The Back Nine: SEC East, West gap tightens

[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.

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