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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Florida

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Florida...
2006 Record
13-1 (8-1 SEC, Champions)
Past Five Years
45-19 (29-12 SEC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
8 (6 Offense, 2 Defense)
Best Player
Florida had three or four prospective all-Americans on the defensive line going into last season, and rarely used sophomore Derrick Harvey was not among them. He was not even among the starting rotation until Marcus Thomas’ suspension forced Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen inside, and even while leading the team in sacks ceded most of the pass rush attention to Jarvis Moss at the other end. It wasn’t until he led the barrage that shocked the Most Outstanding Player in College Football™ into double clutching indecisiveness that Harvey secured his role as the most feared returning edge rusher in the country. The wholesale departure of his highly accomplished accomplices will likely lead to more attention and subsequently less production, but that only changes the nature of his effect on opposing offenses – it can’t diminish it.
Bizarre Tradition
Florida partisans, like their counterparts at LSU, relish their chant, "If you’re not a Gator, you must be Gator bait." Which is a patently silly notion. Putting aside the refusal to acknowledge the wide swatch of ground inhabited by the 89 percent of Bowl Subdivision schools that were neither "Gator" nor "Gator bait" in 2006, an Ohio State fan at the blog Phase Portrait noted just before January’s mythical championship game the following definitions of "bait":
• something (as food) used in luring especially to a hook or trap
• a poisonous material placed where it will be eaten by harmful or objectionable animals
The author was perfectly fine with his team’s status as a poisonous material used as a lure to hook or trap an objectionable animal. He was presumably less okay with the actual results of the game, where his team more closely resembled Gator food, but that rhetorical smack must still really sting.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
The Orlando Sentinel crunched the numbers and determined Florida’s sports programs raked in $82.4 million from ticket sales, merchandising and other revenue sources in 2005-06, clearing a $4.2 million profit, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That’s a high number for the school that’s on a clean championship sweep in the two major revenue sports, but doesn’t approach its SEC rivals at Alabama or especially Georgia. In 2005, the Sentinel showed ‘Bama clearing more than $12 million and Georgia way ahead of the pack with upwards of $23 million in profits. But both those numbers and the comparison of Saurian Sagacity show the Tide and UGA well behind Florida in overall spending and in football and basketball spending. SS also shows a clear correlation to winning championships in both cases. So why is Florida so much more willing to actually dish it out right now? Maybe Nick Saban represents a shift in thinking in Tuscaloosa – you get what you pay for.
What's Changed: This is a very different program than it was two years ago. Urban Meyer got all this attention for his versatile spread offense at Utah, and for thrusting the idea into the SEC's alleged stodginess, because it was so novel in its philosophy and flexibility and because it produced such great results with a seemingly very average guy like Alex Smith as triggerman in 2004, but the best representatives of SEC stodginess have mostly held their own. Chris Leak's failure to grow - in any sense - from a far more touted recruit into that sort of slobber-worthy pro prospect was probably due as much to the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia-Auburn-LSU-Florida State defenses he saw most weeks as to his infamously ill-suited compatibility with Meyer's particular system (I always thought he could run well enough; witness his gallop against Alabama and his score in the SEC championship), but it is a fact the pending promotion of the Tebow Effect sets Gainesville glands a-salivatin'. There will be the sense this fall that, for the first time, the SEC will see Meyer's offense run as it's supposed to be run.

There's a bigger difference, though, a more fundamental one that doesn't surprise me, because I saw Meyer's vaunted attack in person at the end of his first season at Utah, against Southern Miss in the 2003 Liberty Bowl. That game was one of the most brutal in football's modern era: the number of total punts (17) equaled the number of total points. And Utah's defense was responsible for seven of those directly, on a late, meaningless fumble return, and for another seven on a second quarter turnover cum short field touchdown for the offense. Alex Smith was nobody then, and pretty much played like it. It was the following year, you'll remember, that the Ute offense ran roughshod on the entire Mountain West, went 12-0 and vaulted Smith and Meyer to highly-compensated next level stardom.

Florida's offense since? Looks like this, by comparison with the Zook Era (shaded in emotionally appropriate blue):

Florida Offense, Post-Spurrier
Rush* Pass* Total* Scoring TO Margin
2002 136 (73) 271 (20) 401 (25) 25.8 (69) -.69 (91)
2003 146 (66) 245 (36) 391 (46) 30.0 (34) .54 (25)
2004 156 (58) 271 (14) 427 (19) 31.8 (19) .33 (40)
2005 147 (56) 227 (51) 373 (61) 28.6 (49) 1.5 (3)
2006 160 (38) 236 (28) 396 (19) 29.7 (23) .36 (37)

* - Yards are rounded; national rank in parentheses
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Florida under Zook and OC Ed Zaunbrecher moved the ball every bit as well overall as under Meyer and his right hand coordinating/quarterbacking guru, Dan Mullen, more effectively when passing (Leak's attempts remained steady), and scored at about the same rate (remember scoring was down across the board last year because of the recently revoked clock rules). Meyer's effect on the offense has been to balance it with slightly better running and ball control, but it hasn't led to gains on the scoreboard. Meyer and Mullen don't look any more like geniuses in this big picture than Zook and Zaunbrecher.

