It’s been quite a tough year to be a Florida Gator football fan. If you live in Georgia, or Tallahassee, or even some parts of South Florida, you know from experience that the taunting is brutal. Well, living in Pennsylvania, I hear similar stuff from Ohio State fans (miss Urban yet? Think that avenue) all the time. I’m sure y’all living down south get it a bit worse, but still.
But in any case, it’s over, thank the lord, and after letting the 4-8 record simmer for a few weeks, I’ve come up with five things to take away from the season. Some of them are good, and others are bad. All of them come together to try to make sense of what was, indisputably, the single worst football season the Florida Gators have had since 1979… the last time Florida had a losing record.
So, here goes, counting backwards:
5) The Wildcat package is a dead art in the SEC
Part of the reason Brent Pease is now out of a job is because he tried too hard to make something out nothing. He tried to make Trey Burton a Wildcat quarterback, when in fact Trey Burton would be much better utilized as a tight end, or even a slot receiver. His surprising elusiveness allows him to be very successful when used right, but using him at Wildcat QB is not right. I know, we all have fond memories of Burton breaking a big one against Georgia back in 2010 and scoring 6- count ‘em, 6- touchdowns against Kentucky that same season from the Wildcat package.
But on another level, Pease tried to bring something to the table that the SEC had figured out. SEC defenses facing innovative offenses are like a body responding to the newest type of flu. At first, it’s going to ravage you and wear you out, but after awhile, you will overcome it, and once you do, that type of virus will never again harm you, because your body has seen it and knows how to defend against it. Similarly, a defense can get gassed by a new type of offense, and possibly for quite some time, but once the defensive coordinator figures out how to stop it, it’s like magic. BOOM. That type of offense will never work again.
Truth be told, the Wildcat has been dead for quite some time. The Miami Dolphins first created it with Ronnie Brown a decade ago, and after its initial run of success, nobody in the NFL runs it with the regularity or positive results enjoyed by Miami. Urban Meyer came to Gainesville, and added the perfect element to it with the simple thought of “What if my running back can actually throw the ball?” That thought won Tim Tebow the Heisman trophy in 2007, but something was still missing. Then Meyer tinkered with it some more by adding some world class speed (namely Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey), and voila, an unstoppable offense was born.
Other teams have played around with Meyer’s brainchild, such as Auburn with Cam Newton in 2010 and Nick Marshall today and Oregon with virtually every quarterback since Dennis Dixon, until it evolved to the point where it wasn’t the Wildcat anymore. College football is now filled with running quarterbacks, and the specific philosophies vary from team to team, but all of them can throw, if at a mediocre level. The passing threat is there to the point where defenses have to respect it, and thus set their defense in a way that shows that. Trey Burton could not throw, and thus, Florida’s offense was not the carefully constructed offenses run by Auburn, Ohio State, FSU or Louisville; it’s the same ancient Wildcat the SEC figured out how to snuff years ago.
And thus, that original Wildcat package is dead forever.
4) Florida is a shockingly dirty team
OK, you got me. Every team has that one guy who gets caught doing something he shouldn’t. And sure, there’s lots of stuff that goes on that goes unnoticed, in every sport, both men and women. From football to women’s softball, people get away with all types of cheap shots, like a girl sliding into a base and casually driving her spikes into the defender’s groin (“I’m just trying to slide here”), or in a football pileup, a guy trying to gouge the ball carrier’s eyes (“I couldn’t see anything. It’s dark in here”), and much, much more. To name every such example would require its own novel, which I’m not really in the mood to do. But just use your imagination. It’s awful stuff, all of it, and most of it doesn’t get caught on cameras. Worst of all, it’s commonplace throughout college athletics. Don’t try to tell me that, because I know.
But having said that, there have been an alarming number of instances where Gator football players actually were caught doing things they shouldn’t. First, there was Dante Fowler apparently trying to take a poke at Todd Gurley’s eye. Then a few weeks later, Marcus Maye got caught attempting to do something similar to a GSU player. After the players realized that gouging player’s eyes isn’t really looked upon too favorably, Ronald Powell decided to try his luck in something less harmful, more disgusting, and equally reprehensible: the art of man made precipitation.
