Posted: 3:38 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013
By Neil Shulman
I'll admit that I got a little overheated after Florida's loss to Miami a few weeks ago, even suggesting that Will Muschamp could be fired if the season continued going downhill.
But, let's face it: Florida was not supposed to lose that game. And even though I predicted that Florida would lose to LSU by more points than they actually did, there were some very bad signs in that Miami game, and we have seen more since.
Over the course of the now two and a half years Muschamp has spent at Florida, the image of him has been slowly painted as a guy who does some good things, and some bad. The worst things he brings to the table (on display against Miami) are bad enough to raise questions about him being fired, and the positives are good enough to raise questions about how many years Jeremy Foley should add to his contract.
We cannot separate the good from the bad, though. They're all part of one man named Will Muschamp, and they come as a package. And when put together, they balance out to form a solid football program. Nothing more, nothing less.
The downside to having a solid football program is that it doesn't even come close to comparing with what Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer built in Gainesville. Gator fans got spoiled by Meyer's unparalleled successes, which preceded Muschamp being hired, so that's the standard he's going to have to compete against. Had Muschamp been the successor to Ron Zook, Gator fans might have quite a bit more patience with him; now, if Muschamp finishes 7-5, people will be undoubtedly calling for his head, even knowing the rash of injuries Florida has been afflicted with.
That's how Gator Nation rolls.
But there are positives and negatives that come with having Will Muschamp as the head coach.
When I played with Legos as a little kid, my grandparents who watched me would always say, "Whatever you build, make sure you give it a sturdy foundation, and then you can do whatever you want." Muschamp's done the same for Florida's defense, instilling mental and physical toughness with the help of strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman, and turning it around after a gruesome defeat in the Swamp to Florida State to close out the 2011 regular season that left a bitter taste in Florida fans' mouths and the word "soft" in Muschamp's post-mortems.
With time, the numbers of players from that team will dwindle to zero, but the incoming recruits on the defensive side of the ball have learned and will learn immediately what is required to play defense for the Florida Gators. They can choose to accept it, which most do, or they can mess around and get weeded out: It won't matter much, because Muschamp will simply bring in the next guy who will accept the role of the player he's replacing.
Look at Antonio Morrison and Dante Fowler, Jr.: Both guys are Muschamp-recruited, Muschamp-developed players, but neither was a starter immediately. When opportunities presented themselves in 2012, both guys stepped in, earned the respect of their coaches, and played well enough to earn significantly expanded roles in the defense today.
Of course, the reason Muschamp is able to simply plug in pieces like this is his ability to recruit not only well, but extremely well. While the top-flight offensive recruits haven't really panned out (Florida has yet to have a star offensive player recruited entirely by Muschamp), just about every single Muschamp recruit who plays defense and has gotten playing time has been a huge success.
The way Muschamp does it by locking down his top targets early and then holding onto them, so that maybe the players can recruit a friend by saying, "Hey, Will Muschamp has shown interest in me for a long time now, and he still texts and contacts me. He really cares about his players. You should definitely come to Florida." Having your recruits doing some of your recruiting for you can be incredibly useful, because they don't have to abide by the same recruiting rules as coaches do. There's no dead periods for a five star high school senior, and it's perfectly legal for a five-star linebacker to "bump" into a five-star receiver two years younger, whose mothers go out for coffee, and convince him to give Florida a look.
Playing the long game with recruits is extremely difficult because most 17-year-old kids who are really good at football love nothing more than to keep receiving attention surrounding their recruitment. Once they commit, the game's over, and the attention stops; the feeling most kids get when committing is akin to watching the series finale of a favorite TV show, with a big happy moment (usually), some tears, and then ... nothing.
I know all this from a comparable experience: I'm 19, and a college sophomore, and it wasn't that long ago I was recruited by a swarm of Division III schools and two lower-level Division I schools to play tennis. Obviously, it's not a perfect comparison, but during the legal recruitment time, I was constantly bombarded with emails and phone calls. I like to think of myself as a humble and grounded kid, but I have to admit, I did enjoy the attention I got from schools and people in my high school, and it was n-o-t-h-i-n-g compared to the attention top football recruits get. And kids who love the spotlight can just bring more attention to themselves by announcing every visit, email and phone call on social media.
It's hard to get a 17-year-old to buy into a college football system a solid year before he ever sets foot on the campus, and it may be harder still to de-recruit them once the hoopla is all over. The list of coaches who can do this is very short, but it appears to include Muschamp at the moment. I have no idea how he does it, because he goes after some of the same kids that other coaches struggle with, and he not only gets an incredibly high percentage of them, but gets them to commit early, and has them producing early on.
