Things change pretty quickly, don't they?
Dec. 4, 2009: Florida is nearing dynasty status. Winners of two of the last three national titles (2006, 2008), the Gators are undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the BCS rankings. They have suffered some offensive glitches under a new offensive coordinator, but they have still been barely challenged, winning seven games by 24 points or more and posting just one single-score win. Only a second straight win over Alabama in the SEC title game stands between them and a shot at another national title. They have won 37 of their last 43 games.
Dec. 5: Florida gets roughed up by Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, 32-13.
Dec. 6: Head coach Urban Meyer is admitted to the hospital for chest pains and dehydration, later attributed to stress. Florida will win 16 of its next 28.
And just like that, even though we don't necessarily know it at the time, Florida's near-dynasty is kaput. (History tells us that you never know that a dynasty has ended until later on.) Meyer will end up going on a leave of absence, then returning, then "retiring" after the 2010 season. The Gators will fall to 8-5 in 2010, then 7-6 in new head coach Will Muschamp's first season. A once-incredible offense that ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 10 from 2007 to 2009 will fall to just 66th and 65th the last two years. An impenetrable defense in 2008 and 2009 (third and ninth, respectively, in Def. F/+) will develop a couple of holes (24th and 20th in 2010-11).
Make no mistake: the recruiting is just about as good as ever. Despite the coaching change, Florida still ranks ninth in two-year recruiting. The Gators boast a couple of four-star sophomore quarterbacks, a trio of four-star running backs, a five-star receiver who, as a junior, should be coming into his own, nine other four-star receivers and tight ends, almost 10 four- and five-star offensive linemen, an incredible SIX five-star defensive linemen (and five other mere four-stars), and a load of four- and five-star prospects at linebacker and in the secondary.
But they had this level of talent last year, too, and their offense still ranked nine spots behind that of Central Florida, their defense only four spots ahead of South Florida's. Recruiting matters, but so do system, coaching and development, and the quality of all three are in question, especially on offense, entering Year 2 of the Muschamp era.
Pure athleticism and potential do allow for quicker turnarounds, however. If a new offensive coordinator is able to establish solid inside running with Mike Gillislee, teach Andre Debose to run something other than a Go route, find a few four-star youngsters ready to play like it, and establish some level of quality up front, then whoever wins the quarterback job will find the going much easier in 2012. (And if the injury bug could leave the defensive line alone, all the better.) That is a lot to ask for -- probably too much (as I've said before, give me three or four "ifs" and I can make just about any bad team good and any good team great) -- but it is at least within the realm of possibility, right? Of course, the same ifs were on the table last year.
Here's what I said about the Gators almost exactly one year ago. We're all wrong sometimes, right? Really, really wrong?
In the end, it isn't hard to understand why writers like Stewart Mandel are assuming 2011 will be a rebuilding-and-retooling year in Gainesville. Hell, the Outsiders projections are predicting the same thing. But you don't get many chances to talk Florida up as a potential "sleeper," and if you don't, there is a decent chance you will be feeling pretty silly around the time the Gators upset Alabama in The Swamp and moves into the Top Five in early-October. […]
The most disturbing thing I can say about the 2011 Gators is simply this: almost everything I say in the process of talking myself into Florida (Charlie Weis aside), I would have said 12 months ago, too. Great recent performance? Ridiculous recruiting? Blue-chip talent everywhere on the field? Check, check and check. So that tamps down my excitement a bit, as does the aforementioned ridiculous schedule.
Still, because of upside alone -- and the fresh blood and motivation brought in with the new staff -- the Gators are one of just a few teams on my "It wouldn't surprise me at all if they won the national title" list. (That isn't the same as predicting it, of course. In fact, I am taking the perfect, gray-area stance: if it doesn't happen, then that's fine because I didn't predict it; but if it does, I will try to convince everybody that I nailed it.) You have to have a certain amount of pure, raw potential to pull off a national title run, and Florida passes that test. Now they just need a) the offense to get out of its damn head and play football, and b) a young defensive line to take a step toward dominance. If that happens (and it might not), look out.
Temple head coach, and former Florida offensive coordinator, Steve Addazio, is currently attempting to implement his hybrids-on-hybrids-on-hybrids vision for the Owls, and early indications are actually a bit encouraging. However, the personnel he left behind in Gainesville showed the potential downside of the approach, especially when crammed into a pro-style package by a coordinator that hasn't actually succeeded at the college level for quite a while. Charlie Weis took over, moved one mobile quarterback to tight end, moved another to running back, and utilized one-time hybrids Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps mostly in the backfield … and the result was a net improvement of basically zero. Florida's offense was almost every bit as mediocre as it was the year before, occasionally hitting on big plays but mostly slogging through an inefficient life with a rotating set of quarterbacks.
Things looked pretty good at first, though. But then two events converged: original starting quarterback Jeff Brantley got hurt, and the schedule got much, much harder. After averaging 40.3 points per game through four contests, the Gators averaged fewer than 14 per game the rest of the way against FBS competition. The Gators rebounded a bit after an absolutely miserable October, but only so much.
First Four Games: Florida 30.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.5 (plus-8.3)
Next Four Games: Opponents 27.7 Adj. Points per game, Florida 23.5 (minus-4.2)
Next Five Games: Florida 27.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.6 (plus-1.7)
So basically, Florida was quite strong in September, horrid in October, and average in November and on Jan. 2. For many teams, that wouldn't be so bad. But many teams didn't win national titles in 2006 and 2008.
Entering 2012, Will Muschamp isn't exactly on the hot seat by any means, but in fielding a team that basically treaded water in 2011 after a severe 2010 dropoff, he didn't convince anybody he was a fantastic long-term hire. But sometimes Year 2 can erase a frustrating Year 1. (And other times, it can't.)
Technically speaking, Charlie Weis wasn't a terrible offensive coordinator for Florida last year. He just wasn't even slightly better than Addazio. He inherited a unit that had underachieved drastically in 2011 and got them to underachieve exactly the same amount. When adjusting for opponent (and almost nobody faced a tougher set of defenses than Florida last year: Def. F/+ No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU, No. 6 Florida State, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 17 Georgia, No. 22 Ohio State, No. 28 Vanderbilt), the offense was far from terrible. The Gators were pretty strong on standard downs, fully capable of breaking a big play from the likes of Rainey (5.0 yards per carry, 7.9 yards per pass target), Demps (5.8 yards per carry, 9.1 per target) or Andre Debose (16.0 yards per target).
The problems came in two areas. First, the Gators couldn't come up with a big play on passing downs. Florida ranked 16th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 67th on Passing Downs. Once you forced them into second-and-10 or third-and-7, the drive was probably over. Second, Florida was a horror show in the red zone: 109th in Red Zone S&P+.
So basically, the Gator offense was solid right up until it had to lean on somebody to make a play and score some points. The offensive line couldn't come through in the red zone, there was no consistently powerful, between-the-tackles back, and there was nothing even close to resembling a go-to receiver for passing downs targets. All of this would have made life difficult for any quarterback, but the combination of John Brantley and two freshmen, Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, made things even more difficult with shaky play. Brantley in no way lived up to his recruiting hype, but honestly, he wasn't awful: 6.8 yards per pass attempt, 2.6 percent interception rate, 4.6 percent sack rate. That could be worse. But his completion percentage (53 percent) was terribly inefficient, and he has to share at least some of the blame for that with a dreadful receiving corps.
