Blowout loss raises questions about Jimbo deal

November 30, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Nearly a year ago Florida State University promised $2.5 million to Offensive Coordinator Jimbo Fisher for “staying out of the market” the next three years and said the money was his if FSU failed to hand over the head coaching job to Fisher when Bobby Bowden retires.

After the season FSU just had, I say there’s a good chance the university – or more accurately the Seminole Boosters – may wind up coughing that money. Because right now I find it hard to believe that Fisher has given the Seminole faithful a truly compelling reason to hand him the keys to the kingdom.

That point was reinforced in the second half against the Gators when senior quarterback Drew Weatherford was brought in to try to steady the Noles following a lousy performance by Christian Ponder. After the game, it was revealed that Ponder had hurt his back against Maryland and that coaches were worried about how well he would do.

Well, guess what? Weatherford was in his own words “rusty” and not really prepared for the Gators onslaught. Hmm. Think that would have been a different scenario if Weatherford had actually had a chance to play in a couple of earlier games, like say, the Wake Forest game where Ponder was totally ill-equipped to deal with the Demon Deacons defense?

I’m willing to put aside the deception of the FSU coaches, and just dwell on the obvious: Fisher was given complete control of the offense this season and the results were decidedly mixed. He benches Weatherford at the start of the season and goes for the more mobile Ponder as the starter, a recognition perhaps that the young, inexperienced offensive line may not be able to protect Weatherford.

But the decision also said that Fisher was thinking more about the future – read when he is head coach – than he was about this season.

In some games, Ponder was a difference maker due to his legs. But as should have been expected for a young quarterback, his performance as a throwing quarterback was erratic. (FSU’s passing offense was ranked 9th in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference.)

Weatherford was never going to take FSU to a national championship. There were times, however, when the Noles offense needed some steady, if unspectacular play. To throw him in the second half against a ferocious UF team after having him on the bench for nearly three months smacked of desperation. That Weatherford was able to lead the Noles on their only touchdown drive of the game just makes you wonder what would have happened if he had been given a chance to play earlier in the year.

Other concerns about Fisher: He appears a bit hot-headed and seems to always be screaming at his players. His offensive game plans were hot and cold. One week he comes with up with a brilliant approach, while in other games the offensive play calling makes little sense. And of course, I would assume that if Fisher is eventually named head coach there will be a complete restructuring of the defensive coaches because it’s hard to conceive that Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato will want to start taking orders from a person that they view as a peer not as a boss.

I’ll make a friendly little wager: There’s going to be a lot of people urging Bowden to stick around for at least one more year.

Thanksgiving sports shoutouts

November 27, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

 As much as I love this holiday – the wonderful merger of football and food – it makes me realize that we are now in the waning moments of another great football season. Yeah, bowl season is right around the corner, and the NFL lumbers on until February, but I know in my heart of hearts that the end is near.

On this day of remembrance, let me give a few Thanksgiving Day thanks to:

1. The Tampa Bay Rays. Their incredible season is the number one sports story in Florida this year. The team didn’t win it all, but the Rays have so much young talent that you know they will be in the running again next season.

2. The Wildcat offense. It hasn’t worked to perfection every game, but the Miami Dolphins came up with the number one wrinkle for the NFL this year. Now it seems every other team in the league has tried to emulate it. Will it put the Dolphins in the Super Bowl? No, but it’s one of the reasons that the Dolphins have turned into a legitimate playoff contender this year.

3. Chad Pennington. He’s the other reason that the Dolphins have fared so well this season. There’s no way you can blame the N.Y. Jets for picking up Brett Favre when the team had the chance. But it’s a been a godsend for a team that has been wandering in the wilderness when it comes to consistent quarterback play. Pennington – with his efficient play and steady demeanor – fits in exactly with a team that wants to grind it out and play tough defense.

4. Florida Gators. A jaw-dropping, mind-numbing offensive juggernaut. It’s not just Tim Tebow, it’s everybody. Speed kills. I just can’t conceive anyone beating them the rest of the season.

5. Warrick Dunn and Jeff Garcia. Yeah, maybe both of them are past their prime, but they get it done week in and week out. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stay on this hot streak and make the playoffs, it will be because of these veterans.

