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  • In this week's Punt, Pass & Pork: The coaches on both sides of the last-second Hail Mary in Florida–Tennessee could just as easily have switched places; instead, Butch Jones is in for a long week, while Jim McElwain gets a brief reprieve. Plus, there's a new No. 1 team in the projected playoff, and there’s good barbecue in Seattle—really.
By Andy Staples
September 17, 2017

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the second time in three seasons, Butch Jones stood on the east sideline at The Swamp and watched a ball sail through the muggy air. In 2015, it was a field goal attempt from the foot of his own kicker. He thought it was good until the officials signaled otherwise. Saturday, Jones watched a pass heaved by Florida redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks on a play the Gators called Sugar.

“The ball kind of stayed in the air forever,” Jones said.

He couldn’t tell from his vantage point whether Tyrie Cleveland caught the 63-yard bomb, but the crowd’s reaction provided a hint. Then confirmation crackled in his ears from the coaches in the booth. Touchdown. Game over. Florida 26, Tennessee 20.

As that ball hung in the air, so did the concepts of genius and stupidity. They waited to zap into the body of the winning and losing coach, respectively. If that pass falls incomplete and Tennessee goes on to win in overtime, Florida coach Jim McElwain would be the one facing the tough questions. Why didn’t you get the ball to Kadarius Toney and Malik Davis more often? Why did you run the ball on third-and-one with the clock ticking like a time bomb? Why not take an extra shot through the air to get into Eddy Pineiro’s ample field goal range? When is the offense ever going to come around? Didn’t you say your dog could run it? So why can’t you find a quarterback? And why are you selling barbecue sauce?

But McElwain didn’t have to answer any of that Saturday. That ball—thrown as perfectly as a pass that travels 70 yards in the air can be thrown—did land in Cleveland’s hands. McEwain got to smile and joke and relive a play his players will tell their grandchildren about. Jones? He got all the pointed questions.

• Why didn’t you just hand the ball to John Kelly on first-and-goal from the Florida one-yard line while trailing by three in the third quarter?

• Why didn’t you just hand the ball to John Kelley on first-and-goal from the Florida nine-yard line while trailing by three with 1:02 remaining?

• Why not run three times to try to score a touchdown because Kelly is a beast who had earlier stiff-armed a defender into the earth’s core? Wouldn’t that have forced Florida to burn its timeouts or allowed you to kick a tying field goal as time expired?

• Why weren’t you in dime on the final play?

• How in the hell do your safeties let someone get behind them on that play?

Jones had an answer for two of these. Tennessee coaches saw that Florida was selling out to stop the run near the goal line late in the fourth, so they decided to throw. And had Kelly been able to hold on to Quinten Dormady’s first-down pass, the Volunteers would have scored a touchdown and forced the Gators to play catch-up. As for the dime question, Jones said the Vols didn’t have enough healthy defensive backs to use six at a time. Safeties Todd Kelly Jr. (knee) and Evan Berry (undisclosed injury) had missed the game. So Tennessee played nickel. Junior Micah Abernathy, who had played every snap, was the closest to Cleveland when Franks released the ball. But Cleveland was behind Abernathy.

“It’s on me,” Jones said afterward. “We have to do a better job in terms of our overall discipline, our fundamentals, our details. The key factor in this game in my opinion was situational football. Red zone, goal line. Those are the critical plays that we didn’t make.”

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It is on Jones, and these types of games keep happening to him. Since Tennessee became competitive again in ’15—something Jones deserves credit for since he inherited a smoking crater from Derek Dooley following the ’12 season—Jones has been gut-punched twice by Florida. He has lost close at home to Arkansas. He has lost to South Carolina coming off an open date to cost his team a potential SEC East title. He has declared the Vols Champions of Life and then lost to Vanderbilt with a Sugar Bowl berth on the line. He has never beaten Alabama, which, unfortunately for him, Tennessee must play every year. If enough of these kinds of losses add up, Tennessee will make a change. First-year athletic director John Currie does not want to fire his coach, especially with a new earlier signing day coming in December. But the people who write the checks demand success. 

“There’s a long football season left to be played,” Jones said Saturday. “We’ll fix our mistakes. We’ll correct them, and we’ll be stronger for it. You have to stay together.” With that, Jones sounded like a great recruiter who used to stand about 50 yards away and use similar words and phrases after close losses. Ron Zook always said everything was correctable, that his Gators were justthisclose. Eventually, then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley got tired of waiting for the corrections to come. He fired Zook and hired Urban Meyer, who made the required corrections and won two national titles. 

