Gators on the All-SEC Team

December 9, 2008

Normally today is the day where I tell you which Gators made the all-SEC team for the week. Seeing as how the season is over, the all-SEC team for the whole season came out yesterday.

Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, and Phil Trautwein made the first team. Percy Harvin, Jermaine Cunningham, Carlos Dunlap, and Joe Haden made the second team. There is no third team, but Brandon James, Jonathan Phillips, Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Pouncey, Jason Watkins, and Ahmad Black made honorable mention.

Tebow was named Offensive Player of the Year.

It’s somewhat puzzling to see Harvin on the second team behind LSU’s Brandon LaFell and Georgia’s A.J. Green, but I guess the selectors were looking for traditional receivers first. It’s great to see Black on there, considering he wasn’t even going to start until he was forced to by injury. All he did was tie for the second-most interceptions in the country with six.

All told, 13 Gators were recognized for excellence by the conference. Four of the five offensive linemen were recognized, all except Carl Johnson who did not play a full year at guard.

One name that will certainly be on this list next year (barring injury) is Janoris Jenkins. Man, is that guy good.


LSU Game Preview

October 9, 2008

I did this in conjunction with the LSU Football Community Leader on Bleacher Report, Justin Goar, and you can read his side of this here.

Game Preview:

This game is far more critical for Florida at this juncture of the season than it is for LSU. The unexpected loss to Ole Miss has made it so another conference loss prevents the Gators from controlling their own destiny in the East. Granted, Vandy won’t run the table and a loss for the Commodores will give UF that control back even with a loss to LSU, but the margin for error becomes razor thin with a defeat on Saturday.

It could have some significance in the court of public opinion as well. Some people, including Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, have begun beating the “Urban Meyer’s shine is wearing off” drum. A win here would definitely help boost his image, even though it shouldn’t need it after producing a national championship and a Heisman winner in his first three years.

LSU on the other hand, has very little to lose in my opinion. A loss only jeopardizes the Tigers’ national title chances, and given how seldom teams win two in a row, a repeat was always doubtful in my mind. A loss on the road at night with a freshman starting quarterback falls squarely in the “understandable” category, and even then running the table from here would keep LSU right in the race for the crystal football.

The one catch is that LSU hasn’t looked all that great so far. The blowouts over Appalachian State and North Texas were nice. However they needed a dramatic comeback to beat Auburn, something that sounds less appetizing every day now. The win over Mississippi State was not overly impressive either given that the Bulldogs scored 24 on them whereas they didn’t manage a single point against those same Auburn Tigers.

Florida will win if: the Gators play “Florida football.” I put that in quotes because I mean it how Meyer defines it: winning the field position battle, playing great on special teams, and beating the other guy on the lines. Outside of the Ole Miss game, Florida has done well with the first two. The third part has been more troublesome.

The offensive line has been hit hard by injuries at left guard, which has thrown off the play of senior left tackle Phil Trautwein too. It also had some shuffling going on before the season. Sophomore center Maurkice Pouncey was a guard last year, and his twin brother Mike, the starting right guard, was an emergency defensive lineman after practicing at center for most of the year. The defensive line has been better that last year, though it’s hard to be worse, but it has not been consistent with getting pressure.

It’s unlikely the offense will click back into “destroy” mode, as it had been in 2007, against LSU’s defense, so the special teams will have to have another great game. Brandon James will be the man of interest in that respect, and he will help with the field position battle too. Punter Chas Henry has been quietly outstanding as well, so the same thing applies. Kicker Jonathan Phillips has been perfect so far, but don’t expect him to be attempting anything beyond 40-43 yards.

Florida will lose if: they can’t stop the run. Charles Scott has been stellar this year, and an inability to stop the run played a huge part in LSU’s comeback win last season.

Florida’s defensive line has been improved as I mentioned, and relatively unknown guys to the national stage like Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders, and Justin Trattou will need to step up alongside the more known quantities, Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap.

They will also need help from the linebackers. Brandon Spikes has been fantastic, but Dustin Doe is out recovering from surgery for a double hernia. The Gators get backup Ryan Stamper, who was out hurt against Arkansas, a utility guy who is able to play all of the linebacker positions. He excels in run coverage, so that’s a good thing. The third ‘backer is A.J. Jones, who has yet to really distinguish himself but is making more plays this year.

Even after Jarrett Lee’s performance in the comeback over Auburn, I’d rather force LSU’s inexperienced quarterbacks, both of whom will see the field on Saturday, to win the game instead of Scott. Good memories of JaMarcus Russell turning the ball over and bad memories of Jacob Hester picking up fourth down conversions probably drive that as much as anything.

The X factor: Kestahn Moore.

He is widely seen as the goat of the 2007 game thanks to his fumble, but he rushed for more than five yards a carry and was very effective. Once he got benched, UF could no longer control the ball or the clock, opening the door for LSU’s win.

This season his role has been diminished thanks to the emergences of Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps, and he missed the Arkansas game with a pulled hamstring. He will be healthy for this weekend though.

I don’t expect him to get many carries, despite his success last season, but he can play a big role anyway. He is Florida’s best blocker among the backs and receivers, and if given the chance he can be the guy to have Tebow’s back. Blitzes have caused problems for Florida thus far, but Moore can pick them up with enough regularity to buy time and avoid sacks.

This is a pure speculative pick; I can easily see Meyer not even putting him on the field but for five or six plays. What I am saying is that if he is used to get those extra rushers and provide backup when someone on LSU’s defensive line inevitably beats one of UF’s offensive linemen, Florida’s offense could have one of its best days.

Tebow needs time to throw, and Moore can provide him with that.

Prediction: Florida 23 – LSU 20

I am an incurable optimist when it comes to the Gators, so you can take that forecast with however much salt you want. However I saw the offense starting to form a real identity for the first time this season against Arkansas, and it was not solely a function of the Razorbacks having a questionable defense.

The absence of Bo Pelini, the inexperience under center, and environment in the Swamp at night are all negatives for the Tigers. I am by no means counting the Bayou Bengals out as you can see by the score prediction, but I think with Florida needing this one more than LSU does, the Gators will find a way to get it done.

Some Statistical Perspective

September 23, 2008

I have yet to take a good second look at the Tennessee game; I spent much of yesterday just trying to catch up on the weekend since I missed most of the games while out of town.

Much has been made about the offense so far. It struggled against a Miami defense that is better than most people thought it was (and some still think it is), and despite the results and relative lack of need for offense against the Vols, it didn’t feel crisp last Saturday. Urban Meyer has looked at the issue but doesn’t seem to be overly concerned:

“Clock rule is an issue. The stats are not where we’d like them to be. After looking at the playcalling, I believe we’re OK. We’re getting the tailbacks more involved. Tim is managing the game.”

Essentially, he’s saying that the new clock rules are part of the lower production, but the evolution in play calling and increased roles of the running backs have changed things. He estimated that Florida only had 46 “competitive” plays against Tennessee, with the other nine coming as they were just trying to run out the clock. It shows what can happen when two run-first teams go at it under the new rules.

During his Monday press conference, Meyer said the new rule changes are “wrong” and “awful,” and that Jeremy Foley has talked to the SEC about them. His attitude before the season was that he just wanted the NCAA to stick with this year’s rules from here on out to get them to be consistent rather than changing them every season, but obviously having coached under them he hates them.

Meyer also mentioned in the press conference that the Gators are scoring on 51% of their drives versus 54% last season, so that’s down some, but the competition so far has been stiffer than it was last season to this point. He also said that all three teams have been dropping four defensive backs into coverage to keep things in front of them, so running the ball a lot makes the most sense.

So anyway, here’s some statistical perspective of where the Gators are in relation to the rest of the conference. Keep in mind that Florida’s opponents so far have been pretty good, with only Hawai’i looking like a dog in the bunch. The following rankings are within the SEC, and results against I-AA teams have been counted.

Rushing Offense: 163.7 yds/game, 8th

Passing Offense: 167.67 yds/game, 10th

Total Offense: 331.33 yds/game, 10th

Those are the stats that everyone is getting all worked up about. How about instead looking at some others?

Passing Efficiency: 145.89, 2nd

Passing Efficiency Defense: 89.60, 2nd

Rushing Defense: 72.33 yds/game, 5th

Pass Defense: 140.67 yds/game, 3rd

Sacks: 2.33 sacks/game, 4th

Not a bad collection, eh? Now consider this. Florida is first in the SEC in all of the following categories:

Scoring Offense: 37.33 points/game

Total Defense: 213 yds/game

Scoring Defense: 6.33 yds/game

Net Punting: 40.58 yds/punt

Kickoff Returns: 27.60 yds/return

Punt Returns: 24.60 yds/return

Turnover Margin: +9

This team is getting it done of defense and special teams, and it is putting up points from all over. Miami’s field goal is the only time an opponent has scored when it was not garbage time. On average, Florida (really, Brandon James) gains more than a quarter of the field on every return. As I mentioned yesterday, the Gators are the only team left in the country without a turnover.

So no, the scoreboard is not lighting up like it was in 2007. Fortunately, that goes for both sides of it. Florida will likely be just fine, as they are already doing quite well for themselves already.

James Honored by SEC Again

September 23, 2008

For the second time in three games, Brandon James is your SEC Special Teams Player of the Week. He also garnered the honor for his fine work against Hawai’i. Something tells me that this won’t be the last time he gets that title in 2008.

That also continues the Gators’ streak of having an individual get conference player of the week honors. Jermaine Cunningham was the Defensive Player of the Week after the Miami game. Hopefully, this week extends the streak and completes the trifecta with someone getting offensive player of the week. Ole Miss’ defense has not exactly been dominant so far, and it would go a long way to get people to quit complaining so much about the offense.

Also, the Arkansas game has been picked up by Raycom. As is custom, it will be at 12:30. The game is October 4 in Fayetteville and not in the Razorbacks’ occasional home in Little Rock.

Quarter-Season Status Report

September 22, 2008

A quarter of the Gators’ season has gone by, so it’s time to take a look at where we are, how we got there, and where we’re likely going.

Where We’re At

Florida is 3-0, 1-0 in the SEC, and that’s good enough to be tied with Georgia for second in the east at a half game behind Vanderbilt.

The Gators offensive numbers are down from last season, but the defense is vastly improved. They sit 15th in rush defense, 7th in pass defense, 5th in total defense, and 2nd in scoring defense. The first string defenders have allowed only a touchdown and a field goal in three games.

How We Got There

Florida probably has not yet faced a complete test. Hawai’i is a shadow of its Sugar Bowl self, and Miami’s offense is very young.

Then there was Tennessee. Florida was basically like a seasoned tennis player facing a novice. The Gators were content to just volley the ball to the other side and let the Vols continually hit it into the net. They could have done a lot more, but they didn’t have to.

Urban Meyer’s coaching so far has changed quite a bit from last season, something I’ll get into later this week. Suffice it to say, it looks a lot more like 2006 than 2007.

The Florida MVP so far has been Brandon James. He is the main reason why this edition may be the best special teams unit we’ve ever seen at Florida.

Where We’re Going

Everything so far has indicated that the team will continue to aspire to win the SEC. The vaunted offense has had to do very little thanks to great defensive play and bulletproof special teams.

I have already seen some chatter that Florida might play USC in the BCS championship game in a battle between college football’s “two hottest coaches” (whatever that means), and I suppose that could make sense. The prevailing wisdom is that the SEC champ will almost certainly make the title game, and if you have the Gators winning the conference, that’d put them in the big one in Miami.

