The Sound and the Fury: Are Florida and Will Muschamp Shouting Into the Void?

Getty Images

Will Muschamp is the most intense coach in college football, and therefore the most consistently entertaining. On the sideline, his filter as a civilized public persona ceases to exist. The parts of Muschamp’s brain that regulate his roles as husband, father, fundraiser, executive, and mentor yield wholly to the id, and the id is insane. He scowls, growls, screams, and bleeds. He rants and raves in full view of the crowds and the cameras, and spews obscenities — at his players, at officials, at reporters, at no one in particular — at such maximum, uncensored volume that they can be clearly audible to viewers at home.1 His vows to control himself fail utterly. He simmers and explodes, and those of us fortunate enough to observe from a safe distance love every GIF-able second.

Type his name into Google Images and you’ll see the portrait of a man possessed — by rage, by impatience, and most of all by his maddening inability to bend events on the field to his will. Sometimes Muschamp’s antics are easy to dismiss as petulant and ridiculous; sometimes, when he’s at full throttle in the face of a stoic side judge, I imagine him as the embodiment of the tragicomic Everyman raging against the IRS, and the goddamn traffic, and all the injustices of an intractable bureaucracy and an indifferent universe at large. (This view is aided immeasurably by his haircut.) Modern man sputters and seeths, because what else can he do?

But then, occasionally, a new and more complicated feeling forces its way to the surface. We saw it on a weekly basis during Florida’s descent into the throes of a seven-game losing streak to close last season. And for a fleeting moment near the end of last Saturday’s harrowing, 36-30 victory over Kentucky, we saw on Muschamp’s face an expression that contained multitudes — it was not rage or exasperation, but a wrestling match between several conflicting and simultaneous emotions that produced no clear winner, yet served as arguably the most indelible glimpse on record into his mind.

At the time, the Gators trailed in overtime, 27-20, and faced a do-or-die, fourth-and-7 play from the Wildcats’ 9-yard line; if Florida failed to convert, Kentucky would snap a 16-game SEC losing streak, Florida would lose to Kentucky for the first time in 28 years, and Muschamp would be hard-pressed to survive the weekend with his job intact. As the call was relayed to the offense, ESPN cameras panned to Muschamp, who looked on helplessly with a mixture of indignity, disdain, disbelief, and despair. It was the look of a man staring into a personal abyss on national television, unable to believe what was happening.

Of course, the subsequent play worked — barely, with the ball leaving center Max Garcia’s hands a split second after the play clock struck zero, but officials missing the call — and Florida went on in triple overtime to extend both its dominance in the series and its head coach’s tenure.

Afterward, Muschamp opted to focus on the positives, pointing out that the Gators had generated 532 yards of total offense and 28 first downs, their most productive outing based on first downs in nearly three years. (He declined to mention that it took them 94 plays to do so, as many as Florida has run in any game since 1980.) They produced a 100-yard rusher (Matt Jones, with 156) and a 200-yard receiver (Demarcus Robinson, 216) for only the fourth time in school history. Quarterback Jeff Driskel passed for 295 yards, a career high, and three touchdowns, a mark he’d reached or surpassed only one other time in his previous 16 starts. After managing just three points in the first half, the Gators scored on six of their last nine possessions in the second half and overtime, and drove 63 yards before blowing a field goal attempt on one of the other three.

Yet that was a futile attempt at rationalization after the look of barely concealed panic with the game on the line had already conveyed all there was to say. It was an expression that could have been worn only by a coach who had previously watched his band of blue-chip recruits lose to Georgia Southern last November, and who’d just realized how little progress they had made over the intervening 10 months. It spoke the truth. Six of Florida’s remaining nine games this season are against teams currently ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll, beginning with this weekend’s trip to no. 3 Alabama; beyond that, there are dates with LSU, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida State, ostensible peers who beat the 2013 Gators by a combined 68 points. On the SEC schedule, Kentucky was the appetizer, the gimme. When the cameras zoomed in on fourth-and-game, they captured a coach who knew full well that he was one play from being laid low by the easy part. What chance does he stand now that things are about to get hard?

♦♦♦

will-muschamp-2

Florida fans have notoriously high expectations for their offense, which is understandable after basking in the success of two Heisman winners, three national championships, and 11 first-round draft picks on offense in the past 18 years alone. And no offense in that span — not even during the Ron Zook years — has fallen as far short of the mark as the 2013 edition under coordinator Brent Pease, whose unit generated fewer yards and points per game last year than any other offense in the SEC. (No small feat while playing in the same conference as the toothless attacks from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee.) When Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis were sacrificed to the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk at the end of the year, it was with the implicit understanding that they were being offered up in place of their boss, who would be the next to go if things didn’t turn around.

From a personnel standpoint, the coaches hardly stood a chance. Before the season even began, Pease lost his most experienced receiver, Andre Debose, to a torn ACL, and his starting left tackle, Chaz Green, to a torn labrum. In the third game, he lost his starting quarterback, Driskel, to a broken leg. By midseason, he’d lost his top tailback, Jones, to a torn meniscus. By November, he’d lost two more starters on the line, D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore, to a sprained MCL and a broken arm suffered in a scooter accident, respectively. At one point, center Jonotthan Harrison and wide receiver Quinton Dunbar added to the humiliation of the Georgia Southern loss when they were widely mocked on the Internet (and by their own teammates) for somehow furtively blocking one another on a play. In the final three games, Pease was forced to start a pedestrian third-stringer, Skyler Mornhinweg, at quarterback after losing the top backup, Tyler Murphy, to a bad shoulder. After a predictable, 37-7 loss to Florida State in the season finale, Pease lost his job, having failed to top 20 points in any of the Gators’ last seven games.

A new year brought renewed health — all the major injury casualties from 2013 are now back, including Debose, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility — and a new coordinator, Kurt Roper, whose arrival was accompanied by the usual litany of stories about the new dawn rising: In contrast to the deliberately paced, smashmouth mentality that Muschamp had attempted to foster in his first three seasons, Roper’s approach would be energetic and up-tempo; after running on nearly two-thirds of their total snaps in 2012 and 2013, the new-look Gators would aim for increased balance. “It’s kind of polar opposite of what we were used to over the past few years, where we were putting our focus on time of possession and controlling the ball,” Driskel told reporters in July, adding that the old scheme was so conservative at times that the offense’s goal was to pin opponents deep in their own territory with a punt. “I think the game is just moving toward having to score points and trying to get (off) as many plays as possible, which is Coach Roper’s mindset.”

But is it Roper’s boss’s? A former safety (at Georgia) and defensive coordinator (at LSU, Auburn, Texas, and elsewhere), Muschamp is a defensively oriented coach both by nature and as a protégé of Nick Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. From the moment he was hired to replace Urban Meyer, in December 2010, Muschamp’s priority was a wholesale Sabanization of Florida on the model his old mentor had used to revive Alabama as a national juggernaut. In Gainesville, Muschamp had access to the same level of resources and talent, and he made the same commitment to an offense that seemed designed primarily to keep the defense out of trouble.

His first order of business as head coach was to hire Charlie Weis, one year removed from the guillotine at Notre Dame, to install a “pro style” offense in place of the spread option that had run roughshod over the rest of the SEC for most of the previous six seasons.2 Under Weis, the Gators ran about 60 percent of the time in 2011 and averaged just 20.8 points in SEC games; Weis subsequently bailed for the top job at Kansas in what seemed to be a mutual separation. Under Pease, Florida kept the ball on the ground on a little more than 65 percent of all plays in 2012, the highest ratio in the conference, and on nearly 61 percent of plays in 2013. In all of Muschamp’s first three seasons, though, the final result tended to hinge almost exclusively on how well the offense did one thing: take care of the ball. Under Muschamp, the Gators are 12-2 against power-conference opponents3 when they finish with a positive turnover margin and 2-13 when the margin is in the red.

When that philosophy works, the result is 2012, when Florida set the template for Muschampian success by beating Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, and Florida State en route to an 11-1 regular season and an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl. In terms of total offense, those Gators ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC and 104th nationally; over the second half of the season, they were held below 400 yards in each of the last seven games. But the offense committed only six giveaways in those 11 wins (as opposed to nine giveaways in the two losses that season), with only one courtesy of Driskel’s right arm. Despite a lapse in the bowl game, they finished the season plus-15 in turnover margin, tying them for seventh nationally.

When it doesn’t work, the result looks like 2011, when Florida finished dead last in the SEC in turnover margin en route to a 7-6 finish in Muschamp’s first season, or like 2013, when the Gators finished in the red in five of their eight losses. Very little changed over those three seasons in terms of total offense — Florida ranked among the bottom 25 teams in the nation in yards per game all three years — or yards per play. Passing efficiency and third-down conversions held steady. Prior to this season, UF’s national ranking for scoring average had declined in every season since 2008, a trend that held across disappointing campaigns in 2010 and 2011, the ostensible “breakthrough” in 2012, and the collapse in 2013. What really seems to matter for the razor-thin margins on which Muschamp’s brand of football lives or dies is that the offense stays out of the way.

florida-offense-chart

♦♦♦

For once, though, the offense doesn’t deserve all the blame for an uninspiring performance. While the improved numbers Muschamp cited after the Kentucky game are obviously inflated by (1) multiple overtimes, and (2) Kentucky being Kentucky, it’s still true that Florida moved the ball more quickly and effectively against the Wildcats than at any point in 2013. That was especially true after halftime, and the Gators left a couple scoring opportunities on the field in regulation.

As promised, the run-pass balance was more evenly distributed under Roper, with Driskel throwing 43 times in 94 snaps. Robinson, a true sophomore who caught just five passes last year, was a revelation, and has the makings of the Gators’ first real, reliable playmaker on offense since … gosh, since Percy Harvin, probably. (Who else in the past five years is even in the running? Chris Rainey? Mike Gillislee?) Among the many other lows in 2013, UF generated fewer plays covering at least 20 yards — or 30 yards, or 40 yards — than any other SEC attack; Robinson had four receptions of longer than 20 yards against the Wildcats alone, putting him on pace to double last year’s team total by himself.4 Meanwhile, though the secondary held up its end of the turnover bargain with three interceptions, it doesn’t have any room to point fingers after a handful of coverage busts that allowed UK quarterback Patrick Towles to rack up 369 yards passing in his first SEC start. Twenty points in regulation should be good enough to win most games with a Muschamp defense.

Which brings us to this weekend, against an Alabama defense that lately hasn’t always lived up to its scorched-earth reputation against up-tempo, spread offenses: In back-to-back games against Oklahoma (in January’s Sugar Bowl) and West Virginia (to open this season), the Crimson Tide allowed a total of 713 yards passing and 61 points5 to a couple of unheralded quarterbacks, Trevor Knight and Clint Trickett, who arrived at those games with less experience and lower expectations than Driskel has going into Saturday. Bama’s cornerback situation is still somewhat unsettled, a legitimate concern in the preseason that only deepened in the opener against WVU’s Kevin White. If Driskel has time to throw, Robinson should have his share of opportunities.

But Florida fans have played this game often enough by now to know better than to look forward to the best-case scenario, when the results against the Tide have so frequently confirmed the worst. In 2010, the Gators went to Tuscaloosa with a 4-0 record and a no. 7 ranking in the polls following reassuringly lopsided wins over Tennessee and Kentucky; they limped out the victims of a thorough, 31-6 shellacking that effectively marked the end for Meyer, who stepped down at the end of that season after enduring four more losses. In 2011, Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville, the Gators entered the Alabama game ranked 12th and boasting another 4-0 record following reassuring wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, and limped out as victims of a 38-10 beatdown at the hands of the eventual national champs; Florida went on to lose its next four games to ranked opponents. At least in those seasons, September optimism was allowed to run its course before being permanently snuffed out on the first weekend of October.

There are no such illusions in 2014: Florida is unranked, barely eluded the ignominy of losing at home to the SEC’s resident whipping boy, and rolls into Alabama as a two-touchdown underdog. Before it even began, the season had already been defined as a referendum on Muschamp’s future; after last week, morale is low enough, and the remaining schedule brutal enough, that Coach Boom could come out of another blowout bearing the stigma of a dead coach walking. If a full-blown upset is too much to ask, the minimum requirement is to deliver enough of a jolt to Bama to make the upcoming dates with LSU, Missouri, South Carolina (all in Gainesville), and Georgia (in Jacksonville) look conceivably winnable. Even if moral victories ultimately count for nothing, the promise of actual victories to come still does. Anything less and Muschamp’s ongoing output of sound and fury will signify only that he has no other solutions.

Filed Under: College Football, Florida Gators, Will Muschamp, SEC, Alabama Crimson Tide, kentucky wildcats, Offense, CFB Stats, Coach Boom, Jeff Driskel, Demarcus Robinson, Coaches Doing Things, Hot Seat, Urban Meyer, Charlie Weis, Kurt Roper, LOUD NOISES!, NCAA, NCAAF, Football, Matt Hinton

matt-hinton_headshot

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton

More from Matt Hinton

See all from Matt Hinton

More College Football

See all College Football

More The Triangle

See all The Triangle