Florida coach Jim McElwain would not take the bait regarding his school’s increasing rivalry with LSU.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
McElwain did not hide his displeasure with the fact that his team’s postponed game with the Tigers last season was rescheduled away from The Swamp. As a result, McElwain enjoyed the Gators’ victory in Tiger Stadium.
Then, it was announced a few days ago that LSU will be Florida’s homecoming opponent this October.
“I found out about homecoming when I got off a plane,” said McElwain at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days on Tuesday. “We’re going to have a homecoming game. I’m good with whatever game it is. Rivalries are what make college football as awesome as it is. We’ve got a bunch of rivalries.”
The Gators, who will play the Tigers the next two years in Gainesville, have won the SEC East each of the past two years. However, Florida was no match for Alabama either time in the conference title game. The Gators have struggled on offense and have been successful due to their defense.
“My father told me you don’t worry about the hand you are dealt,” McElwain said. “You figure out how to get the pieces you are dealt with better. Finally, our strength is going to be our offensive line. It’s time to go and I’m excited.”
McElwain is also excited by the appearance of Notre Dame graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire, who played well in the Irish’s Music City Bowl against LSU three seasons ago. McElwain has not named a starting quarterback, but one would think Zaire is the favorite over Luke Del Rio and Feleipe Franks.
“We’re always looking to create competition,” McElwain said. “Competition breeds excellence. We now have the number of scholarship quarterbacks in the room that we want it to be. Malik is a guy who can light up his room with a smile. He’s excited to be here and excited to compete.”
In Dan Mullen’s eight years as Mississippi State coach, his teams have won 61 games. There has been no better eight-game stretch in Bulldogs football history.
Mississippi State has appeared in a bowl game each of the last seven seasons although its spot was earned in 2016 because of APR scores and not by on-field results. The Bulldogs went to the St. Petersburg bowl even though they didn’t win six games.
“We made a bowl by our academics and not by what we did on the field,” Mullen said. “That was a unique way to get to a bowl. To win our final game of the regular season (at Ole Miss) and then because of the academic records of our players and the players ahead of them to go to a bowl was special.
“I don’t know if the past eight years are as good as it gets (at Mississippi State). We’re always striving to get better. We have not won the West yet. We have not won a SEC championship or a national championship. There’s obviously a lot more ahead of us, but I am proud of the work of our players.”
Mississippi State returns 13 starters from a team went 3-5 in the SEC. No player is more important than quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who had a spectacular sophomore season in 2016. Fitzgerald ran for nearly 1,400 yards and passed for more than 2,400 yards. He accounted for 37 touchdowns.
“I knew the skills Nick had,” Mullen said. “He was our most athletic quarterback since the day he stepped on campus. We knew he was a great runner and we knew he had a really strong arm. It was going to be how he adapted to his decision-making with the passing game.
“You are always comfortable when you have a quarterback who has played coming back. Nick had a pretty solid year last year. We have been able to do a lot with our program. We hope to make it to an eighth consecutive bowl game. What I wanted to do when I came here was win on a consistent basis.”
It has been five years since Georgia participated in the SEC championship game. It has been 12 years since the Bulldogs won the SEC title. Those facts are unacceptable for the proud Georgia football program.
“The players come to Georgia to win championships,” said Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart, a former Georgia player. “Our players expect to win. We have not performed on the field to the level we should.”
In Smart’s first season, the Bulldogs finished with an 8-5 record – their first five-loss year since 2013. For the first time since 2010, Georgia did not have a winning SEC record. There were three close defeats – against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
The Bulldogs are probably going to be picked to win the Eastern Division due to the fact they return 17 starters – ten on defense. Of course, much of the spotlight shines on returning quarterback Jacob Eason. As a freshman, Eason started 12 games. He completed 55 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns.
“I am a big believer in completion percentage for a quarterback,” Smart said. “I told Jacob that if he wants to change the won-loss record, he has to change his completion percentage. I am really excited about his growth. He understands where the pressure is coming from.”
Eason will benefit from having two 1,000-yard rushers – seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb ran for more than 1,500 yards as a freshman and more than 1,100 yards as a junior. Michel ran more than 1,150 yards two seasons ago when Chubb went out with an injury.
“It was total elation for me when both Chubb and Michel decided to come back,” Smart said. “They challenge each other every day in practice – in the weight room and in workouts.”
The second half of the 2017 regular season was a special time for Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. The Commodores won four of their last six games to become bowl eligible. Included in that stretch were victories against Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Mason, who had to fill the shoes of a successful coach in James Franklin, had won nine of his first 30 games as Vanderbilt coach before the late-season run to an Independence Bowl berth.
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise,” Mason said. “You look at how we finished the season going 4-2 and getting us to a bowl game for the first time in my tenure. That was an exciting time for us. We are definitely not satisfied.”
Mason now wants to take Vanderbilt to a second straight bowl game. The Commodores reached the postseason in all three of Franklin’s years in Nashville – twice winning nine games. Vandy won three SEC games in the last half of the 2016 season after winning just two up until that time with Mason as coach.
The Commodores return 16 starters in 2017, including quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb. Linebacker Oren Burks will be asked to step in for Zach Cunningham as the defensive playmaker.
“We finally have a junior/senior football team,” Mason said. “When you have that experience, you can have a special ride. So, let’s take it.”
Webb has run for more than 3,300 yards in his Vanderbilt career. Shurmur must improve his passing numbers – 54 percent completion percentage, nine touchdowns and ten interceptions.
SEC COORDINATOR OF OFFICIALS STEVE SHAW
This season is an off-year for football rules changes. As a result, there are just three significant rule changes for 2017. The areas involve leaping to block a kick, horse-collar tackles and coaches’ sideline conduct.
Steve Shaw explained that a defensive player can no longer vault in an attempt to block a field goal or an extra point. Previously, that was a legal play as long as the defender did not land upon one of his opponents.
“No defensive player can run forward from beyond the neutral zone and leap in an attempt to block a field goal or extra point,” Shaw said. “It is not a foul if a player’s alignment is in a starting position and within one yard of the line of scrimmage.”
The horse-collar rule has been expanded. A defensive player can no longer grab the person with the ball by his nameplate and immediately pull him down. That rule pertains to plays in the open field and not in the tackle box.
Finally, coaches will automatically be flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if they come on the field to argue an official’s call.
“If a coach comes on the field of play to protest a call, it will be an unsportsmanlike penalty,” Shaw said. “That would be the first of two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties which would disqualify the coach for the rest of the game.”