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The Future of Florida Football Under Will Muschamp
In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (UF) Gators, football fans have long been sheltered from the suffering of such tortured SEC programs as Kentucky and Vanderbilt. The 2013 season would therefore represent a failure seldom seen in UF history. Not since the infamous 0-10-1 campaign of 1979 had the Gators looked so listless on the football field. A fanbase known for collectively singing the line "In all kinds of weather, we'll all stick together for F-L-O-R-I-D-A" soon became baffled and agitated as its team fell apart. In the midst of this doomed season, blame has been aimed in many directions; to adequately assess the situation in the land of the Orange and Blue, an objective analysis of the season must be made.
When the Gators trotted off the field after a 37-7 Senior Day rout by arch rival Florida State, most of those involved in the program were glad for the 2013 season to end. Fans had become numb to the pain of defeat after seeing their team lose seven straight, including two monumentally disappointing efforts. First, the team was dominated at homecoming by Vanderbilt, representing their first home loss to the Commodores since 1945. Just weeks later, Georgia Southern became the first FCS school ever to defeat Florida, doing so by rushing for all 429 of its yards. The Gators finished 4-8, missing a bowl game for the first time since 1990 and sporting their first losing season and longest losing streak since 1979.
In 2014, head coach Will Muschamp will need to find a way to improve upon what has been a decidedly dreadful offensive scheme since his arrival. Running back Mack Brown, who led the team in carries, averaged just 3.7 yards per rush, and the Gators averaged just 3.6 yards per carry as team. In addition to an overly-conservative ball control mindset, the Florida coaching staff also made questionable personnel decisions. Freshman running back Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Gator great Fred Taylor, passed the eye test for Gator fans, rushing for 4.6 yards per carry. In spite of this production, Taylor was used less often, especially early in the season, than the aforementioned Brown. In addition, versatile senior playmaker Trey Burton was used in the "Wildcat" formation; without any threat of a possible pass out of the formation, Burton was held to six yards on 11 carries before a 50-yard burst in the season finale. In another questionable decision, Florida gave the majority of the field goal opportunities to Austin Hardin, who was just 4-for-12 this season, while kickers Francisco Velez and Brad Phillips combined to go 8-for-10 on field goals.
While the offense was anything but impressive in 2013, it does have potential for improvement. Young players like Taylor, Valdez Showers, and Ahmad Fulwood have shown an ability to spark the offense with explosive plays. In addition, quarterbacks Tyler Murphy, Jeff Driskel, and Skyler Mornhinweg have all experienced SEC competition, setting up an intriguing open competition in the spring. The success of the 2014 Gators will likely depend upon three factors: depth, health, and coaching. On the offensive side of the ball, Florida lacked the dependable offensive line and powerful backs needed to run the pro-style scheme Muschamp favors. Even if Muschamp keeps his word and adopts a spread offense in 2014, the offensive line will need to be vastly improved in order to give UF's struggling quarterbacks time to throw. Florida must also find a way to replace such players as Dominique Easley and Loucheiz Purifoy on defense, but returning starters like Michael Taylor and Vernon Hargreaves III will minimize performance losses. Even if initial personnel concerns do fade, Florida fans will still be wary of potential health issues following a season in which dozens of players, starters and backups alike, went down with injuries.
Losing isn’t accepted for long at the University of Florida, and Will Muschamp will see just how true this is if the 2014 Gator squad disappoints. Teams will likely overlook UF, but after a shocking season which included losses to rivals Florida State, Georgia, and Miami, the Gators should relish their underdog status. Non-conference games against Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and Eastern Kentucky should give the Gators time to improve, and home match-ups with Missouri, LSU, and South Carolina should only further help their cause. Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt have given the Gators little trouble in recent years, and UF will also face a Georgia team missing graduating quarterback Aaron Murray. Though road games against Alabama and Florida State may be fearsome tests, Florida will only improve as these gamedays approach. Though it’s difficult to gauge just how good the pride of Gainesville will be in 2014, it’s safe to say that Gator nation should be in much higher spirits when the next bowl season arrives.