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On Will Muschamp, Florida Football, and Everything

The head ball coach in Gainesville is feeling heat.

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

As the resident Florida fan around here, I feel it to be my duty to get into the issue of whether Will Muschamp should keep his job or not. I am going to go deep into the weeds here, so this very well could be too long for you to make it through. I won't be offended if you bail on it, to be honest.

I will do my best not to lead you in one direction or another until the very end. There is a lot to get through, and I hope it provides the kind of necessary context for a big decision like this one.

Taking stock of the present.

This Florida team will almost certainly be the first one to finish below .500 since 1979. This will be the second time in three years that Florida has finished under .500 in SEC play; the team never did that from the beginning of divisional play in 1992 to 2010. It also became the first UF team to lose to Vanderbilt since 1988.

That last point requires some expansion. Vanderbilt under James Franklin is not what you think of when you think of Vanderbilt. Heading into the game, it was 49th in F/+. By comparison, Urban Meyer's first team in 2005 lost to a South Carolina team that finished 45th in F/+. If he beats Georgia Southern in two weeks, Muschamp will not have lost to a team that failed to make a bowl (presuming Vandy gets a sixth win, which it will). He has sustained nothing like Ron Zook's tenure-ending 2004 loss to Mississippi State, a team that finished 3-8 and lost to Maine.

I'm not here to talk about defense.

The Gators' defense is more or less fine. It has regressed over the course of the season, but a lot of that came after Dominique Easley went out for the season. It was also missing other key front seven guys besides just him in its worst performance of the season, the loss to Missouri. It has been plagued by missed tackles from guys who are supposedly its top players like Antonio Morrison (who is now gone for the season) and Loucheiz Purifoy as well.

No defense is going to be elite every single year though. It's still leading the conference in yards per play allowed, by the way, and it gave up fewer than 200 yards in Saturday's loss to Vanderbilt. Even the vaunted Charlie Strong had a rough year in 2007, and this 2013 unit it still far better than that '07 defense. Not coincidentally, both 2007 and 2013 were the third year for the head coaches at the time. The third season is one in which transitional issues, from both the typically weak first recruiting class for a head coach to change-related attrition, often are felt the worst.

So ultimately, I have no doubt that if Muschamp stays, Florida's defense will be terrific most every year. That's not the main problem in 2013, and it wouldn't be a problem going forward.

The problems go back a ways in time.

One of the biggest lessons you could ever learn is that success hides issues. When you're disproportionately good in some areas, it can make up for weaknesses elsewhere. What makes Nick Saban the best is that he coaches to a standard that he sets, not a won-loss record. He's constantly looking for problems even after big wins. You won't always be disproportionately good in some areas, and when you're no longer, the issues bite you in a bad way.

The 2009 season was the canary in the coal mine for Florida's offense. The team was second in the SEC in scoring offense at 35.9 points per game, but that melted away to a mere 26 per game in conference play. The Gators, by comparison, had averaged 43 and 39 per game in league play, respectively, in the previous two seasons. The run game leaned heavier than ever on Tim Tebow, who recorded his career high in carries. The passing game had only two reliable targets, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. After scoring 52 touchdowns in SEC play in 2008, the team had less than half that at 25 touchdowns against the conference in 2009. The '09 team may have went 13-1, but that success masked real problems.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that the 2010 season is when the offense went truly off the rails. The 2010 recruiting class was supposed to address the shortfalls. In it, Florida picked up five wide receivers and two tight ends. However within two years of signing day, three of those receivers and both tight ends had transferred away. The 2011 transitional class had two receivers, a tight end, and two running backs. Within a year and a half, only one of the running backs remained, and he had since been moved to fullback. The 2012 class had two receivers and two tight ends, and they've come along slowly to say the least. They've combined for seven catches for 24 yards in almost two full seasons. By comparison Valdez Showers, a converted running back who was a safety until fall camp of this year, has 12 catches for 72 yards on the season.

Florida has had a real problem in identifying, developing, and simply just keeping around skill position players. In terms of productivity, not recruiting rankings, the last above average tight end the team signed was high school quarterback Jordan Reed in 2009. Among actual high school tight ends, it was Hernandez in 2007. The last above average wide receivers the team signed were Percy Harvin and Cooper in 2006. That is not a misprint. The 2006 class was the last time someone came into Gainesville and ended up a true playmaker at wideout.

The 2013 class was another attempt to fix the problem, with five wide receivers taken. Only two have done much of anything, and they each have fewer than 10 catches so far. It's just going to be tough when there are two skill position players left from the 2010 class, no skill position players left from the 2011 class, and, so far, all of the skill position players from 2012 are busts. No program can build a capable offense that way.

No quarterback depth is the new normal at Florida.

The Gators had an incredibly fortunate run to go from Rex Grossman to Chris Leak to Tebow. Not only were the three of them outstanding players, but they were very durable. They scarcely missed any time, and it's a good thing too, because there hasn't been much behind them.

The last season in which Florida had a truly capable backup was arguably 2001, when Brock Berlin backed up Grossman. The young Berlin would have been an enormous drop off from Grossman's should-have-won-the-Heisman campaign, so I would argue that it was actually 2000 when Grossman and Jesse Palmer split time under center.

In fact, Florida had stretch where in six out of seven years, the primary backup quarterback was a freshman. In 2005, Leak had true freshman Josh Portis as his relief. In 2006, it was true freshman Tebow. In 2007, it was true freshman Cam Newton. In 2008, Newton redshirted and the backup was John Brantley, who had redshirted as a freshman the previous year. The 2009 season was the one with a non-freshman, as the sophomore Brantley still had the backup job. In 2010, it was true freshman Trey Burton, who did not remain a quarterback when the new regime came in. In 2011, the backup was first true freshman Jeff Driskel, and then after he got hurt, it was true freshman Jacoby Brissett.

Having no depth at quarterback is no problem when your starter is an all-SEC type who never gets hurt. Unfortunately for Florida, the string of good fortune ended. Brantley simply wasn't at the high level of his predecessors, and he also got hurt during 2011. Driskel also doesn't appear to be a star either, and he has yet to make it through a full season without missing time to injury.

Driskel also was a guy lined up by Meyer to run the spread option. He has done his best in Muschamp's preferred pro-style attack, but he's still a round peg in a square hole. Charlie Weis went out and got Brissett, an actual pro-style guy, but he was never able to beat out Driskel and transferred to NC State after the 2012 season. Driskel got the nod, mainly, because he is a lot more mobile. That mobility is necessary when the offensive line hasn't been good at both run and pass blocking since 2009.

In hindsight, it should have been crystal clear that the backup was going to play at least some amount of time in 2013. Thanks to Brissett leaving, Tyler Murphy is the guy who was there. He was a last minute addition to the 2010 class as a two-star player, and he probably was never meant to play quarterback. He was the third in a run including Reed and Burton of lesser-rated quarterbacks who Meyer almost certainly picked up with the intention all along of switching positions. Reed moved to tight end within a year, and even in the 2010 crisis of quarterbacking, Meyer only allowed Burton six pass attempts. Murphy decided not to switch, though, and he now he's the starter.

Muschamp kept Driskel and added Brissett in 2011. He picked up Skyler Mornhinweg in 2012 and Max Staver in 2013, both three-star guys likely intended to be career backups. Murphy was still around too, of course, and Muschamp has a big time guy on the hook for 2014 in Will Grier. Had Brissett not transferred out, this plan probably would have been fine. Things don't always go according to plan, though.

The shortage on offensive line is a multiyear process.

Florida doesn't have enough good offensive linemen to overcome the injury plague of 2013. Tackle Chaz Green has missed the whole season. Guard Jon Halapio missed time early due to a torn pectoral muscle. Tackle D.J. Humphries went out just before the Georgia game and will be out a bit longer, and guard/tackle Tyler Moore broke his elbow in a scooter accident last week.

The constant shuffling of players and the lack of quality backups has prevented the line from getting any kind of consistency, and it shows. Florida is second to last in the SEC in sacks per game allowed, and even after taking out sack yardage, the Gators are dead last in the league at 4.33 yards per carry. Yes, the offense that is based on running the ball to take pressure off of the quarterback can't run it at all. As they say on MythBusters all the time, "there's your problem".

Moore, before his injury, started at three different positions on the line. Max Garcia has moved around quite a bit as well. Florida apparently has to move players around because the coaches don't have faith in the backups to just replace a missing tackle with another tackle. Moore drew the ire of fans constantly for his poor play at right tackle, but he's naturally a guard. A guy who is playing out of position is going to struggle some.

Why aren't there a lot of quality backups? As with before, the problem goes back to recruiting. I am not a big recruiting analyst, but I do know that teams should sign about four offensive linemen per year, plus or minus one depending on numbers and attrition. From 2010-12, Florida signed six offensive linemen total, two per year. And, of course, one of them has left the team without playing at all. By comparison, Alabama signed just two offensive linemen once in Saban's tenure, not counting his transitional '07 class. The Tide has a good excuse for taking just two in 2010 though: in 2009, it signed seven O-linemen.

Moore and Garcia transferring in are the only reason why the line isn't even more of an abject disaster. You also can't point to them as mitigating factors in the recruiting strategy, however, as each made his decision to come to Gainesville months after signing day in 2012.

The offensive coaching staff is hurting for consistency.

After the 2008 season, Florida lost offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen and tight ends/assistant offensive line coach John Hevesy. After the 2009 season, it lost wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales and running backs coach Kenny Carter. After the 2010 season, all but one of the offensive coaching spots turned over as a part of a major schematic change. After the 2011 season, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Charlie Weis left, and Muschamp fired offensive line coach Frank Verducci. Wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Aubrey Hill resigned just before the 2012 season due to involvement in the Nevin Shapiro scandal at his previous employer, Miami (FL). That left graduate assistant Bush Hamdan to coach the receivers for a year.

The 2008 season is the last one in which Florida's offensive coaching staff was exactly the same as in the prior year. From 2008-12, the team had four offensive coordinators in five years. The constant turnover of coaches on that side of the ball certainly goes a ways in explaining the lack of good player development there, and it might just explain the recruiting difficulties as well. It's hard to grow as a player when you're hearing different voices and getting different direction every year or two.

The general assumption is that if Muschamp stays, he'll have to clean house on the offensive staff. Firing Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis would be a given in this scenario. Tight ends coach Derek Lewis could be in line for a pink slip as well, considering the Gators have gotten basically nothing from the position in the passing game outside of Reed. Joker Phillips, who is brand new and not part of the problem, and Brian White, one of two remaining holdovers from Meyer's old staff, presumably are safe.

If what's happening now doesn't work, then it might be time for a change. It also would necessarily mean even more turnover among a staff for which turnover is, in and of itself, a problem. Sticking with something that doesn't work makes no sense, obviously, but there's not likely to be a big offensive turnaround from the start next year no matter who is running the show.

The decision won't be based on feel.

When Jeremy Foley fired Zook after two and a half seasons, he said something to the effect that what must be done eventually must be done immediately. The message was that there was no reason to lose more time to a failed experiment. It's better just to move on quickly.

Florida football feels bad right now, but it's going to get worse. I know in my head that the team is going 5-7. I know in my head that it's going to lose to South Carolina by three touchdowns or so. I know in my head it's going to lose to Florida State by at least five touchdowns. It's one thing to know that. It's another entirely to actually watch the Seminoles running up a 42-6 halftime lead in the Swamp.

Having no bowl practice going on while FSU prepares to play Alabama or Meyer's Ohio State for the national championship is only going to pile on the bad feelings. Jeremy Foley is a smart man. He knows this. That's why I think Muschamp is coming back. If bad feelings or losing the fans was all it took to give Muschamp the boot, then there would have been a press conference on Sunday.

I also know that Foley feels invested in Muschamp. He wants it to work out. Foley has made two football hires that are all his own: Zook and Muschamp. He inherited Steve Spurrier, and Meyer was at least in part UF president Bernie Machen's man. Machen helped hire Meyer while president at Utah, and then he moved over to become president at Florida and helped hire Meyer again.

Muschamp is a son of Gainesville to a degree, with him having spent a decade of his childhood there. He's well liked within the athletic department according to the beat writers and columnists who cover the team. Foley declared upon the hiring that he was so sure that Muschamp was the guy, "there was no plan B" when he went to interview the Texas defensive coordinator. Foley wants this to work

Muschamp is 42 years old. He has a lot of coaching in his future, and he will put together dozens more top flight defenses before he's done. In a sport where most everyone agrees that defense wins championships, I can understand why Foley might not want to let such a guy go.

Putting it all together.

I can only think of one parallel for the kind of attrition and bad injury luck that Florida has suffered on offense since Muschamp took over. It's the Michigan defense when Rich Rodriguez went to Ann Arbor. RichRod did eventually get his offense rolling, but the disaster of a defense, among other things, still led to a pink slip after just three seasons.

I think I have documented quite well that the problems that Muschamp has faced and still faces are ones that predate his time in Gainesville. Meyer himself called the program "broken" at the end of his tenure, and it takes time to fix a broken program.

Muschamp has obviously not made a ton of progress in fixing a lot of those problems. He has made a few rookie mistakes as head coach. Hiring Weis was a questionable choice, and letting Weis bring in Verducci was even more so. Hill was a suspect choice even before his name came out in the Shapiro scandal, as his reputation was one of being solely a recruiter and not an actual good coach. Plus, Muschamp's original defensive line coach has decided to leave coaching entirely. Replacing Weis with Pease to get the Boise State offense sounds good in theory, but given that Pease only had one year as coordinator there and that it was Kellen Moore's senior season, it might not have been such a good an idea in practice.

