Posted: 12:00 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013
By Neil Shulman
I think Florida's playing a must-win game this weekend in Jacksonville. But it's mostly a must-win for Will Muschamp.
One last time, let's revisit my concerns following the Miami game. After that grotesque performance, I stated that chronic turnover and penalty problems could potentially cost Muschamp his job as Florida's head coach.
Then, following the LSU game, I gave a more balanced and fair critique, pointing out that Muschamp employs one of the best defensive units in the nation and that he recruits very well. Combine that with the aforementioned penalty and turnover problems, and the subsequent discovery that Florida has nothing even close to resembling an offense, and I labeled Florida as a "good, not great program." Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought so: The day before, Tom Jones from the Tampa Bay Times said the same thing, albeit with a slightly different spin.
In the comments section of my "good, but not great" piece, somebody asked me if I was going to write another article like it every time Florida lost a game. I said no, and I meant it. And I'm not writing this because Florida lost a game.
I'm writing this because, against Missouri, Florida lost a game, the respect of Gator fans around the world, and maybe even some recruits, cutting to the heart of one of the two things Muschamp does well that keeps him in Gainesville. I don't check every Gator message board/blog on the web, but rumors are circulating that Dalvin Cook, one of Muschamp's prized recruits, is extremely nervous about the state of the Florida offense, and who can blame him?
It would be bad enough if this team lost another game because of the age-old problems, penalties and turnovers. But it didn't. Those issues certainly made an appearance last Saturday — Florida turned it over three times (shocker!) and committed eight penalties (stunner!) — but that wasn't why the Gators lost by 19 points.
Florida wasn't just plain awful against Missouri in every phase of the game. It was so utterly atrocious in every phase of the game that I lack the vocabulary to fully express my disgust with the team's performance against Mizzou. The offense, which was previously just plain bad, turned in its worst performance in a decade and a half. The defense, one of those two reasons Muschamp is still employed, surrendered 500 yards.
I understand it's a pretty big jump to go from "This is a good but not great program" to "They were so completely and utterly awful..." in the span of one week. But I also understand that Toledo (a team Florida easily handled) and Arkansas State put up better fights against Missouri with James Franklin than the Gators did with him sideline. Not only are the Gators not getting better from week to week, but they appear to be getting worse on both sides of the ball.
As I see it, this coaching staff is already way late on making at least one adjustment. Tim Davis, who made himself known around the SEC for his "devil" comment aimed at Nick Saban, doesn't appear to have the first idea of how an offensive line functions. Tyler Murphy wasn't merely beat up by an average Missouri defense; it's a miracle he boarded the jet back to Gainesville in one piece. His offensive line has now allowed 10 sacks in the last two games. Florida ball carriers have gained a paltry 275 yards on the ground in the last three games — and one of those games was against Arkansas, the third worst defense in the SEC.
That's all on Davis, and those numbers partly explain why Florida's offense is so unwatchable. Pick on Tyler Moore if you like, but Murphy was sacked from four different angles. It's on the entire line as a whole. I think Davis should be shown the door now, before he has a chance to gift Georgia its first three-game winning streak in the series since the 1980s, but that's clearly not happening.
The next logical move appears to be making a change at offensive coordinator. From what I've seen, current offensive coordinator Brent Pease is no better at his job than Davis is at coaching the line. When sitting around the chalkboard and diagramming plays, I've become convinced Pease just randomly picks routes for his receivers to run. Something like, "Hmmm, let's have my X receiver run a crossing route, my Z can do a three yard hitch, and why not have my tight end do a five yard out pattern." There's no brain behind the design.
A passing play should be drawn up to create a mismatch at some part of the field, and have that mismatch be the first or occasionally second option. Putting aside the fact that the line doesn't usually block long enough for any of these plays to even play themselves out anyway, the only reason Tyler Murphy has any touchdown passes at all is because of short throws that turn into long touchdown runs — usually because of Solomon Patton, a pure talent recruited by Urban Meyer, taking advantage of bad angles and shoddy tackling by defenses.
But excuses are excuses, reasons are reasons, and position coaches are position coaches. Football programs don't generate money based on reasons or assistants; the intricacies of the game and a single position coach do not determine prestige. At the end of the day, all that matters is the win-loss record of the head coach, and so far, Will Muschamp's is 22-11. A big piece of that is his inexcusable 1-3 record against Georgia and FSU.
