Thank you, Savannah State. I’m sorry you have become the Poster Child for one of college football’s biggest sins, but at least we now have a lot of people involved in the sport screaming about mismatches – these get-your-brains-beat-in-for-a-big-payday games.

I’m proud to say I’ve been harping about this for years, but it wasn’t until Oklahoma State whacked Savannah State 84-0 that so many other people became upset about this annual embarrassment to the sport. It is a hot topic these days with national pundits, particularly those folks who make a living analyzing college football for the TV networks.

The screams to stop this horrific scheduling picked up even more steam when Savannah State went to slaughter last week in Tallahassee, losing only 55-0 to FSU because the game was stopped in the third quarter because of dangerous weather conditions.

Here’s been the accepted formula for college football’s elite: Schedule one, if not two, home games each year against a patsy; write them a big check; pad your school’s record and coach’s resume.

The guilty schools justify this practice in many ways. They argue the money helps the victims pay their bills. They contend the outclassed players get to enjoy the experience of playing in a big stadium. They whine that they need a few “soft” games because of their grueling conference schedules.

Right.

Do the players who get embarrassed benefit from the money? Is it an enjoyable experience to get whipped 84-0 anywhere, anytime? If every major conference team played only competitive opponents wouldn’t it balance out in the end? Imagine, if you can, an NFL teams softening their schedules by playing a couple of semi-pro teams.

Next to the embarrassed players, the biggest losers are the fans. They pay a lot of money for tickets and in booster contributions to watch garage games.

There is hope we’ll see a reduction of these ridiculous games in the near future. When a four-team playoff starts with the 2014 season, strength of schedule reportedly will be a major factor in which four teams are selected are a yet-to-be-named committee. Of course, if every elite program schedules a couple of dogs . . . well, maybe we won’t see an end to these types of games.

As someone who covers sports for a living, the question I’m asked the most often, by far, is: Who do I think will win (fill in the game) this weekend?

Almost never am I asked who I want to win the game.

There is a difference, you understand.

When I don’t give the desired answer I usually catch hell and get accused of being a hater.

Last Saturday, for example, I thought Texas A&M would defeat the Gators. I thought playing at home in the school’s first ever SEC game would give the Aggies the edge. Besides, having watched the Gators’ sluggish performance in the season-opening victory against a clearly outmanned opponent didn’t inspire me to have much confidence in the Gators.

I also predicted the Vikings to beat the Jaguars. While I’d seen some encouraging signs in the preseason, I didn’t think the Jaguars, who haven’t had a winning record in four years, were a good bet to win a road game with a new coaching staff and a young quarterback coming off of a miserable season.,

Florida won 20-17. I was wrong? I was also happy.

The Jaguars lost 26-23 in overtime. I was correct. I was also sad.

For the record, I’d rather see the teams popular with Northeast Florida fans – Gators, Seminoles, Bulldogs, Jaguars, etc.  – post victories. To be candid, it’s good for business. Besides, most of my dearest friends are diehard Gator and Jaguar fans. My youngest son in an FSU graduate and is rearing three little Seminoles.

So, ask me the right question and you’ll likely be happier with my answer.

Jaguars fans, I feel your pain. I understand your frustration and even your anger. Your team lost a game to the Vikings it should have won.

Still, there were more positives from the 26-23 overtime lost at Minnesota than I’ve seen from the Jaguars in a long time.

First and foremost, quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked the best, by far, he’s ever looked. He looked like an NFL quarterback who could win.

Despite three drops, the receivers as a group looked better than they have in years. Tight end Marcedes Lewis caught every pass, including one for a TD, thrown his way. Maurice Jones-Drew, seven days removed from his couch, was used more than expected and responded with a solid game. The coaching wasn’t perfect, but it clearly was an improvement from what you’ve seen. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, after a shaky start, shined against the Vikes’ sack master, Jared Allen.

