choice. He had won at Mississippi State and Scott Stricklin, the Athletic Director at Florida, had been his boss in Starkville.

But he wasn’t the popular choice.

During his first tenure as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, Mullen wasn’t the most likeable guy in Gainesville. Brash, and off-putting, he had a way of letting everybody know he was smarter than they were in any conversation.

I even asked him about that when he was introduced as the Gators head coach in November of 2017. I noted the difference between Starkville and Gainesville and asked if he was ready for the expectations that came from Gator Nation. He knew what I was asking and while lauding Mississippi State and Bulldogs fans, he said he had learned a lot about being a head coach in the SEC after being away from Gainesville for nine years.

And he has.

Glib and confident, Mullen embraces all that goes along with being the Florida Gators Head Coach. He interacts with fans and has been unfailingly pleasant during his media time. He even starts most press conferences with “How’s everybody doin’?”

None of that would matter if he hadn’t won sixteen of his first 19 games. And the Gators have done that in all kinds of different ways. They’ve played good defense, they’ve gotten things done on special teams and their offense has had its bright spots.

“The biggest factor is we win the game,” Mullen said when asked about what kind of identity he’d like the Gators to have. “Three to two, 49-48, I don’t care, we’re winning.”

But Mullen says whatever is working, he’ll go with it. It doesn’t matter that he’s supposed to be a “quarterback whisperer” and an offensive guru.

“We want to play great defense,” he added. “We look at the program as a whole. I’m not into the numbers, just so we can claim we’re some magical offense. We look at our roster, our players, each game dictates what you’re going to do.”

At Florida, the offensive and defensive staff rooms are right next to each other. That’s on purpose. When the offensive game plan is coming together, they’ll stick their head in the defensive room to see how they’d defend what Mullen and company have cooked up. And vice-versa.

Losing Felipe Franks to an injury pushed Kyle Trask into the starting role, something Mullen was confident would work out. That’s because Trask had showed Mullen every day in practice what he’s capable of on the field.

“I hate the word ‘gamer,” Mullen said this week talking about Trask taking his game from practice to the stadium. “’Hey it’s going to be different when I get in the game.’ I want to see it every day in practice. When the lights come on it is different. To me, how you respond in those situations is important. The guy I saw is somebody who’s a good decision maker, an accurate passer.“

If Florida is going to compete with Alabama and Georgia in the National Championship picture, it might take a couple years of recruiting under Mullen. He’s always recruiting, because that’s what it takes. He’s talking to recruits, meeting them on their official visits. He was shaking hands and hugging recruits after the Auburn game at Florida Field, selling the program.

When asked about LSU’s claim as the school where great defensive backs come from, Mullen showed his knowledge of Gator history, defended his team, and slipped in some recruiting dialog all in one answer.

“We’ve got good defensive backs on our roster right now,” Mullen said. “But going back, that’s always been where we’ve had good players here at Florida. It’s not just the last five to ten years. Great players that have gone onto great careers in the NFL. They’re continuing that tradition here. There are a lot of great players in America who want to come here and continue that tradition here at Florida.”

It’s only the middle of his second season in Gainesville, but Mullen looks like he knows what it’s going to take to appease the Gator Nation. There will be bumps along the way, but if Florida can get back to past glory, Mullen looks like the guy who can get them there.

Coaches and QB’s Make the Difference

When it comes to where the University of Florida and the University of Georgia football programs have gone in the last ten years, it’s apparent where the success or failure in Gainesville or Athens comes from. To win in either of those places you need a coach with an offensive philosophy and you need a quarterback to get the job done.

That’s nothing new in the last thirty years in the Southeastern Conference. Steve Spurrier brought that idea to a defensive minded “Don’t make a mistake” SEC in 1990 and revolutionized how to win in the conference and in turn in college football. Dubbed the “Fun ‘n Gun,” Spurrier’s offense put up numbers, touchdowns and wins at a record pace. He made no apologies about scoring and not worrying about out-scoring the opponent. When you’d ask Steve something about the Gators’ defense during his mid-week press conference, he’d say “You’ll have to ask Coach (Bobby) Stoops about that.” And Stoops would have his own press conference when Spurrier was done.

Going back thirty years, the two schools’ football programs are dominated by two coaches: Steve Spurrier at Florida and Mark Richt at Georgia. Both were offensive-minded coaches who were willing to spread it out, throw it around and recruited quarterbacks to do it. Spurrier had Shane Matthews, Terry Dean, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman running his offense. Richt recruited David Green, D.J. Shockley, Matt Stafford, Aaron Murray and even Jacob Eason although he never played for Richt.

SEC passing records and conference titles followed both coaches and their quarterbacks in Athens and Gainesville. Since Spurrier’s departure nearly 20 years ago, Florida has had only one real offensive run under Urban Meyer. Meyer’s another coach who’s looking for skill players who can run, throw and catch.

Neither his off-putting personality nor his penchant to recruit players on the edges of eligibility and the law stopped Meyer’s offensive juggernaut. He wanted to score points and recruited players to do that. While Ron Zook brought Chris Leak to Florida, it was Meyer who won a National Championship with Leak behind center. And when Leak committed to Florida, it opened the floodgates for other skill players to make their way to Gainesville.

Meyer convinced Tim Tebow to join him in Gainesville, outdueling Alabama for the quarterback’s services. Another National Championship followed along with a laundry list of quarterback records amassed by Tebow.

So what’s happened since then?

Once the Meyer era ended the Gators turned to Will Muschamp to lead the program. Muschamp is a solid coach, but he’s willing to win games 21-17. Not only does that not work in the SEC any longer, it also doesn’t please Gator fans.

“We just didn’t win enough games,” Muschamp said at his departure press conference. He was exactly right but an inspection of his quarterbacks probably reveals why. John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg and Treon Harris all started for the Gators under Muschamp. With Muschamp’s philosophy, none flourished in Gainesville. Brissett, Driskel and Murphy all transferred. Brissett and Driskel are still in the NFL. Murphy starred in his final season at Boston College.

With the promise to revive the offense, Jim McElwain arrived in Gainesville to much fanfare. His problems started when Will Grier became ineligible and transferred to West Virginia where he had a stellar career. Gator fans then watched Luke Del Rio, Malik Zaire and current placeholder Feleipe Franks drive the points and win totals down. Turns out McElwain was part of the problem, not the solution and his acumen for recruiting quarterbacks remains in question.

Georgia’s quarterbacks in the last twenty years also follow their success. Joe Tereshinski, Joe Cox, Hutson Mason, Greyson Lambert and Faton Bauta all started games of varying degrees for the Bulldogs but without much success.

Both Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart fill the role needed to win in the SEC and on the national stage in today’s college football climate. Mullen has stuck with Franks and Smart inherited Eason but recruited Jake Fromm and even Justin Fields to Athens.

Mullen is quick to point out that 17 of the top 25 quarterbacks in Franks’ recruiting class have already transferred.

“He’s stuck it out, and he’s continued to work and stay through different adversities, to continue to grow, to continue to develop,” Mullen said of the Gators projected starter for 2019. “And he’s starting to reap all of the rewards of that now with how he finished last year.”

At 6’6” and 227 lbs. Franks is a prototypical quarterback that wins in college football these days. He can throw and run, something Mullen has encouraged him to do. He made the outlandish statement, “I want a fourth statue,” at the SEC Media days referring to the three Heisman winners already immortalized outside of Florida Field.

Smart, despite his defensive background as a player and a coach, has had an embarrassment of riches at quarterback since becoming the ‘Dogs Head Coach and his 24-5 record reflects that. Having Jake Fromm entrenched at quarterback the last two years continues the skill player talent pipeline to Athens. The Georgia Head Coach referred to that when talking about emerging star wide receiver George Pickens who picked the ‘Dogs over Auburn.

“He knew what style offense he wanted to play in,” Smart explained. “He saw an opportunity when he saw two guys declare early for the draft. I know he wanted to have an opportunity to play with a quarterback like Jake Fromm.”

So you want to win in Athens and Gainesville? Get a coach who loves points and a quarterback who can get them.

Georgia is there. Florida might get back there, but currently the Gators are playing catch up.

Georgia Florida is a Big Deal

Working in Charleston I got a chance to come to Jacksonville to cover the Gator Bowl in the late ‘70’s a couple of times. After the 1978 game between Clemson and Ohio State (the one where Woody Hayes famously punched Charlie Bauman on the sidelines) I asked an usher on the way out, “What else do you do with this stadium?”

She looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “We have the Florida/Georgia game every year!”

As an out-of-towner I shrugged it off, not knowing the magnitude of the yearly contest. I also didn’t realize that just by saying, “Florida/Georgia” she identified herself as a Gator fan.

So when I moved here, I quickly realized there’s not much agreement across the border about the annual matchup, from how many times they’ve played to even what the game is called. I decided I’d list the current winner first after that, so this year, it’s Georgia/Florida.

There aren’t many games like it, if any. Perhaps Texas/Oklahoma, but that has the state fair going on at the same time so it’s not a fair comparison.

Georgia/Florida is a big deal. We need to make it a bigger deal.

Playing the game at a neutral site is unique, but between Jerry Jones in Dallas and Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, we have some competition when it comes to neutral site attractiveness.

And don’t think the game isn’t on other cities’ radar. Or that the two universities wouldn’t listen to suitors, or even think about keeping it in their own backyards. Their stadiums are plenty big and their fans plenty anxious.

Jacksonville has been the host since 1933 (except for 1994 and ’95 when it went home-and-home because of stadium renovations here). The current contract has a few years left on it so now’s the time to ramp it up and show what we can do. There’s about $14 million in direct spending on that one day in Jacksonville just from the game. The actual economic impact is well over $30 million. For one day. Imagine if we created a three-day festival around the game and really had some fun?

As big as this game is for the city I still don’t think we do enough as the host. It’s one of two days a year (the other being Gate River Run) that people come downtown for an event, some with no intention of going to the game, or running. And when it’s over, we just basically tell them to go home.

Aren’t city leaders always talking about how to bring people downtown?

Gator Bowl Boulevard is already closed to traffic, why not line it with street vendors and live music and make a real festival of the day just like we did when the Super Bowl was here? We ought to invest in some big custom balloons and fly a Gator over one end of the stadium and a Bulldog over the other.

A few years ago the city put up big screens in the parking lots to accommodate the fans who weren’t going to the game. Then-Florida President Bernie Machen nixed the idea saying it promoted drinking. I applaud Machen for the work he did in brining attention to the issue of over-indulgence at the game. But getting rid of the big screens wasn’t the solution. When they didn’t appear the next year all you had was crowds of people jostling for position around all of the little screens already in the parking lot. Bring those big screens back.

With the loosening of some of the alcohol restrictions at NCAA events, selling alcohol in our stadium at Georgia/Florida not only makes sense but it’s coming. It will take away some of the time-honored tradition of how to sneak cocktails into the game (my favorite is the bandoliers of shots strapped to your body that you can buy at liquor stores now. What ingenuity!) But it will also keep fans from chugging anything and everything before they get into the game.

We’ve taken steps to create a safer environment for our guests in town that weekend for the game. The JSO walks a fine line between keeping the peace and understanding what’s going on here and they do a pretty good job of it. The city has created safety zones for fans at the behest of both schools. There’s a better understanding I believe among the people who are going to the game of the pitfalls regarding the over-use of alcohol.

If we’re always talking about taking the next step in the city’s development, why not build on something we already have here?

I know it’s politically incorrect to call the game “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” but that’s what it is. When former Jacksonville Journal Sports Editor Bill Kastelz coined that phrase he knew exactly what he was talking about. And I’ve been to plenty of cocktail parties where everybody had a great time and nobody left drunk. So it is possible.

We need to think bigger. And do it fast. The sirens call of big money from other cities could easily block out the tradition that’s uniquely ours.

Don’t let that happen.

In 1994 and ’95 our stadium was being renovated so the game went to Gainesville and Athens. It was at that ’95 game in Athens; won by the Gators 52-17, that Head Coach Steve Spurrier called a trick play at the end of the game to add insult to injury.

“Calling timeout and running that trick play at the end of the game is the single most unsportsmanlike thing I’ve ever seen,” I told the HBC as he boarded the bus outside Sanford Stadium late that afternoon.

“Lawson (Holland, an assistant on the Florida staff) told me nobody’s ever hung half a hundred on them here so I called timeout,” Steve explained. “And we did.”

“I don’t care,” I said

“Come on Sammy, they’ll get over it,” Steve called over his shoulder as the door closed.

No they haven’t.

Just like some Florida fans still remind everybody about the 1942 game, a 75-0 drubbing at the hands of the ‘Dogs. And the ’68 game when Georgia won 51-0. Or the Mark Richt –inspired end zone dance in 2007, which begat the Urban Meyer timeouts in 2008, and on and on and on.

It’s an unparalleled rivalry. I liked it better when the stadium was split into quadrants but understand the “half and half” nature that was necessary after the stadium was reworked.

Being part of the game, Florida Head Coach Dan Mullen calls it, a “healthy” rivalry.

“A lot of times in college football and college sports there are some rivalries that are not as healthy,” Mullen said regarding what he’s seen in his career. “They’re tough, they’re nasty; they’re a great rivalry, but they can become unhealthy. I think this is a healthy rivalry between the two fan bases.”

