Programming note: I'm traveling to Florida today for the Gators' opener against Bowling Green and to see some family. If I'm not responsive for large stretches, that's why. Also, give me South Carolina (-6.5) over Vanderbilt 30-13. Vandy won't be sneaking up on anyone this year.
Over the weekend, reader MikeDeTiger wrote me an email asking for me to explain a bit about how Florida got into the rut it's in and what the team has for this year. He hasn't followed the Gators that closely over the last two years, and given the struggles in Gainesville and highlights in Baton Rouge, I can't blame him one bit.
The following is a copy-edited version of my reply.
Florida has been down, but there definitely is talent still there. How can you tell? The Gators haven't lost to a team that finished the season under .500; the last time they did was Ron Zook's tenure-ending loss to Mississippi State in '04. They haven't lost to Vandy or Kentucky, and they've blown out nearly all of their cupcakes in the way you'd expect them to. Since Urban Meyer took over, they've only lost to a team that finished with fewer than eight wins once.
The main issue is that for a a few years there, Meyer recruited more athletes than he did football players at the skill positions. Florida had plenty of guys who are fast and look great in a uniform. When it came to making consistent plays and running precise routes, they were not quite so good. He also didn't recruit a quarterback that didn't change positions between John Brantley in 2007 and two-star Tyler Murphy in 2010. There was no one to turn to other than the true freshmen when Brantley went down last year, and that was the difference between a decent season and an awful one.
Believe it or not, Charlie Weis did turn Brantley around quite a bit last year. Brantley's passing efficiency in SEC play was third-highest behind Tyler Wilson and A.J. McCarron. His first half against Bama, one hideous pick-six aside, was fantastic. A big issue though was that, dating back to his Notre Dame days, Weis has tended to spend as much time as possible with the starter, forsaking the development of the backups. The true freshmen were thrown to the wolves without nearly enough preparation.
The quarterbacks also got no help from the run game because Weis didn't play Mike Gillislee enough. He's a bigger back than Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps were, and he could have gotten more tough yards inside that the coaches wanted. The problem is that Rainey and Demps are like slot machines for offensive coordinators. No matter how many times those two would get stuffed, OCs couldn't help but call their numbers because their speed really does make them a threat to score from anywhere. They can't bring themselves to go get a sure 4-5 yards when there's a 3% chance they can get 70 yards. That last year just happened to be one of those years everyone has where most of the offensive line turned over didn't help at all.
Not to keep piling on, but Weis also doesn't know how to cut a playbook down to a manageable size for a college team. He's great in the NFL because they have enough time to do anything. In college, you get 20 hours of practice a week. Against Kentucky, the Gators ran it for over 70% of plays and had nine guys carry the ball. Later on against Georgia, they spent the game almost entirely in the gun with 4-5 wide. The heavy shotgun use came from Brantley being even more immobile from his injury, but it was still like running an entirely new system. There was very little in that game that looked like anything else they ran all season. When you try to do too much, you can't actually master anything.
The hope with Brent Pease is that, being a career college guy, he'll better understand the constraints of practice time and install an appropriately sized offense. He also will have three big backs in Gillislee, Mack Brown, and freshman Matt Jones (along with FB Hunter Joyer) to do the inside running that Will Muschamp prefers. Pease believes that he also has a differentiator in his frequent use of pre-snap motion. He thinks that the fact that no one else in the league uses it like he does will allow him to confuse defenses. I am not an expert on the pros and cons of his style of motion, but it's the kind of thing Boise State has been using under Chris Petersen. It has certainly served that program well.
Defensively, Florida struggled against teams with big and physical lines like Alabama and LSU because it used several sophomores in the defensive line rotation. Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd, and Dominique Easley are promising and talented guys, but they got pushed around some by bigger, older players. Floyd (a natural DT) and Easley (a natural DE) often played out of position on the line for reasons I still don't understand, but they've been put back to where they belong for this year. Also, the secondary was very young with lots of sophomores and freshmen in the rotation. If there was an insufficient push up front, then they guys in the back couldn't bail them out. It's also worth noting that it was the first year under Muschamp's system, so some of the breakdowns shouldn't happen this year as guys will be doing more reacting than thinking.
The only games where Florida was totally out of it last year were Bama and LSU. That's certainly understandable. They probably would have beaten Auburn with a healthy Brantley, but the offense couldn't do anything with him out. They lost to Georgia and South Carolina by one score apiece, and the 14-point loss to FSU is very misleading. The Gator defense held its opponent to 95 total yards, and FSU's two offensive scoring "drives" came off turnovers and were of 20 yards and four yards. It's true that winning winnable games is what separates the good teams from the mediocre, so I'm not playing revisionist historian here and saying Florida was good. I'm saying Florida was not as far off as a lot of people seem to think from winning a few more games despite being fairly mediocre overall.
The optimist's case for the Gators this fall is as follows. The defense will be terrific. It was already in the top 10 nationally last year in yards per play and yards per game allowed, and this year almost everyone's back and will be in the second year of the system. The offense just has to be decent, and that's attainable. The line returns everyone and actually has a good position coach (as opposed to 2011), so it should be much improved. That combined with the stable of good, big backs should allow the rushing game to actually be pretty good. Jordan Reed is a dangerous pass catcher from the tight end spot, Trey Burton is multidimensional, and Andre Debose is a legit deep threat. Quinton Dunbar and freshman Latroy Pittman have gotten rave reviews at the receiver spot as well, so there will be some targets for whoever wins the quarterback job. Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel were highly rated by all of the recruiting services, so expecting at least one of them to be much improved over last year is not unreasonable.
Realistically, the defense and running game will have to carry the team. There are a lot of guys behind Reed at tight end, but none of them have actually played. The roster has only seven scholarship receivers thanks to attrition and a puzzlingly low number of guys signed at the position over the last several years. They also are under their third offensive coordinator in three years, so there will be times of disorganization and plagues of miscommunication. The coaches swear they think they can win with either of the two quarterbacks, but I don't know of any coach that announces that two guys will play at QB in the first game because he really wants to play both.
Muschamp probably has the program on the right track, but when a guy inherits a program that even the previous guy describes as "broken", it's going to take some time to get things on a high level.