Will Muschamp and Butch Jones are still working things out, trying to put their watermark on storied football programs whose large, vocal fan bases expect and demand success and not just getting to a bowl game every year success – championship success. Both teams are attempting to rebound from bitter defeats (Muschamp and Florida lost to Miami two weeks ago while Jones and Tennessee had a trip to Oregon they would rather forget) and both teams need to win this game Saturday (3:30 p.m., Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, CBS TV) to inject a bit of sanity back into their fans.
Jones is the fourth Tennessee head coach in the last 6 years (fifth if you count Jim Chaney, who was named interim head coach for one game in 2012 after Derek Dooley’s dismissal). Jones has inherited a program once again in transition and there has been no continuity in philosophies.
Jones promises to bring to Tennessee what appears to be a “hybrid” spread offense that will rely on running and establishing itself in the trenches first. The Vols have a dual-threat quarterback in junior Justin Worley, who has started all three games but he has struggled running the spread and read options that are the bread and butter plays of this offense. Jones declared the quarterback race wide open again but smart money says Worley starts and will get the majority of the snaps over freshmen Riley Ferguson, Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. All three of the freshmen are very athletic but they are also completely unproven commodities and The Swamp is a place where unproven quarterbacks get their careers off to very bad starts.
In order for Jones to sell this spread offense that is supposed to also feature a physical downhill running game, he has to have the personnel to make it work. It all starts at quarterback and right now that doesn’t appear to be either a position of strength or confidence.
Quarterback isn’t the only place where the Vols have to rebuild. This season whoever is at quarterback operates behind an offensive line that is one of the best in the SEC but all five starters will graduate so next year’s QB will be operating behind five newbies. In the SEC, those all new offensive lines tend to get chewed up by the huge, athletic defensive lines. Another problem is at running back where Rajion Neal is a talented senior backed up by junior Marlon Lane. You better have two or three capable running backs if you want to survive SEC defenses.
Suffice to say, Jones has a lot of rebuilding to do. He has recruited very well in his short tenure and for the moment, Tennessee fans seem to believe even though last Saturday’s shellacking at Oregon re-calibrated expectations for this year’s team. Still, a win in Gainesville would certainly change perceptions for the creamsicle-clad faithful. Tennessee has dropped eight straight to Florida and this UF team suddenly looks vulnerable and beatable. With the brutal SEC schedule that awaits, Butch Jones knows what a confidence boost a win over Florida would bring.
Butch might very well end up being a great coach at UT, but fans better be patient. Heaven knows they will wait almost decades for a dentist appointment or weeks for the Piggly Wiggly to bring in a fresh shipment of moon pies or smoked possum jerky (Teriyaki flavor -it‘s the Volunteer State‘s preferred pan-Asian cuisine) but patience and football are not long suits for Vol fans and a schedule that promises more than a few losses will make the natives restless.
It raises the question: Will LuLu and Junior still love Butch in November?
Since we’re on the subject of patience, there’s not a ton of that to be spread around in Gainesville, either.
Muschamp was greeted by a decent amount of goodwill upon his hire and to his credit he survived a rookie season with Charlie Weis (not going to make the obvious fat joke here) as his offensive coordinator. He solved the Weis problem (Charlie is now the problem at Kansas) and he’s put together consecutive strong recruiting classes. Weis was replaced by the innovative Brent Pease. Instead of the expected eight wins in 2012, Muschamp delivered 11 against one of the nation’s tougher schedules.
But since those 11 regular season wins in 2012, the Gators haven’t exactly burned it up. They got hosed by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl and they’re off to a 1-1 start this year, not exactly the kind of things that buy a lot of patience and good will from a fan base that is only five years removed from a national championship.
What has tested the patience of the fans is the way the Gators looked disinterested and ill-prepared against Louisville and the way they played so poorly in game two against Miami. In both those losses, Florida had superior personnel.
If you forget the Louisville game and chalk that up to a BCS bowl for a team that started the season off the national radar and won with defense and a shaky offense that barely put up enough points to win, you still have a hard time explaining what has gone on this year.
There was the win over Toledo. The ball wasn’t exactly flying around the yard and the scoreboard was nowhere near malfunction from all the points being scored. Most fans tried to peg the lack of points to a vanilla approach by Pease, thinking the coaches wanted to play it close to the vest to avoid tipping off Miami’s coaches.
Further, although the Gators’ offense showed a knack for scoring in clutch situations and putting enough points on the board in all but 2 occasions to win, it ranked near the bottom of almost every passing category amongst FBS schools. This is not the offense Gator fans were expecting with the Brent Pease hire.
Entering the 2013 season, following a rather lackluster Orange & Blue game, Gator fans were still anxious about what kind of offense they’d see. Although Florida won its home opener convincingly against Toledo, the ball wasn’t exactly flying around the yard and the scoreboard was nowhere near any sort of malfunction.
Most Gator fans wrote the performance off to vanilla play calling, thinking the coaches wanted to play it close to the vest so as to keep Miami on their toes. The offense opened up against Miami, but the Gators turned the ball over five times and struggled in the red zone, losing a game that most Gator fans had circled as a win on their schedules.
Enter the “noise in the system,” a phrase with which Gator fans are bitterly familiar.
So that brings us to questions that every Gator fan is asking as the Tennessee game approaches.
Can Will Muschamp sell the fans of a school that has become accustomed to exciting, fast-paced offenses on a defense-oriented, control the trenches, clock-control philosophy? If so, will it require 10+ wins per year to maintain the support?
Are Brent Pease and Will Muschamp a square peg and a round hole? Or has the play calling during their joint tenure here been nothing more the two of them playing to their personnel?
Is Jeff Driskel ever going to be an effective pocket passer and improve on sacks taken and turnovers surrendered?
Is the wildcat finally a thing of the past?
Lastly, is UF/UT a “must-win” for Muschamp?
I won’t answer those questions, but I will offer my thoughts for Saturday. It is my belief that Saturday’s game will be interesting for a half, but the Gators will pull away in the second. I think Pease will open things up for Driskel, moving him out of the pocket with rollouts, read options and shovel passes. I think freshmen Vernon Hargreaves III and Kelvin Taylor will get their chance to make significant contributions. I think UF wins by 17, extending their dominance over the Vols to nine straight. I think a dominant win over Tennessee coupled with another dominant win next week over Kentucky will rebuild the confidence of the players and the fans.