Gators in Uncharted Territory
By Matt Smith
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With eight SEC titles in the past 21 years, question marks are rare in Gainesville.
The two national titles sandwiched around Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy-winning 2007 season seem like a distant memory in Gainesville after Florida’s 15-11 record over the past two seasons. The Gators now find themselves perhaps on the outside looking in of the Top 25 in the preseason for the first time since Steve Spurrier first arrived over 20 years ago.
For the main state school in arguably the most talent-rich state in the nation, it seems almost unfathomable for a team to have consecutive non-winning seasons in SEC play. However, that’s exactly what happened to the Gators in 2010 and 2011.
Head coach Will Muschamp and his players hope to halt the downward trend this fall. They’ll get an early opportunity with back-to-back road games in Weeks 2 and 3 against Texas A&M and Tennessee. Muschamp sees the difficult start as a positive for a team trying to get its swagger back.
“It’s been a really good motivating factor,” said Muschamp on Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We need to start fast. We can get a leg up by playing earlier. It’s a great opportunity and it motivates our players.”
The game against the Aggies will be Texas A&M’s first SEC game, in what is sure to be an electric atmosphere at Kyle Field.
“We know they’re going to be amped up for that,” said senior linebacker Jon Bostic.
Bostic, who will wear the No. 1 jersey this fall for the first time, is also embracing the early opportunities to quickly make amends for last year’s struggles.
“We didn’t play as well as we should have last year. We’re going to go out and work as hard as we can and we can be as good as we want to be. Now, we don’t have a target on our back.”
Despite having arguably the best linebacking duo in the SEC in Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, there is one major concern on the Florida defensive front. BUCK linebacker Ronald Powell tore his ACL in the spring and is expected to miss at least part of the season. Muschamp offered a status update on his prized linebacker on Wednesday.
“He’s been cleared for weight room activities. He’ll play for us this year. When that will be, I don’t know yet.”
Even without Powell, the defense isn’t the concern heading into the season. The Gators offense was historically bad last year. A 4-0 start turned into a 1-5 slump after senior quarterback John Brantley suffered an ankle injury against Alabama. Muschamp saw that as the turning point in the season.
“John going down handicapped us. That was the most frustrating thing. We were moving the ball against a really good [Alabama] defense.”
Florida would score just 17 points in the 11 quarters following Brantley’s injury, and would top 20 points only once against an FBS opponent the rest of the regular season. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left for Kansas after the season. Muschamp hired Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to run the Gators' offense. The hire comes a year after Texas made a similar move when they hired Pease’s predecessor in Boise, Bryan Harsin. Despite Texas struggling for much of last year, Muschamp is not concerned about growing pains under Pease.
“He’s an outstanding football coach. We just have to make some plays. He’ll do an outstanding job.”
Like the Longhorns a year ago, Florida does not have an established quarterback. Sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will battle during fall the camp for the right to start the season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 1. Muschamp doesn’t anticipate doing anything differently regardless of who wins the job.
“Those guys have very similar skill sets for what we’re trying to do. It’s not like there’s one offense we run with one and one with another. We’re going to be balanced. We need improvement from the wide receivers and to get the ball to our playmakers.”
With eight SEC titles in the past 21 years, question marks are rare in Gainesville. It’s unfamiliar territory for one of the most successful programs in the last quarter-century. However, the second-year head coach says the pressure on him wouldn’t be any different if the team had won the national title.
“The pressure is what you put on yourself, and I put a lot on myself whether it’s Year 1 or Year 10.”
In Year 2, there’s a lot more pressure on Muschamp than just what he has put on himself. 7-6 seasons will do that – especially at Florida.