Now, back to that Liberty Bowl: Utah's defense, one game removed from the first shut out of BYU since Joseph Smith moved the Mormons to the Great Salt Lake, played, to mid-major scale, pretty much exactly like Florida's in the mythical championship game, eventually frustrating a fairly hot quarterback into an ejection for kicking a linebacker in the head in the fourth quarter. Adjust that for better athletes and higher stakes, and it seems clear the real transformation again has less to do with offensive gadgetry than aggressive deployment of dangerous athletes on the other side. It's easy to say that after the National Geographic-like display of quarterback predation in January, but more dispassionate results are are equally dramatic in their clarity:

Florida Defense, Post-Spurrier
Rush* Per Carry Pass Eff. Total* Scoring
2002 163 (68) 4.0 (-) 109 (28) 326 (25) 21.5 (31)
2003 159 (65) 3.9 (-) 110 (22) 368 (51) 20.8 (28)
2004 142 (53) 3.7 (-) 111 (27) 346 (42) 21.1 (31)
2005 95 (10) 3.1 (-) 113 (25) 300 (9) 18.8 (18)
2006 73 (5) 2.7 (-) 98 (4) 255 (6) 13.5 (6)

The coordinator, Charlie Strong, has not changed since 2003. His was the only unit last year among the top half dozen in the country in rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring defense, better than any defense of Steve Spurrier's, or certainly of Ron Zook's, and significantly better than the offense's production by comparison. Meyer's most dramatic influence has been to turn Florida into a defensive team.

Alas, yet another change: only two of the top 15 or so most dangerous athletes on last year's doom-bringing crew didn't either a) graduate, b) declare for the draft, or c) do something like fire a rifle off in a parking lot. Those two - top sacker Derrick Harvey and leading returning tackler Tony Joiner - are pretty good ones to have back, but exactly how much was lost with Jarvis Moss, Ray McDonald, Steven Harris, Earl Everett, Brandon Siler, Brian Crum, Reggie Lewis, Ryan Smith and especially the omnipresent Perpetuator of Fear, Reggie Nelson? Save Smith, those guys were together for four years. Each man's pending millions might roughly correspond to the number of big plays allowed in his stead.

What's the Same: Every doubt last year revolved around the offensive line, which had been fairly atrocious in `05 (35 sacks allowed in twelve games) and only had one starter back. It was assumed Florida would not be able to run against any decent front, as it had been unable to run against Tennessee, LSU and Florida State, and in some ways the new guys weren't the significant improvement they'd seem. Though overall yards per carry shot up from 3.9 to 4.7, the numbers were still pretty pedestrian against those same three defenses (as well as at Vanderbilt, for whatever reason), and sacks didn't decrease much (34 in 14 games). The major difference, of course, was third and short, where the Tebow Effect led to conversions on not only 65 percent of third down runs with 1-3 yards to go, but better than 70 percent success on throws in the same situation against defenses throwing everything they had at this force of nature. Nobody stopped this kid - UF picked up 5.3 per carry on third-and-short, twice its pre-Tebow average in 2005, and improved its overall conversion rate by eight percentage points. Graphically, courtesy of MGoBlog's handiwork:

Remember, green=good, so that's, eh, pretty good. And the only reason, with four linemen returning, that it won't be at least as good - it hardly matters if opponents are surprised or loading the box or whatever, since they already were, to no effect - is if Meyer and Mullen decide to be more selective with the Tebow Smash now that the bludgeon will be a full time starter. Given the ongoing uncertainty at running back, that would probably be a good idea, unless similarly hulking true freshman Cam Newton is going to do the same thing.

Tebow earns the Gators' traditional Spring Earl Everett Helmetless Abandon Award
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Blaze of Glory, Post Blaze: Damn, this defense is young. There's all the appropriate optimism about middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was Brandon Siler Lite when able to get on the field as a true freshman, but aside from Derrick Harvey, the guys in front of and flanking him are either more inexperienced or less touted coming into the full-time lineup. Big problems are awaiting at corner, where Ryan Smith's suspicious, perfectly orchestrated arrival shored up a potentially desperate situation long enough to win a championship and move on with the cupboard completely bare of any even slightly known commodities. Even last year's top backups, twins Tremaine and Jermaine McCollum, have moved on. Markihe Anderson and the impeccably-named Wondy Pierre-Louis played some as true freshman, mostly on special teams and Markus Manson moved over from running back in the Spring, but they can hardly be expected to duplicate the veteran consistency of Smith and Reggie Lewis. Not to mention the naked intimidation of Nelson, who looks like he'll be replaced by ex-starter and reliable fan whipping boy Kyle Jackson unless Dorian Monroe or John Curtis moves over from behind Joiner at free safety. The whole Avery Atkins thing still hurts, just a year later than expected.