The Jaguars should have won even though they had those drops; even though Gabbert missed a wide open Justin Blackmon for a sure fire touchdown and fumbled a center snap; even though there was a blocked extra point kick.

I’m not ready to put the Jaguars in the playoffs – I haven’t lost my mind – but I’m more encouraged about their season than I was Sunday morning.

The pass rush was anemic and unless it improves the Jaguars are going to make every quarterback they face look like an All Pro. If injuries continue to beset the offensive line there will gloomy days ahead.

I hear you screaming, fans. Why’d the Jaguars go to a “prevent defense” in those final 14 seconds? (This is one of those rare times I agreed with using the “prevent” even though it didn’t work.) Why’d they throw the ball on 3rd-and-2 on their final two plays in overtime? (Hindsight always wins play-calling debates.)

The Vikings, by the way, deserve some credit. Rookie Blair Walsh’s game-tying 55-yard field goal was impressive. Quarterback Christian Ponder played well. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin burn a lot of defenses.

Yeah, the loss hurts, but based on the first game the Jaguars are headed in the right direction. There’s a saying you are what your record says you are. That’s not necessarily true – particularly after one game.

Crystal Ball Friday, Week No. 1:

Each Friday I will predict selected college and pro football games. I’ll always include the Jaguars game. Florida and FSU games will be included when they play respectable opponents.

Florida (1-0) at Texas A&M (0-0) – It’s difficult to imagine the Gators looking as bad as they did in their opener. The Aggies have a new coach in Kevin Sumlin, an offensive whiz, as they begin play in the SEC. The Aggies are worried about their defense, but can the Gators score enough against any major team? A&M, favored by 1½, win 24-10.

Georgia (1-0) at Missouri (1-0) – The Bulldogs give their host a rude welcoming to the SEC. Missouri has some talented skill player, but it will get pounded on the line of scrimmage. Georgia, favored by 3½, wins 35-17.

Vanderbilt (0-1) at Northwestern (1-0) — An SEC bottom feeder is better than a Big Ten bottom feeder. Vandy, favored by 3½, wins 28-24.

Auburn (0-1) at Mississippi State (1-0) – The War Eagles fall continues. The Bulldogs win the battle as the SEC West’s fourth best team. Miss State, favored by 3, wins 27-20.

North Carolina (1-0) at Wake Forest (1-0) – The Tar Heels are on probation for a reason. They cheated. Good news is cheating helped them get talent, more than Deacons. UNC, favored by 8½, wins 35-14.

Jaguars (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0) – These are considered two of the NFL’s weakest teams and it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Jags seem headed in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. I just can’t get the image out of my head of Viking DE Jared Allen crushing Jag QB Blaine Gabbert time after time. Vikings, favored by 1½, win 21-17.

49ers (0-0) at Packers (0-0) – Many expect a rematch for the NFC title. It’s classic defense (49ers) vs. offense (Packers). It is an offensive game now, but I see an upset because the 49ers have improved more on offense than the Packers have on defense. The 49ers, 5½ underdogs, win 28-27.

Steelers (0-0) at Broncos (0-0) – Peyton Manning’s is back, albeit in a strange uniform. I’m betting he looks almost as good as a Bronco as he did all those years as a Colt. The Steelers’ once ferocious defense has gotten old quickly. Broncos, favored by 2, win 27-21.

Making predictions about a home team is loaded with potholes that can unwittingly alter the best of intentions, research and professional insight.

As a local media person covering the Jaguars on a daily basis, I should know more about the team than the national pundits. But that advantage can be offset by hometown bias even from someone determined to be neutral.

From a national perspective, the Jaguars are expected to stink. ESPN the Magazine has them going 1-15. Sports Illustrated predicted 2-14. Las Vegas oddsmakers are predicting five victories. Several power polls I read have them ranked between 29th and 32nd in the 32-team NFL.

