The Back Nine: SEC East, West gap tightens

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[Staff Photo/Erin Nelson

The Back Nine comes at you after a weekend full of sports results, some good and some not so good, but remember that there can’t be good without bad. Or can there?

10. So we’re done with college football for a bit (spring game breakdowns right around the corner) and can look back with a little more perspective. The one thing that gets no run among the talking heads who discuss college football is that the SEC East had a big year and may be closing the gap on the West. Or not. The East won the season series against the West and for only the third time since the league split into divisions there were three 10-game winners from the East. On the other hand, six of the SEC’s nine top recruiting classes, according to 24/7, are in the West with a few players left to be signed. Georgia, Florida and Tennessee combined for six five-stars and 38 four-stars. The other three schools combined for one five-star and eight four-stars. I know recruiting rankings are only a part of the deal and that development of those players is a huge part of making your program special. The East made strides this year, no question. A big reason was because of what Florida and Kentucky were able to do on the field. The gap has tightened up a little. But it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

11. It has become a cliche to say that a bowl team “didn’t want to be there” or “didn’t show up” for its bowl game. Maybe it’s semantics, but I have a different take on it. Bowl matchups are usually between two teams who had similar seasons. When teams that are equally good face each other in these bowl games or in any big games, the players have to take it to another level. When both teams do, we get exciting, down-to-the-wire games like we saw this year all across America. It’s that way in the regular season and especially that way during the bowls. So it’s not that a team didn’t show up as much as it is that some teams didn’t take it to a higher level in preparation and on game day. Yes, I’m looking at you Georgia. Anyway, maybe that makes no sense, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

12. Now that the dust has cleared on which players are returning for their senior years at Florida, it’s never too early to project what kind of team the Gators will have in 2019. The schedule will be more difficult with Miami and Auburn added and only three SEC home games. Going on the road to Kentucky — which has a one-game winning streak against UF — and Missouri — where Florida always struggles — and LSU and South Carolina make it more difficult than 2018. Of course, Dan Mullen showed last year he can win on the road (4-0 in true road games). One thing we learned is that Mullen and his staff can develop players, even during the season. The infusion of freshmen should help the overall talent of this team. So here are three key questions:

• Feleipe Franks went from bad to good in 2018. Can he become great?

• Can the offensive line, which has numbers but a lack of experience, be an SEC line?

• Can Marco Wilson be the old Marco Wilson and give the Gators two shutdown corners?

There are other questions, but one thing this team in 2019 will have to deal with is expectations. I know, there are always expectations at Florida, but the Gators will likely enter the season with a ranking somewhere in the Top 10 or just out of it (my too-early preseason top 25 comes out Wednesday). This past year’s team had a hunger about it and the 2019 team needs to be as hungry if it wants to take it another step. The Gators have a trust in the coaching staff that wasn’t there before, but they will be more hunted than hunter.

13. Florida basketball fans are down on their team after the stunning loss to South Carolina and it’s understandable. There aren’t too many games in this league you pencil in as a win, but that was one of them. Instead, it was a damaging loss and leaves a lot of us wondering what the future holds for this year’s team. More than anything, I think a lot of you are puzzled as to why this team keeps finding ways to lose close games. The Gators sit at 8-5 without a major win on the resume. It’s obvious coach Mike White is trying to figure out how to get his older players to do the things necessary to get on a roll. They are the ones who have to dig deep if they want to have a successful season. The lack of consistency, not only from one game to the next, but from one offensive or defensive possession to the next is a major issue. So is a lack of confidence that seems to have permeated this team.

14. So I asked the South Carolina players if the number of fouls called in the game (48) made it difficult to get into an offensive flow. Innocent question, I thought. But Gamecock coach Frank Martin took offense, saying that we should not be asking the question about officiating to his players. I wasn’t saying that it was poor officiating, just that there were a lot of foul calls. Geez. It didn’t seem like an overly physical game, but both teams played tough defense and officials like to set the tone early in the conference season. Whatever the case, it was a brutal game to watch. Maybe that was my point. Maybe I had no point. It wouldn’t be the first time.

15. What a crazy weekend in the NFL. It’s gotten to the point where there are so many plays that are reviewed and even after you see the replays and the so-called experts weigh in you still don’t know what will be called. Anyway, I was 2-2 on the wild card games getting the Chargers right, but missing two other road teams winning. This week’s winners:

• Chiefs over Colts. I don’t think Indianapolis can score with Kansas City. (Although Jim Irsay may think so after watching his uncomfortable post-game rant. Weird.)

• Cowboys over Rams. Although I’m definitely rooting for the opposite.

• Chargers over Patriots. Gonna keep riding Philip Rivers.

• Saints over Eagles. The Nick Foles story is amazing, but Philly isn’t winning in New Orleans.

16. We announced the date (June 8) for the 25th Bob Dooley Invitational and within two days we are darn close to full. What is this, a Springsteen concert? We are just thrilled that so many people want to help Stop Children’s Cancer. We are already working on securing prizes and sponsors for the tournament at Ironwood. Be ready for my emails and calls.

17. For the Tweet of the Week, we go to former Gator great David Eckstein — “I’m honored and excited to be joining the @Pirates Organization! I’m looking forward to working on the same team as my brother @RickEckstein57 and this is what my Dad always wished for us.” Good for David, who will be a special assistant for Pittsburgh, where his brother is a hitting coach. Whitey Eckstein, one of the best people you could ever know, passed away last June after a long fight with cancer. On another note involving a former UF athlete, Larry Keefe has been appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, which reaches into Gainesville. Keefe, who graduated from UF Law School, was a backup quarterback under Charley Pell.

18. I know we really don’t have a winter down here in Florida, but winter does begin the moment the last Christmas decorations are put in the attic. So winter began Sunday at my house. Hopefully, this playlist will cheer you up:

• “Say, Can You Hear” by Men I Trust.

• “Back Down” by Bob Moses, which is a group not a person. Although it is a person but that person does not sing this song. Am I making any sense?

• “Shelter” by Broken Bells.

• “Zombie Bastards” by Weezer.

• And for an oldie, I had never heard the Georgia Satellites version of “Don’t Pass Me By” until this weekend. Not too many versions of a Beatles song I like better than the original, but this qualifies.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I saw a lot of disappointed players on Bama’s team that thought for sure all they had to do was show up and play and win the NC. Clemson put the beat down on them…by 28 points…LMAO! If anyone listened to the after game show – you could hear how true team chemistry works at its best. One other thing I would like to bring up is the WASTE that is attributed to this NC game. Both teams were from the East coast, so all the fans and everyone else associated with the two teams had to travel across country. This should have never happened in my opinion. The risks of traveling for all involved and the only real access to the game had to be from people with $$$. I said the same thing back when Florida had to play OSU in Arizona. Logic dictates that teams should play as close to home while remaining as neutral as possible in my opinion. If they want a game in Cali then one of the Cali colleges need to step up. Oregon State might have a very good team next year, so we will have to see what transpires. OK I am done bit@#$%^. Anyway congrats to Clemson for beating Bama! GO GATORS!!!

    • Not just a waste for fans — but a waste for the bowl. My brother looked up the tickets two weeks ago and cheapest were about $200. That’s the same price as the cheapest Gator/Miami opener tickets for next year. I was hearing that it wasn’t just because both teams are from the East. College football fandom is apparently in decline out west with the demise of the Pac 12. We may be getting more Golden State recruits in the near future while they get their act together.

  2. Mr. Pat Dooley – you missed one school here “Georgia, Florida and Tennessee combined for six five-stars and 38 four-stars. The other three schools combined for one five-star and eight four-stars.” There are currently 7 schools per side. I know everyone makes mistakes and I just wanted to let you know before someone else bashes you for it. My intentions were just as a FYI. Also a very good article. GO GATORS!!!

  3. ““didn’t show up” for its bowl game. Maybe it’s semantics,” Yes it is semantics and a silly one at that.
    You describe a team that didnt show up , then call it something else!(didnt take it to another level). How about they didnt come even at the same level they had played the season at! The team that played bama in no way gets beaten like that by a much lesser talent! As I said earlier in the week; when I heard the players whining about being left out of the playoffs I knew they were going to lose. It was obvious to me they didnt have their head nor hearts in this game(didnt show up)! I blame the coach for not chewing their heads off for the attitude and getting them where they needed to be. When a team isnt prepared its the coaches fault. I dont know enough about the Ga scuttlebut , who knows, maybe the attitude originated with the coach. All I know is I read nothing about him stopping or denouncing his players from/for whining in the media which I heard till close to gameday.

  4. 2 reasons Bama lost. Tua changed the momentum of the game with 2 careless interceptions that resulted in 14 points, early in the game. 2- Saban’s mindless insistence on running the ball over and over again to try to score at the goal line. Over half the game they couldnt score , even though they would drive down to the goal line because he just kept trying to run it in and failed spectacularly every time! Then Saban’s mindless fake field goal topped the idiocy!

    • Tua made mistakes but this Alabama team can absorb them. It did show the lack of focus that was endemic in the team and that was the bigger story I think. An Alabama defense missing tackles, being out of place, getting destroyed at the line? That’s crazy. They were simply half a second behind mentally on every play.

      On top of that, coaching was not there at all. Alabama warped into a weird combination of a team that continuously takes stupid chances plus a pre Lane Kiffin team that wants to get conservative at just the wrong time and refuse to let the offense get into rhythm. Jeudy was catching absolutely everything thrown within 3 feet of him — then they went conservative and he wasn’t really seen again until late in the 3rd quarter. That series where Saban, from inside the 10 yard line, ran 5 times, threw 1 pass behind the line of scrimmage, and tried 1 shovel pass was where they gave the momentum away it (saying this from memory). If I remember correctly, they didn’t try a single pass into the end zone. Until then, the Alabama defense had completely shit down Clemson other than the 62 yard bomb and the ensuing 17ish yard run TD.

  5. So many on this site constantly bad mouth Franks. Look at Tua’s performance last night. Missing open receivers, not seeing open receivers, locking on receivers. Frank’s could have started for Alabama and done at least as well as Tua. The vaunted Alabama defense could not touch the Clemson QB even when they blitzed. Total beatdown of the Tide.

  6. Agree, Clemson has the team spirit working at max. A lot like what I saw and see from Mullen’s team here at Florida! Seriously, that had a lot to do with why Florida took down Michigan.

    Regarding the Star Ratings. The higher the stars the more likely the player has done something to warrant the rating but there are so many players that don’t get the recognition because of where, who they played with, and who coached them, that never get their skills and potential properly evaluated. Regarding Florida’s recruits, I believe we have real bluechipers. Players that will bring it. I wouldn’t trade a one for another recruit going elsewhere. Mullen and Staff have the best evaluation program going on anywhere. Celebrate the recruiting rankings because it is a system we all recognize as valid but as Gators, let our recruits know that we know something everyone else doesn’t know. The world knows of the Florida lore, but the mystique, and what it means to be a Florida Gator is only known by those who become Gators…Go Gators!

  7. The final ranking had the east slightly behind with LSU overrated and tamu underrated. Still things are changing fast with bama beginning to slide down some. Clemson has a real deal QB and they have more national championships likely.
    The test of east v west head to head shows progress and once Tennessee returns to prominence the conference overall SB much better than this year where the top half was great but the bottom not very good.

    • How much better do you want our conference to be when we have 4 teams in the top 10, two more in the top 16 and MSU and Mizzou just outside the top 25. The national champs just have one more conference team ranked at #15 and then nothing, nada, zip. With that type of competition Clemson will easily go undefeated every year.

  8. If Alabama would have won another national championship, I think Saban would have seriously consided retiring. He would have surpassed the great Bear Bryant in the total number of NC’s won. What else is there to prove? I think he will stick around until he wins another one before calling it a career.

    As for coaching changes, I think Mark Stoops could be a hot commodity for some blue blood programs next year if not sooner. He has connections to Houston and Miami but I don’t think that’s a step up for him. I think if FSU continues to struggle next year and I think they will, the AD will open a back channel dialog with his agent. Something to look out for.