From the day he was hired, I publicly gave Will Muschamp two years to get acclimated, and said the third year would be his judgment year.
It is now his third year, and his team just performed like you would have expected it to in his first.
Let's cut to the chase: My patience for Will Muschamp is dwindling. It has not totally run out yet, but it is certainly nearing that point. And it's not because Florida lost the final game of a dying rivalry, or because the Gators are off to their worst start in a decade. It's because this Gators football team has so many long-term flaws that I'm not sure Muschamp will be able to correct it.
When you're comparing Gator coaches against other Gator coaches, some are easily linked together in terms of greatness and ineptitude. You can say "Spurrier and Meyer" when discussing great Gator coaches with ease, because of their incredible levels of success at Florida. New coaches take a long time before you can place them into a category like that, but when you try to prematurely do this with Muschamp, despite the 2012 Sugar Bowl appearance, you actually see more similarities with Ron Zook than Meyer and Spurrier.
There are a lot of positives that come with having Muschamp as your coach. He has built a fantastic defense with a sturdy foundation, so that when a handful of starters leave, Florida can simply plug in new pieces. Part of that has to do with the fact that he recruits very well, not just well, both in state and out of state, another perk. And finally, his special teams units appear to be on par with those of his predecessor, Urban Meyer — one of the best special teams minds in all of football.
But the reason I'm linking Muschamp to Zook is because even the positives he brings to Gainesville are eerily similar to those of the man most Florida fans consider one of the worst head coaches in modern Gators history. Even the biggest Zook haters will grudgingly admit that he recruited very well, and that his outfits' special teams and defense, while not on the level of Muschamp's, were certainly among his strengths. And, of course, Zook won some big games, as has Muschamp.
I wish I could say that those were the only things Muschamp and Zook shared, but that is simply not the case; otherwise, there would be no need for this article.
The most frightening things about Muschamp's teams are things you usually see with young teams with inexperienced coaches. Turnovers and penalties have plagued this team since Muschamp came on board, and were the killers on Saturday against Miami.
If this were still Muschamp's first year, with a young team and a relatively empty cupboard, it would be a thing to write off easily. For example, 2011 was Muschamp's first year. Objectively speaking, Meyer did not leave Muschamp in a very good position, in part due to their night and day philosophies of football. But it doesn't matter if it was Meyer's fault; Meyer left, and unleashing profane rants against him, as good as it made some people feel, did not correct the problems he left. Muschamp did about as well as he could, considering the circumstances: 7-6, and a bowl win over the hated Buckeyes that at least took part of the sting away from Meyer's hiring at Ohio State.
But my questions about Muschamp only started when the Gators continued making the same type of rookie mistakes in his second year, and have only grown stronger after seeing the same foolish errors appear in the start of Year 3.
Let's start with the turnovers. This habit of coughing the ball up in big games is completely inexcusable. If the other team is better (2011 Alabama, for example) then fine, so be it. I have no problem looking somebody in the eye and stating, "Your team is better than mine." What drives me nuts is when I know Florida is the better team and the Gators simply don't care to hang onto the ball.
Last year, this issue potentially cost Florida four trophies in a span of a little more than three hours. Without an incredible SIX turnovers against Georgia, Florida would have won the Okefenokee Oar and the SEC East Championship, and would have been in position to win the SEC Championship and BCS National Championship. Turnovers were also partly why Florida lost to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, on the biggest stage of Will Muschamp's head coaching career.
The Miami game was only the latest example. Florida handed Miami five turnovers, and only lost by five points, a pretty good indicator that Florida was the better team. What possible excuse is there for FIVE turnovers for a team that is supposed to compete for championships? I mean, honestly, how can this consistently happen in big games?
But turnovers aren't the only thing Muschamp teams do that make me want to punch a wall. His teams make refs throw enough flags to cover the entire field. Even in games that Florida wins, they are such a major problem that Gainesville mayor Ed Braddy should declare it a disaster area. Let's run through Florida's 2012 season and count the penalties:
That's an average of eight penalties per game. Muschamp was able to hide behind the W most of the time, but this incredible barrage of penalty flags is as clear a sign as any that Muschamp's teams are extremely undisciplined. There was no trend, no sign of improvement. The Gators never "learned" from their mistakes and cut them out, the same way they apparently didn't learn about turnovers from the Georgia game last year. While the first game was the worst in terms of getting flags thrown at them, the Gators still had four other games with 10 or more penalties.
