Florida-Hawaii Eyewitness Report

August 31, 2008

By now you’ve probably already read all of the analysis of the game. Tebow hardly had to do anything. The running backs stole the show. The defense looked good. So on and so forth. Here’s how it went down from where I was sitting.

It was one of the strangest games I’ve ever attended at Florida Field. It began with a quick but persistent and cold rain shower from one of the outer bands of Gustav. That right there negated any and all climatological advantages related heat and humidity associated with Gainesville. From there it was relatively cool and breezy, and it probably felt a lot like how the islands do this time of year.

Because of the rain, the marching band was not allowed on the field. Sometime during the time I was in the band a few years ago, someone in the athletic department decided that marching bands destroy wet turf, and that policy has held ever since. It played only the national anthem, the alma mater, and “Orange and Blue” from the visitor sideline before retreating to the stands. The band also played its halftime show, the music of The Who, from the stands as well.

The first quarter was entirely frustrating. The offense got only one complete possession, and it ended because of the Gators mucking it up more than anything Hawai’i did. Almost the rest of the quarter was taken up by the Warriors controlling the ball and the clock thanks to shovel pass screen plays and Florida’s inability to line up onsides.

By the end of the quarter, a lot of people around me were wondering if this was an “I can’t believe this is happening” game as flashbacks of last year’s defense swirled in everyone’s minds.
Less than four and a half minutes into the second quarter, the Gators were up 14-0 and seemed to be in complete control.

The points kept coming and the offense spent a lot of time off of the field. That’s what an interception return and a punt return will do for you. It wasn’t really even the real offense because it seemed like the coaches were making a point to make it a running-back driven day. Urban Meyer’s comments after the game confirmed that was exactly the plan.

After halftime, it seemed for stretches like the Gators were losing interest. It’s difficult to say that when they posted another four touchdowns, but if you were watching (and especially if you were there) you’d know what I was talking about. By the time it was 48-0, the coaching staff really took its foot off the gas and the team basically coasted from there on out.

As I was talking to friends before the game, I came up with the idea that the biggest statement Florida could make was shutting out Hawai’i. For all intents and purposes they did, with the Warriors’ two scores coming in garbage time with both teams roughly playing street ball.

There was never any real doubt who was the better team, and ultimately this game didn’t prove anything with the score. The most important thing I saw was fundamentally sound one-on-one tackling by the defensive backs. That is something we never saw last season.

I don’t dismiss teams lightly, because if I think there is any chance of UF losing, I don’t want to jinx anything. I know that made some people upset, but we saw on Saturday the size of the gulf between Florida and a WAC team that lost everyone important.

As we now turn to Miami, I feel good about our chances from what I saw. I’m guessing the defense was just eager to make a statement, and hopefully it will not start a trend of racking up tons of flags in first quarters of games.

Go Gators!

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2008 Season Prologue

August 29, 2008

Here we are again, preparing to take the leap into the great unknown that is a college football season. We’ve been here before, but not quite like this.

The 2006 season was about a lot of things, but it largely was the story of a coach and a quarterback, polar opposites who stuck together to bring home a crystal trophy. The 2007 season was mostly just about a quarterback, with his Herculean efforts carrying the team and capturing a bronze trophy.

The 2008 season should be, and must be, different. If the trophy case is to expand in the winter, it must be a story about a team.

The quarterback will have more options around him, and he must use them to preserve himself. Those options must step up and take some of the burden, shouldering it with the same fervor as the one who carried it last year.

The defense is really where the team model must prevail. Individually they cannot stand, and last autumn we had 13 games of falling to prove it. The line and secondary must set each other up for success, with the linebackers providing the glue in the middle.

Nothing less will be enough in this new world of 2008. There are giants in the land, and those wearing red, scarlet, crimson, and cardinal will not be impressed by a one-man show on offense. Those wearing navy blue, black, purple, and burnt orange will not be impressed by a defense that cannot get a stop.

The players will compose plenty of stories throughout the year. The defensive line will. The running backs will. The secondary will. The wide receivers will. The possibility of another bronze trophy will be there too. In the end, the thematic thread that ties them all together will be whether the team as a whole came together to grow into more than a sum of its parts.

Who can say what accolades await? Who can tell what disappointments lay ahead? Perhaps the season will not come down to anything more than a pop heard in a shoulder, or a twinge felt in a knee. Perhaps it will come down to a final play in a hostile stadium. Perhaps, or maybe there will be no suspense at all.

We will be there, with open arms and open eyes, crying foul at undeserved flags and celebrating every score. We will travel to the unwelcoming places to make sure that we are heard. We will defend our name, and we will sing the songs that we have known and loved since before we can remember.

We will hope. We will hope because it is the greatest of all. We will hope because others wish they could. We will hope because it’s all we know. And in four months, we will stand by a remarkable team of men. We will congratulate them on a job well done, and we will say those words that have never been truer.

