Traditionally, when a team loses in a manner so ugly that the contest can barely be witnessed live, let alone reviewed on tape, the mantra is to just burn the tape. Well, sometimes writers who cover that kind of game follow a similar mantra: burn the copy. This was such a game. That’s what I had to do to with the first draft of this column, which I wrote the night after the game. I torched it. I am glad I did. It afforded a cool-down lap to see things in their proper perspective, which is always the best way to go.
We all knew this game was a proverbial gut-check game. With one SEC loss, and the East division leader hosting the Gators, the margin for error had been eliminated and the team had to rise to another level. It sank. Nobody answered the bell. The stethoscope was in the right place but detected no heart. Regardless of all the problems the team has had forced upon them by the catastrophic volume of injuries, there is still a ton of great athletes and football players taking the field for the Gators, and some of them had to step up and make a play. And if you could count more than three men on the team who did, you had better eyes than I have.
That was the most telling storyline of this game. Not that the offense played terribly for the second-straight week, not that the defense got shredded like scrap wood, and not that as feared Tyler Murphy was not a magician – and when he has forced to run for his life with nobody to throw to and nobody gaining yards on the ground, that he would be just as human and just as unable to make the offense go with the wave of a hand as Jeff Driskel was. The most telling storyline of this game was that nobody outside of Solomon Patton and Kelvin Taylor took the reigns and made a play.
The quarterback and the defensive line get somewhat of a pass, for different reasons. Tyler is excused because as I said when this happened to previous quarterbacks, no signal caller from college to the pros can do anything without at least a little time now and then to get his wits and execute a play. As for the defensive line, how can you hold the group that accountable Saturday, the way they were being held? I’ve been watching football for a number of years and cannot recall any game where the offensive line held as egregiously as the Tigers did Saturday afternoon without ever being flagged. At one point, on consecutive plays, Bullard was dragging a lineman behind him who was clinging to his arm and jersey like Tarzan to a vine. The ref was looking right at him. Right at him. Never even flinched toward the flag in his pocket. At some point, this corrupt officiating has to be addressed by the Athletics Director or other administration at UF in an official manner, but that will not happen for a long time (if ever), so we are left with the directive of having to be good enough to beat a football team and an officiating crew every week. Business as usual at UF.
But clean officiating would not have saved this day for Florida.
Guys Up Front Played Like Behind
The unit that was the most disappointing was of course the offensive line. After being utterly dominated the week before by LSU, the offensive line had its manhood challenged by the coaches. They did not respond to that challenge. Not even a little. That was more difficult to stomach than it was to watch. As much as the OL has labored due to injuries this year, there is no excuse for playing THIS badly. The majority of the Florida offensive plays Saturday – pass or run – were all-out jailhouse breaks for the Tigers’ defense. And it was not just Gator linemen being whipped by speed rushes, being pushed backwards like children and being confused by stunts or blitzes. On most plays, it was clear that nobody had any idea who they were supposed to block. Most of the rushers who came free untouched did so by running right past a Gator offensive lineman who chose to let his run past and instead wait to block some mystery rusher to be named later.
While Florida has seldom been in this dire a depth situation, there have been times in the past where linemen have had to play out of position and injured starters had to be replaced by backups who otherwise should never be on the field in meaningful SEC play. The 1996 season comes to mind, where OL Coach Jimmy Ray Stephens had to shuffle linemen all year due to games being missed, particularly late in the year when they lost an offensive tackle and the center. While All-SEC snapper Jeff Mitchell was lost for the year in the eighth game of the season with a busted knee, little-used and overmatched reserve Wylie Ritch stepped in and did what he had to do to open running lanes and keep Danny Wuerffel’s jersey just clean enough to win a national title. And the rest of the line raised their game at the end of the year to overcome the loss of Mitchell and the temporary loss of future All-SEC tackle Zach Piller.
We did not see any such heroics taking place Saturday in Columbia. And it is a real shame. The offensive line is the single obstacle that the rest of the team cannot overcome. And that unit has unfortunately destroyed what was potentially one of the top two or three stories (or at least biggest feel-good stories) of the year in Tyler Murphy’s quarterback play off the bench. Not that any other units on the team did anything to compensate for the offensive line, or even to do their jobs to a passable level.
Linebacker play was undisciplined and overall atrocious for the second-straight game. The defensive backs were at times – all the critical times – simply awful. The wide receivers dropped passes all day, when they weren’t doing volleyball sets to the Missouri defense of course. There was just 3:23 left in the game when the Gators made only their second big hit of the day, and that by a backup – Jarrod Davis. You can’t go on the road in the SEC and make two good hits all day and expect not to get buried like the Gators did Saturday.
Back to Reality
All that having been said, all those finger having been wagged at the players (and they certainly were nothing compared to what the coaching staff will be giving them the next two weeks), the reality of the situation is that while the 2013 season is deteriorating fast, it is not the 2013 Gator team suffering these losses. Not the team that was supposed to be playing, at least. We all know that the offense started the game without its starting quarterback, starting running back, starting right tackle, starting wide receiver and probable starting tight end all due to injury, and had their starting right guard playing with a badly torn pectoral muscle. But the defense that played so badly Saturday has nearly caught up to the offense in injuries. After the first play of the game, the Gator defense played Missouri without its starting nose tackle, starting defensive tackle, starting linebacker and starting safety. And of course, the Gators have seen missed games or substantial parts of games from a second starting linebacker, two starting cornerbacks, the starting center and the starting left offensive tackle.
Between injuries, suspensions and ejections, the Gators have lost just one player shy of half of their starting 22 at some point or another this year.
At some point you have to just say, “Okay 2013, we give up. You got us.”
We have that luxury as fans. The players do not. And that’s the hope going forward.
What Changes Await?
This week, Coach Muschamp said that changes were coming and that he would “fight my @ss off” because his back is against the wall. The assumption by many fans is that Muschamp’s talk about his back being against the wall is in reference to his coaching tenure – that he is feeling the heat from Jeremy Foley, fans, boosters, what have you – and that he feels he is in a fight for his job.
For those who are chalking this up to the proverbial “vote of confidence” kiss of death, I would offer this question:
With what degree of certainty do we believe his “back against the wall” comment refers to his coaching tenure?
Because there is no reason I can think of that would rule out the possibility that he was talking about the SEC East race in 2013, or simply the prospect of having a strong overall season in 2013.
To win the East, UF has to win its last three and have Missouri lose three of its last five (or have them lose two and then have Florida win a three-way tie-breaker, but that is highly unlikely given that Florida is currently last in all tie-breaking categories). Missouri still has to play South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, all of which have a decent chance of beating them. The Tigers losing three SEC games this year is not a long shot at all. Florida has two weeks to prepare for UGA, who is having almost as many injury problems as Florida is, and their defense reeks as badly or worse than Florida’s offense does. South Carolina just lost to a Tennessee team that UF dominated. Vandy is Vandy. Florida can very well win those three games if they solve some of their OL issues. They won’t have to solve all of them, just enough.
And anyone who has been a Gator fan since 1992 (or an LSU fan since 2007) knows that you absolutely can win a division title in the SEC with two losses, even when the competition is great.
So, why would we assume that Champ is talking about his coaching tenure? He is 15-4 in the last season and a half against the toughest schedule in the nation over that span. Why would he feel his job is in danger? Because a faction of fans pining for Spurrier dial-a-score games are upset that our offense is struggling without four or five starters (depending on the tight end projection) out for the year and three other starters missing games or large chunks of games? The Gator offense was not “sexy” but it was playing pretty decently given all those personnel losses before the OL started to play two weeks ago like they just picked up the game.
I don’t think that Coach Muschamp feels his job is in any danger, and I think he is correct. And if he did, I seriously doubt he would start to talk to the media about it in such a way, like his neck is out there on the block. I think he was talking about this season alone. He knows he has his third-straight stellar recruiting class coming in this year and 2014 is when his program will be taken over by more of his signees than Meyer recruits, and he feels the future is bright and the sky is the limit. I think he was talking about this year and this SEC East race when he mentioned his back against the wall.
I think there are jobs on the line right now, but not Muschamp’s. The jobs of one or more assistants may start to be more closely evaluated, and certainly the starting job of a number of under-achieving players may be on the line over the next couple of weeks. Muschamp benched the best punter in the nation from last year, even after he threw the best pass of the year for the Gators against LSU, and of course he demoted both the first- and second-string placekickers. So he is not shy about benching entrenched starters who are not doing their jobs.
Unfortunately, the one area that needs to be “coached with the bench” more than any other is the unit that has no bench with which to coach: the offensive line. The coaching staff will have to make some changes in scheme, game plan and strategy, and probably some practice and game approaches over the next two weeks to try to salvage the season with a win over Georgia. However, I am very curious as to just how much can be done with this offensive line. If they cannot play markedly better than they have the last two weeks, it won’t matter what changes are made. They won’t work.
Long Range Plans
For those who grumbled or just got a good laugh over the brief mention of the Gators’ remaining stake in the SEC East (stranger things have happened), there is still hope for the more long-range future. The future beyond December, 2013. And that hope can be found in a place where few Gator fans look to for anything but scorn: Tallahassee.
FSU should also serve as a prime example of why we should look to the future with high expectations and why nobody should mess with Coach Muschamp until he has had a chance to right the Gator ship. Jimbo Fisher has been building the program at FSU for seven years. That’s how long since he was hired as the head-coach-in-waiting. It’s taken seven years of mediocre-to-terrible teams to get to the point of looking this good (and still, against mostly horrible competition).
Clemson was the first team they’ve faced that is not horrible, but their defense has always been horrible, and their offense has been falling apart the last few weeks – this was just the final rung on the ladder they have fallen off since opening the season so strong against Georgia (which defense is miserable and facilitated their offense as much as they could). But lack of complete buy-in aside, the Semis look great in the context of their competition and they are a smoothly-running machine that is making their fans giddy to watch them every week.
It took Jimbo seven years to get here.
Muschamp had to take a year to clean up and clean out a broken program. He has been coaching a bought-in program for just 20 games now. That’s one game over 1.5 years. Jimbo took seven. And he still has not won anything worth mentioning at parties.
Everyone in Gator Nation is fawning over FSU this year, and some want Muschamp fired. Even though ‘Champ won 11 games last year and crushed FSU, in only Year Two of his head coaching career. Now he’s having troubles in Year Three – troubles, I might add, that everyone predicted and knew were coming even before all the injuries. Jimbo took seven to get here. If FSU had fired Fisher two years ago, they’d still be terrible and would still be terrible three years from now and be at another coaching crossroads decision of whether to fire or wait it out. But the FSU Athletics Director and administration had enough faith and belief in Fisher to stick it out through all those ugly, ugly years. You think losing to LSU and Missouri feels bad? Try losing to Wake Forest three years in a row and see how that fits.
If you are confident the coach will get you there, you give him the time to do it. Jeremy Foley is confident in Muschamp. So are a ton of Gator fans. Some are not, but they are basing that on short term results and not looking at the great job he did getting the program from the dumpster fire of 2010 to the 11-win team of 2012.
We’re watching the sausage being made, which is never pretty. And this year, a lot of the machinery has broken down. But if we shut down the sausage factory now, all the sausage will spoil and we’ll have to wait for a new shipment to come in and start all over again.
And there will be no guarantee that the new owner will do any better. There is no guarantee Florida will hire the next Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago.