Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Full Court Press: Saurian Sagacity and O&B Hue

Living in Ohio, Buckeye fans don't get too many chances to watch the Gators play through and through. Sure, we all see the highlights on Sportscenter, but the highlights give very little insight into a team. Thus, I have conducted an interview via e-mail with two of the finer Gator blogs around, the Saurian Sagacity and Orange & Blue Hue. I tried to cover all of the bases regarding the Gators with this interview: Everything ranging from the QB situation, to Urban Meyer. In case you were wondering, the story behind their blog's title is one of the more interesting ones that I have seen.
In the old days, long before Urban Meyer roamed the sidelines at The Swamp, even before Steve Spurrier was slinging touchdowns and kicking game-winning field goals, some sports writers gave the University of Florida's football team a long-forgotten nickname: the Saurians. Today, two Florida alums pay tribute to the Gators of old as we look toward the future. We hope you enjoyed your visit to Saurian Sagacity, and come again.
Well, I guess you learn something new everyday. Now, on with the interview.

Update: I send the interview out to the writers of the blog, and I just received two more interviews. The responses that have been up since last night were from Henry Gomez, and the ones that have just been added are from his fellow Florida bloggers, Scott Reid and Ryan Ferguson of Orange & Blue Hue.

Q: Earlier last week, I discussed the Tim Tebow/Chris Leak quarterback situation. Unlike most QB-By-Committee duos in recent history, the Gators have had success with it. How has this worked so well, especially with both players being so one-dimensional?

Gomez: The thing is that you really can't characterize it as a two-QB system. Chris Leak is the quarterback of the team and with good reason, he's re-written the school record book in his 4 years as a starter. Because of early struggles under Ron Zook he has been labeled as one who is prone to making inopportune mistakes but the statistics don't bear that out. His interception percentage is the lowest of any Gator QB with more than 500 attempts. But Tim Tebow has seen some playing time and not always in mop-up duty (the Gators have played close games all year so there really hasn't been much mop-up duty to be had). The key here is that both players know exactly what their role is. Tebow understands that he is the understudy and that next year the team will be his. More excitable than Leak, he adds a level of emotion to the offense that isn't there otherwise. So the two complement each other not just in their styles of play but in their temperament. I'd be careful to label either of these players as one-dimensional. Certainly Chris Leak is not the runner or the physical presence that Tebow is, but he is deadly accurate throwing on roll outs to either side. Mechanical problems he had while Zook was head coach (throwing off of his back foot, not squaring his shoulders on running throws) are thankfully gone. Tebow can throw the ball, he simply hasn't been given much of a chance to. Can you blame Meyer? Regardless of his gifts, Tebow is still a true freshman, prone to making freshman mistakes, thus he has been used in controlled situations where he has the best chance of success. One thing to look out for is the possibility of both of these players in the backfield at the same time.

I don't think there's any brilliant strategy here, its all about Tim Tebow. He's not as one dimensional as he was early in the year but the play calls with him have been conservative. They don't seem to put him in the game if they are making the same calls that Leak can execute well which tends to make him seem one dimensional. Basically he's just a great runner and like any great runner when you put him in the game you have the ability to make big plays. His being in the game gives Florida an extra blocker at the point of attack while his ability to throw or run "trick" plays adds a moment of hesitation in defenders. I think next year you will see a much more productive Florida offense with Tebow the full time starter. For now he's similar to bringing a great freshman WR or RB into the game in that he adds another playmaker to the field for limited periods.

Leak is limited because of his size and his inability to produce as a runner in the spread offense. The sets and offense you see being run by the Gators are a hybrid offense implemented because of Leak's strengths and weaknesses.

It has worked because one of the quarterbacks is not one-dimensional. Tim Tebow can throw the football as well as anyone and he should always be regarded as both a running and passing threat. When safeties cheat up on Tebow, you'll see Meyer trust him to throw the ball, often deep. In short yardage situations he's rarely been stopped. Actually, FSU was probably most successful at containing Tebow but they sold out completely to do it.