It’s great to be a Florida Gator.


Wear White to the Game

August 29, 2008

As the graphic above indicates, Florida is doing a white out to raise cancer awareness. Specifically it’s for skin cancer, which is apropos for the Sunshine State. I also know that’s a cause that’s important to Urban Meyer.

That graphic indicates that that the Gators will probably be wearing their white jerseys, but Florida officials have said we won’t see a white-on-white look. That combination worked well in Columbia last season as Tim Tebow put up seven touchdowns on the Gamecocks.

By default, home teams wear colored jerseys and the visitors wear white, and both teams must agree to a deviation from that. Hawai’i must give its consent to UF wearing white jerseys in other words, which would not really be in their best interest. One of Tebow’s high school teammates plays for Hawai’i, and he says his fellow Warriors have “no clue” what the heat and humidity in Gainesville will be like.

If Florida wears white, then Hawai’i will be wearing their dark green road uniforms. Dark colors at 12:30 pm in August in Gainesville? No thanks.


South Carolina-NC State

August 28, 2008

First Half

This game is rivaling the ’05 FSU-Miami game for worst opening weekend game I’ve ever watched, and that’s saying something. I mean, Wake Forest-Baylor has had a lot better offensive play in it.

Ol’ Steve has a lot of work to do because he still doesn’t have a quarterback. It could be Stephen Garcia or bust. This has just been an awful game.

Second Half

I only saw the beginning of it, but it appears that things turned around. It was only a matter of time before Spurrier pulled Beecher, what with his four turnovers, and it certainly seems that Chris Smelley has won the starting role on the field. It’ll be interesting to see what Stevarino has to say on his coach show this week.

Addendum

Jessie Palmer, find a longer tie. You look ridiculous.


New Field Art

August 28, 2008

For the first time in forever, the playing surface of Florida Field will look a little different.

It fits with the retrofit they did to the stadium facade, replacing the block lettering commemorating the national and SEC titles with this particular lettering. I have to say I kind of like it. No word on if the big F in the middle of the field is getting changed, but I’m guessing it won’t be.

Found via the GSMB.


2008 Season Outlook

August 28, 2008

I’m going to do my season outlook a little differently than I have done the past two years. I’m not going to go through and break down every game because injuries, schemes, and circumstances are never the same throughout the season as they are in the preseason. Instead I will pick the points of interest and call them how I see them.

The Team

The offense will be excellent. It will be able to get whatever it wants against many opponents, and even if the defense isn’t much better, it should be able to win any shootout. Not much else needs be said. The defense of course is the concern.

The line should be much improved. The ends will continue to be the strength, and no one the two deep will make Gator fans worry. They can go four deep at each tackle position if they wanted to, constantly rotating fresh bodies in and out. As it is, they probably won’t go more than three deep at each, and the coaches are more or less happy with the progress they’ve all made. There should actually be some real push up the middle this year.

The linebackers are the strongest group on the defense with a healthy Brandon Spikes. Once his foot heals, they’ll be the closest thing to a set-it-and-forget-it unit, with a great first line and capable backups. Some day, Dustin Doe will get the credit he deserves.

The secondary will remain a concern naturally, but not nearly as much as last season. Joe Haden was a quarterback in high school, Wondy Pierre-Louis never played football before his freshman year of high school, and Major Wright admitted he was kind of just playing center field without knowing fully what he was doing last season.

Those three have been starters in the SEC now, and along with Ahmad Black make up the first string in the back. Safety is thin, so losing Wright would be disastrous. Assuming health though, which seems to be a pretty big if this year, they will be much, much better. Urban Meyer calls them the most improved unit on the team, and he rarely gives out praise like that.

The most important thing is that everyone has the right attitude this year. Both the football team and the basketball team in their most recent seasons ran into the problem of assuming that showing up in orange and blue means you’ll win. They didn’t work as hard and didn’t develop the camaraderie that the championship teams had.

Well, that has changed. Meyer says the group is a lot closer and they had the right attitude in camp. In fact, he has said the fall camp was the among the best he has had at UF, and his comments so far indicate he likes this group more than even the 2006 squad at the same time of the year.

For the first time since that game in the desert, intangibles are on the Gators’ side.

The Schedule

As many people have pointed out, Florida’s schedule looks pretty doable. Hawai’i would have been a better game last season, while Miami would be a better game next year. FSU still has three quarterbacks battling for the starting role (which means they have no quarterback), and Florida has a lot more talent on the field and on the sideline.

As you can probably tell, I don’t think the non-conference schedule will be too difficult. The FSU game will be closer than it was in Gainesville last year just simply because of the site. The Gators didn’t win there between 1986 and 2004, and the wins in ’04 and ’06 were by just seven each time. There’s something about Tallahassee that keeps Florida from playing all that well, but I still think the Gators will prevail.

