SEC fans are used to discussions about coaches being "on the hot seat" when things get difficult. (Ask Georgia fans.) This is a high-demand league in a high-demand sport, with even coaches at schools like Mississippi State and pre-Steve Spurrier South Carolina getting five years to prove that they can field a consistently competitive team. Move to a traditional power like Alabama or even a relatively new power like Florida, and the expectations are to be an annual contender for SEC titles, preferably within three years.
But what happened at Florida this year felt like something a bit different. Every week seemed to bring more speculation that Will Muschamp would be fired by the end of the year -- or rumors on Twitter and message boards that he had already been dismissed.
Lose to Vanderbilt? Maybe it's time for a change. A loss to Georgia Southern, the first in the history of the program against an FCS opponent? Fire up the speculation again. But Jeremy Foley, famous in part for his decision to fire Ron Zook in the middle of a disastrous season, stood by his coach. By the time that Florida's season came crashing to an end against Florida State, no one bothered to ask whether Muschamp might stick around despite a 4-8 record that marked the worst year the program had seen in decades.
Some of the key figures on the offensive side of the ball were not so lucky. Someone had to go after the team went from Sugar Bowl berth to punch line in the space of 12 months, and those someones ended up being Brent Pease and Tim Davis.
The critical question facing Florida going forward might be this: How much capital did Will Muschamp lose in 2013? The Gators get some time to gear up in 2014, with games against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky leading the way. But wins against those three are not going to buy Muschamp any time. And then the Gators face a buzzsaw: at Alabama, a bye, at Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, and then another bye before the World's Largest Cocktail Party. Florida could be 6-2 or even 7-1 at that point -- but it could also be 4-4 and headed into the last third of the season once again fighting for its postseason life.
Something we don't know -- something it's clear we don't know after the 2013 guessing game -- is what Foley expects of Muschamp this season. Does 6-6 save Muschamp's job? That seems unlikely. 7-5? Or do the Gators have to be in serious contention for the SEC East late into November? The answer to that hinges a bit on just how bad 2013 was, and how far out on a limb Foley feels like he is after keeping Muschamp.
Barring utter disaster -- losing handily to Kentucky, or to either of the midmajors, or getting completely annihilated by one of the SEC heavyweights -- an early season firing seems incredibly unlikely. Ron Zook was 4-3 when he was fired in 2004, but he had also lost to a team that couldn't beat Maine. A loss that bad could certainly happen early on; it's just not something you bank on.
No, beating the teams he should will probably get Will Muschamp to the end of the season. Losing to the best teams on schedule probably won't get him fired once he gets there. What he does with the swing games is ultimately what's going to decide his fate. If losses in those games start stacking up, expect another season of noise in Gainesville.