Gators Midseason Report: Muschamp Unfairly On Hot Seat
Abandon ship! Abandon ship!
Florida's season is bad, and it is about to get worse. The Gators definitely are out of the SEC race; in fact, they have fallen so far that I do not think they should be favored against any other SEC team for the rest of the season.
Bad luck and high expectations could cost head coach Will Muschamp his job, and the bad results have been out of his hands.
The lion's share of the blame falls on the offense, which has been decimated by injuries and poor line play. While every team must overcome injuries, not every team loses its starting quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the same season. That loss of skill-position talent is unbearable for a deep and stable program. It is a death knoll for a developing program under a third-year coach. The drop in talent from starter to backup has been significant. Though Mack Brown, Quinton Dunbar and Solomon Patton have played well, one has to think that Matt Jones and Andre Debose would have put more points on the board this season.
And after facing LSU and Missouri, the Tyler Murphy bandwagon has crashed on the side of I-75. It was hard not to get excited over the stellar numbers and composure against the SEC's worst defenses. However, now we've seen that Murphy isn't any more productive against top teams that get a consistent rush than Jeff Driskel was. Murphy's improvisation, accuracy on rollouts and on deep throws still are superior to Driskel, but it is impossible to properly evaluate Murphy because of the disappointing line play.
Though many would like to place all of Florida's problems on offensive coordinator Brent Pease, this is unfair. The criticisms of his lack of ingenuity and creativity have only surfaced after Florida's losses. This is the same guy who was beloved by many last year for his old school, ground-and-pound game plan. Fans are irrational. Last year they were hoping Pease wouldn't get a head coaching offer; this year they want to replace him with anyone that runs the spread. Pease isn't completely responsible for Florida's tailspin, but he does deserve some criticism. His play-calling has been an example of process versus results. There is good process, but terrible results. The offense is centered around power running, so those plays need to be called. Only, Pease doesn't have the talent to make it work.
We all need to remember that Pease has a boss. Pease needs to answer to Muschamp and can't abandon his offensive philosophy because that was the main reason why he was hired in the first place. It is not that Muschamp doesn't want a good offense — that line of thinking is ridiculous. However, Muschamp does want to run a certain kind of offense that matches his defense. Florida will never run a high-paced air attack when Muschamp is around. That is because he values controlling the ball, slowing the pace and protecting his defense. He is a good coach, and that is the philosophy he believes will win championships. It does in Tuscaloosa, but it won't in Gainesville this year because the team doesn't have the offensive talent.
The running game has been stagnant because there aren't holes to run through. Even after the return of Jon Halapio, every power run has failed, except those designed for Kelvin Taylor, who has been the exception to nearly every complaint about Florida's offense. That is where Pease deserves blame. There definitely are locker room reasons to hand the ball to Mack Brown. The man earned his spot on the depth chart and has stuck with the program waiting for his chance. But loyalty may cost Pease his job because Taylor has been the best Florida running back this year. The kid has shown better agility and vision than Brown, and the raw stats back that up. Taylor is averaging 6.1 yards per carry to Brown's 3.6. When Taylor was given a whole drive against Missouri, Florida marched down the field and he scored a touchdown. Pease then left Taylor on the bench as the Gators fell further behind Mizzou.
The line has been dreadful. That is the true problem. Tyler Moore looks overmatched on the outside. There are no holes for backs to run through. The guards have been too slow pulling across the line on power runs, and Murphy has been ineffective because he doesn't have a single second to set his feet. He immediately has to roll outside once his hands get the snap, and the lack of protection has ruined Florida's passing game.
The losses aren't entirely on the offense. The defense has been a sieve without Dominique Easley. Anyone who questioned the greatness or effectiveness of Easley has been quieted after Jeremy Hill and Henry Josey ran through the Gators' defense like a soccer mom through a Sam's Club sale. Dante Fowler Jr. has been the lone bright spot on the line, disproving myself and other critics by keeping up an ever-increasing level of production without Easley and defending option plays by himself(!).
The secondary has been mixed. Vernon Hargreaves III has been more impressive in his freshman year than either Joe Haden or Janoris Jenkins. So enjoy VH3 now, because he will be playing on Sundays as soon as he is eligible. Loucheiz Purifoy has been good as well. He has been steady in coverage, and quarterbacks rarely throw his way. He just hasn't made the game-changing plays he did a year ago. No timely blocked kicks or punts, no big interception returns, nothing to make the ESPN highlight reel and nothing to make Mel Kiper fall in love with him all over again. Poor Marcus Roberson. Is it possible for a college player to peak? Because I think Roberson has. He's been picked on all year. He's been a step behind receivers on their breaks and has been saving himself complete embarrassment through an unusually high rate of shoestring tackles.
Muschamp's defense has been very good since he got to Gainesville, and since he coaches the unit personally, it is a testament to him as a good coach. The only area that makes me question his coaching is the safeties. Oh, the safeties! Is this intentional by Muschamp? Does he only want enforcers playing safety with complete disregard to coverage? Because he doesn't seem to care that Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs look like Gary Sheffield losing a ball in the sun when a man runs through their zones. Muschamp also must not mind Jabari Gorman laying the wood and giving opposing offenses complete drives worth of penalty yardage on targeting calls.
The advanced stats agree with everything your eye tells you. Florida's defense is elite and its offense is miserable. According to Football Outsiders, before counting the Missouri embarrassment, Florida has the fourth-best defense in F/+ rankings (a stat that combines efficiency, big plays, and expected results based on possession) while ranking 82nd in offensive F/+. Eighty-second! That's right behind Rutgers. Those numbers place Florida as the second-best defense in the SEC behind Alabama and far and away, dead last, in offense in the conference. The sad thing is that those defensive numbers are about to crash in the coming weeks against Georgia and South Carolina without Easley, and those offensive numbers will continue to swoon. With an elite defense, the Gators were barely a Top 25 team. With an average to below average defense, Florida is a bad football team.
It looks like the Gators are in line for more losses this year, and that could be the end of the Muschamp era. While I would be surprised if he was let go, firing an embattled coach in his third year would not be an unprecedented move for athletic director Jeremy Foley. Personally, I prefer high-powered offenses and lots of points, but I also think Muschamp is a fantastic coach. Only great coaches can come in and transform the identity of a program immediately, and that is what Muschamp did. As soon as he arrived in Gainesville, the Gators defense became an elite unit. The Gators also climbed up to No. 2 in the rankings in his second year on the job. That is another sign of a great coach. If he leaves, he will succeed elsewhere, and Florida will regret letting him go. But a losing season this year could create enough noise to run Coach Boom out of town.