Michigan was probably right to fire RichRod when it did. He did not find a way to solve the problems on his weak side of the ball, and he was a cultural mismatch who fans never truly embraced. The same, so far, is true of Muschamp, but the situation is not quite the same. Rodriguez had been a head coach before and was expected to continue that success on. He wasn't hired on potential. Muschamp was hired on potential though, and Foley acknowledged that there would be hardships when he made the hire:

"Will there be some bumps in the road?" Foley said. "Sure there will be. But I think it was pretty evident right away. .. this is the guy."

There have been some bumps in the road to say the least. There have been more than anyone anticipated, for sure, but you're going to get some with a first time head coach. As long as we're using hindsight, going with a first timer probably was not the best move given the size of the challenge at UF. Going with a proven builder would have made a lot more sense at the time, but that ship has sailed.

Here's the thing. If Foley decides to can Muschamp, Muschamp will either take over a smaller program or be a nicely paid coordinator again somewhere. He will continue to crank out great defenses, and eventually he'll get another big time job. Assuming he learns something in the interim, he'll probably lead that program to great success.

In short, Florida has invested time, energy, and resources into Muschamp's development. I don't think Foley will want to see that investment pay off for someone else.

Barring a loss to Georgia Southern, I don't think Foley will fire Muschamp. I just don't. The conventional wisdom is almost certainly correct: Muschamp will get at least one more year if he overhauls his offensive coaching staff.

I don't expect to see a philosophical change on that side of the ball. Bringing in a spread option guy, for instance, would make no sense. Transitions to and from the pro-style and spread option take time, and Muschamp doesn't have time to spare. Plus, assuming the team keeps Grier, none of the quarterbacks who will be on the roster past 2014 would be suited for it. After having the pro-style Brantley run Meyer's spread and the spread-friendly Driskel run Muschamp's pro-set, asking the pro-style Grier to run a spread option would be the worst kind of avoidable, stupid mistake.

In a world where teams like Oregon and Baylor put up absurd numbers, it's easy to assume that some kind of new spread scheme is required to have a great offense. It's not, of course. Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, and, this year, LSU have destroyed some defenses while running plays that would be as natural a fit on Sunday as Saturday. The great run of USC last decade hinged as much upon an explosive, pro-style offense as it did on Pete Carroll's defenses. Nothing about Meyer's six-year run at Florida, only two years of which actually featured an explosive offense, conditioned Gator fans to require a spread scheme. With the caliber of defense that Muschamp will produce, averaging 40 points a game is not required.

I don't know what exactly will happen or who will be coaching what next year. I suspect that things will begin to turn around for the Florida offense sometime in 2014 and especially in 2015 merely due to the attrition rate dying down. Well, that's assuming Muschamp doesn't get fired and a new hire sets off the inevitable round of new coaching staff attrition.

The offensive line got destroyed by injuries this year, but it only loses three guys to graduation. There were four freshman OL recruits in the 2013 class, and three more are already lined up for 2014. It will have some depth next year. Running back should be fine next fall with every player who has touched the ball returning plus the highly touted recruit Dalvin Cook should he keep his commitment. Andre Debose should get a sixth year in '14, considering he lost two full seasons to injury, and some of the five wide receivers from the 2013 class should pan out well. There are a couple of tight ends and another receiver lined up in the 2014 class, and of course there's time for more. With the right person in charge of the offense, the unit won't rank in the 100s in anything for too much longer.

The question then is whether Muschamp will pick the right guy to run the offense. If Pease gets a pink slip, Muschamp will be 0-2 after neither Pease nor Weis did much to elevate the attack above where it was in 2010 before leaving, but he should get another try at it.

After all, it's hard to say a guy should be let go after a year like this. As I pointed out in the defense section, this was always going to be a tougher year because it's Muschamp's third one. To lose the starting quarterback, running back, left tackle, a top receiver/returner, and a potential top-10 pick at defensive tackle on top of that is tough for anyone to overcome. He doesn't get a complete pass from me, though, as I do think changes are in order on the offensive staff.

Everyone seems to be quick to call the 2012 season a fluke. It could just as easily be that 2013 is the fluke. The 2011 season was always going to be lost given how bad of shape Meyer left the program, so it's not terribly instructive. We're left then with two data points: a surprisingly good '12 season and a surprisingly bad '13 season.

Muschamp will get a 2014 season, and he should. I've got 4000 words here on problems he didn't fully, if at all, create and that he should get a little more time to fix. Four years is plenty of time to tell us something about his long term prospects as a head coach, though. Jim Harbaugh took Stanford from far worse shape to a powerhouse in four years with fewer resources and advantages. Art Briles took Baylor from far worse shape to a high level in four years with a lot fewer resources and advantages. No two situations are exactly the same, of course, but the program that Florida has become should never be down for long.

Maybe Muschamp is the guy who will get things turned around and maybe he won't be, but he deserves another chance past 2013.