As dismal as the season was a year ago and the Gator faithful looking for a change after the season, there were bound to be those that would never get back on the Will Muschamp train. The worst season in 40 years and three years of a bottom 20 offense had Gators saying enough is enough.
Florida Athletics’ Director Jeremy Foley stood by his hire in Muschamp. Last season’s brutal injury list cannot be denied. The idea being that just a few of the key players that were missing inserted back into that lineup would have probably been good for another couple of wins. All of them back… for 3-4 more wins.
But still, three years of offensive ineptitude was more than enough for most, even though the defense was top 10 all three years regardless of the reasons.
Muschamp‘s return was met with more jeers than cheers, but the fourth year coach of the Gators seemed to make some quality moves in the off-season. They lost a few big names in the recruiting process that ended in early February, but they recovered almost everywhere in the class even striking some late gold at a few positions.
The hires of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, offensive line coach Mike Summers, and linebacker/ special teams coach Coleman Hutzler were met with wide approval. A new offensive scheme featuring a fast pace and a vertical throwing game was something Gators fans hadn’t seen in a while and a welcome addition.
Spring practice showcased the new throwing game and junior starting quarterback Jeff Driskel started showing signs of improvement as the spring season went along.
The off-the-field issues of previous head coaching regimes seemed to all but have disappeared. A single citation for marijuana in the last year is he only negative reflection on the police blotter that was connected with a squad of over 100 college aged male athletes. It is something that is nearly never done anywhere at this level.
The cleaning up of the locker room can’t be overlooked. Muschamp has made quick work disposing of quality athletes that weren’t figuring out the proper things to do on their time from campus. This can’t be disputed in his short term here at Florida.
One major shakeup in the off-season was the loss of wide receiver coach Joker Phillips. Although Phillips proved really nothing during the 2013 season, he came to Florida with a great resume as a position coach and was expected to turn the young receiving corps at Florida around. The loss of Phillips meant that the Gators would now have their sixth receivers coach in the last six years. Red-shirt senior Andre Debose was granted a sixth year of eligibility at Florida and he has a different position coach each and every year he has been on campus, which also included the last two years of the Urban Meyer tenure.
Overall it was a good off-season. Injuries were at a minimum, which is a step up from a year ago when the starting right tackle and all-conference kick returner were lost before the first snap of the season. There were a couple of true freshmen linemen in Thomas Holley and Nolan Kelleher that were declared out for the season for separate injuries and subsequent surgeries, but overall it was a healthy bunch to start the year.
Then the season started… well it started late. It wasn’t a good omen for a team that needed a big win, when the home game with Idaho was cancelled because of severe weather and bad conditions, it was a big setback for fans and the team who were ready to wash away the taste of a bad season.
A week of disgust among Gator fans and then finally some light at the end of the tunnel. Florida made quick and early work of Eastern Michigan, a team that didn’t belong on the same field talent wise, but in Florida we are talking about a team that hadn’t seen a win of any kind since October 5, 2013 and seven losses in a row. It was a game that most would tell you Florida would have lost a year ago at the end of the season.
The bigger thing was how Florida looked. A shutout from the defense who actually put points on the board as well. Along with an offense that showed explosion from the first quarter to the last had a lot of Gator fans really thinking things had changed… all the things we were promised.
But that game was just a ruse, Florida is healthy which makes them a huge mismatch for teams that are grossly mismatched with them, and that was Eastern Michigan.When Kentucky comes to Gainesville and takes the home team to three overtimes, all is not well with the Orange and Blue.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the Kentucky program that has played the Gators every year for the last 40 and more, but hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986. This isn’t the Kentucky that didn’t win an SEC game last season and beyond. It is an improved Kentucky which we said before the game, but a second year coach at a school that has been a perennial bottom dweller in the SEC shouldn’t be taking a top national program to the wire and beyond and in The Swamp.
What makes it worse is that Kentucky exposed the Gators in a couple of areas that we would see a week later exposed in a very bad way against a team the Gators weren’t expected to beat.
