Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tennessee 79, Florida 63

I love Billy Donovan, as all Gators are legally required to do. But at this point, one thing seems undeniably: Bruce Pearl flat owns him.

Pearl's Volunteers took apart the Gators, and Pearl moved to 6-1 against Donovan, in the process righting the ship and ending an ugly skid that had left Tennessee in a dire situation vis a vis the NCAA tournament. The Gators once again leave Knoxville with a bloody nose and lingering questions about their talent and toughness.

Let me preface the rest of this post with a confession: I'm really not much of a basketball strategist. I follow the games the best I can, and I think I'm reasonably smart about it, but I couldn't diagram a play if you spotted me nine players and all the squiggly lines. So it's eminently possible that I have no clue what I'm talking about.

But I believe the idea of a zone defense is to neutralize the other team's advantage in size and post play. You force them into taking long range shots which are, by their nature, low percentage. This is especially effective when the other guys can't shoot three pointers. So I understand the rationale behind using the zone defense against Tennessee: the Vols have significantly better post players than the Gators, and UT came into tonight's game with a statistical record that said they were bad from behind the arc.

See, just this shows you how stupid Tennessee students are: they're so ignorant they don't even know they can't shoot three-pointers.

UT hit 12 of 28 from beyond the arc and nailed several early shots from beyond the arc. Again, I'm not much of a strategist, but I think they shot so well because the Gators never bothered to actually defend the various Tennessee shooters. My understanding is that while the zone is supposed to entice your opponent to shoot three-pointers, you're still supposed to contest those shots.

The Gators sort of forgot about that last part, especially in the first half when Tennessee out-scored Florida 39-22. The Vols pretty much ran the Gators off the court in that first half, and it would be easy to blame Nick Calathes' foul issues for that. He was whistled for his second foul less than three minutes into the game on an iffy charging call. It's never easy losing your best player for 10 minutes, as the Gators did.

But Florida actually played with admirable tenacity with its point guard out. The Gators were within seven when Calathes entered the game, but instead of making a run, they withered under a barrage of three pointers.

There's something to be said for Florida's tenacity in the second half, I suppose. The Gators out-scored Tennessee in the second half, and they made a legitimate run after falling behind by by 22 at a couple points. But I don't want to make to much of that; Florida never pulled within single digits, and every time they looked like they were making a run the Gators let Scotty Hopson (20 points, four of six from three) or Tyler Smith stick a dagger in their hearts.

In the "rose growing in crap" category, Chandler Parsons continued his good work, scoring 15 points on six of 10 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds. Dude still can't make his free throws.

Still, hardly a disastrous loss in the bigger picture. Florida's 5-2 in the conference and still in prime position for a tournament berth. The schedule gets plenty tough from this point, however. The surprisingly stiff 'Cocks of South Carolina come to Gainesvile Tuesday. The Gators still have road games at Kentucky, LSU and Mississippi State and home games against UK and UT.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Florida 94, Vanderbilt 69

So that's why Chandler Parsons has a scholarship.

Florida's tall, gangly white guy had the game of his life, scoring 27 points on 10 of 11 shooting, including seven of eight from behind the arc. Parsons' teammates joined him in the hot shooting, hitting 15 of 25 three pointers and shooting 57.4 percent overall.

The Gators played their best game of the season against a Vanderbilt team sadly inferior to the last two teams Kevin Stallings has piloted into the NCAA tournament. It's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from what happened today. UF is now 4-1 in the SEC, but the Commodores are pretty crummy, and besides, Florida started last year's SEC campaign 5-1 (including a blowout win over Vanderbilt) before losing eight of their last 11 games and missing the NCAA tournament. The Gators have a home game against the fairly execrable Georgia Bulldogs coming up, so a second straight 5-1 start is in the cards. Hopefully this year's team will handle success a bit better.

But that's future talk, and right now it's enough to recognize how impressive a game that was. Coming as it did after last week's disaster at South Carolina, this performance was a huge pick-me-up for a team in desperate need of one.