But he couldn’t help but fuel the fire on both sides of the border when asked about the matchup at his first SEC media days appearance as the Gators head coach this summer.

“Listen, making it to one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” he said referring to Georgia’s appearance in the Atlanta game last year. “I mean, two out of the last three years we’ve still been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Mullen knows Kirby Smart isn’t creating a “blind squirrel” situation in Athens and I took his comments as evidence that he understands the game.

Should be fun.

Anatomy Of A Pick: Jaguars Take Bryan At 29

It wasn’t flashy or a big splash but rather described as a “value pick” as the Jaguars selected defensive lineman Taven Bryan with the twenty-ninth pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Bryan is listed at 6’5″ and 291 lbs and was projected to “become an instant starter” by the NFL scouts at the combine.

So how did the Jaguars get to Bryan?

They were a little surprised that three offensive linemen were picked so early in this draft. They knew G Quenton Nelson and OT Mike McGlinchy would be gone before their pick but going in the top 10 was a bit unexpected. That shifted their focus to other players, and once the Raiders took T Kolton Miller at 15, it shifted their focus to the next four players on their board.

“We felt like we solidified a lot of needs in free agency so we could take our highest rated guy. And we did,” General Manager Dave Caldwell said.

Of the nine picks before they were on the board, the Jaguars had four players rated about the same. Leighton Vander Esch, the linebacker who went to the Cowboys at 19 probably wasn’t in that group because the Jaguars, and much of the league, thought he’d be gone before then. Back to back centers were taken at 20 and 21, not on the Jaguars radar. They might have liked Rashaan Evans, the Alabama linebacker taken at 22 by the Titans but he was gone. Not a pressing need.

Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, listed as an offensive tackle was a nice player but not rated that high by the Jaguars. Probably not big enough. Listed at 6’3.” He went to the Patriots.

The next three picks are probably players the Jaguars were considering if they fell to them at twenty-nine.

“We thought with about 10 picks to go, one of the players we liked would come to us,” Jaguars VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin said.

It might not have been a top-heavy draft for receivers but D.J. Moore from Maryland was getting a lot of late attention. Even with third and fourth string quarterbacks he had plenty of production for the Terps. And he’s fast. Not unexpected the Panthers needed just that and took him at twenty-four.

Local product Hayden Hurst was a favorite in town and emerged as the top tight end prospect in the last several weeks. He would have filled a need, and at 25 years old, he’s got the maturity to step in and play. He spent two years in the Pirates organization as a pitcher before going to South Carolina to figure out a football career. Quite a story for a first round pick, the first ever out of Bolles. The Jaguars would have liked him, but the Ravens took him at twenty-five.

Was it possible Alabama’s Calvin Ridley would fall all the way to the Jaguars? Even though he dropped through the top twenty, there were still too many teams in front of the Jags to expect to get receiving help. In a surprise, the Falcons took him at 26, despite having Julio Jones, another Alabama receiver, and Mohamed Sanu as their starters. He was projected as an excellent slot receiver and could be that for Atlanta. Even if the Falcons hadn’t taken Ridley, he probably wouldn’t have gotten by the Seahawks or the Steelers, picking right before Jacksonville.

Coughlin said he took some calls from other teams but decided to stick in their spot. Bryan was the highest rated player remaining on the Jaguars board when they made their pick.

“Outstanding value,” Coughlin noted. Which means he thought Bryan would go higher.

‘He showed athleticism at the combine, that’s for sure,” Jaguars Coughlin said late on Thursday. “His 40, his vertical, his direction changes. He’s a solid young man.”

Running under 5 seconds in the 40-yard dash is impressive for a player his size, but it wasn’t just the “measureables” that convinced the Jaguars to take Bryan. Coughlin has always liked players who compete in the weight room as well as on the field and Bryan fits that bill.

“He’s a weight room guy,” Coughlin said with a big smile. “If I was a young guy like Bryan, I’d be getting Calais’ coffee to learn from a great pro like him.” Coughlin on Bryan’s personality.

“Is that what he said? Bryan said with a laugh on a conference call with local reporters. “I don’t know. I will have to see when I get there, I guess.”

With the success they had on defense last year, Bryan thought he might go to any team but the Jaguars. And he thought he’d go higher in the first round.

“Yes, honestly I was really surprised,” he noted. “I thought there was no way the Jags were going to pick us. You guys already have a bunch of Pro Bowlers and a bunch of great players. I was, ‘Well, they are definitely not picking me.’ Then you guys called me and it was awesome.”

Bryan said all of the right things you’d expect a rookie to say coming into a new situation in the NFL.

“It is a great opportunity. Those guys are Pro Bowlers. There is a mix of old and young guys. They are definitely good at what they do, seeing this past year. I’ll come in and try to learn everything I can from them and try to pick their brains as much as I can and try to do as much as a I can to help the team out.”

Jaguars Draft is Wide Open

As long as he’s been involved in the NFL and personnel decisions, Tom Coughlin has had very specific ideas. He likes big players, he believes in solidifying the run game and he wants a defense that can control the line of scrimmage.

“The first round might have thirty-two selections,” he recently told me, “But there might not be thirty-two first round players.”

As the VP of Football Operations for the Jaguars, Coughlin will have the final say on which players the team selects in this week’s draft. With the 29th overall pick, it’s doubtful Coughlin believes the player available there is a bona fide first rounder.

“You draw a line where you think the first round ends and you go from there,” he said. “Some years it can be twelve, others it can be twenty, or more.”

So nothing is predictable for the 2018 draft when it comes to the Jaguars. They could trade up, or down, or they could stay put if one of the players they like looks like he’ll be there at twenty-nine.

There’s plenty to like about the Jaguars defense the way it is so it would make sense that they spend their early draft picks on offense. It’s clear they’ve wanted to upgrade their receiving corps from 2018. They’ve done some of that through free agency and if one of these four wide receivers is available through either a trade up or they fall to the Jaguars, they should take him.

Calvin Ridley WR Alabama – Doubtful Ridley could fall to 29 but if the Jaguars believe in his production, they might try to move up to take him. Alabama pedigree is a proven plus. He’s 6′ and 189 lbs., but runs a 4.4. He’s from Ft. Lauderdale and will go in the first round. .

Courtland Sutton SMU – Sutton is a big wide receiver, 6’3″ and 218 lbs. totally different than anybody else among Jaguars wide receivers. He’s listed as about the same size at Allen Robinson. He runs a 4.5 and was plenty productive the last two years for the Mustangs. Was the competition tough enough? He could fall in the first round.

DJ Moore WR-KR Maryland – Moore is a possibility if the Jaguars are determined to take a WR with their first pick. But he doesn’t check all the boxes that would help add him to the wide receiver room He runs a 4.4. but at 6′ and 210 lbs is solid enough to run back kicks in the NFL as well. Tough competition in the Big 10 and was the conference receiver of the year. He’s probably a second round pick.

Christian Kirk WR Texas A&M – Kirk is another big receiver at 6’2″ and 200 lbs. He runs just under a 4.5 but his production is off the charts. He’s projected as a second round pick since he doesn’t have the explosiveness a lot of teams are looking for but a trade down out of the first round would be a good fit.

There was a lot of talk at the pre-draft luncheon about tight end. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins as an off-season acquisition the Jaguars still might be looking in the first round to add to this position. The only player of first-round talent at TE is Mike Gesicki from Penn State. At 6’6″ and nearly 260lbs, Gesicki is considered a pass catching tight end more than a run blocker. He’s considered such a great athlete that he’ll be gone by twenty-nine but if they love him, he’s first round talent.

If they’re looking for offensive live help in the first couple of rounds, these guys will be coming off the board

Mike McGlinchey T Notre Dame – probably the first offensive lineman taken

Kolton Miller T UCLA – seems destined to a west coast team

Connor Williams G-T Texas – Another good athlete who would have to get bigger to play O-Line for Coughlin

Orlando Brown T Oklahoma – Huge at 6’8″ and 345, he’s the son of Zeus Brown who played in the NFL. His size is his biggest asset but most teams aren’t sure he’s a good enough athlete to play tackle in the NFL.

Starting at 7pm CDT in Dallas, eight o’clock here so the draft could have the Jaguars picking at 29 as early at 10:45 or after 11:30. Of the above players profiled, don’t be surprised if one or two of them is on the Jaguars opening day roster in 2018.

Mullen Is The New Gators Head Coach

Introduced as the Head Coach of the Florida Gators football program, Dan Mullen said his teams would play with “relentless effort, every Saturday.

“We might not be the biggest or the fastest but we’ll play with relentless effort I can guarantee that,” Mullen said in front of the assembled media, staff and supporters in the Florida Room of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Mullen was contacted by UF AD Scott Stricklin last Friday to gauge his interest in the job. They talked more on Saturday and hammered out a deal by Saturday night. They talked again on Sunday morning and Mullen said, “I was more excited when I woke up than the night before,” and since he already had a missed call from Stricklin, Mullen accepted the job. His contract is for a reported $6M a year for six years, making him one of the highest paid college coaches in the country.

“We’re like the Yankees,” Stricklin said during his introduction. “We attract the best and the brightest. Dan is the most qualified candidate to lead this program.”

While talking about the spread offense he’ll run, how he loves to score points and the importance of offensive production to the Gator Nation, Mullen paid homage to former Gator Head Coach Steve Spurrier whom he said he idolized as a young coach.

“At Wagner I wore a visor just like Coach Spurrier,” Mullen revealed. “To watch him coach, to see that in the sunshine, I said, “What am I doing here in New Hampshire? This is a dream job.”

Mullen said he’d welcome Spurrier’s input and was already in his office earlier on Monday.

“I went up to his office and he had the computer open with game film up. We’ll have some great discussions. I love ball and he loves ball. I expect he’ll come to practice and ask ‘Now why are we doing that?'” Mullen said to laughter in the room. He also mentioned that former players around the program would be a “critical part of our success.”

Much has been made of the intensity of the scrutiny of the Head Coach at the University of Florida and his family. Mullen’s wife Megan was recently quoted about how she could barely go to Publix when Mullen was the offensive coordinator for the Gators without being accosted by Florida fans.

“I’ve been a head coach in the SEC,” Mullen said in response to a query about the intensity of the job in Gainesville. “I have a perfect understanding of the expectations here. The pressure on you and your family. I’ve been a Head Coach in the SEC. To plug the network, ‘it just matters more.” The passion in the SEC isn’t unique to the University of Florida. But I understand the scrutiny you’re under.”

And regarding his wife’s comments?

“If Megan didn’t pick Florida, we wouldn’t be in Florida,” Mullen said with a laugh.

It’ll be after the first of the year before Mullen completes his staff although he’s already recruiting for the Gators.

“We have an early signing date coming up so that’s important,” he noted. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football.

Mullen has a reputation of developing quarterbacks but says he doesn’t have a formula.

“If you look at the different quarterbacks I’ve had they’re all different shapes and sizes. There’s no prototype. It starts with mental and physical toughness. You have to be a tremendous leader,” Mullen on said about his quarterback expectations.

“Processing information is critical. Intelligence is important. I don’t want them to look over to the sideline. Throwing and running. Accuracy. Running is a bonus, it means you can improvise. In one word, winners.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

McElwain Departure “It’s Never Pretty”

From the beginning it seemed like the right move.

After Day One, it never felt like a really good fit.

After just 2½ seasons as the Florida Gators head football coach, Jim McElwain and the University say they’ve mutually agreed to part ways.

That’s a nice way of saying UF wanted him out of there and he wanted to leave but we’re still negotiating the buyout. Athletic Director Scott Stricklin confirmed Sunday night that they had agreed on the split but haven’t signed the deal.

At his opening press conference, McElwain seemed like the exact right guy for the job in Gainesville. After years of an over intense Ron Zook, the unlikeable Urban Myer and a super intense Will Muschamp, the Gators program was looking for a glib, affable guy to lead the program.

You know, a Spurrier-like guy.

McElwain seemed to be the exact right person: An SEC pedigree, an offensive coach and a winner as the head coach at Colorado State. If they mixed up a formula for what the Gators needed, he seemed to be the solution.

He won his opening press conference.

He won two SEC East titles in his first two years and just a month ago the Gator football team was 3-1, ranked and seemed poised to win the East for the third straight year. Even though there were rumblings among the Florida faithful, you figured he’d get the offense straightened out, Feleipe Franks would come around and they’d compete down the stretch.

But the exact opposite happened.

Two late-kick losses at home started the ball downhill. The offense looked disorganized and without an identity. Georgia came in as a two-touchdown favorite and within six minutes in Jacksonville showed they were winning, and scoring, at will.

That morning the rumors of not just the fans but the UF administration’s unhappiness with McElwain also started to surface.

He didn’t listen to anybody. He rebuffed Steve Spurrier’s offer to help the offense. Twice. He commandeered the soccer field for practice one day without asking anybody. Complained publicly, and privately, about the Gators football facilities and he didn’t attend the all-school head coaches meetings, instead sending surrogates. And he didn’t buy into the UAA philosophy of one-for-all and all-for-one, kind of a loner, an iconoclast. But not in a good way.

One of my colleagues derisively calls him “folksy.”

