Will Muschamp isn't coaching for his job on Saturday against Georgia and for the rest of the 2013 season, as some reactionaries, our Neil Shulman included, would have you believe. He hasn't taken an elite Florida team and made it merely very good, as some columnist you've never heard of wrote two weeks ago. He's not as bad as Ron Zook was, not nearly, even if tongue-in-cheek comparison charts aren't enough to convince some of this.
In my view, Muschamp's a very good, and perhaps great, defensive coach who has had more than his fair share of struggles as a first-time head coach, and who is trying to turn around a program that sank to depths few realize. And I'm not alone in this thinking.
Muschamp's got a fantastic reputation in coaching circles as a brilliant defensive mind. That's part of why he was viewed as a future head coach even when he was at LSU and Auburn, part of why he was named Mack Brown's successor at Texas, part of why Jeremy Foley, working without a Plan B, announced him as Florida's replacement for Urban Meyer three days after Meyer's second and final resignation as the head coach of the Gators, and part of why he remains beloved in the Florida football program.
Good hire - Muschamp is a very good coach who has done an admirable job ridding the program of some issues, but has now run the risk of letting a punchless offense write his reputation for him. A 22-11 record under Muschamp feels like a perfect compromise between a nationally elite defense and a directionless offense.
No part of that, which echoes Spencer Hall's "earnest bad cook" verdict on Muschamp, feels wrong to me: Muschamp's done everything but hang the moon on defense, despite kicking Janoris Jenkins, his best player and defender, out of the Florida program in the summer of 2011, dealing with miserable offense for nearly every game of his head coaching career, losing a defensive coordinator to the NFL in Dan Quinn, and making a questionable hire for a crucial position in Bryant Young, but the offense is what people remember about Muschamp's Florida, especially after feckless showings like the one the Gators had at Missouri.
To some degree, that offense that practically offends Gator Nation's sensibilities is not Muschamp's fault. The conventional wisdom of late has been that Charlie Weis was not entirely Muschamp's decision, but Weis's departure is regarded as a blessing in disguise, and Brent Pease, for all the many faults folks have found in him in 2013, managed Florida's growing and talent-light offense masterfully in 2012, with Florida turning the ball over just 15 times over 13 games last season, and just six times in Florida's 11 wins.
Six turnovers in 11 games is aberrationally great, sure, and regression alone suggested it wouldn't recur in 2013. (Florida's offense has committed 13 turnovers in seven games in 2013.) But Pease and Florida did an incredible job of draining every drop of blood from the stone that was Florida's offense in 2012, and that has been lost in the furor over the 2013 version.
Did you think Jeff Driskel was bad at the beginning of this year, prior to his season-ending injury? Pease helped that same Driskel — one who admitted he wasn't as committed to football in 2012 earlier this year — win 10 games as a starter. Did you think Florida didn't have receivers in 2012? Pease figured out how to use Jordan Reed, a marginal blocker, as far and away Florida's biggest threat in its passing game. Did you recall that Florida barely topped its millennium-low 151 yards of total offense against Missouri in a home win over South Carolina — which still featured 44 points from 186 yards of total offense? Do you remember just how bad Florida's offenses were in Urban Meyer's final years?
Pease did what Muschamp needed his offensive coordinator to do in 2012, which was set up an offense that did just enough not to let Florida lose games because of it. (And Muschamp was right about what he needed: When Florida got leads in 2012, it held them; when it didn't have manageable deficits, it couldn't take them.)
Muschamp needs the same thing from Pease in 2013, but it's a Sisyphean task now. Devastating injuries — losing Driskel and Matt Jones has kneecapped Florida's passing offense, never having Chaz Green has produced problems on the offensive line, and losing Andre Debose has deprived Florida of at least a change-up or insurance policy for Solomon Patton — have been enough to make the offense as it is constituted now much less than it was in its first two games. Jones's illness this summer derailed what was thought to be his emergence this fall; he never looked like the player he was late in 2012, much less someone who could follow Mike Gillislee as a 1,000-yard runner. And a painful bit of attrition — Reed bolting for the NFL, somewhat unexpectly — has left Florida playing essentially without a tight end as an offensive weapon one year after its pass offense revolved around one.
And Muschamp needs more from his offense this year than he did last year — as most expected he would, given that attrition took the entire middle of Florida's 2012 defense away from Gainesville. Dominique Easley was brilliant enough to cover for a litany of issues early on, but without him, cracks have shown on Florida's defense. (Does Loucheiz Purifoy get exposed as he has over the last four games if Easley's surging up the middle?)
Additionally, Florida's special teams, reliably brilliant in 2012, have been largely pedestrian in 2013, with their moments of brilliance — a blocked punt against Miami; great punt coverage by Purifoy resulting in a fumble recovery and a kick return touchdown against Missouri — coming in losses.
The margin for error for Florida's offense was never large in 2012, but Pease had that offense operating within it for much of the season; now, the margin for error requires a magnifying glass to see ... and Pease doesn't have the personnel to reliably stay within it.
In weighing how much of that to put on Pease, I come back to one of my primary hypotheses about college football: We blame coaches for so many things that are really the faults of players, because the players are young, unpaid (or "unpaid"), and transient.
It's not Pease's fault that Driskel threw two awful passes for picks against Miami, and not chiefly Pease's fault that Tyler Murphy's regressed significantly after feasting on bad teams (with the help of good game plans) in his first three games; coaches can teach and empower players, but they can't make the smart decisions to throw the ball away, or check into short passes at the line on the road to make up for porous offensive lines. They also can't block defensive ends, though they can certainly make structural changes to better manage pressures, and can't make tackles in space when the defensive line doesn't get penetration up front. You get the idea.
And if Pease isn't responsible for his offensive players' every mistake, Muschamp isn't responsible for his players' every mistake, despite his noble and repeated attempts to put everything on himself. Sometimes, teams get outplayed; sometimes, teams with lots of critical injuries are forced to turn to backups who were backups for good reasons, and get dramatically outplayed, as Florida was at Missouri.
It's not unacceptable, it's not inexcusable, and it's not enough for me, looking at Muschamp's tenure (and Pease's) holistically, to want heads to roll, not yet. This is just how college football works right now for pretty much every team except Alabama and Oregon, the schools that have most effectively made their margins for error massive and their successes just as massive.
Immediately after learning that the injury Driskel suffered against Tennessee would end his season, I reacted with what I thought was a pretty valid mix of frustration and hope.
And if Jeff Driskel's out for the season, the most we can expect from this team is fun. Have some.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) September 21, 2013
Moments after sending that tweet, I was accused of abandoning ship. So I clarified.
"All we can expect is fun" is not "We are doomed, shut down the program." This is uncharted water. We can have fun splashing or whine.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) September 21, 2013
I've been a Florida fan for most of my life. I can remember back to about January 1996, and I can remember both Florida being worse than it is right now and Florida's situation feeling a lot more hopeless. The whammies of losing spectacularly to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and losing to Florida State with the national championship seemingly in the balance hurt in 1996, before a little luck and a lot of revenge made that all worth it. The turn of the century, with Florida State playing for three titles in four years and Miami supplanting Florida in the top two in the state, was not fun. The Zook years, despite coinciding with declines from FSU and Miami, were awful.
And while those moments of struggle were easily forgotten under Meyer, as his teams laid waste to the college football landscape, the 2010 and 2011 seasons were reminders that success is cyclical, and pain is a promise. Pain is the tie that binds in college football, as Bill Connolly wrote beautifully over the weekend, but pain is also the pound of flesh we all submit to the deities of the sport as down payment for the glories of victory, and the reason that 2012's redemption felt so damn good.
On the whole, it hasn't been fun to splash around in this uncharted water in 2013, and it has gotten much murkier since the moments after the Tennessee game, thanks to a slew of other injuries and a pair of losses. I can't tell you how to feel about this team; if you can't decide that for yourself, you're probably a lemming. But I can tell you that bemused resignation mixed with appreciation of the good has been more fun for me than agonized, sky-is-falling pessimism would have been, and that I'm generally happier to be observing Florida than condeming it.
I firmly believe that Muschamp's not going anywhere after 2013, not unless Florida falls apart dramatically and flames out to finish the season. Foley staked a lot on the hiring of Muschamp, and doesn't want to pull the ripcord on him early like he did on Zook — and though that was ultimately proved to be a damn good decision, it didn't leave a good taste in the mouths of anyone but the boosters who had figurative torches and pitchforks at the ready — and there's a tremendous amount of respect within Florida's program for Muschamp as a coach, a teacher, and a person. It would be foolish to discount how much Florida enjoys having a folksy son of Gainesville who is the spitting image of this generation's archetypal golden boy coach — Eric Taylor, Dillon's finest, is fictional, but that doesn't make him any less an aspirational figure — after Meyer, a more mercenary figure, produced spectacular highs and detestable lows for the program.
But I do think there's a chance, albeit very small, that Florida falls apart. I see four winnable games left on the schedule — Florida State is really, painfully good, I'm sorry to report — but I think all five of those games are also dangerous, given how limited Florida is, how deep the SEC has been, and how tough defending Georgia Southern's option will be. If Florida falls in all five of those games, I will definitely be a lot less sanguine about things than I currently am.
There is a great, vast expanse between sanguine and bloodthirsty for me, however, and I'm not willing to walk that path on Will Muschamp just yet. This Georgia game isn't the last station or the point of no return for Muschamp, I don't think, and it shouldn't be that for fans, either.
I'm at a crossroads with Muschamp, one that could lead me down that road from sanguine to bloodthirsty — or down another road, from sanguine to ecstatic. And I'm willing to wait there until I have reason to walk down either one.