Steering through the storm: Will Muschamp, "playing not to lose," and Florida

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Florida has little choice but to play conservatively right now. But that doesn't mean Florida's not playing to win.

I know, I know: The mighty Florida Gators being humbled to the point of having a run-heavy, wrinkle-free game plan is frustrating. It's not fun to watch a football team have to scrap and claw for every yard. Throwing the ball occasionally should happen in an era that is about eight decades removed from the popularization of the forward pass.

But Will Muschamp and his coaching staff put together a game plan that could have won last Saturday's game at South Carolina, and the Gators were definitely playing to win that game — regardless of whether it felt like it or not.

The charge that Muschamp is too conservative and his offenses too boring and ineffective has been made throughout his tenure at Florida. The fact that Florida's total offense has been ranked in the triple digits — 105th in 2011, 104th in 2012, and 113th through 10 games in 2013 — is used as a complete and airtight argument. Spencer Hall coined "big dumb Will Muschamp football" in 2012, after Florida bludgeoned Tennessee with it in a second-half comeback, but he's bludgeoned the 2013 Gators with the same sobriquet. But circumstances have changed dramatically from year to year under Muschamp, and so has Florida's offense.

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Florida's 2011 offense was alternately very good and awful. It beat up on bad teams and sputtered against good ones: That Charlie Weis-directed, John Brantley-led bunch scored 37.9 points per game in seven wins, none of which came against teams that finished the season with a winning record, and 11.0 points per game in six losses. (Brian White served as Florida's offensive coordinator in the Gator Bowl.) Weis's core strategy was an off-tackle running game (which used noted workhorse running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps) to set up play-action passing (for noted bomb-thrower Brantley), and it either feasted on bad defenses or let those defenses feast on Florida, as the Gators coughed up 26 times, and finished with a negative turnover margin in all of their losses.

That offense was bad enough that it really hampered the defense, too. Alabama and Florida State each scored defensive touchdowns on Florida; Georgia scored touchdowns on 18- and 25-yard drives set up by fumbles; LSU built a 24-0 lead on Florida without a drive of more than 60 yards thanks to offensive futility that led to great field position. Auburn also scored on a short field, but that was because of a special teams fumble, and South Carolina just did enough on day when Florida couldn't do much of anything; still, that's four losses in which the offense wasn't merely not winning the game for Florida, but actively losing it.

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Florida didn't deal with much of that in 2012, when it put a vastly improved offense on the field by virtue of its greater care for the football alone. Florida committed 15 turnovers in 2012, and 60 percent of those came in its losses to Georgia (six turnovers) and Louisville (three). Gone were the explosive plays that Florida could sometimes generate under Weis, but in came a steadier, less mistake-prone offense under Brent Pease, one that rarely put Florida's defense in tough spots, and gave it plenty of time to rest on the sidelines.

Florida ran 827 offensive plays in 2012, up from 789 in 2011. While Florida's defense was on the field for 857 snaps, up from 848, much of that can be attributed to teams playing from behind (and throwing it more, which stops the clock). Additionally, Florida had Bowling Green (79 plays), Texas A&M (69 plays), and Missouri (86 plays) rotating onto a schedule that lost Florida Atlantic (57 plays), UAB (52 plays), and a bad Auburn team (59 plays). A

And Florida's offensive rankings stayed about on par with its 2011 rankings in 2012, with the inconsistent performances of 2011 (410 yards or more against Florida Atlantic, UAB, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Furman; 261 yards or fewer in every loss) replaced by more consistent, predictable stuff (10 of 13 games in a range between 266 and 403 yards of total offense).

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2013 started off differently than it is finishing for the Florida offense. Florida took the restrictor plates off Jeff Driskel early on, and the Gators offense averaged 414 yards against Toledo and Miami — without Matt Jones, and then without a healthy Matt Jones, and with only scant contributions from Kelvin Taylor. Fumbles helped scuttle two drives against Toledo, a final and pointless drive ended at the Toledo goal line, and five turnovers in Miami doomed Florida to a defeat despite outgaining the Hurricanes by 201 yards. (It's almost as if turnovers negate yardage!) That 414.0 yards per game would rank 63rd nationally now — not great, by any means, but certainly a far cry from where Florida's currently ranked.