Parsons was the star, but everyone got into the act for Florida. Freshman mighty mouse Erving Walker scored 17, Nick Calathes scored 15 (though he didn't have a good game distributing the ball), the heretofore invisible Walter Hodge had 10, and even freshman Kenny Kadji chipped in eight points in just12 minutes of play. Kadji also added two rebounds and a blocked shot; he's UF's best chance to find an interior presence this season.

There's not much of a game narrative to recap. Vanderbilt jumped out to an early six-point lead, Florida went on a run and never let up. They went into the half leading by 19, thanks to some nifty offensive rebounding and a miracle three pointer by Calathes. Vandy never came close to making a run in the second half, and the Gators spent most of that time ping ponging between a 20 and a 30-point lead. They retreated into the bunker in the final three minutes and missed on a chance to score 100, which is mildly disappointing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Burn Notice: As Fond of Formulas as a Chemist

Here's what I've noticed about Burn Notice's writers: they're exceptionally good at tweaking one or two aspects of the show's formula while leaving the underlying structure untouched. It's a really clever way of throwing in just enough spice to keep viewers from becoming bored while maintaining what's made the show a rollicking success. They keep the viewers and the paint by numbers story lines. It's win-win.

The variations introduced tonight in the premier of the...well, I'm not quite sure what to call it. "The premier of the second half of season two", I suppose. Catchy. Anyway, the variations on the theme tonight were tweaks to the established characters. Michael, having just survived an explosive attempt on his life, seizes on yet another charity case as a kind of lifeline. This one, naturally, involves an adorable little kid suffering from a fatal heart ailment.

And for the first time in two and a half seasons, Michael Westin loses control. He becomes emotionally invested. In one of the more effective scenes in the show's brief history, he explodes at Carla, the woman who's been controlling him since the start of the second season. He's angry and frightening, to be sure, even when tied to a chair, but he's also just a little pathetic. After two and a half seasons of imperturbable calm in the face of a brutal injustice, Michael cracks just enough to impotently mutter, "I want my life back."

This is where the the writers lay the tracks on which the rest of the season will travel. Because Carla and the tortuously lethargic organization backing her didn't try to kill Michael. In fact, they were the victim of attacks on both Westin and the sniper they had so carefully placed for an assassination. (Who did Carla want to kill? No one, not even the writers, know.) And just like Michael, they want answers. So Carla, played by Tricia Helfer with a sultriness that's a little too conspicuous to be truly sexy, gives Michael a new task: find out who tried to kill him.

There's your new formula: Mike's going to spend the rest of the season making incremental progress along that arc while saving the usual group of schlubbs and foiling the usual group of drug dealers, thieves and con artists. It is, as I said above, a minor tweak on the same formula.

Season One: Mike tries to find out why he was "burned." Saves schlubbs.
Season Two, Part I: Mike tries to find out what Carla's up to. Saves schlubbs.
Season Two, Part II: Mike tries to find out who tried to kill him. Saves schlubbs.

I think I discern a pattern.

Granted, Burn Notice operates on an idea not dissimilar from the one driving Law and Order: the formula gives the show strength. "Formulaic" is not an insult, it's just an adjective, and one both programs embrace. If you miss an episode of Burn Notice or Law and Order, it's not a catastrophe. You don't need the information you missed in Episode A to enjoy Episode B.

You don't want to take that comparison too far, by the way. L&O treats its characters as ancillary to the story. We don't know much about Jack McCoy or Lennie Brisco or the stealth lesbian played by Elizabeth Roehm, and we don't need to know much about them. Brisco snarks over the dead body, the anonymous attractive ADA gets handed a motion to suppress and McCoy growls something inaudible.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, treats its story as ancillary to the characters. You tune in to see what ridiculous contraption Mike's going to MacGuyver up and how he's going to manipulate a drug dealer into crafting the noose around his own neck. You tune in to see Bruce Campbell do his redoubtable Bruce Campbell thing. You tune in to see if the writers have thrown in a particularly blatant piece of Gabrielle Anwar fan service. (And those viewers weren't disappointed tonight. There's also a little somethin' for the ladies. NO SPOILERS!) The nature of the crisis Mike tackles in any given week is irrelevant.

