I predicted earlier this week that Rutgers would pull off the upset against Louisville. To be honest, I was hoping for a Scarlet Knight victory as much (probably more) as I was expecting one. I hadn’t watched Rutgers play much this season, save for a quarter or two during lulls in some of the other, more “marquee” games that I was watching. While I knew they had talent, especially on offense, I didn’t know if they had enough talent and depth to overcome a very talented and well coached Louisville team. The one factor that I continually believed could swing this game in Rutgers’ favor was the same factor that so often changes college football games: Emotion. The emotion of playing the biggest game in school history could propel the Scarlet Knights to victory, if they could handle it. Conversely, the emotional hangover of winning the biggest game in school history might, just might render Louisville unable to play with the intensity and focus it would need to overcome the collective emotion of 60,000+ newly minted Rutgers fans.
While I’d like to say it was all emotion that carried Rutgers to victory last night, its simply not true. Sure it played a role, but to say the emotions of the moment carried Rutgers would be discounting the defensive adjustments made by Greg Schiano and his staff at halftime. It would overlook the yeoman’s effort by Ray Rice and the patience of Rutgers’ offensive staff. They never panicked, continually sticking with their game plan in order to wear down Louisville’s defense. It would ignore the brilliant call on the third down pass to Brian Leonard. A play that Rutgers’s offensive coordinator had seemingly waited all night to call. Rutgers won last night because they believed in each other. They believed in their coaches and the game plan set out in front of them. But most of all, they believed that they deserved to win. That all their hard work and sacrifice had prepared them for a moment like this. That belief is what made Jeremy Ito’s second chance FG possible (that and an awful offsides penalty) because all the emotion in the world can’t bring a team back from three TDs down if they don’t believe.
Now, the National Championship picture becomes much more muddled than it was just 24 hours ago. Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear an endless amount of talk about who “deserves” to play in Glendale on January 8. Only, you won’t hear any of that from me. Not one word. You know why, because there is WAY too much football still to be played. If last night’s game teaches us anything, it’s that we know nothing about college football. So sit back, shutup and watch what promises to be an exciting finish to an increasingly unpredictable season of college football. Speaking of which…
A big weekend is upon us. Actually, it’s a big weekend for the University of Florida. For the first time since he lost to Tennessee in December 2001, Steve Spurrier will be walking back into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to coach a football game. Only this time, he’ll be doing it as the head coach of an opponent. To say this will be weird is a vast understatement. It was weird last year when he stood on the opposite sideline from the Gators and directed South Carolina to a victory. When he walks out of the tunnel on Saturday afternoon wearing black and garnet, it will be downright nauseating. As someone who enjoyed the final years of the Spurrier era as a student at Florida, the thought of booing SOS was near blasphemy. How could you ever boo the coach who made the University of Florida a national power in football? What could drive somebody to hurl insults at a man who rescued the Gator football program from a devastating probation? That same man trading his orange and blue for the colors of a division rival, that’s what. Make no mistake about it, I do not hate Spurrier. Far from it, I love him for all he’s done for the University and for the countless victories I reveled in that he was largely responsible for. However, that is now the past and he’s become just another opposing SEC coach for whom I want nothing more than embarrassment at the hands of the Gators. It’s that simple really.
If it weren’t for LSU’s last second victory in Knoxville last weekend, the Gators would be playing this game for the SEC Eastern Division title. As it stands, the Gators will play this game for two things: pride and national championship aspirations. Frankly, I think this is a good thing. A game against Spurrier in the Swamp is already rife with emotions for fans, coaches (don’t underestimate the shadow that Spurrier still casts over the football program) and players and will present unique challenges for all parties involved. To say nothing of the “revenge factor” involved in Saturday’s contest, which is significant (last year’s loss to USC kept UF out of the SEC Championship game). With all of that emotion to manage, the last thing that this team needs is the added dimension of playing for a berth in the SEC Championship game.
