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Thursday Buffet: Florida’s new blue helmets, Joakim Noah retiring, and hope for NCAA Football

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Today’s dishes; Florida has new lids (again), a Gators great is likely done, rankings don’t matter, and a possible good portent for the NCAA Football video game.

@GatorsFB

Florida to don modern blue helmets against Tennessee

On Thursday morning, Florida’s football program made yet another sartorial announcement in a season that’s already been chock-full of them: The Gators will wear new blue helmets.

Again.

The helmets, which match a matte blue background with the Gators script logo in orange and striping that matches the sleeves of Florida’s road white jerseys, appear to be the same shells that Florida wore with throwback decals and striping for its game against Missouri earlier this season.

Those blue helmets looked all right, at least to my eyes. But I thought the look overall was inferior — if only marginally so — to what Florida wore against Auburn in 2019, and that my preference had a lot to do with how classic and beloved the program’s white helmets-blue jerseys-white pants look for throwbacks became when Florida wore that combination for a scintillating 2006 win over Alabama.

I’ve long thought that preference was shared far and wide within Gator Nation; I’m pretty sure it is part of why last year’s throwbacks were rapturously received.

Wearing these blue helmets with white uniforms and blue pants feels to me more like a palette swap that just doesn’t work, however. And it’s hard for me to point to one overarching reason why.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the suddenness of it all — the only two times Florida has ever worn blue helmets in my lifetime will be within the last six weeks as of Saturday, but Florida will also somehow have worn four different helmet designs (traditional orange, “traditional” white, throwback blue, and now “traditional” blue) and four jersey tops (traditional blue, orange, and white, and throwback blue) within those last six weeks as well — or with a decade of iffy PhotoShop work and one hideous deviation from the norm making me think that swerves like blue helmets were difficult to make work and would likely be reserved for rare occasions.

Maybe my firm belief that uniform experimentation is best done in front of home fans — and, especially given how a pandemic has turned college football games into a pale imitation of the real thing this season, the largest possible gathering of them — also plays into not wanting to see a combination for the first time as Florida trots out onto the field against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.

Maybe this effort isn’t appealing enough to my eye to outweigh my cynical suspicion that most experimentation and expansion of uniform options, even if it is done with players and recruits foremost in mind, ultimately does more to dilute an identity than it does to sell merchandise or inspire loyalty. (I would guess Florida’s inevitable use of black uniforms factors into this antipathy; the underrated idea that more uniforms and uniform elements means more swag for players to eventually sell and recoup some of the income they should have made by working the job of college football player does appeal to me, though.)

Maybe I just have so many memories attached to Florida’s time-tested getups — the orange lids with blue or white jerseys and blue or white pants — that my preference will never be for Florida to try out its 12th of 18 or 25th of 27 possible combinations. Maybe I remember three years under Jim McElwain spent trying out what felt like different combinations every week differently than some do.

Or maybe blue matte helmets — a design element that veers from Florida’s usual orange gloss helmets in two important ways — just look to me like a high school trying to wear “what the Gators wear” without running afoul of copyright lawyers, or like a Steve and Barry’s version of what a program raking in nine digits of revenue annually actually wears. Maybe there’s something about how Florida’s orange pops on a gloss helmet that doesn’t translate to its blue on a matte helmet.

Whatever the reason(s), I don’t like these helmets, and would rather see them with a gloss finish, but I will reserve final judgment until they get worn with blue jerseys — though I don’t think they will grow on me much.

More importantly, though, I understand that my opinion on them is as meaningless as the opinions of every other fan who loves them, especially if we’re going to accept “Players wanted it!” or “Recruits will love it!” as justification for any given look. If being flashy as a goal is going to excuse any number of crimes against fashion, though, I suspect every Gator may end up getting their own sartorial swerves to love and hate by the end of the effort.

Joakim Noah likely hanging ‘em up

Tuesday brought sad news for possibly the greatest Florida men’s basketball player ever, Joakim Noah, who was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers. His agent, Bill Duffy, proceeded to signal via press release that this would likely be the end of Noah’s NBA career.