That's not a recipe for true greatness. But it is a formula for success on the USA Network, and it is indisputably entertaining.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two Out of Three Works For Me

Percy Harvin leaves, Brandon Spikes stays.

Nothing too shocking here. Harvin was always assumed to be a three-year player, and while there were some rumblings about him sticking around, this announcement is far from earth-shattering. Spikes' decision is a little surprising, insofar as he was projected to be a first round choice and his family needs the money, but the key word there is "little." One more year of top-end production on a championship team will only help Spikes' draft stock.

I'll talk in a bit about the team Spikes is returning to, but it's important to a sing a paean to Percy.

Any discussion of the most explosive/dangerous/electrifying/dreamy players in Florida history has to start with Harvin. He's freakishly fast, to be sure, but what defines his greatness is his acceleration. Harvin has an extraordinary ability to go from standing still to full speed in the blink of an eye.

If that was all one could say for Harvin, it would be enough. But he has killed himself for the glory of Urban Meyer and the University of Florida. In last week's championship game he played through a fractured ankle. And to do that he had to forego his Christmas break, stay in Gainesville and rehab for more than 10 hours a day. It was just the most dramatic episode illustrating Harvin's willingness to play through pain for the Gators.

As admirable as that is, the fact that he had to play through so many injuries will be used against him in the run-up to the draft. He missed multiple games in all three seasons, and there's fair reason to wonder how the NFL will treat his finicky ankles. His role as a WR/RB hybrid at Florida means there isn't a lot of film of him doing receivery things. He doesn't have the size NFL execs look for in their receivers, and no one's going to make a guy with his injury history a full-time running back.

I suspect, however, that some team in the middle of the first round is going to overlook all that. There aren't a lot of players like Harvin lying around, and NFL teams are always desperate for big-play ability. Percy's got that in abundance.

Harvin made the right decision to go pro. He deserves to get paid. And while his departure presents some challenges for newly minted offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, he's leaving the team in great position for another championship run.

The offense is facing some challenges. Both tackles are graduating, and that's not a position where the Gators have great depth. UF's two best receivers are leaving, and it's not like Florida had a particularly dynamc passing attack this season.

But they'll weather that. Tim Tebow's returning, as are Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Emmanuel Moody, as well as a bevvy of talented receivers who haven't yet broken out. Meyer has also received a verbal commitment from Andre Debose, a receiver whose size, speed and high school film make him look an acceptable Harvin replacement.

And if the offense falls off a bit, the defense will make up for it. All 11 starters are returning from the championship team's stalwart unit, as is the rest of the two-deep. If one of the defensive tackles can step up and become a force (I'm looking at you, Torrey Davis), the 2009 defense has a chance to be the best in Florida history.

A quick programming note: the last several weeks notwithstanding, this has not become a sports blog. I realize my last non-sports post came on Christmas Eve. Rest assured, I fully intend to return to the subjects that reveal me to be out of my depth. But for now, I leave you with the following video of my favorite Percy Harvin play:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Braves Sign Actual, Factual Human Baseball Players

Atlanta inks Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami.

Kawakami's deal is official. Lowe's is not, and with the way the offseason has gone I don't want to jump the gun, but multiple news outlets say Lowe is a Brave. And his agent isn't going around telling everyone to chill, so this seems like a safe bet.

Once John Smoltz bolted, Lowe became a must-have for Frank Wren. That's not an enviable bargaining positioning, and Scott Boras quite predictably took good advantage of it. The Mets were offering merely three years and $36 million. The Braves ended up giving Lowe four years and $60 million. The $15 million is a slight overpay, but hardly disastrous. More troublesome is giving four years to the 35-year-old Lowe. Wren can't be doing cartwheels at the idea of paying a 39-year-old Derek Lowe $15 million in 2012.

