No one within the Florida football program expected to go 4-7 through 11 games this this year; few outside the program expected that, either. And with Florida State soaring in 2013, 4-8 seems like a final outcome that has merely yet to happen.
Previewing that game, in which FSU will start future Heisman Trophy winner and future No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jameis Winston at quarterback, while Florida will probably counter with Skyler Mornhinweg, feels almost silly — though we'll do it on Saturday, I promise. Previewing the future, in 2014 and beyond, is what you really want — and what I'd rather do.
So let's use Black Friday as our peg, and write out a shopping list for the Gators.
A better offensive system
Brent Pease's offense hasn't failed in full, unless you think it got every offensive player who is currently injured hurt. (If you think that, do us all a favor and close this tab.) But it's made a frustrating mess of a fair bit of offensive talent, certainly, with running backs capriciously substituted for each other, wide receivers either deployed on predictable screens or left to run routes that extend plays beyond the offensive line's capabilities, and tight ends deployed as blockers alone.
Florida needs to do a better job of using the talent on hand in 2014 and beyond, whether that means getting really creative with players who get snaps to limit the pounding its quarterbacks take, throwing more fades to tall wideouts in the red zone, moving receivers around to better utilize speed in space, simplifying reads for spread-style quarterbacks, or running the quarterbacks more to play to their strengths.
Florida can afford to get a better system for the sticker price, rather than buying cheap, because a better system would pay dividends with fans soon and with recruits later, but it has to have an offensive upgrade at the top of its list.
Losing the December practices that come with a bowl game will hurt Florida, especially because this young team could use some extra practices to cross-train players and identify potential playmakers. But there's a lot of frustration to use as kindling all offseason — if someone can keep the fire stoked.
Jeff Dillman serves as Florida's de facto coach in the offseason, with his oversight of the strength and conditioning program. He can't get players together to throw the ball or study film, though; once they leave his watchful eye, a player, or players, will have to do that.
This 2013 team hasn't had many leaders, not since its obvious ones — Jeff Driskel on offense and Dominique Easley on defense — went down with injuries. Driskel will return in 2014, and could step up as a vocal leader, rather than leading by example, but the defense could use another leader or two. Vernon Hargreaves III would seem to be a good choice, as would Dante Fowler, Jr., and noted recruit whisperer Nick Washington.
Florida could also look to its youth movement for leaders. Will Grier and Quincy Wilson have been outspoken about their interest in leading the Gators back to glory, and Grier enrolls early. If he can work with Driskel to keep the Gators' noses to the grindstone in the long offseason, he would lay the foundation for a strong 2014, and a stronger future for a program he will likely lead for two or three years down the road.
A go-to playmaker
Florida hasn't had a clear go-to guy on offense — someone the team can rely on when facing third downs, needing big plays, and/or nearing the end zone — in quite some time. Tim Tebow was arguably that player in 2009, but he wasn't a big-play threat on the ground. Percy Harvin was that player from 2006 to 2008, but he was also a once-in-a-generation player.
Florida doesn't need Harvin or Tebow in 2014, but it could use someone who can "change the scoreboard," given Will Muschamp's laments at the Gators' inability to do that against Georgia Southern. That might be as easy as reeling the electifying Dalvin Cook back in, and might be as easy as featuring Ahmad Fulwood or throwing long to a rejuvenated Andre Debose.
But it might require a philosophical loosening of the reins, and permission from Muschamp and the 2014 offensive coordinator for Driskel to take shots deep. Florida played conservatively to avoid turnovers in 2012, and conservatively because it had no other choice in 2013, and that looks like a strategy that produces 11 wins only when other aspects of the team employing it — defense and special teams, in particular — are excellent. I don't think Florida can rely on replicating the excellence in those phases it had in 2012 in 2014, and I think its best response to that would be developing an aggressive offense that can make its margin for error wider.
Patient, loyal fans
For many Florida fans, Muschamp is persona non grata already, and will remain on the outs until his teams start winning again. And that's fine: Fans are welcome to feel whatever they want, even if they're mostly reacting to injuries by blaming a coach.
But those fans could do the Gators — the team, not just Muschamp and not just the players playing for him — a lot of good by turning out en masse and having a little faith in Muschamp's capacity to, as he puts it, "get things turned." There will be no prizes awarded for the most pessimistic or vitriolic "takes" on Muschamp et al. in the months between now and August 2014, and even being accurately negative is likely to do little more than depress both the writer and the audience.
The best thing Florida fans can do for Florida in the near term is go to Saturday's game against Florida State and stay for all four quarters, no matter how much it hurts. Endure the somewhat historically inaccurate yelp. Sing the alma mater after the game with the band. Live up to the "In all kinds of weather" motto we hold dear, even under dark skies.
And the best thing Florida fans can do in the medium term is take a deep breath and prepare for a long offseason that will feel as bad as any in Gators history. I tried to make this point on Sunday, but there's a lot more to UF than the football team, and this would be a great year to throw some of the passion that went to waste this fall into another team. Florida will play football again, and will almost certainly play better in 2014 than it did in 2013, but it does so little good to spend an offseason stewing that there's no reason to do it.