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Cohen's Corner: Championship Makeup

Once again, college football took a backset to no other sport last weekend after yet another round of action, leading to the culmination of the regular season this weekend. For Florida, it was an amazing trip to Tallahassee that produced as thorough a thumping of Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium as we’ve seen in some time. With the exception of about a 15-minute stretch, spanning the end of the second quarter to late in the third quarter, when Florida experienced a mini-meltdown, this was complete domination in all phases of the game.

Marcus Roberson played quite well down the stretch both at cornerback and as a punt returner on special teams (photo by Steve Johnson)

And it showed, clearly in full HD Technicolor, the superiority of the SEC, especially when compared to the powder-puff ACC. Florida manhandled FSU, just like Georgia did to Georgia Tech, South Carolina did to Clemson on the road with a backup quarterback, and like Vanderbilt did to Wake Forest.

Before we get to Florida, how about a little props for the best conference in college football? Every year pompous folks like The Corner try and convince the masses that the SEC is down, which in football, becomes nothing but hot air. Perhaps there isn’t a team as dominant as Alabama was last year, or LSU during the regular season last year, but the league wound up with six teams winning 10 or more games.

Six teams. There are only 18 teams in Division I-A football who recorded double figures in wins, with a chance for as many as four more this weekend, and six are from the SEC. Six of the top 10 teams in the BCS standings are from the SEC. These top six – Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina – are a combined 63-9, with all nine losses coming within the confines of the league six-pack. That means these six teams went 54-0 when facing opponents outside the top six in the SEC, which is why the BCS bowl two-team limit from one league is utterly ridiculous.

Anyway, Florida put the finishing touches on the nation’s most impressive resume by blasting the Seminoles, who got exposed for competing and compiling impressive numbers against a pansy schedule. Nation’s number one defense? Ah, not so much.

Give the Florida coaches credit for crafting a creative game plan on offense, coming out throwing to, as Will Muschamp said, “loosen ‘em up, get ‘em off of us.” Florida scored on its opening possession for just the third time this season – the previous week against Jacksonville State and then a touchdown against South Carolina that really belonged to the defense thanks to a forced turnover inside the Gamecock 5-yard line.

But Saturday’s opening possession, consuming more than five minutes, set the tone. Certainly the first half was frustrating as well, because the Gators probably should have been up by around 20 at halftime, and then subsequently let FSU seize the momentum with a bad stint to open the third quarter. The Gators were sloppy, the officials simply weren’t going to drop a flag on FSU and eventually the home side had claimed a 20-13 lead, as FSU fans decided to stop booing their own team and got loud for a few minutes.

Then Florida turned in the two biggest plays of the game. The first came on offense, a subtle play but a huge one, a 21-yard middle screen to tight end Jordan Reed on third-and-14 toward the end of the third quarter. The Gators came away with a field goal before cashing in on the game’s deciding play, when freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison knocked FSU quarterback EJ Manuel into next week. The Gators recovered the fumble, tailback Mike Gillislee scampered 37 yards for a touchdown on the next snap and the Gators never looked back in scoring 24 straight fourth-quarter points.

While we’re at it, let’s offer up some props to the beleaguered and maligned offensive line. Granted they looked lousy for long stretches of the season, especially when missing a few ailing starters, but the line was terrific last Saturday. Yes there were a few sacks and right tackle Chaz Green was really having a tough time with standout end Bjoern Werner, but overall these guys manhandled FSU up front. Not counting sacks, Florida rushed for 287 yards in 43 carries, an average of 6.7 yards per attempt and Gillislee was terrific, rumbling for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

And finally, finally, finally we saw the rollout package with quarterback Jeff Driskel. The Corner simply can’t understand why it wasn’t used in earlier games when the Gators were having trouble protecting the passer, like Georgia. Instead, Driskel stood in the pocket every time. But on Saturday, the rollout package was really effective in limited use, and even produced a touchdown pass to Quinton Dunbar in the fourth quarter that put the game away.

And of course, the defense did what it has done all year, creating turnovers (five, with one belonging to the special teams) while flexing its muscle along the line of scrimmage. FSU scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter on touchdown drives of 25 and 26 yards and a field goal march where the Seminoles went 13 yards.

For a complete season-long performance, The Corner is not sure if there’s been a better Florida defense, and that’s saying a mouthful. These guys were simply superb, and the flip in turnover margin, from minus-12 last year to a plus-17, a difference of plus-29, is borderline remarkable.

