The jury is still out on Will Muschamp.
Fans are happy about last year’s 11-1 regular season, but the dashed championship hopes and stinging Sugar Bowl loss turned some stomachs. Gators followers still remember that three-game home losing streak in 2011, and a losing season in 2013 might be enough to push him out the door.
Since fans are undecided if Muschamp should be their coach for the long haul, it may be helpful to compare him to other Florida coaches at this point in their careers. Muschamp is entering his third season, and to avoid too many old wounds, the comparison will only reach back into the '90s. There’s no reason to remind Gators fans of Charlie “Give ‘Em Hell” Pell.
Blessed with low expectations, Spurrier coached before Gators fans were spoiled. He coached before Florida ever won an SEC championship. He then ruined it for future coaches by setting a standard of excellence.
By the time Spurrier entered his third season, he had already gone 19-4 with one SEC championship and consecutive Top-15 finishes. The Gators won nine games in 1992, lost in the SEC championship, and finished the season ranked 10th.
When Spurrier jumped to the pros, Ron Zook took the keys to the Florida program. When Zook was entering his third season, frustration was already sinking in. The fans were turning sour on Zook after the team went 16-10 in his first two seasons. The Gators hovered around the bottom of the Top 25 and were competitive in a depleted SEC East.
The 2004 Gators did not rise to the occasion and save Zook’s job. The coach was fired after his third season as the Gators finished 7-4 and once again fell short of the SEC championship.
A lot can happen in three years. By the time Meyer was entering his third season as head coach, he was coming off of a national championship. In his first season, Meyer had pushed the Gators back into the Top 5 before stumbling to a 9-3 record. In his second season, the team went 13-1 and captured the national title.
Expectations were high for Meyer’s third year, but with the departure of many starters, the Gators were only able to finish 9-4 in the 2007 season. They were never real threats to repeat as champions, but spirits remained high in Gainesville because Tim Tebow became the first underclassmen to win the Heisman. Florida had not produced a Heisman Trophy winner since Danny Wuerffel.
Muschamp is cursed with the burden of high expectations. Even though Florida lost most of its stellar defense from last season, fans expect them to reload on the fly and compete for a national championship.
Compared to his peers, Muschamp feels a similar weight to all post-Spurrier coaches. He is boasting an 18-8 record coming into his third season. Better than Zook, but not quite Urban-esque. If history indicates anything, Gators fans should expect a dip in performance in the coach’s third season and an eight- or nine-win finish.
In reality, the record of past UF coaches is irrelevant to Muschamp’s success this season. So far, his trajectory has been more like Urban and Spurrier than Zook, which is a good thing. However, this is still a make or break year for Muschamp. The fans have championship expectations. If Florida can contend all year, Muschamp’s future looks bright. If this team disappoints, he might be looking for another coach-in-waiting opportunity soon.