Something just doesn’t add up in the Urban Meyer saga

December 28, 2009

This is the part where unfortunately I confess that I am a professional cynic.

But watching the Urban Meyer saga unfold over the last 24 hours leaves me a bit bewildered and uncomfortable. Because I just get the feeling that the whole story hasn’t been told.

On the surface what we have is this: Gators coach Meyer decides on Saturday to step down from his job after the Sugar Bowl in order to solve ongoing health problems fueled by the 24-7 stressful lifestyle that comes with being one of the best coaches in college football. Then on Sunday morning, there is a dramatic turnaround after watching his players practice and Meyer agrees to become the coach who is also the coach in waiting by taking an indefinite leave of absence although he says in his “gut” that he will coach again in the fall of 2010.

Here’s what I am willing to accept at face value:

Meyer has bona fide health issues that he needs to address. He essentially ducked a question during the Sunday press conference on whether his doctors advised him to quit his job.

Meyer does indeed have a good bond with his players and many of them were probably very upset at his dramatic initial announcement.

But here’s the questions that I remain perplexed by:

Meyer apparently won’t be allowed to visit the University of Florida complex in the near term or have anything directly to do with the team yet will continue to get paid $4 million a year because he remains the head coach according to UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley. Ok, so Meyer gets paid even though we don’t know when, or if, he will resume working. Is this to make sure he doesn’t go anyplace else? Is this to thwart the possible poaching of UF recruits in advance of National Signing Day in February?

There is no idea yet who will hire the defensive coordinator to replace Charlie Strong. So let me get this straight. Meyer can’t go to the UF facility yet somehow a top new coach will be hired to run the defense. How will that work? Does UF expect interim coach Steve Addazio to hire this person, even though they eventually will work for Meyer? If you were a top-flight coordinator wouldn’t you want a bit of an understanding of who the heck your boss actually is?

What do you tell potential UF recruits in the next month? Are you going to tell them flatly that Meyer will be their coach? Will Meyer call any of them personally? Or will it be put to Addazio and the still unknown defensive coordinator to try to lure players into a totally unsettled situation?

Why did Meyer drop his bombshell on Saturday to begin with? He was given the offer of a leave of absence before that time he acknowledged. Again my professional cynicism makes me wonder whether the news about Meyer’s health problems must have been leaking out and that announcement on Saturday was a preemptive strike. Otherwise why not wait until after the Sugar Bowl. Then there’s the unsettled business about the university essentially misleading everyone by saying that Meyer’s trip to the hospital on the night of the SEC Championship Game was due to “dehydration.” Meyer himself corrected the record in December by acknowledging it was in fact due to “chest pains.”

I am willing to admit I could be dead wrong and this story is just what it appears to be at this time.

But right now it just doesn’t add up.

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Stunning news about Meyer means a seismic shift in college football

December 27, 2009

Florida head coach Urban Meyer will face a barrage of questions on Sunday about his stunning decision to step down from his job after the Sugar Bowl.

There will be questions about his health, what he will do in the future, whether he is gone from coaching for good, and how he will assist in finding his own replacement.

But the biggest question of course is….what happens next?

The news about Meyer – combined with Bobby Bowden’s departure – is a seismic shift in college football in both the state of Florida and the nation.

Meyer brought the Gators to unprecedented heights and made them the most dominant program in the state. The list of accolades is long, including 2 national titles, an amazing winning percentage and a 15-1 record against the Gators biggest rivals.

Keeping that intact won’t be as easy as some might think regardless of who is picked as a successor. Gainesville-bound recruits will pretty soon hearing whispers in their ears that they should think about going someplace else.

Meyer already had a bit of rebuilding job ahead of him in 2010 thanks to the departure of Gators legend Tim Tebow. And the Gators earlier this month lost defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to Louisville. So while there will be a lot of blather about how this is one of the most attractive jobs in the nation the truth is that the next coach for the Gators will have tremendous challenges when he walks through that door.

