Sitting in the main ballroom in the Wynfrey Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Hoover, Alabama back in July, there were murmurs when the preseason media rankings were released. You see, every credentialed media member is given an opportunity to place a ballot for first, second and third team All-SEC selections as well as the chance to predict the SEC East and West standings and a league champion.
Florida was picked to finish third. Not in the SEC but in its own division.
And it’s not just that Florida was picked to finish third in the east behind South Carolina and Georgia, it was the way that Florida was picked third with just 19 first place votes out of 243 votes cast. Georgia (149 votes) was clearly the favorite to represent the East and South Carolina (75 votes) was a distant second.
Sure, Georgia was getting back the dynamic duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and Aaron Murray had decided to return to school for his senior season. South Carolina was enjoying its three-year rental of Jadeveon Clowney before sending him off to the NFL where he belongs.
But the Gators were coming off an 11-2 season where they were a game away from playing against Alabama for a chance to play for a national championship. That’s right, if Lane Kiffin and the fighting men of Troy had been able to upset Notre Dame, the Gators would have sneaked through the back door to play Nick Saban and the Tide. How could a team that was so close to playing for it all possibly be the third best team in its own division?
It was a perceived slap in the face, something that the team could look at and use as motivation as they turned their attention to Toledo and the 2013 season.
That’s the thing about sports; you never know what is going to happen. In a world of melodramatic, scripted “reality” TV shows, sports give the last true drama and reality.
Sitting at 4-4 on the outside looking in at the SEC race, the Gators now look less like a snub in the SEC East and more like a pretender, a shell of the team that went BCS bowling in 2012.
Before the season began, a few games were circled on the schedule. First, there was Miami. In that one, Florida coughed up the ball and the game in the second game of the season.
The next circle was the November matchup with Georgia. As a player at Georgia, Will Muschamp was 0-4 against the Gators. As Florida’s coach he was 0-2 against Georgia. Back in July this looked like the game that would separate Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the race to represent the SEC East in Atlanta. In it, the Gators got off to their usual slow start and while they showed life in the second half, were done in by Georgia, 23-20.
Last was Florida’s matchup in Columbia against South Carolina. Anytime the Gators play the ‘Ole Ball Coach it’s a big game. There’s too much history between Spurrier and the University of Florida for the game to not be circled, highlighted, bolded and underlined on the schedule. The game had “SEC Championship playoff” game written all over it. The only team playing for a shot at the SEC East next week will be South Carolina.
Instead of playing for glory the Gators find themselves fighting for bowl eligibility, something that should never be in doubt at Florida. With a 22-season bowl streak on the line, Muschamp finds himself winding up his third season at Florida sitting on a seat hotter than hades.
How did a coach who is one season removed from taking his team to a BCS bowl go from a position of security to a program on the brink of finishing with its worst record since 1988?
Injuries take their toll
It started before the season even began when both Chaz Green (labrum) and Andre Debose (ACL) were lost for the season. The loss of Green, who struggled last season while battling various injuries, was brushed off by fans with the additions of Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown. Right tackle seemed to be a position of strength and depth. Debose’s injury was also glossed over. The fifth-year senior had made little impact in his career other than kickoff returns after a former coach heralded him as “the next Percy Harvin.”
Both injuries have proven to be more devastating than before thought. Florida’s offensive line play has been inconsistent at best and Green was sorely missed on the right side of the line. The Gators also have 13th ranked passing offense in the SEC, so maybe a homerun threat like Debose could have helped the Gators get out of he passing cellar. He certainly could have helped the Gators out as a kick returner where — minus a Solomon Patton return for a touchdown — the team has been less than impressive.
The injuries didn’t stop there. In total, nine players have been lost for the season including Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Dominique Easley and Tyler Moore. That’s your starting quarterback, running back, defensive tackle, wide receiver/kick returner and two offensive tackles if you’re keeping score at home.
Those are just season-ending injuries. Florida has also had to deal with 22 players in total that have missed time due to injuries at some point this season.
It’s football. The game is violent and injuries are going to happen. A coaching staff has to be responsible for getting all of their players ready to play in the event that starters go down.
But c’mon, this is getting ridiculous. Florida has enough players on the injured list to field a full team, offense and defense.
After sputtering to a 7-6 record in his first season, Muschamp bought himself some time with an 11-2 finish in 2012. Will the injuries this season give him a little extra rope and another chance in 2014?
Saturday is more than just a game
The year was 1988. November 15, 1988 to be exact. I was 10 days away from being born and it was the last time that Vanderbilt beat Florida (24-9 in Nashville). Galen Hall’s Gators limped their way to a 7-5 record following a bowl win over Illinois in the now extinct All-American Bowl.
That loss didn’t end Hall’s career but could a loss to Vanderbilt this week show the writing on the wall for the current head coach?
Florida hasn’t been below .500 since starting the 1992 season 1-2. That’s a streak of 275-consecutive games above .500 and a loss this Saturday would snap not only the streak but probably Florida’s chances of going bowling this year.