“What an illustrious career for Joakim, starting with two national titles at the University of Florida, to becoming an NBA Defensive Player of the Year and ultimately evolving into one of the most passionate, spirited players to ever come through our sport,” Duffy told ESPN on Tuesday night. “It’s been my honor to represent Joakim through his journey.”

If that doesn’t sound like a goodbye without escape routes, it’s probably because it isn’t one: Noah is still seven feet tall or close to it, after all, and he was healthy enough after a slew of late-career injuries for both the Grizzlies and Clippers to bring him in on short-term deals in recent years. If the NBA’s attempt to begin a 2020-21 season prior to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic or the vaccination of all involved goes awry, it’s not impossible to imagine Noah getting called on in an emergency by a team in need of a big man.

But Noah’s also been easing into his post-playing days for years, his Instagram now reflecting his contentment with his fiancée and their son, and he is likely going to be politically active in retirement, with his Noah’s Arc Foundation many years into fighting the American epidemic of gun violence.

And if Noah can’t summon the ferocity that made him the force of nature he was on a basketball court for his career, one hopes he will be able to channel it into the love for those around him — the wellspring that furor came from in the first place.

Florida ranked No. 6 in CFP rankings

You know what’s been really nice this fall? Ignoring the college football rankings completely.

Florida is sixth in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, just as it was in last week’s initial rankings, and that hasn’t mattered one bit to me — or, probably, to Florida, which knows its only path to the Playoff is winning out and that it’s almost guaranteed yet another New Year’s Six bowl appearance should it fail to make the field.

These irrelevant rankings also come on the heels of weeks of incomplete and largely irrelevant rankings from coaches and Associated Press voters, who have been struggling to accurately rank the 25 best teams in a sport with staggered start dates and COVID-related postponements even more than they struggle to rank those teams in a normal year.

And, really, these rankings all seem as tenuously connected to reality as we all are in this bizarre year. Iowa State is No. 9 in the Playoff rankings this week; that’s one spot behind where Penn State, which had not played a single game, was in the AP Top 25 as of Week 9, prior to the Nittany Lions’ 0-5 faceplant out of the gate.

LSU and North Carolina welcomed Penn State to in the ranks of the teams that went from top 10 to unranked; North Carolina, though, has emerged from the abyss as a ranked team once again. Liberty and Coastal Carolina are ranked; everyone thinks BYU is under-ranked by the Playoff Committee. Cincinnati and Indiana look like probable New Year’s Six participants.

This is a weird year, obviously, but less in the 2007 sense — where mayhem upended even the top of the polls every week — than in a late-period Playoff sense, with the sport’s few true powerhouses (Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State) stationed a level or two above the chaos, and untouched by it. And that’s a shame for anyone who considers the 2007 college football season’s gleeful ignorance of previous or future gravities among the finest times for the sport in its existence.

But a virus laying waste to best-laid plans and still not touching the untouchables is a reminder that the week-to-week rankings in this sport have been rendered ever more useless by a Playoff whose human selectors change their criteria seemingly from week to week. If ranking teams in a list has generally produced little insight and next to no marketing value other than small numbers next to names in commercials and on chyrons, it’s doing even less than that when Wisconsin and USC teams that have played three games are being compared to programs with nine completed contests, or when 4-0 Ohio State is nevertheless No. 4 nationally and showing few signs of being dropped.

I have long tried to minimize my use of polls or rankings to compare teams, as I think that better tools (SP+ and more granular metrics) exist. I have also resisted posting about them here, thinking that they’re largely empty calories for fan bases to ingest and digest without anything getting stuck.

This fall has vindicated that freedom from a rankings-based mindset for me. I wonder if anyone else has scoffed at them and felt similarly.

Is Tim Tebow’s return to Madden a sign?

Wednesday brought a surprising bit of news in the video game world, as Tim Tebow — one of the bigger names of recent memory not recently included in the Madden NFL series’ ultra-popular card-collecting mode, Madden Ultimate Team — made his return to it as part of a “Campus Heroes” program that brought two dozen players known partly as collegiate legends into the game mode.

