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1. Brilliant orange vs. ugly orange
"It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defence, construction and attack -- never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match."
In the 1960s and 1970s, Holland was a revelation on the soccer pitch. With a style created by coach (and former Dutch national team member) Rinus Michels and eventually known as Total Football, the Dutch unveiled a level of tactical flexibility never before seen, with players switching positions and creating new, innovative ways to use the space allotted to them. This new style, when matched with extremely talented players like Johan Cruyff, Rob Rensenbrink, and Ruud Krol, wreaked havoc for both the Dutch national team and the Dutch club Ajax. The squad could never quite reel in a World Cup title -- it was runner-up in both 1974 and 1978 -- but they still had an incredibly successful run of play with this style and these players. (David Winner's Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, one of my favorite recent sports books, tells this story well.)
The Total Football style and Dutch soccer became synonyms after a while; it almost wasn't enough for the team to play well -- it also had to play beautifully and creatively. When Holland made the World Cup Final in 2010 and damn near won the tournament with a more physical, plodding style that was in no way aesthetically pleasing, it felt ... wrong. "Yeah, sure, they're winning, but ... yuck! I don't want to watch this!"
It was jarring watching those bright orange jerseys, so long associated with beautiful football (in part from a style created by one of their own), playing a version of murderball.
And yes, we're now talking about Florida football. The school of Steve Spurrier and fun 'n' gun and Wuerffel-to-Anthony-and-Hilliard, the school of Urban Meyer and the spread and Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, once again won big in 2012. After two lackluster seasons that saw the Gators go just 15-11, their worst two-year win percentage since 1987-88, they were back in the national title race. They beat South Carolina by 33 points, came back to win at Texas A&M, and rode late surges to wins over LSU and Florida State. They beat three top-10 teams and went 11-1 in the regular season (their only loss featured some really bad breaks in the turnovers department), and if there were a four-team playoff, as there will be beginning in 2014, they would have probably been in it.
But goodness, did Florida play some ugly football. It was ugly by design, of course; it perfectly matched the intense, aesthetics-eschewing personality of head coach Will Muschamp, who seemed to watch recent Alabama teams and think, "I like what they're doing, but I don't know why they have to be so flashy." Florida leaned on a fast, suffocating defense, brilliant special teams, and an occasional running game -- two parts destructive powers, no parts creative players -- and it worked.
When you've got four- and five-star talent everywhere, you don't have to get too creative tactically. You're bigger, stronger, and faster than your opponent. Just lean on them and punch them in the gut for 60 minutes, and you'll probably end up with more points on the scoreboard.
But Florida took murderball to its conceptual extreme in 2012; what happens now that the Gators have some holes to fill on defense?
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 4|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Bowling Green||27-14||W||40.9 - 20.0||W|
|8-Sep||at Texas A&M||20-17||W||28.4 - 16.0||W|
|15-Sep||at Tennessee||37-20||W||38.1 - 17.7||W|
|22-Sep||Kentucky||38-0||W||28.8 - 14.3||W|
|6-Oct||LSU||14-6||W||23.7 - 10.4||W|
|13-Oct||at Vanderbilt||31-17||W||46.6 - 23.9||W|
|20-Oct||South Carolina||44-11||W||15.3 - 8.0||W|
|27-Oct||vs. Georgia||9-17||L||19.0 - 11.2||W|
|3-Nov||Missouri||14-7||W||20.9 - 20.4||W|
|10-Nov||UL-Lafayette||27-20||W||24.1 - 18.4||W|
|17-Nov||Jacksonville State||23-0||W||21.3 - 25.8||L|
|24-Nov||at Florida State||37-26||W||51.7 - 16.1||W|
|2-Jan||vs. Louisville||23-33||L||29.3 - 22.7||W|
|Points Per Game||26.5||78||14.5||5|
|Adj. Points Per Game||29.9||54||17.3||4|
2. It got uglier as the season got older
By the time the Gators were scoring a combined 73 points against Georgia, Missouri, UL-Lafayette and Jacksonville State, it was easy to forget that September wasn't nearly as ugly for (by?) the Florida offense. Jeff Driskel damn near looked like a future Heisman contender against Tennessee, completing 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards and rushing eight times for 81 yards; he later rushed for 177 yards and three scores against Vanderbilt, as well. And while there was nothing pretty about the 14-6 win over LSU, running back Mike Gillislee put on a fourth-quarter show and finished with 146 yards and both of Florida's touchdowns.
