Florida's 48 for 2014, No. 48: Why the Gators can't lose, even if they do

Streeter Lecka

Florida has come to a fork in the road. But the Gators can't lose by going down either path.

Over the last three years, I have failed — spectacularly — at putting together a countdown to Florida football.

In 2011, I finished a "50 For 50" at No. 13 ... two days before Florida's second football game of the fall. In 2012, we got to No. 41 from No. 100 two days before the first game. In 2013, I restructured the countdown as a "wish list," then promptly wrote only No. 50 and No. 49 on the list.

This year will be different.

I don't have article-length things to say about every single player on Florida's roster, so I'm not doing a roster countdown. I don't have pictures of historic players — I wish I did — so I can't do what Florida football's Twitter account has been doing. And, frankly, I don't have a wish list entering this season, because I'm trying to approach it with hope, rather than expectations.

But I have that hope, and I have hunches, and I suspect I will always have my optimism about Florida and cynicism about the world.

So we're doing things a little differently this year, with Florida's 48 for 2014. Yes, the numbering is intentional, but these will mostly be reasons to be excited about the 2014 season, or ways to look at it. And I'm going to have a lot more fun with it than anyone did with Florida's 2013 season, trust me.

Here's the first entry in Florida's 48 for 2014: It's on why the Gators begin 2014 at a crossroads — and why Florida almost can't lose from here.

Star-divide

The way I see it, there are three directions Florida's 2014 season could take. The first one, a successful and overachieving season, is the best.

And I honestly think it's the most likely.

In this timeline, Florida becomes what it was in 2012 — a pack of mean, hungry players bent on fighting for or against every yard, with savvy defenders preying on offenses and exemplary special teams making the margin for error wide — but better.

Florida's 2014 defense shouldn't be quite as talented on its first string or up the middle as that 2012 defense was, but it will be significantly deeper, and both Vernon Hargreaves III and Dante Fowler, Jr. are among the finest players Muschamp has ever had to deploy. Florida's special teams play isn't likely to be as ridiculous as it was in 2012, when Kyle Christy and Caleb Sturgis were finalists for the Ray Guy and Lou Groza awards, respectively, and Loucheiz Purifoy was around to wreak havoc in kick coverage, but neither should it be the abject disaster we saw in 2013, when shaky kicking cost Florida time and again, a shaky start to the year got Christy benched for true freshman Johnny Townsend, and Solomon Patton's brilliance paled in comparison to what might have been with Debose taking back kicks.

But, obviously, the Florida offense should be much, much better than it has been.

This 2014 offense will have the longest menu of options Florida has had under Muschamp, with bruising backs (Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones) and shiftier options (Valdez Showers, Brandon Powell), a slew of wide receivers who should be good in space (Quinton Dunbar, Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson), an excellent tight end, and both health and experience at quarterback and offensive line. It should be directed by the best offensive coordinator Florida has had under Muschamp, too, if Kurt Roper's scheme, instrumental in Duke's rise to its greatest successes since Steve Spurrier's time in Durham, translates to The Swamp in the fall like it did to the practice fields in the spring.

If that offense is merely close to average, compared to the rest of the country, and the defense and special teams return to something like the form they showed in 2011 and 2012, it will be the best offense Florida has paired with a Muschamp defense. And Florida should be good enough to win nine games in the regular season, even against a schedule that is about as rugged as an even-year slate gets for the Gators, and maybe good enough to win the SEC East.

Florida's schedule includes trips to Florida State and Alabama, the last two national champions, and games against four other teams that won nine or more games last year, but we can also cast it as a slate with six or seven SEC teams breaking in new quarterbacks, a Tennessee team that will have to overhaul offensive and defensive lines (that Florida dominated in 2013), three cupcakes that wouldn't pose the threat even to an emaciated Florida team that Georgia Southern did in 2013, and a Florida State program that saw another touted troupe of players get physically worked by a "lesser" Florida team in its own stadium less than 24 months ago.

A minimum of nine wins would restore a fair bit of faith in the fanbase Muschamp retained, and Florida would reap the benefits of keeping a coach that has made great inroads in the state of Florida on the recruiting trail. A windfall of four- and five-star prospects currently considered leans to the Gators — Byron Cowart, CeCe Jefferson, and Martez Ivey, for starters — likely awaits Florida if Muschamp can right his ship. It won't even take every domino falling Florida's way for the Gators to have one of the best recruiting classes in recent history if that happens, just enough of them falling to keep Muschamp, and that class will set the foundation for more success.

And if Florida's offense is better than average — a possibility I'm not willing to discount, given how perfectly Roper's system might fit Florida's personnel — the Gators could potentially contend for the College Football Playoff. Florida compiled a thoroughly impressive 11-1 regular season record against a similarly rugged schedule with an offense that was close to wretched two years ago, and an 11-1 record in 2014 would probably be even better, with the most likely loss coming on the road to another Playoff-contending team, and an SEC East title all but guaranteed.

If things go right in 2014, Florida will have a vindicated coach and the timber for a strong foundation; if things go really right, Florida could shock the world again. Just one year after everything went wrong, all would be well in Gator Nation.

Star-divide

But what if things go wrong again?

Say Florida's offensive line, talented but thin, breaks down, and injury-prone Jeff Driskel gets hurt as a result. Florida's going to struggle if it has to play without Driskel in 2014, just like it struggled without him in 2013, and while the difference between Driskel and Will Grier or Treon Harris or even Skyler Mornhinweg isn't going to be as dramatic in Roper's offense as it was in Brent Pease's, that would make it difficult for Florida to win even eight games.

Florida also got some breaks in 2012, ones that helped make relatively close games look like blowouts and swung a couple of close games. Those breaks weren't without some bad luck — the entire Georgia game comes to mind, as does the loss of Driskel in a surprising dogfight with Louisiana — but they helped that team win more games than it probably should have. If those breaks simply don't go the way of either team, Florida might lose a close, hard-fought game that helps consign it to another .500 campaign.

And, hell, if all hell breaks loose, Florida might go 5-7 or something. A repeat createring at 4-8 is unlikely — three of its non-FSU non-conference games are going to be incredibly difficult to lose, and it's hard for me to imagine Florida going 1-for-3 against Kentucky, Tennessee, and post-James Franklin Vanderbilt — but a 7-5 record or worse is going to make keeping Muschamp tremendously difficult for Jeremy Foley.

And that would be a win for Florida, even if it would be a loss for Muschamp.

If 2014 is painful and pockmarked by losses, Florida will be able to cut Muschamp loose without that move being cutting off its nose to spite its face. After 2013, that wasn't the case: No coach worth his salt would have come to Florida after an injury-plagued year scuttled the promise of a program that was one year removed from a BCS bowl, and resulted in that coach getting fired for what (mostly) amounted to bad luck in many eyes.

Ron Zook's hair-trigger firing was prompted by Florida sinking into mediocrity, but it was also facilitated by good fortune: The Gators being able to get dream candidate Urban Meyer, and snag him before Notre Dame could, made that move a "coup" that no hypothetical replacement of Muschamp would have been. Florida merely had to beat out Notre Dame for Meyer, and it had a first-mover advantage (having fired Zook early in the 2004 season) and the benefit of Bernie Machen's pre-existing relationship with Meyer. And in 2013, Florida would have been competing with Penn State, Texas, and USC for its next coach; though the Gators could command more attention than both Penn State and USC, Texas is one of the few programs that counts as a bigger fish than Florida.

I think the best coaches hired after the 2013 season were James Franklin, Chris Petersen, and Charlie Strong, and it's reasonable to assume Florida would have been in the mix for them in 2013 had it fired Muschamp, but I don't think there's a Meyer among them. While Franklin would probably have listened to Florida, and been a warmly-received hire, he's not seen as the sure thing Meyer was peceived as in 2004. Petersen's successes at Boise would have been an impossible sell after Pease's failures, and he probably would have balked at leaving the Sun Valley for the Sunshine State; decamping for Washington made far more sense for him than leaving for Florida would have.

And Strong, a favorite son of many with 20/20 hindsight, might not have even considered Florida, especially if Texas had also been interested. And while he would have been a PR win for a program trying to cater to fans pining for past success, he would have been a harder long-term sell as Muschamp's philosophical twin, and as the hubbub over Strong's supposed lack of social skills ($) proves, there would have probably been bumps in the road.

