This was one of the worst Gators losses.
I tried to make the point that I'm not 100 percent sure that this was the worst loss ever in last night's vent thread, and I got shouted down because "It's Georgia Southern!" stings worse than anything else right now, but I'm perfectly fine with this: At the very least, this is one of a few possible candidates for the worst loss by Florida in its football program's history, and it is exquisitely and extraordinarily painful.
This will be in the first paragraph if and when Will Muschamp is fired, will be part of the first paragraph in an argument against Muschamp in a column, on a blog, or in a message board, and will probably be the low point mentioned when Florida's eventual rise back to prominence — it will happen — merits fawning profiles. It is seismic, and it probably changed the fates of some members of Florida's coaching staff, changed the minds of some recruits, and shook the faith of many fans.
Still, I firmly believe that the following is true...
It was the sum of all fears at its logical endpoint.
Michigan's loss to Appalachian State in 2007 remains the gold standard for FCS-over-FBS upsets, and it ended Lloyd Carr's career at Michigan because of all of the many reasons it was truly shocking: That was Michigan's opener, so there were no major injuries to speak of, and few reasons to think Michigan wouldn't have been fully prepared; the year prior, Michigan was a top-flight squad that was one loss from the BCS Championship Game (and finished 11-2, much like 2012 Florida); Michigan was playing a spread team at a point when the spread was still emerging, but it wasn't the constant, play-by-play challenge the triple option is.
Michigan also followed that Appalachian State loss by getting blasted by Oregon, 39-7, in a game people remember better for a Statue of Liberty touchdown than Oregon's utter dominance, and with nine more wins on the year, despite losing both Chad Henne and Mike Hart for portions of it, including a bowl win over newly-minted Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Florida. The Wolverines' season, despite the loss to App State being the ALL CAPS first note from it, was a success on balance.
Florida didn't have the luxury of playing Georgia Southern after a full offseason to prep, didn't have its full roster — didn't have anything close to it, really — and isn't able to recover from this. Twitter was all of a year and six months old (and had been launched for just over a year) when Michigan was upset, so Darren Rovell wasn't there to note how much the Mountaineers were paid for the privilege, allowing fans to make that fact indelible with time. (Rovell, though, did write an article revealing the number: $400,000.)
Florida will also now go from losing to an FCS program — one that is reclassifying to the FBS with, ironically, Appalachian State — to playing the most terrifying team in college football right now. It's a foregone conclusion that Florida will finish this season 4-8, but there's a possibility that this miserable, hopeless season will get worse because of an all-time beatdown from the Seminoles.
Florida scheduled this Georgia Southern game thinking it would be a good November breather before that game, but never in its wildest dreams did it think it would be the nail in anyone's coffin, and never again, I'd imagine, will Florida schedule an option team as its November cupcake.
After all, that decision, which I'm certain happened before Muschamp took the job, was one Muschamp warned Nick Saban about making at LSU...
...and ended up nullifying Florida's greatest strength, its secondary, which was both great against the pass (Florida had good coverage on all three Eagles throws) and utterly meaningless on Saturday. Florida's still got perhaps the best pass defense in the country, according to advanced stats, even after all the injuries this year, but that doesn't matter if the other team never has to throw the ball. Georgia Southern never did, because Florida never made its lead big enough or stopped the run consistently enough to alter the Eagles' game plan.
Everything was set up beautifully for this upset except for Georgia Southern's own substantial injuries (ones that it at least had time to work around prior to Saturday's game, rather than during it), and so the upset happened. The sum of all fears came to pass.
That's basic, simple analysis. It's not complicated, even if stopping the triple option (especially with about three healthy starters in the front seven) is. But the problem for Muschamp et al. is that Gators fans now really, really want heads on pikes. And...
Will Muschamp is probably returning as Florida's coach in 2014.
Jeremy Foley's very public, very firm backing of Muschamp two weeks ago was one thing, but this tweet from AP reporter Mark Long last night is confirmation of it:
In case anyone is wondering, loss to Georgia Southern does nothing to change coach Will Muschamp's status. He will be around in 2014— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) November 24, 2013
Long is one of the snarkiest AP reporters you'll ever tweet, but he's not in the habit of reporting things that aren't concrete, and I think that he's probably right here. Since the original publication of this article, the Orlando Sentinel has also reported there are no plans to replace Muschamp.
Foley and Muschamp were obviously prepared for the possibility of 5-7 and missing a bowl when that statement was released, and this loss, despite the embarrassment, doesn't really materially change this season — faces are just redder, and both Foley and Muschamp are well aware of how much of that redness is really just the residue of rotten injury luck.
But this loss makes it easier to effectuate staff changes elsewhere.
Florida's offense will be overhauled.
It would maybe have been possible to keep Brent Pease around if Florida had following getting blood from a stone against South Carolina by doing the same against Georgia Southern.
That did not happen.
