Friday, August 29, 2014

Gator Nation's Best and Worst of Times

Something I heard Greg Schiano say once that has always stayed with me: you’re never as good as your best game, nor are you as bad as your worst game.

Nothing exemplifies this statement more than the Florida Gators football team of the past two years. Will Muschamp’s best year, in 2012, saw the Gators go 11-2. His worst year, 2013, saw UF finish 4-8.

So which is it? What team is the real Florida Gators? Are they the 11-2 squad that was a national championship contender, or the 4-8 team that saw many calling for Muschamp to be fired? If we look at the team from the vantage point of Schiano’s statement, we’ll see that the answer is, in fact, neither.

For all the good Urban Meyer did for Florida – two national championships are nothing to sneeze at – what he didn’t do is still affecting the team to this day; namely, to bring in depth and talent on the offensive side of the ball, especially in the receiving corps. In 2012, Florida tight ends had 63 receptions – or 18 fewer than the top three wide receivers combined.

So how did the Gators go 11-2? Well, Meyer left the cupboard completely full on the defensive side of the ball, and Muschamp, a defensive coach, took full advantage. The Gators basically scratched out points on offense and then sat back and let the defense do the rest. But when they came up on opponents whose offense was as good (or better) as the Gators’ D, UF’s O couldn’t rise to the occasion. Thus, losses to Georgia and Louisville, the first one keeping Florida out of the SEC Championship and the second a preview of the season to follow. (The latter game saw the Gators trailing 24-3 late in the first half before eventually losing, 33-23.)

Unfortunately for Florida, even a sound defeat by Louisville to end the 2012 season couldn’t tamper expectations for the 2013 campaign. This was an 11-2 team, remember? They were thisclose to playing in the SEC Championship! That means they were thisclose to possibly being this close to maybe playing for the National Championship!

What happens when an 11-2 team that wasn’t really an 11-2 team loses 28 players, including 20 starters (a number that includes those backups who became starters after the original starter was injured), including its first-, second- and third-string quarterbacks? Well, 4-8 happens. A loss to FCS team Georgia Southern* (a game that I attended, much to my chagrin) happens. No bowl game happens. And calls for Muschamp to be fired happens.

But give me one program that would survive with its third-string quarterback starting a significant amount of the season. Most fans would say that if a team is on its third-string quarterback, its season is already over. It’s very easy to blame the coach, but what I saw from these Gators is guys playing hard even while losing badly. That, to me, is the mark of a good coach.

Pundits far and wide have said that the Gators will be better this year, which isn’t really stepping out on a limb after their 4-8 campaign. This is a team that isn’t 11-2, but also isn’t 4-8, so somewhere in the middle is going to be an improvement from last season. Bringing in Kurt Roper will improve the offense; Andre DeBose will stay healthy and the Gators’ receivers will be more productive; the defense will remain solid; the team will (hopefully) stay (mostly) healthy; I foresee it will play in a January bowl.

I like Muschamp. I like that he’s a Gainesville native. I like that, unlike Meyer, the Florida gig really is a dream job for Muschamp. I love when he gave Meyer crap by saying “we appreciated our friends from Ohio making sure we're compliant with NCAA rules. They certainly know a little bit about that subject.” I’m proud to call him coach of the team that I love.

But I also at one point loved Ron Zook. Don’t be Ron Zook, Coach Muschamp. For all of our sakes.

*Post was changed to say that the Gators lost to Georgia Southern, not Georgia State. In my defense, I'd like to forget everything about that loss, but all I managed to forget was the second part of the team's name.

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