With all the hoopla and discussion of the head coaching matchup and Spurrier’s return to Gainesville, it can be easy to forget that there is an actual football game to be played. With that in mind, I’d like to touch on a couple aspects of this game that I’ve been mulling over the last few days.
Two QB system: Florida’s two QB system has been the talk of analysts all year long (even though it’s not a true two QB sysem). However, the real story is the re-emergence of a two QB system for SOS. The performance of Blake Mitchell last Saturday evening was nothing short of spectacular. He looked like a vintage Spurrier QB for the better part of the second half, throwing fades, deep outs and slants like he was under center in Gainesville, circa 1995. Not only did Mitchell re-establish himself as the starter, he also managed to resurrect the lost season of Sidney Rice. As my friend John said on Tuesday, Mitchell has an undeniable chemistry with Rice that can’t be overlooked. Mitchell looks for Rice and, more often than not, he is successful when throwing his way. This is huge for the Gamecocks. Rice is their most explosive offensive player and getting him involved is paramount to the success of their offense. Furthermore, Mitchell’s ascension back to the starting role will allow Spurrier to use Syvelle Newton in a number of ways throught Saturday’s game. He provides USC with a completely different look at QB than the more traditional stylings of Mitchell and should prove useful in frustrating Florida’s now wafer thin defensive line. Beyond that, I would also expect to see Newton line up at wide receiver and running back throughout the course of Saturday’s game.
Conclusion: By promoting Mitchell back to starter, Spurrier has added two weapons to an offense badly in need of playmakers while also making his offense much harder to effectively gameplan against.
Marcus Thomas: There’s much to say other than, goodbye. Thomas was unquestionably one of the two most valuable players on the Gator defense. His presence alone made the players around him, specifically the rest of the defensive line, more effective. He commanded double teams and created pressure up the middle, thereby disrupting opponents’ offensive schemes. Put simply, impact defensive tackles like Marcus Thomas don’t grow on trees and can’t be easily replaced. One of the best things about a player like Thomas is that opposing coordinators have to game plan around their presence. Losing Thomas leaves UF with only one such player on their defense, Reggie Nelson. While Nelson remains the marquee player on Florida’s D, it is much easier for an offense to gameplan around one difference maker than two and that alone makes Florida far more vulnerable than they were just two weeks ago.
Furthermore, Florida’s once deep D-line is now much thinner than when the season began, due to the dismissal of Thomas as well as the ACL tear of backup DT Javier Estopinan. Florida still has plenty of talent along it defensive front, it just happens to be talent that is a little lighter in the ass than most would prefer. Will this affect Florida come Saturday? Most certainly. The defense can’t (nor should it) expect to stuff the run as effectively as it has most of the season. Will this prove to be a fatal flaw for Florida (alliteration, mmm) come Saturday? It’s hard to say. If USC can manage to run at the Florida defense like they did in Columbia last year then that will set up the play-action pass for Spurrier. If SOS is emboldened by some early success running the ball, then the Florida secondary could be in for an awfully long day of chasing open receivers. Beyond Saturday, the absence of Thomas makes Florida’s trek towards a BCS Bowl and (possibly) the National Title game far more arduous than it was previously. For the record, I hold no ill will towards Marcus Thomas for his actions. He’s a young kid who had too many responsibilities for himself to handle. He was a very good player at the University of Florida and I wish him well in the NFL. I just wish he could’ve found a way to balance all the aspects of his life for another couple of months because the Gators really could’ve used him.
Other than the loss of Thomas, all the right things have been happening for this Gator team these past few weeks. However, this team still has a long road ahead of them before they can even begin to think of playing for a National Title. The first step on that road starts tomorrow afternoon against the only coach who’s ever guided them down that road before. Life (and college football) can be awfully strange sometimes.
A few last items:
- I can still like SOS for another 27 hours or so, right?
- Alright, this is not encouraging. It looks as if Florida may be without the services of their (now) second best defensive player as well as team leader.
- One last time: RUMSFELD!!!!
He'd like you to meet him at the "trap". Where, evidently, it's going down.