The negatives of Muschamp look really bad, and probably really are, but the defense and recruiting are such off the charts positives that the end result isn't terrible.
The main problems the Gators have are the same ones I harped on after the Miami game, and the same ones that have been plaguing Florida for years: turnovers and penalties. And who was I kidding? Muschamp can't get either of those fixed.
The Gators might have been better statistically in both regards of late, but they both feel like problems Florida's always going to have to be wary of. Florida can go four or five games without self-destructing, and then there could be a game in which it completely implodes. See last season: Florida didn't turn it over at all against Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and then committed six against Georgia to blow SEC East, SEC and BCS Championship possibilities.
Sure, Florida's offense has been better in regards to turning the ball over since the Miami game, but considering that they gave it away five times in that game, that's not really saying much. Three turnovers against a really bad Tennessee defense isn't good either. And while Florida hasn't turned it over in their last two games, I counted at least three and possibly four bad throws by Tyler Murphy that LSU should have picked off, and a fumble recovered on a fourth down is basically a turnover.
While Florida has also improved in recent weeks in respect to its propensity for being flagged, a decrease in quantity doesn't mean they've stopped being a liability. D.J. Humphries killed any shot Florida had of getting back into the game in the fourth quarter at LSU by getting called for two false starts. Tyler Murphy bailed him out on the first one by converting a fourth and ning to Ahmad Fulwood (welcome to the show, Ahmad!), but couldn't do it again when Humphries turned third and 10 into third and 15.
The worst part about both is that they're team-wide, maybe program-wide epidemics, and more often than not, these problems are on display at the worst possible moments, in the biggest games of the year. In 2012, Jordan Reed was Florida's best player, and the Gators wouldn't have even been in the game against Georgia without him. Yet it was Reed who hammered the final nail in the Gators' coffin that day with the fumble into the end zone. Chris Rainey was one of the most explosive players to ever wear a Florida jersey, yet a fumble deep in his own territory gifted the Bulldogs seven points the year before in a 24-20 Georgia win.
There are dozens more examples, but I'm trying to save your innocent walls from being smashed.
The last time I mentioned these problems, some of you pointed out that penalties have always been a problem, dating back to the Meyer and Spurrier days. Here's the difference: Those teams had something called an offense.
To the Fun n' Gun and spread option teams of the past, losing five yards meant nothing, because Reidel Anthony or Percy Harvin were always a threat to break free for a long touchdown, and Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow would get the ball to them with remarkable ease. And if Tebow made a bad decision, failed to anticipate a cutting Eric Berry, and wound up throwing a pick-six? No problem, Florida would get the ball back and score 31 points in a half.
So let me now introduce another problem of the current Gator team that I didn't mention after the Miami game: Offense.
First, let me preface it by saying that this is not entirely Muschamp's fault. Injuries have plagued this team all season, and it is not easy to replace the chisel-like running of Mike Gillislee, who would pound away until he finally broke a long run. And Muschamp does replace defensive players with such incredible ease that it's impossible to ask him to do the same on offense. But, in any case, Florida has never developed an offense that teams have to fear under his watch.
What he and Brent Pease have built instead is a physical, grinding offensive unit that relies on "staying on schedule" (i.e. first and 10 becomes second and seven, which becomes third and four, etc), controlling the clock, and moving the chains. That leaves the offense with a tiny margin for error, which, given Florida's habit of self- destructing, makes little sense to me.
I have absolutely no problem with hammering away at foes and wearing them down and out, but in order for that to happen, the offensive execution must be near perfect. Against LSU last year, it was; against Georgia last year, it was ... somewhat less than perfect. I'm not very confident in the Gators staying turnover- and penalty-free on a consistent, 14-game basis, but I think that's the only way a Will Muschamp-coached team will ever win a national championship. Taking even one game off will cost the Gators everything, as we saw against Georgia last year.
The 2013 Florida offense is so bad that I can't watch third and more than seven, for fear of a turnover or some other, similar disaster. (I listen to the announcers or the crowd reaction to figure out what happened.) Again, Florida is now missing Matt Jones and Jeff Driskel, but Mack Brown and Tyler Murphy are adequate enough replacements that it shouldn't matter. The Gators can blame the lack of offensive production last year on losing Solomon Patton against Georgia, but they still had a load of talent in Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Frankie Hammond, etc.