Warrick Dunn’s bid for Hall of Fame starts now

November 23, 2008
Warrick Dunn signing copies of his autobiography

Warrick Dunn signing copies of his autobiography

With five games left in the season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn has a shot to go from possible NFL Hall of Fame contender to a lock.

The season-ending injury to Earnest Graham has given Dunn a tremendous opportunity: A chance to go over 1,000 yards rushing for the sixth time in his remarkable 12-year career. Entering the matchup against the Lions, Dunn has 476 yards on the season. But that’s a pretty good showing considering that in most games Dunn was splitting time with Graham. Only twice so far this year did Dunn get more than 20 carries. In one of those games, he rushed for 115 yards.

The brutal math is this: Dunn probably needs to get around 12,000 rushing overall to have a legitimate chance. Currently Dunn is just shy of 10,700 rushing yards and he is ranked 19th all-time in rushing. It would be reasonable to assume that he can probably top the 11,000 mark this year. Dunn is 33 years old but he’s played well enough to suggest he could squeeze out at least one or two more seasons barring serious injury. (UPDATE–Dunn rushed for an additional 90 yards on Sunday, bringing his total to 566 for the season, 10,747 for his career.)

Another plus for Dunn: Thanks to his skills as a receiver, he is ranked 20th all-time in all purpose yards. Dunn has 15,231 total yards, putting him ahead of Jerome Bettis, O.J. Simpson and even LaDainian Tomlinson, who everyone already considers a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. (UPDATE–His total all-purpose yards is now at 15,358.)

If the Hall of Fame were based on character, everyone knows there would be absolutely no debate. Dunn’s life of charitable giving in the wake of his mother’s savage murder has been inspiring.

But unfortunately, that won’t be enough to do the job for Dunn. It will come down to statistics. His longevity will help his reputation, but he also lacks another crucial characteristic for Hall of Famers: A championship ring. That’s because Tampa Bay foolishly allowed Dunn to leave their team for the Falcons the year before the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Since that time, the Bucs have been inconsistent at the position as potential superstars like Cadillac Williams have been sidelined to injuries.

Of course, the Bucs are happy that they have him back for this crucial stretch to the playoffs. And it gives Dunn a chance to prove that he’s one of the best the game has ever seen.

Does ACC stand for awfully confused conference?

November 22, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Well, a funny thing happened during the Miami Hurricanes march to the Atlantic Coast Championship game in Tampa. They got spanked on Thursday night by the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, which used its triple option offensive attack to rack up nearly 500 yards on the ground against the Canes.

So once again the ACC is mired into mediocrity and there’s the distinct likelihood that the the Orange Bowl bound ACC champion will have AT LEAST three losses. That’s pathetic. And another reminder why the current BCS system is a joke because it has all these conference tie-ins for bowl games.

Nobody would really care, if say potential ACC champion Maryland, lost in the opening round of a playoff. But instead the eventual ACC champion will get a prime-time spot against somebody like USC or even better, a team like Utah. Hoo boy. Utah vs. Maryland in the Orange Bowl. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Tell me why that’s good for college football you BCS apologists.

Of course I would love to see Miami or FSU in the Orange Bowl, but right now I’m not holding my breath that it will happen. Even if FSU lucked out in some algebraic combination of losses by Boston College and Wake Forest then the Noles would likely have a rematch with Tech, which also ran all over FSU earlier this season. (That’s the reason FSU lost – not the fumble by Marcus Sims.)

So with the college football season almost over, here’s how I would rank the conferences:

1. Southeastern Conference. The SEC has the best team in the country right now – yes, it’s still the Florida Gators – as well as an undefeated Alabama squad. Then there’s the fact that the SEC is the nation’s toughest defensive conference and that it has eight teams that are already bowl eligible. And on and on. You get the picture.

2. Big 12 Conference. This is sort of by default. I give kudos to the Big 12 because at least the conference has a championship game. But despite all the hype surrounding the Big 12 teams and its vaunted quarterbacks, my mind keeps flashing back to the Oklahoma-Boise State Fiesta Bowl. Why? Because I just don’t think Texas, Texas Tech or even Oklahoma are as good as everyone on ESPN keeps trying to tell me. I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that two of those three teams will lose their bowl games. But for now, Big 12 beats out the Pac-10, Big 10 and of course, the ACC.

