Well our whole season can be summed up in three plays Saturday:
1. On Florida’s first possession, second play, Trey Burton runs for 50 yards to the FSU 33 yard line. It was not that play, however that defined our season. It was his next carry, a play later, when he injured his shoulder on the tackle, and was lost for the rest of the season (even though that season was only for 4 more quarters).
2. On that same first drive, when Florida could have been the first to draw blood and send a message that they were here to compete, Florida misses the field goal.
3. After pinning FSU on their own 4 yard line, trailing 3-0 about halfway through the second quarter, the Gators had the Semis trapped on their own 15 with a third and 26. And the defense allowed the conversion. And then laid down for the rest of the drive and let them walk to an easy touchdown, 10-0 score, all hope gone, game over.
And inherent in that #3 is that the refs helped us lose, as they have all year. The 26-yard conversion was at least a yard short of the first down marker, but they gave a ridiculously favorable spot – which was still visibly short – and just signaled the first down and moved the chains without even considering a measurement.
All day long, our defensive rushers were hugged, held, tackled and tripped by the FSU OL and they were only flagged once all day. Many will say it was inconsequential in a 30-point loss, but since FSU had to beat us throwing the ball – they were not going to secure victory on the ground against us. And Florida was getting great penetration and pressure in the first quarter, taking Winston out of his rhythm and comfort zone and disrupting their total offense. But then the holding started to elevate and shut us down. If they were flagged as they should have been and forced to stop the egregious holding, there is no telling how badly the hits would have hurt Winston. There is no telling whether he would ever have gotten things together through the air if he weren’t allowed to have a clean pocket the rest of the game through carte blanche holding by the offensive line. There is no telling if the defense would not have been able to get a pick-6 when it was still close to put the game on its ear.
Let’s revisit the three plays that defined our season:
1. Burton’s injury: The entire offense for the day was designed around Burton running the wildcat. The staff had planned 30 to 35 plays with Burton taking the snap and dispensing or creating plays. Then after an all-too-brief success, an all-too-brief peek at what could have been, it was all ripped away by something over which nobody on the team or staff has any control: injury. Like all season, good or bad, the staff devised the best plan they could come up with given their dwindling roster, and they were cut off at the knees by injury. Once again.
2. Missed field goal: All season long, even when the staff and the players do everything possible to eke out the needed yardage and put themselves in position to scratch out some points, some momentum, a lead – it all evaporates because of one inexcusable inability to execute one simple assignment. This time it was kicking a field goal. Against Georgia, it was wrapping up a third down tackle after stopping the receiver well short of the first down that ended the game. Against South Carolina, it was dropping an easy fake punt conversion. Against Miami, it was (pick a turnover). The list goes on. And on.
3. Allowing FSU to escape their own end zone and to convert third-and-forever: All year long, no matter what terrible positions the defense was put into by the inept offense, there has always been one critical drive or series or play when the defense just needed to rise up and make a stop and the game might have ultimately been a win. But they didn’t. They broke in a huge, loud and devastating way. Again.
No matter how many injuries we’ve had, no matter how many players we’ve had to play out of position, no matter how many second and third and fourth stringers we have had to rush into action before they were ready, no matter how badly every series-to-series break has gone against us this year, the opportunities were still there in every game. And then someone or some unit or some coach just failed to do that last single thing it took to push it to the next level.
The very fact that the Gators were still just a handful of plays away from wining or at least being in a position to win so many of their lost games this year that they really had no business being in contention to win, should give everyone hope for next year’s prospects. I am among the faction that believes that we are still a long way from being an elite team again, from a roster standpoint. We are an elite program, and we may or may not have an elite record next year, but we will not be an elite team next year from a purely depth and talent perspective. And it will take at least two years to rebuild to that point again.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the tools to mask these holes and record a successful season in 2014, just like the Gators did in 2012. But it will be a struggle, it will take a significant effort by staff and players. But it can be done. The Gator season last year tells us that. Auburn’s season this year tells us that. Missouri’s season this year tells us that. It can be done. To some extent, it must be done.
Looking Ahead, Pt 2
The changes to the Florida coaching staff are circling Florida Field right now, and there is no telling when they will hit the ground – perhaps before this column is even posted. So I will hold off on comment as to the additions until they happen officially. I mentioned in an earlier column after a game this year that it cost someone his job. It’s been released by insiders now that it happened that week and disclosure was held under wraps until the season ended. Most are satisfied with the dismissal of Brent Pease, many also with the release of Tim Davis, and some believe that Muschamp should have joined them. While some paint me as a Muschamp apologist, as I clarified last week, I am Muschamp agnostic. All season, I have stood by two main positions with regards to Muschamp, and I have arrived at them not by advocating but by observing, analyzing and reflecting on all the evidence to date as best I can:
1. I do not think that Champ is an elite head coach or even a great head coach right now. He is not a complete head coach right now. But that’s not what Foley hired. He didn’t hire a complete head coach or an elite or even great head coach. He hired a HCIW (Head Coach In Waiting) who was going to learn on the job and BECOME the great or elite coach Foley believes he is capable of becoming. For what it is worth, the power players at Texas also thought this about Muschamp and thus he was the standing HCIW for the Longhorns, the fabled “best job in the business.” And there was a pretty long line of top programs who also thought the same about Muschamp before Florida gobbled him up. Many Gator fans did not want a coach who has to learn on the job, but we must accept that getting high profile head coaches who are already established greats to just switch programs is not a very easy trick to perform. Since that is what Foley gave us, that is the context in which I judge Muschamp. And I saw last year all the evidence I needed to believe he will grow into a great head coach, maybe even an elite head coach. And he has to then build on that and progress in that direction, something that was not humanly possible for him to do given the injuries this year. But I don’t know this for a fact; it is impossible to know this. Just as it is impossible to know that if we hire a current elite head coach like Les Miles, Nick Saban or Urban Meyer again, if they would continue to be elite at UF. You simply never know until it either happens or it doesn’t.
2. I do not believe anyone in Gator Nation – including Foley – has had enough evidence to convict or acquit Muschamp, or to know for sure if he is the answer or if he is not the answer. Dismissing 2011, which was nothing but janitorial work extinguishing the Urban Meyer dumpster fire and getting the program on one page, he has had two years with an uneven and shallow roster. In those two years, he has excelled one season and fallen flat the next. But again, in the year he fell flat, he did not trip on his own feet; he was pushed. HARD. For that simple reason, I believe it would be foolish to fire a man who could in a couple years be a great head coach. And should we fire him, he would go and be that great head coach at one of our rival schools – one whose fans and boosters have a little more patience – and rest assured he would circle us as his most important foe every year he plays us. On that you can bet your last dollar. I also believe it would be unfair to fire him until he’s had a fair chance to prove he is going to be that great or elite coach or not.
Now as for the firing or Pease and Davis, I do not have as much clarity as many Gator fans. I think that a major change had to be made because of all the terrible public relations this season has generated, and as such these two make the most sense as sacrificial lambs. But like Muschamp, I cannot hold them responsible for losing all their players to injuries.
However, the case is easy to make for their termination.
The Case for Davis: I think it could have gone either way. He is a very good coach – his career has proved that – and he did a pretty good job in many ways getting the OL to work around their injuries the last two years. And I cannot ignore the fact that most of the active rotation have been switched around between two to three position coaches and blocking schemes in their UF careers and injuries have never allowed any of them to develop any semblance of continuity, comfort or rhythm with their fellow line mates at any time – something that is essential to successful line play. However, the macro-managing of the line in the end could not trump the micro-deficiencies in the fact that at most times over the last two years, few if any of the linemen ever performed like they knew what their assignment was on any given play. Technique from hand placement to footwork has been poor to abysmal, even among our most seasoned veterans. While there are only a finite number of coaching hours allowed by the NCAA, and the macro issues may have doomed the micro issues as a matter of time allotment in a zero sum game, the bottom line is that the unit never performed well enough to warrant his retention.
The Case for Pease: As mentioned, I have a hard time justifying the placement of blame on the shoulders of Pease when he was the most hamstrung member of the coaching staff. Not only did he have to deal last year with making lemonade out of lemon rinds (first-time starter at QB, no SEC-level wide receivers, 1 running back, 1 tight end who did not know the playbook or the offensive signals, and 4/5 of his starting line playing with one arm and one leg the entire second half of the season), but this year his unit suffered the brunt of the injuries both in total and in season-ending dingers. And in efforts to overcome all of this he has had his good moments the last two years. Trouble is, they were too few and too far between. Given all his handicaps that were beyond his control, I would have a hard time dismissing him if he still maximized his resources. However, he did not. He may not have done enough to be fired, but in a year like 2013, at an elite program like Florida, he did not do enough to keep his job.
The most glaring deficiency of the Pease tenure was his failure to even give a nod to the passing game. I understand the personnel and injury limitations, but there was an iron ceiling beyond which he would not dare to venture. More like an iron wall, set in stone about two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. I exaggerate the point, but not by much. Beyond that, there was always a glaring lack of imagination in the passing routes; there were no limbs on those trees, let alone leaves. Lack of pre-snap motion and lack of post-snap urgency. When you have a distinct lack of play-makers, are at a speed disadvantage at all the skill positions, and have linemen who have a terrible difficulty engaging their blocks let alone holding them, the last thing you want to do is make every running and pass play be as slow-developing as humanly possible, which is exactly what the Pease offense did. The time-of-possession game plan was always to move so slowly as to milk the clock of every second before the snap, but many times it seemed as if that was the plan for after the snap as well.
As two final nails in the coffin, Pease is not an energetic presence and he does not really participate in recruiting. An offensive coordinator needs to either be aces as a teacher, schematic developer and play caller while being a decent recruiter, or he needs to be a decent teacher, schematic developer and play caller while being an ace recruiter. He can’t be neither. Not at Florida. Which is why that is exactly what Pease is now: not at Florida.
Looking Ahead, Pt 3: Home Run on Pause?
Everyone is looking for the offensive coordinator hire to be a home run connection. A huge name that will wow recruits and fans alike. But the truth is it will likely not happen. That is, no matter who Muschamp hires, we won’t know if it is a home run until next fall, or perhaps even later than that. In the short term, Champ can still meet the criteria of a four-bagger pickup as far as impressing recruits and exciting fans, but long-term whether it is Major Applewhite, Clay Helton or Josh McDaniels, the proof will be in the pudding and not in the ink of a contract signature or the buzz of an introduction presser.
And we should be happy with that.
Sure I’d love to have an up-front guarantee, but it’s simply not in the offing. As much as I want to have immediate gratification and have immediate confidence restored to my outlook of the Gator offense, as do we all, the truth of the matter is that I really enjoy watching these things play themselves out. After all, isn’t that the whole reason we watch and follow sports? To watch the unknown play out to its mystery finish? Do you think Auburn fans would have rather just been told that they beat Bama Saturday, or would they have wanted to watch with their hearts in their throats for 60 minutes to see that final play? Sure it was a little less enjoyable for the Bama fans, but by the same token they got their money’s worth. Whoever the new offensive coordinator is, or the new OL coach, Gator fans will get their money’s worth.
Looking Ahead, Pt 4
For my part, I am looking forward to next year just as a writer and analyst. I am a strategist by trade and I love breaking down the strategic angles and matchups for each game, the personnel matchups, the schematic matchups, you name it. All that vanished this season after the Tennessee game. After Driskel and Easley were lost for the year three days apart, there ceased to be any need to evaluate what is usually the nuts and bolts of football competitive analysis. It became a week-to-week exercise in trying to anticipate how the staff would or could try to assemble a winning plan around whoever was left on the active roster, trying to anticipate how it would succeed or fail, and trying to anticipate who would be the next Gator to be injured and lost for the season. I look forward to breaking down next year’s X’s and O’s, and saying goodbye to this year’s heXes and Oh-no’s.
Next year, I can go back to what I like most about analyzing Gator games and the fans can go back to what they like most: enjoying Gator games. Because even when the Gators lose, game week is still enjoyable; talking smack to rival fans is still enjoyable; talking matchups with friends is still enjoyable; game day is still enjoyable; and even watching the game – up until it results in a loss – is enjoyable….all this is still enjoyable when the Gators have a chance to win. In college football, any Gator team at relatively full strength – any year – has a chance to beat any opponent. In 2013, with all our personnel losses, very few of the game weeks following the Tennessee win held promise of a possible victory, let alone a probable one. While everyone reacted with shock and outrage with each mounting loss, truthfully we should have been shocked and amazed we were even close to winning any of them.
Next year, we should enjoy every week with a viable chance to win every game. Next year, we may not be favored for every game, but if we don’t have more than the usual injuries, we will enter every game with victory a possibility. Next year, good, great or average, we return to normalcy. Next year. Until then, remember that every day is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.