2007 College Football Preview: Football Fever in the Sunshine State
From expert analysis to game day schedules, we’ve got the lowdown on Florida’s heavy hitters
We’ve weathered the long, hot summer and now it’s time for the payoff for suffering through August’s blazing heat: College football season is finally here. I’ve always liked the college gridiron more than the pros. It seems like by the time players suit up as a Jaguar or a Buc, they’ve become the pro ideal specimen – with physiques and talents that have been burnished to perfection. In the college game, where players are younger and less experienced, the unexpected can happen. And so often does. (See: Choke at Doak, 1994). In a football-crazy town like Tallahassee, the Saturday afternoon performance of one’s favorite team in the fall can set the mood for the entire week. So enjoy one last set of prognostications. The season is about to kick off! – Rosanne Dunkelberger
A Season of Reinvention
Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles look to a brighter future with a new offensive coaching staff
By Ira Schoffel
Bobby Bowden is 77 years old, has won more games than anyone in the history of major college football and is considered by many to be the public face of Florida State University. A larger-than-life statue of the legendary coach stands in front of the Moore Athletic Center. An even larger image of Bowden is captured in stained glass near the top of Doak Campbell Stadium.
Given those facts, it sounds odd to suggest that Bowden is attempting to reinvent himself as he enters his 41st season as a head coach. But there really can be no other description.
He has replaced all but one of his assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball, including 30-year veteran Billy Sexton. He has, for the first time, handed virtually all of the game-planning and personnel decisions to his offensive coordinator. And he has asked longtime confidante Chuck Amato to return to the Florida State staff and restore some of the discipline that had been lacking since the Dynasty years.
“This is kind of my last shot,” Bowden said. “These guys are the best in the business. We are very fortunate to get these guys. Who would expect that Chuck Amato would be back here? In his years, we won two national championships and I think we won the conference every year.”
Bowden had little choice but to embrace change after his youngest son, Jeff, resigned late in the Seminoles’ 2006 campaign. The younger Bowden’s six-year stint as Florida State’s offensive coordinator was stormy from the beginning and never improved.
A 30-0 home loss to Wake Forest – perhaps the most embarrassing defeat in Bobby Bowden’s career – forced Jeff to tender his resignation with three games remaining in the season.
Soon after, Bowden decided to make it nearly a clean sweep, dismissing three other offensive coaches and replacing them with what amounts to an all-star cast.
Jimbo Fisher, who had spent the past seven years at Louisiana State, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s brightest offensive minds, turned down offers from several college and NFL programs to become the Seminoles’ new offensive coordinator. He brought with him Rick Trickett, a highly respected offensive line coach from West Virginia. And he tabbed former Seminoles stars Lawrence Dawsey (wide receiver) and Dexter Carter (running back) to round out the staff.
“I have complete confidence in what they are doing,” Bowden said. “I will watch and I will criticize if I see something that they are doing that I think needs to be sharpened up or something. I will want to know what you are doing. I feel good confidence. I haven’t even said one thing to Jimbo about quarterbacks. I want him to have an unbiased opinion as he works with them.”
The quarterback situation at Florida State has been a hot topic of debate for the past several years, and it likely will continue this fall. In the 1990s, the Seminoles produced two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, but the position has been a sore spot since Weinke left in 2000. Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee were both highly touted in high school but have failed to live up to the hype in college.
The good news for Florida State fans is that Fisher doesn’t believe the Seminoles need another Ward or Weinke to be successful. They simply need someone who can manage the offense and not make big mistakes.
“To me, the quarterback is not always the guy that has the strongest arm or the most ability,” Fisher said. “It’s the guy who can move the team down the field and win the game.”
Though Fisher and the other new coaches bring plenty of promise, they are faced with an imposing rebuilding project. Along with inconsistent quarterback play, FSU’s running game has struggled badly the past two seasons, and the offensive line has been a constant problem.
Fortunately for the Seminoles, Fisher and his staff were on board in time for spring practice. That gave them a full six months to learn their new players while installing a new system.
More importantly, Fisher says, the coaches were able to teach the players a new mindset.
“It all reverts to dependability and accountability,” Fisher said. “Being dependable and accountable. If we have good work ethic and do the right things, then we’ll do the right things in a game.”
That has been a constant mantra from Fisher and his staff since their arrival. While they hope to improve in tangible areas such as game-planning and execution, they see the greatest need for growth in intangibles such as toughness, effort and discipline.
“It’s about life,” Fisher said. “We want to teach them good work habits. That’s something you need in any walk of life. So you hold them accountable. You tell them what they’re supposed to do, and if they don’t do it, you address it. There are always going to be guys who will bend and push … that’s just part of it. But you just have to make sure they do it.”
Fisher and the new offensive staff will have some talented players to work with: Junior wide receiver Greg Carr has caught 21 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, and junior tailback Antone Smith is considered to be among the most talented runners in the country.
Florida State’s defense, meanwhile, will have to make up for the losses of linebackers Buster Davis and Lawrence Timmons, both of whom were early selections in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Amato, who spent the past seven years as head coach at North Carolina State before returning to a familiar role as Florida State’s linebackers coach, likely will plug in junior Derek Nicholson and sophomore Marcus Ball with little drop-off.
The good news for FSU is that the bulk of the Seminoles’ defense returns, including all-conference candidates Andre Fluellen and Paul Griffin at defensive tackle, Myron Rolle at safety and Tony Carter at cornerback.
With a tough schedule facing them, including road games to Clemson, Florida and Virginia Tech, plus the annual showdown with Miami and a huge test in Jacksonville against Alabama, the Seminoles are not about to start predicting an immediate turnaround.
But they do insist that things will be better.
“It could happen very quickly,” Fisher said. “I don’t know. But my message is, judge us by the intangibles we play with. Do we play with discipline? Do we have a lot of penalties? How is our toughness? Do we play with great effort?
“Just by looking at how we compete, are you proud to say, ‘That’s our Seminole team?’ If we do that, we will have success.”
The View from the Top in ‘Titletown’
With quarterback Tim Tebow at the helm, a young team hopes to continue the Gators’ winning ways
By Marty Cohen
What do you do for an encore? That’s the question rolling around the campus at the University of Florida, where the Gators are coming off a 12-month span that culminated in unprecedented success in the two biggest collegiate sports, football and men’s basketball.
In the space of one year, the Gators sandwiched a pair of national championships in basketball around a national title in football, a feat never before accomplished in the history of college athletics. The three-peat turned Gainesville into Titletown; now the trick is not to let the championship song turn into a one-hit wonder.
With the loss of three first-round draft choices and the team’s top six players, the task will not be easy for UF basketball coach Billy Donovan. But football coach Urban Meyer faces a similar rebuilding and reloading job with the loss of more than 20 seniors, many of whom played prominent roles. With a talented – but young – roster, the Gator coaches are keeping a keen eye on any sense of complacency or championship entitlement.
“That’s something you have to always address,” veteran co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “The bottom line is, the only thing winning a national championship did for us (in the upcoming season) was set the bar. If you don’t play up to that caliber, then you don’t belong here.”
If Tim Tebow has any say in the matter, there will be nothing close to a letdown. Tebow is the heir apparent at quarterback, a true sophomore who had many spectacular moments in a terrific freshman season last fall.
Most teams that lose their all-time leading passer, the guy who was the offensive MVP in the Bowl Championship Series’ national championship game, expect to struggle at that spot initially. But even though Chris Leak had a stellar senior season and departs UF with a fistful of records, the talented Tebow is ready to guide the offense, and perhaps the entire team, in another direction.
Last season, Tebow was the Gators’ best short-yardage runner and converted many key plays for the offense. Despite a limited role, he finished second on the team in rushing with 469 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns on the ground, and also threw for 358 yards and five scores.
With Tebow at the controls, the offense likely will look much more like the true spread option system Meyer and Dan Mullen brought from Utah. While no one questions Tebow’s running credentials, he still has to show he can be an accurate passer, which Mullen felt started coming around in spring practice.
“He learned how to throw the ball this spring,” said Mullen, the Gators’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “He’s learned to be much more accurate, to put some touch on the ball, to take something off on the underneath throws, know when to throw it hard, know when to put it over a linebacker’s head.”
What there is no debate over is Tebow’s work ethic and his ability to be a leader.
“The thing that makes Tim Tebow different from really any player I’ve ever been around is his drive, his toughness and his competitiveness,” Meyer said. “He’s an extremist.”
What will further help Tebow is a tremendous array of offensive weapons at his disposal. Fifth-year senior Andre Caldwell came back for his final season, expecting to play a huge role in the offense. The speedy Caldwell did catch 57 passes with six touchdowns last fall, but will line up mostly as an outside receiver and should come close to doubling his 10.1-yard average from a year ago.
“When we got here, Bubba was kind of a ‘me’ guy, in my opinion,” wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales said of Caldwell. “Right now, Bubba is the heartbeat of my group. As he goes, my group goes.”
Challenging Caldwell in the speed department is electrifying sophomore Percy Harvin. Limited by an ankle injury last season, Harvin still managed to turn in a number of highlight-reel performances and was the MVP of the Southeastern Conference championship-game triumph over Arkansas. In just 75 touches, Harvin compiled 855 yards rushing and receiving, averaging an astounding 11.4 yards a touch. With a season of experience under his belt, Harvin’s numbers could explode this fall.
The list of targets stretches even deeper for Tebow. Junior Cornelius Ingram, a receiver in a tight end’s body, creates mismatches all over the field for opposing defenses. Fellow junior wideout Louis Murphy was the star of spring drills and is poised to have a breakout year. Meyer expects true sophomore Jarred Fayson to handle a “slash” role, catching passes, taking reverses, running out of the backfield and maybe even taking direct snaps at quarterback. Speedy freshman receiver Deonte Thompson will get a chance to contribute as well.
There may not be a proven tailback on the roster, but that doesn’t mean Florida’s running game will be stagnant. With an experienced offensive line returning four starters – senior tackles Phil Trautwein and Carlton Medder, senior center Drew Miller and junior guard Jim Tartt – the Gators should sport plenty of versatility in their offensive attack.
“We want to find a lot of different ways to utilize our people,” Mullen said. “If we can create mismatches for different defenses, then that is to our advantage.”
While the offense garners most of the attention these days, it was the other side of the ball that was pivotal to Florida’s 13-1 season in 2006. The Gators’ defense was tremendous all season, yielding just 13.5 points per game and only 72.5 yards a game on the ground.
The 2007 defense will sport a completely different look. The Gators are counting on a spate of youngsters to step in immediately. Sophomore end Jermaine Cunningham and redshirt freshman tackle/end Lawrence Marsh will need to become playmakers immediately up front, while second-year standouts Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones will form a fleet, albeit green, starting linebacker trio. The only starters who return are junior end Derrick Harvey (with a team-high 11 sacks last season) and senior strong safety Tony Joiner.
But the lack of experience has not diminished the expectations of the players, who believe they can use last year’s success as a springboard to greater heights on defense.
“We not only want to get to it, we want to surpass it,” Doe said. “We want to be better nationally. We want to accomplish a lot more, and we can do it. We’re really athletic. We can run to the ball. We just have to get some experience under our belt. Those guys were playing together for a while, so they had chemistry. That’s what we’re trying to build.”
Marty Cohen is the general manager/editor of Gator Bait magazine, publisher of GatorBait.net and co-host of a weekly TV show, “Gator Beat,” on WUFT Channel 5 in Gainesville.
Looking Beyond the Quick Fix
FAMU’s Coach Carter plans to mold his young team to achieve success in upcoming seasons
By Ira Schoffel
Rubin Carter has witnessed coaches on the fast track to success.
They ride into town, make a number of quick-fix decisions, turn in one or two big winning seasons and then cash in for an opportunity at a larger school. By the time anyone realizes what happened, the program is in worse shape than before, and a new crew of coaches are left picking up the pieces.
Carter had far different aspirations when he signed on as Florida A&M’s coach two years ago.
“We didn’t want to be up one year and down the next,” Carter said. “It’s like the stock market. So many good days are followed by bad days. We’re looking to have a consistently good program.”
To make that goal a reality, Carter’s first mission was to help his players develop a winning attitude. He taught them about toughness and perseverance. He explained that he would not tolerate poor conduct off the field or poor performances in the classroom.
Before he could help his players improve their physical performance, he had to change their mental approach.
“Building the right attitude is so important because it carries through to everything we do,” said Carter, who displayed many of those traits as an All-America lineman at the University of Miami and during a 12-year career with the Denver Broncos. “If you’re not doing the right things in class or in the community, you’re probably not going to be doing the right things on the field or in the weight room.”
Carter’s hard-nosed approach appears to have taken hold. During his first two years at Florida A&M, the Rattlers have enjoyed solid success and earned a reputation for making miracle comebacks and winning close games.
Perhaps the most memorable of those came late in Carter’s first season when the Rattlers fell behind 17-0 against rival Bethune-Cookman in the 2005 Florida Classic. FAMU rallied to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation and then won it with a field goal in overtime.
Carter’s second season featured more excitement, as the Rattlers claimed five of their seven victories by eight points or less. Four of their wins came by four points or less, including a pair of overtime victories.
Though Carter has been impressed by his players’ ability to pull out close games, he can’t help but think they could avoid some of the drama by showing the same determination in the first quarter as they have the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to start faster this year,” Carter said. “We’ve won a lot of games in the fourth quarter and in overtime. I’ve heard all the names – Rubin and the Dramatics, the Cardiac Kids. It shows that our guys have shown a lot of resolve to win those close games. But we’ve got to start faster so that we’re not always in that position.”
The Rattlers indeed will need to get off to a fast start this season with a schedule that includes four televised Classics to go along with the usual Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference slate.
After opening the year against perennial power Southern in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge at Birmingham, Ala., FAMU later will face Tennessee State in Atlanta, Winston-Salem State in Indianapolis and Bethune-Cookman in a season-ending clash at Orlando.
The Southern and Bethune-Cookman games will air on ESPN Classic, the South Carolina State game will be on ESPNU, and the Tennessee State game will appear on Turner Sports South.
Though Carter’s record of 13-9 during his first two seasons isn’t overly impressive, it does include two straight victories against Bethune. Former coach Billy Joe had lost three straight to the rival Wildcats.
“The alumni are already thinking about that last game,” Carter said. “But we’ve got to be preparing for the first game. That last game’s always going to be there. Our players will have no problem getting ready for that game. And I’m sure (Bethune-Cookman) will be the same way. But we’ve got to worry about the first game first.”
The Rattlers should have plenty of offensive firepower on display with the return of starting quarterback Albert Chester II and several quality receivers. Standout receiver Roosevelt Kiser is gone, but Willie Hayward (49 receptions, 674 yards), Derek Williams (29-269) and Ronald Wright (25-410) should fill in quite nicely.
If a rebuilt offensive line can give Chester some time, the Rattlers should be able to improve a passing game that already was the MEAC’s strongest. Chester, Hayward and offensive tackle Justin Delancy are preseason all-conference selections.
Defensively, FAMU will look for linebacker Vernon Wilder to follow up on his all-conference season of 2006 and for defensive end Tyrone McGriff to return to his sophomore form. After earning All-America honors with 72 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2005, McGriff was limited to 35 tackles and two sacks last season.
Part of the reason for that drop-off was that teams designed schemes to keep McGriff away from the action, but another reason was that the Rattlers’ rushing defense was so poor that teams didn’t have to drop back to pass very often. FAMU ranked next to last in the conference in rushing defense and total defense.
Carter is quick to point out that the Rattlers were extremely young on defense last season, with several freshmen playing key roles. But that’s not an excuse – it’s a philosophy.
If Carter had so desired, he could have rushed out and filled his first two recruiting classes with transfers from junior college and other Division-I programs. But that would have been one of those “quick fixes” Carter detests.
It was former coach Billy Joe’s strategy, and it forced the program to reshape its roster nearly every year.
By signing exclusively high school seniors, Carter believes his staff is laying the foundation for continued success – not just one big year.
“There was some temptation to look for the quick fix,” Carter said. “There is always the temptation to look to junior college kids or transfers who can help right away. But we decided that we needed to build for the long term. We needed to build a strong foundation, and the way to do that is by bringing in freshmen.
“By recruiting high school players, you get a chance to put the FAMU stamp on them.”
2007 FOOTBALL SCHEDULES
* Parents Weekend | ** Homecoming | All games in bold will be played at home.
FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
10/06 NC State *
10/11 Wake Forest
10/27 Duke **
11/03 Boston College
11/10 Virginia Tech
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
09/01 Western Kentucky
09/22 Ole Miss
11/03 Vanderbilt **
11/10 South Carolina
11/17 Florida Atlantic
11/24 Florida State
FLORIDA A&M UNIVERSITY
09/08 Delaware State
09/29 Tennessee State
10/06 Winston-Salem St.
10/13 South Carolina St.
10/18 Norfolk State
10/27 Morgan State
11/03 North Carolina**