When Brantley got hurt, the freshmen took over, and … let's just say that neither seized the opportunity. Of course, it was also an impossible situation. Brantley got hurt in the Alabama game, meaning Driskel's first real playing time came against the best defense in the country (he went 2-for-6 for 14 yards and a sack and averaged 0.9 yards per pass attempt). Driskel then got hurt, handing the reins to Brissett the next week against LSU, the second-best defense in the country (he went 8-for-14 with two picks and a sack and averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt). Even Tim Tebow Incarnate would not have succeeded in that situation. Brantley came back soon after that, and at the end of the season, Brissett and Driskel had combined for a dreadful passing line: 47 percent completion rate, 8.2 percent interception rate, 11.0 percent sack rate, 3.6 yards per pass attempt.
As we get awfully close to the 2012 season, the Florida quarterback situation is still incredibly unsettled. Brantley has graduated, and neither Brissett nor Driskel have in any way differentiated themselves in fall camp. Both will play in the season opener against Bowling Green, and we'll see what happens after that. It bears mentioning that both were blue-chip quarterbacks, and both probably have quite a bit more potential than they showed last year. And with a new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in place (former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease), we might get a chance to see a bit more of that potential, at least if it wasn't all beaten out of them last year.
So let's talk about that new coordinator for a second. For the second straight year, a major power raided Boise State's staff to fix offensive woes. Bryan Harsin, the previous Boise State coordinator, went to fix Texas last year and saw a decent amount of success. The Longhorns' offense was still only average in 2011, but average (62nd in Off. F/+) is still better than dreadful (110th in 2010). Pease worked under Boise State head coach Chris Petersen for six seasons (he was Guy Morriss' Air Raid coordinator at Kentucky and Baylor before that), and he has some rock solid bona fides. His resume is stocked with examples of creativity and ruthless precision, and, long-term, he could be a tremendous hire. It is yet to be seen, obviously, what he can do with the current personnel.
Here's what that personnel includes:
- Running Back. Mike Gillislee averaged a team-high 5.9 yards per carry last year, and his +5.9 Adj. POE (meaning he was about six points better than the average back given his carries, blocking and opponent) was second-best on the team behind Demps. Gillislee has set the bar quite high for himself this year, and if he shows himself capable of reaching those goals (1,500 yards, 24 touchdowns), Pease will probably be more than happy to give him the carries requisite for accomplishing it. Former four-star recruits Mack Brown (sophomore) and Matt Jones (freshman) are battling to back him up.
- Offensive line. Granted, the line got no help last year -- the freshman quarterbacks were freaked out, and the major running backs (Rainey and Demps) were not exactly proficient between the tackles -- but Florida's line stats were horrendous last year: 112th in Adj. Line Yards and 58th in Adj. Sack Rate. Yuck. Six players return with starting experience (74 career starts), which is good, but you'd prefer experience from a SUCCESSFUL line.
- Receiving corps. The Florida receiving corps has an incredible mix of athleticism and fatal flaws, it seems. On paper, there is a lot to like. You've got quite a few former blue-chip tight ends who could be efficient (and one, senior Omarius Hines, who is potentially explosive as well), along with a solid possession option in senior wideout Frankie Hammond, Jr. You've got potential deep threats in junior Andre Debose and sophomore Quinton Dunbar. You've got a new batch of high-upside freshmen to push underachieving upperclassmen. In junior Solomon Patton, you've got an upperclassman who experienced a bit of a breakthrough in fall camp. What you don't have is a Gator receiver who was even slightly consistent last year. Debose was spectacular on a per-target basis, but he was only targeted about twice per game because he seemingly could only go long. Obviously any sort of Boise State aura that rubs off on the passing game would be welcome, and Pease will certainly know how to make do with this unit to some degree. But right now, the receivers are 90 percent potential, 10 percent known production. I guess that goes for the entire offense, huh?
Comparatively speaking, there really wasn't anything seriously wrong with the Florida defense in 2011. The Gators did not field a unit quite as capable of the dominance that defined their national title defenses, but it was still a top-25 D. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Muschamp, himself an incredibly successful coordinator not too long ago, dealt with quite a few injuries up front and some frustrating inconsistency in the secondary, but defense certainly wasn't the problem last year. Some second-year improvement wouldn't be a bad idea, however.
The recruiting stars are just hypnotic up front, aren't they? When end Ronald Powell returns from injury in October (hopefully), it is conceivable that all four starters on the Gator line will be former five-star recruits. Tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter (combined: 9.0 tackles for loss) are each former blue-blue-blue-chippers, as are ends Powell (9.0 tackles for loss) and Dominique Easley (7.5). Easley is, himself, returning from injury but is expected to be 100 percent when the season starts. Throw in five-star freshman ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., four-star junior college tackle Damie Jacobs, and senior rush end Lerentee McCray (7.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up), and you've got the makings of an absolutely incredible line.
Of course, the line was far from incredible last year. The Gators ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards but only 44th in Adj. Sack Rate, and that was with leading sacker Jaye Howard, who is now a Seattle Seahawk. As with the receiving corps, the line is still more potential than proven, but it is at least close to fulfilling its potential. Good health wouldn't hurt: of the players listed above, only Hunter played in all 13 games last year.
The Gators needed help from the linebackers to generate solid pressure, but middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic (10.0 tackles for loss) came through as often as not. He is solid, and former five-star prospect Jelani Jenkins (6.0 tackles for loss, one interception, six passes broken up) is potentially outstanding in pass coverage. The linebacking corps is a bit thin -- only three players logged more than 15.0 tackles last year, and almost no backups got experience) -- but should be perfectly capable if it avoids injuries.
The secondary could use a bit of a shake-up. Last year, five-star junior Matt Elam was fantastic (11.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven passes broken up, two forced fumbles), but the rest of the unit was hit-or-miss. Corner Jaylen Watkins broke up five passes, while safeties like Josh Evans and De'Ante Saunders showed decent play-making potential, but the Gators ranked a rather abysmal 57th in Passing S&P+, 70th in Passing Success Rate+ (efficiency). It is possible that four-star sophomores, and 2011 backups, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are ready to flip the depth chart around a bit this year; if nothing else, Muschamp might have a few more options this year. And if experience means anything to you, it's worth mentioning that the top seven tacklers in the secondary return.
In all, one should probably expect improvement from this defense, at least to a top 15 or 20 level, but even that might feel like underachievement to a degree, considering the pedigrees of quite a few of the players when they arrived.
Success is very, very hard to define for Muschamp and his Gators right now. Major national success isn't exactly that far in the rearview, but neither are seven losses by double digits in two seasons. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 likes the Gators quite a bit (projected rank: 10th) because of the recruiting success and the high quality of three and four years ago; it says they have a 49 percent chance of finishing 9-3 or better and the second-best odds of finishing 7-1 or better in conference (they have a 14 percent chance, while Georgia is at 38 percent). Conservatively, though, I'll say that an 8-4 record with improvement back into the top 20 in F/+ would represent serious, exciting improvement.
I admit that I sometimes get sucked into what teams look like on paper. I have for teams like Texas A&M this year, and I most certainly did with Florida last year. But while I'm not going to make any "I wouldn't be surprised if this team competes for the national title" proclamations this time around, I have to say it wouldn't surprise me if the Gators were to compete for the East title. They get South Carolina, LSU and Missouri at home, and the best SEC team they play on the road is either Texas A&M or Tennessee. (They play Georgia in Jacksonville, obviously.) That's manageable, even if only some of the former blue-chippers on the roster begin to fulfill potential.
Florida is in an interesting place right now, however. Nobody is intimidated by the Dynasty aura that the Gators perhaps put off a few years ago. Fans of both Texas A&M and Tennessee are probably looking at September visits from Florida as potential wins, and really, the burden of proof is on Florida to once again force teams (and fan bases) to fear them. The expectations are lower this time around, but another 7-6 season in Gainesville would probably place Muschamp on a pretty warm seat heading into 2013. He inherited a bit of a mess, but he's only going to get so long to fix it.
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