And the whole, “death threat” thing was weird. Without prompting on Monday of Florida/Georgia week, McElwain talked about the “hate” and vaguely talked about him, his family, coaches and players being under duress and used the words, “death threats.”

When I first heard that I thought, “Oh, that’s a ‘Week of Florida/Georgia Motivational Ploy.” But when McElwain declined to elaborate to his bosses later in the day they issued a terse, non-supportive statement saying their head coach declined “to offer further details.”

At Wednesday’s weekly presser, McElwain again declined to offer further explanation but told us he’d let us know if the situation became “unmanageable.”

Which seemed even weird-er.

It’s clear now that the UF administration was looking for a way out and McElwain’s strange actions all week, compounded by the embarrassing loss to Georgia and his post-game admission that he didn’t know if he’d be coaching in Gainesville past that night confirmed it.

“It’s hard to speculate how this situation might have played out if last Monday hadn’t happened,” Stricklin said Sunday night.

When I talked with McElwain before his second season he was glib, friendly and said all the right things. But he had a somewhat detached air about him. You might have sensed it during his press conferences when he would talk about “us” as in “the Gators” and it seemed a little hollow.

I often joke that the most important words surrounding the Florida football program are “Before Nineteen-Ninety.” That’s because the twelve years of the Spurrier era were exciting and seemed relatively calm on the coaching front. Steve took the blame for losses and deflected the credit for wins. He was a Gator through and through.

But that was not the norm around Gainesville.

In the 40 years I’ve covered college football the intrigue and cutthroat nature of the business hasn’t changed. The hook has gotten quicker for coaches who aren’t winning but there’s nothing pretty about it.

When Charley Pell was elevated from Defensive Coordinator to Head Coach at Clemson, the man he replaced, Red Parker, had terrible things to say about him. Pell left Clemson for Florida, staying with the Tigers just long enough to create enough recruiting violations to put them on two-year NCAA probation. His tenure at Florida was a constant rumor mill of NCAA investigations, slush funds and illegal recruiting tactics. When he was finally forced to resign, 107 NCAA violations were left behind.

Gator fans exhaled when Galen Hall was named Pell’s replacement. He seemed like a calm in the storm, a regular guy. But out of the blue just four years later in 1989 he was forced to resign after an internal investigation turned up cash payments to both assistant coaches and players.

And everybody was like, “Here we go again!”

In the short term the Gators had arm waving, never smiling Gary Darnell who everybody knew wasn’t the answer.

And then Spurrier. In “1990.”

And even his departure was strange in that he was angry with then AD Jeremy Foley for not pursuing the Darnell Docket trying to break Errict Rhett’s leg in a pile during the Florida/FSU game. So he exercised his chance in his two-week window to take the Redskins job in the NFL.

So as strange as this departure was, it falls right in line with a lot of others at Florida and at most big time football universities.

It’s never pretty.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU/Boise St. To Play Here In 2019

As they continue to work toward bringing in “neutral site” college football games. JaxSports has found a willing partner in Florida State University.

FSU is scheduled to play Boise State in a home-and-home series in 2019 and 2020 but talks are progressing to bring that game to Jacksonville to open the season.

“Florida State is definitely interested in bringing games to Jacksonville,” one source with knowledge of the situation said. “They’d like to play that Boise State game here but still travel to Idaho the next season.”

As of now, FSU is scheduled to open this yer against Ole Miss in Orlando and 2017 vs. Alabama in Atlanta. They’re also in discussions to open the 2020 season in Atlanta against West Virginia.

If you’re wondering why the Seminoles would agree to these games away from Doak-Campbell Stadium, the $8 million they’ll make for opening away from Tallahassee in the next two years seems to be the draw.

Besides the money, FSU also is a national draw on television and playing in these celebrated games also helps in recruiting. A loss in one of these openers no longer eliminates teams from consideration for the National Championship and a win ups their strength of schedule against non-conference opponents. In addition, it would give the school at least an additional week to complete any renovations to the stadium that might be planned.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mcelwain: Gators Much Farther Along

When Jim McElwain took the Florida Gators to the SEC title game last year, he knew it would be a hard act to follow. On Wednesday night in Jacksonville to talk with the Gator faithful, McElwain said recruiting this area is key to continued success.

“We have roughly 15 to 17 players from this neck of the woods,” McElwain said. “The success of those guys, we have three starters from this area.”

With an emphasis on being better in the passing game for 2016, McElwain said some of the onus will fall on the receiving corps, including Kenny’s Ahmad Fullwood.

“We wanted him to be aggressive with the ball in the air,” the Gator Head Coach explained. “He made two plays in the spring game that were great. He’s really been a good mentor for the young guys.”

A lot of the experiences for McElwain, his staff and the players this year are all about just doing it again. In his first year it took a while for everybody to know what they were supposed to be doing. In year two, the expectations are known, and everybody’s adjusted.

“We’re so much farther along. Understanding what we need to do to move forward,” he said. “Our team understanding about how to go about your daily business. The meetings, practice, the weight room.”

That progress showed in the spring game where McElwain was impressed with the process as much as he was with the result. That wasn’t by accident. Spring of 2016 was a whole different experience for everybody in Gainesville.

“I really felt of our 15 full practices where there was only a practice and a half where I said, ‘I’m not sure we got better today.’ And that reflects on the leadership guys are taking.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Bolster Offense on Signing Day

With a year under his belt and expectations high, Jim McElwain thought the Gators were very competitive on Signing Day. With twelve early enrollees as well as the graduate transfers, Florida had some specific situations they wanted to address through recruiting. But McElwain didn’t want the players already in school to miss out on the celebration of Signing Day.

“We did one with our team down there (in the team room), where we introduced the guys, put them in Gator colors and showed some highlights and had them make a couple comments and that was pretty good,” McElwain explained.

Looking at his class, the Gators head coach said it was plain to see what they were trying to do this year. The class included five wide receivers.

“I think you can kind of tell what we were trying to do in this class. We were trying to kind of restructure some of the rooms, get some new blood in there, get some guys as competition as we move forward.”

While their defense was solid and fast, Florida’s offense sputtered at the end of the year and was part of the plan when coaches in Gainesville focused on the recruiting process.

“I think we addressed some of those position needs. I feel really good at the skill spots. We obviously have some young offensive linemen and we have got a couple that we look forward to adding to that,” McElwain said regarding getting better on offense.

“But when you look at from the receiver, quarterback, running back side, I think we’ve got some really good talent in there. It will be fun to watch them, because the majority of here already. So we’ll get a good feel for that this spring.”

Getting what he calls the “full cycle” paid off for McElwain and he pointed to the biggest name to sign on Wednesday, Tyrie Cleveland, as a player who the Gators were able to “turn” because of his ties to Florida. “He’s a guy that came by this summer and always had a lot of interest in the Gators, right there in Duval County, before he moved to Texas, so he’s not necessarily, you know, stuck and into the Texas part of it,” the head coach said with a smile.

“For him, it’s a little bit of a homecoming. Here is a guy that grew up wanting to be a Gator, playing in the swamp, back with a bunch of guys — a couple guys that he actually grew up playing with. So I’m really happy he’s back in this part of the country.”

As far as the recruiting in the state, McElwain said they can do better and is already looking forward to the next two years.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go, but we’ll continue to work that in all those areas. I’m really, I kind of like how we’ve got some from a lot of the different areas, as far as within the state, not just focused on one central area. That’s something that we still need to get better at. We’ll keep working at it.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU Class Among The Best In The Nation

With eighteen four- and five-star recruits in their signing class of 25, Florida State grabbed what is considered one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for 2016. Continuing it’s national reach, the ‘Noles had 13 players from Florida and nine other states. Seven of their signees are already enrolled in school and will participate In this year’s spring practice.

“Very unique group and if you can go back and look at this class, it’s 25 signees, 13 kids in the state of Florida,” Jimbo Fisher said on Wednesday afternoon. “But we signed kids from 10 different states. So I think the brand of Florida State being able to be out there and people being interested in being part of our culture and what we do here and our winning traditions and championship traditions, I think speaks for itself.”

Perhaps one of the overlooked portions of recruiting is what a player feels like on his official visit. A lot of that falls to the current players on the roster, to make it a good “fit” for an incoming recruit. Fisher pointed that out, saying the top players they recruited chose Florida State because of the guys who were already in Tallahassee.

“Our players did a tremendous job of hosting kids and showing everyone so they felt confident around our players,” Fisher explained. “Even the star players, they were nervous, saying I didn’t know how to be around guys such as Dalvin Cook and DeMarcus Walker, they said coach, they were normal, good old guys just like us. And our players understood the importance of recruiting how many young players have an impact in your program just like a lot of them did when they came in.”

And while FSU’s class includes some of the top players in the country, including Jacksonville’s Andrew Boselli who’s already in school, the Chief Seminole admitted they didn’t get everybody they wanted. Nobody ever does.

Like I said, would you get everybody? You don’t ever get everybody you recruit, but I don’t worry about those. I worry about the ones we’ve got. We’ve got a great group of guys and great group of players.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Grier To Transfer From Florida

Still serving a suspension for using a banned substance, Gators quarterback Will Grier has decided to transfer from the University of Florida for what Head Coach Jim McElwain calls a “fresh start.”

Here’s the official comment from McElwain.

“Will came to me about exploring his options to transfer. We will support him and help him in anyway we can. This has been very difficult on him and obviously he is looking for a fresh start.

“We will always be there for him as will all Gators.” –coach Jim McElwain

Grier shared time at quarterback with Treon Harris in the first two games of the 2015 season before taking the starting job and helping Florida to an undefeated record. His TD pass at home near the end of the game against Tennessee was one of the highlights of the Gators season.

The NCAA issued a suspension for one year, carrying into the 2016 season when it said Grier tested positive for a banned substance. Grier admitted to taking the over the counter supplement to aid in weight gain but said he didn’t know it was against the NCAA regulations and didn’t check with the Florida training staff before taking it.

Both the University of Florida and Grier appealed to the NCAA to reduce the ban to include the rest of the 2015 season and allow Grier to be eligible to play at the beginning of the 2016 season but the appeal was denied. Although ineligible to play, McElwain had said this week that Grier would rejoin the Gators football team on January 4th, right after Florida’s bowl appearance.

But this week, Grier apparently met with the coaching staff and decided he would transfer. His options include going to another NCAA FBS School (Division I) and serving his suspension while sitting out the required year for transfers and being eligible to begin play in 2017. Or he could play in a non-NCAA or junior college program in 2016 and be eligible to play in Division I again in 2016. Cam Newton took this route after leaving Florida and ending up at Auburn, leading the Tigers to a National Championship.

Florida has struggled on offense since Grier’s departure with Harris at quarterback. Luke Del Rio, a transfer to Florida would also be eligible to play next year. McElwain has been careful not to criticize Harris knowing he might have to use him at quarterback in 2016 if Del Rio or a true freshman can’t win the job.

The Gators have lost their last two games against Florida State and Alabama and will face Michigan on New Year’s Day.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bell and JU: A Messy Split

At JU, the dynamic wasn’t working between Head Football Coach Kerwin Bell and the current university president Tim Cost. Bell had been hired by the previous administration and was asked to build the program with a long-term eye on stepping it up into a different conference and offering scholarships. He approached his job every day with the idea of improving the program, winning games, raising money, and perhaps someday, maybe 10 more years down the road, the Dolphins would make the move to scholarship football.

No matter which side of the discussion you side with, both have merit. At this point Cost wants to keep the program the same and since he’s in charge, it’ll stay the same. No problem there but the Dolphins handling of the situation was unnecessarily messy.

Bell hasn’t been shy about where he was driving the Dolphins football program and with an 18-4 record in the last two years, he was able to talk with local JU supporters about funding the program with scholarships in mind.

So Bell and Cost were at cross-purposes. You’d think those two, along with Athletic Director Dr. Donnie Horner would have met sometime last summer, knowing Kerwin’s contract was up this year and talked about the future of the program. They could have come to an agreement that they saw the future differently, had Bell coach through this year and parted ways.

Instead, just under two weeks since finishing the 2015 season 9-2, knowing they didn’t have a post-season in their future, Bell was told the school wasn’t thinking about scholarships and his services were no longer needed.

Finding a job shouldn’t be hard for a coach with Bell’s record and his reputation for being an offensive guru. The next coach at JU will know that the program is what it is, which is fine, a nice Saturday afternoon on the river against like-minded schools.

But just don’t ask, “What might have been?”

On another note, it was pretty obvious when Mark Richt’s name started being linked to the University of Miami head-coaching job that he wasn’t going to stick around and coach the Georgia Bulldogs for long. Richt had the staff Christmas Party scheduled in Athens for December 14th but sent out an email this morning that the party had been cancelled. Of course it was, since he wasn’t going to be in the building any longer after taking the Miami job on Saturday morning. Richt then told his team and the ‘Dogs will be led by Bryan Clendon who’s currently the assistant head coach and wide receivers coach in Athens.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Richt Fired: Who’s Next?

After 15 years as the head coach, Mark Richt was fired on Sunday at the University of Georgia. The school president said Richt would have an opportunity to stay on the staff in Athens but that’s doubtful, considering Richt’s resume.

