Season Preview

Better late than never…

This season the Gators will not do worse than the 9-3 that they finished last year. The team will be considerably better, but the schedule is about a magnitude more difficult on paper. However, that’s not as big of a problem as people want to make it out to be.

Every year, the cream always rises to the top. People who pick champions based on schedules should remember 2004 West Virginia team, who, like this year’s squad, was picked to go undefeated in a weakened Big East. That team was not really one of the best teams in the country, and it showed. Now, this year’s West Virginia is better than the 2004 version, but I’m not convinced that it’s better than Ohio State, Auburn, Notre Dame, or Texas, for example. The 1996 Florida team and the 2002 Ohio State teams played tough schedules and still won titles. It can be done.

The biggest issue outside of the schedule that people have with this Florida team is how well the offense will do. The offensive line is a legitimate concern, and the absence of a true every-down running back might prove to be a pitfall too. Coach Meyer has been praising DeShawn Wynn though, when Wynn was in the doghouse all of last year. He knows that he won’t get drafted if he plays this year as he did last year. Between an invigorated Wynn, and Kestahn Moore and Markus Manson having more experience, the Gators should end up fine at tailback.

Invariably, the national analysts will bring up the problem of fitting Chris Leak into The Urban Meyer Offense™. I understand that keeping track of dozens of teams is difficult, but it amazes me how so many people can be so wrong about the UF offense this year. Urban Meyer is not an idiot. He will not try to run the offense that struggled against Alabama and LSU, or the second version of last year’s offense that had issues with Georgia and South Carolina either. It will be the offense that scored 34 points against the FSU defense and its four first-round draft picks. It will be the offense that looked fairly effortless in scoring against Iowa and its Big 10 defense.

In other words, the offense will look good. Really good. You just don’t know how good it’s going to look, and so on. It will put points on the scoreboard as easily as Bob Ross puts happy trees on the canvas. UF has the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. Leak will be rolling out of the pocket to compensate for the lack of a line, where he’s actually a better passer than most think, and he’ll have any one of seven excellent choices to throw to: Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, Jemalle Cornelius, Percy Harvin, Jarred Fayson, Cornelius Ingram, and Tate Casey. You can also add the serviceable Kenneth Tookes and the nation’s best safety valve, Billy Latsko to them, as well as whoever will be lined up at running back. Tim Tebow will get some playing time, and he has to since he is the backup and has no experience, but this is Leak’s team and Leak’s year. We will be seeing him in New York this December.

All this has been offensive talk so far, and I haven’t even mentioned the defense. The line will be monstrous. Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas both are talented enough to be first-round draft picks next Spring. Jarvis Moss will likely have double-digits in sacks thanks to the attention that McDonald and Thomas will receive. Steven Harris and Joe Cohen probably would start on 90% or more of the defensive lines in the country. This line could very well be better than the Ellis Johnson and Kevin Carter-led lines of the mid ’90s, and that is saying a lot. They all will be in opponents’ backfields all year long.

The starting linebackers will be great, but the position has become dangerously thin. It already lacked depth before losing Jon Demps and A.J. Jones for the year. Brandon Siler and Earl Everett will both challenge for all-SEC honors, and Brian Crum will be good enough to make this a great set of linebackers. A lot will be required of the freshmen and redshirt freshmen who back them. Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe impressed coaches this summer in practice, and they’ll need to keep progressing quickly if the Gators want to have a top-five defense in the country.

The secondary is the clear weakness. Reggie Nelson is the only known quantity back there, and he may not even play his best position all year. Reggie Lewis will be fine at one cornerback, but losing Dee Webb (choosing poorly to try the NFL) and Avery Atkins (transfer for personal issues) hurts considerably. Utah transfer Ryan Smith may or may not be good enough at the other corner, and Tremaine McCollum has starred on special teams, not defense. Nelson should play safety all year, where he would contend for all-conference honors, but he almost certainly will have to play some corner this year. Kyle Jackson will need to snap out of his sophomore slump, and Tony Joiner too must step up as far as the other safeties are concerned. As long as everyone stays healthy, the secondary should be decent, but the Gators are definitely vulnerable back there.

The defensive backs won’t be exploited that often, however, because of this reason: it’s awfully hard to find your receivers when you’re running for your life or flat on your back staring at the sky. I’ll give you another: the Gators will be facing the most inexperienced slate of quarterbacks I have ever seen on the schedule. Southern Miss is breaking in a new starter. Tennessee’s Erik Ainge will be in his first year of being the only guy at QB, and reports out of Knoxville say he has struggled mightily this off season. Alabama will have a freshman QB, and Georgia might too. If JaMarcus Russell flames out at LSU, that could put the rather green Matt Flynn or Ryan Perrilloux in the starting role. FSU’s Drew Weatherford will be only a sophomore still, and Florida nearly shut him out last year. Plus, there’s no guarantee that Weatherford will progress as a player under Jeff Bowden; Chris Rix never did get better after a precocious freshman year.

