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SB Nation's Bill Connelly previews "frustrating, encouraging fall" for Florida Gators

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Florida should be more or less what it was under Will Muschamp in its first season under Jim McElwain — but the ways in which it is more could be encouraging.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I don't want to cannibalize too much of the always-excellent Bill Connelly's preview of the Florida Gators entering the 2015 season — and, certainly, having read this one, I don't think there's nearly as much to disagree with as I did last year — but do I think it's worth pulling a few points out.

So, uh, I'm gonna pull a few points out.

1. We're doomed to conventional wisdom that Will Muschamp wanted a sputtering offense

I don't think the line of thinking that Will Muschamp wanted his offense to only not screw things up for his defense was true, but here are a smattering of Connelly's summations of Muschamp's offensive philosophy:

On offense, there's a mess. Florida ranked 72nd in Off. S&P+ last fall, 83rd before that. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to a defensive coordinator making decisions about his team's offensive philosophy: one kind chooses the kind of offense that he would hate to defend, and others just want the offense to stay out of the way so the D can win.

Muschamp did win 11 games in 2012 with the latter approach, but he won just 11 in 2013-14 combined. The offense had little rhythm, confidence or explosiveness. The personnel seemed to understand that their existence frustrated Muschamp, that if he could figure out how to win with 60 minutes of defense, he would give it a shot.

...

You get the impression that, before each game, Muschamp turned to his offense and said, "DON'T F*** THIS UP FOR ME."

...

It's almost a good thing Florida's offense is starting from scratch, as it will keep expectations tamped down. But with this defense, the O needs only to be competent for UF to be an incredibly dangerous team. That was the case each of the last two years, but a new staff and new personnel represent opportunity.

One thing people seem to conveniently elide when talking about the Muschamp era is that Florida had a competent offense in one of those seasons — and it made the Sugar Bowl with that unit in 2012, also coming within a storm of turnovers to Georgia of an undefeated regular season and an SEC East crown. We didn't see a competent offense married to hellacious Muschamp defense often at Florida, but that formula got LSU a national title in 2003, brought Texas within a game of one in 2009, and succeeded for a year at Florida.

My theory on Muschamp's approach to offense as a head coach has always been that his last couple of years at Texas (and especially 2010, when Texas ranked sixth nationally in total defense but 49th in total defense, thanks in large part to ranking 116th in turnover margin) and first year at Florida (with Charlie Weis running a boom-or-bust attack) left him convinced that offenses that produce turnovers and short fields are lethal to a team's ability to win games.

Florida mostly avoided those things in 2012, committing just six (!) in 11 wins and nine in two losses, while recording a turnover margin per game close to two takeaways per contest in the wins and more than two giveaways per game in those defeats; Kyle Christy made up for the offense's stymied drives with booming punts, too, and it was very hard to go a full field on Florida's 2012 defense.

The 2012 Florida offense was good, despite meeting few stylistic criteria used by Florida fans, and proves Connelly's thesis that Florida only needed a competent offense to be dangerous. Muschamp wanted his offense to not screw up, sure — and that was backed up by a very successful season in which it basically didn't, and was competent as a result. At a different school, with different fans, more seasons like Florida's 2012 campaign would've gratified everyone involved.

But Florida is Florida, and Florida didn't have that same sort of success with turnover avoidance in 2013 or 2014, largely because of quarterback play: Jeff Driskel threw five interceptions on 245 pass attempts in 2012, but chucked three on 61 passes in 2013 before breaking his leg on a pick-six, and 10 on 212 throws in 2014. (Florida's smattering of other quarterbacks in the last two years threw 10 picks on 351 throws — better than Driskel the Dodgy, but significantly worse than Driskel the Good.) With Florida losing a consistent number (10, 11, and 10) of fumbles over those three years, it would seem clear that the rise in interceptions was the main cause of the rise in turnovers.

Some teams can get away with more turnovers, thanks to explosive offense and/or really, truly, spectacular good luck. Florida had neither of those things under Muschamp in any year except 2012 — and never really had the explosive offense — and paid for its lack of offense and luck with losses.

Does that mean Florida's offensive approach, and aim to win games on the margins, was faulty? Quite possibly. Does that mean Florida's offensive approach was "stay out of the way so the D can win" or "DON'T FUCK THIS UP FOR ME"? Not necessarily. I think it's more than fair to say Florida failed and that Muschamp's approach helped set them up to fail without saying that Muschamp tried to handicap his offense; the truer explanation is that Muschamp tried to keep Florida's offenses from handicapping his team, and failed miserably in that effort.

It's harder to make snarky jokes with that as your understanding, though.

2. Florida was actually quite good after going with Treon Harris

Connelly writes this section with the frame of Florida rallying after its disastrous Homecoming defeat to Missouri:

The Gators' slapstick performance against Missouri on Homecoming is said to have been the beginning of the end. It was an amazing performance in all the wrong ways. Florida turned the ball over six times and gave up a superfecta of return touchdowns -- kickoff, punt, fumble, interception -- and Missouri's offense actively tried to stay out of the way. The Tigers completed six passes for 20 yards, gained 119 total yards, and won by 29 points.

There was almost nothing Muschamp could do to rebound ... but he almost pulled it off. Florida responded by whipping Georgia and almost doing enough to beat South Carolina and FSU. Pull that off, and that's a five-game win streak. Muschamp possibly survives.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 57% (~top 55 | record: 3-3)
  • Average Percentile Performance (next 5 games): 85% (~top 20 | record: 3-2)

Florida did Missouri countless favors, both in the teams' Homecoming "battle" and in the win over UGA two weeks later. But if McElwain ends up turning UF back into a top-10 program, the more hapless moments of 2014 might be regarded fondly by Florida fans as well.

But Florida fans will note that one other major thing changed from the Missouri game to the rest of the season: Harris, not Driskel, was Florida's quarterback. Driskel threw exactly 12 passes over those five games, 11 of them against Eastern Kentucky in the best action of his Florida career — he posted a 297.06 passer rating in that game!

And as a starter, Harris largely stewarded an efficient attack, despite not being an efficient passer: He completed fewer than half of his throws in three of those final five regular season contests (and in Florida's bowl, before being relieved by Driskel after an injury), and hit 50 percent on the button against Georgia (by completing three of six passes), but Florida scored at least 19 points in all of those games after failing to score 14 twice in its first six games, and would probably have topped 21 points in all six games if not for a blocked field goal against South Carolina and a red zone interception (that was mostly Tevin Westbrook's fault) against Florida State.

If 21 points over six straight games doesn't sound like much, that's fair. But it would've been the first such streak for Florida under Muschamp; the five consecutive games of 19-plus points in Muschamp's final five games tied Florida's longest such streak of his tenure (Florida topped that number for the final four games of 2012 and the first one of 2013). And given that Muschamp's defenses held other teams under 19 points 24 times in 49 tries, the "What if Florida had a competent offense under Muschamp?" question will be a counterfactual some less burnt-out Gators fans will surely entertain down the road.

"What if Treon Harris had been Florida's starter sooner?" is also fair to ask, though the most important reason should be obvious. Florida was inarguably better with Harris playing than it was with Driskel in 2014, and now it can go with Harris full-time, and might have an even better quarterback than him in Will Grier.

If quarterback play was Florida's anchor over the Muschamp era, and there's plenty of reason to believe it will improve under Jim McElwain, there should be plenty of reason to believe Florida will improve, too.

3. The defense is still going to be ferocious, probably

The knock on the 2014 Mississippi State defense that Geoff Collins coordinated is that it was leaky through the air (117th in pass defense) and thus bad as a result. But that same defense was 25th in pass efficiency defense — and Florida was 10th, despite getting barbecued by Blake Sims on a certain Saturday in Tuscaloosa, thanks to consistent improvement as the year went on.

Florida returns every player from its secondary except for Jabari Gorman — who was, to be honest, never as talented as many of the players who took up spots on the depth chart behind him. Collins seems to have an ideal situation for his blitz-friendly style of play.

The problems with Florida's defense are likely to be with its front seven, which will require young players to step up in the stead of departed veterans like Dante Fowler, Jr., Michael Taylor, and Darious Cummings. I don't think talent should be much of an issue — Alex McCalister's skills have been touted for years, and he may finally have sufficient weight to play three downs, while Florida's 2013 bumper crop of linebackers should be coming of age — but maturity could be an issue up the middle. Redshirt sophomore Caleb Brantley and stellar reserve Joey Ivie will be expected to step up at defensive tackle, lest the Gators have to rely on redshirt freshmen Khairi Clark and Thomas Holley, and while Florida can expect good things from Antonio Morrison when he returns from an injury suffered in the Birimingham Bowl, it's harder to know what the Gators will get from whichever player, most likely Jarrad Davis, spells him at middle linebacker until then.

Florida might be able to get away with a soft underbelly until October, when it has to face LSU's Leonard Fournette and Georgia's Nick Chubb in consecutive: The only proven scary running back on the Gators' 2015 schedule before Fournette is Tennessee's Jalen Hurd, who didn't do much against Florida in 2014 (10 carries, 39 yards) despite a bruising, low-scoring game that seemed tailored to power running.

4. Florida's offensive line will be shaky ... and 2015 is about prepping for 2016

So line coach Mike Summers, a Muschamp holdover, will be making potpourri. Thurman is a senior, as is three-year starting Fordham tackle Mason Halter, who is making a slight leap up in competition (Patriot League to SEC) as a senior transfer.

After that: a smattering of sophomores, redshirt freshmen and freshmen. Some come incredibly regarded, of course -- it would be a surprise if blue-chip freshman Martez Ivey didn't start from day one -- but the primary goal has to be finding the right mix of talent for 2016 and beyond. There will be errors up front.

Yeah. Yeah. That. Yeah.

Florida fans should expect a frustrating, encouraging fall. The Gators are just a few line injuries away from playing a ton of freshmen in the trenches, but if the lines remain semi-healthy, the Gators could be good enough to take down Ole Miss or Florida State at home or Missouri or South Carolina. They could also be inconsistent enough to lose to Kentucky on the road or Tennessee.

The upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 gives the Gators a 56 percent chance of going 6-6 or 7-5, a 14 percent chance of doing better, and a 30 percent chance of doing worse. I could see eight wins, but 2015 is about 2016 and beyond.

Figure out what you've got on offense, figure out your next generation on defense, win a big game or two, and win the fans back.

Yes. This.

At its core, Florida seems more settled than it probably should be, with a new coach and a quarterback competition to shake out, but that's the virtue of what Muschamp left for McElwain: A defense that never really ebbed (except in fits and starts) is still mostly intact, and the offense is a tabula rasa — which is better than the portraits of pain that had hung in the halls. If McElwain can improve the offense while Collins (and Randy Shannon) maintain the defense, Florida should be better than it was under Muschamp, when it needed to improve its offense and maintain the defense.

There's nothing all that sexy about steady improvement, of course — and Connelly rightly notes that winning a big game will go a long way in winning the Florida fan base back.

But the Gators are set up to get better under McElwain in 2015, and getting better is both what we can truly ask for, and something that will probably make many fans happy.