From playing at the University of Miami to Bobby Bowden’s coordinator at FSU, Richt was hired at Georgia to bring some stability to the program and to win. He did both, but in the end, his record in recent years against the Bulldogs’ rivals and against top ranked teams brought some unrest among the fans and big time boosters.

As the head coach, Richt was 145-51, including 9-3 this year and a win over Georgia Tech on Saturday. The ‘Dogs won two SEC titles under Richt, but none since 2005 and they haven’t won the east since 2012. He’ll be able to coach in the bowl game and will be offered a position at the University according to the schools’ president.

There are plenty of names already being bandied about as Richt’s successor in Athens including Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen.

If he chooses to stay in coaching, Richt would have his pick of jobs, including at his alma mater, Miami.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Spurrier Retires On His Terms

He’s always wanted to do things no other coaches have done and it appears Steve Spurrier has accomplished that again. Spurrier reportedly told his Gamecock football team Monday night that he was retiring immediately and an announcement would be coming as early as Tuesday. South Carolina is expected to name either G.A. Mangus or Shawn Elliott, both Spurrier assistants, as the interim head coach.

Spurrier has always said he would walk away when he lost his effectiveness and if he does retire at this point, he’s true to his work. The Gamecocks have been a disappointment this year after losing their starting quarterback. Spurrier has had trouble settling on a replacement, using Perry Orth, (from Fletcher HS in Jax Beach) and others without much success. South Carolina is 2-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC after their loss to LSU last Saturday.

It’s not unusual for Spurrier to walk away from a job. He did the same in Washington after two years as the Redskins Head Coach. He reportedly left $15 million in guaranteed money behind and said recently, “I wanted to walk away from more money than any coach had ever left behind. I wanted to do something nobody had ever done.” Steve had no success in the NFL either as a player or as a coach. He was the quarterback on the winless Tampa Bay Bucs team of 1976. Spurrier was the third pick overall of the ’67 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49’ers and played for them for nine years before being traded to the Bucs for his final year. His two-year tenure in Washington as the Redskins Head Coach finished with a 12-20 record and Spurrier saying the “team needs new leadership.” In truth, he didn’t have any say in who would play in Washington under owner Dan Snyder and when Snyder released former Gator Danny Wuerffel before the 2003 season, figured if he “couldn’t pick who the backup quarterback was, it was time to go.”

But his time in college football was legendary. At Florida from 1964-1966 he won the Heisman Trophy and the SEC Player of the Year. He was the ACC Coach of the year at Duke in 1988 and 89. He won the same honor in the SEC five times with Florida and South Carolina. He’s won more games at both schools than any other coach. He won a National Championship at Florida and took teams to 21 bowl games. His overall record as a coach is 228-89-2. But he’s lost eight of his last nine SEC games.

Former Gator quarterback and current assistant at South Carolina G.A Mangus is one of the candidates to be the interim coach for the Gamecocks.

Spurrier turned 70 this past April and always said he wasn’t interested in coaching much past 60. “I thought I’d travel a bit move to the beach (he has a home in Crescent Beach) and play some golf. But that wasn’t such a good plan at the time.”

Perhaps it is now for the ‘Ole Ball Coach.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Notre Dame/Navy Here in 2016. More games to follow.

Working on “neutral-site” college football games has been a long-standing tradition in Jacksonville and in 2016 the list of those games will grow by at least one.

Notre Dame and Navy will play in Jacksonville the week after Florida/Georgia next year as a Navy home game, Joining the Florida/Georgia game s the only neutral site games in Jacksonville Sources have confirmed that the game will be played here in 2016 but no on the record comments were made citing, “next week’s announcement.” The Jacksonville Sports Council has a press conference scheduled for next Wednesday afternoon to formalize the agreement. With the Curry administration just beginning, they’re working out how the announcement will be made, including the new mayor.

The Notre Dame football schedule has always said, “site to be determined” next to the Navy game on November 5th. The former Gator Bowl Association along with the city of Jacksonville have pursued a Navy home game for the last ten years or so and secured the game against Notre Dame for a one-year contract.

While this is a solid addition to the sports landscape, it might not be the last announcement. The Jacksonville Sports council and the City of Jacksonville are pursuing a deal with Florida State to bring one of their neutral site games here. Former Gator Bowl President and now President of Gator Bowl Sports Rick Catlett, has been a big proponent of bringing neutral site games here. He has pursued Navy, Notre Dame and FSU in the past along with numerous other teams willing to listen to a proposal to bring a home game here. FSU played Southern Miss in the old Gator Bowl with Brett Favre at quarterback. (Southern Miss won the game. FSU lost the next week at Clemson and then ran off 10 straight victories). Notre Dame has played here in the past in the Gator Bowl and has a tradition of playing around the country (and the world) including Washington DC, New York and Dublin, Ireland in recent years.

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FSU in Transition: Fisher Anxious to Get Started

A couple of weeks ago FSU Head Coach Jimbo Fisher said he feels like he’s stocked “three NFL teams with guys off our squads” in the last few years. While he’s allowed a bit of hyperbole, he’s not far off. The Seminoles have consistently been a top feeder school for the NFL draft since Fisher took over the program in 2010.

This year is a bit different for Fisher, the quarterback position called, “wide open” after the departure of Jameis Winston. While Redshirt Junior Sean Maguire seems to be the favorite, Fisher was complimentary of First Coast’s DeAndre Johnson as a freshman. “He has a chance to be a good player,” Fisher noted when asked about the 2014 Mr. Football. “He has a knack for doing the right thing in the gray areas. He makes good decisions.”

I asked Jimbo if it was going to be different with a new quarterback after two years. “We’ll approach it the same. Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback. We have a lot of leaders in Tallahassee. On those teams Jameis was a leader but so was Telvin Smith. He’s as good a leader as I’ve been around. LaMarcus Joyner was a leader. Timmy Jernigan was dynamic. We had so many dynamic leaders left from that 2013 team. DeVonta Freeman was a leader.”

Since he mentioned Telvin Smith, I followed up by asking the head Seminole if he was surprised by Smith’s smooth transition to professional football. He got to see him play as well as practice and never wavered in his belief in Smith. “I always look for the guys who are on the bottom of the pile. Not the guys standing around the pile. Telvin was always on the bottom. He loves to play ball. He might be the most underrated football player in the history of Florida State. Bar none.” Pretty high praise, but perhaps deserved as Smith, called ‘too small’ by most scouts coming out of Tallahassee (same thing out of high school for that matter) had 99 tackles in his rookie year and was hard to bring off the field.

Just a week away from the Garnet and Gold game, Fisher says it was pretty typical of a spring workout. “Some high spots, some low ones. Some frustrating spots. But I’m anxious to coach this team. I still think we’re an extremely talented football team. We’re young. The way we approach this is the same way. What we have to understand is that each team takes its own identity. We have to play to those strengths.”

Jimbo has taken his team to the National Championship game and to the “Final Four” in back-to-back years. He likes playing for a title, but doesn’t want to sacrifice the bowls because of it. “I want the bowls to mean something. We won two titles and play in five title games in that 14 year run of bowl games. But when we weren’t in it a Sugar Bowl meant something. A Fiesta Bowl meant something. I don’t want that to go away.”

By the way, because of the bad weather, Fisher drove over from Tallahassee to speak to the Seminole faithful at San Jose Country Club. Normally he’d take a quick flight over but planes were grounded because of the conditions. “Too nasty.”

Fisher also mentioned that he hoped Tim Tebow got a fair shot in Philadelphia. “I know him from the recruiting process. You have to get it out of your system. With Chip and the different things he does, it’ll be interesting to see how he does.”

And as the head football coach, he knows how things have changed in college football in the last 20 years. To emphasis his point Fisher brought up an interesting fact: Jameis Winston is leaving school for the NFL at the same time Charlie Ward became a starter in his college career. “How about that?” he questioned out loud. “Think about that statement. That dynamic of ball is gone. Guys want to play. If they’re not playing, they want to leave.”

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Fisher on FSU Signees: “Big, Powerful”

At Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has gotten to the point where he’s filling spots to keep the Seminoles at a championship level, not rebuilding. FSU is among the top five schools this year when it comes to the quality of athlete they’ve signed.

“Very unique group as far as character. I think there’s a lot of intelligence in this group, I think there’s a lot of leadership.”

He did have a unique perspective on judging how this recruiting class plays. “Don’t judge them on the first year, the second year. Let those guys develop. We’ve got them ranked high, which ones will play? I don’t know. Let’s put them in situations to be successful.”

FSU’s class only had four offensive linemen but that didn’t bother the chief Seminole. “Numbers don’t always get me. It’s quality, not quantity. You’ve got to get guys who can play.”

The ‘Noles did go for big that’s for sure. Cole Minshew is 6’4″ 350lbs. David Robbins is 6’4″ 327. “Very athletic, powerful, big. Now that can be unbelievable.”

Fisher also signed Josh Sweat to FSU even though he suffered an ACL tear in the middle of his senior year as a defensive end in Chesapeake, Virginia.. Sweat is an athlete that can play anywhere at 6’5″ and 245 and runs a sub 4.5. He was considered perhaps the best player in the country before his injury. “He can play wideout and looks like Kelvin Benjamin. He’s so effective, he can affect the quarterback and come off the edge standing up or with their hand in the dirt.” Sweat won’t be available for spring practice but he is already enrolled at FSU and working with their training staff. “He’s on time, he does every workout, he’s got a little ways to go but he’ll be fine.”

Enrolling early in school is a big plus in Jimbo’s mind when it comes to a recruit’s commitment. Eight of the Seminoles class of 2015 is already in school. “It says that he’s very committed to his craft.” He gave up a lot of his nights at home and a lot of his summer school. I tell our kids, ‘You actions speak so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ They all say it’s important to them. These guys have been willing to pay that price.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators’ McElwain Gains Momentum

About a month ago it seemed as if Florida was getting pity from every corner of the college football nation. The hiring of Jim McElwain had put Florida behind in the whole process. But slowly and surely, McElwain hired a staff that knew the state and could get places where Florida hadn’t been in a while.

“I think our guys worked their tail off getting out there and getting to as many places as we could and breaking some doors down,” he said this afternoon in Gainesville.

Florida built some momentum and the signings of Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson put the Gators into a spot on the recruiting list that they never thought they be in at this point. From somewhere in the middle of the pack, Florida has vaulted into the top 25 and perhaps even higher. McElwain deserves most of the credit for putting together a staff that could understand recruiting in the state and he leaned on his experience doing the same when he was an assistant at Louisville.

He was quick to point out that it was more than just playing ability that he considers a fit for Florida. “Fit the character mode, the leadership mode that we were looking for as we built this class.”

Florida did not sign a quarterback but McElwain said he’s holding a few scholarships for late commitments. But he added he likes the quarterbacks on the current roster. “Obviously it’s a position that you recruit every year. I feel really good about our quarterbacks.”

McElwain said he leaned on his experience putting together a “transition” recruiting class at Colorado State. Even though he was without a wide receivers coach who he says will be joining the Gators shortly.

As usual, McElwain had his sense of humor intact, especially when talking about players de-committing and “flipping.”

“Hey Coach, you got a silent verbal,” he explained as some of the language recruits use during the process. “I believe that’s an oxymoron, is it not? You guys (the media) call them commitments, I think maybe reservations is probably the way to put it.”

And the Gators head coach admitted that because of social media there’s a lot more attention paid to the process. “It’s been a lifelong deal. It just happens to be maybe a little more pizzazz today than it was years ago.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

For Jameis, More Questions Await

I think he wanted to stay in school.

After his father let everybody know that Jameis Winston would let his decision be known after the National Championship game next week, less than 24 hours later, word got out that Winston had made up his mind to turn professional.

Winston’s statement, published by his agent, had the usual thank you’s and praise for his teammates, his coaches and Florida State. He also promised “Seminole Nation” that he’d represent them proudly at the next level.

But I think he wanted to stay.

Winston leapt into the spotlight last year in his first game. He threw four touchdown passes and looked invincible. He stayed at that high level all year long with 38 TD passes and only 10 interceptions. He won the Heisman Trophy and helped the ‘Noles win the National Championship. There was an investigation into rape allegations that came out late in the year but no charges were filed.

Things looked rosy for Winston. But as the year progressed, several other incidents occurred, some criminal, some college pranks, some just plain stupid. But as they added up, although in different categories, they all tarnished his image and in turn, the FSU football program.

Winston admitted at the Rose Bowl that he didn’t go out much in the last couple of months, only leaving his apartment to go to school and practice. He stopped having fun. Albeit self-inflicted, Winston’s notoriety and his own actions had forced him inside and halted his fun march through college life. He said after last week’s loss to Oregon that he was looking forward to playing baseball in Tallahassee this spring. As a student, he was having fun, enjoying himself, sometimes too much and at other people’s expense. Nobody’s feeling sorry for Winston, but his changing situation changed his mind about staying at FSU.

A lot of people tried to help Winston during his college journey. Even fellow Alabaman and Heisman Trophy Winner Bo Jackson threw his hands up and stopped trying to help. So Jameis’ circle grew smaller and smaller, with less and less fun and higher and higher expectations.

So he decided to turn pro.

He’ll be prodded and poked, talked to and provoked in the vetting process that leads up to the NFL Draft. His throwing motion and his footwork will be dissected. His football acumen will be questioned. But most of all they’ll try to figure out if a multi-million dollar investment in Winston with a top pick will disappear because of his lack of judgment off the field.