But this signing has nothing to do with 2012 and everything to do with the winter of 2008 and the summer of 2009. After missing out on Jake Peavy, AJ Burnett, Junichi Tazawa, Rafael Furcal, Mike Hampton and John Smoltz, Wren desperately needed a splash to ameliorate the toxicity in Turner Field's atmosphere. More importantly, he needed some kind of reliable arm to plug into his rotation behind (or prefarably in front of) Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vasquez.

Well, he's got that. Since moving to LA in 2005, Lowe's put up ERA+s of 114, 124, 118 and 131. He's thrown fewer than 200 innings just once, and that was in 2007 when he tossed a paltry 199 1/3.

With Vasquez and his guaranteed 200+ innings, the Braves have brought in two pitchers who can relieve a lot of stress from Atlanta's overloaded bullpen. If nothing else, Bobby Cox knows he'll get six innings per start from Vasquez and Lowe, which is good, since the Braves aren't trotting out the Nasty Boys.

Lowe, Vasquez and Jurrjens will be joined by 33-year-old Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. I can't pretend to speak authoratively about Kawakami. The clips I've found on YouTube show a pitcher with impressive control and an asthetically pleasing slow curveball. (Seriously, a top-notch 12-to-6 curve is one of the things I'd mention if a hostile alien overlord demanded reasons why humanity should be spared extinction) He's had some nice numbers for the Chunichi Dragons, but translating statistics from the Japanese Leagues to MLB is still an inexact science. And you always run a risk when signing Japanese pitchers, as they usually work in six-man rotations.

Regardless, Kawakami brings a little mystery and excitement to Turner Field, and that's a good thing. The Braves rotation looks to be Lowe-Vasquez-Jurrjens-Kawakami, with Jorge Campillo and several youngsters (Jo Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, James Parr) competing for the fifth spot in spring training. Uber prospect Tommy Hanson waits in the wings and could see time later in the season. Tim Hudson's status recovering from Tommy John Surgery is unknown, though it's theoretically possible he could return in August or September.

There's something to be said for reliability, and while I don't think the Braves are in a position to seriously contend in the East (there are massive sucking chest wounds in the outfield), they're at least guaranteed the ability to go throw the rotation three or four straight times without needing to overhaul it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tim Tebow To Bypass Draft, Remain at Florida

Also To Turn Water Into Wine. Not That He'd Ever Drink Alcohol.

The expectations for 2009 are pretty well set: national championship or bust.

The deadline for declaring is January 15. No word yet from Brandon Spikes, who's the only member of Florida's defense in a position to enter the draft. His brother is doing time in a North Carolina prison on drug charges, and the Spikes family is anxious to make enough money to hire a lawyer and appeal for a new trial.

More intriguing is Percy Harvin, who told a reporter after today's championship celebration that he was "leaning towards coming back." There's reason to be a little skeptical of that. Harvin was interviewed immediately after the celebration, when Tebow's declaration was fresh in the atmosphere. Players have made statements like this in situations like this before, only to change their minds later and enter the draft. And Harvin didn't even say he was staying.

Of course, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green all said they were staying at an emotional event celebrating UF's first basketball championship, and they stuck with that. So there's some pleasant history to remember.

With Tebow at the helm and at least 10 of 11 defensive starters returning, anything short of a national championship will be a disappointment. If Spikes and Harvin both return, the expectations rise even more. UF's first undefeated, national championship season becomes the goal.

Friday, January 9, 2009

No Smoltz, No Fire?

John Smoltz signs with Boston

This news first broke Wednesday night and became official yesterday. For obvious reasons I've been focused on the gridiron for the last week, so this entry is slightly behind the curve. But it's important.

Rob Neyer once wrote that Smoltz was the easiest of the Big Three to relate to, the most human. I don't agree with that, but I see what he means. Maddux and Glavine just chugged through the years, posting great season after great season, never suffering injuries or performance downturns. They were like Swiss watches: clean, reliable, always effective.

