Florida fans had seen a good bit of Will Muschamp through the first four games of the season, and almost everything the Gators had seen was overwhelmingly positive.
Muschamp brought an intensity that was sorely lacking from the team a year ago, an overwhelming sense of confidence and a relentless attitude when it came to preparation.
On Saturday night, a very talented Alabama team was able to overcome those attributes against a Florida team a little thin on depth and experience running Muschamp’s new schemes on both sides of the ball.
The result was a humbling 38-10 loss and a glimpse at the rawer side of a first-year head coach who wears his heart on his sleeve on the sidelines, in the locker room and in front of the media.
After Florida’s win over Tennessee two weeks ago, Muschamp drew some criticism from rival fans and even some Gators fans for his outburst just before halftime, when Muschamp chased a referee all the way down the field yelling at him while being physically held back by one of his staff members.
His rant sparked plenty of discussion regionally about his on-the-field demeanor, and reporters even focused on his demeanor in interviews with players the following week.
The response from players was overwhelmingly positive.
On Saturday, Muschamp was the same coach he has been throughout the year. He went after officials when he felt calls were bad, and he vigorously chastised players when they made mental mistakes.
While many of his players and a lot of the fans may feed off Muschamp’s emotion, the first-year head coach walks a fine line.
One of the most intriguing things about Saturday’s matchup against the Crimson Tide wasn’t the battle in the trenches or the Gators’ inability to tackle or get off the field on third down.
Instead, it was the contrast of head coaches: Nick Saban vs. Will Muschamp, Jedi Master vs. Padawan.
In many ways, the two seemed mirror images of each other. The defensive schemes they both ran were extremely similar, as Muschamp learned for years under Saban and Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn had also worked under the current Alabama head coach.
Offensively, both teams relied primarily on the running game and a quarterback who could manage the game.
And when it came to on-the-field demeanor, the two were also extremely similar. Saban has long been known as a strict disciplinarian who will visibly get in the ear of his players after mental mistakes.
But with experience comes a better understanding of how to address those mental mistakes and when to address them, and that’s a page Muschamp could take out of Saban’s playbook.
For all of Muschamp’s emotion and passion, sometimes it felt a little misdirected. Too frequently Muschamp drew the camera’s attention while going after a referee.
Saban, on the other hand, only twice drew the attention of a camera for a visible tirade.
One was after a play when one of his special-teams players was getting into it with a Florida player and Saban physically ran onto the field and yanked him away from the fray, shouting at him and getting him out of a situation that could have hurt the team.
The other was after Alabama took a 24-10 lead on a touchdown sneak by quarterback A.J. McCarron. McCarron was jawing at the crowd, and when he came over to the sideline, Saban grabbed him by the facemask and jerked him over toward himself, yelling at him to calm down.
Saban’s style provided a subtle contrast from Muschamp’s.
While the Alabama coach seemed under control and directed his rage in a productive manner to focus and sharpen his team, the Florida coach seemed a little less targeted in his outbursts.
Sure, Muschamp gave Jon Bostic an earful and pulled him out of the game after the linebacker took a swing at an Alabama lineman.
Far more often, though, Muschamp was going after officials and turning red in the face as he argued calls. While he had legitimate complaints on a handful of calls he was arguing for, including one penalty on Alabama for an illegal substitution, Florida fans were left to wonder after the game if maybe the emotion would have been better off directed at his team, honing in on what it needed to see and hear to play its best game.
Perhaps Muschamp’s simply a more emotional coach than Saban. Perhaps that style will work for him. Perhaps it will never come back to bite him in the butt.
But maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the maturation process of a young coach. It’s a big leap from a coordinator position to a head coaching one. Saban didn’t get to where he is today in a day.
Sometimes raw emotion isn’t what your team needs at all times in a game. Some Florida players felt the team was a little too emotional coming into the game against Alabama.
While that can’t be tied to Muschamp at all, it’s clear the team feeds on his energy. They’ve said that all year.
Emotion is part of who Muschamp is as a head coach. He has said repeatedly he won’t fundamentally change who he is as a coach, and he shouldn’t.
But if Muschamp continues to learn from Saban like he did for years when he coached under him, he’ll see that refining the focus of his passion and emotion can be an extremely effective tool for his team.
Florida fans just need to be patient and remember he’s a first-year head coach.
Like the team he’s putting together, it will take time to find his true identity and what works best for him at the University of Florida as a head coach.
When he finds that, the rawness we’ve seen so far will start to fade. Then Florida fans will get a look at the polished product.
If it’s anything like what Saban has put together at Alabama, it’ll be well worth the wait.