Some of those players — like Keyshawn Johnson to Maurice Jones-Drew among more recent stars, and Bruce Matthews, Herschel Walker, and Ozzie Newsome among legends from decades ago — had long and/or memorable NFL careers to go along with their collegiate ones, and make sense in Ultimate Team. But others, like Florida alumnus Trace Armstrong or Auburn corner Carlos Rogers, had long but largely unspectacular pro careers (both Armstrong and Rogers made just one Pro Bowl), and players like Peter Warrick and David Pollack were superstars in college but underwhelming in the NFL.

And given that EA Sports has to negotiate to obtain the rights to retired players’ likenesses, it doesn’t seem that valuable a use of the company’s time to get a player with 29 career NFL tackles — yes, that’s Pollack’s pro total, as injury cut his career dramatically short — into Madden Ultimate Team...

...unless it were also about building relationships that would make obtaining those same rights for both a Madden Ultimate Team and an NCAA Football Ultimate Team easier.

My hunch is that EA will someday bring back NCAA Football, dormant since the 2013 release of NCAA Football 14, as a full title. But justifying the expense of spinning up the development of another fully-featured game is going to be a hard sell to executives, even if developers have deep passion for the project; the model of selling games for $60 is one that hasn’t made financial sense in years.

So what could compensate for that? An NCAA Football Ultimate Team mode that could rake in millions over initial sales.

That mode did, briefly, exist in the NCAA Football series — you could get a Tebow card in NCAA 14’s Ultimate Team, and I believe you actually still can, though good luck finding an online game in a dead mode from a game released seven summers ago — but it was not as refined as EA’s various Ultimate Teams from Madden, FIFA, and other titles, or the competing offerings of MyTeam in 2K’s NBA2K series or Diamond Dynasty in Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show series.

Now, with all of those modes producing staggering revenues — and still growing, seemingly — it would be hard to imagine a competently-made NCAA Football Ultimate Team not drawing massive revenues from college football fans who would die to pair, say, Kyle Trask with Percy Harvin or upgrade Florida’s 2020 defense with Brandon Spikes and Alex Brown.

I think some of the players in that Campus Heroes crop make more sense as potential NCAA figures. Tebow, Walker, and Matt Leinart, another sore thumb as a pro player, all won the Heisman; Warrick might have if not for an ill-fated trip to Dillard’s. Players like Reggie Nelson and Cadillac Williams had decent to very good pro careers, but are probably more sentimental favorites for fans of their collegiate play.

And then there are the players who are prominent now for their places in the industry. Armstrong’s playing days have arguably left less mark on football than his second career as an agent, in which he represents plenty of big-name coaches; he also has deep ties to the NFL Players’ Association, which he served as president of for several years. Pollack and Leinart are prominent talking heads now, as is Jonathan Vilma; Matt Stinchcomb does commentary for ESPN.

If those players aren’t all names who will sell players on the potential of the game mode, then it’s possible the teammates they could cajole into signing up would be. Armstrong played with Emmitt Smith, who has frequently appeared in Madden Ultimate Team; between Vilma, Jeremy Shockey, and Vince Wilfork, it’s hard to imagine that EA Sports doesn’t now have a secondary line to nearly any 2000s-era Miami Hurricane of note. (EA has also long had a good rapport with the family of Sean Taylor, who has often showed up in Madden Ultimate Team as one of its most coveted players.)

It still takes some squinting to see NCAA Football‘s return as anything more than a company taking advantage of a logical opportunity to make millions of dollars, and EA will still need to navigate whatever the fallout of the NCAA’s name, image, and likeness rules ends up being. (It simply doesn’t make sense that EA would release an NCAA or College Football game with QB #11 helming Florida; current players would be getting a cut in today’s world.)

But I firmly believe that NCAA Football also isn’t returning without the moneymaker that is Ultimate Team attached — and EA potentially laying the foundation for that is notable.