3. Pac 10 Conference. This is largely because USC is still a dominating team despite the Trojans loss to Oregon State. But the second best team, the Beavers, got routed by Penn State and lost to Utah.  So there’s obviously a steep dropoff in this conference.

4. Mountain West Conference. Yeah, I said it. But take a close look and you might be surprised. Three teams with two losses or less. Utah is undefeated. BYU has two wins over Pac-10 teams. The Cougars lone loss came at the hands of Texas Christian. The Horned Frogs have lost to just Utah and Oklahoma.

5. Big 10 Conference. Year in and year out this is the biggest pretend conference in America. And the Big 10 champion usually proves it by losing the Rose Bowl. Ohio State’s championship earlier this decade was of course an outright theft. This year OSU dazzled everyone with a 35-3 loss to USC.

Then there’s the rest…

6. Atlantic Coast Conference.

7. Big East Conference.

8. Conference USA.

9. WAC

10. Mid-American Conference.

11. Sun Belt Conference.

Will the Gators win by 50 over FSU?

November 16, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

At the tail end of FSU’s loss to Boston College on Saturday night, Brent Musberger suggested to a TV audience that the Seminoles should burn their black jerseys.

He may be right.

The special black uniforms designed by Nike and that FSU says are a tribute to the unconquered Seminole Tribe couldn’t disguise the miserable performance in this crucial game. With the loss the Seminoles probably took themselves out of the running for the ACC Championship, although the team still has an outside chance if other teams ahead of them lose in the next two weeks.

It wasn’t surprising that FSU’s offense struggled against BC’s defense – which shut out Notre Dame the previous week – especially since FSU suspended five receivers a day before the game. But what’s been puzzling is that FSU’s defense has really struggled during the second half of the season, especially in losses to Georgia Tech and BC.

FSU’s reliance on blitzes and man-on-man coverage just couldn’t get the job done against BC as the Eagles big offensive line was able to outplay FSU defenders. Plus, the poor tackling enabled Eagles running back Montel Harris to have a monster game. Time after time Harris bounced, bulldozed and bruised his way down the field. Two weeks previously the Yellow Jackets use of the option attack constantly seemed to befuddle FSU defenders and contributed just as much to that loss as the fumble by Marcus Sims in the waning seconds.

This sudden breakdown by the defense doesn’t bode well for the most important game on the FSU schedule: The Nov. 28 showdown with Florida at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Earlier this season I thought if any team was capable of matching up against the Gators it was the Seminoles. They are familiar with Urban Meyer’s spread offense and they have enough speed to counter some of the tremendous players on that team. During the first half of the season, it was the FSU defense that kept the Seminoles in several of the game, even the loss to Wake Forest.

Not anymore.

If FSU can’t play man-to-man defense with the Boston College Eagles, what you do think the likes of Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow will do to them? The South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday actually entered their game with the Gators as the third-ranked defense in the nation. The Gators absolutely shredded them, just like they have done to every other team since that 1-point loss to the Ole Miss Rebels earlier this season. Harvin rushed 8 times for 167 yards (a 20.9 yard average!) and The Gators handed Steve Spurrier his worst loss ever at the Swamp.

UF has now won six straight conference games by 28 or more points. Does anyone right now have any confidence the Gators won’t do that to FSU?

Another plus for UF: The Gators match up next week against The Citadel at home, while FSU has to travel to Maryland. That means the Seminoles will have just one week to prepare for their arch-rivals. If I were FSU head coach Bobby Bowden, I would be half-tempted to write off the long-shot ACC Championship and order offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to come up with a vanilla game plan for the Terrapins. Bowden has to know that Meyer will probably won’t even play his starters for more than a half next week.

FSU should instead focus on what it’s going to take to avoid losing by 30 points or more to UF. Because whether the Seminoles wear black, or wear garnet and gold uniforms, they won’t be able to cloak what’s up on the scoreboard if the defense doesn’t improve.

Make-or-break time for Jaguars and Del Rio

November 13, 2008
Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Sports Addict Gary Fineout

Heading into last week’s game with the Detroit Lions, there was some hand-wringing about whether or not it was a make-or-break game for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Translation: It will look really, really bad if the Jags lose to a winless team.

