The inestimable value of Bill Connelly writing about your football team manifests itself in a lot of things, and Bill Connelly writing his 2013 preview of the Florida Gators vindicates a few things I've believed about 2012 Florida for a while.
Without cannibalizing his take, I'll run down a few of 'em.
"Florida leaned on a fast, suffocating defense, brilliant special teams, and an occasional running game -- two parts destructive powers, no parts creative players -- and it worked."
That last bit, the "and it worked," is why we're not getting anything less than that 2012 blueprint from Will Muschamp and Company in the near future. If Florida can win games by taking a couple risks per contest, playing ferocious defense, and depending on reliable special teams performers, then that becomes the baseline; if Florida decides its passing game is too risky, or its running game anything but a clock-controlling thresher, it will retreat to that baseline. This worked to beat an LSU team with oodles of NFL talent, a South Carolina team that shut down Florida on offense, and, mostly, worked to beat a talented Florida State team.
You don't have to like it, either in aesthetics or spirit. But you have to acknowledge that it worked.
"They had a plan (on offense), and it occasionally worked."
The plan was extraordinary in its simplicity: Run, run, pass/run, punt or start it all over. Florida had 35 three-and-outs — drives that ended without a first down or a turnover — last year, and if that seems like a lot, it actually isn't: Florida had 155 drives that weren't just end-of-half kneeldowns, and so its three-and-out percentage was a pretty respectable 22.6 percent. (Really good teams can get three-and-out percentage under 10 percent; going above 30 percent is bad news.)
But being average at that is a huge step up from Florida in 2011, and Florida's three-and-outs were better than almost any other team's, thanks to Kyle Christy.
"Punter Kyle Christy was by far the best weapon Florida had for flipping the field "
More from Connelly: "His steady punting added about an extra first down or so to Florida's yardage in a given series and consistently gave opponents long fields." An extra first down per series makes a three-and-out into a six-and-out, and your memory probably backs this up: How often do you recall Florida foes having to operate out of the shadow of their own goalposts, and how good did you feel about the Gators defense stopping a team from clicking off 80 yards? Moreover, the only game in which Florida had more than five offensive three-and-outs was the South Carolina game, in which it had six on 15 drives — but Christy (and phenomenal punt coverage, which should be noted as part of why Christy looks so good) essentially made up for that offensive futility and then some, averaging 54.3 yards per punt in that game, and thrice flipping the field from Florida's red zone to a spot 65 yards or more away from Florida's goal line. And those are the punts that didn't result in fumbles by returners.
I didn't try to get "KY-LE CHRIS-TY" chants started in the student section for nothing.
"There are two different forms of mobility: running with the ball and avoiding sacks. The latter is almost as much about mental agility as physical, and Driskel had none. He was sacked more frequently than almost any quarterback in the country...
I think this is somewhat overstated, because more than a fifth of the sacks allowed by Florida in 2012 came in Driskel's first start, which came on the road, which came against a Texas A&M defense that got five of those sacks in the first half. (If you wanna get even more granular: More than an eighth of the sacks allowed by Florida in 2012 came on two drives against A&M.)
Driskel also got the learning experience of a lifetime, given Florida's schedule. He took another five sacks against LSU, three against South Carolina, four against Georgia, and three against Florida State — and LSU (Barkevious Mingo), Georgia (Jarvis Jones), and Florida State (Bjoern Werner) had pass-rushers taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. (23 of the 39 sacks Florida allowed came in those five games, you'll note.) Furthermore: South Carolina obviously had a guy who will be taken with the first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft; Damontre Moore, A&M's primary pass-rusher, went in the third round; and Tank Carradine, Werner's partner in terror, went in the second.
If you saw Florida's offensive line in 2012, you know that it was far better at run-blocking than pass-blocking, and you know that Driskel was often making magic while escaping pressure while tucking the ball in. Driskel continuing to do that while conceding the throwaway incomplete passes that keep down-and-distance situations manageable and avoiding the throws like his end-of-half pick against Georgia that cost points will be important, but I'm not quite as worried about Driskel's ability or inclination to throw the ball away as I was early in 2012.
"The only chance offenses had came through the air, and opponents knew it."
One of the reasons I knew Florida was in trouble early against Louisville? The Cardinals kept completing underneath passes. Louisville completed two for first downs on its opening offensive drive, and would've completed three if not for a drop on the play that featured Matt Elam blasting a Louisville receiver.
Much as you can follow a Beat 'Bama Formula, you can follow a Beat Florida Formula, one that requires disciplined passing and turnover minimization. Louisville followed that script, and Georgia followed half of it (Aaron Murray's mental block on knowing how to avoid turnovers against Florida is so weird), and those two teams got wins against the Gators. Texas A&M followed all of it, and probably should've won its game against Florida — Taylor Bertolet's missed field goal at the end of the first half was the difference between a Florida win and overtime in that game.
Following that exact strategy to beat Alabama, or 2012 Florida, is really hard: Teams that want to try need a very good and passably mobile quarterback and a bunch of sure-handed players, at least, and probably need to have a four-wide set that can expose just one defensive back on the field, like Louisville did with Brian Poole in the Sugar Bowl. Players likely need to make really good catches, like DaVante Parker did over Loucheiz Purifoy, too: Those quarterbacks are throwing into spaces that might be open, not to open receivers, and so there's plenty that has to go right to make a catch happen.
Florida won't see Johnny Manziel this year, and the closest thing to him that the Gators are likely to face is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who has taken zero snaps in regulation college games. Then again, at this time last year, Manziel wasn't even A&M's surefire starter.
"The eyeballs and the win column disagreed sharply when watching Florida play last year."
This gets to the root of the Florida fan base's enduring skepticism about Will Muschamp and the new-look, old-school Gators. The majority of the current generation of adult Florida fans got used to the win column taking care of itself and the eyeballs getting bombarded with awesome when Danny Wuerffel and Rex Grossman were playing for Steve Spurrier; later, with Urban Meyer running the show, that generation got another dose of that, with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin starring.
I think 2012 Florida compiled a better regular season résumé than any previous Florida team, and I think that this team did more with less than any other great Florida team, and yet I know that isn't enough to make fans feel comfortable and confident. That's okay: Muschamp's going to keep doing what he's doing, regardless of how many fans who want to see 50-yard touchdown passes on every drive he alienates, because Muschamp's job is to produce Florida's best chance of winning, and that doesn't depend on satisfying fans. And if those fans want to not embrace a winning team because it doesn't play to their exact specifications, they are going to have a hard time hopping back on a full bandwagon.
I saw almost every minute of every Florida game in 2012, and have now seen most of them more than once; I know full well how much more psychic energy this style of football requires from fans. But I believe my eyes can lie to me, and I trust the way I feel when I try to take an entire game or season or tenure into account more than I do the pit in my stomach when Florida trails Louisiana at home with a backup taking snaps at quarterback. Florida faced a situation like that in 2011, too, with Furman taking a 22-7 lead in The Swamp — but those Gators got trampled by Alabama and LSU, and looked horrible against Auburn and Florida State.
Things have already gotten better on the holiest ground in Gator Nation, and I have faith that they will to get better. But I have had to let what my faith tells me trump what my eyes see, and return to my belief in process over results repeatedly. Being a Florida fan now does not take us on the easy, thrilling ride that the Fun 'n Gun and the Tebow spread did.
I suspect it might take us to the same places, though.