These commentators see a franchise coming off of a 5-11 season and without a winning record since 2007. They see a franchise with a second-year quarterback in Blaine Gabbert who as a rookie had one of the worst seasons ever by an NFL QB. They see a franchise that is depending on two new receivers, one an untested rookie with off-the-field issues and the other a free agent who did a disappearing act in preseason games. They see a franchise whose best player was a holdout until last weekend. They see a franchise with a new head coach who was unsuccessful in his first head coaching stint (Buffalo) and a new offensive scheme.

What should they expect from the Jaguars in 2012?

These predictions have angered a lot of local fans and some local media reps who openly cheer for the Jags.

From a local perspective, Gabbert has shown considerable improvement on the field and maturity off the field. They have seen players rejuvenated by a coaching change and new ownership. In rookie Justin Blackmon they’ve seen a receiver who catches everything he touches and runs well after making the catch. They are confident a healthy Rashad Jennings will be a solid runner and Maurice Jones-Drew will soon be MoJo again now that he’s ended his holdout. They are confident the defense will play as well or better than last season when the Jaguars statistically ranked among the 10 best in the league.

Locally, no one I know is talking about making the playoffs, but 8-8 or even 9-7 seems reasonable to them.

So what am I expecting from the Jaguars? Gabbert can’t be worse than last season. Nor can the receivers. The defense wasn’t as strong as the statistics indicated because of a mediocre pass rush and the failure to force turnovers, but it is solid. The coaching was a joke last year because of the lame duck status so any change is a step in the right direction. Playing the strong NFC North doesn’t help.

The Jaguars have made some positive steps, but I see another 5-11 season before the improvements create more victories.

The New MoJo Era

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL teams

Maurice Jones-Drew is back and, as far as he is concerned, everything is back to normal. He’s made no apology and expressed no regret about his holdout. He still feels underpaid and disrespected.

He makes it perfectly clear is all about business and nothing more.

What he obviously doesn’t see is the business angle works both ways. The Jaguars clearly think NOT giving him more money and security is the correct business decision.

Now, what the future holds rests entirely in Jones-Drew’s hands – and on his legs. He’s an elite running back in a passing era. It has been proven that at his best the Jaguars are a 5-11 team.

Jones-Drew’s supporters point out the Jaguars are $28 million under the salary cap and are being cheap by not giving him more money. My response is why should any team pay a player more than it thinks he’s worth simply because it has the cap room? Just because you have $100 in your pocket doesn’t mean you should overpay for a hamburger.

For the fans, all of this becomes a moot point if the Jaguars win and Jones-Drew plays well. Otherwise, his days as the team’s most popular player are doomed.

Along that line, I don’t think he’s doing himself any favors with his new look. I’m certainly not at fashion or style expert, but the new scruffy-looking Jones-Drew isn’t nearly as charming and likable as the clean cut and always smiling old Jones-Drew.

The more immediate concern is how he’ll perform and fit in the Jaguars’ new offense under Coach Mike Mularkey. It is unreasonable to think he’ll be a major contributor in this Sunday’s season opener at Minnesota. It’s also unreasonable to think he’ll put up the kind of numbers he put up last season when he led the league in rushing.  For one thing, he’ll get fewer carries with a healthy running mate in Rashad Jennings. For another, the Jaguars plan to throw the ball more with an improved quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and better receivers.

Bottom line is the love affair between MoJo and the Jaguars fans likely will never be as passionate as it was. That’s a shame because it sure was fun while it lasted.

 

Unless Bowling Green has a much better football team than I think it does, this will be another dreary season for the Gators. The current forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain – as in tears falling from the eyes of Gator fans.

Other than the fact the Gators won their season opener, 27-14, and showed a solid running game, there wasn’t much to cheer about for Florida fans.

The passing game was lousy even though Bowling Green dared the Gators to pass by playing an 8-man front. Quarterback Jeff Driskel missed open receivers, who had trouble getting open. The defense had tackling problems, particularly in the secondary.

The team looked unprepared, confused and nervous. The Gators were flagged for 14 penalties, and that reflects badly on Coach Will Muschamp and his staff.

