Florida probably will be ranked in the preseason Top 25 come August, an idea that is totally ridiculous and based mostly on the program's historical cachet, yet somehow it still seems reasonable. I did it myself in January, allowing the Gators to share the 25th spot with fellow underachiever Michigan, with the assumption that at least one of them will snap out of it and be a semblance of the team it's supposed to be.
Florida could finish 4-8 or 11-1 in 2014, and neither result would be surprising. We've seen both in the last two seasons, and no team is under more pressure next fall than the Gators, who have withered away into one of the most unwatchable teams in college football, all the more difficult to stomach since their in-state archrivals from Tallahassee have returned to the pinnacle of the sport. Any hot-seat list will include Will Muschamp at the top, because while a mulligan usually can be granted for an injury-ravaged season, losing the final seven games in a row to finish under .500 for the first time since 1979 -- and losing to Georgia Southern, an FCS team that didn't complete a pass -- is unforgiveable.
While it's easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, the hiring of Muschamp really never fit the image of Florida football in the first place. Florida made its name as an innovative program among major colleges, with the Fun 'n' Gun and spread option giving the program a defined identity. In between Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Florida failed by hiring Ron Zook, a defensive coach and accomplished recruiter who has flamed out as a gameday coach, and now, for the last three years, the reins have been in the hands of Muschamp, the former Texas defensive coordinator who probably would have fit best a Woody Hayes staff. A good head coach is a good head coach, and a good defensive coach could succeed at Florida, in theory. Still, it's an odd shift in direction, given that the fan base came of age with Florida on the cutting edge of offensive football. It just makes it easier for fans to grow disenchanted with the direction of the program, sooner rather than later.
Fans really care only about winning, but if you're going to lose, there at least needs to be some entertainment value. Watching your team lose 49-38 may be unsatisfying, but at least scoring points creates the illusion of competence, offering some sort of hope that you'll someday out-score an opponent. Losing 17-6 in this era of football screams everything is hopeless, creating an existential crisis of fandom, in which one wonders why it's worth investing so much time, energy and money on such an unsatisfying product.
* * *
Bad offenses often are described as lacking an identity, which in this case means they never look like they have any idea what they're doing, making it up as they go along with no bread-and-butter plays. Being predictable isn't necessarily bad if you have superior athletes who execute well, but it's always bad when you predictably do things poorly, which has been Florida's problem since Tim Tebow left, in Urban Meyer's final year in 2010, and subsequently for the last three years under Muschamp. You can blame one-year coordinator Charlie Weis or two-year coordinator Brent Pease, but it seems rather clear that, while certainly not blameless, they largely operated within the framework of Will Muschamp Football, one of the most conservative, old-school brands in the nation.
So, as spring practice nears, no assistant coach is under the microscope quite like new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who's charged with saving Muschamp from himself and bringing the previously forward-thinking Florida offense back from the pits of despair that (11-win season in 2012 aside) have defined the first part of this decade. Ordinarily, accepting the job of Florida offensive coordinator is hardly a risk; it's one of the most coveted assistant-coach spots in the game, a high-profile position at a high-profile school that can serve as the final launching pad to a head-coaching job. This can be exactly that for Roper, or he might need to freshen up his résumé come December, and there may not be much in between. Anyone who accepted the job would know that it comes with great risk, a win-or-else mandate with a complete house cleaning not too far off.
There are no more scapegoats; the responsibility is firmly on Muschamp's shoulders, but that responsibility requires him to follow through on a promise to recognize the offense's faults and cede creative control to Roper, who has been the top lieutenant to David Cutcliffe, one of the game's most respected offensive coaches, for 14 of the last 15 seasons. He served as Eli Manning's offensive coordinator at Ole Miss and most recently helped to build Duke from perennial bottom-feeder to their first-ever 10-win season.
Under Cutcliffe and Roper, beginning in 2008, the Blue Devils offense hardly became a juggernaut, but for such a long-downtrodden program, literally the nation's worst 10 years ago, simply rising to the middle of the pack is a massive step. Last year's Duke team ranked 55th in plays per game, at 72.6, but Roper does like to push the tempo, and there's no reason Florida shouldn't have the athletes to do so. The Gators ranked 105th in the category, at 66.1, and if you ever needed evidence that time of possession is an archaic, meaningless statistic, Florida finished third nationally in time of possession per game, with 33:49. Time of possession means nothing when it's being wasted with unimaginative, ineffective football that moves the offense nowhere.