Which, of course, begs the question: how much stuff did they not get caught doing? If you catch three such instances of mortifying behavior, how many more did this team get away with? I’m afraid to know the answer, but shame on everybody who did anything of the sort. Shame on you, Ronald Powell, for spitting. I appreciate the fact that you hate Florida State enough to spit on them, but there are better ways to channel your hatred. For example, shoot the gap you’re supposed to, make the open field tackle, punch the ball out. PLAY FOOTBALL. Make beating them that much more enjoyable. Same goes for Fowler and Maye for seemingly trying to gauge opponents’ eyes out.
3) Florida’s dominance over its rivals is gone for the foreseeable future
This kind of ties into #1 on this list, but getting repeatedly beaten down by our rivals hurts so much I have to make it its own category. Forget Tennessee, because that’s not even a rivalry anymore (winning 9 in a row kind of eradicates any hatred from me; maybe some of you disagree, but that’s another argument). Florida’s three biggest rivals are Georgia, Miami and FSU, and Will Muschamp sports a paltry 1-6 record against those three schools, leaving a residue of shame that not even the garbageman would touch.
Even though the Gators don’t play Miami anymore barring a bowl matchup, that’s still going to be an intense rivalry in the coming years. Or perhaps because Florida doesn’t play Miami anymore, giving Miami fans “we won the last one!” line to add to “29-26″ and “5-3″. So I’ll start with the Hurricanes. That loss in South Florida triggered a chain reaction of events that likely will continue until either Florida wins the SEC or beats Miami again. Thanks to five Gator turnovers, Canes fans get a leg up on Florida in terms of bragging rights, and recruiting. To be able to tell a recruit, “the last time we played Florida, we beat them” is a bigger advantage than you may think. If that line persuades even a tenth of the kids down to Florida and Miami- say, for example, the next Tracy Howard- that 21-16 defeat could cost the Gators a handful of top notch players for years to come.
The FSU rivalry is a strange one. Since Muschamp came aboard, the home team has never won this game, despite FSU being really bad in 2011, and beating Florida in Gainesville, and being really good in 2012, and losing at home. I really don’t know what to expect for the future here, because contrary to reports, I can see Jimbo Fisher leaving in a heartbeat. Don’t get me wrong, it would take the right opening, but maybe that opening is a Texas type job? Maybe Nick Saban suddenly retires and the Alabama job could be open? It’s all speculation, but realistic, too. As long as Jimbo stays, though, I think Florida’s going to have trouble with the Seminoles. Fisher knows Muschamp’s deficiencies and I expect him to keep hammering away at them, both on the recruiting trail and on the field.
In any case, Florida has lost two out of the last three, which is very irritating, sure, but in my eyes, it doesn’t carry the gargantuan frustration of Muschamp’s epic failure against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Georgia is, in my opinion, Florida’s biggest rival, mainly because of the implications within the SEC East that the rivalry with FSU does not have. So it should come as no surprise that Florida has never won the SEC East under Muschamp when you realize he never beat Georgia. The sad part is, it’s not even because Georgia was clearly the better team in each of the last three years- not since 2005 do I believe Georgia had the better team, hands down, no debating the point- and yet Florida still won that game because the Gators had a real coach, not a great defensive coordinator with the responsibility of a head coach. But the bottom line is this: Muschamp can’t beat Georgia if his life depended on it. To quote T Kyle King of Dawg Sports (SB Nation: Georgia) from a few years ago…
“In 1992, as I sat numb and dumbfounded in the passenger seat of my father’s car while we drove away from Jacksonville after seeing Ray Goff’s best team beaten by Steve Spurrier’s worst team, a realization dawned clearly and completely in my mind: No Ray Goff-coached team will ever beat a Steve Spurrier-coached team. None ever did. Today, this realization came to me with equal clarity and certainty: The current Georgia coaching staff will never beat the current Florida coaching staff. One or the other must change before we will ever win in Jacksonville again.”