I think it’s a little too early to be talking about that. Could they go there? Sure. Will they? It remains to be seen.

The offense has not looked fully cohesive, as though Dan Mullen is still working on a plan to feed all of the guys who need the ball. Everyone assumes that in crunch time they can flip the switch and return to last year’s form, but switches are notoriously difficult to flip if you haven’t done it in a while. As long as Tebow and Harvin are healthy, it’ll likely turn out fine.

The Gators’ most difficult road trip is behind them already. The Cocktail Party in Jacksonville and the home match against LSU loom as the two biggest tests remaining; the latter is in the second quarter of the schedule, the former in the third.

Ideally, there will still be cause for big hopes in the fourth.

James a Key to Game

September 19, 2008

Brandon James is a dangerous kick returner. That much we already know. He has been especially effective against Tennessee, with a return for a touchdown each of his two games against the Vols. The one in 2006 was called back for a borderline penalty, but without the offending block #25 would have taken it to the house anyway.

John Adams from has decided that kicking to James is the riskiest thing Tennessee can do. Urban Meyer has warned that when you don’t punt the ball normally that you increase the risk of a block, and his Gators have been excellent in blocking punts and kicks. Adams doesn’t care; he says just don’t give him a chance.

Florida led the SEC in punt blocks last season, and they already have one against Miami that became a safety. If I remember right, they blocked something (a field goal, I think) against Hawai’i too but it didn’t count because of a penalty or timeout or something.

With Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps coming after them this season, the blocking unit may be the best yet. Let’s also not forget about James this year, who appears to be blossoming into a great all-around player without losing his touch on returns. He took one back in the first game, after all.

I expect Tennessee to be very fired up about this one. They have basically had this one circled since the last one ended, and just about all of their motivation in the off season has centered around the Gators, Tim Tebow, or the “Tennessee quit” theory.

If Florida’s line struggles to pick up blitzes again (which it shouldn’t thanks to Jim Tartt’s healthy return), long returns from James will help with field position. Taking one for a score would flip momentum too.

Whether Tennessee kicks to him remains to be seen, but the Vols could be in for a world of hurt either way. It’s nice to have special teams good enough to be able to say that.

Long Plays Against Hawai’i

September 4, 2008

What broke the Warriors’ backs, what limited Florida’s number of offensive plays, and what made last Saturday’s game feel so disjointed was a lot of long plays.

The UF offense only had one drive where it really got into a rhythm because it of so many big plays. Of course, that’s the only reason you would want for not getting into a rhythm on offense. Just when you think they’re getting it going, Chris Rainey, Louis Murphy, or Jeffrey Demps ruin it by getting a touchdown on a 30-yard, 50-yard, or 60-yard play.

All told, Florida had six scores on plays that were 30 yards or more. Here’s a video montage that I put together of all of them, one after another:

My favorite part is Dave Archer saying that Urban Meyer “is not off the accelerator yet” right before Demps’ 62-yard run. Nope, and in fact it was about to be pushed to the floor by the ball carrier.

The best part to me of the whole thing was the blocking done by the defense on Ahmad Black’s 80-yard interception return. It’s the very last clip of them all. It shows that Meyer’s investment in great special teams play can pay off in other situations, as most of the guys out there had put time in on special teams somewhere along the line.

Black had a nice juke in the middle, but most of the rest of that return was caused by guys on defense blocking as though it was a punt or kickoff return. It’s those sorts of details that make me love football in general and that make me very hopeful for the rest of the Gators’ season.

Now, it will a lot more difficult to pull these kinds of things off against tougher opponents. UF won’t get that many big plays in every single game all year, though keep in mind that Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez still have yet to hit the field because of injury.

However, if these long plays keep happening the rest of the season with any kind of regularity, it will be mighty tough to beat Florida.