When considering the recent history of three-year firings, Zook's pink slip, and Florida's recovery from it, is close to the best-case scenario. Similarly panicky moves by Nebraska (in firing Frank Solich), Notre Dame (in pulling the trigger on Tyrone Willingham), and Michigan (in canning Rich Rodriguez) has left once-great programs mired in mediocrity, and only Auburn's hiring of Gus Malzahn to replace Gene Chizik after a terrible year that was mostly Chizik's fault looks like an unqualified success — though, given that hiring former and beloved coordinator Malzahn is more like a hypothetical Florida hiring of Dan Mullen than one of Strong, it's not something that Florida could have mimicked.

After four years, though, and especially after an underwhelming fourth year, Florida can cut ties with Muschamp and say it gave him a fair shake with a straight face. And new blood alone — Kliff Kingsbury would be a name on many lips, I imagine, though I think Florida could set its sights higher — might provide enough of a jolt to salvage a recruiting class, because new blood always provides a jolt, but new blood and a return to the spread system under an offensive-minded coach would position Florida well in-state. Somewhat unbelievably, the Gators will run the only spread offense among the state's big three schools in 2014; even if Roper doesn't stick around, Florida will almost certainly keep the spread going forward, because a coach hired to replace Muschamp will almost certainly be different from Muschamp.

Based on novelty alone, Florida fans would head into 2015 with a lot more enthusiasm for the new and exotic than we currently have for the familiar and frightening. But this hypothetical hire would also be Foley's new last most important hire as Florida's athletic director, and you're kidding yourself if you don't think he would do everything in his power to get it right, and secure his legacy, or that he could.

Of course, I believe Foley did all of the requisite due diligence with Muschamp, and there's still a chance that doesn't work out.

I get "accused" of being sympathetic to Muschamp a fair bit, and, well, I am: I'm going to be rooting for Florida to succeed this fall because I will always root for Florida to succeed, but also because I think Muschamp is a good guy and good coach who had a bad season largely thanks to factors he couldn't control, and is destined for success at Florida. I believe Foley is of the same mind.

But I can certainly agree that if Muschamp's team doesn't really succeed this fall, he probably isn't the man for his job — and learning that sooner rather than later allows Foley to live up to one of his favorite sayings:

"If something needs to be done eventually, it needs to be done immediately."

Star-divide

There is, to be sure, a third road for Florida in 2014. On it, the Gators go 8-4, or 7-5 with hair's-breadth losses and one compelling win. There would be enough evidence for skeptics to bay about Muschamp's incompetence, and enough evidence for believers to make the case for his retention, but not nearly enough to please everyone with one move or the other. If you believe oddsmakers, it's the most likely scenario for Florida.

I disagree, mostly because I think this team is coming into this season hungry, and will either feast or be famished.If Florida gets rolling early, and throws a scare into — or, hell, beats — Alabama, that success will prove their offseason confidence and work was worthwhile; if the Gators sputter early, and get rolled by the Tide, the ball could roll back down the hill much as it did for a confident Florida team in 2011, one that began its regular season on a 4-0 tear and ended on a 2-6 skid.

Florida's fork in the road has two clear winning paths: Winning enough now to retain Muschamp is likely to allow the Gators to win later, by fielding nationally competitive programs under Muschamp for years to come, and losing enough now to get Muschamp fired will produce a new, exciting head man for Florida that should put the Gators on a slightly longer path back to national championship contention. Those are the beaten paths, and coming to the fork in the road and going straight will be a lot harder in reality than it sounded in "Renagade."

It's going to be hard for Florida to win enough to be champions in 2014. The Gators play in the toughest conference in college football, and have maybe the hardest schedule of any team in the SEC this season. (Thanks, FSU.)

But it's going to be much harder for Florida to win just enough to set itself up to lose another season to the fretting and worrying that comes with a coach on the hot seat. In all likelihood, we will have a winning team to cheer, or a mediocre-or-worse team to lament; either way, we will be able to move on down the road.

And that's why the Gators can't lose.

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