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SPORTSTALK

Hello, Gator fans: four wins, three losses and third place in the SEC East – that's not what you expected going into this season, am I right? And the untimely end of quarterback Jeff Driskel's era — that took you by surprise, too. I wish I had some answers for you. I wish I could say that if a few things just went better for the Gators, then they would be back in the mix.

Basically, I wish I were a better liar. But I'm not.

I deal in reality. And the reality of the Florida Gators is harsher than last week's cold coffee. It's not as simple as losing the starting quarterback, or Dominique Easley from the defensive line, or Matt Jones — no, not the erstwhile Jaguar with the Foot Locker discount card — from the running back stable. The problems with this team cannot be isolated to one or two or three key personnel. They won't be fixed in time for the Nov. 2 Florida-Georgia game. They won't be fixed in 2013.

It's arguable that there are too many problems to list here, but I'll touch on the major ones.

Lack of imagination: An old adage applies to the Gators offense: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This holds true for the putrid offensive football we have seen this year — and really throughout the Will Muschamp era. Florida Gators football for years was among the most exciting college football to watch in the entire country. Throughout the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras, even non-fans could watch Gators football and know that they were going to see something worth watching. Now? What we get is some low-rent, wannabe Woody Hayes "run the ball, stop the run, and play smashmouth" template that works better in theory, or in sepia-tinged photographs from yesteryear, than in practice. Muschamp built the team to play 16-13 games against Alabama. However, when Alabama needs to throw the ball downfield and score 50, the Crimson Tide can do that. We know the Gators cannot.

Bad …   More

SPORTSTALK

Steve Livingstone sees the fervor in Jacksonville's soccer community and believes the city will embrace its North American Soccer League expansion franchise.

Livingstone, who formerly had stints with NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores and with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the last eight years, was brought in as club president. The team will take the field for the 2015 season.

He said anecdotal and statistical evidence shows Jacksonville is a viable market for
the league.

"Jacksonville is already a great soccer community through the tremendous work that's been done within the numerous youth and adult soccer leagues that have been operating for many years here," Livingstone said by email. "You just need to visit any of the soccer parks around the city and region on a Saturday morning to see how many people are enjoying the game."

He said a vibrant local community rabidly supports the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) at area sports bars and through social media. Livingstone estimated that there are 200,000 people in town with an interest in soccer.

Will those numbers translate into paying customers? If they don't, it won't be for lack of trying from the local NASL franchise.

"We plan on giving Jacksonville a great soccer team and a great experience when they come to our games," Livingstone said. "Our ticket prices will be very affordable and we will present a great day's entertainment for everyone." Ticket prices for Jacksonville games have not been set. Individual game tickets for NASL games in other markets range from $10 to $55.

We've seen expansion teams come and go in the region. Corporate sponsorship is always part of the plan and a recurrent challenge. According to Livingstone, corporations will get involved because "we can deliver a specific, passionate and highly engaged audience to them," and because the team will be involved in the community through clinics and camps, and will be bringing in world-class soccer events beyond the NASL …   More

SPORTSTALK

As the Florida State Seminoles prepare for a 
 season-defining contest on the road against their Atlantic Coast Conference rival Clemson Tigers on Oct. 19, it's useful to consider how, in just a few short games, the 'Noles team has incontrovertibly staked its claim to being the best college football team in the state — if not the country.

For evidence of the Seminoles' superiority, one need only look back to their last game — a 63-0 drubbing of the previously ranked Maryland Terrapins. As absurd as it may sound, that contest was not as close as the score indicated as, even with second-teamers playing the second half, it was clear Maryland had given up — the game should have been called under some sort of mercy rule provision.

Whenever a sports program experiences a renaissance, there are many reasons why. One of them has to be Jimbo Fisher taking the reins from Bobby Bowden — a great coach in his day, which unfortunately ended late in the 20th century. The Bowden of the 21st century was clearly a caretaker, the equivalent of those ancient Soviet leaders of the early 1980s or Pope Benedict — more for show than for go. His teams had amazing talent, but relatively speaking, they underperformed compared to what they could have done.

When Fisher officially became head coach, it took a little time for his rebuilding to bear fruit. This year, it finally has. Loads of talent on FSU's roster, not least of which is the freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate, "famous" Jameis Winston. He's kicking butt, taking names and enjoying every moment of it, if his comments after the Maryland massacre are any indication.

"It felt like a little league football game out there," Winston said. "It was 12 o'clock, the sun was out. I don't think I saw a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day."

Sports fans can forgive Winston's reference to "little league football" as opposed to Pop Warner; he pitched 17 games with a 3.00 ERA and 21 …   More

SPORTSTALK

Through two home games started by Blaine Gabbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been outscored 65-5. If there is one silver lining, the team briefly led in both: 3-0 against the Colts; 2-0 against the Chiefs. So there's that.

The harsh truth, though, is that that just isn't enough. Not even close. Not when discussion — ranging from a USA Today story a couple of weeks ago to a Yahoo! Sports radio spot I heard during my Monday morning commute after the Colts debacle — revolves around whether the Jags can go 0-16. Trading away starting offensive tackles for late-round picks — as the Jaguars did with Eugene Monroe in early October — won't help the team win or the quarterback remain intact.

How bad has it gotten for the Jaguars? It's gotten so bad that when the Jaguars punt these days — and they punt a lot — people call it the Teddy Bridgewater Formation, a reference to the expected No. 1 pick that the Jags will take in the 2014 draft. It's so bad that much discussion lately has revolved around when or whether the Jaguars should sign Tim Tebow to a contract. Again!

You remember Tebow: Nease High School star, Gators superstar Heisman-trophy winner. Took Denver to the playoffs despite having entire halves of games in which he completed one forward pass. Didn't get much of a shot in New York with the Jets. Couldn't stick on the New England roster. That guy. Apparently, there are some who believe he's the franchise savior.

Like the guy in a monkey mask I talked to before the Colts game. I never miss an opportunity to talk to someone wearing an animal mask, and since he had a pro-Tebow sign, I wanted to get a sense of why he thought Tebow would be a good add for the franchise. His answer? Nothing you haven't heard before.

And why would there be anything new to say? The "why not Tebow?" side or the side posting banners that quote General Manager Dave Caldwell saying "even if he's released" he's not coming to Jacksonville …   More

SPORTSTALK

Remember when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl? Seems like it was almost a decade ago — because it was. Paul McCartney was the musical halftime entertainment, and for some, that was the punch line of the joke. For others, it was something far more elemental: the fact that the NFL dared to hold its showcase game — arguably the biggest event in professional sports —i n the Bold New City of the South.

The horror, the horror!

National pundits — such as Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and the Washington Post, Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons and a cavalcade of media stars — made all of the jokes that you would expect. "In Jacksonville, there are more Waffle Houses than reasons to live" type material. It was great fun to have the national media lay into Jacksonville for its shortcomings when it came to hosting an event like the Super Bowl; primary among them was that the city lacked a centralized entertainment district that one would expect in a major city, and that there were not enough hotel rooms for the influx of visitors.

The entertainment issue was more or less solved, though with Super Bowl parties being held at far-flung venues like Plush/The Edge in Arlington, it was hard to find a cab to get to them. The issue of lodging had a similarly ad hoc solution, in the form of lodging on cruise ships in the St. Johns River. Somehow, we got through the event, albeit with damage to our reputation nationally and even internationally. Or so the narrative goes.

I am reminded of the Super Bowl logistics issues given the recent announcement by Gator Bowl President and CEO Rick Catlett that Jacksonville intends to bid on national championship games in 2016 and 2017.

"We think we're in a really good position," Catlett told The Florida Times-Union in September. "We've got a heckuva offer. We have 84,000 seats and all the hotels that they're asking for. Plus, we've got premium resorts. … We've hosted a Super Bowl [in 2005], so we know …   More

SPORTSTALK

Perhaps it is just the headcold I have. Or perhaps it is the recent report that the Jaguars are using ball boys as wideouts in practice. Either way, though, a season that started — as they all do for the Jags — with something approaching promise has devolved into an absolute disaster. It seems pointless to speculate on how the team might beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 29. The real question: How bad will the butt whipping be? And how will it proceed?

We can expect to see a couple of less than familiar faces making impacts for the Colts: Coby Fleener — Andrew Luck's college tight end — and Trent Richardson — just acquired from the Browns. A reasonable person might expect both of these guys to score at least once. With Blaine Gabbert back at quarterback, two touchdowns will probably be enough.

Beyond that, though, there are business questions. The closure of the Mathews Bridge and a weather forecast that includes clouds and rain — these may provide impetus for Jags fans to stay home. Things are ugly in the River City — really ugly for Game 4. And everyone knows it.

At the home opener, I listened to the derisive laughter in the press box. Not at all a good look. Did Shad Khan hear it? He was there, at least for the pregame, before he left for Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Rick Scott. The owners may change. The coaches may change. But the fans are not going to show up to see this for much longer. When the big tease is "will they sign Tebow," well, it's easy enough to say this is a lost season already. And it's only September.

Maybe a returning Justin Blackmon will make a difference. But it seems like entropy and apathy have already set in. Network cameras showed the Jaguars' two best running backs — Maurice Jones-Drew and Justin Forsett — laughing at the tail end of that dismal loss in Seattle. And why shouldn't they laugh? The joke's not on them — they are paid no matter what. …   More

SPORTSTALK

With reports that Tampa is benching Josh Freeman effective immediately, the question might as well be raised: should the Jaguars trade for him? And if so, what should they trade?

What is clear about the Tampa situation is that Freeman could no longer coexist with head coach Greg Schiano. Those things happen when new coaches come in. Recall that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio benched Mark Brunell at his first opportunity, went with Leftwich, and never looked back.

Freeman is in the last year of his rookie deal. He has motivation to show and prove somewhere this year for obvious reasons: his next contract will be the one that secures his financial future.

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley says all the right things about Blaine Gabbert, but when a starting quarterback comes available for what will be a fire sale price, why not at least take a look? A late round draft pick likely would be enough to secure an audition.

This franchise needs to stop pretending that Blaine Gabbert is a franchise quarterback. The fans don't buy it, and won't, pending him winning multiple games in a row. Seems simple enough for a top 10 pick, but as I type it, it sounds utterly implausible.

An alternative take here from Alfie Crow at Big Cat Country:

 

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SPORTSTALK

Before this column goes any further, an apology for the subject matter:

I'd like to apologize to all readers for writing about the Jacksonville Jaguars. Undoubtedly, you'd like to read about a better pro football team. Undoubtedly, I'd prefer to write about quarterbacks who throw seven touchdown passes in a game or who, even as opposed to Chad Henne against the Raiders, got more than 13 out of 40 passes to go more than 5 yards, as The Florida Times-Union Jaguars writer Ryan O'Halloran tweeted.

It would be great if I were writing about a team that fulfilled my preseason hopes — one which the defense catalyzed changes in game momentum, one which the quarterback took advantage of his top-of-the-first-round tackles to make reads of the defense and to spread the ball around to receivers, one which the running backs hit holes hard and broke free into the secondary with reckless abandon, one which fans hoped would bring it for 60 minutes every week.

If that were the case, I'd be writing about the Jacksonville Sharks or the Jacksonville Dixie Blues. I'm writing about the Jaguars, however, and apologizing, much like the Orlando CBS affiliate did for showing Jaguars vs. Raiders instead of the Manning Bowl (Eli's New York Giants vs. Peyton's Denver Broncos).

Apologizing. Like the Jags should, for drafting a punter instead of Russell Wilson, the Seattle signal-caller who was still on the board when punter Bryan Anger was picked in 2012. And how did you like that Seattle game, by the way (Seahawks 29, 49ers 3)?

Apologizing. Like Shad Khan should, for putting this pitiful product on display in Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey, Gene Smith and the rest of the gang are gone like the wind; but frankly, we don't give a damn, since the product looks the same.

The team looks like an expansion team. Like they're Happy To Be There. Like they expect fans to derive some psychic benefit at this late date, almost two decades into the franchise's existence, …   More

SPORTSTALK

Being in a position of authority regarding the Olympics can be a thankless job. Imagine being Mitt Romney, for example, who was instrumental in ensuring the Salt Lake City Olympics did well, but who wasn't really able to translate that into political capital. Or the Russians, preparing for the Sochi Olympics and facing international criticism for that nation's laws repressing homosexuality.

Most decisions made on the Olympic level are going to attract more criticism than compliments. In part, it's because the Olympic Games serve as an effective microcosm of global relations themselves — fractious, driven by sophistry and national self-interest. Despite these issues, sometimes the International Olympic Committee gets it right.

One example: The IOC reinstated wrestling as an official Olympic sport — provisionally, at least — reversing its plans to drop grappling as of the 2020 games. In a century that so far has been less than hospitable to amateur wrestling, this is a much-needed move that could, if not save the sport, at least buy it a little bit of time and perhaps give it a platform to gain some forward momentum after suffering more setbacks than Blaine Gabbert.

Advocates for the sport with Florida connections are enthusiastic about the IOC decision. Gerald Brisco, a former mainstay of Championship Wrestling from Florida during the 1970s, who also played a pivotal role with World Wrestling Entertainment for many years thereafter, commented on his Facebook page in the wake of the IOC's historic reversal.

"[This] shows that wrestlers never give up. The wrestling world came together worldwide to work to save our great sport," Brisco wrote. "[You] can't keep a wrestler on his back for long."

David Williams, longtime wrestling coach at Bishop Kenny High School, had this to add on the importance of wrestling in the Olympics.

"I'm very pleased that wrestling has been reinstated. For many minor sports like wrestling the pinnacle of …   More

SPORTSTALK

For years now, at least since Tim Tebow made every Florida Gators game must-see TV, even for people who weren't self-identified Gator Nation members, there has been a hierarchy of college football teams in the state.

The Gators stood atop the landscape. The Seminoles: second best. And below them, a series of programs with fortunes that shifted from year to year — Miami, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida and all the rest.

The Gators were all anyone really wanted to talk about, with names like Tebow, Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. The 'Noles? Not so much.

Even during the just-concluded E.J. Manuel era, which was more successful than not, there was a distinct feeling of frustrated climax. As I noticed last year when I was in Tallahassee for the Florida game — sitting in the student section, no less — there was no real expectation of victory for the home team.

Even though last year's Gators squad wasn't especially compelling, and even though Manuel was arguably the best ACC quarterback (especially if you ask the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round this year), it somehow wasn't surprising that Manuel struggled against the Seminoles' in-state rivals.

Last year's Florida game was a struggle for Manuel for the second consecutive year. He was intercepted three times in last year's game, in addition to coughing up the ball in the fourth quarter. If you had only seen Manuel in those games against Florida, there's no way you'd call him a first-round pick who could immediately start in the NFL — or at least the approximation thereof that's showcased in Buffalo these days. In part, that perception stemmed from a gulf between the two programs. Indications are that gulf is about to be bridged — courtesy of a redshirt freshman quarterback, one "Famous" Jameis Winston.

Winston's legend began before he took his first snap for the 'Noles in Pittsburgh — a tough place to win …   More

 
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