And then somebody will take him with the top selection.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU Beaten By Oregon In The Semi

For a game on New Year’s Day, the Rose Bowl is at least tied for the top spot to play a college football game. This one between FSU and Oregon was somewhat historic since it was the first semi-final in the new system to determine a National Champion. Since FSU was here just last year for the national title game, it made sense that the Ducks fans outnumbered the Noles, significantly. In the parking lot it looked like it was 100-1, but in the stadium, it was more like 5-1.

No question FSU was the bigger team and they were Oregon’s equals in terms of speed, but the Ducks were relentless and equally talented, especially at the skill positions. Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota showed good touch on his passes, good speed when running and good leadership for an offense that was as up-tempo as anything anywhere.

FSU meanwhile looked out of sync in the first half, unable to take advantage of red zone opportunities, passes that were slightly off and tackling that was sub-standard. Still, right at the end of the half, the Noles made a good stop on defense and went down for a score to make it 18-13 Oregon at halftime. FSU might have pulled within two but Carlos Aguayo’s 55-yard attempt hit off the left upright to leave a five-point deficit.

Down by five isn’t a problem for the Seminoles at halftime, it’s a familiar spot for the 2014 team, plus they were getting the ball to start the second half. But driving the ball into Oregon territory, Dalvin Cook had the ball taken away from him and the Ducks drove right downfield to score a TD and take a 25-13 lead.

Undaunted, FSU drove down the field with a combination of Winston passes and finally used the bootleg to score a TD of their own to make it 25-20.

That’s what people thought this game would be like, up and down and up and down. Oregon didn’t disappoint, taking five plays and one slip by a FSU defensive back to score from 81 yards out to take a 32-25 lead.

And that’s where FSU imploded, Cook fumbled and the Ducks recovered. Using the bubble screen that the ‘Noles refused to cover with three defensive backs, Oregon marched down the field, Mariota hitting a wide open wide receiver (Darren Carrington, son of the former Jaguars DB of the same name) for a TD to take a 39-20 lead with four minutes to play in the 3rd quarter. The Noles continued their implosion with Jameis Winston trying to do too much on a third down, only to fumble and have Oregon return it for a TD and a 45-20 lead. A tipped ball was intercepted by the Ducks that lead to another score to make it 52-20 as the torture continued for the Noles and their fans. Then they scored again to make it 59-20.

Overall, Oregon was as good as advertised and perhaps more physical than they’ve been in the past. Florida State didn’t play well, looked out of sync early and cost themselves dearly with turnovers. And the Ducks were opportunistic, never letting the Noles get away with a mistake.

This kind of stuff sometimes happens in big games. How many times have we seen blowouts in the Super Bowl? It doesn’t diminish what the Seminoles have done over the last two years. They just ran into a better team.

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FSU “The Most Hated Team”: Why?

Having never played there before, in a quirk of luck, the FSU Seminoles will play in the Rose Bowl for the second straight year. While last year was for the National Championship against a familiar Auburn team, this year the ‘Noles are in the semi-final against an unknown in Oregon. Sure they’ll have seen plenty of tape, studied the Ducks tendencies and will be prepared for whatever the Pac 12 champs bring, it’s still an unknown for FSU.

We saw that when Oregon played Auburn for the National Championship a few years ago. Oregon had an up-tempo offense, great skill players and lots of speed. But Auburn had speed and size, something the Ducks couldn’t match. Same thing with Alabama and Notre Dame. The Irish had made their way to the top of the polls with solid athletes, strong effort and good speed. But the Tide overwhelmed them from the first snap, showing speed, size and quickness that Notre Dame couldn’t match.

Odds makers have made the Seminoles more than a touchdown underdog in this game, strange for a team that hasn’t lost since 2012. Also strange for a team that averages 6’5″ and 325 lbs. on the offensive line, has a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and a record setting wide receiver, tight end and running back. So what do they know that we don’t?

Bettors have flocked to the ‘Noles in Las Vegas sports books, figuring that a team that has found a way to win games they’ve been behind in all year would at least be able to stay within a touchdown of just about anybody. That’s why this is such a hard game to predict. Even Head Coach Jimbo Fisher says having played in the Rose Bowl last year has helped FSU in their preparation this season. They know what to expect.

At today’s press conference, Head Coach Jimbo Fisher was asked a couple of times about being the “most hated team in America” and if he was tired of defending both the ‘Noles character and their record.

“I hate it for the kids,” Fisher responded. “I know how hard they work, what they’re like. The biggest mis-perception of Jameis Winston is that he’s a bad guy. He’s not. He’s one of the most kind hearted people ever.”

You could tell Fisher was ready for that kind of question and knew what he was going to say, but you could also tell that he was genuinely dismayed that his team has their current reputation and that all of that “noise” has followed FSU despite not having lost since 2012.

Normally a fast talker, Fisher had it going at twice his normal rate today, clearly excited to have his team in the national championship picture for the second year in a row. Having three weeks to prepare is something that he knows how to use to his advantage. He’s experienced in big games and loves to say, “It’s not about winning, it’s about working.”

While they’ve won plenty of games with a fortuitous bounce in their streak, Mark Helfrich, the head coach at Oregon was quick to point out, “You don’t win all of those games with luck. They’re just a good team, no denying that.”

Oregon has speed and quickness. FSU has size and experience and perhaps is a bit underrated when it comes to their speed. Winston is the X-Factor. If he plays well and they don’t fall behind early, the Noles will win in a walk. If not, if could be a long and frustrating night for Florida State.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

McElwain Introduced at Florida: Wins the Press Conference

Starting his public Gator career at his introductory press conference, Head Coach Jim McElwain approached the podium without any prepared remarks and said, “How you doin?” It’s that kind of folksy, human connection that the Gator Nation has longed for since the departure of Steve Spurrier.

McElwain was glib, funny, a good storyteller, and seemingly open about his courtship with the University of Florida and his desire to become the head coach in Gainesville.

“When you look at the quality, it’s something special here at Florida. It’s a privilege to be here,” McElwain noted.

He’s a blend of Gus Bradley’s message and Steve Spurrier’s ability to control a room, whether it’s reporters, boosters, football players or the assembled media.

“Let’s be a part of being a positive influence on the people around us,” he said about his general philosophy, not talking about offense or defense. “It’s about investing in the young men who are (already) here.”

When pressed about what he’ll do on offense since that’s his specialty, the new Gators coach said, “I’m the dog they dropped off at the humane society. I have a lot of breeds in me. You have to pick the right breed for the situation and bring that out.” It’s that kind of self-deprecating humor that will endear him to Gators fans, especially if he can back it up with a wide-open offense that produces wins.

“It’s depends on who you have,” McElwain said when asked how wide-open he’d be. “Who you have determines whether you throw it 40 or 80 times a game.”

When Athletic Director Jeremy Foley started focusing in on McElwain as a candidate he said all he heard was, “Mac is a great guy a great guy. But when you talk to him, at his home with his family around it was obvious that he was that and more.”

While McElwain demurred when asked about how the deal got done, he said he had a “hunch” that it would happen and feels no pressure from the money reportedly spent by the University to acquire him from Colorado State.

“Pressure. If there’s one thing that I love it’s pressure. I like to think I don’t feel the pressure, I apply the pressure. If there’s no pressure, why wake up in the morning. ”

McElwain said that it wasn’t just recently that he became interested in the job in Gainesville. “That happened the first time I recruited this state for the University of Louisville. I’m excited about rekindling the relationships that I started then.

Born in Kalispell, Montana and raised in Missoula, McElwain left the state to play football at Eastern Washington. He started his coaching career there as well. So he’s grateful to Nick Saban for brining him East to the University of Alabama where he was Offensive Coordinator form 2008-2011. “I owe him everything for taking a chance on a guy from out West.”

He joked that some people might not say he coached in the NFL, “I coached the Raiders.” McElwain said he’ll have his first team meeting Monday morning and will give a look at the roster and the quarterbacks currently on it to see what they can do. “I’m the kind of guy who thinks I can win with my dog Clara Bell at quarterback,” he quipped.

On his message to the team: “You’re Gators, I’m a Gator. Give me an opportunity to make a positive impact on your life. Develop trust.”

On his message to recruits: “You have a chance to win a National Championship here. But It’s not just about the ball. It’s about making a brand for yourself and making a brand for the rest of your life.”

McElwain won’t coach the Gators in their bowl game instead saying he’ll be “eating popcorn. I want to see what the normal guy does.

When asked about McElwain’s performance, one Florida administrator told me, “That’s important. It might not be important everywhere but its important here.”

That kind of understanding of what it means to be the University of Florida head football coach these days makes McElwain 1-0. He won the press conference.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Muschamp Era Over: Where Now?

It’s a tough job, Head Football Coach at the University of Florida.

Winning is important, but HOW you win is a factor in what the Gators fan base thinks about the job you’re doing. From the outset, Will Muschamp seemed like a paradoxical choice to lead the Florida program.

He is from Gainesville. But he went to Georgia.

He played defense for the Bulldogs and made his mark as a defensive coach. Gator fans had become used to high-flying offenses under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.

From his opening press conference (where we joked that he spoke for 19 minutes straight without taking a breath) Muschamp made it clear things were going to be done his way, and don’t question him about it. He threw down the gauntlet to the media, reminding them that he was in charge no matter how much they wanted to ask about what he was doing.

“We’re going to play power football at the University of Florida,” Muschamp declared as he set out to gather his first recruiting class. “Power Football” can be a loosely defined term, but it seemed strange that Muschamp was going to use players recruited under Meyer’s “Spread” offense to try and dominate teams up front.

Sort of like Alabama.

But without the kind of linemen Alabama reloads with every year, the Gators could never become that kind of team. Early on it was apparent they were trying to put round pegs in square holes.

Perhaps things would change as Muschamp attempted to load the Florida roster with players capable of doing the things he wanted, both on offense and defense.

Muschamp’s offenses ranked 71st, 78th, 113th and currently 62nd among the top tier NCAA schools. Gators fans don’t like that. Muschamp grew up in a culture at Georgia and other places where winning 10-9 was just fine. He was happy to win games 17-14. Florida fans had become accustomed to high scoring games, mostly one-sided. In their favor.

Although the 23-20 overtime loss to South Carolina on Saturday might have been the last straw, eliminating them from SEC contention, it was also indicative of where the Gators are throughout their program. The Gamecocks were giving up an average of over 460 yards per game. Florida could muster only 278. Quarterback Treon Harris seemed to barely throw the football. The Florida defense was adept in holding South Carolina to only 17 points in regulation, but couldn’t get it done in crucial situations. And two special teams blunders, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt, kept Spurrier’s troops in the game.

At the very least, considering his defensive background, I expected Florida to have one of the most dominating defenses in the country. That didn’t happen either.

Will Muschamp’s intensity, his football knowledge, his relationship with the players and his consideration of everybody involved with the Florida football program should be lauded. He seems like a genuine, good and nice guy. But he remained a coordinator or a position coach at heart. When it’s your job to coach football, you can be very narrow focused and thrive occasionally on the emotion of the game. As the head coach, you’re not only the face of the program but you’re the CEO as well. Muschamp never was able to embrace that CEO role, displayed both times when Florida beat Texas A&M and Tennessee on the road. Instead of applauding his team for their tenacity and competitive spirit, all Muschamp could say on both occasions when interviewed on the field after the game was, “Isn’t it great to come in here and disappoint all these people.” The first time I heard it, I chalked it up to the learning curve of being a head coach and the emotion of beating the Aggies, a big rival for his previous employer, the University of Texas. But the second time it was obvious he hadn’t ever adapted to the role. By contrast, Steve Spurrier, a noted smart aleck in his early coaching days, was complimentary of his team and expressed some sympathy for Muschamp and the Gators after South Carolina’s overtime win in the Swamp. Regardless of his true feelings, although Spurrier seemed genuine in his remarks about Muschamp and the Gators, Spurrier was complimentary of his own team without a reference to the atmosphere in Gainesville.

Spurrier and Meyer, by the way, lost a combined 10 games at home in 18 seasons. Muschamp has 8 home losses, six of those coming in his last eight games at Florida Field.

Muschamp technically “resigned” from his position, possibly saving the Florida program some money. His assistants are owed about $2 million for the remainder of their contracts. The statements released by both Muschamp and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley both contained high praise for each other. Foley pointed out how popular Muschamp was among the staff and the workers in Gainesville, saying he’ll be missed. He simply didn’t win enough games.

So where now?

Foley always has a short list, and Muschamp’s hiring was somewhat of a surprise since he had been listed as the ‘coach in waiting” at Texas. A similar situation occurred at Maryland when James Franklin, the next Terps head coach, was hired to take over Vanderbilt.

This time around, Foley will look for somebody with head coaching experience and whose specialty is offense. While that list is large, David Cutcliffe at Duke, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss should be considered. Art Briles at Baylor, Gary Patterson at TCU or Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia also merit a phone call. Despite his success at Mississippi State and his connection to Florida, Dan Mullen doesn’t seem to be a candidate.