After two years, you would think that Muschamp would see the obvious: His team commits way too many penalties. You would think that he would do something about it, like get it fixed. I'm not even talking about the unnecessary roughness penalties or face masks; those result from hustle or overeagerness. While I am clearly not happy with those, I tolerate them.
The same cannot be said about the silly pre- and post-play penalties, like false starts or unsportsmanlike conduct. And against Miami, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (and a fumble, because they apparently go hand in hand) killed Florida's first drive, and a false start ended the game. Clearly, there has been absolutely no effort to get this cleaned up, or it wouldn't still be happening. And why should we believe that this game will serve as the Gators' teaching moment not beating themselves when Georgia and Louisville last year (not to mention the numerous instances in 2011) were not?
Of course, the self-destructing is just part of a much bigger issue: Will Muschamp has demonstrated no ability to win big games.
The way I see it, Florida fans acknowledge four traditional rivals: Georgia, Tennessee (and they're falling off), FSU and Miami. Zook went 5-7 in those games, Meyer went 17-2, and Steve Spurrier was 25-14. Will Muschamp is 3-4 so far. Which of those aforementioned coaches' rivalry records do you think Muschamp's is the most similar to?
I'm too young to really hate Miami, or to even care about them much at all. Unfortunately for Muschamp, a good number of Gator boosters are old enough to have Georgia/FSU-level hatred for the Canes, and they are the ones who financially support the football program, including Muschamp himself. Even the younger boosters, the ones who don't really hate Miami, want to crush Georgia and FSU every year, something Will Muschamp has had very little success with, going 1-3 against those two teams.
Sure, Muschamp has some nice wins to put on his résumé: His Gators beat 10-3 LSU, 12-2 FSU and 11-2 South Carolina in 2012. But it's not as good as Ron Zook's list of big wins: 13-1 (and eventual SEC champ) Georgia in 2002, 13-1 (and eventual national champion) LSU and 11-3 (and SEC East champ and rival) Georgia in 2003, and 9-3 FSU in 2004.
I'm willing to give Muschamp a little more time before I really crack down on him. (A little.) I can't stress this enough: I am not calling for Muschamp's head yet. It is possible that the Miami game will serve as an "Ole Miss moment" and propel Florida to a memorable season. I hate Tennessee far more than Miami, even though the Gators have so completely and utterly dominated them (Florida has won 21 of the last 27 meetings, and the last eight in a row) that I don't even consider it a rivalry anymore. This is also a conference game, and if Tennessee beats Oregon (for the record, I give the Vols about a two percent chance in that game) then it will be an even bigger stage than last year. And if Florida can dominate the Vols, it will help a lot with public perception of Florida.
But the way I figure it, Muschamp is about one loss to Georgia or FSU away from boosters beginning to ask questions about Muschamp's future. I know how their minds work (I have boosters in my family), and losing to rivals more often than beating them because the team can't stop turning it over and committing penalties to save their lives does not go over well with them, especially when it's been going on for three years now.
Muschamp is running out of mulligans.
So, for his own sake, Muschamp better get some stuff straightened out. He better get Gators to stop turning it over in the red zone and committing dumb penalties. He better figure out how to beat Georgia, and he better hold serve against Tennessee and FSU in The Swamp. He better do all of this, not for the satisfaction of me or any random fan off the street, but for the people who financially support the program and expect wins over the teams they hate in return.
Those are the people who can make the noise in the system happen. And they probably aren't very far from chiming in on Muschamp's future.
When Muschamp was first hired, I went to sleep that night fully convinced that he would someday lead us to a national championship. When Florida lost to Miami on Saturday, I went to sleep that night still believing that it was possible, but for the first time, I was no longer certain that he would.
The bottom line: I do not want him fired as of right now, after the Miami loss. But another performance like this and that is subject to change.
Can Muschamp make his players aware of the fact that they cannot implode anymore, clean up the issues that leave Gators heartbroken on Saturdays, and right his ship? Or will self-inflicted wounds continue to cost the Gators some more games, and eventually cost Muschamp his job?