I’ve said this a few times this offseason, but here’s how I view the year: the team will be better and the schedule will be easier, so a 10-2 regular season is where the expectations start. Dropping Auburn for Arkansas is the primary reason for that. The other is that in my estimation, playing in Baton Rouge last season was more difficult than playing in Knoxville will be this year.

The three games I see as the greatest chance for losing are at Tennessee, home against LSU, and against Georgia in Jacksonville. South Carolina will probably be tricky since outside of the game during the collapse last season, Spurrier has played UF pretty close. Plus the Gamecock defense should be among the best in the conference.

Playing at Tennessee will still present atmospheric challenges even if it isn’t quite LSU. Dave Clawson’s new offense could also present a lot of trouble for the Gators’ young defense. Something that helps considerably is that UT plays UCLA this weekend, and the Bruin defense will be good enough to force the Vols to open the playbook a bit. Add to that Florida’s bye week before the game and the defense should have enough tape and time to get ready.

LSU’s issues at quarterback have been well documented, but ultimately I think they’re overrated since Andrew Hatch knows Gary Crowton’s system and was good enough to sign with BYU. There is so much talent on that LSU team all around that they don’t need fireworks from their signal caller; after all, Matt Flynn led them to a title without being a YouTube superstar.

The real issue to me is the Tiger defense. That may sound odd, considering how many great players are on it, but Bo Pelini has a special defensive mind. They will miss him, and the fact they replaced him with a committee would make me nervous. Florida was a couple well-timed stops from beating LSU last season, so
it’s not like it’s a lost cause for the Gators. Playing the game in the Swamp will definitely help.

The Georgia game is a bit problematic to project now. A lot depends on whether Matthew Stafford makes the big junior year leap or not, if the wide receivers stop dropping as many balls, if the offensive line will mesh into a unit as good as last season’s, and if super freshman A.J. Green is as good as advertised. Moreno will get his, Caleb King will get some more. Florida has more talent on offense, but Georgia has more experience on defense.

Meyer has been rattling his saber about last season’s Bulldog celebration, and he’s 8-1 against the three rivals. Florida was down by just five points last season with nine minutes to go, so, stop me if you’ve heard this before, getting a defensive stop would have given the Gators a great chance to win.

Florida will be better, but so will Georgia. It’s too tough to say conclusively today who will win, but you can’t rule either out as well. I suspect Florida will win, but I will get into that more around the time of the game.

Overall

In essence, nothing looks to me like an obvious loss candidate on the schedule in the way that the game at Auburn in 2006 and the game at LSU in 2007 did. The Gators leave the state just four times and have a bye before the worst trip.

If the expectations begin at 10-2, then they must go no worse than 1-2 in those three tough games. Florida has lost to an SEC West team every year since 1999, so if you believe in patterns, LSU is the most likely loss. Ole Miss and Arkansas just aren’t ready to beat a team like UF yet. Georgia would be the most crucial win since the Bulldogs are more likely to be competing for the SEC East crown than Tennessee is.

I think they’ll go 2-1 in those three tough games. Only one Florida team ever, the 1995 squad, has made it through the regular season unscathed. That’s once in 101 seasons.

In some ways, this team is like the 1995 team. It will be an offensive juggernaut, but it just does not feel like it’s ready to win it all yet. The core is still on the young side, especially on defense, and the injuries are well-documented. Things are set up to be at their best next season, but there still is a sense of urgency to get something done in 2008 with the potential of Tebow and Harvin going pro after the season.

Winning the East and then winning in Atlanta is a reasonable expectation. Going 10-2 or 11-1 in the process is also reasonable. There’s no shame in finishing second in the division to a loaded Georgia team, of course, but another 9-3 regular season would be a disappointment. That would indicate the defense didn’t get better, a significant setback considering they face seven first-year starters at quarterback (if you count Tommy Beecher) and three brand new offensive coordinators.

I certainly hope this isn’t the last year of having Tebow or Harvin. I can’t blame them if they go, but the 2009 team would be just phenomenal if they stayed. Now’s not the time to worry about 2009 though.

Enjoy this season, Gators. We may never see another one like it.


Harvin, Spikes Doubtful

August 28, 2008

“At this point, I don’t think he’s going to play.”

Those are the words from Urban Meyer to describe Percy Harvin’s chances this Saturday. He apparently said the same thing about Brandon Spikes.

It’s disappointing, especially for me since this is the only game I know for sure I’ll get to see in person this season. I really wanted to see those guys play.

Florida can replicate Harvin’s game using Deonte Thompson and Chris Rainey, so the offense will be fine. The loss of Spikes could make things a little dicey, but Hawai’i doesn’t run it enough and Miami has so many issues with injuries and suspensions that it probably doesn’t make a huge difference.

Ultimately, the goal is getting them ready for September 20th. The fact that it could be their first game brings up the specter of rust, but they’re good guys and can handle it.

Even if they suddenly get a lot better by Saturday somehow, it’s probably in the team’s best interest to sit them out still. Drat.