Foley will hold a press conference on Monday.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

As Good As It Gets: FSU Wins National Championship

No team gets to the National Championship game without being a pretty good squad. Actually better than that. So when Auburn and FSU were matched up in Pasadena for the final BCS Championship game, nobody should have expected anything but a close game. It’s never a mismatch unless the pollsters fall in love with one team (see Alabama vs. Notre Dame). But as the weeks wore on between their final games and their meeting in California, FSU became more and more of a favorite. Their quarterback won the Heisman Trophy and charmed the media with his easy, glib manner. Their coach gave an unfiltered view of what he thought of just about anything you asked him.

And the fans loved it.

Meanwhile, Auburn toiled in relative obscurity, highlights of their heart-stopping two final wins representing their entire season to most fans. In Pasadena, both teams said all the right things and looked poised to provide a great contest.

Once they kicked it off though, Auburn proved to be less effected by the big stage and played the kind of game that was expected: strong running game, some out-of-the-box offensive formations and quarterback Nick Marshall calmly hitting wide open receivers.

Florida State looked lost. Physically they were a match for the Tigers. Big across both lines and fast everywhere, the ‘Noles had the look of a contender. But instead, they were rattled. Jameis Winston was rushing just about everything, from handoffs to checkdowns to throws, the All-American seemed to fall victim to the Heisman curse. Quarterbacks winning the Heisman and playing in the National Championship game had gone 2-5 coming into this game. Between nervous execution, unlikely penalties and dubious clock management, FSU gave up yards and points, trailing 21-10 at halftime.

In a nutshell, Auburn was playing as expected: FSU was not.

As the second half unfolded, Winston found a little rhythm and the ‘Noles defense started to get the stops they needed. A couple of solid drives led to a field goal and a TD and cut the deficit to 21-20. But Auburn is nothing if not resilient. They pounded the ball down the field, chewing up clock to kick a field goal and a 24-20 lead. And that’s when lightning struck for the ‘Noles Levonte Whitfield returned a kickoff 100-yards to give the Noles a 27-24 lead. But again, Auburn got to this game by playing to the final whistle, scoring a TD of their own on a Tre Mason 37-yard blistering run to lead 31-27.

So it’s over right?

Not exactly.

With just over a minute to go, Jameis Winston lead the FSU offense down the field, 80 yards for a TD of their own, for a 34-31 lead. Winston’s arm was the difference. His toss to Rashad Greene chewed up a bunch of yardage and stopped the clock, putting the ‘Noles in position to score. This is where Winston was tested. As a 20-year old, it would be very easy to make a mistake and throw an interception at this point but he was patient, taking no chances and hit Kelvin Benjamin on a high toss for the TD.

For all of their problems in the first half and at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, FSU stuck together. They regained their poise when it looked like things could go in the wrong direction quickly.

Credit Jimbo Fisher for whatever he said to Winston at halftime. I saw him grab Jameis’ facemask during a timeout in Gainesville against Florida and asked him if that was part of their regular relationship.

“Absolutely,” he said with a steely-eyed glare. “It’s how we communicate.”

However that kind of communication translated during the National Championship game obviously worked as the ‘Noles finish the season at #1.

And with everybody who’s coming back, they could stay there for a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

FSU vs. Team of Destiny

There are only a couple of questions about tonight’s outcome of the National Championship game between FSU and Auburn. If you just look at how the two teams got here, it’s easy to pick FSU to win going away. The Seminoles won every game by double digits and scored more than 40 points almost every Saturday.

“Our best game is still out there,” Head Coach Jimbo Fisher scarily told the assembled media this week.

If that’s true, the Seminoles could already be considered one of the best teams in college football history. But they have some flaws, at least statistically. FSU has given up a lot of yards through the air. Some of that is scheme, as they try to pressure the quarterback and play man-to-man behind it. Some of it is that they’ve been ahead so easily and so early that other teams had no choice but to throw the ball.

But some if it comes from risk-taking and giving up the big play.

That’s where Auburn might have a chance to take advantage of the Seminole’s style.

The Tigers have speed and deception on offense, something that will give the ‘Noles difficulty early on. “We don’t call them trick plays,” Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said when asked about his play calling.

“The players call them special plays.”

Misdirection, reverses, speed to the edge, all of that is what the Tigers have lived on this year. They’ll score some points, particularly early, and they’ll need to against a potent FSU offense.

Florida State will score points, no question. With their Heisman winning quarterback Jameis Winston throwing it to NFL-quality wide receivers, an all-American tight end and three running backs rotating to stay fresh, they’ll be able to do what they want on offense.

Auburn will have the same success early in the game and it will look like a contest at halftime.

In the second half, that’s where the Seminoles will continue to score and their defensive speed will start to shut down the Tigers. They’ll wear on Auburn and continue to relentlessly drive the ball on offense. But the final whistle, it’ll be another double-digit win by FSU, something like 37-24.

Having said that, remember that Auburn had a couple of miracles to get to this game, the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” and the kick return in the Iron Bowl that nobody expected. They do have a bit of destiny on their side so a couple of turnovers and another small miracle could change this game completely.

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FSU A Close-Knit Group

When they walked into the ballroom for their “Media Day” interviews, I was struck by how much the 2013 FSU football team reminded me of the 1993 team that played for, and won the National Championship. Big and athletic, there aren’t any “fat” guys on this team. Even the biggest of the offensive and defensive linemen who are over 300 lbs. look like athletes.

That ’93 team had the same look.

Guys you’d take in a pick-up game and dominate. In fact, that’s what a lot of the linemen were doing in ’93 when not involved in interview or practice: playing pick-up football. Most linemen think they’re QB’s and WR’s anyway so the chance to run, throw and catch is what they’re looking for. I was surprised at the time that Bobby Bowden and his staff allowed it but Bowden said later it helped the team bond.

Jimbo Fisher thinks this is a close-knit team as well.

“I think we’re a good football team,” the chief Seminole said in front of hundreds of media members gathered around his podium. “But I think this is a great bunch of guys. They’re really together. They look out for one another. They’re something special.”

Fisher speaks in a Hemmingway-esque staccato style. Short sentences, very straightforward. In this case he was very effusive in his praise for what kind of “men” this FSU team were developing into as well as their ability on the field. He emphasized the word “great” every time he used it when describing the kind of people his players have become.

“Just a great group to be around. Work hard, play hard. I like everything about these guys.”

You might think that every coach says that, but actually you only hear that when you get to a championship situation. Because that’s what it takes to win a title.

“Any successful team has teammates who have a strong affection for one another,” Two-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlin preaches.

The first time you hear that it’s kind of strange. But under closer examination, it’s what separates great teams from good ones. They’re close, they root for each other.

“When I first got here, there was a lot of looking around, trying to size up what you can do,” said Tyrell Lyons, a freshman defensive back from First Coast. “But now, we’re just all friends. We love each other, we pick each other up.”

Cameron Ponder from Yulee agreed right away.

“Absolutely,” he said when I asked if it had made him a better man to have been on this team.

“I’ve learned to make friends with all kinds of different people. I come from a small town; I could be called ‘country’ on this team. A lot of my teammates have never seen a four-wheeler. They don’t know a thing about hunting or fishing. I was used to the same kind of people growing up in Yulee but now, I have a lot of different kinds of friends who are teammates.”

In this “media day” situation, some of the stars of the team are put on podiums around the ballroom. The rest of the players are sitting at round tables in the center, waiting in case somebody asked them a question. During the Seminole’s interview time, large groups of players in their jerseys huddled around the tables, laughing and chatting, taking each other’s picture and working on their phones.

“We’re a brotherhood,” First Coast’s Derrick Mitchell Jr. told me when I asked about the team bond. “Everybody gets along. No cliques, no separate groups. We all joke and have fun together and get down to business when we’re on the field.”

There are nine different players on the 2013 Seminoles squad who call Jacksonville and North Florida home. They’re from very different backgrounds and different parts of town. Three are from First Coast. Lee, Wolfson, Bartram Trail, Sandalwood, First Coast Christian and Yulee are all represented.

Jonathan Wallace from Lee walked-on at FSU and stuck around. He says it’s one of the best experiences of his life.

“We’re tight,” the 6-7 295 lb. redshirt senior said when asked about this team versus other’s he’s played on. “The Jacksonville guys stick together, even though we played at different high schools. We have to. The Miami guys pick on us all the time!” he added with a laugh.

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Fisher/Malzahn, FSU/Auburn Contrast in Style

Different events have a different feel.

The Super Bowl is big, corporate, sponsor-driven and engulfs the city it’s in; bringing the national focus on everything that surrounds it.

The National Championship is a mini version of that, but with a much more homey feel. There’s some national media, but not much. Whichever network is televising the game has a big presence but most of the reporters asking questions are from TV stations and newspapers near the two schools, campus bloggers and various dot com’s devoted to college sports and college football.

At their final meeting with the media on Sunday, FSU’s Jimbo Fisher and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn showed the difference in their style, their preparation and even how they approached this week. Both agreed that you have to try to keep the routine the same, but it’s difficult.

“I like to get up early,” Malzahn said of his game day routine. “I’ll look at film and keep it as routine as possible.”

I could tell you what Jimbo’s answer to that was but it might take 5 or 6 paragraphs. In fact, the difference between the two coaches was evident from their opening statements. Malzahn’s was 4 sentences. Fisher’s filled at least 2 pages.

To be fair, Fisher has been around this kind of situation before and has been in the college game for a while. Malzahn’s experience includes a recent hypersonic leap from high school football to head coach of a national championship contender. He likes to keep it simple dealing with the press. He didn’t reveal anything new or give any insight to what might be happening with the Tigers on Monday night.

“We don’t call them trick plays. Our players call them special plays,” he answered when asked about the variety of offensive calls in his playbook.

“She told me I needed to be nicer to my players,” was his response when asked about his wife Kristi’s role in his success. “She’s my accountability.”

And when asked about his first few months on the job as the head coach at Auburn, Malzahn said he and the coaches had done “a lot of Dr. Phillin'” to figure out how to get the program back on track. At least I think that’s what he said. Malzahn has a reputation among his players for making up words to try and motivate them.

Jimbo Fisher is about to lose his voice. And it’s not from yelling at his players. Fisher has answered so many questions this week that he’s probably talking in his sleep. And there’s no holding him back either from the content of his answer or the length of it. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, tempered a bit with some political correctness but if it’s on his mind, it’s coming out.

He bristled a bit when asked about last year’s losses to NC State and Florida and how he “rebuilt” himself and his team. “If 12-2 isn’t good enough then we have something wrong with this business,” was his response.

What is evident with Fisher is how much he likes this version of the Seminoles.

“This is a great bunch of guys to be around. They like each other. They love each other. They know how to have fun and when it’s time to get down to business. I don’t know I’ve ever enjoyed it more.”

And his admiration for Jameis Winston is also apparent. When asked about how Winston copes with everything around him at 19 years old (he’ll be 20 tomorrow), Fisher said Winston is the same no matter what.

“He had pressure when he started against Pittsburgh. With all of the expectations. He approaches every play, every practice as if it’s the National Championship.”

Since his opponent doesn’t have an extensive college resume, Fisher said he doesn’t have a problem looking back to Malzahn’s high school coaching career to see what he might do Monday night.

“We have a book on everybody we play, every coach. I’ve coached with and against a lot of these guys so we just go back and see how they’ve reacted in certain situations.” And if you didn’t think FSU had joined the modern era of college football, Fisher revealed that his graduate assistants are working on opponents, “three, four weeks out” and that the Seminoles (like a lot of schools) employ a “mental coach” on the staff.

“We’re working with our guys all the time, all year round on how to think, how to deal with different situations, how to make decisions in their lives.” FSU’s mental coach works with sports psychologists trying to get that job done.

From how the two coaches see their teams a day before the title game, it would be hard to predict a winner. But either way, it won’t be from a lack of research or preparation.

They’ll both be ready.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida/FSU: Different Directions?

It’s a pretty simple story at the Florida/FSU game this year:
Are the Gators as bad as they seem? Is FSU worthy of a shot at the National Championship?

As usual, the answers fall somewhere between yes and no on both counts.

In front of a big home crowd, (90,454) Florida played a spirited first half against the ‘Noles, making some stops on defense and making Jameis Winston look ordinary. But on a couple of occasions, Winston looked extraordinary, firing passes for long 3rd down completions and TD’s that added up to a 17-0 score at halftime.

While Florida’s defense still has some bite, FSU’s explosive play potential can be demoralizing because it can happen anywhere on the field. Winston is good, no question, but with three receivers, a tight end and a couple of backs to throw it to, he has a lot of options. He’s pretty comfortable in the pocket as he surveys the field and is bigger than most opponents expect until they actually confront him face-to-face. He’s had so much success and has put up such gaudy numbers that when things aren’t going right you have to remind yourself that he’s just a redshirt freshman. He is a little anxious for the big play but after all of the success he’s had, that’s understandable.

FSU is also big up front, with four juniors and a senior starting on the O-line. If they chose to just pound away at their opponents, no doubt they could wear opponents down and win games that way as well. It seemed as if they realized that about halfway through the first quarter, running the football at the Gators and taking some sting out of the Florida defensive charge.

Florida’s problem is getting anything done on offense. Besides underestimating what having Jeff Driskel meant at quarterback, the Gators offensive philosophy has plays that are slow to develop. No match for the ‘Noles speed on defense.