There were bright moments. But over the last half of the season, from the South Carolina game (don't let the score fool you -- the Gators gained fewer than 200 yards) through the first three quarters of the Florida State game, this was a mostly dreadful offense. With a great defense, this didn't necessarily matter, but still.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Florida 34.4, Opponent 17.1 (plus-17.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Florida 20.1, Opponent 16.8 (plus-3.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 2 games): Florida 40.5, Opponent 19.4 (plus-21.1)
Florida exploded for 24 fourth-quarter points in the win at Florida State and averaged a decent 5.5 yards per play versus Louisville during a desperate attempt to come back from an early deficit. But again, the Gators won 11 games and only had an offense for about four of them. That is strangely impressive. It's also a testament to how good they were on defense and special teams.
|Q1 Rk||76||1st Down Rk||34|
|Q2 Rk||54||2nd Down Rk||49|
|Q3 Rk||11||3rd Down Rk||43|
3. Here's where advanced stats come in handy
Florida finished 103rd in total offense last year, leading one to believe that the Gators were rather incompetent on that side of the ball. But that's not necessarily true. They had a plan, and it occasionally worked.
The Gators really could run the ball, especially in the second half of games, and both pace and opponent adjustments do quite a few favors for a Florida offense that ranked a healthy, if less-than-elite, 32nd in Off. F/+. The Gators were intentionally slow to the line of scrimmage and only passed if they had to (and even when they had to pass, they still ran quite a bit); they couldn't pass, but they were good enough at either building leads or staying within striking distance (Sugar Bowl aside) that they were able to take minimal risks and succeed.
It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, offensive coordinator Brent Pease brings to the table in 2013. Pease came to Gainesville from Boise State and confused anybody who still thinks of the Boise State stereotype as one of wide-open play and lots of passing; Pease leaned on Boise concepts of motion, precision and misdirection (there were quite a few reverses, and they worked pretty well), but he did so mostly with a ground game that, ugly or not, matched the needs of the Florida defense. It also worked to wear down tremendous LSU and Florida State defenses and win some big games.
4. Red zone paradox
For all of this team's running strengths -- and no matter how you slice it, 10th in Rushing S&P+ is damn strong -- Florida was strangely awful in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. The Gators ranked 86th in Red Zone S&P+ and 118th in Power Success Rate; they broke a lot of big runs, mostly against gassed defenses, but they were terribly ineffective at throwing in short space, and opponents were able to gang up on the run. Florida attempted 29 field goals, eighth-most in the country, and scored just 39 touchdowns (82nd). In six trips inside the Georgia 40 in their only regular season loss, the Gators kicked three field goals, fumbled, threw a pick, and turned the ball over on downs.
Good run games are often associated with the ability to finish drives well, but that was not an accurate association for Florida in 2012, and it cost the Gators a spot in the SEC (and potentially BCS) title game.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Jeff Driskel||6'4, 236||Jr.||**** (6.0)||156||245||1,646||63.7%||12||5||36||12.8%||4.8|
|Tyler Murphy||6'2, 206||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Skyler Mornhinweg||6'2, 208||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
5. Throw the ball away, Jeff
Jeff Driskel is a great runner; he picks his spots well, takes off as soon as the defense turns its collective back, and racks up quite a few big plays on the ground. But there are two different forms of mobility: running with the ball and avoiding sacks. The latter is almost as much about mental agility as physical, and Driskel had none. He was sacked more frequently than almost any quarterback in the country, and for a team that relies on field position and defense, sacks are particularly defeating.
Learning to throw the ball away could save Florida 15 to 20 yards of field position in a given game, and the Gators were already awesome in that regard in 2012.
Jeff Driskel. Mike Ehrmann, Getty.
|Jeff Driskel||QB||6'4, 236||Jr.||**** (6.0)||82||694||8.5||8.3||4||+28.4|
|Matt Jones||RB||6'2, 226||So.||**** (5.8)||52||275||5.3||4.6||3||+5.1|
|Trey Burton||WR-F||6'0, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||29||190||6.6||9.9||2||+6.4|
|Mack Brown||RB||5'11, 213||Jr.||**** (5.8)||25||102||4.1||1.5||0||-1.4|
|Solomon Patton||WR||5'9, 171||Sr.||**** (5.8)||14||140||10.0||8.8||0||+7.2|
|Kelvin Taylor||RB||5'11, 215||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Quinton Dunbar||WR-X||6'1, 195||Jr.||**** (5.8)||47||36||383||76.6%||8.1||17.2%||57.4%||8.1||58.7|
|Frankie Hammond, Jr.||WR-X||47||22||295||46.8%||6.3||17.2%||46.8%||5.8||45.2|
|Trey Burton||WR-F||6'0, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||26||18||172||69.2%||6.6||9.5%||57.7%||6.6||26.4|
|Clay Burton||TE||6'4, 253||Jr.||*** (5.7)||7||2||12||28.6%||1.7||2.6%||71.4%||1.5||1.8|
|Kent Taylor||TE||6'5, 224||So.||**** (6.0)||6||2||5||33.3%||0.8||2.2%||83.3%||2.0||0.8|
|Hunter Joyer||FB||5'10, 235||Jr.||*** (5.7)||5||4||17||80.0%||3.4||1.8%||80.0%||3.8||2.6|
|Andre Debose||WR-Z||5'11, 189||Sr.||***** (6.1)||4||2||9||50.0%||2.3||1.5%||75.0%||1.8||1.4|
|Mack Brown||RB||5'11, 213||Jr.||**** (5.8)||4||3||0||75.0%||0.0||1.5%||50.0%||0.2||0.0|
|Solomon Patton||WR-Z||5'9, 171||Sr.||**** (5.8)||3||1||17||33.3%||5.7||1.1%||33.3%||10.3||2.6|
|Colin Thompson||TE||6'3, 252||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Demarcus Robinson||WR-X||6'2, 201||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Alvin Bailey||WR||5'11, 170||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Ahmad Fulwood||WR||6'4, 189||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. Will the passing game improve?
Of course, receivers getting open could also help Driskel to avoid holding the ball too long. And hey, at any point, the former four- and five-star recruits in the Florida receiving corps could start acting like four- and five-star players. There is a ton of them, from the go-routes-only Andre Debose to Solomon Patton, who was much more running back than receiver from the WR-Z position (14 carries, three targets).
But unless you double down on potential, it's hard to rationalize Florida's passing game getting better, considering three of last year's top four targets are gone, and only one returnee averaged better than even a poor 6.6 yards per target last year. Tight ends Clay Burton and Kent Taylor and fullback Hunter Joyer combined to average 1.9 yards per target in 2012; five average passes to these three still wouldn't have gained a first down. I don't even understand how your average can be that low unless you're doing it intentionally. The passing game definitely isn't going to get worse, but yeah, throw the ball away, Jeff.
Despite passing game issues, the combination of Driskel rollouts, delays, draws, and screens to the running back, and camp-out-at-the-first-down-line passes to tight end Jordan Reed gave Florida better passing-downs success than one might have expected. If someone can replace Reed as ace in the hole, Florida could still figure out ways to move the chains once it falls behind schedule.
And a solid (from a run perspective) line should once again ensure that, by the third or fourth quarter, the Florida run game is getting more and more effective, even without Mike Gillislee.
|Xavier Nixon||LT||33 career starts|
|Jon Halapio||RG||6'3, 315||Sr.||*** (5.6)||33 career starts|
|Jonotthan Harrison||C||6'3, 302||Sr.||**** (5.8)||27 career starts|
|Chaz Green||RT||6'5, 304||Jr.||**** (6.0)||19 career starts|
|James Wilson||LG||15 career starts|
|Kyle Koehne||C||6'5, 315||Sr.||*** (5.6)||4 career starts|
|D.J. Humphries||LT||6'5, 280||So.||***** (6.1)||2 career starts|
|Ian Silberman||LG||6'5, 291||Jr.||**** (5.9)||2 career starts|
|Max Garcia (Maryland)||LG||6'4, 307||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Tyler Moore (Nebraska)||RT||6'6, 312||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Trip Thurman||RG||6'5, 313||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Trenton Brown||LT||6'8, 363||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Q1 Rk||17||1st Down Rk||3|
|Q2 Rk||5||2nd Down Rk||5|
|Q3 Rk||3||3rd Down Rk||3|
7. Passing was your only shot
Florida didn't even have the decency to put a flashy, fun defense on the field. The Gators went with the Alabama-esque, submission-holds-instead-of-flying-elbow-drops style of defense. With a great push from the middle of the line and fast linebackers and safeties in pursuit, Florida leaned on its athleticism and adaptability in 2012, and the results were impressive.
Athletic offenses could occasionally find room to work (Texas A&M and Louisville in the first half, to name two), but if you didn't have enough speed or depth, you would quickly find yourself in passing downs, and you would likely find yourself getting picked off soon thereafter.
The only chance offenses had came through the air, and opponents knew it. Florida's pass rush was a bit passive, so quarterbacks usually had time to get passes off; that was better than the running back getting gang-tackled two yards downfield (or getting lit up by tackle Sharrif Floyd behind the line of scrimmage). The problem with passing was that opposing quarterbacks were throwing into spaces with a lot of fast defenders nearby, and the Gators were frequently able to break passes up or intercept them.
(Actually, they were a bit lucky in the number of interceptions they pulled in. They picked off 29 percent of their defensed passes; the national average is 21 percent, so they nabbed about 5.5 more INTs than they probably should have.)
The names are changing, but the defensive identity probably won't. The run stuffs will still be there -- Floyd and Omar Hunter are gone, but Dominique Easley and Leon Orr made 14 of their 32.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- and there is help at tackle coming from junior college transfer Darious Cummings. And sophomore ends Dante Fowler, Jr., and Jonathan Bullard should only get better after showing well in their debut seasons. Florida should once again get a hell of a push up front, which will do a green back seven quite a few favors.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dante Fowler, Jr.||BUCK||6'3, 263||So.||***** (6.1)||13||21.5||3.5%||8||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Dominique Easley||DT||6'2, 283||Sr.||***** (6.1)||11||21.0||3.4%||8.5||4||0||1||0||1|
|Jonathan Bullard||DE||6'3, 265||So.||***** (6.1)||13||20.5||3.3%||5||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Leon Orr||NT||6'5, 310||Jr.||**** (5.9)||9||11.5||1.8%||5.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Damien Jacobs||NT||6'3, 286||Sr.||**** (5.8)||12||8.0||1.3%||2.5||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Bryan Cox, Jr.||DE||6'3, 260||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Darious Cummings||DT||6'1, 309||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Caleb Brantley||DT||6'3, 304||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Jaynard Bostwick||DT||6'4, 291||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jordan Sherit||DE||6'5, 234||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Joey Ivie||DE||6'4, 270||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Antonio Morrison||MIKE||6'1, 229||So.||**** (5.8)||13||30.5||4.9%||2||1||0||0||1||0|
|Ronald Powell (2011)||SLB||6'4, 234||Jr.||***** (6.1)||12||26.0||3.7%||9||6||0||0||1||0|
|Michael Taylor||WILL||6'0, 231||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||25.0||4.0%||1.5||1||1||1||0||0|
|Darrin Kitchens||WILL||6'2, 230||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||12.0||1.9%||1||0||0||0||1||0|
|Neiron Ball||SLB||6'2, 235||Jr.||**** (5.8)||11||7.5||1.2%||0.5||0||1||1||0||2|
|Jeremi Powell||LB||6'1, 205||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Daniel McMillian||MIKE||6'1, 227||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Alex Anzalone||LB||6'3, 229||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Matt Rolin||LB||6'4, 209||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
8. Blinded by star ratings
Recruiting rankings matter. They do. But we still go overboard about them sometimes. A four- or five-star rating is no guarantee of success (just ask Andre Debose), but it is very difficult to look at the recruiting rankings of Florida's youngsters in the linebacking corps and secondary and not assume the Gators will be just fine in 2013 despite some key losses.
Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans (combined: 15.5 TFLs, 15 passes defensed) and middle linebacker Jon Bostic were so steady (and violent) that Florida didn't have to take many risks to make stops. They were also consistent enough that, with help from the slow-paced offense, the Gators were able to get away with playing with minimal depth last year. Their absence could potentially be troubling, but their replacements are all former star recruits.
Plus, there is still some decent experience here (especially with the return of part-SLB, part-DE Ronald Powell), and there are some serious blue-chip freshmen entering the mix, like linebacker Alex Anzalone and corner Vernon Hargreaves. Relying on a single star recruit to produce immediately is problematic, but when you only need a couple out of about 10 to thrive, odds are on your side.
Still, Elam, Bostic, and Evans were really, really good. Assuming elite defensive play without them could make you (and me) feel pretty foolish by mid-season.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Loucheiz Purifoy||CB||6'1, 185||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||44.5||7.1%||1||0||0||5||3||0|
|Jaylen Watkins||S||6'0, 181||Sr.||**** (6.0)||13||32.5||5.2%||1||0||3||8||0||0|
|Marcus Roberson||CB||6'0, 195||Jr.||**** (6.0)||13||20.5||3.3%||1||1||2||12||1||0|
|Cody Riggs||CB||5'9, 184||Jr.||**** (5.9)||2||6.0||1.0%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Jeremy Brown||CB||5'10, 185||Sr.||**** (5.8)||11||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brian Poole||CB||5'10, 203||So.||**** (5.9)||12||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Valdez Showers||S||5'11, 190||So.||*** (5.7)||11||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jabari Gorman||S||5'10, 186||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||2.0||0.3%||0||0||1||0||0||1|
|Marcus Maye||S||6'0, 200||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Vernon Hargreaves III||CB||5'11, 185||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Marcell Harris||DB||6'1, 207||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Keanu Neal||DB||6'1, 203||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Nick Washington||DB||6'0, 183||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kyle Christy||6'3, 193||Jr.||66||45.8||6||22||27||74.2%|
|Brad Phillips||5'10, 191||Sr.||3||62.7||2||66.7%|
|Brad Phillips||5'10, 191||Sr.||2-2||0-1||0.0%||0-0||N/A|
|Andre Debose||KR||5'11, 189||Sr.||18||28.3||1|
|Loucheiz Purifoy||KR||6'1, 185||Jr.||7||23.9||0|
|Andre Debose||PR||5'11, 189||Sr.||10||9.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||3|
|Field Goal Pct||16|
|Kick Returns Avg||37|
|Punt Returns Avg||12|
9. Florida's best offensive player returns
Jeff Driskel had his moments, and Mike Gillislee was nice and steady, but punter Kyle Christy was by far the best weapon Florida had for flipping the field. His steady punting added about an extra first down or so to Florida's yardage in a given series and consistently gave opponents long fields. He's back, and that's very good news for the Gators.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|16-Nov||at South Carolina||19|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||4|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||3|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+15 / +8.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||11 (6, 5)|
10. A top-five team goes 11-1 against this schedule ...
... and a Top 25 team goes about 7-5. Florida intentionally played with little margin for error last year -- the style that kept it close enough to strike against Florida State and LSU also kept it uncomfortably close to Jacksonville State and UL-Lafayette -- and the schedule does much the same for the Gators this time around.
If they are once again a top-five team (and yes, despite the lack of aesthetics and the awful first-half showing against Louisville, they were just that), then barring a potential upset, this schedule could boil down to two games: the trip to LSU and the
Cocktail Party rivalry game versus Georgia. Win one of those two, and you're probably in the SEC title game, one step away from the national title game. But if the lack of pass offense is more problematic, if the young defense allows for a few more early deficits, and Florida only puts a good product on the field instead of a great one, then suddenly it's going to be a battle just to reach eight wins.
The eyeballs and the win column disagreed sharply when watching Florida play last year. That this ugly, physical, and quite effective team was wearing the same jerseys as Tebow, Wuerffel, Harvin, etc., made the whole experience even more jarring. There's no reason to think 2013 will be any different in the aesthetics department; can we say the same about the results?
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