But that was Florida with Driskel, and Florida without him is far less proficient, as one would probably expect. Tyler Murphy, valiant early, helped Florida manage 382 yards against Tennessee, 402 against Kentucky, and 355 against Arkansas. Through five games, Florida was averaging 393.4 yards of total offense per game — again, not great, but it would be 78th nationally. (USC, for the record, is currently 77th, with 394.3 yards per game, and I haven't seen a national hue and cry about that offense.)

The problems really started at LSU, where Florida lost Jones for good and where Murphy sustained a shoulder injury. Florida managed just 240 yards — three more than its 237 against LSU in 2012, and 27 more than its 213 against the Tigers in 213 — with its backup quarterback and running back. Then it bottomed out in Missouri, where Murphy was, by his admission this week, "60, 65, 70 percent," and the Gators managed just 151 yards — 40 fewer than they did in a 33-point win over South Carolina in 2012.

The Gators have been over 300 yards in each game since, with Murphy's 305 yards against Vandy covering for a stoppered rushing game and 200 rushing yards against South Carolina propping up an offense quarterbacked by Skyler Mornhinweg, but those two awful days against two teams of Tigers are the reason Florida in triple digits in the total offense rankings again, literally: Without them, Florida would be averaging 367.1 yards per game — good for 99th nationally.

Of course, Florida's also had turnover problems compound its woes. The Gators coughed it up three times to Missouri, helping make an improbably close game a rout, and gave it away four times to Vanderbilt, which scored touchdowns on drives of four, 10, and 22 yards, and added a field goal on a six-yard drive. When it's avoided turnovers, as it did against Georgia and South Carolina, Florida's been able to keep things close.

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Keeping things close was often good enough for the 2012 Gators, whose remarkable excellence on special teams and defense often made offensive struggles a moot point.

Caleb Sturgis made 24 of 28 field goals, and his only misses that hurt came against Missouri. Sturgis's two misses in that game helped keep it close throughout, though Florida eventually prevailed. Florida kickers have made just 10 of 18 field goals in 2013, with two misses taking six points off the board in a three-point loss to Georgia. The uncertainty at kicker has also impacted Florida when making decisions in opponents' territory: Florida went for it on fourth down against Miami while well within what would've been Sturgis's range, and has been more aggressive on fourth down (14 attempts through 10 games, after 11 in 13 games in both 2011 and 2012) in part thanks to its shank-happy kicker corps.

Florida's been relatively successful on fourth downs (eight conversions on those 14 attempts, tied for 35th nationally at 57.1 percent), but the risk is always higher when going for it on fourth down: A failure is usually essentially a fumble at the line of scrimmage. That risk bit Florida against Georgia, when the Gators tried to get into field goal range on fourth and long and ended up failing and giving the ball to the Dawgs with enough time to get it into field goal range.

And had Florida played just a bit more conservatively against Georgia, I think the Gators might well have won that game. There's a reasonably good chance that Florida's coaches arrived at the same conclusion, and no doubt in my mind that they concluded a conservative, creative, run-heavy game plan against South Carolina was the way to go after watching Murphy struggle to the point of throwing crippling interceptions against Vanderbilt.

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They sketched a good one, even with those parameters. With Murphy out, Florida was limited in the running game — Mornhinweg nulled Florida's ability to run its read option game without giving away the play by having Trey Burton taking the snap — but introduced a wrinkle, Kelvin Taylor taking direct snaps in something closer to a true Wildcat formation, that worked very effectively, especially in the first half. (Joe Tessitore put it pretty well on the ESPN broadcast: "I mean, Florida's got an eight-point lead against a top-10 team in the country with a quarterback that's only thrown two passes for eight yards.") Mornhinweg wasn't asked to make any risky passes — given his final pass of the game, clearly a smart decision in my book — and Florida tried to scrape its way down the field and occasionally hit a big play in the running game or with a screen.

That plan didn't produce any points in the second half, but it did produce a 61-yard drive — keyed by a brilliantly-called, brilliantly-executed screen to Mack Brown for 28 yards — that ended with a horrific shanked field goal from Austin Hardin. Had he hit it, Florida would have put South Carolina in the position of needing two field goals or a touchdown to win, perhaps changing the play-calling in the fourth quarter — and if he had hit it, and the rest of the game unfurled as it did, Florida would only have needed a field goal to win on its final desperate drives.

Florida always had a chance in this game, something it couldn't really say about its losses to LSU, Missouri, and Vanderbilt, and it had a chance because it played to be in position to win, and stayed out of the holes that buried the Gators in those three games, and the loss to Georgia. I think you have to credit its good execution of a good game plan for that chance, even if you fault the game plan and the execution for the loss.

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A good Florida team, in a vacuum, would probably have beaten South Carolina last Saturday night. Connor Shaw missed on too many potential touchdown throws and Carolina settled for too many field goals to beat a genuinely good team, much less a good Florida team, one that will almost always have more talent than a good South Carolina team.

This is not a good Florida team, not with the injuries it has sustained and the left-handed, one-footed offense it has often had to try. Florida had the player who was its third-string quarterback and the player who was its fourth-string running back entering this fall on the field against South Carolina, along with a line that, for one snap without Jonotthan Harrison, consisted of four backups and a guy with one good arm. That fourth-string running back is actually pretty damn good, but the third-string quarterback is ... not as good, and him being in, instead of the injured second-stringer, voided a lot of the value of Florida's improved wide receivers. Part of the reason Florida thought its best shot at converting a fourth down late was a trick play involving Trey Burton throwing to defensive tackle Leon Orr was, no doubt, its (well-founded) confidence that a Mornhinweg pass out of a standard shotgun formation would be less likely to succeed.

But that play call, that chance taken, was inarguably the work of a staff that was playing to win, not "playing not to lose." And the criticism of the game plan — essentially, riding Florida's best player, Taylor, trying like hell to avoid mistakes that would have been game-killers, and taking risks when necessary — as conservative is as specious as assuming this game plan is Florida's ideal one is stupid. (No coach plans for injuries like Florida's; no coach, not even Will Muschamp, wants to play quarterback-free football in 2013.) Of course it was conservative, and did you see the eight-point lead that conservatism got Florida at halftime? Would you have been happier with Mornhinweg throwing 30 passes and three interceptions, and losing by 20?

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If you are chalking up Florida's 2013 to the failings of Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football, I suspect you are looking at the results, not the process.

This isn't Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football; it's Bad Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football. We saw Good Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football last year, and we got all the satisfaction in the world from it in grinding wins over good teams: LSU, South Carolina, Florida State. That philosophy, better executed, made very good teams look as powerless as it did bad ones.

Arguing about whether that's the ideal strategy for an injury-enfeebled team is sort of missing the point — I have argued and will argue that it is, because mistakes hurt teams with small margins more than big plays help — because the obvious conclusion to draw from the past two years is that Florida is much better when healthy than hurt, and that injuries make things harder to evaluate. It's impossible to discuss this Florida team honestly without discussing its injuries, and it's impossible to know how good the Gators would be with Muschamp's ideal strategy, much less our own personal ones, when virtually every strategy is essentially unavailable thanks to injuries.

If we want to be both brutally honest and radical, Florida's best strategy for this year would probably have involved ruling Murphy out for Florida's road trip to Missouri immediately after the LSU game. With a full three weeks to rest, Murphy, who was not good at Missouri, could have been near full strength for Georgia and played better against the Dawgs; punting on that Missouri game couldn't have been much worse than trying to win and failing miserably, as Florida did. And maybe Florida would've gotten that win to get to five wins, all but assuring a bowl berth down the line thanks to this Saturday's game against Georgia Southern.

Getting to 6-6 with a beat-up roster (and after losing two quarterbacks in the first six games of the year) would have been seen as a damn good job, and all those fun stats about not being under .500 would have either stayed true until a bowl loss or remained true for the duration of this lost season. It would have been the result of a big-picture strategy of "playing not to lose" — not to lose Florida's bowl streak, or the distinctions that evaporated against Vanderbilt. The 5-7 record that Florida is all but guaranteed right now feels like a failure accompli, and it is the likely outcome of this season partly because Florida played Murphy, the quarterback who gave it the best chance to win each game, despite an injury that probably affected his performance.

That is part of Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football, too: The insistence on belieiving that the Florida Gators, even these Florida Gators, can win any game they play, and trying to do so. And, clearly, that belief hasn't translated to wins in bunches this year.

But playing to win every game, even if it requires playing not to lose those games in the first quarter, or running the ball, or avoiding turnovers at the expense of forsaking big plays, means every game's an opportunity, and a challenge, and a risk taken.

It's not swashbuckling in the traditional Swing Your Sword sense, or on a play-by-play basis, but Muschamp's steering a ship taking on water through the storm, and he's either going down fighting or making it through.

And I'd much rather go down with this ship than suffer through a season scuttled by fear of taking chances, making excuses for giving up all hope.

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Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor.

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