And that’s the dilemma they’ll face going forward.

Bringing Brent Pease in from Boise State came with great expectations of a “spread” offense that came at a defense from all kinds of directions. Instead, it’s been an attempt at a plodding, power game that hasn’t materialized. Did Will Muschamp overrule what Pease wanted to do? I guess we’ll never know that.

If there’s an advantage in the state of Florida when it comes to recruiting home-grown players, speed is the difference between the Sunshine State and everywhere else. And for two decades, the Gators took advantage of that resource and won big. Now, the emphasis seems to be on time management and ball control over blinding speed.

If you’re a 5-star recruit as a QB, WR or RB are you going to go to Gainesville these days? Heck no. FSU, Miami and a half dozen other schools are throwing it around and look like they’re having fun. Muschamp is going to have to decide whether he’s willing to cede the control of the offense to somebody else and open it up, or continue to try and win low-scoring, defense-dominated games.

Against Florida State this year, that didn’t get it done leaving the ‘Noles just one win away from a berth in the National Championship game and the Gators pondering a very uncertain future.

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Florida/Georgia: It’s Never Easy

I was at the game and I’m still trying to figure out how Florida was even in it at the end. Georgia did everything right while the sun was shining, getting Todd Gurley back and having Aaron Murray play well, leading them to a 17-0 and 23-3 lead at halftime.

Then a strange sequence of events started with a backwards pass that Georgia thought was an incompletion and stopped and watched as the Gators scooped the ball up and returned it to the 17. Somewhere, Florida found life on offense and scored a TD to make it 23-10.

The ‘Dogs still seemed to be in command until a series of field position possessions left Georgia with the ball at their own 2. Aaron Murray’s play-action fooled nobody and he was sacked in the end zone for a safety, 23-12 Bulldogs. That’s when the momentum really turned and the Gator offense found some holes in Georgia’s defensive scheme, especially when it came to covering the quarterback, Tyler Murphy. A couple of Murphy scrambles and Florida was suddenly back in it 23-20 after a two point conversion.

And that’s when it really got strange.

Georgia started to move the ball but at their own 40, Mark Richt decided to go for it on 4th and 1 with a couple of timeouts and trick plays and formations, only to fall short and give the Gators the ball back. By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever seen 5 unsportsmanlike penalties called on the same play, but I can’t say that anymore.

Because of the nature of the fans in the stadium, that’s when things really started to get loud with both sides trying to support their defenses and heckling the other side. It spilled over onto the field as well, the emotion of the game, in essence an elimination contest for the SEC, getting the better of some of the players.

For a long time, the Florida/Georgia game was fairly uninteresting. Vince Dooley had the Gators number and Georgia rolled through Jacksonville for most of the 70’s and 80’s as the Dogs contended for SEC and National Titles. Steve Spurrier was determined to change that and he did as the Gators took control in the 90’s and beyond while Florida owned the conference and emerged as a national power. Urban Meyer continued that, but Mark Richt eventually figured it out and that leaves us where we are right now: Two teams, pretty evenly matched with a lot to play for when the come to Jacksonville around Halloween.

I was pretty impressed when Murray announced after last season that he was coming back for his senior year at Georgia. It made sense, but so many guys (see Blaine Gabbert) come out before they should I figured Murray was looking for the NFL riches he would have commanded. By coming back, he’s probably enhanced his draft stock but also showed what he’s learned in his 5 years in Athens.

So leading by 3 with over 8 minutes on the clock, Georgia got the ball with Murray at the controls deep in their own territory. With some strong runs, a couple of key pass completions and a key hands to the face penalty (the officials had a tough time controlling the game all day), the ‘Dogs ran out the clock and came away victorious for the third year in a row.

Murray becomes the first Georgia QB since Buck Belue in ’79, ’80 and ’81 to win three straight against the Gators and the Bulldogs stay in the SEC race.

Barely.

For Florida, any hope of an SEC title is now gone and at 4-4 with three straight losses they’re reeling with four games remaining. With games at South Carolina and home against FSU among those four, Gator fans are hoping the team finishes above .500.

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Urban’s Decision

There have been successful coaches and athletes who have figured out the balance necessary to also have a positive family life. Jack Nicklaus used to fly home on Friday nights in the middle of a golf tournament to see his sons play H.S. Football. Don Shula won World Championships and is the winningest coach of all-time, yet kept his family in tact.

Urban Meyer says he’s incapable of doing that and stepped down as the Head Coach at the University of Florida.

This is no criticism of Urban. Everybody has to do what they think is best for them and after his retirement, un-retirement and leave of absence last year; this move didn’t come as a shock. What was different was the focus only on his home life, his family, and his lack of connection with his daughters in college and in high school and not a word about his health.

No word about the cyst on his brain or the chest pains (caused by esophageal spasms). Nothing about last year except to say it was a “knee jerk” reaction and this was completely different.

I couldn’t agree more with his statement about how you’ll eventually be judged “as what kind of husband and father you were, not how many bowl games you win.” It’s very noble, but I left Gainesville thinking there was more to the story. Perhaps we’ll never know. I certainly don’t have any negative thoughts about Meyer’s announcement.

When you’ve had enough and you know it, get away. It makes it a bit easier when you’ve earned an estimated $18 million over the last six years in Gainesville. So if he wants to concentrate on other things, he has the wherewithal to do just that.

He’s considered one of the rocks of the community in Gainesville, along with Billy Donovan, getting involved in numerous charitable and fund-raising efforts. Hopefully he’ll stay involved. I don’t think he’ll coach for a while, and he even said that today. So don’t read anything but coincidence into him quitting and Denver needing a head coach.

Who replaces him will be a hot topic of discussion for a couple of weeks. Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said he knows this process and knows how to go about it so he’ll keep us posted, when he can. There are probably 10 names on the list, 5 on the short list. That’ll happen either right before or right after the first of the year.

Meyer says he’ll coach through the Outback Bowl and be a part of the recruiting process until the new coach is named. I will say that Meyer never embraced the “Gators” idea, but he won, so he was a part of the family. We should wish him luck, help him though any hardships and be pleased he could make such a dramatic decision.

Here’s one question the new coach should consider: If Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer have left the Florida football program in the last 10 years; What’s going on there?

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Where From Here? Florida vs. South Carolina

I kept looking over to the South Carolina sideline to make sure Steve Spurrier was still there. The Gamecocks opened the game by handing it to Marcus Lattimore.

A lot.

And again. And again.

In the end, Lattimore carried the ball 40 times for more than 200 yards. With Steve Spurrier as the head coach. That’s the amazing part.

If you had told me that South Carolina was going to win 36-14 I’d have figured that Stephen Garcia was going to throw for four TD’s and 350 yards and the Gators would have turned it over a bunch of times. Instead it was a running back and a freshman to boot. I can only imagine somebody whispering in Spurrier’s ear in the fact that nobody’s rushed for more than 200 yards in nearly 10 years against Florida in Gainesville. That’s when Steve would have called time out and said, “Marcus, get in the game.”

But that didn’t happen because that wasn’t necessary.

The Gamecocks dominated the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense and you could tell by halftime, the Gators weren’t going to do much.

Because they couldn’t.

There’s plenty of talk about when it comes to how Lattimore and the Gamecocks offensive line just dominate Florida up front. It wasn’t close. And the statistics bear that out. When a safety and a linebacker are by far your leading tacklers, the guys up front aren’t getting it done.

I’m sure much of the wailing from Gator fans will be about the quarterback situation. Head Coach Urban Meyer is adamant that John Brantley is their starting quarterback and that Jordan Reed and Trey Burton are just “change up” guys. But Brantley is not getting much help. When Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are not operating at 100% it’s as if Florida has nowhere to go.

Teams are bringing pressure on Brantley right up the middle, especially in passing situations and not allowing him to step up and throw that thing in there. And the receivers are just not open. They might be early, and that’s why they can complete a bunch of dink passes, especially cutting over the middle. But as far as getting some separation downfield, it’s not happening.

If it’s true that Reed and Burton aren’t in on the quarterback meetings, then what are they doing? If you’re going to run a three-player rotation at quarterback, each one has to be able to run the complete offense. If we can pick out which play is being run based on the personnel involved, opposing defenses and their coordinators can do the same.

“We’re jut not very good,” is what Meyer said afterwards. I’m not in full agreement with that. Florida has plenty of talent, but I’m not sure Meyer and offensive coordinator Steve Adazio are putting guys in situations for them to constantly succeed.

What will be interesting is to see how the team, and the coaching staff, reacts for the rest of the season since the BCS and the SEC Championship are now out of the picture. Adversity usually displays what you’re all about.

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Florida/Georgia Recap

We had Buck Belue on the radio show this week and he brought up a good theory on the Florida/Georgia game: “It’s the ‘here we go again’ game,” is how Buck put it.

He was double right.

Not a “here we go again,” game but actually two “here we go again halves.”

Georgia did everything they could to give the game to Florida in the first half. Interceptions, fumbles, bad decisions and the Gators took advantage of every opportunity. Although they didn’t score on the initial turnover of the game on the first offensive play, the Gators were relentless when it came to pounding the football.

“We had two weeks to work on it,” Mike Pouncey when asked about the up-tempo no-huddle Florida employed the entire game. “It doesn’t give the defense a chance to adjust.”

That was the case for the three-quarterback system as well. Even though they used Jordan Reed occasionally in the backfield, the combo of John Brantley and Trey Burton did most of the damage. They especially caused problems when Brantley and Burton stayed in the game and one would line up at quarterback then they’d shift positions.

“The defense has some difficulty making the calls there,” Brantley explained after the game.

He’s right about that, but Georgia just didn’t play well in the first half. Not on offense, where quarterback Aaron Murray was awful “Maybe a little too amped up, but that’s no excuse,” and not on defense where they looked like they were going through the motions. “I felt good coming into the game and I didn’t feel terrible at halftime. I didn’t like being down 21-3 but I felt like we were capable of coming back,” Mark Richt explained at his post-game press conference.

At halftime, Richt told his team to keep playing and they’d be back in it. Not only were they in it, they were the dominant team. If Georgia thought, “Here we go again,” after getting down in the first half; Florida probably figured the same thing after halftime. Having lost three games, their orders this week were to “finish.” But Georgia had different ideas, outscoring Florida 24-10 in the second half and out playing the Gators at every phase.

While Georgia’s defense faltered in letting Burton run 51 yards for a touchdown, their offense responded with a tying touchdown pass to A.J. Green. (By the way, Green is the best player on the team, was the best player on the field and I still think he could be the best player in the conference.)

Going into the overtime Georgia had every advantage: They got the ball first, and they had the best kicker in the game. Florida was going to have to play catch-up and their kicker was a backup. But when Murray threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted, the advantage shifted to the Gators.

In the college overtime game, you have to score. Georgia came away from that possession with zero points, meaning all Florida had to do was kick a field goal. But with their back up kicker, that could be an adventure. After three downs the kick was true and Florida wins for the 18th time in the last 21 games, 34-31 in overtime (the first OT in the series).

With the win Florida still controls their destiny in the SEC east and the South Carolina game looks to be the deciding contest. Georgia now can only play the spoiler and hope this kind of experience carries through for their young players.

Honestly, they were the better team but they couldn’t figure out how to show it against Florida. That’s three or four games this year where they had the talent but couldn’t figure out how to win the game. I don’t know if that’s coaching or team leadership but they shouldn’t be in that situation that often.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tebow’s Quest

I’m not surprised at all of the interest in Tim Tebow at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. Tebow has made a splash with the media since he was in high school and it continued in college. Winning the Heisman as a sophomore only extended his notoriety across the country. So when he announced he’d make the trip to “LA” the national media, the local media and every draft nick east of the Mississippi headed to Mobile.

“His footwork is bad, his motion is too long, and he can’t take a snap from under center. Plus he doesn’t have the arm strength.”

Next thing you know Tebow will have made a deal with the devil to get into the NFL. He’s by far the most scrutinized player in the history of the Senior Bowl. He’s a polarizing figure, with some adoring him and others looking for any crack in the “façade.” The fact is, he is what he is. He’s deeply spiritual, supremely confident and competitive and has won at whatever he’s tried.

When he fumbled six of the first twelve snaps at Monday’s practice, it was big news. Never mind that those snaps were the first he’d taken in nearly a month and they were from five different centers. And the other quarterbacks had the same difficulty.

I know ESPN runs the sports world these days. And if you have a voice on ESPN, it’s given plenty of run and plenty of weight. But as Tim said himself, it’s not about impressing 32 teams; it’s about impressing one.

When he talked with coaches, general managers and scouts this week, they all came away impressed. The “intangibles” he has when it comes to playing quarterback are off the charts. Leadership, confidence, commitment, all what every team is looking for. When they dissect his actual quarterbacking skills, Tebow comes up short of perfect.

Not many snaps from center in college and consequently not much experience in dropping back. A slightly long delivery where he drops the ball down to his hip while throwing is part of everybody’s focus. Can that be fixed? Byron Leftwich never did change that part of his game and he’s on the bench in Tampa after being a first round pick for the Jaguars.