Q: The general consensus around the nation (at least to my limited knowledge of the SEC) is that Percy Harvin appears to be the next Reggie Bush. What are some other key playmakers on the Gator offense/special teams that could steal a couple of highlights in the big game, and more importantly, have an effect on the final score?

HG: Percy Harvin was highly touted coming in as a true freshman and he has proven so far that the hype was justified. He has been a spark plug for the Gators offense despite the fact that he he has been nursing a high ankle sprain for most of the season and been limited in his playing time. The long layoff between the SEC Championship and the BCS Championship comes at great time for Percy and many of the other Gators who are banged up after playing a grueling regular season schedule. When you talk about the Gator offense you can't forget Dallas Baker "The Touchdown Maker". A big 6th year senior (he was recruited by Steve Spurrier) look for Leak to find Baker in the end zone. He's probably the most sure-handed member of the deep receiving corps. Andre "Bubba" Caldwell has improved all-season long as he came back from a broken leg sustained last season. You could literally see his confidence coming back to him. On special teams keep an eye out for Brandon James, the Gators diminutive kick/punt returner, he's had several run-backs for touchdowns called back. If the Gators can avoid the illegal blocks in the back, he may just break one in this game. By now you must know about our punt/kick blocking unit. Jarvis Moss, a tall defensive end with a freakish vertical leap and Reggie Nelson, the all-American safety are the anchors of this squad. The punt squad for the Gators is excellent and is anchored by the steady Eric Wilbur. Field goal kicking is another story. Chris Hetland was a pre-season nominee for the Lou Groza award. His season has been a nightmare though and his 9 missed field goals are one of the reasons the Gators have had so many close games.

SR: A guy who can impact the game to a lesser extent is Cornelius Ingram. He doesn't have the great speed of Harvin but he's an ex running QB who has transitioned into a good pass catching TE. His blocking is still average but when utilized as a receiver he is a big target who can break tackles and is elusive in the open field. Fayson might be the player closest in talent to Harvin but he doesn't see the field as much on offense and I don't expect him to be a factor there. Fayson, Reggie Nelson and Brandon James are the big names on special teams, the first two on blocks and the last as a return man. For the older players Dallas Baker has been a playmaking WR all year long who can outjump defenders and has a highlight reel of receptions so far this year. Andre Caldwell is a more experienced but less elusive version of Harvin. Expect Caldwell and Baker to see a lot of passes but they won't be any different than the caliber of athletes OSU faced in Michigan and Texas.

RF: Reggie Bush was one of a kind, and early comparisons of Harvin to Bush are a great compliment. Harvin has a ways to go before he is the next Bush, notably, his ball-catching skills need to be improved a bit, but as a freshman he is phenomenal and will only get better. Outside of "Mercy Percy" Florida has playmakers on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Florida's best trio of wide wide receivers -- Jemalle Cornelius, Andre Caldwell, and Dallas Baker -- are All-American material, but Meyer's "spread the ball around" philosophy makes it impossible for any one of them to put up the numbers to make AA.

The Gators' special teams have been truly special for two straight seasons under Meyer, blocking an unprecedented 14 punts/kicks in that time. Whenever special teams takes the field, Gator Nation sits up on the edge of their collective seat knowing something good is likely about to happen. Florida is very good at containing punt returns as well as creating turnovers. You never know who's going to come up big on special teams. In the Arkansas game, Wondy Pierre-Louis came up with the ball in Arkansas' endzone on kickoff after the Hogs fumbled on the 1-yard line. Jarred Fayson, Reggie Nelson, Riley Cooper and Jarvis Moss have all come up big in special teams plays, but they're the "tip of the spear" in that they get the credit for actually logging the takeaway or the block. In reality, UF's special teams have executed nearly perfectly to make these big plays happen, and that's a total team effort. All of it can be attributed to Meyer's leadership and the discipline he's instilled on this team.

Q: Reggie Nelson has been known as the "eraser" for some time now. What are some of his strengths and weaknesses, along with the rest of the Gator secondary? Do they have the athletes to keep up with not only Ted Ginn, but Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiske as well?

HG: I don't know if a first team all-American can really have any weaknesses. Reggie "Freakin' " Nelson is a hard hitting safety with a nose for the ball. His backfield teammate, the graduate student transfer from Utah, Ryan Smith, is no slouch either. Where the Gators are vulnerable is on the other side of the field from Smith where Reggie Lewis plays corner. Not for lack of athletic ability on Lewis' part but because you can't coach height and Lewis is short. I think the key for the Gators is to try to get a good rush on Troy Smith without having to resort to the blitz too often. This season the Gator defensive coaching staff has mostly lived by a "bend but don't break" philosophy. Some teams have had success moving the ball between the 20s but the Gator defense seems to get more stout the shorter the field gets.

SR: Nelson's biggest asset is his speed. He's also a smart player and good at reading the quarterback but his "erasor" nickname comes from the fact that he has the kind of speed where he can 'erase' other players mistakes and keep them from becoming big plays. Smith and Lewis are solid corners but they aren't the kind of shut down corners who can stop Ginn and Gonzalez. They play a lot of zone and have good technique. If Smith gets a lot of time they won't be able to cover the WRs for long. I expect to see a big cushion from the corners with the emphasis being on tackling after the catch.

RF: Honestly, I'm not sure if Reggie Nelson has any weaknesses. If he does, I've never seen them. He's the only player on Florida's team to make a number of All-America first teams and is probably our best player, period. He takes away a huge portion of the field, and any quarterback who throws his way is risking a turnover. He applies monstrous hits that "grease" opposing receivers for the entire game, and can stop the run in addition to harassing the quarterback. He is the best safety in the country and a first-round NFL draft pick.

Keeping up with Ginn will probably be a two-man affair which includes both Nelson and Ryan Smith or Reggie Lewis. Ginn's speed and size make him very difficult to cover, but Reggie's speed and uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time will likely make Ginn a difficult player to hit for Troy Smith.

All of Florida's athletes in the secondary have the ability to keep up with OSU's receivers. Troy Smith's best accuracy will be required to put the ball in places that only Ohio State players can touch it, but he is capable of doing that. It will take a near perfect game from Smith and Florida will probably be willing to grant him short passes all day long, which is a staple of this "bend but don't break" defense. Florida prevents its opponents from scoring, but will give up yards in exchange for stopping the big play.

Q: What is your opinion on Urban Meyer's late season campaigning for his team to get into the championship game? Do you think it had much of an effect? Would you have done the same thing if you were in that situation?

HG: This is one of the issues that I really don't understand. Here we have the only major collegiate sport that doesn't play some sort of tournament to crown its champion, instead the big winners have been historically been voted on. Even today, with the championship game, the participants are elected. So how can anyone be surprised that the participants in an election resort to campaigning? Nobody has been able to answer this question: what did Urban Meyer say that was so offensive to Lloyd Carr, Michigan fans, the pundits, or the football-watching public? The idea that Lloyd Carr didn't campaign for his team is absurd. I remember him doing a telephone interview for ESPN and basically saying "I hope they don't forget about Michigan." So what is the difference? If there are rules for what a coach can say and what a coach can't say then maybe somebody should publish them. Until then I think people should stop complaining about campaigning. I think the campaigning did make a difference in the minds of some voters. Urban Meyer urged the voters to look at his team's resume. And some that hadn't, maybe did look at it a little closer. Sure I would have done what Meyer did. As I said, I don't think he did anything to be ashamed of.

SR: I think it had some definite effect bringing attention to his plight in the press and started the discussion. The key was to get the word out early BEFORE the last game (bringing it up 2 or 3 games ahead in press conferences). If you have to start campaigning a day before the election, you are in trouble. I DO think he might have swayed a few votes but do I think it mattered? Not really. If you look at the final results more than twice as many voters in the Coaches, Harris and AP voted Florida number 2 than Michigan. I've watched Mack Brown campaign at Texas and even Jimmy Johnson when he was at Miami. I think if you can affect 5-10% of the voters you are having an effect and in a close vote that could be the difference. The margin this time was less like a Bush election and more like a Reagan election so it was superflous.

