We watch the college football programs. We read the newspaper and magazines. We scan the sports blogs and surf the web forums. And the themes emerge. They are repeated, and with such authoritative tone, that it is difficult for them not to be accepted by rote. But many of them are myths as sure as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster. So let’s make like Leonard Nimoy and go in search of the biggest Gator myths of 2013.
Myth 1: Muschamp wants to be just like Saban and make Florida just like Alabama.
We all hear this spoken by the media and especially by fans as such a foregone conclusion that it has become an afterthought. But it is only true in the very general sense that Alabama is the premier program in the nation right now and Champ wants to make Florida the next premier program. And we know this because we already saw that very same thing play out a few years ago…when Nick Saban came to Alabama and saw Florida establish itself as the nation’s premier program. He said to himself, “I want to be like Urban Meyer (then the best coach in the country) and I want Alabama to be just like Florida (the top program in the nation).”
It’s easy to see from where the false conclusion comes, of course. Fans hear Muschamp say that Florida will be a power running team, a downhill running offense and move the chains – and they translate that to mean that UF is going to be exactly like historical ‘Bama. They see that Champ worked with Saban and automatically assume he is a carbon copy. And they saw the run-heavy, pass-anemic Gator offense of 2012 and they think it’s the ‘Bama blueprint in action.
However, it was in fact the Muschamp blueprint in action, not Saban’s. And that blueprint is this: whatever it takes to win, that’s what Florida will do – and he won’t risk losing a game just to entertain fans or pony to fantasy league statistics. The Gator script mirrored a typical Tide script in 2012 out of necessity, not choice. It was simply the best strategy to win, given personnel, youth, depth and injuries. Going forward, the Champ blueprint may still on the surface resemble the Tide/Saban blueprint, but I believe it is only because Gator fans are so hard-wired to the unconventional offenses of the Fun & Gun and the Spread-Option. Any move toward an NFL-style offense will seem like a move towards the Bama philosophy by comparison…but by comparison only.
Myth 2: The strength of this year’s recruiting class will rely heavily on UF’s performance on the field in 2013.
We hear many nervous laments surrounding recruiting throughout the year. The recruiting process seems to tap into the core of human fear better than Wes Craven and Steven King combined. One of them is the fear that recruiting momentum, indeed the entire fabric of a recruiting class, hangs each year in the balance of whatever the team does on the field the fall preceding National Signing Day. It does not help matters that every media talking head and recruiting service entertainer parrots the same line.
But is it true? Not remotely. The top prospects in the country want to play for championships; they don’t care so much about playing after championships. Their focus will be the direction of the program, not the minutia of a season out of that context. They are interested in the relationships with the head coach and staff, their ability to develop NFL talent at their position, the academic programs and support structure, proper fit to the team’s scheme and program culture and of course, early playing time. Having a huge year on the field can often help propel a great recruiting class, but it all has to do with the trend, not the end.
In fact, having a few losses – or even a handful of losses – can often spark a great recruiting season for top programs because it is a beacon signal that early playing time is ripe for the taking. Using Florida as an example, the Gators signed the #1-ranked class in 2006 following a rather dreary 3-loss campaign in 2005 where Florida’s rookie coach was schooled by the SEC Hall of Fame coaching duo of Miles and Spurrier, and of course Mike Shula, who was about to be fired. Alabama brought home the #1 class the following year in February 2007 after an abysmal 7-6 campaign the preceding fall. So much for bad seasons tanking recruiting classes. The Gators also scored a consensus #1 class in 2010 following a 13-win season, and Alabama grabbed the top ranking in 2012 following their national title season of 2011. So it works both ways. The more you stack up the data, the more clear it is that there is little, if any, correlation between the win-loss record in the fall and recruiting fortunes the following February.
Myth 3: Miami will have a big edge in motivation on September 7.
This is perhaps the most over-used cliché by the talking heads, week after week, and it never means anything. In rivalry games, there simply is no such thing as one team being geeked up to the sky and the other one coming in flat-footed, disinterested or simply not matching the emotion. It is a rivalry game. A fierce one. Disregard the years between the games – most of these kids play against each other in high school (or on the same team), many of them face off in playoff tilts or all-star games, and they all have to go home for weekends and holidays and listen to their neighbors rub it in non-stop if they lose. The current Gator players have never faced Miami, but they all have heard countless times that they are afraid to play the ‘Canes. Can you imagine the absurdity? That’s really all the motivation they need.
The media say this would be a program-making win for Miami; reality says it would be a season-launching giant road win for Florida, much as the Texas A&M win was last year. The media say Miami is seething from the extra field goal Florida tacked on in 2008; reality says that not a single player in this year’s game was even in college in 2008, and neither of the embroiled head coaches from the 2008 game still work at the same schools. The media say that Miami plays a lesser opponent in Week 1 and can spend all fall camp focusing on Florida, and that the noon start will cause Florida to come out flat; reality says that Florida also plays a lesser opponent in Week 1 and can spend all fall camp focusing on Miami, and that by strange coincidence, Miami also has to abide by the noon start time for this game. The media say the ACC has to prove they belong; reality says the SEC always has to prove that nobody else belongs but the SEC. For every old chestnut brought out to demonstrate Miami’s psychological edge, there is a Florida nutcracker to crush it.
Myth 4: The losses up the middle on defense will make the Gators weak against the run.
With the loss of both starting tackles, two starting linebackers including the MIKE, and both safeties, the Gators will not be as strong up the middle. That is….probably true. At least to start the season. But this is the case every year at some positions. It’s the nature of the beast when there is full turnover every three to four years. But the second part – being vulnerable to the run – that’s where the myth is spun. Here is why Florida will not automatically become weak up the middle because they lost two first rounders and a second rounder: the defense does not have to replace the talent of Floyd, Elam and Bostic (nor Evans, Hunter and Jenkins); they merely have to replace their production.
And the returning defense can do that. Firstly, because every offense the Gators face this year also lost key personnel from last year, so they are in the same boat. Primarily though because Muschamp’s defense is first and foremost multiple and flexible. He will mold the 2013 defensive scheme and game plans to maximize the strengths of the 2013 team, not the 2012 team. Tackles up the middle may not be coming as much from the defensive line, and that has many repeating that old football mantra that when your leading tackler is a safety, you’re in a lot of trouble. Well, last year’s nationally-ranked Gator defense was as smothering as it has been in years, and the leading tackler was a safety. So was the second-leading tackler. And though Floyd was far more disruptive than his stat line shows, the two starting tackles for Florida only notched 3 sacks between them; the two starting safeties had 4.5. You don’t have to be a seasoned veteran with finely honed instincts to execute a simple safety blitz.
Sure it is concerning that Florida loses five of its top six tacklers from last year – all of them up the middle – but they are not being replaced with scrubs. In some respects, the new starters this year have a better chance to excel than the outgoing starters did at the beginning of 2012, because it is their third year in the Muschamp defensive system for most of them. Last year, even the veterans really only had the fall camp to play with their feet fully under them. The first year was a big adjustment to the new system, the new staff, new team culture, the works. Heck it took most of them half a year to even decide to start playing as a team. The Gators will be fine up the middle in 2013. Strong, even. Not because they won’t miss a beat, but because Champ will change the song.
Myth 5: Florida will automatically take a step back in the win column, even if they are a better team.
This is a myth that is actually perpetrated more by the Florida fans than by the media. It is understandable, of course in that fans have a way of trying to temper expectations so as not to be too disappointed if they do take a reverse step during their gradual climb back to the top. But while that may be the prudent thing to do to shelter the nerves, there is no reason to labor under the yoke of lowered expectations simply because some personnel have been lost to graduation and the NFL.
Firstly of course there is the earlier mentioned truism that every Gator opponent this year had similar losses in personnel. Georgia’s defense didn’t just lose some key players as Florida did: it was virtually gutted. LSU lost perhaps the most significant players of any SEC team, and South Carolina lost nearly 40% of its starting lineup and will try to pass off an offense piloted by Mike Davis, who did not remotely look the part at any point in 2012, and a two-headed quarterback that is worth far less than its combined parts. FSU and Miami are simply not in Florida’s league talent-wise or coaching-wise: Miami was utterly annihilated by the only two quality teams it played last year by a combined 93-16, and other than a brief stretch in the unfocused third quarter, a beat-up short-handed Florida squad simply dominated FSU in their own house. There are no other credible threats on their schedule that do not lose more than the Gators lost in the off-season.
This does not mean that the Gators will go undefeated in 2013, but objectively speaking we cannot base their chances for success in 2013 by comparing the opening day roster to the final game Gator roster of 2012. Because this year’s Gator team does not play last year’s Gator team at any point this season. They play the twelve teams on their schedule, a bowl opponent and hopefully a team in Atlanta. And all of those programs are adjusting to personnel losses, just as Florida is.
But the most important reason not to automatically assume a step back in the win-loss column for the Gators this year is the way the 2012 season played out. The Gators were not lucky to win 11 games. They in fact were not the beneficiary of much good luck at all throughout the year. They were hounded by tenacious officials and phantom calls and “ADVERSITY ON THE FIELD” nearly every Saturday. They had more inexplicable bad luck go against them in Jacksonville the last three seasons. With the exception of the fortuitous bounce of the punt block against Louisiana-Lafayette (which simply cued up a TD return to win rather than the foregone conclusion of a game-winning field goal or a win in overtime), I am hard pressed to remember a play all year that was random luck in Florida’s favor. They won eleven games by executing and outplaying their opponents over sixty minutes, and in most of the games, by making the proper halftime and in-game coaching adjustments to win the games. They did it by physically beating their opponents down, even when entire units on the team could scarcely walk. They won by doing their jobs.
The 2013 Gators are not just replacing departed talent. They are continuing the program. They are executing game plans. They are beating the man across the line of scrimmage, as they are coached to do. When the Gator program is right, seasons are not made or broken by the normal ebb and flow of talent, even when the talent is great. When a once-in-a-generation player at the most influential position on the field like Danny Wuerfffel or Tim Tebow departs, yes there is an impact. But that is very rare. In a short two years and change, Muschamp has pushed the program nearly back to the point where succession planning is seamlessly built into the machine. Where great talent is replaced by great talent and experience is bridged by development and mitigated by the regular turnover on the opponents’ sideline. The gap that still exists between the current Gator program and the historic Gator program will be filled by the coaching acumen of the head Gator and his staff. We saw what that acumen could do in 2012. We should expect nothing less in 2013. Florida may very well take a step back on the bottom line in 2013, but it certainly won’t be automatic. Suggestions to the contrary are just fuzzy photos of misshaped Scottish waves and men running through the woods in poorly-made ape suits.