Smoltz, on the other hand, dealt with the peaks and valleys that define the human experience. He was always great in the postseason. But his first truly extraordinary playoff start, Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, was marred by the knowledge that his team lost what might well be the greatest World Series game in baseball history. And when the Braves finally did win their one World Series, he had his worst postseason. (The Indians knocked him out of his lone World Series start after just 2 1/3 innings)

He won the Cy Young award in 1996 with 253 innings. But he missed the whole 2000 season, all but 20 innings of the 2008 season, large chunks of the 2001 season and lengthy swaths of several other years due to injuries. It's a cruel thing to be blessed with an arm that throws thunderbolts but punishes you for your gifts with excrutiating pain.

It was that fragility which ultimately led to this moment. The Red Sox have guaranteed Smoltz $5 million; the Braves' offer was just for $2 million. According to (the not-always-reliable) Mark Bowman, Atlanta's incentives were slightly more lucrative than Boston's. ($12 million to $10 million)

$3 million is the difference between losing John Smoltz and seeing him finish his career in Atlanta. It's...hard to take.

General managers aren't paid to be sentimental creatures. A lot of teams have lost a lot of games because they held on to players past their prime because they had contributed to previous glories. Frank Wren can't afford to pay in the future for what John Smoltz has done in the past. It's not realistic or fair to shout from the peanut gallery that Wren should have thrown at Smoltz anything he wanted to keep him in Atlanta.

But $3 million, in the context of a baseball team's payroll, simply isn't a substantial amount of money. It's eminently possible that Smoltz will flag in his rehab and never throw a pitch for the Red Sox, in which case they'd be out $5 million. As others have pointed out, Boston's more able to weather a $5 million hit than the Braves.

But, again, the Braves were willing to risk $2 million on John Smoltz. Why was $5 million completely out of the realm of possibility? Or, perhaps, a number greater than $2 million but less than $5 million?

There's another side to this this: did John Smoltz even want to return? He hasn't hidden his distaste for the way the team has degenerated around him. He's a postseason warrior, but a warrior smart enough to know that he had little chance of returning to the playoffs with the 2009 Atlanta Braves. And he's at an age where every opportunity is more likely than not his last.

That's his choice, but while I'm never inclined to attack a player for chasing a championship, Smoltz is not some great player who's toiled for decades with a crummy franchise. He has a ring. He's played in 40 playoff games. He's not missing an integral part of his legacy.

Regardless, this just places a cherry on top of the crap sundae that is Atlanta's off-season. Reports indicate that Wren is engaged in serious negotiations with Derrick Lowe, the free agent starter out of LA. I look forward to seeing the unique way Lowe and agent Scott Boras torment the Braves.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Florida 24, Oklahoma 14

Never have I been so happy to be so wrong about so much.

I predicted a shootout between two high-octane offenses, a back-and-forth affair where the only team that could make a stop would pull out the win. I thought UF would eviscerate Oklahoma's defense. I thought the Gators would stifle Oklahoma's running game and force the Sooners into a one-dimensional attack.

The defenses largely prevailed. The Sooners had success running the ball. Florida's offense was stuck in neutral much of the game. And none of it matters, because Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow and a few key players on Florida's defense dragged the Gators to their third national championship.

Some of the stats are pretty: the Gators gained 480 yards, 249 rushing. But Oklahoma successfuly stifled Florida's offense for most of the day. The defensive line frequently overwhelmed Florida's protection schemes, and at times it seemed a repeat of the early stages of the Miami game.

But the UF defense, facing one of the greatest offenses in the history of college football, came up with three plays that will live in Gator lore:

1. After Tebow threw his second interception of the game midway through the second quarter with the score tied 7-7, Oklahoma turned to running back Chris Brown. He broke a 17-yard run to the Florida nine-yard line. A five-yard rush on first and goal took Oklahoma to the UF four-yard line. Brown rushed for three yards on second down. On third and goal Brown was stopped for no gain. Oklahoma eschewed the field goal and tried once more on fourth down to plow Brown into the endzone. But Torrey Davis, who's been a pain in Urban Meyer's side since coming to Gainesville in 2007, burst through the offensive line and tackled Brown for a loss of two yards.

