The Mark Miller Report: Reason for optimism

Just what does the future hold for snake-bitten Gators? Should Gator fans be optimistic about 2014 or is 2013 the beginning of a stretch of difficult years for the Florida football team? For now, put aside the tiresome argument over who the coaching staff should or will contain next season and let’s assume that all of the current coaches remain. What is left of 2013 and can this Gator team turn around a disastrous 2013 against a very difficult schedule in 2014? What would and should be considered successful next season?

First, let’s take a quick look at what is left of 2013. Two games remain on Florida’s regular season schedule. The Gators will have to win both to become bowl eligible. Georgia Southern is not a powerhouse even at its own level this year. In their final year in Division IAA, the Eagles are 6-4 against a schedule that does not include a single BCS conference opponent. I know that the doom and gloom folks are predicting a loss, but I think that is beyond unlikely. This is not the Georgia Southern team of the past. Florida should be able to just line up and run the ball down the Eagles’ throat. As long as the defense plays assignment football this game should be all but over by halftime. Obviously, the Florida State game is another matter. All common sense would indicate not only a Seminole win but a blowout. This is, however, a rivalry game and as such anything is possible. I am not saying that I think Florida will win but I do believe that there is at least a remote possibility based just on what I’ve seen in this series over the years. Winning out and making a bowl would be a huge accomplishment for this injury-laden Florida team. We can only hope.

The real question is what Gator fans realistically can expect for 2014. While the schedule is tough there is no Miami game early to deal with. Florida opens with two very winnable non-conference games and then Kentucky, all at home. This is followed by a trip to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama. Clearly, few will expect to win that game, but Alabama WILL be breaking in a new quarterback and no matter how highly rated these kids are coming out of high school you never know until they take the field against SEC competition. The rest of the schedule is pretty much what Florida faces every season and it is always tough. If the goal is to reach Atlanta and the Southeastern Conference Championship Game,  the Gators will probably need to either beat one of the two SEC West opponents or go undefeated against SEC East competition. That will take a much-improved Florida team.

Just how improved can that Gator team really be? While injuries have taken a brutal toll on the offensive line this season, they have also provided the Gators with several returning offensive linemen with playing experience for 2104. Most of these players should be more developed and SEC savvy next season. Add to that the probable return of Chaz Green and this could be a decent unit. All of the running backs return along with the addition of stout Adam Lane, who redshirted this season, and the expected arrival of Dalvin Cook. Personally, I believe that Jeff Driskel is a better quarterback than many Gator fans give him credit for and that a season on the sideline might be just the opportunity Jeff needed to get his feet on the ground. With the emergence of Tyler Murphy as a viable option at the position and the arrival of Will Grier, there need not be the dire fear of an injury that fans came into 2013 bearing. If some of the young players at wide receiver and tight end finally step up the offense should have the talent to be an asset instead of a liability for the Gators. Of course, that optimism is tempered by concerns about Brent Pease and his schemes. Pease will have to prove that he can utilize these assets. Only time will tell.

Defensively, Florida will have a lot of returning talent even if both Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy leave early for the NFL. Ronald Powell, Daunte Fowler and Jonathon Bullard will all be back.  Vernon Hargreaves gives the Gators a big time playmaker in the secondary and there is a lot of experienced depth back there with him. Antonio Morrison, Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor should all return at linebacker. This could very well be a better defense in 2014 than it was in 2013. Muschamp has shown the ability to put together a solid defense and this one could be his best yet. Florida must figure out and repair whatever has gone wrong with the kicking game though.

It is critical that the staff hold together and build upon what has been a pretty good recruiting class so far. My concern is whether the coaches can convince offensive recruits that there really is a plan to field a real offense. It will be hard to expect offensive playmakers to want to play in the ineptitude that we saw out of the Gator offense this season. I believe that much of the offensive scheming has been affected by the ability of the current roster to execute, but there have clearly been offensive philosophy issues as well. Hopefully, Will Muschamp and Brent Pease have acknowledged the fundamental flaws with their previous philosophy. An offense that invites the opposing defense to stack the box with virtually no fear that the game plan will change to exploit the secondary is not going to work. At least it is not going to work against SEC defenses.

So there you have it, I believe that there really is reason for optimism for the future of Gator football. I can’t imagine one team getting hit with this many injuries two years in a row. Did anyone notice Matt Patchan walking around the football facility with a voodoo queen incanting spells and casting strange smoke around the two of them? It is almost as if Matt left all of his bizarre injury luck in Gainesville upon his departure. A reasonable improvement in the injury situation and a little flexibility by the coaching staff and this team could be poised to do something special next season. I know that some of you will find that very hard to believe but I believe it.