But in my mind the future of the Jaguars franchise – and the future of head coach Jack Del Rio – will be decided this weekend when the undefeated Tennessee Titans roll into town. That’s because this season will rapidly roll down hill if the Jags can’t find a way to knock off the Titans. Jacksonville would be 4-6 heading into the final stretch of the season with playoff hopes all but evaporated. The team has a brutal set of games in the next few weeks that could easily leave them no better than 6-10 by year’s end. (That’s what happens when you lose to Cincinnati and Cleveland.)

Now many of the things that have happened this bizarre season are beyond the control of Del Rio. It’s not his fault that an offensive lineman nearly got killed during a drive-by-shooting. Nor were a rash of injuries on the offensive line his fault. But for the most part, NFL owners and NFL fans don’t care about the what-ifs, they care about the right now.

And when you have stories leaking out that Del Rio is banning music in the locker room and benching his team captain, it’s clear that things have may have spiralled out of control and that this might be his last season in Jacksonville.

But nothing would cure that ill more than a victory over the Titans, who despite their record, are not an impressive football team. Their defense is dominant, but not scary. Kerry Collins is well, Kerry Collins. While the team has a solid ground game, the Titans have lacked for years that playmaker wide receiver who can strike fear in opposing teams.

Of course that’s the same problem with the Jags, which despite the resurrection of Matt Jones this season, have just not found a way to replicate the magic they once had with Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. David Garrard is usually more dangerous with his legs right now than his arm because of the inconsistent WR play on the team. This is important because while the Lions couldn’t shut down the Jaguars rushing attack, the Titans will. Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor combined for a paltry 31 yards rushing in their season opener against Tennessee.

The Titans have so far this season have made it by winning ugly, doing just enough to scratch and claw out a victory.

But for the Jags losing will be equally ugly: It could signal the start of a complete retooling, yet again, of this franchise. Del Rio has been a good coach and has taken the Jaguars to the playoffs twice in the last three years. But given the high expectations after last year’s 11-5 season, a losing season may doom him. Right now Del Rio has a 49-42 record in six seasons and two trips to the playoffs.

In eight seasons former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin was 72-64 before he was forced out, including four playoff wins and two trips to the AFC Championship game. Hmmmmm…….We all know how that turned out.

Tebow has a long-shot chance at Heisman repeat

November 10, 2008
Can Tim Tebow make history?

Can Tim Tebow make history?

Maybe Archie Griffin shouldn’t start worrying just yet.

But the former Ohio State running back – and only player to win the heralded Heisman Trophy twice – needs to know that University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is lurking in the shadows. Tebow’s spectacular performances the last few weeks have put him back into the race for college football’s most prestigious award.

Tebow had five touchdowns during the Gators pounding of Vanderbilt on Saturday night and he didn’t even play the whole game. That scoring binge brought his total to 27 touchdowns in nine games. This recent surge of activity – and the Gators continued dominating play – have probably put him within shouting distance of front-runner and Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.

Tebow, however, will still need some help if he wants to match Griffin’s remarkable accomplishment. Harrell has already thrown for 36 touchdowns and rushed for 6 more as he has led the Red Raiders to an undefeated season. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised if that doesn’t change in the near future, especially due to an Nov. 22 date with Oklahoma in Norman.)

Heisman voters are likely looking for any reason to avoid giving Tebow the repeat and right now Harrell’s outstanding performances – including a six-touchdown game against Oklahoma State – are enough to for Heisman voters to go the other way. (Although I could go on a whole rant about how Heisman voters in the past have consistently chosen the wrong guy, and how they have always shafted defensive players.)

But the one thing on Tebow’s side is that he’s got at least two more chances against quality opponents before many voters turn in their ballots. The Gators take on both South Carolina and Florida State in November, while Texas Tech has that date against Oklahoma before finishing up against hapless Baylor, which is right now 3-6. If Tebow can rack up yards and touchdowns against these two opponents then Tebow may be able to convince voters to do the unthinkable. (I realize of course this is easier said than done. I think that FSU-UF game in Tallahassee will be a lot tighter than some may expect and that the Seminoles will be one of the few teams to slow down the Gators offense.)

But Tebow’s also got to have help from Oklahoma. Harrell will be on a national stage again when the Sooners take on the Red Raiders. If Bob Stoops and his squad shut down the phenom then Tebow has a fighting chance. But if Harrell goes into Norman and rips apart the Oklahoma secondary, he will be anointed the trophy winner then and there.