2. Oklahoma took over at its own 20-yard line with 2:32 to go. The Sooners drove down the field with relative ease, Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and his receivers picking apart UF's defense. With 10 seconds to go in the half, Oklahoma faced first and goal from the Florida six. Bradford tried to fire a pass into tight coverage. Joe Haden made a fantastic play, diving in front of the receiver and tipping the ball into the air. After Ahmad Black, Lawrence Marsh, Major Wright, Lito Shepherd, Jevon Kearse and Erin Andrews batted the ball around for a few minutes, Wright finally snagged the interception. The Gators would go into halftime tied at seven.

3. Florida led, 17-14, with 10:45 to go. Bradford completed a long pass to Brown, who followed it with a short rush to the 50-yard line. On second down, Bradford found Iglesias streaking down the middle of the field. Bradford's pass led Iglesias just a little too much; Iglesias briefly held the ball with his fingertips. But Ahmad Black came flying in, stole the ball and held onto it as he fell to the ground.

Black laid the groundwork, and then Tebow took over. On third and 12 from his own 35, Tebow rolled out and hit Riley Cooper across the middle for a 17-yard gain. Two plays later, Tebow fired an absolute bullet to David Nelson for 29 yards. It was an extraordinary pass, an NFL throw that he lasered just over the outstretched arm of a linebacker and just in front of a defensive back speeding toward Nelson.

From that point on Tebow and his offense simply bulldozed the Sooners. The Gators converted a third and six on a shovel pass to Aaron Hernandez, who's become well-nigh unstoppable on that play. He would cap off the drive, naturally, with his patented jump pass to Nelson.

Tebow finished 18 of 30 for 231 yards and two touchdowns, though he did double his season interception total with two picks. He was also Florida's second-leading rusher, picking up 109 yards on 22 carries.

Florida's leading rusher was, of course, Percy Harvin, who deserves a laurel wreath for his performance tonight. He played without the extraordinary burst and acceleration that normally defines him, but he retained enough raw speed and athletic ability to burst through the Sooners' defense for a 52-yard gain in the fourth quarter. It set up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.

It's early to be talking about this, but Urban Meyer is staring a dynasty in the face. Florida will almost certainly lose Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes to the draft, but if Tebow elects to stick around for his senior year, Florida will be a unanimous pre-season number one in 2009. Even if Tebow leaves, Meyer will retain a core of talented, experienced players. The offense will lose both tackles to graduation, as well as wide receiver Louis Murphy, but the defense is bereft of seniors. As long as Meyer keeps plugging in top 1o recruiting classes, he'll have the kind of players needed to consistently compete for championships.

Championship Preview, Part 3: Prediction

Short and sweet:

Florida 42, Oklahoma 38.

UF's offense runs up and down the field on Oklahoma's defense, avoiding turnovers and ripping big gains with Percy Harvin, Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Tim Tebow. Florida's defense largely shuts down OU's running game, leaving Oklahoma one-dimensional. It's a great dimension, and Sam Bradford will have a lot of success throwing against Florida's young secondary. But ultimately, the Gators will make just enough stops, the special teams unit will make two or three big plays and Florida will pull out a game for the ages.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Championship Preview, Part 2: When Florida Has The Ball

Bob Stoops wants you to know that you can't judge Oklahoma's defense by its fairly unimpressive statistics. Stoops is so desperate for you to know this that he won't even wait for reporters to ask him about his defense. He's done public service announcements. He's bought a small plane and flown it around Miami, trailing a large banner that says "OU's Defense Can't Be Judged By Stats!" He called up the general assignment reporter at Miami's Spanish language newspaper aimed at gay Cuban emigres.

Stoops' argument is pretty simple: Yes, the Sooners rank 62nd in the country in total defense and 98th in passing defense. But those numbers simply reflect the philosophy of Oklahoma's defense. They'll give up big plays, but they'll also make big plays. The Sooners, after all, have forced 32 turnovers, tied for ninth in the country. And they've recorded 42 sacks, good for 3rd in the nation. The Sooners, Stoops argues, play ferociously and make up for their mistakes by forcing the opposition into its own.