Jeff Driskel and the passing game looked pedestrian at best in the first half against Kentucky. The secondary looked worse in the 3rd and 4th quarters against the Wildcats. Both issues reared their ugly heads for most of the game against Alabama in a 42-21 loss that wasn’t as close as that score dictated.
As mentioned, the game in Tuscaloosa was one that Florida was not expected to win, but a close and respectable game would have gone a long way. Through three quarters, the defense’s ability to collect turnovers and the score were the only things that were close in this game. By the end of the game, the turnovers mattered none.
Florida gave up 645 yards of offense, the most ever by a Gator team. The offense managed just 200 yards, back to the way they looked a year ago. Alabama is certainly a squad that can do that to almost any team, but Florida isn’t just any team, or at least they shouldn’t be.
The fact that a quarterback that has looked good but never great so far in his few starts lit up the secondary of Florida for 445 yards and four touchdowns through the air and the backup added a touchdown, doesn’t bode well for better passing teams the Gators will face down the road. Oh by the way, it’s a secondary that is led by Muschamp who is considered one of, if not, the best defensive minds in all of college football and with a specialty in the secondary.
Given all of this, what are people supposed to think?
THE SEASON AHEAD
From just a probable record standpoint (3-1) at this time of the season from preseason talk, the only thing missing so far from any positive expectations is the loss of the opener. From that logic and view, the season and any hopes of making it a good one are where we thought even given the actual (2-1) record.
The problem with the fan base and the media that have erupted in negativity is the thought of what is ahead for Florida. That pervading thought is that this team isn’t good enough to win the games necessary to keep the status quo with the organization. A close loss to Alabama and much of this would have been sidelined, but the way Florida lost has most feeling there is just no way.
The staff and the team of course can’t afford to feel that way. They have to put all of this aside and try and win football games. They have to internalize, make adjustments, and use those adjustments to win games that they will likely be mostly not favored to win moving forward.
From everything we know and have heard the staff and team are still confident. Some changes will have to be made in some phases of the game, but they believe the schemes are there and the talent is there to play with the rest of the schedule. They just have to go out and do it.
How should we look at the rest of the schedule? I think break it down in halves from the remaining games. The next four contests for Florida are against Tennessee on the road, LSU at home, Missouri at home, and Georgia on a neutral field in Jacksonville. None of these look to be as losable as the Alabama game they just faced.
The most important game for the Muschamp era is the next one, Saturday October 4 in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is as close to a ‘must win’ as he has seen since everyone thought the same of Georgia Southern last year. The problem is, Tennessee is quite better than most thought they would be, a very young team that has played above their heads with certain deficiencies in places on the field. Again, a second year coach that has made terrific strides, and this one at a program that should be at or near the level of Florida over the years.
The Gators own a nine game winning streak versus the Volunteers and have won a ridiculous 22 of the last 28 games against the power football program. They have won some as underdogs, but not many.
In front of 100+ thousand fans next weekend, this game is not going to be easy by any stretch. Florida looks to have better lines of scrimmage, but a good passing game with quarterback Justin Worley who completed 23 of 35 attempts for 264 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in a close loss to Georgia Saturday. They also have a freshman running back in Jalen Hurd who ran for 119 yards and over 100 for the second week in a row. Now, Georgia’s defense isn’t going to be compared to Alabama’s defense, but likely better than Florida’s is playing right now.
The Tennessee defense was stingy against the pass but not so much against the vaunted Georgia running game. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason was 16-25 for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, while the ground game was big time racking up 289 yards including 208 from All-American Todd Gurley.
The Gators can win the game Saturday, but there isn’t much we have pointing to that actually happening. They need this game.
LSU looked pedestrian for most of the game they lost to Mississippi State last week. They looked lost before making a game of it against the undefeated Bulldogs. They always have a monster defense and a good running game, but they weren’t such monsters in either category against MSU. Unless Florida really shows up well against Tennessee, they will be picked to lose against the Tigers in The Swamp.