With four games left, the Gators must win two games out of matchups with Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia Southern and Florida State. Florida will be a double-digit road dog in Columbia and will likely also be a double-digit dog at home to the Noles. A win against Vanderbilt makes the very winnable game against Georgia Southern a de facto bowl play in game.
But this isn’t your father’s Vanderbilt. James Franklin has taken the helm for the Commodores and manufactured a new; winning culture around a program that was formerly the doormat of the SEC.
Franklin won 15 games in his first two seasons in Nashville, a feat that was last accomplished by Dan McGugin. If the name doesn’t sound familiar it shouldn’t, McGugin was the head coach in 1904-05, Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States and was negotiating a peace treaty in the Russo-Japanese War.
Vanderbilt is only three weeks removed from upsetting a team that just beat Florida for the third consecutive season — Franklin’s first win over a top-25 opponent — and coming off of a bye week.
The last time the two teams squared off in The Swamp, the Gators were able to sneak away with a skin of their teeth 26-21 victory.
Vanderbilt will not be intimidated by the “Gators” script on either side of Florida’s helmet this Saturday and they shouldn’t be. The Commodores are just 4-4 themselves but a win over Florida — even a down Florida team — would be a capstone on top of the foundation that Franklin has built.
As important as the game is for Vanderbilt, the game holds an equal if not more significant meaning for Muschamp. A win over Vanderbilt ends a three-game slide and will appease — for now — a rabid fan base that is sharpening their pitchforks, ready to march. A loss, well, a loss would stir the natives into a Zook-like frenzy where only blood will quell their anger and frustration.
Comparisons to Zook
The most maligned head coach at the University of Florida in my lifetime, Ron Zook won 23 games in three years. Zooker’s Gators were 7-5 in his last year as head coach. For Muschamp’s 2013 Gators, to go 7-5 might take a changing water into wine proportion miracle.
The hate a vitriol that spewed Zook’s way was tangible. FireRonZook.com became a second home for Gator fans looking for an outlet to vent about their frustration with the football team.
The attitude towards Muschamp has yet to reach those catastrophic levels because “Old Zooker never won 11 games, now did he?”
But when you look at the numbers, the Muschamp era looks a lot more Zookian than most fans care to realize.
After their first 34 games as head coach, Zook held a 20-14 overall record while Muschamp sits at 22-12.
Of course, there was the frat house disaster that surely didn’t help Zook’s long-term future at Florida but at this point in their third seasons; Zook had already been named a lame duck, with Jeremy Foley announcing that the team would not return the head coach the following season but would allow Zook to coach the remainder of the schedule.
After announcing the decision, Foley was quoted by ESPN saying, “In the final analysis, it was apparent to me that something’s not working here. I know that’s kind of nebulous, but it’s the truth. It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly, but it certainly just didn’t appear to be working as we all envisioned.”
The play this season and the fan’s anger turned apathy can’t possibly be what Florida’s athletic director had in mind when he hired Muschamp.
School Out West rubs salt in the wound
To make matter worse — at least for fans — the Florida State Seminoles are undefeated and redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston is a serious Heisman candidate.
It would be a small emotional lift to Gator fans if their hated in-state rival were sharing in their frustrations. Instead, the Seminoles are ranked No. 2 in the latest BCS poll and with Oregon’s loss to Stanford on Thursday night, appear to be have all but punched their ticket to Pasadena given they can navigate their way through the rest of their ACC schedule.
Not only are the Seminoles undefeated and rolling through their schedule with ease but they’re also playing an exciting brand of football. Their defense is fast and physical, in the model of the vaunted SEC defenses that have led the league to seven consecutive BCS National Championships and they have an offense that is ranked fourth in the country averaging just over 549 yards per game. They’re winning football games and having fun doing it.
Not to mention the national media circus that surrounds redshirt-freshman phenom Jameis Winston. ESPN camera’s famously caught Winston in the locker room before taking on Clemson in Death Valley. The 19-year old casually held a PowerAde, smile on his face while he told his team, “My brothers, put a smile on that face. Ok, cuz Florida State, if we gonna do it then, we do it big.”
Winston backed up his big words with 444 yards passing and four total touchdowns.
Muschamp era on the brink
As we sit here, homecoming festivities reaching a crescendo and Vanderbilt en route to Gainesville, the Will Muschamp era sits at a crossroads.
A loss to Vanderbilt sends a season that is already in a downward spiral crashing down on rock bottom. A win brings hope. Hope that it was just injuries and a series of unfortunate events that led this Gator season off the rails.
Is it fair for a coach who is a year removed from an 11-2 record and dealing with 22 injuries that have affected both starters and depth on both sides of the football to be on the hot seat?
But in this era, results are what matters and like Muschamp said during his Gator Club speaking tour this summer, “You’re only as good as your last game and the last one wasn’t very good.”
The Gators haven’t been very good since they beat Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium last season. A loss on Saturday could show the writing on the wall for the head coach.
Win or lose, one thing is for sure. This isn’t just homecoming. This isn’t just Vanderbilt. This is the Will Muschamp era on the line Saturday at noon.