End of eras couldn’t have been better scripted

January 2, 2010

The universal truth about sports is that it doesn’t always go the way you want it to.

Most sports movies – even those sometimes based on a true story – always have that wonderful David vs. Goliath feeling. The Hollywood scripts feature adversity and triumph, but in the end the viewer gets what they want which is a happy ending.

Real life doesn’t go that way. Dolphins legend Dan Marino ended his career without a Super Bowl. Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks were quietly released from their teams with no final bow. 

Ever now and then, however, it does go the way you pictured it.

The end of the Tim Tebow and maybe the Urban Meyer era at Florida as well as the final act of the Bobby Bowden era at Florida State University went completely as planned.

 Tebow was brutally efficient in his dismantling of the Cincinnati Bearcats at the Sugar Bowl, erasing the frustration from the loss at Alabama. The stunning 482 passing yards passing that Tebow put up should help cement his legacy as one of the best players in college football history. The overall record is well known: 2 national titles, 1 Heisman Trophy, shattering a bunch of SEC records along the way.

Given the events of the past week it is not surprising that the Gators made sure to show their quarterback, their coach and the nation that the team was still among the best in the nation. And the Bearcats helped quiet the BCS critics by showing they did not deserve a shot at the national title.

Still it wasn’t unexpected that the Gators would be rebound from the Bama loss.

 But the Gator Bowl win by FSU was a bit of a shocker.

At first it looked like West Virginia would run the Seminoles out of the stadium, but in an amazing display both the defense – and freshman quarterback E.J. Manuel – turned in a spectacular performance  that probably threw the Mountaineers faithful for a loop. And it also should shut up the carping come from other ACC schools that were locked out of the Gator Bowl.

Despite the blather of some talking heads on both CBS and ESPN that the game proved Bowden needed another year – I think that the Seminoles played their best game of the season. Maybe it was the 300 former players who showed up. Maybe it was the huge contingent of FSU faithful that scooped every available ticket.  Who knows?

But it was a great way for a living legend to exit the stage. And for once, real life was better than a movie.


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.


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.


FSU vs. UF: 2 programs headed in different directions

November 24, 2009

It is totally understandable that FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher is emphasizing the handful of good plays that Florida State managed to achieve in last Saturday’s last second win over 2-9 Maryland.

Because I think everyone instinctively knows what is coming next. And that’s a total drubbing at the hands of chief rival Florida.

If you want to see two programs moving in completely different directions it will be this Saturday in the Swamp. And there’s no amount of sugarcoating that will change that fact.

If Christian Ponder was still the quarterback then FSU could have had a chance to shock the world. I happen to think that the Gators have actually not faced a competent passing team the entire season. They have geared both their offense – and defense – to the largely boring style of the SEC. Yes, every now and then there is a moment of excitement, but for the most part SEC teams use the spread, use the option, use the dive to move the ball on the ground.

A team that can quickly and methodically move the ball down the field in the air would be the perfect antidote for the Gators.

That’s not going to happen on Saturday. For all of his talent E.J. Manuel struggled last weekend against Maryland. It won’t get any easier against one of the nation’s top defenses. And FSU won’t have any answers for Heisman hopeful Tim Tebow and the rest of the crew. This game will probably get ugly and out of hand quickly.

Now I  know that some will say that FSU has a bright future looking ahead to next year. Lots of talent will be returning and Fisher’s offense was actually among the most productive in the ACC. There’s also the argument that everyone should give head coach Bobby Bowden the graceful exit that he deserves.

Well think about that after Saturday. Florida – winner of two national championships in the last three years – will rip apart FSU. Tebow will be gone next year, but the Gators will be loaded again with talent and again be a national contender.

Meanwhile, FSU still has given no clues about who the next defensive coordinator is going to be, whether Fisher indeed will have the final say over the preferred candidate, and so on and so on. There is likely to be continued drama and chaos in the FSU program in the coming year unless there is a decision to make a clean start.

FSU fans may have to accept the fact that their team right now is the fourth best in the state. And that could trigger an ongoing decline as the Seminoles find themselves losing superior talent to both Florida and Miami and even USF in the years to come. What FSU fans may have to accept is that a 6-5 season is about to become the status quo.


Tim Tebow vs. Christian Ponder: Who should be a Heisman contender?

November 2, 2009

While Tim Tebow had a masterful dominating performance on Saturday, let me ask you a question.

What should matter more when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and other honors – the number of wins you rack up, regardless of your performance, or how well you play week in and week out?

That’s because I think an argument can be made that Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder is having a much better season than Tebow has so far.

But right now Ponder isn’t anywhere on the national radar screen when it comes to various postseason honors. Tebow’s 4 touchdown performance against Georgia helped brush aside the last few weeks of mediocrity and keep him in the hunt for the Heisman trophy. ESPN, for example, has Tebow ranked 3rd on its Heisman watch list. Tebow, along with University of Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, is also a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award.

Yet I think there’s a good argument to be made that the Gators have remained undefeated this season in spite of Tebow, not because of Tebow. The Gators defense has repeatedly clamped down on teams and has kept them in ballgames where the offense has struggled.

Meanwhile, Ponder has racked up 2,453 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and only 3 picks. He’s also rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Ponder is currently ranked 5th in the nation in total passing yards, which is higher than any other Heisman contender except Houston’s Case Keenum. He does closely trail Tebow in overall quarterback rating, but that is a bit of a mystery since Tebow actually has more interceptions than Ponder does. (Tebow has four vs. Ponder’s three.) Ponder also has a much higher completion percentage.

(And to make this QB rating even more mysterious – UM’s Harris score is a .03 points higher yet he has less yards and 8 more picks than Ponder.)

Let’s face it. The fact that FSU is 4-4 is not Ponder’s fault. Now I would agree that the offense had trouble getting revved up in a couple of games this season. But it’s hard for a quarterback to win every week when he’s under pressure to score 40 points because the Seminoles defense is so suspect.

Do I think that Ponder deserves the Heisman Trophy? Probably not. But I think there’s an argument to be made he’s having as stellar a season as his downstate counterpart. Now Ponder’s overall career doesn’t come close to Tebow’s as evidenced by Tebow setting the SEC rushing record against the Bulldogs.

But in this season I think Ponder is getting shorted, while Tebow may be getting more credit than he deserves.