What Florida especially has lacked is explosive plays, keeping everything close to the line of scrimmage with little capacity to stretch the field. The Gators ranked 118th in plays of 20-plus yards, according to cfbstats.com, with 37 in 12 games, and 91st in yards per pass attempt. When you fail to make explosive plays, getting to the end zone requires more plays, and more plays equals more opportunities to make mistakes, the thing all coaches (especially those like Muschamp) want to avoid in the first place.
Again, Florida's extensive injury report from the season deserves some of the blame. After all, just a year earlier, the Gators came close to playing for the national title and ended up in the Sugar Bowl, despite ranking 92nd in yards per play. But everything clicked on defense in 2012, and with injuries to Dominique Easley and Antonio Morrison (among others) in 2013, the defense could not be counted on to carry the entire team again. Yes, 2013 featured the worst possible confluence of events, many of which were unpredictable, but it also greatly exposed the flaws in the system.
The question becomes how much freedom Roper really has and what he'll do with it. Roper has learned from one of the best in Cutcliffe, but he's also never been cast out on his own. He may not be the head coach, but for the first time, he's the most expert offensive mind on a coaching staff, faced with a sink-or-swim situation in which he largely can determine the fate of his new head coach. Muschamp must trust Roper, and Roper in turn must trust his players.
* * *
At this moment, the biggest wild card in the 2014 SEC season has never played a down, and come fall he may play a lot, or a little, or not at all. Will Grier may be the answer to Florida's prayers, or he may be a bridge to a new era, a gift for a new coaching staff.
A five-star recruit, Grier was named Parade National Player of the Year as a senior, and he stuck with the verbal commitment he made in December 2012, choosing to play for a Gators offense that might have scared off any quarterback with pro football ambitions. He's on campus already as an early enrollee, and with Muschamp declaring all starting jobs open after last year's 4-8 debacle, he theoretically has a chance to overtake Jeff Driskel. The odds seem long, with Driskel set to return for spring practice after breaking his leg against Tennessee against September. While a coach like Muschamp has to adapt to a new philosophy to survive, pinning his hopes on an 18-year-old true freshman would involve risks that likely outweigh the potential reward. Driskel has underperformed and been prone to mistakes, but he certainly hasn't gotten much help from his coaches. Driskel will be working with his third coordinator in four seasons, and while he's way ahead of Grier on experience, both will be learning a new offense.
Either way, the change to Roper will assuredly benefit both, as Driskel's mobility has been handcuffed by the offense he's played in, while Grier excels on the move, suggesting the type of 21st-century quarterback Florida hasn't had since Tebow. For three years, Florida's offensive personnel have been pigeonholed into an archaic three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust system for which they're ill-suited, and for three years, they mostly have failed. It's a system that stifles creativity, and without everyone's buy-in, perfectly functioning special teams and lights-out defensive play -- which can be done - that style of play breeds constant frustration.
"As I looked at it, we needed to be more up-tempo, we needed to create more snaps, we needed to create more space plays," Muschamp told the Orlando Sentinel in January. "I felt like being in the [shotgun] would help some of our personnel, and that's where we're headed."
There was a revealing moment in last season's Florida-Tennessee game, when the one-loss Gators still had delusions of grandeur. Driskel had just been knocked out, and inexperienced Tyler Murphy (who will suit up for Boston College next season) took over. In the midst of one of the season's sloppiest games, Florida hurried to the line, and CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist took note, saying, "Here's a little bit of that hurry-up," adding that Florida had said it would use it against the Vols. The next thing he said was that there were five seconds left on the play clock.
It's one thing to say a philosophy is changing, quite another to put it into practice.
Muschamp's style has always been influenced by the past, but at Florida, thus far it's been influenced by the wrong past. Let Roper attempt to follow the forward-thinking Spurrier-Meyer models, and it's not hard to see Florida back in the top 25 come October -- or even the top 10, given the level of talent that still exists in the program. Florida may sink anyway, but at this point, they have to go for broke, as Roper did in accepting the job. Spread the field, push the tempo, give the quarterback some freedom. Even if it fails, at least it'll be more satisfying.