And if that number becomes 1-4 next Saturday, he shouldn't be the Florida Gators' head coach in 2014, for all the previously mentioned reasons and for one more I'm about to explain.
Football games against Georgia mean so much more than any other game for Florida, regardless of how many coach-speak cliches Muschamp uses to try to indicate otherwise. Don't get me wrong, I take great pleasure in beating FSU, but the rivalry with Georgia is just something special on a whole different level. It's one of the few neutral-site regular season games left in the game. It's a border war between two schools that love raiding the other school's state for recruits. It's a rivarly between the SEC East's two most dominant teams of the past generation, often deciding which school represents its division in Atlanta. And beyond all that, the series has one of the deepest and richest traditions in all of sports.
Florida-Georgia is its own animal. Forget the SEC East standings; two games back and with the tiebreaker working against us, I'll concede it to Missouri. But no matter how bad Florida and Georgia both are, this game means more. It's a rivalry. (Remember how good it felt to beat Georgia in 2010? Remember how pitiful both teams were that year? I rest my case.)
I touched on this in my Miami post, but it's worth another mention: If Florida loses its third straight of the season, and its third straight to Georgia, against the weakest Georgia defense it will ever see, Muschamp could be in serious jeopardy with the boosters. Take a few seconds to remember who boosters are. They don't all live in Gainesville, so making the trip to see Florida play, along with paying good money for tickets, transportation and hotels is not always easy. They're happy to make the effort, usually, it's hard to care as much. These people have families and non-Gator related lives. Florida football is what they are involved in for fun. But when it's not fun for them to watch, they may no longer feel like supporting the program. Why should they?
Some boosters don't care to provide income of any kind to a program that they don't get enjoyment out of watching. To the average booster, driving one hour to play with their toddler grandkids is probably a much better use of their Saturday than driving four to watch an offense that would be more productive if I called plays by picking them randomly out of a hat. And while losses to Missouri are disheartening, losses to Georgia are doubly so, and one this year would be triply so when Georgia is this bad defensively. A loss to Georgia could be the final straw for a good number of boosters, and will even start to raise questions from the most patient ones.
After all, this Georgia defense is pathetic. They've surrendered 35.3 points per game to BCS conference teams. Vanderbilt lost Austyn Carta-Samuels and still charged back in the fourth quarter against it. And, sure, the Bulldogs are riddled with injuries now, but they've been horrendous all season. I say this objectively, from watching several of their games: I'm sorry, Georgia fans, your defense is atrocious.
And that makes me think Florida can win this game. At full strength, Georgia's offense may be the best in the SEC. But Florida has the fourth-best defense in the country statistically even after getting shelled by Mizzou. That's not my concern. Georgia can put up around 24 points, but probably won't get more than that — and so, if Florida loses, it will almost certainly be the offense's fault. But it's also 100% on Muschamp.
If Florida cannot score enough points to beat Georgia, I just don't see how Muschamp deserves to have a head coaching job anymore. He's the guy who allowed Brent Pease to run this offense, and run it straight into the ground, for two full years. The dismal day against Missouri was as clear a sign as you can get that Muschamp is incapable of ensuring that his offense is in the right hands. In that game, Florida's offense had its worst performance since the 1999 SEC Championship Game against Alabama. Not even Steve Addazio was responsible for a performance that terrible, and he was so bad that firesteveaddazio.com (which I may or may not have been involved in to some sort of degree) existed, and was very active — while Florida was winning games.
And with no sign of Pease being fired or even warned that he better turn things around before the Georgia game, I'm assuming Muschamp is allowing him to stay through that game. If Muschamp believes that Pease running the offense and calling the plays gives Florida its best shot to win, and then Florida loses this game of incredible importance, then that proves that he is incapable of running a football program and must be fired immediately. Even without the personal importance to Muschamp — the fact that he was turned down by Florida, his hometown team, and played for Georgia — the idea that he is unable to recognize the overall significance of beating Florida's biggest SEC rival is cause for him to be handed the pink slip.
Those who want Muschamp retained for one more year point to three main reasons. The first is that his squad is decimated with injuries. Injuries don't help, sure, but they cannot be an excuse for a team that wants to compete for championships, which a program like Florida should do pretty much every year. (Note that I said compete for, not necessarily win. I'm not that greedy or unrealistic.) On the same day Florida lost to Missouri, Ole Miss was without half its starting defense due to injuries. Did the Rebels complain about it? No, they just found a way to beat the sixth-ranked team in the country.
