Trust the process: Florida's 2013 should produce progress, if not results

Mike Ehrmann

Florida's loss to Miami was befuddling because the Gators looked so much better than their more successful predecessors for much of the game. Could 2013 be a step back in the standings and a step forward on the field?

Florida played football better than Miami did last Saturday for almost all of the game's 60 minutes. The Gators outgained the Hurricanes by nearly 200 yards, moving the ball up and down the field and dominating the potent Miami offense, and looked about as good on defense as the 2012 Gators did, and far superior on offense to the much-maligned unit from last year.

Florida managed to fit a lot of failure into the five or so minutes it didn't play better football than Miami, however, coughing up five turnovers and allowing the 'Canes to score on short fields and with a deep ball, and Florida lost to Miami because of it. And with at least that aspect of Florida's game reminding many strongly of the 2012 Gators' failures against Georgia and Louisville, the loss spawned legitimate, if somewhat overreactive, worries about the future of Florida football.

I think those worries are irrational. I think Will Muschamp's 2013 Gators are likely to be as good or better on a play-by-play basis than the 2012 Gators were. And I think this may be the last year for a while that Florida fans can't reasonably expect 10 or more wins year in and year out.

I also think these Gators may be better on the field and worse in the standings than the team that shocked much of the college football establishment by going 11-1 last year.

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Here is an honest and frustrating assessment of the Florida offense: I think it's already a lot better than the 2012 offense at moving the ball, but its inefficiency in the red zone and turnover woes have left a much more sour taste in the mouth than the Mike Gillislee-led attack's relatively more boring and more effective play ever did last year.

Florida wasn't great at much of anything on offense in 2012, but it was fairly good at red zone offense: The Gators scored on 38 of 46 red zone possessions, tying for 50th nationally with a far more explosive Baylor offense, and even if Florida's red zone touchdown percentage ranked 96th nationally, Caleb Sturgis' reliability was often enough for the Gators.

But one year after missing points on just eight red zone possessions in 13 games, the 2013 Gators have come up empty on six of their 12 red zone possessions in just two games, and are tied for 117th nationally at a 50 percent red zone scoring rate, with only lowly Ohio's 42.9 percent rate worse among FBS teams. That's some serious futility and ineffeciency, and part of why I was surprised to see FlaGators put "efficient" in the headline of the Toledo recap: Though Florida's 2-for-6 outing against Miami was bad, its 4-for-6 day against Toledo wasn't great, either.

The Gators' red zone woes have also covered up how much better this offense has been at getting to the red zone. Florida's tied for seventh nationally in red zone possessions, along with Oregon and Georgia, and is thus ahead of a lot of other better teams. (Alabama had one red zone possession against Virginia Tech; Stanford had just three in its opener.) And Florida didn't get its 12th red zone possession until its fourth game in 2012.

Of course, those Gators also didn't have a game with more than one empty red zone trip until Georgia. Florida already has two in 2013.

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Florida's turnover issues so far in 2013 have also been ruinous. A year after being ranked eighth nationally in turnover margin, at 1.15 turnovers to the good per game, Florida is 120th, with six turnovers in two games and a minus-four margin against Miami.

A minus-four turnover margin is both rare and about as close to a death sentence as a team can get: I looked at the bottom five teams in turnover margin from 2012, and found just eight games of four or more net turnovers lost among their 60 games in 2012. Those five teams — South Florida, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico State, and Idaho — went 0-8 in those games (and went a combined 10-50 in 2012), and just one of those losses, Colorado's 42-35 loss to Utah, came by under 21 points ... and the Buffaloes got a kick return touchdown and a roughing the kicker on fourth and 25 that saved a drive in that game, so it took some good luck to even get that close.

Florida has lost three games in its past 15 contests, all of which featured a minus-two turnover margin or worse — and it has lost them by eight, 10, and five points. According to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, the five turnovers on Saturday were worth 26.3 points, more than five times Miami's margin of victory, and yet the Gators still had a chance to engineer a game-winning drive at the death. Good teams get crushed by such carelessness, and even great teams don't win when giving the ball away. (Alabama's lone loss last year came to Texas A&M with a minus-three margin; A&M's loss to LSU came by five points in a minus-five nightmare.) But, by that crude rubric, Florida is far closer to great than good.

And it wasn't so long ago that Florida wasn't even in the games in which it committed many turnovers. The 2011 Gators went minus-two or worse five times, and lost in the four of those outings that came against BCS-league teams, each time falling by 11 or more points. (Florida began 2011 with a 41-3 win over Florida Atlantic that came despite three Gators picks. Side note: Look how different the Rapid Recap was back then!) In 2010, Florida went minus-two in a 22-point loss to South Carolina, and minus-four in 24- and 25-points losses to Florida State and Alabama.

Now, with better defense, Florida can more or less stay in striking distance — the Gators were arguably out of it against Louisville, but played as if they weren't for much of the second half — even with massive offensive screw-ups, a luxury a lot of teams would love to have.

And the 2013 Florida defense might actually be better than the 2012 one. Florida's held Toledo (3.80 YPP) and Miami (4.00 YPP) in check better than the 2012 Gators did Bowling Green (4.14 YPP) and Texas A&M (4.84 YPP) despite significant turnover, and has allowed 27 points through two games, less than the 31 allowed through two games last year.

Moreover, Florida's biggest flaw on defense so far, if you can call it that, has been allowing big plays: With film study, the bomb Stephen Morris hit over Marcus Maye will get corrected, and with more playing time, Loucheiz Purifoy won't be missing tackles to allow long catch-and-runs.

The problem, then, really stems from both the red zone troubles and turnovers. It's the offense's ability to score points that might hold Florida back, and needs the most attention.

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Florida's got 40 points in two games so far in 2013. That's not a lot worse than the 47 Florida mustered through the first two games of its 2012 schedule, but it's significantly worse when considering total offensive production. Florida has 828 yards through two games in 2013; it had 672 through two games in 2012. Yards per point is a rather crude metric for offensive efficiency, but Louisiana Tech led the nation in scoring and total offense in 2012, and managed 11.2 yards per point; Massachusetts, last in both categories, gained 22.0 yards per point.

2013 Florida is at 20.7 yards per point through two games.

Blame that primarily on whatever you want, but it's got multiple contributing factors: Florida's unwillingness to get the cheap three points from field goals, two bad Jeff Driskel picks against Miami, playcalling that has been lacking near the end zone, and the Gators declining to score from in close on a final drive against Toledo all helped squander yards on empty drives. (Florida's put together four drives of more than 50 yards that haven't ended in points this year; three came in succession against Miami. I have to think the Gators are among the nation's leaders in that stat.)

The good news: All of those things are correctible.

If Driskel re-learns how to take sacks without fumbling, Florida will be better for it, and may be able to entrust Austin Hardin with a few more field goal tries. If Brent Pease makes better calls on first down in the red zone, maybe Driskel won't have to throw on third downs. And if Florida can drive down in hurry-up situations like it did against Toledo, a little more aggressiveness when the defense isn't up on its toes might be enough to get more points.

Florida learning all of these lessons now is better than learning them in the middle of the SEC schedule, and Florida losing a game to learn a lesson is thematically consistent with Florida's history: The 1996 team learned from its loss to Florida State and creamed the 'Noles in a rematch, the 2006 team finally turned into a true hybridized two-quarterback system after Chris Leak struggled with little aid from Tim Tebow against Auburn, and Florida's 2008 squad blitzed everyone after its lapse against Ole Miss.

And there's no better time to correct things than this bye week, when all of those things are fresh in the Gators' minds.

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Florida will be favored over Tennessee next Saturday, with the Vols' recent futility against the Gators and what should be a smackdown at Oregon's hands on this Saturday leaving Tennessee with rather long odds to upset Florida in The Swamp. Florida will be favored over Kentucky, too, and probably over Arkansas, and, later in the year, over Missouri and Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern. And I would expect Florida to win all those games, because these Gators look to me to be better than those teams.

Even assuming a return from the depths of offensive ineffiency, I don't know if Florida's better than LSU, or Georgia, or South Carolina, or Florida State, four teams I think are likely better than the Miami team Florida just managed to lose to, and I have a hard time seeing Florida getting through all of those games unscathed — which it would have to do to match the results of its marvelous 2012 regular season.

But just like Florida can't count on South Carolina self-destructing again, Georgia can't count on Florida doing the same; Florida State and LSU might not get run over late, and Florida might be able to pass on both teams. It's more likely that Florida will go 2-2 versus those teams than that Florida will go 1-3 or 3-1, I think, and far more likely that Florida will go 2-2 than 0-4 or 4-0. This puts Florida on line for a 9-3 season — not great, but not bad, and not nearly enough to require heating Muschamp's seat. Win a bowl game after that, and exorcise some of the demons from last year's bittersweet Sugar appearance, and Florida will have gone 10-3 against a tricky schedule in what really is a rebuilding year.

And if the Gators do go 10-3, it'll probably keep Driskel in school for his senior year, keep most of Florida's substantial momentum on the recruiting trail intact, and set Florida up for a potential national title run in 2014. The sky will not have fallen, and the process will have proven itself.

I know it's hard to see all this happening from here, but remember: Florida just put together one of the most inefficient offensive performances we'll see in college football all year, and still had a chance to win that game late. This team is better than the gloom and doom that has accompanied its first loss.

It's just going to take some time to fully realize that, I think. You can't see the finished products in the middle of the process.

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Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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