What’s Wrong with the Gators?
By Matt Smith
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Outside of Texas, no school has fewer excuses for a lack of on-field success than Florida.
Following a second national title in three years in 2008, there was no doubt who the premier program and coach in college football were: Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. They followed up their 2008 title with a second straight 13-1 season in 2009. Florida fans didn’t think it could ever get better than the 12-year run under Steve Spurrier from 1990-2001, but under Meyer, it had.
Then came December 26, 2009. As Pittsburgh and North Carolina were battling in a relatively dull bowl game, word leaked out that Meyer had resigned as head coach of the Gators, citing health concerns that had arisen three weeks earlier after Florida’s SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama.
Meyer reversed course a day later, and remained on as head coach following a spring sabbatical. The problem? Florida’s coach wasn’t Urban Meyer. It was a shell of the coach that had won four BCS bowls in the past six years. Less than a year later, Meyer was gone for good after a disappointing 8-5 season.
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was tabbed to lead the program. He brought in Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator, and the overwhelming sentiment was that he could do with veteran quarterback John Brantley what he did with Brady Quinn at Notre Dame.
It didn’t happen.
After a 7-6 season in which Florida failed to beat an FBS team with a winning record, Weis was gone as well.
Florida’s recruiting classes from 2007-2010 were ranked on average No. 4 in the country by Rivals.com, including three classes ranked in the top three during that stretch. How then, are we where we are today? Not only is Florida no longer a national title contender; They’re barely in the conversation when discussing contenders for the SEC East title.
Many reasons can be cited for the downfall of Florida, but I’ve narrowed the list to five.
1. Meyer shouldn’t have been coaching in 2010
He spun it as he was a rejuvenated coach and better family man, but Meyer won national titles by being a workaholic. Oh sure, he still dialed up one of his trademark fake punts at the perfect time to break open a close game at Tennessee, but far too often the Gators looked overmatched. There were close calls against Miami (OH) and USF, and blowout losses to Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida State. 11 days after the 31-7 loss to the Seminoles in Tallahassee - Meyer’s first loss to FSU - he had gone through enough and resigned again, this time for good. Meyer demands as much from his players as any coach, and for five seasons in Gainesville, demanded the same of himself. That changed in 2010. The fire wasn’t there. The coach who once swore that Georgia’s memorable end zone celebration against Florida in 2007 would be “forever in his mind” now was struggling just to make up his mind about where he should be. It was clear by the end of the season that it shouldn’t have been on the sideline.
2. Quarterback recruits have fizzled
Florida did sign an eventual national title-winning quarterback after Tim Tebow. The problem is that the crystal ball credited primarily to former Gator Cam Newton resides at Auburn. Despite a willingness to give second chances to his players, Meyer cut ties with Newton after the 2008 season due to multiple off-field incidents. Brantley was also part of the 2007 class, but three different offensive coordinators in his time in Gainesville slowed his development. Two years prior, Meyer landed four-star recruit Josh Portis from California. Portis lasted only one season before transferring to Maryland, where he would later be suspended for the 2007 season for an academic cheating scandal. Florida curiously did not sign a quarterback in 2008. The three quarterbacks signed in 2009 and 2010 have not played significant minutes, with Jordan Reed and Trey Burton both moving to tight end. Both 2011 recruits, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, showed occasional flashes of their potential last season, but are far from the elite of the SEC.
3. Poor offensive line play
Tebow may be the most unique player to ever play major college football. Despite retaining offensive coordinator Steve Addazio after Tebow’s departure following the 2009 season, blocking schemes had to be redesigned to align with Brantley’s strengths (and lack thereof). In addition, All-American center Maurkice Pouncey was now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, Mike Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert were early-round NFL Draft picks in 2011, but that was more due to their individual talent than what their team had accomplished in 2010. The Gators running game fell from No. 10 in the nation in 2009 to No. 44 in 2010. Veteran offensive line coach Frank Verducci was brought in for the 2011 season, but the unit regressed even further to No. 73 in the nation, despite having two of the fastest running backs in college football in Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Far too often last season, the Gators were blown off the ball by opposing defenses. Verducci “left to pursue other interests” in February, which is media relations terminology for “he was fired.” Four starters return for the 2012 season under the guidance of new offensive line coach Tim Davis.
4. No star wide receiver
While the Tebow era was built more around the running game, Florida had plenty of elite talent in the passing game as well. David Nelson, who was at his best in big games, has become a starter for the Buffalo Bills. Tight end Aaron Hernandez has helped spark a revolution in NFL passing attacks in his first two seasons with the New England Patriots. Even Tebow’s college roommate, Riley Cooper, has become a valuable player for the Philadelphia Eagles. All three left Florida with Tebow after 2009. Since then, there has been no consistent threat in the passing game. Yes, Andre Debose can hit an occasional home run as he did to open last year’s game against Alabama, but he caught just 16 passes on the season. No wide receiver averaged more than two catches per game last season. The SEC isn’t quite the big-play league that the Big 12 is, but it helps to have an Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, or Jarius Wright to stretch the field. Florida hasn’t had that. Whether Debose, now entering his final season, or sophomore Quinton Dunbar can be that guy remains a mystery. Until it’s solved, the Gators' offense will continue to sputter.
5. The schedule
Georgia has avoided both Alabama and LSU the past two seasons, while South Carolina has also missed the Tigers, and only played Alabama in 2010. Florida has played both teams in both years, losing all four games by an average of 22 points. The Gators also had to go to Auburn last season, and played nine-win Mississippi State in 2010, scoring a total of just 13 points in the two games. South Carolina and Florida State, two key November opponents that Florida went 9-1 against from 2005-2009 have returned to prominence, sweeping the Gators in 2010 and 2011 The schedule doesn’t exactly get any easier this season. Yes, there are only three true SEC road games, but they must travel to College Station for Texas A&M’s SEC debut. SEC expansion squelched what would have been a nice trip to a rebuilding Ole Miss, sending the Gators to Kyle Field instead. Alabama rolls off of the schedule, but LSU is still on it. The trip to Tennessee comes immediately after playing the Aggies, while the Vols host Georgia State the week before.
Outside of Texas, no school has fewer excuses for a lack of on-field success than Florida. Some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation are in its own backyard. Its facilities are as good as any program in the country, and its three national titles in the past 20 years can be matched only by Alabama and Nebraska. The Gators play in the best conference in college football – the same conference that just sent nine first-round draft picks to the NFL, more than the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined. Gainesville is a great college town, and a pretty girl there is as common as sunshine.
However, one thing far less common in Gainesville than sunshine is patience. Muschamp is already feeling the heat after just one season. 2012 could go a number of different directions. If either Driskel or Brissett emerge as a viable threat in new coordinator Brent Pease’s offense, running back Mike Gillislee builds off an impressive spring, and the defensive front seven lives up to its rockstar talent, Florida could find itself in Atlanta on Dec. 1. If quarterback play is shoddy, much like Texas a year ago under Pease’s former colleague at Boise State Bryan Harsin, the 2012 Gators could turn out much like the 2011 Longhorns, who finished 7-5. Muschamp is the current face of the program, so it’s easy to blame him for the program’s recent shortcomings, but Florida’s downfall began long before his arrival.