As for whether I would campaign? Absolutely. What is the gain versus the loss? I think you owe it to your players and fans to try and bring your team into any discussion. Coaches and players have been campaigning since the 80's and while it polarizes the opposition it hasn't shown to have any real backlash. And if you NEED votes to begin with . . . what do you have to lose? In this particular situation it looks like both coaches did the right thing. Meyer brought the issue to light 2-3 weeks prior even though if USC would have won out it would have been a moot point. Lloyd Carr was the "incumbent" in a sense to Florida so there didn't seem to be a need to campaign. And since the results were so one sided (more than 2/3rd for one team) his not getting into the issue didn't matter. However if Florida had passed Michigan by one or two votes then Lloyd Carr would have been seen as a stubborn fool and Wolverine fans would have no doubt blamed Carr for his inaction.

RF: First of all, Meyer never campaigned and he's already made it clear that he regrets how his comments were taken out of context. In all cases, he was answering a reporter's question, usually in a post-game conference, and he made it clear that he felt his team deserved a chance. He was asked his opinion, and he gave it. "Campaigning" is a term which is used when someone actively goes forth and tries to achieve an objective based on persuading people. Meyer never did that. His "campaigning" amounted to answering approximately four questions in two games, fair questions with honest answers, for that matter, and the answers to those quesitons were widely circulated in the press. This is an issue which has been overblown because Michigan wasn't given the opportunity for a rematch with Ohio State.

The bottom line here is that there would have been outrage either way, but had Florida been denied an opportunity to play Ohio State after posting up a resume which was far more impressive than Michigan's, you would have seen a true firestorm the likes of which would make the present disgruntlement from the Michigan gang look like a campfire by comparison.

Q: In your words, tell us why Florida deserves to be here, and not Michigan.

HG: First of all we played a tougher schedule than Michigan and amassed a better record. Yes, that's right a better record. How quickly one can forget that 12-1 is a better record than 11-1. Secondly, we won our conference. Although it's not a rule that you must be a conference champion to play in this game it probably should be. I mean if you were to roll back the NCAA basketball tournament to 32 teams would you get rid of the conference champions or the at-large teams? In the case of the BCS we have essentially a two team tournament. We also have a system that discourages intersectional play at the highest levels because 1 loss can mean the difference between a chance at making this game or not. Given that there is very little intersectional play, why would anyone vote for a rematch of conference rivals? Presumably games are played to see which team is better and this year OSU is better than Michigan, case closed. We can speculate that Michigan is better than Florida but we don't know unless the teams play each other. USC was supposed to be better than UCLA but I guess in the end they weren't. Since we know OSU is better than Michigan I think the objective of the BCS should be to find out if OSU is really better than the next team on the list, and that's Florida.

Another reason is that Florida is riding a 6-game winning streak while Michigan is riding a one game losing streak. Oklahoma backed into the National Championship game once and was schooled by USC. Is that the precedent that Michigan fans want to follow? I have heard all the arguments against the Gators and the one that makes me laugh the most is that the Gators won their "only" national Championship on the basis of a rematch. While that is true, the system is completely different than when that happened 10 years ago. The Gators lost to FSU in the last regular season game of 1996. The Gators then went on to play in the SEC championship and win an automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl which is the major bowl that is affiliated with the SEC. The Sugar Bowl committee then selected Florida State (which although they are a rival are in a different conference) to play Florida. FSU was the at-large invitee. When Ohio State defeated Arizona State in their bowl game, the Sugar Bowl became the de facto championship Game. The reality is that Florida's chances of winning the title that year were slim. They needed help and got it. Florida wasn't selected for rematch with FSU, FSU was selected for a rematch with Florida.