And on special teams, the one weakness appears to be solved as it looks like Marcus Roberson should have been the punt returner all along, following up a 31-yard runback against Jacksonville State with a big 50-yarder in the fourth quarter last Saturday.

In summation, The Corner found it amusing when asked on an out-of-town radio show appearance in the days leading up to the Florida State encounter, whether Florida was truly a championship-caliber team – in essence, did the Gators have the look of a champion?

The Corner knew what the radio hosts were driving at, that Florida did not pass the eyeball test, which seemed to be somewhat of a national consensus. There was some merit to that notion, but as usual, they missed the point, because the question itself is simply irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if the 2012 Gators measure up to the 2008 Gators, or the 1996 Gators, or the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, or the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide, etc.?

They probably don’t compare favorably to any of those great championship teams, but guess what, that’s not who they’re competing against. The 2012 Gators are competing against 2012 Alabama and 2012 Notre Dame and 2012 Oregon, etc. Championship teams stand on their own merit, whether they stack up to other past elite level title-winners or not. And frankly, Florida is as worthy, and frankly more worthy, of being in the national championship conversation than just about every other team in the nation.

If taken on its surface, Florida’s “body of work” (too bad it’s not March Madness time) criteria is the most impressive in the nation, regardless of the loss to Georgia. But the eyeball test does come into play, and in combination with the resume, lead to Florida ending up in New Orleans, and not Miami, the first week of January.

There are only nine teams remaining with one loss or less heading into the final weekend of the regular season, and in terms of the big picture, three don’t count – undefeated Ohio State, which is ineligible to compete for championships this fall due to NCAA sanctions, plus Kent State and Northern Illinois from the MAC, because, well, they compete in the MAC.

So that leaves just six – Notre Dame, Florida and Oregon who are done playing, Kansas State who hosts Texas on Saturday and of course, Alabama and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, a de facto play-in game for the national title. At most there will be five heading into bowl season, and if Florida finds a way to secure win No. 12 in its bowl matchup, the Gators will finish the season ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 4 in the final standings.

Given their starting position at the outset of this enthralling college football season, that’s not too shabby, whether they’re deemed “championship-worthy” or not.

GRAND HIGH EXALTED MYSTIC RULER

The Corner has done this for years, both in this column and on the radio, awarding his GHEMR (a nod to one of The Corner’s favorites, the pioneering 1950’s sitcom The Honeymooners) to the player whose performance from the previous weekend deserves some hosannas.

This week’s recipient is likely the team MVP for the season, senior tailback Mike Gillislee. Gillislee was the lone constant on an inconsistent offense, and saved his best work for the biggest games, capping the regular season by rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries against the supposed number one defense in the land. Gillislee proved his durability, and his 235 carries stand sixth in the UF record books. He is sure to jump Neal Anderson (238 in 1985), Earnest Graham (240 in 2002) and Errict Rhett (247 in 1993 and 250 in ’94) after the bowl game, which would place him behind only Emmitt Smith (284 in 1989) in the UF single-season annals. Likewise, his 1,104 yards is No. 8 alltime, behind Smith (1,599 in 1989 and 1,341 in ’87), Jimmy DuBose (1,307 in 1975), Fred Taylor (1,292 in 1997), Rhett (1,289 in 1993), Ciatrick Fason (1,267 in 2004) and Rhett again (1,109 in 1991). Pretty good company for a guy who was rarely given the chance to be a factor in the offense his first three years.

STOCK UP

It’s safe to say the whole team, from the coaches to the student managers, could find their way into this space, but for conversation sake, let’s go ahead and give it to the offensive line. Tackles Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green, guards Jon Halapio and James Wilson and center Jon Harrison, along with extra linemen D.J. Humphries and Kyle Koehne, did an outstanding job against a strong FSU defensive front. By grinding out 244 yards rushing, the offensive line established the tenor of this contest.

On defense, let’s toss some accolades toward sophomore cornerback Marcus Roberson, who was outstanding in coverage, not to mention recording a 50-yard punt return that led to a fourth-quarter touchdown. Roberson, who arguably began the season as the fourth cornerback behind Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, came on as the season progressed and played really well down the stretch. He provided sticky man-to-man coverage against the Seminoles and also made a terrific interception in the third quarter.

STOCK DOWN

Not after this one. No one in a white top and orange pants deserves to end up here.

AROUND THE SEC

We missed on two in the final weekend of the regular season, somehow convincing ourselves that an ACC team (Clemson) could knock off an SEC state rival (South Carolina), at home, even with the Gamecocks starting their backup quarterback. Sheesh, you think we’d know better by now. We also whiffed on Mississippi State knocking off Ole Miss, believing that Dan Mullen’s crew could beat any team with a pulse.

On to this week, and the lone matchup in the league which happens to be the most important contest in the nation, Alabama and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. It’s no surprise that the weekly media tidal wave of opinion (seems like the national boys like to hop on the same train, like picking Florida State last week) seems to think Georgia has a real strong chance to get it done on Saturday. The Corner would love to know where this is coming from, because Georgia has done nothing since the season started to show it could beat a high-quality team that doesn’t turn the ball over six times. Some folks have been pointing out that Georgia is hot, as if beating 6-6 Ole Miss at home, 3-9 Auburn on the road, Division I-AA Georgia Southern and awful rival Georgia Tech at home proves much of anything. Other than Florida (and Georgia Southern), the only team Georgia has beaten this season that sports a winning record is Vanderbilt. That’s right, Vandy was the Dawgs’ second-best win of the season. We like Alabama to roll by, say, 17.

MARTY LIKES

One final opportunity to finish the season above .500 and keep our annual winning streak in place. After Arizona failed to cover (or win) at home against Arizona State, and Utah State came up one score short of covering against Idaho, we needed Fresno State’s thrashing of Air Force last week to keep up barely above water at 21-20. Anyway, it’s been fun doing this for grins. On to this week’s picks:

1) Northern Illinois minus-6 over Kent State: Perhaps the most important, and certainly most interesting, game played in the MAC ever, with BCS ramifications on the line for Kent State, and marginally for Northern Illinois. By now most folks know the drill, if Kent State wins tonight and moves up just one spot to No. 16 in Sunday’s final BCS standings, the Golden Flashes will earn a spot in the BCS pool thanks to the Big East champ not showing up in the rankings. At No. 21, Northern Illinois would have to leapfrog a number of teams to sneak into the BCS under the same scenario, which is not likely to happen. But to save the BCS from becoming March Madness with the presence of a mid-major other than Boise State, the Huskies will win this game simply because they’re the class of the league, again. This is the third consecutive year that NIU, which has won 16 straight MAC games, is in the title contest and behind dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch, who stands a Heisman-like third in the nation in total offense (363.4 yards per game) and has been a part of a whopping 39 touchdowns, the Huskies will prevail.

2) Stanford minus-8.5 over UCLA: Want to see boorish behavior at its best, on both sides, then YouTube the exchange between UCLA coach Jim Mora, Jr., and T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times from last weekend’s postgame UCLA-Stanford press conference. Simers actually offered the premise that Mora’s Bruins somewhat threw the game so they would face Stanford again, and not Oregon in Eugene, in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Won’t matter, because while UCLA has enjoyed a terrific renaissance season under first-year coach Mora, the Bruins don’t match up well with a physical Stanford club, at home, that has won six in a row since a controversial overtime loss at Notre Dame.

3) West Virginia minus-20 over Kansas: Yes the Mountaineers play zero defense and manage to be an awfully entertaining team while also being one of the most disappointing, suffering through a five-game losing streak after a quick 5-0 start. But they stopped the bleeding with a win at Iowa State last week and should feast on Charlie Weis’ sad-sack Jayhawks Saturday in Morgantown. Kansas has lost 10 straight after opening with a win over Division I-AA South Dakota State and average just 19 points a game, 115th in the nation. It will be a track meet for the Mountaineers.

BONUS SELECTION: 4) Pittsburgh minus-6 over South Florida: In an effort to make sure we don’t end up with merely a .500 record (we’ll be at 45 games for the season, provided we don’t push any games this week), we’ll go with this one on Saturday night. South Florida is in a free fall, having lost nine of its last 10 games, is without quarterback B.J. Daniels, has dropped their last two games by a combined 67-19 to Miami and Cincinnati and would possibly be looking to a successor for under-achieving coach Skip Holtz if the school could afford one. Pitt is a perennial underachiever, but is coming off an impressive 27-6 win over Rutgers, and needs a win to become bowl eligible. And just think, if the Panthers’ kicker had only made that overtime field goal against Notre Dame a month ago . . .

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