I’m saying what I alluded to earlier: the schedule is extremely tough on paper. The SEC won’t be as dominant this year as it has been in the past. Auburn is the only team that definitely has its act together, and to a lesser extent Florida is right there with them. LSU is the third-best team, and it has a quarterback controversy and a coach who can’t win big road games. As much as I hate to say it, the Big 10 will be the tougher conference this year. Don’t get me wrong, the SEC is still ahead of the soft ACC, Big East, and Pac 10 leagues, and is better top-to-bottom than the Big XII. It just is not going to be what the Big 10 will be with all of the inexperience on all of the teams.

The Southern Miss and UCF games will be closer than Gator fans are accustomed to for the opening games, but neither is the team that UF is. Florida will pull away in the second half of both. Tennessee is still a year away from being back at the top of the conference, and really has not played well at home of late. The Gators defense will suffocate an overmatched Erik Ainge and Florida will return home 3-0.

After the first cupcake game of the year, a home game versus Kentucky, Florida will get a chance at revenge against Alabama. The Tide defense will be stingy as always, but if Brodie Croyle couldn’t make the offense work without Tyrone Prothro last year, there’s no way that freshman QB John Parker Wilson will make it work without Prothro this year. Florida very well could win in a shutout. Next is homecoming against LSU. Not only is there the revenge for last year theme again, but Les Miles is an expert at losing big road games. He didn’t have a chance to last year, throwing out the Arizona State game due to Katrina-induced madness and the fact that ASU really wasn’t that good, and considering that LSU was fortunate to get the post-Prothro Alabama team. That leaves Florida at 6-0 going into its toughest test.

I’ll be honest. I really think that Florida will have a hard time winning at Auburn. Tommy Tuberville has been a top coach ever since the Bobby Petrino scandal, and with Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons running the show the WarPlainsTigers appear to be the best team in the conference. Neither team will have had an off-week (Auburn doesn’t get one the whole season), but playing at home gives Auburn the edge. That makes Florida 6-1 heading into its lone bye week. On the other side Florida will go to Jacksonville for the ceremonial Beating of the Dogs, because it’s what we do. The Gators’ defensive line once again will enjoy terrorizing some poor quarterback (whoever it might be at that point for Georgia – there’s no way to tell now), and the offense will do more than enough to win. After that is the trap game at Vandy, where not even Spurrier’s teams played well consistently. It will be frustratingly close, but if Jay Cutler couldn’t beat Florida, there’s no way Vandy will this year.

Now comes potentially the most important game of the year. It certainly will be the most emotional. Steve Spurrier and his South Carolina Gamecocks will roll into town. Urban Meyer needs to win this game. The fans need the team to win for closure. Regardless of what really went on, there will always be fans bitter about Florida not bringing Spurrier back after Ron Zook’s firing. Getting into that’s a whole other topic, but there’s plenty reason to believe that Steve would not have taken the job even if offered it. Anyhow, this also will be maddeningly close, but the Gator defense should carry the day. Florida definitely has the more talented team, but being more talented didn’t get them the win in 2005. The combination of playing at home and the sheer power of the Florida defense should push UF to a close win. Next is essentially an off week with Division I-AA Western Carolina coming to town in a Please-Fill-Out-Our-Schedule-On-Short-Notice game. This makes Florida 10-1 with one game to go.

I am very conflicted about the FSU game this year. I am convinced that Florida has the better team, but playing at Doak Campbell is always hard for the Gators and I really don’t know how good FSU is going to be. Drew Weatherford looks like he’s going to be great, but no one can say for sure until he proves it for more than one year. The defense lost a lot of talent, and the offense has been never been the same since Jeff Bowden replaced Mark Richt. Still, Florida has had the perfect game plan for the Noles each of the past three years, and if there was any justice in the world they’d have won all three of those games (don’t get me started on that 2004 game, because I won’t stop). I can see this one going either way, but ultimately I do think Florida will have another win. The offense torched an FSU defense last year that was better this year’s squad will be, and once again UF’s defensive line will knock Weatherford around enough to limit his capacity for running the offense. That leaves Florida 11-1 going into a likely rematch with Auburn in the SEC title game.

If Florida can win the rematch and head into bowl season 12-1, they very well could be playing for a national title. I really don’t think anyone will go undefeated this year because everyone has glaring weaknesses that can be exploited by multiple teams on their schedules. Realistically, Florida will probably more end up 10-2 or 9-3 to end the regular season because of how grueling the schedule is and how little depth the team has everywhere but receiver and defensive line. LSU and FSU could very well beat Florida, and as bad as it would be on the fan base, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for South Carolina to pull off another upset. The Gators still should win the SEC East with Georgia in somewhat of a rebuilding year and with Tennessee and South Carolina still a year or two away from being elite teams.

The only team I like for the national title game is Ohio State. Troy Smith is a gritty winner, and will not allow his team to lose more than once. Even though the defense lost nine starters, Jim Tressel will have the replacements ready to go. Tressel has become one of only about five coaches that can really be trusted in college football. I don’t like Texas since freshman quarterbacks don’t generally win titles. I don’t like Notre Dame because the Irish defense will not be good enough. I like Cal better than USC, but Cal could just as easily lose to Tennessee as win against USC. None of the ACC teams, as usual, really inspire me to pick them as title contenders. If I had to say today, based not on schedules but on who has the best teams, I’d have OSU and Auburn in the national title game.

No predictions matter anymore now, though. It’s game day.

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