In honor of Flashback Friday, allow me to take you back a decade in time.
Long, long ago, in the ancient year of 2004 AD, a man by the name of Ronald Zook took his 4-2 Gators into Starkville, Mississippi to take on a 2-4 Mississippi State team that was, for lack of a better word, bad. They’d already lost to what turned out to be a 2-9 Vanderbilt team by 18. They’d lost to UAB by two touchdowns. They’d even lost at home to a Maine- yes, the Maine Black Bears- team that finished 5-6 in the FCS.
When that Mississippi State team, with all those horrendous losses, defeated Florida 38-31, Ron Zook’s career as Head Gator was over.
Now let’s come back to the present. The situation with Will Muschamp is a little different. The Tennessee team he’s getting his Gators set to play in Knoxville is not a very good one by any means, but they’re nowhere near the laughingstock the Maroon and White Bulldogs were in Sylvester Croom’s first season. Yet, like Zook was heading into that game, Muschamp enters this game on a seat that’s only slightly cooler than a noon Mexican sun.
I don’t really need to say why, do I? I don’t really need to explain how guiding Florida to their two worst seasons since the 1970’s in a three year span qualifies the current coach for hot seat status, right? I shouldn’t need to clarify why losing at home to a lower division school for the first time ever makes me a bit dubious about the direction of the program, correct? In those two ways, Muschamp is actually worse than Zook. The Zooker never had a losing season, nor did he even flirt with one the way Muschamp did twice. Nor did he lose to a team from the FCS (though he did lose to an SEC team that lost to an FCS team, but I digress). But you know what? Right now, none of that matters. No, I’m being serious. It doesn’t. Somehow, some way, Will Muschamp still has a job coaching the Florida Gators, and he’s got a big game on Saturday.
Here’s the difference between this article and the one I wrote a year ago for Alligator Army saying Muschamp had to beat Georgia. Last year, the message was: “lose, and Muschamp should be fired”. This year, the message is: “lose, and he will be fired”. Maybe not immediately after the game, maybe not during the week and maybe not after the next loss. But by National Signing Day, the Gators will have a new head coach, and just like Mississippi State was Ron Zook’s dagger, this loss will ultimately be Muschamp’s dagger.
It really wouldn’t matter what Florida did the rest of the season. Muschamp cannot possibly undo the damage of losing to Tennessee. Even going on the road and beating Florida State wouldn’t help. It didn’t help Zook, because his bed was already made, and it wouldn’t help Muschamp for the same reason. The damage is already done, and with the near certainty of a loss eradicating the Gators from the SEC East race, what reason is there to believe in anything better in the future?
There are emotional reasons behind this, too. Florida has lost all sorts of bragging rights under Will Muschamp; the dominance of Georgia, the bowl streak, the Vanderbilt streak and more. One of the few bragging tools left is their nine straight wins over Tennessee. Losing to a team they’ve beaten nine straight times would kill fans’ optimism in the team, and thus attendance, and recruiting.
Contrary to what some of you may think, Jeremy Foley is a smart man. His reign as the Florida AD has produced 24 national championships in 22 years, including five in the two biggest sports; football and basketball. He’s also not perfect (no one is), as he’s already messed up one football hire in Ron Zook, and is very, very close- about one loss away- to the overwhelming majority becoming two bad hires. Having said that, those 24 national titles have given him a bit of an ego, which I’m not at all faulting him for- I’d have an even bigger ego if I was the AD of a school that averaged more than one championship per year- but an ego that has to disappear if he wants to continue having success in college athletics’ biggest sport.
This same ego is what drives him to keep Muschamp as long as he can. Foley believed that he found a home run hire in the former Texas defensive coordinator because of his youth and strong reputation of building great defenses. He wants to keep believing that the man he found was the perfect man for the Florida job. And even though losses to Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt (not to mention the six other losses last year) made him think twice- they had to- he stuck with his gut, which told him to hang on, and that there were better days coming.
But egos are not permanent. Foley’s statement last week about “Muschamp will get the entire year to be judged” indicated that he has realized that maybe his home run hire wasn’t really a home run after all. Though the words, when taken literally, piss me off a great deal each time I see them, there’s a cryptic message embedded in them: “The night I hired Will Muschamp, I got into bed fully convinced that he would lead us to a national championship. Last night, I got into bed still believing he can lead us to a national championship, but I am no longer certain that he will.”
Which means that Muschamp is officially taking his last stand tomorrow. The confidence of the man who hired him is the most important, and that man’s confidence is finally starting to dwindle. When you believe in something for a long time, the way Foley believed Muschamp was his man, it’s very difficult to change that belief. But once it does start to change- once the first hint of doubt appears- every new piece of information or data that opposes your original belief will help build a rolling snowball.
So onto the game itself. Tennessee’s 2-2 record doesn’t really indicate how good or bad they are; they’ve lost to Oklahoma (blowout) and Georgia (close) on the road, and beaten Utah State and Arkansas State at home. You can’t really get too good a read on them, other than that they’re not world beaters. We do know Florida has a great defense, despite what happened two weeks ago in Tuscaloosa. The front seven is nasty, and the secondary, while extremely young, is very talented and capable of making big plays.
On the flip side, Tennessee’s offense as a whole isn’t terrible, but their offensive line is, which means that a good front seven will render the offense terrible. I expect Florida’s front seven to have a field day; getting to Justin Worley and blowing up running plays before they even get started is almost a given, as good as Jalen Hurd is. In Tennessee’s last two games against Oklahoma and Georgia, the Vols’ offense ran 24 plays that lost yardage (including ten sacks). That’s not even including the five turnovers their offense committed, which certainly get chalked up as plays won by the defense regardless of how many yards are gained or lost.
In short, I’m not worried about the Gators’ defense. I’m worried about the offense.
Can Florida score points tomorrow? Sure. Defensively, Tennessee is weak against the run and solid against the pass. If this Gator offense has a strength, I’d have to say it’s the running game. As long as Jeff Driskel doesn’t do anything stupid (like throw down the middle of the field into triple coverage), I really do like Florida’s chances to put up some crooked numbers.
So can Florida win?
Absolutely, they can. Back in the summer, I predicted Florida to win an ugly turnover fest of a game. I’m going to stick with that prediction even though deep down, I have a really bad feeling about the game. I just can’t help but think that Florida will turn it over several times, penalize themselves all the way to Chattanooga, and do everything in their power to lose. I’d love to be wrong, but self destruction has been a problem since Will Muschamp’s first game at Florida, and if anything, they’ve gotten worse since then, so why should I believe they won’t make an unwelcome appearance tomorrow in Knoxville?
Again, though, I’m going to pick Florida to overcome those issues and find a way to win even though I don’t know why I’m doing this. Maybe it’s because the name of my website is In All Kinds Of Weather, and maybe it’s because I truly do believe in that mantra.
I’ll conclude this post with a short letter to Will Muschamp.
You’re on your last legs here in Gainesville, and while nobody who makes these decisions will say it publicly, we all know it’s true. You’re a great defensive coach and a great person who believes in building a program of character, not characters, and I respect you for both of those things. But you’ve got to win tomorrow.
You say you learn from defeats. Well, you’ve suffered quite a bit of them at UF, so by that logic you have to be one of the most learned men in the game. Use all you’ve learned, from your graduate assistant days at Valdosta State, to your days as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator, and everything in between and after, to get your players ready to beat the Vols tomorrow.
You’re a good man, Will. I really do believe that. Lots of people have trouble separating a human being from a player or coach, but I don’t. However, your days as a coach are numbered. When it’s all said and done, I doubt you coach the Gators in 2015.
I’ve been wrong before, and I admit that I could be again. So prove me wrong, Will. Prove that your “every game means the same” mentality can translate to winning all those games. Yes, all of them, as in finish the season 10-1. Sound a little tough? Sure it is, but that’s the mess you started last year. That’s what happens when you go 4-8. 10-1 is what you’re shooting for. Should your Gators go 9-2 with a close loss to a good team, yeah, you’ll probably stay. But you are in a position where your next loss is likely to be the breaking point for Jeremy Foley.
I don’t think you’re capable of pulling this off. But like I said before, prove me wrong.
Take your team, and take your last stand.