Stoops is a smart guy and a fine coach, so he's not just blowing smoke. But if Oklahoma's defensive strength lies in forcing the opposing offense into making mistakes, then they're facing a bit of a quandry when gameplanning for Florida's attack. Simply put, the Gators don't make mistakes.

Florida's lost 11 turnovers all season, the third-best figure in the nation. (Oklahoma, it must be said, ranks first with nine) The Gators have thrown three interceptions all season, best in the nation, and one of those came from the arm of back-up John Brantley in the waning moments of UF's victory over Vanderbilt. Tim Tebow has thrown just two picks all season and nine in his entire career. For all the talk from Todd McShay and the other draft "gurus" about Tebow's godawful decision-making and complete inability to read defenses, Tebow has shown an almost preternatural ability to avoid turnovers as Florida's QB.

And the Sooners aren't going to have an easy time bulling through UF's offensive line. Florida has allowed 16 sacks all season, good for 16th-best in the nation.

In short, for all the razzle dazzle in Florida's offense, for all the speed and elusiveness, UF's offense is as good as it is in large part because it's so discplined and fundamentally sound. That, by the way, is Urban Meyer's Don Quixote issue: he wants everyone to know that Florida's is not a finesse offense.

For all the receivers and spread formations the Gators use, this Florida team is all about the running game. The Gators are 11th in the country (229 yards per game) when it comes to running the football. And they don't get those statistics through a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach. Florida averages 5.96 yards per carry. And the Gators do it with a balanced approach:

Percy Harvin: 61 carries, 538 yards, 8.8 YPC
Jeffery Demps: 69 carries, 582 yards, 8.4 YPC
Chris Rainey: 83 carries, 655 yards, 7.9 YPC
Emmanuel Moody: 57 carries, 417 yards, 7.3 YPC
Tim Tebow: 154 carries, 564 yards, 3.7 YPC

The Sooners defend the run pretty well, 16th-best in the nation. As noted above, the Sooners have struggled immensely with the pass. The question is whether Florida can take advantage of OU's weakness in that area of the game.

The Gators are a long way from those Spurrier offenses of the mid-90's. Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen don't like to sling the ball around; UF ranks 62nd in the country in passing yards per game. (212.6, for the record) But the Gators average 9.24 yards per attempt, which is awfully good. Only two of the teams in the top 10 in passing beat that number. Florida just likes to run the ball, and when you have the collection of rushing talent listed above, it's not hard to understand why.

No matter how you look at this match-up, it's hard to say the Gators don't have the advantage. If Harvin's ankle cripples him Thursday night, it'll have an impact on UF's offense. The attack was noticeably less dynamic in the Alabama game with him sitting on the bench; his acceleration is unparalleled, he's as fast as anyone in the country and he can run powerfully between the tackles.

I'm assuming he'll play, and I'm assuming he'll do so on a relatively strong ankle. If that's true, I can't imagine Oklahoma stopping the Gators at all.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pat "The Braves Still Lack" The Bat

The Rays signed Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million contract today. It's a hell of a deal for them. Burrell's been about as consistent a hitter as you can find in baseball: 125 OPS+ in 2008, 127 OPS+ in 2007, 122 OPS+ in 2006, 128 OPS+ in 2005. There's a little more variation in the years before that, but regardless, it's pretty clear what the Rays are getting from Burrell. He's a pretty crummy defensive player, but he'll DH for Tampa, so that's hardly a problem.

But while he's a great bargain for the Rays, Burrell represents a tremendous missed opportunity for the Braves and GM Frank Wren, who evidently had no interest in the idea of Burrell filling the sucking vortex of doom that is Atlanta's left field position.

It's a little unfair to point at the numbers on this deal and castigate Wren for not signing Burrell to the same contract. There's no reason to believe Burrell would have signed the same deal with a non-contender like the Braves. He has a chance to compete for a World Series with the Rays, and there undoubtedly would have been an also-ran surcharge for the Braves. Burrell played his college ball in the state of Florida (at Miami, unfortunately), and it's entirely possible that he was willing to take a bit of a paycut to return to the Sunshine State.

So it's a little unfair to castigate Wren, but only a little. The Braves aren't big-time contenders any more, but they're still a desirable organization for a lot of reasons. They probably would have had to pay more for Burrell, but not an exorbitant sum. Even if you bump Burrell's salary from eight million a year to, say, 10 or 11 million, two years and $22 million for Pat Burrell is an eminently reasonable deal.

Would adding Burrell to the Braves roster, as it is currently constituted, make Atlanta a contender? No. But it would certainly make Atlanta more competitive, and the more talent a team has, the less luck it needs to pull off a miracle playoff run.

And here's the thing: even if Burrell Wohlersed on the Braves, it wouldn't be a disaster. Almost by definition a two-year, $20 million contract can not become an albatross. More importantly, Burrell wouldn't be blocking some talented young player. Signing Burrell wouldn't impact Atlanta's rebuilding effort at all. Uber-prospect Jason Heyward isn't expected to be ready before 2010 anyway.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Florida 68, North Carolina State 66

Nick Calathes is an ugly dude. But he's a beautiful basketball player.

UF's extraordinary sophomore guard scored 32 points on 11 of 16 shooting to lead the Gators to an exciting, come-from-behind 68-66 win over North Carolina State. Calathes was everywhere and did everything down the stretch, scoring almost at will against a defense keyed to stop him. Calathes dished five assists, picked up five rebounds and made nine of his 13 free throws.

Floriad needed the Herculean effort because it had nothing to compare with State's inside presence. Forward Brandon Costner scored 24 points and the Wolfpack shot 58.5 percent against a Florida team that continues to struggle defensively.

But this was a different brand of defensive struggle from the one UF experienced against Syracuse. In that game, the Gators were hopeless against the Orange. UF's guards imitated matadors and the paint players pretty much stepped aside and let Syracuse score at will.

Today, UF was actually able to affect the other team on the defensive end. Florida took advantage of NC State's weak collection of guards with a strong full-court press. The Gators stole the ball 11 times and forced 18 turnovers, most of which came in the second half. Leading the defensive charge was itsy bitsy freshman Erving Walker, who recorded two steals and put pressure on every NC State player to pick up the ball.

This one didn't start like a particularly encouraging game. Florida jumped out to a small lead early in the contest, but quickly succumbed to the handful of talented post players State trotted on to the court. The Gators couldn't do anything inside (Pleasant Surprise of the Season Alex Tyus scored just two points) and couldn't hit a three-pointer to save their lives. (UF ended up two of 13 from behind the arc)

UF trailed by ten after the first 20 minutes of play, but the second half was its best of the season. The Gators never did find a way to stop NC State's halfcourt offense: UF either forced a turnover early in the possession or gave up points.

But driven by Walker's defense and Calathes' all-around brilliance, the Gators managed to briefly pull ahead late in the half. The two teams traded the lead a few times, and UF got the ball with 28 seconds left, down one.

Calathes calmly drove into the lane, lifted a one-handed running jumper and watched as it rolled through the net. NC State took the ball down the court, but the Gators once again stepped up and forced a turnover from Wolfpack guard Farnold Deagan. Calathes was credited with the steal, but it was more a product of Deagan's mistakes and UF's team pressure.

This win doesn't magically fix all UF's problems. The Gators aren't going to get taller or bigger as the season wears on. Freshman Kenny Kadji might grow into the system and give UF a little strength inside, but that's a thin reed on which to depend. Dan Werner's not going to become a legit post presence. And it's hard to imagine these guys developing into a defensive force.

But with the conference schedule on the horizon (the Gators have one more gimme non-conference game against Longwood), it's good to bank a win against a quasi-respectable ACC school. Washington and NC State aren't noticeably good teams, but they are names, and they're respectable enough to be decent wins on an NCAA resume.