I feel the same way about Will Muschamp, but I’m willing to go a step further: he will never beat the Georgia Bulldogs. Ever. Regardless who coaches Georgia. He is one of the biggest losers this rivalry has ever seen, going 0-4 as a UGA safety, and now 0-3 as the Florida coach. The biggest tip-off here is his coach-speak before each Georgia game: “We’re not going to approach this differently than any other game. Georgia’s our next opponent. We’re not spending any more time at the office than we would for any other game.” Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
I’m sorry, but- earmuffs, kids- this is bullshit. This, folks, is precisely why Muschamp is a perennial loser in this game, and probably always will be until he realizes that this game means more than he’s capable of grasping. I don’t think Muschamp is a dumb person by any means, but there are some seemingly elementary concepts about football- like you have to beat your rivals- that he just doesn’t quite understand. He knows x’s and o’s pretty well, (at least defensively), but until he figures out how to beat Georgia, he’ll never win the SEC East, and thus, he will be rightfully fired before 2015. Book it.
The losses have all been devastating, too. First, in 2011, Florida jumped out to a 17-3 lead, but couldn’t hold it as Muschamp’s pride and joy- his defense- got absolutely run over in the final minutes as UGA took the lead, and then ran out the clock. The offense wasn’t without blame (-19 rushing yards in the second half), but defense was supposed to be that team’s forte. Florida has never led against Georgia since then, as- shall I say it again- SIX turnovers doomed the Gators in a 17-9 loss in 2012 and the Gators took the first half off on both sides of the ball in 2013 and couldn’t erase a 23-3 deficit.
2) Will Muschamp is not an SEC caliber coach
In a nutshell, my assessment of Muschamp is as follows: he could be a serviceable defensive coordinator at any school in the country with an established head coach looking over his shoulder, and he might be successful as a head coach at a lower level school with less pressure on him, such as Wake Forest, Purdue, Cincinnati, or BYU. You know, a nice D1, BCS qualifying conference school that’s just supposed to make bowl games every year. But he most certainly is not qualified, at least to this point, to be the leader of the Florida Gators. Sure, Florida went 11-2 in one of his three years, but those two losses were horrendous and unacceptable, and the 11 wins came mostly due to the efforts of Urban Meyer’s players, such as Jelani Jenkins, Jon Bostic, Matt Elam, Mike Gillislee, Jordan Reed, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd. Then factor in the two seasons in which he didn’t go 11-2: the two worst individual seasons since 1979.
It’s not just the fact that Florida’s losing that has me convinced he’s in over his head. I’ve been beating this horse since the Miami game, but the people who need to be listening have not been, so let’s do this again. His team is extremely undisciplined, as you can tell from the laundry list of despicable behavior listed in #4. They also have this nasty habit of giving the ball away like they get paid per turnovers, and twice as much when it comes against a rival. See the game against FSU in 2011, Georgia in 2012 and Miami in 2013 (a game Florida was FULLY HEALTHY FOR, mind you who use injuries as an excuse) for clarification. My question: why is this still happening in his third year? Turnovers and penalties are the kind of things you can expect to see in a coach’s first year, but not his third. If Muschamp can’t fix these things in three years… when am I supposed to believe he’ll ever get them fixed?
The other problem I have with Muschamp is his stubbornness, both with his undying loyalty to his assistants and to the style of offense he likes to run. He fixed the first problem (though likely because Jeremy Foley forced him to) but I’m not convinced he’ll ever go away from the ground and pound that he lives and dies by. His philosophy is similar to that of the New York Jets’ under Rex Ryan. Notice a pattern? When the team has an offensive line and a defense (Jets in 2009, 2010, Florida in 2012), they can win games and go far, and when they don’t (every other year since Ryan and Muschamp became the coaches at their respective jobs) the team will struggle mightily.
The way I see it, this is a team that turns the ball over way too much to begin with. So the solution is to… ground and pound and run more plays (that is, if you can even get first downs) and give the team more chances to turn it over? I don’t see the sport in that, and I also don’t see any reason to believe Kurt Roper can fix it right away, unless by some miracle Muschamp figures out that he has to STAY AWAY and let Roper do his job, since offense is clearly something Muschamp knows little about.
Those quick to jump around in joy about the hire of Roper, I know, there was the 48 point outing against Texas A&M, but A) A&M averaged 37 points per game allowed against BCS opponents and B) I’m not so convinced Muschamp won’t slowly choke the life out of the offense and severely limit the play-calling like I believe he did last year. I’ll also point out that Florida fans (myself and Ryan Moyer included) were giddy in welcoming Charlie Weis, and Brent Pease as the offensive coordinator. Those hires didn’t go well, so I want to wait and see how Roper’s offense does before we laud Muschamp as a genius for hiring him (if Muschamp is actually the one who hired him).
In my opinion, Will Muschamp can only do damage control and reduce the severity of these feelings toward him in 2014. That’s how damaging the 2013 season was. But even though I’ve long ago stated I wanted Muschamp gone before 2014 so he didn’t get a chance to ruin it, I suppose I should wait and see how 2014 goes before I make finalized statements about him. I just don’t like his chances, is all.
1) College football is cyclical, and it’s great to be a Florida Gator, in all kinds of weather
Throughout the Gators’ run of dominance under Urban Meyer, I was convinced that Florida football was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even though I was fully conscious of how bad the Gators were under previous coach Ron Zook, he had come after Steve Spurrier, who dominated college football throughout his 12 years in Gainesville. Anyway, here comes Meyer, with this kid named Tim Tebow, and he proceeds to blow everybody out of the water with frightening regularity- to some people, anyway. To me, this was how things should be.
Then Meyer left, and Will Muschamp came in and took his place. He promptly led Florida to two 6+ loss seasons in three years, sandwiched around an 11-2 season, which is starting to look like the exception rather than the rule under his reign. Nothing he has done even comes close to touching the accomplishments of Meyer or Spurrier, contrary to what I thought at the time of Florida’s incredible run of dominance throughout the 90′s and 00′s. And of course, I was vocal about my opinions of how great Florida football was. While I did (and still do) have a God given talent to make hilarious jokes about other teams’ misfortunes, I never knew when to cut it out, and rival fans warned me, “Just wait until Florida’s down. What goes up must come down, like clockwork.” Granted, I was 15 when Urban left and the misery of Muschamp’s tenure began, so I can sort of pardon my own immaturity, but now I can see exactly what those people were talking about.
After all those years of taunting Georgia fans with stuff like “18-3″ (Florida’s record against UGA since Spurrier came along), “49-10″ (the score of the 2008 game), “Timeout Florida” and my now infamous “How do you stop a Georgia Bulldog from…” (if you know me, you know the rest, and if you forgot it, here’s a hint: tattoo a Gator head somewhere) joke, I find myself on the other side of this street, and it’s not fun. But it’s reality. Just like all those people told me would happen, there’s been a complete reversal of fortune. Florida football has not beaten Georgia since Urban Meyer left, and have been uncharacteristically bad in general- just like Georgia was in 2009 and 2010.
The bottom line is that Florida will someday be back. I don’t know when, and I don’t think it will be under Muschamp, but someday, the Gators will rise back to the top. The Gators were once up with Spurrier, went down with Zook, rose back up with Meyer and now fell again with Muschamp. History tells us that it won’t be too long before the Gators are a championship contender once again. With the prestige of three national championships and the recruiting hotbed in the Sunshine State to sell, you can bet Jeremy Foley’s next coach is going to be a good one. That is, if Muschamp himself doesn’t turn it around.
In any case, for better or worse, it’s always great to be a Florida Gator, through good days and bad. I was in Tallahassee for the welcome back parade to greet the Noles on their way back from the airport, and I expected to feel a little jealous watching the garnet and gold clad FSU fans tomahawk chop and scream their support of Jameis Winston & co, in a vein similar to Florida fans jumping up and down at the sight of Tim Tebow after the Gators won the 2008 national championship.
Instead, I just felt kind of like… OK, that’s nice, I guess? It’s a feeling I can’t really describe in words. But part of it went something like this: You won that national title, good for you, and you can keep it. I don’t care. It’s still better to be a Florida Gator in the lowest of lows than a Seminole in the highest of highs. I felt a strange sort of pride watching Jameis hop on a bench and ramble something unintelligible about “we do it big”, and coming to the realization that this is as good as it’s ever going to get for FSU, and yet in this moment, I’m still so proud to be a Gator that I’m wearing a 1997 Sugar Bowl Champions sweatshirt in Tallahassee.
If you’re not a Gator, it’s not something I can explain, and I won’t even try. If you are a Gator, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and I don’t need to explain it. But all I need to say is this: it truly is great to be a Florida Gator, and in all kinds of weather. Even when it storms.
So, what did you take away from last year?