Another thing Muschamp supporters use to back themselves is that Florida's 2012 gave him the luxury of having a bad 2013 instantly pardoned. But when you look back on it, how good was that 2012 team in actuality? How can you possibly say with a straight face that a team that can only produce nine points against the same Georgia defense that surrendered 24 to Kentucky is worth putting on a head coach's resume? And believe me, that wasn't the only shining moment of the Gators' offensive ineptitude. Did Bowling Green, Louisiana-Lafayette and Missouri (5-7 last year) really have any business walking into the Swamp and hanging around for as long as they did? That 2012 team had a habit of playing down to their opponents' levels. Even Ron Zook took care of the clearly inferior teams; last year, Florida couldn't put the really bad teams away until the last possible moment. I kept saying throughout the year that one day it would cost them, and eventually it did in the Sugar Bowl.
Muschamp apologists also point to beating Texas A&M. How would those people feel about Florida's chances of playing Johnny Football, when he'd become Johnny Football, in November, rather than in his first collegiate game? As good as the Gators' defense was in 2012, Johnny Manziel was making even the best defenses look bad at time once he got his feet wet in College Station. Florida caught a huge break there in terms of scheduling.
I know, despite all their deficiencies, the 2012 Gators still made the Sugar Bowl. I ask this with no trace of malice, but rather out of curiosity: Does anybody who supports Muschamp remember what happened in the actual game? The short answer is the Gators got curb stomped, by a so-so Louisville team with two embarrassing losses on its resume: A 45-26 beatdown (and it wasn't even that close) at the hands of a Syracuse team that finished 8-5 and a triple-OT loss to 5-7 Connecticut at home.
This wasn't the Outback, Chik-fil-A or even the Capital One Bowl: It was the Sugar Bowl, with nearly a century of rich history and memories. Why was Florida not ready to play this game? Sure, they wanted to be in the BCS Championship Game, and I'll grant that Notre Dame had no right to be there, but was this how good teams are supposed to respond? Shouldn't Muschamp have convinced his players to finish strong anyway, and prove that they belonged in the title game rather than whine about it? You know, kind of like Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow convinced the 2009 team to finish strong in this same game against a significantly better Cincinnati team than the Louisville team that ripped Florida to shreds?
The third reason Muschamp fans use is that the four losses in 2013 (remember, this entire article is based on the assumption that Florida loses to Georgia, otherwise I wouldn't want him fired) would come to teams ranked in the top 10 at some point. That's immediately invalidated when you look at how bad Georgia is now, having lost a slew of players to injury and coming off a loss to Vanderbilt. LSU is admittedly legitimate, despite their upset loss to Ole Miss.
That left only two of Florida's four presumed losses ranked in the top 10 as of last week. And why, exactly, were Missouri and Miami ranked in the top 10? Because Florida was so bad in those games that they made those teams look loaded with All-Americans by comparison, and the next best opponent either team has faced this year is Georgia. Without victories over Florida, neither team would even be sniffing a national title right now, but thanks to the Gators playing the part of stepping stone, both teams are currently in the thick of the BCS race.
Start the Fire Pease chants if you want. Call for Davis's head if it makes you happy. For me, it all comes back to the head coach: For allowing them to stay on staff this long, for delegating responsibilities that they don't know enough about themselves to people who didn't know either, for making a mistake by hiring Pease, and not realizing his mistake earlier.
Muschamp, as the head man, has to be able to recognize this. Pease's inability to direct an offense can only hurt the Gators if the head coach lets it. There's loyalty, and there's patience, but then there's ignorance. The line for having patience and loyalty should have been drawn after the Miami game. Since it wasn't, I have to believe Muschamp was ignorant of the fact that his program's offense was inept.
Now comes the final test, against Georgia. The step after ignorance is insanity, which according to Albert Einstein, one of the smartest men to ever live, is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Muschamp's clearly going to allow Pease to run the offense against Georgia; if the offense sputters, it's technically fair to classify Muschamp as insane. This circus act Muschamp calls his offense has gone on for too long now, and it's ultimately his fault for paying the head clown for two full years to repeatedly orchestrate a show that nobody wants to see.
I really want to like Muschamp, because of his fan-friendly attitude, smothering defenses and high level recruiting. But unless he figures out a way to manufacture enough offense to beat Georgia, he should be out of a job next season.