If Bowling Green had a competent placekicker and hadn’t had several dropped passes . . . well, you get the picture.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Gators’ problems more than the quarterback situation. While I’m not one who argues that the two-quarterback system is doomed to fail, it seems obvious that Muschamp’s dilemma is a lack of confidence in both quarterbacks, Driskel and Jacoby Brissett. Even against what should be an outmanned opponent and against a defense geared to stop the run, Muschamp chose to pass the ball only 21 times.

Unless Driskel shows considerable improvement you have to expect Muschamp to give him the hook and go with Brissett. It isn’t a pretty situation.

To add to the Gators’ woes is the fact there were thousands of empty seats. You can argue Bowling Green isn’t a big draw, but it was the season opener. There was a time in the recent past when all the Gators had to do was suit up and The Swamp would be packed with 90,000-plus fans. Until the Gators start playing a lot better, you can expect less than sellout crowds except for Florida’s biggest games. And there aren’t many of those on this year’s home schedule, which consists of Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State. For the record, the Gators’ ticket office is open and looking for business.

Up next: a trip to Texas A&M, which I’m betting is a better team than Bowling Green.  The forecast could get worse before it gets better.

One of the biggest question marks for me entering the 2012 college football season is when will the fans of the state’s Big Three schools start hollering for their coaches’ jobs. Sadly, that’s the era we live in.

That’s even the case at Florida State where the expectations of a great season have many Seminole fans thinking national championship. Will 10-2, the ACC title and a BCS bowl bid be enough for Coach Jimbo Fisher to escape the wrath of FSU fans?

Probably not.

Will fans of Florida and Miami be understanding of another six- loss season for their second-year head coaches, Will Muschamp and Al Golden?

No.

I don’t expect any to lose his job, but it won’t be pretty.

Strangely, Golden may hear the fewest boo birds because not much is expected of the Hurricanes and their fair weather fans don’t move the needle very high when it comes to passion and numbers.

Muschamp is in the biggest danger of having his ears blasted by unhappy fans. Even the youngest Gator fans still remember national championships in ’06 and ’08. They also remember Florida losing six of its last eight regular season games last fall. Thus far, the young first-time head coach has been given a pass. Former coach Urban Meyer caught most of the fans’ ire for last season.

Gators fans won’t be as forgiving this season. Rebuilding is a dirty word for fans of elite programs. They pay their coaches millions and give them every resource imaginable and they expect quick dividends.

I don’t expect much improvement from the Gators. I see a 7-5 record, and I think things go bad early. A loss in Game 2 at Texas A&M will set the tone for another year of mediocrity. The real bummer will come the week after a home loss to LSU when the despondent Gators lose at Vanderbilt. To make things worse, I see losses to Florida’s two biggest rivals, Georgia and FSU.

The Seminoles are talented enough to win the national title but quarterback E.J. Manuel has to, one, stay healthy and, two, play better than he ever has. After a 5-0 start, FSU’s national hopes will disappear with a loss at N.C. State. Then there’s that Thursday night trip to Blacksburg, Va., in early November. Why would FSU play another Thursday night road game? Past experiences haven’t been pleasant and this one won’t be either.

As for the ‘Canes, I think the road continues to be bumpy. They simply lack talent, particularly at the line of scrimmage. How about three straight home losses to UNC, FSU and Virginia Tech? Miami finishes 5-7.

In summary, 2012 will not be a year to remember for state’s Big Three.

NFL QB’s: Rush to Judgement

Posted: August 29, 2012 in NFL

The days of grooming NFL quarterbacks are as dead as 25-cent hamburgers. The trend of throwing rookie quarterbacks into the competitive fire isn’t new, but the numbers are exploding. Five rookie QBs are scheduled to start this season. Four rookies started most of the 2011 season. The last four drafts, since 2008, have produced more than half of the starting QBs.

There are lots of reasons why quarterbacks are now rushed into action, but none is bigger than it is a way of sending a message of hope to a disgruntled and impatience fan base. Everyone agrees it’s now a quarterback league because of changing rules and attitudes. And the fact that offense sells makes the league’s sugar daddy, TV, happy.

Why plod along in mediocrity with a veteran quarterback? Really, is 8-8 all that different from 4-12? Does it matter if your team misses the playoffs?

Get the new kid on the field and hope he becomes the next Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Give your fans a reason to think/hope brighter days are just around the corner.

The league’s haves and have-nots can be determined solely on who their quarterbacks are. Admittedly, quarterbacks often get too much credit or too much blame, but facts are facts. Teams with the best quarterbacks make the playoffs. No other position is close in importance.

There are obvious reasons why young quarterbacks are ready to play earlier than ever. Most are being groomed physically and mentally to play the position by the time they become teenagers. Even though many are fine all-around athletes, most turn their year round athletic attention to playing quarterback. Notice I didn’t say football. The learning curve at every level has gotten shorter and shorter.

Still, there’s no doubt a lot of potentially fine NFL quarterbacks have had their pro careers short circuited by this rush to play them. The list of busts is a long one. Think of JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf  and David Carr just to name a few of them in recent years. Whose next to join this list? The Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill? The Jaguars’ Blaine Gabbert?

But don’t expect the NFL to stop rushing them into action. Many are paid too much money up front to sit and learn. Owners and fans share in the blame because of their lack of patience. Coaches and general managers know building a team often benefits the coach and/or GM who replaces them.

Consider this theory: Jack Del Rio knew the Jaguars last year would be a better team with David Garrard at quarterback, but not that much better and he’d still get fired. So he gambled, released Garrard and rushed Gabbert onto the field, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and uncover the next great NFL QB. What’d he have to lose? Starting Gabbert early did excite the fan base until he proved he was in over his head.

Some of the young quarterbacks rushed in starting in recent seasons already have lost some of their luster. Gabbert, for one. The Jets’ Mark Sanchez and the Bucs’ Josh Freeman are others. They could still prove to be successful if they don’t get benched for the “next big thing” at their position.

It isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s simply the way it is.

With the college football season only hours away and the NFL only 10 days away, there are two storylines I’d like to share with you.

First . . .

I understand how excitable and passionate Gator and Seminole fans are. I know you’ve been chomping and chopping at the proverbial bit for a new season. I get it. But understand you will learn nothing about the upcoming season this Saturday.

The Gators quarterbacks will look much improved. The Gator receivers will get open. The Gators will gain yards running between the tackles. Your defense will be dominant.

Remember, you’re playing Bowling Green. This game is a freebie and is a resume builder you’re your coach.

The Seminoles think they’ll be in the national championship. They may be. It really is up to senior quarterback E.J. Manuel. If he finally plays anything like what FSU expected when he became Coach Jimbo Fisher’s first super blue chip recruit, the Noles have a real shot. Their defense may be great. There are a bunch of future NFL players among the receivers and defensive backs.

Manuel will sparkle this week. Remember, you’re playing Murray State.

Second . . .

Maurice, will you please hurry up and end this silly holdout. I’m tired of talking about it but that’s all anybody asks me about these days.

You tried to make a point that the Jaguars couldn’t live without you. Well, you’re wrong. They are, indeed, moving on and, like your new owner said, you’d better jump on ‘cause the train is leaving.

Yeah, you’ve taken a major PR hit, but it isn’t a fatal blow. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. Report now, act humble and get to work. If you play well, the fans will forgive you. If the team wins, the fans will forgive you. If you play well and the team wins, you’ll be a bigger star and celebrity than ever.

If not . . . well, let’s not go there right now.

For the record, I’m calling you Maurice until this absurd holdout ends. MJD and MoJo were nicknames of endearment and, frankly, there’s nothing endearing about someone who acts like a spoiled – not to mention misinformed – brat.