If ever a program symbolized the ever-changing landscape of college football, where perception and reality, quite possibly, may never shall meet, it is the Gators.
Think about it. If you’re, say, over the age of 10, and you follow the sport, did you ever imagine the day that it would take a 4-0 start for Florida to finally crack the top 25 ... in the last spot available to boot?
Seriously. I mean, c’mon, this was an outfit that won back-to-back national titles within the last decade, was the standard-bearer for excellence in the country’s best conference pretty much throughout the 1990s and 2000s, had produced NFL players by the dozens during that time, and, as recently as 2012, had posted an 11-win season that yielded a final ranking inside the top 10 … and it actually had to prove itself entire first month of the season before even getting a sniff of respect?
Not sure if I’m more stunned by the unbeaten starts by the likes of Northwestern, Indiana and Temple, the 1-3 disaster that is Arkansas (yep, I was on board that poorly built bandwagon) or the lack of any leeway for the Gators and their not-so-long-ago greatness.
Granted, Will Muschamp did a masterful job of deconstructing the dynastic entity that Urban Meyer had near-perfected in Gainesville.
Meyer merely had taken the ashes-to-awesome program created by Florida legend Steve Spurrier to another level, you know, before taking a “leave of absence” for health reasons that conveniently concealed an actual bolting to Ohio State, where he’s already won another national title.
It only took Muschamp, an emotions-on-your-sleeve kinda coach, two years to erase the “great” from the Gators, not to mention, apparently, any cachet that had been built up by Spurrier and Meyer. His 2013 campaign, which saw Florida lose its final seven games, was the worst by the program since 1979.
Not even the immortal Ron Zook had that kind of deathly touch, as his three-year hiccup between Spurrier and Meyer still yielded three ranked teams … and, frankly, recruiting classes that helped spark Meyer’s immediate success.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for Florida having to beat East Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee in succession the last three weeks before even getting a sniff from pollsters. It’s not like the Gators are lacking in talent.
They still rank among the country’s best every year in recruiting. Running back Kelvin “Son of Fred” Taylor is quality, quarterback Will Grier shows serious flashes and defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard leads the NCAA in tackles for loss.
Also, their new head coach, Jim McElwain, not only gets Florida away from the Muschamp era, but brings some serious credentials, having served as offensive coordinator on two national title teams at Alabama before taking over at Colorado State and making it relevant outside of Fort Collins – which is not the easiest of tasks.
The Gators, going off the predictions of most experts, were underdogs against both Kentucky and Tennessee, and they hosted the latter at the Swamp.
Huh?!! It’s, like, did ya ever?
Here’s the ironic beauty about all of this: Despite the universal downplay about their prospects coming into the season carrying well into it, the Gators, today, stand in perfect position to jump right back into the elite fray. No. 3 Mississippi comes to town this weekend.
Win that, and all bets are off for those who assumed Florida’s turnaround would take a significant amount of time.
Frankly, win that, and the Gators surpass Michigan as the most unlikely rapid “rising from the dead” act thus far this season.
They’d still have to face three more highly ranked teams, including No. 9 Louisiana State with Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette, after that.
But, geez, how soon we forgot just how good Florida was … and can be.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org
AROUND THE NATION
COMING OF AGE: Obviously, we’re all dropping jaws at the exploits and explosiveness of the manchild that is Leonard Fournette as he carries No. 9 Louisiana State ever closer to playoff contention with each passing week. There is no denying his greatness with running the ball, and running over and right by defenders. But, frankly, it was expected. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder was, after all, the top recruit in the country when he signed with the Tigers.
Nothing of the sort could be said for the nation’s sack leader, Carl Nassib of Penn State (No. 95 pictured above). Oh, the name may have been known, mostly due to his brother, Ryan, quarterbacking Syracuse a few years ago and being drafted by the New York Giants. But Carl Nassib wasn’t a big-time recruit and, in fact, was a walk-on when he first arrived at State College.
After redshirting, he saw no action as a freshman. A year later, he made 12 tackles in 10 games. Last season, as a junior, just seven tackles in 13 games. He had a single sack in each of those campaigns. Clearly, not the stuff of legend … and certainly not an indication of what was about to come in 2015.
Now, fully grown into his 6-foot-7 frame, the tireless worker now weighs 272 pounds and is seeing the fruits of his labor pay off – to the tune of seven sacks in just four games. Even in the Nittany Lions’ lone loss, a gut-wrenching, image-busting, 27-10 loss at widely thought-to-be lightweight Temple, Nassib was dominant, registering a game-high 10 tackles, including a sack. He’s had at least one sack every game this season, including three against Buffalo to help kickstart PSU’s resurgence back to respectability.
Toss in an interception against Buffalo as well, and you can see why the defensive end now has piqued the interests of NFL player personnel people now – which is a major change from where he was as recently as last season.
MOST IMPRESSIVE: As far as teams go, several have left their mark, either unexpected or not, in the early part of the season. UCLA, Michigan State, Ole Miss, LSU, Northwestern, injury-plagued Notre Dame. You name it, they’ve done it, and done it in impressive fashion, no matter what you define as impressive. Sorry, Ohio State fans, your Buckeyes have not. The most impressive, though, throughout has been Utah. After ruining Jim Harbaugh’s debut as Michigan head coach to open the season, the 10th-ranked Utes have handled the likes of Utah State and Fresno State before completely dismantling then-No. 13 Oregon on the road, 62-20, this past weekend. That’s the same group of Ducks that Michigan State beat three weeks ago to vault into the No. 2 spot in the polls.
BANG FOR YOUR BUCK: The Pac-12 matchup at Stanford Stadium Saturday night pitting previously ranked Arizona against the host Cardinal may turn out to be the best game of the weekend … and, currently, tickets are going for $12 on StubHub. Really? Yep, really. It’s hard to believe. Apparently, only presently ranked teams, or Notre Dame, are cause for fans in one of the most deep-pocketed areas of the country to shell out a few extra bucks.