The biggest challenge will be the immediate pressure on the next UF coach to match the recent successes of the Gators. That could be a tall order given that Meyer is leaving while the Gators are at their peak. I don’t think next season would have been a down year for the team, but it’s hard to imagine the Gators would have been as good as they have been the last three years.

This change, in many ways, may be a Christmas gift for Lane Kiffin at Tennessee, Mark Richt at Georgia….and even Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. (Just as an aside – it’s interesting how Spurrier is not viewed right now as a top contender for the opening. Um, hey Gator Nation, he’s the one that made the job so attractive to Meyer in the first place….)

But this decision could result in more than just a realignment of the SEC.

For three decades the programs in the state of Florida – University of Miami, Florida State and UF – have dominated college football in a way that no other state can rival. To have 3 schools from the same state battle it out for national championships is truly unprecedented. The fact that the three schools have combined for 11 national titles in the last 26 years is astounding.

The end of the Bowden era, and now the end of the Meyer era, could wind up as the demarcation point of a new period in college football where the Big 3 Florida schools no longer dominate the national scene like they once did. Other schools have already begun poaching players from Florida high schools and this could just accelerate it. This could also be the opening that programs at the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida need.

Or maybe even worse to FSU and UF fans – this could mark the starting point of a new time of dominance for the U.

While Miami’s season was a disappointment, the team is still playing in a bowl and Jacory Harris is an extremely talented quarterback who will probably get a lot better. And there is hope that the defense – which was Miami’s biggest weakness – will become a dominant unit next season.

It’s too early to tell of course just how all this will play out, but it’s a gamechanger all the way around.


Can I get a playoff spot for Christmas?

December 25, 2009

Well, here we go.

This season is ending a bit different than I would have anticipated. The prospect that both Jacksonville and Miami could make the playoffs this year is a pleasant surprise – and a way to help make up for the disappointment of the worst Bucs season in 18 years.

The reality, however, is that it will take a bit of a Christmas miracle for both teams to find a way into the playoffs.

Both are two of six AFC teams with identical 7-7 records fighting for the wild card spots that right now belong to the 8-6 Broncos and 8-6 Ravens.

There is an opening there for either one of the Florida teams, but it will take a lot of doing, including taking care of business down the final stretch of the season. And that’s where I have guarded optimism.

Jacksonville’s next two games are on the road against New England and Cleveland. Ouch. How about that land of Sunshine team? Two straight games in very cold and hostile locations. New England has yet to clinch a playoff spot so the Jaguars won’t get any favors from the Patriots who are undefeated at home so far this year. Even the hometown newspaper concedes it may be a tough feat for the Jags to win this game. Key point – If Peyton Manning torched the Jaguars for four touchdowns last week, how well will Tom Brady fare? The Browns are obviously a bit of an easier opponent to worry about, but Cleveland has actually been playing better in the last couple of games.

Miami’s final stretch isn’t much better, although the team gets both of its final games at home in Land Shark Stadium. The Dolphins square off this weekend against a Houston Texans team trying hard to save head coach Gary Kubiak’s job and get a playoff berth. Then the Dolphins close out the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2009 Super Bowl champs. The only thing going with the Fins in that game is if the Steelers lose this weekend to the Ravens then their season is probably over and they will have little to play for in the final week of the regular season.

Of course neither game will be a gimme for the Fins. I’m not sure the Fins offense can keep up with the Texans offense, while Pittsburgh has actually turned into a passing team that features a tough good quarterback.

So how about it Santa? How about a playoff berth for one of the Florida teams? You don’t even have to put it under the tree.


FSU’s expensive gamble

December 20, 2009

Well, here’s the good and the bad about Jimbo Fisher’s 5-year, $9 million deal with FSU.

The good: Paying more for performance. Fisher will get paid bonuses – as much as $250,000 – if he were to lead the Seminoles to a national championship.