Very Special Teams: In one sense, that of pinballing kick and punt returner Brandon James, 'special' is a very kind assessment. He's a little devil who's as impossible to get on the ground as his classmate Tebow, but in the exact opposite way. Tennessee is fully aware of this, even if a penalty wiped it from the record. In another, the battle to replace notoriously erratic kicker Chris Hetland and more reliable punter Eric Wilbur, 'special' is deployed in the same way you might refer to the "special short bus." Jonathan Phillips and Eric Nappy combined to make seven extra points, but neither could unseat Hetland during his baffling, season-long streak of futility. This is probably not a very good sign. Phillips, for his part, was at least five of five on his extra point attempts, as opposed to Nappy, who missed two of his four PAT tries. Phillips also occasionally kicked off, though Robert Ijjas did more of that and did a little PAT kicking in the Spring scrimmage. Nobody attempted a field goal. Billy Kane punted twice Saturday, but incoming Chas Henry is one of those athletic type kicker/punters (6-4, 200, starting quarterback in high school) and might take over for Wilbur in the latter capacity.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Everybody knows Andre Caldwell, who's been around forever, and Percy Harvin, blazers who both carry the PS#1 tag from Phil Steele as the best receiver recruit in the nation out of high school, but the mind meld in Saturday's scrimmage was between Tebow and little-used junior-to-be Louis Murphy, who caught eight passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Notably, injury only feeds Tebow's power to throw laser beams, and Murphy was the most frequent recipient. This connection may or may not be a Spring coincidence - of Tebow's six non-UCF/Western Carolina mop-up completions, the most successful was the 42-yard touchdown he threw to Murphy after snookering the entire defense with Tebow Smash action against LSU, one of Murphy's two career catches to date. If he adds a fourth serious threat behind Caldwell, Harvin and Cornelius Ingram, the receivers probably won't miss Dallas Baker or Jemalle Cornelius even a little, which is a frightening thought.

Florida on YouTube: A championship in repose, as portrayed days after the desert triumph by the UF Theatre Strike Force:

If you had trouble with those lyrics outside of "Tebow want the ball!", they're here.

See also: Physical laws of the universe state: win the mythical championship, get a ton of crap on YouTube. When it comes down to it, though, none of the montages, trophy presentations, street parties, taunts, celebrations and White House visits are possible without the championship technique and spirit forged in a sweltering preseason board drill; watch Lee Corso sporting something very close to a mullet as he dissects the relationship between Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel; a really sweet video about Chris Leak; and with the draft approaching and the Saints needing secondary help, the best of literally ten minutes of evidence demonstrating why I want Reggie Nelson on my team.

Best-Case: The non-conference triumvirate of Western Kentucky, Troy and Florida Atlantic is a daunting one, but if the Gators can get through that gauntlet unscathed, they will get Tennessee and Auburn at home. Optimistically, trips to Ole Miss, South Carolina and Kentucky are no sweat, leaving the game at Baton Rouge, a week after hosting Auburn, as the real hellraising trip. Georgia, of course, is in Jacksonville. Regardless the athleticism still on hand, the attrition from last year's defense and the transition to a relatively inexperienced quarterback ensures a loss somewhere - at LSU is the best bet, but there are four other extremely conceivable traps. It would be an amazing run to duplicate last year's one-loss, SEC championship credentials.

Urban Meyer keeps an eye on his program's expectations.
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Worst-Case: Seven teams on the schedule have beaten UF at least once in the last four years; three of them have beaten on of Meyer's first two teams, so there will be no intimidation from the likes of Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Florida State. The contemporary incarnation of Florida has never lost all those games in one season, but it could drop up to four of them and still be upset by one of the several upstarts - improved Ole Miss won its last two against Zook's Gators, a UF fan has admitted to me his fear of Kentucky's legitimate offensive threats and Steve Spurrier's had his Carolina teams playing well above their heads in both of his return engagements with the ol' alma mater. All three are road games for the Gators. I could see a young team slipping as far as 7-5 before a bowl game. Not very likely, but that was one badass haul of defenders leaving town.

Non-Binding Forecast: The tendency after what went down in the mythical championship game is to renovate the memory of last year's Gators into one of a bloodthirsty pack of inevitable conquerors, but it wasn't like that at any point in the season. UF put pretty convincing beatdowns on LSU and on Arkansas in the SEC Championship, but it only beat Tennessee by a point, struggled with Vanderbilt, should have lost to South Carolina at home and actually did lose at Auburn. Championship teams have to win a game or two in that fashion, but the fairly obvious expectation of regression on defense at the very least is good cause to think a pair of those close shaves will go the other way. Florida State will be a much greater challenge with its new staff. As far as getting back to the conference title game, I haven't come to any conclusions whatsoever about Georgia or Tennessee to compare (the Vols with Erik Ainge would seem the very tentative favorite to me), but our burgeoning juggernaut here could very realistically slip to 9-3, for the moment.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse