PD’s Future Implications: Part IV
Having reviewed the state of the programs in the SEC, the state of Florida and the other upper crust programs around the country and projected their threat level to the future of Florida football over the next several years, it is clear that the opportunity for Florida to regain its spot as the premier program in the nation is there for the taking. It will not be given lightly, of course, as Nick Saban and Alabama will not go gentle into that good night. Though wise men at their end know dark is right, they will surely rage, rage against the dying of their might. Perhaps “dying” is a tad strong, as they are not going away by any stretch. Likewise, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and the like are not going to wilt away. Florida will have to forcibly take it back from them. It often seems that Gator Nation has the memory of a squirrel, which species forgets where it hid 80 percent of its buried nuts a mere month after doing so, because the going perception among many Gators fans is that Saban and Alabama has ruled the SEC with an iron fist since the beginning of time. Since the beginning of the 1990s, however it has been Florida that has ruled the SEC, and often dominated it.
Since 1990, there have been 23 seasons of SEC football, and Florida has won nine of those titles. That’s nearly 40 percent of the conference crowns over that time and more than twice as many as Alabama and LSU have won (four apiece, 17 percent), while Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn have won just twice (eight percent). I am counting titles won on the field, not decided after the fact by people with vested interest in taking titles away from Florida, so I count the Gators’ 1990 title and the Tide’s 1999 title. And at the beginning of this incredible national title-winning streak by the SEC, it was Florida — not Alabama — winning two of three and almost winning three of four.
I point this out as backdrop to the premise that Florida can and should possibly even be expected to take back the throne of premier program in the SEC and the nation. It is not far-fetched, because it was in fact reality just a short three years ago. That’s when Alabama forcibly took the throne away from the Gators and they must now forcibly take it back. So it is time to turn the analytic eye on the Gators program to project just when this might happen.
I have been following the Gators program very closely since the early 80s, and I have concluded that this year has been the most eye-opening season I have ever witnessed as far as a head coach and coaching staff in general showing — more specifically proving — such a magnitude of ability over expectations. With all the previous coaches in my time, we knew to a great extent what was coming. We knew Charley Pell would build a program and it would probably not be exactly “street legal.” We knew what Steve Spurrier could do from his days at Georgia Tech, Duke and with the Bandits of the USFL — the only real question was how far and how fast he would elevate the program, and how successful his unique offense would be in the power conference SEC. With Ron Zook, we knew it was an unmeasured risk that could blow up in our faces (and boy howdy, did it). And then Urban Meyer arrived with almost the exact same expectations level as did Spurrier: proven winner, was going to be successful but how well would the unique offense work in the power conference SEC?
With Will Muschamp, we got our first real wildcard in the last thirty years. He carried a multifaceted reputation as a great coach, excellent defensive mind, intense motivator and top shelf recruiter, but like Zook, he had never tested his wares as a head coach. There is never any way to tell how an incredible coordinator with all the bona fides will succeed as a head coach until he does it. Or doesn’t.
But in 2012, Muschamp did not just lay to rest any concerns of translating his coaching abilities through the step up to the head coaching position, he obliterated them and indeed caused his perceived potential to explode. Enter the obligatory “BOOM!” here. It was not just that he won all but one of the games in 2012 against the empirically toughest schedule in the nation – and one of the toughest schedules in the history of the sport, having to play five teams that ranked in the national top 5 at some point in the season. It was not just that he accomplished this with a team that was 7-6 last year and projected to do only marginally better in 2012, if at all. It is the way in which he approached each game, dissected the internal and opponents’ strengths and weaknesses each week, identified the correct coaching priorities and devised a different winning game plan every week of the season. I say every week, because the UF staff schemed the winning plan for the Cocktail Party, there was just no way to overcome six turnovers, five injured offensive linemen and a thunderstorm of suspiciously timely penalties. When you look at each game as its own self-contained ecosystem, and each week as its own season, this staff did a remarkable job of the whole task of game preparation from Sunday to Saturday, and made each week uniquely tailored to what they perfectly diagnosed to be the impacting game day matchups.
And when the games began, they did an incredible job throughout the year observing the critical successes and failures on the field, both tactically and situationally, and made real-time and halftime adjustments that hit the mark like an Olympian archer. If it seems I am laying it on a bit thick, trust me when I say that I am really just this impressed with what I saw out of Muschamp and this staff this year. To be able to do all of this that I have described is a very difficult task for twelve games a year, if a staff has their full depth and instrumentation with which to work. But as we know, this team suffered not only the standard randomly assorted injuries throughout the year, but also was utterly crippled for over a month smack dab in the middle of the season with all five of its starting linemen (as well as key backups) being so badly injured that they either missed games or played at about 50 percent or 60 percent at best. And with no depth on which to fall back on, coaching around and scheming around this magnitude of debilitation to an 11-1 record against our schedule was nothing short of amazing.
And while there will no doubt be times when Champ, Pease or Quinn do not pull just the right strings at just the right times, this is their baseline. And we can expect it to remain stable for a long time — something that has not been experienced in Gainesville for a good spell. While great assistants will always leave for advancement positions, stability depends on two things: keeping the same head coach, and that coach’s ability to fill his departing staff positions with coaches that are as good or better than those they are replacing. With the glaring exception of Charlie Weis (and in all honestly, one has to take that risk given his resume of success as an offensive coordinator) and Aubrey Hill, Muschamp has made hires, replacement hires and even retentions that have been simply amazing. I think in years to come, the college football world will look back on this Florida staff the way they currently look back on the Nick Saban LSU staff in 2004 that included Muschamp, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Derek Dooley. In another 5-10 years, CBS will be showing a picture of the staff’s group photo with a bunch of circles around coaches who will then be notable head coaches. And Muschamp will still be at Florida. He has no NFL aspirations and loves Gainesville, the town in which he grew up. He is only 41 years old, and for all of his sideline artery-popping fury, he is not a candidate for burnout because he leaves it on the field and in the football offices. He is a very calm and happy guy who does not obsess himself into an emotional coma as many coaches do in this sort of high-pressure job. Odds are very high that Muschamp will be the Florida head coach for many, many years and retire as such an old and very successful man.
Obviously, the team has been engineered to play smothering defense, and it has done just that for Champ’s first two years. With graduation and early NFL defection hits relatively light this year, Florida is positioned to be the best defense in the country in 2013. I happen to think it was the best in the country in 2012, and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to be among the nation’s elite.
The most notable loss on defense of course will be Sharrif Floyd’s departure for the draft. But the defensive line will remain stout. Leon Orr was really coming into his own in 2012 and I believe will be a strong force in the middle, as will Dominique Easley, who this year added good tackling technique to his fast up-field surge. Dante Fowler, Jr., Jonathan Bullard, Ronald Powell and Bryan Cox, Jr., are going to make setting the edge against the Gators very difficult in the next few years. Jon Bostic will be a significant loss at linebacker, but Antonio Morrison introduced himself quite emphatically while filling in for the oft-injured Jelani Jenkins, and he will anchor a very strong linebacking corps for the next few years. Michael Taylor and Darrin Kitchens are very solid players both of whom will be expected to elevate their game, and Neiron Ball and Jeremi Powell are two guys I think will be very effective, especially if Powell can add some weight this off-season. The secondary is simply the best in college football for my money.
With former starter Cody Riggs returning from injury and new talent like Marcus Maye, Brian Poole, Rhaheim Ledbetter and Willie Bailey seeing action next year, this unit will continue to dominate. A quick glance at the cornerback and safeties on the Gators’ class of 2013 commitment list lets us know that the defensive backfield is going to be a signature of this program for a long time.
While the offense did not exactly explode this year, considering the limitations the staff had to deal with in terms of offensive line injuries and depth chart issues all over this side of the ball, it’s difficult not to conclude that the 2012 season was a very promising glimpse into the future. With two large and talented transfers from FBS schools and a literally and figuratively huge signee from Georgia Military stepping into the Florida offensive line picture, as well as talented Jessamen Dunker coming out of his redshirt year, the offensive line will have both an infusion of high end talent and a big boost in depth. Given the high school commits on the line, the staff is committed to making sure the dire offensive line situation of 2012 never repeats. That alone should be enough to propel the offense a number of levels forward. Jeff Driskel not only evolved significantly (though sometimes very quietly late in the season as the offense had to be shut down due to the injuries along the line), but he certainly shed any of the criticisms that he was not heady enough to hang in the pocket and deliver under fire in the heat of an SEC season. With the emergence of Matt Jones, Mack Brown, Solomon Patton and Quinton Dunbar toward the end of the year, and the addition of Adam Lane and Kelvin Taylor to the backfield, and Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson and company to the wide receiver ranks — as well as the ramping up of tight ends Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor, this team should remain dominant on the ground and the passing game should blossom far beyond simply slinging it to Jordan Reed or Trey Burton. The offense is primed to make major strides in 2013. Imagine roughly the same 2012 defense with an explosive offense that controls the clock.
One of the many nice surprises in 2012 was the emergence of the special teams as a weapon, and not just in kick and punt returns, as it has been in the past. When the opposition has to fear even your coverage teams – really fear them – you know your special teams are special. The Gators will not always have a two-headed kicking monster like they had in 2012 with Caleb Sturgis and Kyle Christy, but they have Christy for two more years and if the staff keeps bringing in players of the caliber of Austin Hardin to replace the specialists, this unit will continue to thrive. D.J. Durkin deserves a tremendous amount of appreciation for elevating every aspect of special teams on this club. He is a young guy who connects well with the players both on the recruiting trail and on the field, motivating everyone from star starting cornerback to unknown walk-on to make a special teams impact that will ht the highlight reel.
Well, the final results will not be in for another month and a half and change, but the preliminary results of Muschamp’s first full recruiting cycle indicate that contrary to the pleas of Chuck D and Flava Flav, we should have indeed believed the hype. Not only has the past week of whirlwind commitments from key players at key positions boosted the 2013 Gators signing class to the No. 1 perch in some recruiting services’ rankings, but it is the way that the staff has gone about identifying the prospects to fit not only position needs but also the new Florida player and program ethic that has been most impressive. It is a very balanced class with just a few key spots left to fill in mid-December, indicative of both prudent planning and effective messaging that has led to the best players on our board getting on the commitment list before their spot is gone, and before our staff and fans have to sweat out a dramatic signing day wait. It is only this staff’s first full year, but much like the 2012 season informed us about their coaching ability, the job they have done on the recruiting trail this year tells us far more about their long-term viability as recruiting powers than merely a standard second year bump.
Right now, everything is going Florida’s way. The only misstep of the 2012 football season has been somewhat redeemed and certainly mitigated by a trip to the BCS Sugar Bowl while the only team that beat us lost the SEC title game in an embarrassing last second sideline mind freeze and is spending New Year’s in Orlando in the Capital One Bowl against a team that just lost its conference title game by giving up 70 points. As mentioned, the recruiting tidal wave is swamping Gainesville and while Gator players and coaches are accepting award after award this month, some of our biggest rivals are losing more coaches and players to the NFL by the day (while at least one of our rival schools, Tennessee, couldn’t even get any coach in the country to agree to come coach them at all).
Beyond that, the Gator program is riding the wave of momentum created by the entire athletics department. The basketball team has kicked open the door to the national No. 5 ranking again and is nearing the No. 1 spot in this year’s basketball recruiting ranking, and the baseball team has been to three-straight College World Series and also just wrapped up a top-10 recruiting class. No other school in the country can come anywhere close to Florida in being national elite programs in all three revenue sports. Add to that the fact that the Gators program wins one to four national titles a year in all sports, nearly every year these days, and it seems impossible to seriously dispute that Florida has the best athletics department in the nation. The Gators momentum is at a fever pitch right now, which always helps boost the football program as the rising tide lifts all boats.
I have probably given away the ending, but it is clear to me that the Gator program is again on the eve of greatness. In fact, rather than serve as the prelude we all thought it was, the 2012 season may indeed have been the morning after, where greatness is revealed. The more the 2012 season marinates in my brainpan, the more I tend to believe this may be the case: that we are already there. Already here. Already where we should be. The best program in the country doesn’t always win the national title, nor even the conference title. A lot of luck and good or bad fortune plays into these things. Such as a more than a half dozen offensive linemen being injured for most of the season when there is no depth behind them. Florida was probably the best team in the country in 1998, and possibly again in 2001, but did not win anything in either year – no national, SEC or SEC East titles. Sometimes being the best isn’t enough.
But once here at this level, as we have been for so long before, through preponderance of effort and will, the championships come. It should be clear from my four-part series that I believe the window of opportunity exists right now for a new program like Florida to take control of the SEC and national stick shift and drive the Title-Wagon it for awhile. Hopefully through this edition of the series I have made the case that I believe Florida has the horses, they have the coaching staff and they have the momentum to be that program. Since 1990, Florida is the winningest FBS program in the nation, with Ohio State a somewhat distant second. The rest of that top 10 is fairly struggling programs right now, such as Texas, Miami, Tennessee and Michigan. Taking back the title of premier program in the SEC and nation — even taking it from Alabama — should not be a surprise and is certainly not impossible as some seem to believe.
I project it happening, perhaps as early as next year. Like all teams, we will have some issues and weaknesses with which to deal, but this staff has proven that one of its strengths (and a very strong strength, at that) is coaching around any issue or deficiency that arises, regardless of how long they have to prepare. We will see in the 2013 season if this is an accurate projection, but its potential will be harder and harder to deny after this signing class is inked and spring practice returns such rave reviews, which I expect. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.
8 Comments so far
Nice job PD. One eye opener for me was “since the early 80’s”.
You must have had quite an eye for football at 5 years old!
Either that or you need an current photo!
Hah, I was pretty young, but not that young. It’s only a 3-year old picture. The shades cover a lot of mileage.
Great read but you are setting up for fans to ONLY be satisfied with a perfect season, which is not an easy accomplishment.
11335, only projecting where I see the program (an the other top programs) heading based on the trends this season. I don’t mean to set an expectations level beneath which nothing is tolerated.
Heck this is college football...it’s supposed to be fun, but there will always be disappointment in sports because there is always just one winner. I hope disappointment doesn’t lead to anger or unfair criticism toward the program.
You can see from my user name that I have been around for a while though I lurk often and post seldom.I like your perspective and eloquence and look forward to your posts whether I agree or not...you are an asset to this site which I hope Ray keeps for a long time.
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2014 Football Commits
|Davidson (NC) Day|
|Fort Myers (Fla.) Dunbar|
|Cross City (Fla.) Dixie County|
|Jacksonville (Fla). Raines|
|Deland (Fla.) High|
|New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine|
|Miami (Fla.) Central|
|Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas|
2013 Basketball Commits
|Clermont (Fla.) Montverde Academy|
|Bonifay (Fla) Holmes County|
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