SR: Both teams "deserve" to play for the title. I would also add Oklahoma to the mix of deserving teams. It surprised me that everyone considers the Oregon officiating travesty as a loss despite the preponderance of evidence that numerous calls were blown that would have allowed OU to run out the clock and be a third one loss team. Everyone has heard the same arguments about schedule, level of play, quality wins and losses, etc, etc. I think the biggest factor is simply familiarity. Because of the lack of good intersectional games, no one really knows how Michigan would compare to USC or Florida. They did see how Michigan and Ohio State matched up. If Arkansas had beaten LSU and Florida then they would be playing Ohio State. Its not just about people feeling one conference is better than the other (although the consensus is the Big Ten is down this year) but about the mystery of two teams playing who are complete unknowns. Nobody knows if USC or UF could beat OSU. Everyone knows what happened in the Michigan-Ohio State game.
Human nature was against Michigan, their last impression was a hard fought loss but a loss nonetheless. Any other teams who would have ended the year against good teams on a winning streak was going to get the nod over UM. When you lose IS important. Players get injured, gain experience, mature, play better as a team, etc, etc. If Michigan had lose to Ohio State earlier I think they would have had a better argument but a rematch would have essentially been the same two teams playing the same game at a new venue. Only if there were no other candidates would Michigan have played. In a regular season of blown and seized opportunities Florida won their way into the championship game and Michigan lost their way out of it. The arguments about who should drop and rise are ridiculous. Michigan dropped into third following their loss (except in the AP) and getting jumped by a team that has a big win is quite common in the polls. Notre Dame had it happen to them twice this year. Florida was jumped by USC and then later jumped Michigan all without losing a game. The idea that you can be passed during the year even if you win but that Michigan should somehow be immune from the variabilities of the polls because they didn't play at the end is a bit ill-conceived.
Michigan fans have a gripe. Not with the system or the voters but with the fickle nature of football. Had a situation where Michigan jumps USC and UF to the number two slot in the last poll occured the people now feeling victimized would either be arguing the merits of their jump or withholding any criticism because it worked in their favor. Imagine if USC had been undefeated and ranked the BCS number 1 going into the UCLA game. Chances are they too would have dropped out of the title game because of losing to an unranked team and when they lost. Yet would they have been any more "undeserving" than Michigan or UF? Right now we have a 2 team playoff (the BCS game) that I think could be expanded to a 4 team playoff without greatly disrupting the landscape. It WON'T end the controversy though which is an integral and recurring part of the sport in almost every season. We will again have dicussions on which teams deserve to be in that group as decided by the polls and computer rankings.

In my view, no justification is needed after an objective review of the accomplishments of both teams. Florida beat four ranked teams, who in turn beat a combined total of eight ranked teams, won a conference championship after playing a tough SEC division champion opponent (Arkansas), and turned in a 12-1 record playing the nation's toughest schedule. Frankly, it's not even close and the human polls reflect that fact (humans voted 2-1 in favor of Florida while the computers split the two.) Michigan, on the other hand, beat only one ranked opponent -- Notre Dame, who I think anyone in college football would agree is overrated yet again this year, and will likely be humiliated by LSU in the Sugar Bowl -- and lost to Ohio State. Therefore they also failed to win their conference, and there are only a few good teams in the Big 10 this year. Their other victories are against the worst of the Big 10, and they came close to losing to Ball State, a team which Southern Miss (Florida beat them 34-7 in the first game of the year) would have eaten alive.

There really is no logical argument to put Michigan back in against OSU when Florida has had the success they've enjoyed in the SEC, playing the nation's top defenses. Florida belongs, Florida's going, and that's the way it should be.

Q: Which matchups with Ohio State concern you the most? Which are you most comfortable with?

HG: I think overall I'm concerned with how our offense stacks up to OSU's defense. We have been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team on that side of the ball. Of particular concern is our line play on offense. They have improved over the course of the season but Leak is obviously much more dangerous if he is given time to set his feet and check down when the primary receiver is not open. In order for the Gators to win we are going to have to limit our mistakes as Michigan did with zero turnovers, and create and take advantage of OSU turnovers. I think a low scoring game favors the Gators, since many of our wins have been of this variety.

SR: Troy Smith's ability to buy time in the pocket and the speed of OSU's WRs. If they go to the spread formation they showed against Michigan it could be a tough matchup because of Smith's ability to pressure a defense with his legs. If Florida can't get pressure and confuse Smith it could be a long night.

Troy Smith! As Gary Danielson put it, he's the best player in all of college football, and I think that's probably accurate. The guy just doesn't seem to have any weaknesses. Our secondary and their backups will need to play perfectly to stop him. He is an amazing player and he never loses his cool.

I am more comfortable with Florida's ability to stop the run and make OSU one-dimensional. Florida stopped Arkansas, one of the country's best rushing teams, holding '07 Heisman favorite Darren McFadden to 73 net yards despite losing Ray McDonald (starter on the defensive line) for most of the game. If we double up on Ginn and refuse to let Smith and his tailback out of their box, he'll have to pass. Despite that being a key strength for OSU, I like our chances to get some stops and turnovers out of the deal.

Q: Tell all the Buckeye homers out there why the game will be closer than the "experts" think.

HG: There is no doubt that Jim Tressel is a big game coach but, unlike Lloyd Carr, so is Urban Meyer. I think Meyer is the X-factor here. There are a lot of decent coaches out there but I have seen few that could make such a big difference in a program that was headed nowhere just 24 months ago. The Gators are battle-tested, they haven't had the luxury of 4 or 5 tune-up games this season. They managed to play the top 9 (other) teams in a strong 12-team conference because the schedule Gods were unkind in that we didn't get to play perennial SEC doormats Ole Miss and Mississippi State. There won't be panic on the Gator sidelines even if trailing in the game. Florida has been down late in close games and knows it can win with a big play on defense or special teams.

SR: Two reasons. Emotion and Precision. Having the best team doesn't guarantee a win. Emotion and momentum are crucial to winning big games. Ohio State is the better team but they are not so significantly better than the rest of the Top 10 that they can play without intensity and expect to win. The unknowns, turnovers, injuries, unfamiliarity are all going to be major factors in the game (especially the first half). Second the layoff will help coaches put together a scheme for dealing with each other. Both teams will add wrinkles and come up with the ways they think will mitigate their opponents advantages. But Ohio State will have to deal with a huge layoff of playing at game speed. Additionally they will be a huge favorite and will be hearing all the hype and hoopla. And rightfully so, they are the undefeated, unquestioned number 1 team in the country. They will watch the films of Florida's struggles throughout the year. If they don't walk into that game without an air of superiority then they aren't human. I don't think that the Buckeye's will have the same intensity they had in the Michigan or Texas game and I think the layoff will hurt their execution in the first half. All it takes is one missed assignment or one dropped pass to kill a drive. I expect Florida to run a lot of blitzes and stunts to keep the Ohio State offense thinking and reacting rather than attacking. Confusion offensively and defensively will help mitigate the Buckeye's advantage on the offensive and defensive lines. Then its all about playmakers and getting them in position to make plays.

RF: There's no doubt in my mind that this will be a close game and in my view Florida has an excellent chance to win. Florida has played three opponents this year who, at the time we played them, were at or maybe slightly above the caliber of Ohio State: LSU, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Defensively, LSU was the best of that bunch (maybe offensively, too) and I don't think OSU's D could hold a candle to the Bayou Bengals. There's no reason for Florida to go into this game thinking that this is an unwinnable game. On the contrary, I hope they remain humble and motivated and know that Ohio State is a very worthy opponent, but eminantly beatable.

Q: And, of course, give a final prediction, score included (don't worry, we won't bite if you don't choose us).

HG: I could never pick against the Gators. I see the game as 24-17, Florida.

SR: I haven't decided. Either UF 26-21 or OSU 37-20

I'm a homer, obviously. But I like Florida by a TD. Meyer is 19-1 when given more than one week to prepare for a game and there's no reason to doubt the Gators' players won't be ready for the biggest game of their lives. 31-24, UF brings home the bacon to Gainesville.

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