The SEC East remains up for grabs. Tennessee doesn’t have to win the entire league. Not with Nick Saban still on his throne at Alabama. But the Vols need to find a way to go to Atlanta for something other than a made-for-TV game against Georgia Tech. What distresses everyone in orange most is not that Jones lost to Florida for the fourth time in five seasons. It’s that he found a way to lose to this Florida team, which has nine players—including its best back and best receiver—suspended indefinitely and showed no pulse on offense in a season-opening loss to Michigan.

McElwain’s situation is different, but it veered dangerously toward Jones’s situation before Franks uncorked that pass. Florida’s third-year coach has the capital purchased by two SEC East titles in two seasons. He owns goodwill built on some improbable wins—including two against the Vols. McElwain doesn’t lose heartbreakers like Jones does. The problem is that when the Gators have lost under McElwain, they usually have been stupendously outclassed. They are 0–6 against Michigan, Alabama and Florida State, and Florida has yet to muster an offensive touchdown against the rival Seminoles under McElwain.

Saturday offered some kernels of hope for Florida’s offense. Franks, a redshirt freshman recruited by this staff, settled in and looked quite comfortable in the spotlight as the game progressed. He threw a fourth-quarter interception that was tipped by a receiver, but he remained absolutely poised on that final drive. Even better, the Gators seem to have found some playmakers even if they never get receiver Antonio Callaway or tailback Jordan Scarlett back from suspensions that stem from a UF police department investigation into credit card fraud. Toney is the most electric Gator with the ball in his hands since Percy Harvin, and even though Davis fumbled what would have been the game-sealing touchdown out of the end zone and gave the ball to Tennessee, he looks like the future in the backfield. Then there’s Cleveland, a former five-star recruit that McElwain flipped away from Tom Herman’s Houston team in February 2016. “Well, I had a go route and before the play I told Feleipe: ‘Give me a chance,’” Cleveland said. “I looked at him, he hiked the ball and because the corner was pressed, I inside released and just ran fast. I thought I was going to get behind the safety but when he rode out, it was wide open.”

It also helped that Cleveland and Franks have clearly practiced this situation before.

McElwain was thrilled his offense gave his team a chance. He believes the offensive players succeeded because they finally loosened up and just played. “We [would] just wait to shoot ourselves,” McElwain said. “We’re afraid to make a mistake instead of just cutting it loose and going. It doesn’t matter the play. Just go play it fast. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. I think we’ll get there. But, it’s a lot of work to do.” 

Indeed. Saturday’s result doesn’t mean Florida’s offense will be fine. The Gators will have to prove that against Kentucky and Vanderbilt and LSU and Texas A&M and Georgia. Saturday’s win means the offense came through when it mattered against a defense that allowed 6.8 yards a play to Georgia Tech 12 days earlier. This, too, might be a mirage. But it is a reason to believe until proven otherwise.

Tennessee will have to dig deep to find such reasons. The Vols will beat UMass on Saturday. (If they don’t, there will be no debate about Jones’s future.) The following week Georgia will come to Knoxville for a game that likely will decide whether Tennessee gets to compete for the SEC East title this season. Tennessee beat Florida and Georgia last season and managed to somehow not win the East, but it’s difficult to imagine the Vols winning the division without beating either one.

For now, McElwain gets to be the genius. Jones gets to be the one who faces the questions for which there are no easy answers beyond “It’s on me.” That could change the next time a ball hangs in the air forever, but for now, it is Florida and Tennessee’s reality.

FELDMAN: Clemson makes its move in Week 3’s Top 10 | Latest Heisman leaders

A Random Ranking

I opened the floor to the people to choose this week’s topic, and the people did not disappoint.

Away we go…

1. Super Mario Bros.

2. Sonic the Hedgehog

3. Altered Beast

4. Castlevania

5. Golden Axe

6. Contra

7. Double Dragon

8. Shinobi

9. Robocop

10. Alex Kidd in Miracle World

Projected Playoff

1. Clemson

The Tigers’ defense bottled up Lamar Jackson long enough to build a massive lead, and the offense showed off its depth. It has to terrify ACC defensive coordinators that freshman tailback Travis Etienne (six carries, 98 yards, one touchdown) is the third-stringer (for now). Quarterback Kelly Bryant completed 22 of 32 passes for 316 yards and one touchdown, impressing everyone, including his predecessor.

2. Alabama

Colorado State kept it close against the Crimson Tide into Saturday’s second quarter, but Robert Foster’s 52-yard touchdown catch broke it open. Jalen Hurts (12 of 17, 248 yards, two passing TDs, 11 carries, 103 yards, one rushing TD) was ruthlessly efficient. He might be tested next week by a disciplined Vanderbilt defense.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners didn’t suffer any post-Ohio State hangover, throttling Tulane 56–14. They open Big 12 play at Baylor on Saturday, and they may not get challenged again for almost a month.

4. Oklahoma State

I’m not projecting a USC team that needed overtime to beat Texas at home to make the playoff right now. I need to see more from the Trojans (and the Longhorns) before USC makes another appearance here. The Cowboys, however, continue to buzzsaw every team they face. Saturday’s box score from Heinz Field was NSFW as Oklahoma State rolled up a 42-point lead in the second quarter and cruised to a 59-21 win over Pittsburgh. The Cowboys should face a bigger challenge when TCU visits Saturday, but it’s difficult to imagine any Big 12 defense except possibly Oklahoma slowing the Oklahoma State offense.

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Big Ugly of the Week

Every time I flipped to the LSU–Mississippi State game, Bulldogs redshirt freshman right tackle Stewart Reese was blowing someone off the ball in Mississippi State’s 37–7 win. Reese, a 6'5", 333-pounder from Fort Pierce, Fla., makes a formidable bookend to left tackle Martinas Rankin. If quarterback Nick Fitzgerald can run through wide open holes, opposing defenses will have no chance. But Reese and the rest of coach John Hevesy’s line will be challenged by Georgia next week.

Three And Out

1. Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst got tired of Bo Pelini yelling at him, so he fired Pelini and hired the nicest coach in college football. Unfortunately, the job isn’t to find the coach who is the most different then the guy you fired. It’s to hire the coach who will win the most games. This is how you end up explaining how your team lost to Northern Illinois at home.

2. The lights went out at San Diego Stadium, and then San Diego State turned out the lights on Stanford with a 20–17 win. The Cardinal have now lost two in a row, and the Aztecs have won three in a row against Pac-12 teams dating back to last season’s win against Cal. 

3. This field goal by Texas Lutheran kicker Tyler Hopkins should not have counted, but it did. And this play should immediately be deemed legal because of its sheer awesomeness.

For Your Ears

In the most recent edition of Place At The Table, Patrick Meagher and I discuss the crazy finishes in Tennessee-Florida and Texas-USC. We also discuss what went wrong at Nebraska and Clemson’s continued dominance. Later, we break down chain restaurants. Logan’s Roadhouse rolls forever!

What’s Eating Andy?

It was horrible to see South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel go down in a loss to Kentucky on Saturday. Afterward, Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said Samuel, one of the nation’s most electric return men, would be lost for the season. Samuel showed his toughness Saturday by trying to play with a broken bone, and he tweeted Sunday morning that the injury may not be as bad as initially feared.

What’s Andy Eating?

Imagine steak and bacon met up for drinks, fell in love and made a baby. Now imagine eating that baby.

It sounds amazing, doesn’t it? It tastes even better than you imagine. And all you have to do to find it is go to the best barbecue joint in Seattle.

I know what you’re thinking. Barbecue? In Seattle? It’s one thing to recommend a sushi place with no sign, but it’s another thing entirely to suggest eating barbecue anywhere west of the Rockies. But trust me. Jack’s BBQ could hang in the barbecue belt on the strength of its ribs and pulled pork. (But not its brisket, which is odd for a place designed as an homage to the temples of meat in Texas.) But it’s the Billionaire Beef Bacon that makes Jack’s truly great.

Yes, you read it correctly. Beef. Bacon. Jack’s cures and smokes beef belly just as any other place would cure and smoke pork belly to make bacon. The result is a thick, tender slab of meat that has all the textural qualities of those thick cuts of steakhouse (pork) bacon combined with the flavor of the actual steak. On my next trip to Jack’s, I’ll get five orders of this and nothing else.

Ribs, pulled pork, brisket and beef bacon from Jack's BBQ in Seattle.
Andy Staples

That isn’t meant to be an insult to the rest of Jack’s offerings. The ribs are rubbed beautifully and cooked perfectly. The pulled pork is juicy and full of bark and doesn’t require a drop of sauce. Perhaps I came on a bad day, but the brisket was a tad dry. No matter. I didn’t expect perfection at a barbecue place in Seattle. I was just grateful that the people of one of America’s most dynamic food cities have a place where they can eat some properly smoked meat.

But Jack’s could teach the more traditional barbecue joints a lesson in creativity. That beef bacon was one of the best dishes I’ve had all year, and I’ve craved it every day since. Unfortunately, I live 3,000 miles away. But every time SI needs me to cover a Washington game, I know exactly where I’m going after I land at Sea-Tac, and I know exactly what I’m ordering.

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