Pressure is on Florida coach Will Muschamp to deliver a signature season
HOOVER, Ala. – One of the rites of July for Southeastern Conference coaches is reporting to a suite at the media days hotel to sign a bunch of footballs for the league. Florida's Will Muschamp was working the Sharpie on Monday when he noticed something.
"Gus [Malzahn] wins the league and signs big, huh?" Muschamp said. "He didn't sign that big last year."
If the size of a coach's signature is commensurate to his team's performance the previous season, you'd need a microscope to read Muschamp's John Hancock on those 2014 SEC footballs. The injury-ravaged Gators lost their last seven games to finish 4-8, their worst season since 1979, and bottomed out in a dreadful home loss to Georgia Southern. That leaves Muschamp's record at 22-16, the worst of any three-year period in school history since the Gators were 20-16 from 1987-89 coming out of major probation sanctions.
Thus if the '14 season bears any resemblance to the '13 season, there will be a different Florida coach signing the SEC footballs at this time next year.
Muschamp did not ignore the elephant in the ballroom Monday, going fewer than 120 words into his opening remarks at the podium before getting to the crux of his job status.
"There will be a lot of chatter about hot-seat business," he said. "That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do."
During the football-signing interlude that preceded those podium remarks, Muschamp declared his belief in the current Gators, calling them "the most complete team I've had at Florida." What he desperately needs to make that statement factual is a rapid and complete offensive makeover.
In three seasons, Florida's average total defense ranking nationally is fourth. Its average total offense ranking is 112th. Eighteen times under Muschamp, the Gators have scored 20 or fewer points in a game – including the final seven games of 2014.
For a fan base accustomed to the offensive potency (and SEC championships) of the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras, that's not going to cut it. A career defensive assistant before getting the Florida job, Muschamp has not been able to sufficiently light up the scoreboard.
In a final attempt to extend his tenure, Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis a day after the 2013 season ended. Replacements Kurt Roper (from Duke) and Mike Summers (from USC, and several other locales before that) are highly regarded and will have to live up to their reputations immediately.
But more important than Roper's no-huddle, shotgun-centric offense is the guy running it: redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. The Rivals.com No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation in 2011 has endured a career that mirrors Muschamp's at Florida, failing to meet high expectations.
Muschamp attributed much of last year's misery to the broken leg Driskel suffered early in the third game of the season. But in point of fact, the quarterback has rarely been dazzling in any of his 20 collegiate games.
Only twice in his career has he thrown more than a single touchdown pass in a game (Tennessee and South Carolina, both in 2012) and only once has he passed for more than 219 yards in a game (Miami last year). In addition, a guy who was billed as something of a Tebow-esque runner has only sporadically showcased the dual-threat capability he flashed in high school.
Roper's attack should give Driskel a better chance to maximize his mobility – but if the biggest reason Florida's season sank was Driskel's injury last year, that sort of system comes with an inherent risk. Once again lacking a proven backup, the starter's health is of paramount importance.
"We have to figure out how to use his legs in certain games, and how to protect him in certain games," Muschamp said.
If they figure it out – and if a core of underachieving receivers finally steps up – the Gators expect Driskel to flourish. Defensive back Vernon Hargreaves wasted little time Monday declaring his expectation that Driskel will be the best quarterback in the nation.
When the statement was relayed to Driskel, he looked at his watch.
"That's a pretty bold statement 10 minutes into your first media day," he said.
A less bold statement: Driskel will have a chance to be the best passing quarterback in the SEC. This is a league that lost its top five in pass efficiency from last year, reducing the quarterback cupboard to nearly bare status. If your top returners are a one-dimensional runner who was just cited for marijuana possession (Auburn's Nick Marshall) and Mississippi's mercurial Bo Wallace, the all-SEC quarterback race is officially wide open.
The race to win the SEC Eastern Division is similarly scrambled. Florida gets no favors from the scheduling gods (its two crossover games against the West are Alabama and LSU), but it should be in the mix to win its division for the first time since Tebow was in uniform.
A division title would almost certainly earn Muschamp more time on the job, and the chance to sign SEC footballs again in 2015. Anything less than that – and 8-4 looks like a realistic scenario – could be left open to interpretation, conjecture and debate.
The coach knows as much. Which is why he's in no- whining mode heading into fall camp.
"You want to be the head coach at Florida, you better be ready for the criticism that comes with it," Muschamp said. "Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to take [the job]."