The bad: FSU – which is in the midst of a leadership transition – decided to lock up Fisher to an expensive, long-term contract right before President T.K. Wetherell steps down. So now we have an incoming university president wedded to a football coach who has yet to prove if he is capable of being a head coach.

And even though it was time for Bobby Bowden to step down this move could eventually backfire on FSU officials.

FSU didn’t launch a nationwide search for Bowden’s successor. Instead they named Fisher head coach in waiting after his first year on the job hoping that Nick Saban’s success would rub off on his former offensive coordinator.

The pressure to win and win now will be enormous. Fisher will get no grace period from fans since he has been at FSU since 2007 and the players who will suit up next fall are guys that he helped recruit.

Those same fans – who wanted him so badly to take over – will hold Fisher to a pretty high standard. Bowden won two national championships during his legendary span as coach before the program sank into mediocrity. But the fans won’t remember the bad times under Bowden. If Fisher can’t get FSU to a title game the howls for his head will grow quickly and loudly. Just ask former Gators coach Ron Zook how easy it is to follow a popular coach with a pretty good track record.

Two or three years from now the FSU faithful could be wondering whether if they made an expensive gamble by locking in Fisher to a long-term lucrative contract. This is no small matter. FSU’s athletic department is self-sustaining and must turn to donations from the Seminole Boosters in order to balance its books. The day could come when donors are asked to kick in more money to convince a coach to head to the exit.


Could this be the moment of truth for the Jaguars?

December 15, 2009

Here’s the good news: The television blackout for the Indianapolis Colts-Jacksonville Jaguars game has been lifted.

But that doesn’t stop this Thursday’s game from being the most important moment in the Jaguars season, and maybe the most important moment in the franchise history.

A loss to the Colts would likely drop the Jaguars from contending for a playoff spot. It would probably set the wheels in motion for a change at head coach. And….it may prompt the football fans in Jacksonville to abandon the team in the final weeks of the season and push the NFL to seriously look at relocating the franchise.

That’s a lot of pressure now weighing on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew and the rest of the Jaguars crew. But that’s how serious it is. This past weekend’s loss to the Dolphins put the Jaguars in a tough position. They will need to win at least two of the next three in order to make it the playoffs.

There would be a bitter touch of irony if the Colts in fact deliver the knock-out punch to the Jaguars and send the team packing. It was the Colts flirtation with Jacksonville back in 1979 that launched the town’s quest for a NFL team. Approximately 50,000 fans showed at the Gator Bowl to try to convince the Colts owner to move the team south from Baltimore. It didn’t happen and the Colts eventually bolted to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. But the move whetted the appetite of Jacksonville residents to get their own team.

Fast forwarding three decades, however, there is the reality  of the Jaguars losing 17,000 season ticket holders this year and a string of television blackouts until this week. National sports talk shows are already sizing up the prospect of the Jaguars leaving the state of Florida and heading to Los Angeles, which doesn’t have an NFL franchise right now.

Gov. Charlie Crist has suggested that the Jaguars should draft Gators legend Tim Tebow as a way to spur ticket sales.

But I’m not sure that’s the right tack.

There’s an argument that needs to be made to the NFL that abandoning Florida right now is unfair given the tremendous economic problems in this state. Relocating the team would just be another blow during a challenging time. Would the NFL be so heartless to rip away a team because of economic misfortunes that are larger than anything going on with the team? And moving probably won’t immediately transform the Jaguars into a dominant team again because part of the current woes stem from several years of bad decisions on draft day and through free agency. (Jerry Porter anyone?)

Of course, there’s another way that the Jaguars can salvage hope in the short run: They can win Thursday’s game and keep the team in contention. Winning could help a lot of things.


Sorry Tim, it’s just not happening

December 12, 2009

Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. This week he became the first person to be a finalist for the award three years in a row.

But he’s going to leave New York City disappointed. The award isn’t headed this way.

The reasons are simple and uncomplicated.