Missouri has looked lackluster since a fast start to the season. A humiliating defeat to national bottom feeder Indiana has them in the tank for this season as well. They kept it close with South Carolina at half by this writing, but their preseason conference schedule didn’t disclose anything to them about their team. This is definitely the most winnable of the four games and it is played in The Swamp, which honestly won’t be as feverish as it has been in the past because of the current situation of the program.
The last game in this group is Georgia. They were knocked of their perch near the top of the college football world last week by losing to a South Carolina team that has struggled so far this year. The Bulldogs are what we saw against Tennessee. The have a monster ground game, average passing game, and a secondary that is suspect. All of that and they would still be pretty big favorites against the Gators at this point, but not Alabama type favorites.
Tennessee is by far the most important. A loss multiplies the heat already going on with the fans and media. A soft win will lessen that, with people still wanting to see a lot more. A big win and Florida fans will at least think there is a chance moving forward.
The difference in fan favor amongst those three scenarios is huge. But, going 3-1 in the four would certainly make things better overall. It just doesn’t look very likely.
The talent on the squad is pretty good overall. Florida finished 5th overall in 2012 in Scout.com’s national recruiting rankings, Muschamp’s first full year of recruiting. In 2013 they finished 7th and in 2014 the Gators finished 9th. Those are solid finishes for Florida except that they are trying to keep up the SEC which usually dominates the Top 10.
Still, outside of receiver talent and depth on the offensive line, they have recruited quality players that should be able to win football games. We aren’t talking every player is a miss at those positions, but you can’t have one or two receivers tops that would be considered play makers, especially recruiting at a place like Florida.
The fact that Muschamp has had four receiver coaches and three offensive line coaches in his four years doesn’t help that matter.
There is enough healthy talent right now to look much better than they have so far this season. Some of that talent is young and inexperienced, but the coaching staff has to look and work beyond that.
Offense has been an issue for even longer than Muschamp has been here. The offensive production started heading south in Tim Tebow’s last season on campus and for the last two years has just been abysmal overall. This year we have a miserable game against Alabama to point to.
Muschamp and Robinson
I think most people believe the play calling in the offense has been at least good so far. The execution for six of the last eight quarters has been hard to watch.
It’s not all on Driskel, receivers have run the wrong routes, they have dropped the ball… there have been a lot of things going wrong. In the end it goes back to coaching to get them to catch it, or get someone out there who can. The latter is a direct result of the recruiting issues.
To most the way the defense is playing is baffling, but they have run into a huge issue with youth in the secondary. That youth and inexperience have caused them to lean on some guys that are playing out of position.
The biggest issue with this is that they should have been aware of these issues before this point. They should have acted on these issues after they showed themselves pretty heavily against Kentucky and before they took on a whole new level of ineffectiveness when they played Alabama.
This is something we all should expect to get cured because of the pedigree and acumen of the head coach and his defensive back assistant Travaris Robinson. A lot of that faith is lost right now, but they are no slouches when coaching the secondary.
THE CURRENT STATE
Muschamp spent the offseason acknowledging the fact that last year’s team was not indicative of where the program should be, regardless of the ridiculous amount of injuries that occurred. He took the blame as the leader of the ship and knows things have to be corrected. He has acknowledged what the outcome of another failed season would be… it is no secret to him.
He’s been the victim of terrible assistant hires that most thought were good to great hires at the time. There was no buffoonery there in those selections, they came with big time backgrounds and other major programs were vying for their services.
In his defense, despite the ugly loss at Alabama, most believe he has made a great hire in Kurt Roper. The offensive line had their best game in almost two years this past week. Special teams have been good for most of the three games, but there have been lapses. Still not a bad hire there.
Muschamp has cleaned up the locker room and thrown out quality athletes that would be difference makers for his teams in order to have a locker room full of quality people that Gators fans would want to represent the University.
Outside of a hot temper on the sideline and a few hot times in front of the media he has been a guy that has represented the University as Florida fans should want it represented.
But, as much as all of that stuff matters to Gators fans, the bottom line is winning, and actually looking good doing it. He knows this.
That winning better start here, even if there aren’t many who believe it will. And that doesn’t make it any easier.