Florida actually ran and passed more effectively against the Gamecocks, for my money, and it certainly appeared to me like Pease's game plan against South Carolina — basically, find as many ways as possible to take the game out of Skyler Mornhinweg's hands — was proven correct by the many, many snaps on which Mornhinweg looked like a fish so far out of water he was practically in space. Mornhinweg miraculously threw for two touchdown passes despite that skittishness, but I will stand by "miraculously" as the proper adjective there.
Mornhinweg should never have been starting in the first place, only getting elevated to that role by more bad injury luck, but Pease bears some of the blame for that, too — he took Mornhinweg late in the 2012 recruiting class, then grabbed Max Staver, not an instant-impact player, in 2013, leaving Florida with no non-freshman backups at QB in 2013 but Tyler Murphy. (It should also be noted that Florida helped take itself out of the hunt for elite quarterbacks in 2012 and 2013 thanks in part to adding Jacoby Brissett to the 2011 class and creating a logjam on the depth that — and that was a Charlie Weis decision through and through.)
I think Pease is gone, both on the merits and as the most convenient scapegoat for years of offensive futility, and I would not be surprised if much of the offensive staff was dismissed with him. Joker Phillips would seem safest of the rest of the offensive staff, with his recruiting acumen and the improvement of Florida's wide receivers in 2013 to his name, and Brian White is probably second-safest, but the vaporous Florida line and theoreticality of Gators tight ends in the passing game — both, in fainess, partially predicated on injuries — spells trouble for Tim Davis and Derek Lewis, I would think.
I don't know enough right now to know who the next candidates would be, but I think Florida would be smart to open things up enough so as to better suit Jeff Driskel (and Murphy) in 2014 and better sell excitement to fans and recruits alike, and while I can't imagine Muschamp really wants to risk his chance at a long career at Florida on a spread offense, I also can't imagine he's blind to the benefits, or to the damage a poor and boring offense has done to this point.
Florida's going to be better in 2014, and maybe much better.
Take this with a grain of salt if you must, but Florida's collapse in this 2013 season grants the Gators at least one mercy: Anything better than 4-8 in 2014 is factually an improvement.
Florida's roster this year would not have brought the Gators to 4-8 if healthy, and might have gotten to 6-6 if even Murphy had remained healthy. That roster is likely to be loaded pretty much everywhere but the secondary in 2014, where several players may depart — but Vernon Hargreaves III is probably the best corner on the roster as is, and there's a ton of talent behind the experienced players in that unit right now. Given that Muschamp coaches secondaries well, with ample help from Travaris Robinson, Florida's most glaring weakness is the one it is best-equipped to fix.
The 2014 schedule is also brutal, like every Florida schedule, but swapping odd-year road games for even-year home games against both LSU and South Carolina is huge for Florida (there's a reason Florida's won national titles in even years, not odd ones), and helps take some of the sting out of a schedule including road games against both likely 2014 BCS National Championship Game participants. By even splitting its games against Alabama and Florida State, Florida would have produced a far bigger win in 2014 than any one in 2013, and a win over Alabama would be a massive boost early in the season.
Also, while I was more bullish on this team in this year than most, few, if any, observers believed that 2013 Florida would be better than 2014 Florida. This was always supposed to be a kind of transitional year, in which attrition and youth would hamper Florida, along with a tough schedule. Injuries have compounded the problems of attrition and youth, and it's been a disastrous year, not an 8-4 or 7-5 campaign that frustrated some but ultimately did little more.
Next year, almost all of those players who have suffered through this exasperating season will come back. Most of them are pretty good at football. And all of them should be ravenously hungry for wins. I wanna see that team. I hate that we have to wait to see it.
This is not the end-all, be-all, unless you let it be.
Football makes college athletics possible. It is the 800-pound gorilla that keeps the ecosystem in check. And when the football program at a school suffers, especially for a football-mad school like Florida, the school suffers. But this is not a death knell.
Florida, after all, plays other sports. The Gators volleyball team is well-positioned to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. Florida's men's basketball team is exciting, as deep as it has ever been — yes, including those national championship squads — and will be in the limelight a lot in the next month. The women's basketball team will probably be mediocre at best, but has a really exciting freshman to follow in Ronni Williams.
And when the spring season starts, Florida's most exciting teams will be in action. The men's track and field, softball, gymnastics, and men's swimming and diving teams all have legitimate NCAA title aspirations, and women's tennis, women's swimming and diving, women's track and field, lacrosse, and baseball have copiously talented rosters. The men's and women's golf teams are both rebuilding, but they'll play well at one point or another, too, as will men's tennis.
If you're really broken up about football, to the point that you can't bring yourself to be happy about it, pick another group of Gators to care about, and follow that group passionately. None of those teams will finish 4-8, I promise, and they'll all bring you joy in one way or another — and you'll be one more fan for a team that deserves many more fans, as all of those teams do.
This way, when you come back to following football in the spring or the summer or the fall — and you will, because we all will, because there's nothing greater for a Gator than a Saturday in The Swamp — you will at least have good memories from the 2013-14 year to sustain you.