A: Mark Ingram’s dominating performance against Tebow in the most important game of the season. Tebow look tentative and confused against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, while Ingram was stellar. With Colt McCoy’s lackluster performance against Nebraska, Ingram suddenly emerged as the leading contender. Tebow lost in 2008 even though he had an amazing game against Alabama that propelled the Gators into the national title game.

B: Tebow’s battle isn’t just against the other players, it is against history. He was going to need to have an outstanding year in order for voters to actually give him a second Heisman trophy and match Archie Griffin.

C: The geographical bias that exists among Heisman voters. As I explained last year when Tebow didn’t win – the entire Heisman proces is rigged. Each region gets 145 media votes but some regions such as the South are diluted because they are actually split into different regions. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are lumped into the mid-Atlantic region. Added to the media votes are the votes from former Heisman Trophy winners. (Wonder who Tebow is going to vote for?) Additionally, there is no rhyme or reason as to how the media representatives are chosen. There is no balance it appears in regards to population or even the number of Division 1 schools.

I’m sure that Tebow will be gracious in his defeat on Saturday night. But I’m sure that he also knows that the stars are aligned against him.


5 reasons the Gators will lose

December 5, 2009

UPDATE – Suffice to say, the game wasn’t dull. But all the reasons that I cited why Bama would win proved to come true. And I couldn’t have been more wrong about Greg McElroy, the Bama quarterback. He looked poised and smooth and was incredibly effective.

It’s already been billed as the defacto national championship game, but today’s SEC Championship Game probably will be exceedingly dull.

Why? Because I find it highly unlikely that either team will find a way to generate a whole lot of offense. This means the game will be decided by the defense and a whole lot of other intangibles along the way. But there are some reasons that I think that Bama will knock off the Gators this season.

1. Alabama knows how to win tight close games. While some may see the close scores in recent Bama games as a sign of weakness, I think just the opposite. Moving down the field in the closing moments of the Auburn game means that the Bama squad is disciplined and confident that it can win a game despite what has happened in the previous 57 minutes.

2. Tennessee and South Carolina have already given the Crimson Tide a road map on how to shut down the Gators offense. The lack of a playmaker like Percy Harvin has been a big factor this season in why the Gators have struggled at times. Tim Tebow under pressure is not a pretty sight and no one should view his effort against Florida State as a sign of things to come. FSU’s defense this year has been awful. Bama is second in the nation against the run. If the Gators can’t run the ball it’s hard to imagine they can win this game.

3. Don’t underestimate the impact that the suspension of defensive end Carlos Dunlap could have on the Gators ability to contain the Bama running attack. Mark Ingram was in the Heisman Trophy hunt for a reason.

4. Bama’s kicking game has been better than Florida this season. One of the excuses is that three of Caleb Sturgis’ misses came on long tries, but the last time when the Gators were in a close game against South Carolina he failed on three field goals.

5. Nick Saban has probably has had his whole gameplan this season centered around this game. He will want Bama to run the ball and keep the ball away from the Gators. And he will look for ways to frustrate Tebow so that he makes some mistakes like he did earlier this season. It would not surprise me if Saban purposely held some things in check the final games of the season just to bring out some looks that the Gators haven’t seen yet.

Ok, to be fair there are some reasons that the Gators could win:

1. Tebow, Tebow, Tebow. If Tebow runs with the authority he has shown in the past – and can pick up first downs – then Bama will be in trouble. Once Tebow runs, he then opens up the passing attack to Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez.

2. Speed, speed, speed. While Bama has been very good at shutting down the run inside, if the Gators can get the two blazing fast running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to the outside then it could cause problems for the Tide.

3. Brandon James. So far most teams have settled for giving the Gators the ball at the 35 yard line instead of punting it deep to James. But who knows? Bama could tempt fate by giving the ball to James.

4. Greg McElroy is probably not the type of quarterback who can do a lot against the Gators. He hasn’t made a lot of mistakes so far this season, but if Bama has to rely on McElroy in order to win then the Gators could have the edge.