As we all know, that talent hadn't been optimized yet, but whose fault is that? Pease is certainly not without blame for that, but isn't it the head coach's job to install a work ethic and discipline in his players to perform to the best of their abilities, and, if they don't, replace them with somebody who will? I don't put so much stock into recruiting rankings, but are you going to tell me that both of them keep royally messing up with their assessments of anybody who plays offense and commits to Florida?
Even special teams, which was Meyer's baby, and appeared to be a Muschamp forte, is slowly becoming Florida's enemy. I'm not saying they can't be fixed (it definitely can), but it's simply a train wreck right now. Florida's Ray Guy Award finalist last year, Kyle Christy, averaged under 40 yards per punt this year and two of his best punts were touchbacks against LSU. He also has a fumbled snap to add to his 2013 resume, which turned out to be immaterial thanks to the aforementioned rock solid Florida defense.
Replacing Caleb Sturgis has proved to be beyond difficult. Austin Hardin is perfect from inside 30 yards out, but any farther back and it's a nightmare. He's just two for six from beyond 30 yards, which is simply unacceptable for a team that has offensive deficiencies. He was replaced first by Brad Phillips, who shanked an extra point against Arkansas, then by Francisco Velez against LSU. And while Velez did a good job that day, it remains to be seen if he can be the clutch kicker Florida will desperately need with its struggling offense.
Florida's also blocked a punt this year, which means they're on pace for two for the season — not bad, but a far cry from most years the last decade, when it seemed like every time they needed one, they got it. And again, this offense needs all the help it can possibly get.
Fair or not, coaches are measured by wins and championships. Muschamp's record thus far is 22-10. This year, he's 4-2, which is on pace for 8-4 (which sounds like a success given the Gators' upcoming schedule), so for now, let's use that as our projection. That would make him 26-12. And let's give him a bowl win for argument's sake. That puts him at 27-12. The average record there is 9-4, which would be great for Florida this year, and basically a mean of the 7-6 and 11-2 seasons before it.
However, that average doesn't mean Florida will go 9-4 every year. Sure, there will likely be years in which Florida competes for the national championship, and goes 11-2 or so, like they did last year. But there will also be rebuilding years, which could very easily turn into 7-6 seasons.
I know I'm using incomplete data for this season in the above numbers, but is it that far-fetched that Florida will have six or maybe even seven losses this year? Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State are all ranked ahead of Florida, so while conceding a sweep to those four teams seems like an overly pessimistic thing to do, it's also not completely out of the realm of possibility. Nor will it be silly to predict a 7-6 season, say, five years down the road, with an offense that has to break in eight new starters, and the Gators drawing, say, Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU from the SEC West with the expanded SEC schedule.
Then again, maybe Florida does win a national championship under Muschamp. Maybe there is that perfect storm year when all the stars align just right: Florida goes 11-1, wins the SEC, and wins two playoff games to claim the national title. With four teams in that playoff, maybe Florida can even pull it off with two losses; it sounds unlikely, but remember that LSU did it in 2007. And maybe the trade off is that, even if Florida hovers around 8-5 five out of six years, that sixth year produces a 14-1 record and a national championship.
Play with the numbers however you like: I just don't see Florida averaging more than nine wins a year under Muschamp. I'll cite the same reasons now that I used after the Miami loss: The turnovers and penalties have been chronic issues since Muschamp got here, and he doesn't have the offense to make those problems irrelevant like Spurrier and Meyer did.
And at the end of the day, there are many, many programs that would kill to churn out 9-4 years. Florida fans would have begged to average four losses with some 11-2 seasons sprinkled in along with 7-6 seasons after always losing five games under Ron Zook, because it seemed the Gators would never contend for a championship again. I'm not saying Muschamp's Gators will never compete for or even win a national championship — they already have — but I increasing think they won't be in the conversation every year.
Thanks to Spurrier and Meyer, lots of Gator fans, including myself, are spoiled. That means our standards are much, much higher than 9-4 seasons, and those are the standards he's going to be held to, because most Florida fans don't know anything other than Spurrier and Meyer always being in the mix for the national championship. Meyer's average record was 10.83-2.5, and Spurrier's was 10.17-2.25. Those numbers are great.
9-4 is good, but it's not great.
I'm not really complaining quite yet. I have come to terms with the idea that just because Florida not winning 13 games doesn't mean Florida is awful and the coach should be fired. Muschamp has done a good job so far, but not a great job, and unless his teams knock off the penalties and turnovers and the offense can consistently produce, I don't believe he will build Florida into a great program.
There will be great years, and there will be bad years, but the overall average will be good, but not great. And I wonder if that will be enough.