Former Gainesville Sun writer Ed Aschoff fits well at ESPN's SEC blog. That's both compliment and brickbat: He's doing exactly what the Worldwide Leader no doubt wants him to do in his role, and that's take some of the raw opinion provided by "SportsNation" and turn it into an uncritical post on why Florida was named the SEC's "biggest disappointment."
Let's cast aside the obvious criticism: Spending time in May projecting which team will be the biggest disappointment in the fall for the moment is ludicrous, but it's the slow season for ESPN, too. Instead, it's worth wondering why Aschoff, who has been in Gainesville for years and might still live here, doesn't respond to SportsNation's dubious coronation with anything resembling insight about the team he's very familiar with.
I think, for a fan to be disappointed in a team, that team has to fail to meet expectations. Aschoff writes two lines about expectations: "in Gainesville, the expectations are always high," and "This team is dealing with a first-year head coach in Muschamp, but don't expect expectations to be tempered around the program." That's been the party line for two decades in Gainesville, part and parcel with the easy stereotype that nouveau riche Florida fans have been spoiled by success.
And it's so facile and lazy that it's almost offensive.
The last two first-year head coaches at Florida inherited better situations than Will Muschamp does. Ron Zook took a team with many holdovers from a 11-2 SEC championship squad the year before, including Heisman Trophy runner-up Rex Grossman, and turned it into an 8-5 team that finished second in the SEC East and tried to use Grossman as a wide receiver in an Outback Bowl fiasco against Michigan. Urban Meyer had a full complement of impressive recruits brought in by Zook, including all-everything quarterback Chris Leak, and his team improved on Zook's final 7-5 squad ... by going 9-3 and placing second in the SEC East.
My rosiest expectations for Muschamp's first season, which follows Meyer's thoroughly underwhelming 8-5 farewell and begins with John Brantley — a much larger question mark than Grossman or Leak — at the helm, are that the Gators go 6-1 at home, topping either Alabama or Florida State, end up around 8-5 or 9-4, and stay in contention in the SEC East. And I think that's a little unreasonable, because it's going to be incredibly difficult: The Gators' 2011 schedule is beyond brutal, with Florida likely to be favored in no more than eight games, and only one (Kentucky) on the road.
And my expectation of contention in the SEC East factors in that a slightly older and theoretically better Florida team was stomped by South Carolina in the Swamp last year. Any sane pecking order in the SEC East for 2011 has the Gamecocks on top, and Florida no better than second.
Can a team with that schedule and no better than the second-best roster in its division disappoint? Certainly: A losing season, or even a .500 season, would be very frustrating. But last year's team came in with greater expectations and finished 7-5 in the regular season with a far easier schedule; that team was the SEC's most disappointing, while the 2011 Gators could well end up being the conference's most pleasant surprise.
I think most Florida fans — certainly most Alligator Army readers — would agree that with less talent than the best SEC East team and quite possibly the most difficult schedule in the SEC, Muschamp's first batch of Gators are expected first and foremost to play hard and develop, with 2011 serving as a transition year that will be full of growing pains. Those aren't lofty expectations; they're fairly reasonable hopes.
But ESPN's brilliant SportsNation voters disagree with that, for whatever inane reason, and Aschoff didn't take the time or effort to explain why that makes little sense. Aschoff could also have noted that the SEC West has three BCS-bowl caliber teams in Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas, and that two of them will not win an SEC title and at least one of them will not play in a BCS bowl. To my mind, that would be a far more disappointing fate than a team with a first-time head coach and a depth chart rife with embryonic talent failing to beat undefined "high" expectations.
But what do I know? I don't work for ESPN.