The anticipation of what’s going to happen downfield is another part of the game that is different than what Tebow experienced in college. Can he change the things that aren’t up to par right now? Who knows? Tebow is a supremely coachable athlete and will do what he can to get it right.

Not that he’s guaranteed to be a success, but he’ll try as hard as anybody.

So do you draft him?

Only if you think he can play in the NFL. You only draft him in the first round if you think he’s a starter. You don’t draft him because he’s a great guy or because you think he can sell tickets. You draft him if you think he can start for your team.

So where does that leave the Jaguars?

Drafting in the tenth spot is a dicey situation anyway, especially this year. The top five or six guys you could call “can’t miss” players, but after that, you’d just as soon have the 20th pick than the tenth in order to save some money. You’d get better value.

I do know Gene Smith is high on Tebow in every regard, so much so that he said, “I wish my daughters were a little older.” But that doesn’t mean he’s a lock to be drafted by the Jaguars. I think if they have a chance to move down in the first round and a defensive lineman who they covet is already gone, taking Tebow might be a possibility.

Without a second round pick (they traded it last year for Derek Cox) it’s a little dicey but somewhere along the line they’re going to have to decide, “Do we pick him or not?”

And that’s when it’ll get interesting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Urban Meyer’s “Fix”

I was sitting on the set at the anchor desk watching the Urban Meyer press conference from New Orleans when a lot of answers flooded into my head. Not necessarily the right answers, but answers nonetheless.

I had read the Sports Illustrated article at the beginning of December that profiled the Florida coach in great detail. Stuff nobody’s ever heard of, never reported came out in the article. About his early childhood, his relationship with his father and his late mother. About his pro baseball days and his beginning years as an assistant football coach. The article also revealed a medical condition Meyer has not reported before. He has an arachnoid cyst on his brain that causes debilitating pain when stressed or agitated.

The access given to SI by Meyer was unprecedented. And it gave me a lot of insight into the coach who is close to his family and friends, his players and assistants, but keeps an arms length everywhere else. “The Imperial Urban” I’ve always called him. Removed, above the fray and very good at what he does.

As Meyer spoke from New Orleans a better picture of him formed in my head and it helped explain the events of the last 18 hours. Meyer revealed that he’s had “chest pains” for the last four years and they’ve gotten worse in the last two. After the SEC championship game he had an “episode” and two more after that, bringing him to the point where a decision had to me made: his health or his job.

Meyer has also preached that family and faith come first and he’s lived that as well, except when it comes to him. He encourages players and assistants to spend quality family time and to explore their faith. But he’s working all hours, going over every detail to get the job done. Apparently that drive has brought him to a place physically where his body can’t handle it anymore. He can’t be that end-all, be-all person as he says “full speed ahead.”

I believe Meyer resigned on Saturday at the behest of his wife, and his close circle of friends. He just couldn’t not be the guy on top of everything to get it done so he figured he’d be the guy on top of nothing. But at practice Sunday morning, Meyer realized it’s not the coaching that he’d miss but the relationships that he’d give up. A phone call to Jeremy Foley from the practice field alerted the Florida AD that there might be a change of plans and a “leave of absence” was arranged.

“This is going to take some time,” Foley said in New Orleans. “It’s about Urban’s health and he’ll be back when he’s ready to come back.” Foley seems to understand that it might be a while before Meyer sorts this out.

I asked Bobby Bowden about it at practice on Sunday morning noting that the profession can be very “seductive.” “That’s right,” Bobby said. “It can suck you in all the time. If you’re somebody who is motivated by the work, it’s always there. From the time you get up to the time you go to bed, you can be working on something: recruiting, film, scouting, booster clubs, your team. You can always find something to do and at the end of the day, you’re never finished. You can always pick it right back up the next day. So if you let it, it can control your life.”

Bowden’s no different that Meyer when it comes to his dedication to his job, his players and coaches. And he’s no different than a lot of us who are motivated by our job and enjoy the challenge it poses every day. Where Meyer is different, I believe, is that he’s never been able to find the “off” switch. He’s able to spend time with his family and friends but he’s never able to stop being a football coach.

When asked if it was “who he is or what he does” that caused this problem, Meyer responded, “Yes.”

That’s pretty telling.

He says he has to get it “fixed” but wouldn’t be specific regarding any particular physical ailment other than referring to it as “chest pains.” I think his problem is as much psychological as it is physical. One might have caused the other, but he’s going to have to work on that “off” switch and find a way to be dedicated to his craft without it overwhelming him.

And I think that’s going to take time.

There’s a culture in football that screams, “I can handle it” no matter what it is. But Meyer needs help. He has to trust the people around him to do the job as well as he could and delegate some of his “big ticket” jobs.

There are a lot of professions who deal with stress every day. Firefighters, law enforcement, soldiers and sailors, doctors and surgeons and all find a way to deal with that the best they can. Meyer’s no different and his job should bring him joy not pain.

He’s a football coach!

That’s a great job and he has the one most people in his profession only dream about. He should be able to do the best job he can and accept the outcome. If you read the article in SI you’ll see why that might be tough for him, but he’ll have to adjust.

I’m fond of saying that sports is what I do, not who I am. Bowden is that way. Spurrier and dozens of others as well. Being a football coach is what Meyer should do. It shouldn’t be who he is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Changes at Florida

I got the text from Kevin: “Meyer quits UF.”

I don’t jump up very often but in the middle of a “Rock Band” session with my kids, I dropped the drumsticks and jumped up with the phone already to my ear. “It’s true and all over the place,” Kevin said as he answered the phone.

Hello was not necessary.

A couple of calls and some quick checks on the Internet and there was plenty of information already out there. Health issues, stepping down after the Sugar Bowl, discussion with his family, wants to stay in Gainesville, will continue with the University of Florida. His official statement said, “step aside” rather than resign so there has been all kinds of speculation as to what might happen.

Apparently on the flight to New Orleans, Meyer told the team that he was hoping to return to coaching that he was going to take a leave to work on his health and that Steve Addazzio was going to be the head coach in the interim. That makes sense if in fact Meyer has a curable condition. He has a documented arachnoid cyst on the brain that causes debilitating pain.

Who knows what the long-term prognosis of that is unless you get it fixed? It flares up when he gets agitated, or stressed. Kind of a difficult condition to have when you’re a college football coach at Florida.

There have been reports that Meyer suffered a heart attack during the season and it caused him a problem after the SEC Title game to the point that doctors said his life could be at risk if he continued to coach. You can have a heart attack and it not mean bypass surgery or some other major procedure. You can have a heart attack and not even recognize it. But apparently Meyer, if true, was able to keep working.

It does appear that Meyer will remain in the football program and the Gators aren’t going to be in the market for another coach.

Right now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bowden Memories

Writing about Bobby Bowden is easy. Not writing about Bobby Bowden is the hard part. He’s one of the most quotable people in the history of sports. He’s genuine. He’ll tell you what he thinks. He’s not going to hide his feelings and he’s not going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear.

There’s nothing about him I don’t like. He’s even a fraternity brother of mine (Pika). I’ve seen him at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. That that’s where I’ve learned from Bowden and respected him more than any coach I can remember.

When FSU lost those “Wide Rights” and “Wide left” and when they came close and didn’t quite get there, he never lost his temper. He never lost his ability to look past the final score and to some kind of higher plane that the game meant to him. Of course, he’s a man of great faith and that’s something he’s relied on through his professional life. He seemed to always just figure out that “it’s just a game.” And in that spectrum of wins and losses, road trips and home games, somewhere, Bowden became one of, if not the best college football coach in the history of the game.

I haven’t covered his whole career but from 1978 on, I’ve been to his games, to his office, ran into him in restaurants in Tallahassee, talked with him on the field and in press conferences. On the practice field and in the airport, I’ve seen him in all kinds of situations. As many people have written, he, like Arnold Palmer and few others, has the ability to make you feel like you’re the only person on the planet when he’s talking to you. He looks you right in the eye. He’s polite but not gratuitous.

People seem to have forgotten how innovative Bowden was early in his career at FSU. Whether it was playing the “Octoberfest” of games on the road against the top teams in the country (honest, look it up) or coming up with the “fumblerooski” against Clemson, Bowden always had something up his sleeve.

I asked him about the “Riverboat Gambler” reputation once and he gave me the most thoughtful answer. “Used to be that way ’cause I had to,” Bobby reminisced. “We didn’t have the players to line up and play you so we had to come up with something! Now it’s different (about 10 years ago). We have the players so I don’t have to do anything crazy. But I will if I have to!”

And opposing coaches knew it.

Once I asked Bobby in his office overlooking the stadium if they couldn’t throw the fade in the Red Zone a little better. “We teach them to put that much air under it. Why?” I explained that the quarterback at the time (I think it was Danny Kannell) just wasn’t executing it the way he could. Looking back on that conversation, I was probably way out of bounds but Bowden made me feel so comfortable talking football that it never occurred to me that I was giving advice to one of the best offensive minds ever. But he didn’t blow me off. He didn’t scoff. He stood up and marched across the room pretending he was a wide receiver and asked me to show him what I was talking about. I laugh out loud when I think about that now, but here’s Bowden, arms flailing, looking over his shoulder saying, “You were a quarterback, show me what you mean!”

Who knows if he really took it to heart but every time they threw the fade and scored since then, I did crack a little smile.

Opposing coaches liked Bowden. That’s because they knew him. Steve Spurrier thought he could debunk the “Smilin’ Bobby” mystique, but he just came off as a bit petulant when talking about Bowden. “We don’t like losing to FSU,” Steve once told me after a loss in Gainesville, the words F, S, U coming out slowly and with disdain.

Nobody was ever surprised when the Seminoles threw a reverse in at the most unexpected time. Bowden kept everybody on their toes. He brought in the best players and had a staff second to none. The ‘Noles won two national championships and save for a couple of missed field goals, they’d have three or four more. But that’s not what anybody will remember about Bowden. They’ll remember the way he could relate to everybody on some level. How he could talk about their Mamma’s and their Daddy’s and how he knew everybody’s name, their parents’ name, their grandparents’ name, their high school coach’s name and their hometown.

Players who were on Bowden’s teams all say the same thing: “He taught me more about life than football.” That’s about as big a compliment you can get as a person let alone as a coach.

Bobby paid me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received after we had played a round of golf together on a perfect afternoon. We were shaking hands standing next to the golf cart about to depart when he asked, “How come I didn’t recruit you?” and then he added, “You could have played for me.” He said it with that smile and that look that we’ve seen in post-games where he answers a question with another question that he really doesn’t know the answer to.

Maybe it’s my own vanity but I’m going to hang on to that memory.
I could have played for him.
And would have loved to.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators in Gainesville

It’s an orchestrated effort outside of the Gators’ practice field every night. Practice usually ends around six o’clock with the players filing out and walking from the field to the stadium, along side the O’Connell Center. Maybe about a quarter mile walk. Along the first half of that quarter mile, there are numerous autograph and picture seeking fans, all waiting to get a glimpse of the Gators and of Tim Tebow.

It’s a little bit confusing when you first walk up because there are all these people standing around, but they’re about 50 yards away from the gate of the practice field. I walked over there to find a female student athletic department assistant named Amy armed with a radio holding the fans at bay.

“You have to stay behind this pole,” she said as people were trying to surge forward.

Remember when the University issued a plea to students to stop asking Tim Tebow for his autograph on campus? Amy was there to keep these folks in line until practice got out. They were holding jerseys, footballs, sheets of paper, orange and blue posters, whatever, looking for an autograph. Matt Kingston, my photographer and I were given strict instructions to stay behind the pole. “You can take video,” she confirmed with somebody inside the practice field, “but you have to stay back here. And no interviews. That’s by Gate 1.”

“There are a lot of rules here,” I joked with Matt just as the players came pouring out of the gate.

Ryan Stamper and Brandon James both stopped to say hi, recognizing a familiar face from Jacksonville. Both have had big roles in the Gators success in the past two years. Tebow stayed on the practice field for at least an extra 20 minutes working on throws of different trajectory and velocity as well as distance.

Having covered an NFL team along with major college football concurrently for the last 15 years, the contrast in the media covering the two is dramatic. The NFL media is older, more cynical, wisecracking and judgmental. The college media is much younger, much more a bunch of fans and much much more deferential to the people they’re talking to.

Especially the coach.

The dozen or so media outlets covering Florida football during the week follow Urban Meyer around like lap dogs. The questions are all softballs, technical stuff that can’t go into a story but rather would qualify as “insider” info that they can use to impress their friends on campus. Half of them are asking questions trying to impress Meyer with their knowledge of his team. It’s a lay-up for Meyer every day. I guess that’s why when I asked him a question about motivating his team this week he was a bit startled.

First it was an unfamiliar voice and I’m pretty sure I asked him an actual question something like, “Is it a challenge to motivate this team in this stretch with them knowing they’re going to that game in December and who their opponent is going to be?” He literally did a double take and then very directly answered, “not this week. Not with who we’re playing.”

It was a mild reference to Steve Spurrier but without much emotion.

“Is it because of this particular team, the leadership this year, the guys on this team?” I followed up with. “We have good leadership on this team,” Meyer said without adding anything.

By the way, I’m sure Tim stopped to sign some autographs. In fact, my friends Joe and Liz were able to get Tim to stop for a photo for their Christmas card: