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What is Muschamp’s Magic Number?

By Matt Smith
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Florida isn’t going to be where it wants to be at season’s end. What Jeremy Foley will have to determine is how far away the Gators are and if Will Muschamp is the right person to get them there.

For the second straight season, job security in the cut-throat world of SEC football is fairly stable. Except, of course, in Gainesville, where Will Muschamp desperately needs a successful season after Florida plummeted from 11-2 to 4-8 in 2013.

Defining what constitutes a successful season is the tricky part, and what may cause Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley to have many sleepless nights this fall. Is there a minimum number of wins Muschamp must reach? Will close losses to national title contenders be viewed positively?

An Auburn-like turnaround should not be expected, even with the addition of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from Duke. Florida’s problems run much deeper than those of the 2012 Tigers, who simply threw in the towel once they realized their offense was useless. There’s no Nick Marshall arriving from junior college to fix the quarterback problem, and the Gators’ schedule is exponentially more difficult than what Auburn faced a year ago.

Florida isn’t going to be where it wants to be at season’s end. What Foley will have to determine is how far away the Gators are and if Muschamp is the right person to get them there. A 10-2 season or a 6-6 season makes things easy. But what about the middle ground, a place where most pundits will predict Florida to finish this fall?

The Gators’ schedule is as tough as any in the country. There’s no Miami (FL) in the non-conference this year, but Alabama replaces Arkansas in the SEC rotation. Five likely preseason top-15 teams are on the slate (Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina), plus tricky games with Missouri (home), Tennessee (away) and Vanderbilt (away).

Four wins seems fairly certain: home games with Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky. How Florida fares in the other eight games will be what determines Muschamp’s fate.

No one is expecting Florida to win in Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee. Muschamp sports an 0-7 record as a player (at Georgia) and coach (at Florida) in Cocktail Parties, so I’ll believe he beats Georgia when I see it. Getting at least a split with LSU and South Carolina is certainly plausible, given both are at home and Muschamp’s defenses have won the head-to-head battle with Steve Spurrier’s offenses in their three meetings.

That leaves the three swing games. The Commodores and Tigers figure to be down a notch from a year ago, while the Volunteers have had a mental block against Florida for a decade.

Florida hasn’t lost to Vanderbilt in Nashville since 1988 and hasn’t lost to Tennessee anywhere since 2004. Given three-score defeats to Vanderbilt and Missouri last year, 3-0 in that trifecta is no sure thing, but Muschamp may need them all to survive.

Throwing out Alabama and Florida State as sure losses, how many of the six “toss-up” games does Muschamp have to win? Three probably isn’t enough.

Despite their recent success, you don’t get patted on the back at Florida for beating Missouri and Vanderbilt. The Gators beating Tennessee is as much of a fall tradition as the Cubs not winning the World Series. Those three opponents are teams that, fair or not, Florida should beat simply by being Florida.

Georgia, LSU and South Carolina? Not so much. All should be playoff contenders. All are 3-1 against Florida in the post-Tebow era. A win over one of those teams will be something of which to stand up and take notice.

Derek Dooley needed a “signature” win at Tennessee in 2012 to keep his job. He didn’t get one, lost all of the toss-up games and was unemployed by Thanksgiving. The bar at Florida is naturally higher than Tennessee given the resources and recent national titles, but I think one signature win is also probably enough for Muschamp to return in 2015.

That’s assuming wins over Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. A loss to one of those three likely means Coach Boom needs two wins against the Bulldogs, Tigers and Gamecocks..

8-4 is still sub-par for Florida, but it marks a major improvement from 4-8. It also means that Florida took down at least one big boy. How that happens is secondary. It just has to happen. Period. 7-5 would only show that Florida is beating the teams it’s supposed to beat. That’s no longer enough after the disaster of 2013.

Once Spurrier built Florida into a dynasty, it became difficult for a coach to fail at Florida. Despite winning 11 games just two seasons ago, Muschamp is perilously close to failing.

Urban Meyer didn’t exactly leave Muschamp a pair of aces, but only a handful of Meyer’s recruits are still on the roster. This team is the responsibility of Muschamp and Muschamp alone.

The 2014 Gators don’t have to be great, but there have to be signs of greatness, of which there were none a year ago. Even in THE SEC, even at FLORIDA, that should pull Foley’s finger off of the trigger for at least another year.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.