The Back Nine comes at you after a glut of football over the last couple of weeks, although I pretty much skipped Sunday with only NFL games, most of them with no meaning except bonuses.
10. As we watched all of these bowl games and especially the playoff games, it almost felt like we were watching a sport with which we are not familiar. These teams were still playing in December and January because they had guys who make big plays, coaches who are not afraid to take chances and leaders who took over when the going was its toughest. There is no doubt Dan Mullen has a ton to do to get the Gators back to relevance, whether it be to resurrect a strength and conditioning program that turned into a joke (the horror stories continue to leak out and explain some of the problems with the players), find leadership that extends beyond showmanship and bringing in players who are winners. In a way, it was good Florida didn’t make a bowl game because it will make us all miss UF football a little more and it also makes you watch the other bowl games with an eye on what they are doing that Florida isn’t. They make mistakes, they commit penalties, they call bad plays. But they limit them all. And they all make big plays. It would be nice to see a few more of those around here.
11. You couldn’t have asked for a better appetizer before the big Jan. 1 games than what we got with the Citrus, Chick-fil-A and Outback bowls. Congrats to Will Muschamp, who really doesn’t coach any differently than he did in Gainesville, but doesn’t seem to get as many bad breaks as he did when he was here. Oh, and he has a quarterback. And it didn’t bother me to see LSU lose on what I think was the best play of this college football season, the one-handed catch and run by Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin for the game-winner. What will be really interesting will be to see where UCF and Scott Frost go from here. We’ve seen the Knights have a big season like this just four years ago, then fall into the depths of a winless season two years later before Frost came in and turned it around again. Can UCF sustain success? And Can Frost win at the next level at Nebraska? Those will be two of the most interesting stories of the 2018 season. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s a long way to September.
12. Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for what the Big Ten did during the bowl season. The conference should be popping buttons after winning all but one of its bowl games. But at the same time, one benefit for the conference was that every team moved down a notch in its matchups because no Big Ten team was in the playoff. Look, if the SEC went 7-1 in the bowls it would be on the cover of the conference’s media guide. But we all know that bowl games have no real bearing on how good or bad your conference is and does not mean the Big Ten should have gotten a team into the College Football Playoff. Coaches are gone, players chose not to play, some played like they don’t want to be there. It was typical of bowl season (and why you should never bet on bowl games) that the SEC’s first win came from a team with a head coach gone and almost half of the staff elsewhere and its quarterback out. Bowls are what they are and they are to be celebrated when you have success and forgotten when you don’t.
13. Everyone knows The Back Nine thinks college football is way better than pro football and Sunday was a perfect example. You had only a couple of NFL games that meant anything and yet it depended on where you lived as to whether you could watch them or not. Anyway, the coaching carousel began whirring in the pro league after an exhausting college spin and there are a lot of teams looking for coaches. The difference between the two entities is that NFL teams rarely make a hire that blows your socks off or at least makes you say “Wow.” More importantly, it’s playoff time and what a weekend this should be with the NFL and some big college hoops games. Here are my Wild-Card picks:
• Kansas City over Tennessee: Home field advantage just too much in a game between two fairly average teams.
• Jacksonville over Buffalo: It would be very Jacksonville of the Jags to finally make the playoffs, be at home in front of a sellout crowd, open up as a 7.5-point favorite and lose. But don’t worry about these last two Jags games. They will roll.
• Rams over Atlanta: My daughter gave me a Rams T-shirt for Christmas because they were my team before the move to St. Louis. I’m back on board, but I wish they were playing someone else.
• Carolina over New Orleans: Just a gut feeling.
Next week we’ll pick the rest of the way right through the Super Bowl.
14. If nothing else, Florida’s basketball game Saturday showed — for a half anyway — that it is capable of playing defense, albeit against a team that has been offensively challenged this season. Tonight, the Gators face one of the best teams in the conference in Texas A&M, but the Aggies have been dealing with their own personnel issues because of injuries and suspensions and UF may be getting A&M at the best possible time, if there is such a thing. After A&M’s bad loss to Alabama, coach Billy Kennedy said, “We’ve got guys playing out of position at times and we looked like a dysfunctional team because we were.” This is going to be one of those UF teams that could find its fans jumping on and off the bandwagon, even during games.
15. The SEC has lived up to the hype that declared this a much-improved conference, but one of the dangers of having a deep and talented conference is that a lot of teams end up around .500. We’ll see how that works out, but last week’s Bracketology by Joe Lunardi had seven teams from the conference in the Big Dance. And that did not include Alabama, which proceeded to whack two-seed Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. By the way, whoever came up with having a couple of SEC games on the last Sunday of the NFL season when most of their games were meaningless, I thank you. And it was nice of The Associated Press to finally rank Arkansas (at No. 22) when it should have been for a couple of weeks.
16. And college basketball looks like it is as wide open as it has been in awhile with no unbeaten teams as we attack the new year. This could end up being the ultimate result of a combination of the one-and-does and the one-time transfer. It feels like there are now two ways to build a team — go with one-and-done freshman or count on grad transfers to fill your holes. So as we start to build interest in hoops, those of you who haven’t been paying attention are going to need programs to identify the players. It should be a lot of fun though.
17. The Tweet of the Week comes from Barrett Sallee of CBS Sports — “Bowl games are TV shows. They can be played in sound stages. Attendance doesn’t matter.” You could play a drinking game in a sports bar where you threw one down every time someone made a comment about the small crowds at bowl games. Get over it. Bowl games aren’t about attendance. And as I always say, nobody is making you watch.
18. I made it to the gym, but there is only so much I can do, although that steam room was great, especially with the new portable earbuds my daughter Jenny sent me. And this playlist:
• “You Would Have To Lose Your Mind” by The Barr Brothers.
• “Douglas Fir” by Chris Thile.
• The Jim James version of the Beach Boys classic “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”
• “Back In Your Head” by the Regrettes.
• And for an old one that takes me back to my first job in journalism covering high school sports in Fort Lauderdale, “Help Is On The Way” by the Little River Band.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.