GAINESVILLE -- If one play could sum up a season, it might be this one.
Or perhaps not. After careful review, it's clear that this instance of Gator-on-Gator aggression does a terrible job explaining Florida's 2013 season. Why? Because on that play, the Gators made a first down.
Using statistics both traditional (tied for 112th in the nation in scoring offense) and advanced (100th in the nation in offensive S&P+), the takeaway is the same: Florida's 2013 offense was truly horrible. Thanks to a toxic combination of personnel, scheme and injuries, the Gators simply couldn't move the football, and that failure contributed mightily to Florida's first losing season since 1979. As the losses piled up, players who have never known a time when the program wasn't great, or at least pretty good, couldn't help but wonder.
"Is this Florida?" wide receiver Valdez Showers remembered asking himself.
It is, but a Florida remembered almost exclusively by people older than 45. There were decades when the Gators were college football's version of the Chicago Cubs, bumbling along and occasionally coming tantalizingly close to an SEC title only to watch Georgia dash those dreams in Jacksonville. Beginning in 1990, Steve Spurrier changed all of that. He reset the expectations in Gainesville to SEC champions-or-bust. Then Urban Meyer won two national titles in a three-season span and set the bar even higher.
In this era, Florida teams don't go 4-8. They just don't.
Except last year's team did.
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Athletic director Jeremy Foley and university president Bernie Machen decided before the season's nadir that they wanted to give coach Will Muschamp another year to right the ship. There was no dissension among big-money boosters, either. The season to that point, everyone hoped, had been the anomaly and the 11-2 2012 campaign the norm. Foley said he was "a thousand percent convinced" that Muschamp was the man who could put Florida back among the elite. Then the Gators lost to an FCS Georgia Southern team stocked with players who all shared at least one trait in common: None of them had been recruited by Florida.
So Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis in December. In their places, he hired Kurt Roper, who helped Duke win an ACC Coastal Division title last year, and Mike Summers, who helped spark USC's late-season surge by mentoring an offensive line seemingly held together by duct tape and wire hangers. These men would change things. Florida's offense would no longer embarrass the program. Then, a few hours before the Gators' fourth spring practice, this hit the Internet. In the case of Summers, teaching players to distinguish between verbs and adjectives is obviously secondary to teaching them to block opponents, so we probably shouldn't read too much into this particular gaffe. Still, the Gators can't seem to keep their offense from becoming a punchline.
The only way to stop the laughter is to score with regularity, and Roper, Summers and the rest of Florida's staff will spend this spring teaching the Gators a new offense that they hope will snap the Gators out of a funk that set in when Tim Tebow left following the 2009 season. Under Muschamp, Florida's defense has been either respectable or excellent (35th, 4th and 15th in defensive S&P+ in Muschamp's three seasons), so we can reasonably surmise that the performance of the offense will decide whether the coaches get to keep their jobs.
Why is Roper doing this? Why did he leave a comfortable situation at Duke for a job that might only last a year? Because barring an odd turn of events, Roper won't be at Florida in two years. Either the offense will fail and everyone will get fired after this season -- in which case Roper has a three-year deal and will get paid ($600,000 a year) anyway -- or the offense will succeed and some athletic director, recognizing how well Roper performed under intense scrutiny, will make him a head coach. In essence, Roper has placed a supremely hedged bet on himself.
This is the part where this could devolve into a paint-by-numbers new coordinator story. Florida will be more aggressive! The Gators will take more downfield shots! This scheme will be more exciting for the players and the fans! We could slap on a paragraph about how a challenging offseason program has made the players closer than ever and call it a day.
But that doesn't really explain anything. More interesting is the fact that Muschamp and his staff are willing to attempt to correct philosophical mistakes and not just grammatical ones. Muschamp arrived in Gainesville in December 2010 pledging that Florida would run a pro-style offense that relied heavily on between-the-tackles runs from backs stationed behind a quarterback who lined up under center. While the rest of college football moved away from this type of approach, Muschamp's team would embrace it. After all, Alabama and LSU had ruled the SEC running that very scheme, and like those schools, Florida could mine a fertile recruiting ground to stock the depth chart. But unlike Les Miles and Nick Saban, who inherited rosters recruited to run that kind of offense, Muschamp inherited a group recruited to run Meyer's spread option. At the time, Meyer had a commitment from a quarterback who looked built to fill Tebow's cleats. That quarterback's name? Jeff Driskel.
Instead of decommiting and seeking a program that ran an offense better suited to his skill set, Driskel signed with the Gators in 2011. He was quickly pressed into significant action as a freshman, when the Crimson Tide's Courtney Upshaw twisted John Brantley into a pretzel.
After 2011 offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left to become the coach at Kansas, Pease and Driskel helped Florida win 11 games in '12, but most of the credit for those wins went to the Gators' elite defense. Going into the '13 season, the offense remained a question mark, and the lack of depth behind Driskel suggested disaster if the quarterback got hurt. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder has excellent speed, but Muschamp and Pease were terrified of having Driskel run because one hit could drastically alter the season. As it turns out, that hit came after Driskel dropped back in the pocket on Sept. 21 against Tennessee. He broke his leg, and the team's quarterback play over the next two months only confirmed the staff's fears. Florida's season nosedived as the Gators lost their most important defender (defensive tackle Dominique Easley) and their top tailback (Matt Jones) for the year. They also lost four starting offensive linemen to injuries at various points in the season.
The Gators probably can't help but be healthier in 2014. Meanwhile, Roper must make Driskel, who is playing in his third college offense, into the player he was when Meyer was recruiting him. And unless the coaches are orchestrating a carefully managed ruse, the opening week starter will be Driskel and not freshman Will Grier. Grier is a rocket-armed early enrollee from North Carolina, but Driskel is ahead of him in terms of picking up the offense. He continues to separate himself in the coaches' eyes. Driskel understands offense and understands coverage schemes, so he can speak the same language as Roper even if he hasn't quite mastered the dialect. As for Driskel's physical tools, they fit much better in Roper's offense -- which favors read-option runs and a faster tempo -- than the offenses run by either Weis or Pease.
"I saw him in high school, but I don't know that I was one of his choices. Now I get him because of the luck of the draw," Roper said of Driskel. "But that's a big, powerful, fast-twitch natural throwing motion. He's talented, folks. We're sitting here talking about a guy that's really, really gifted."
And this time, Florida will have depth. Even if Grier doesn't win the job, he has the arm to take over for Driskel in case of injury. Also, incoming freshman Treon Harris could see early playing time with a package reminiscent of the one the Gators used for Tim Tebow when he was a freshman. Harris, a 5-11, 180-pounder from Miami, might be too good of an athlete to keep off the field. So Driskel will finally get a chance to be the dual-threat signal-caller he was touted to be in high school when he, not crosstown rival Blake Bortles, was the most famous quarterback to come from Oviedo, Fla.
The offense Roper wants to run represents a philosophical shift for Muschamp, who once ridiculed no-huddle "look back" offenses that required every player to peek back at their coaches on the sideline before each snap. The players Muschamp inherited weren't suited to a pro-style attack, and he and his staff didn't recruit that side of the ball well enough to run his desired offense. But instead of banging his head against that particular brick wall for another season, Muschamp adjusted. If anything gives the Florida faithful even a glimmer of hope with a looming schedule that includes trips to Alabama and Florida State, and a visit from LSU, it should be the fact that Muschamp wasn't too proud to scrap his vision and try to find something that works.
But will Roper's scheme work? At Florida's open practices, the offense has moved quickly between plays in spite of its inexperience with the playbook. Muschamp believes the ability to play fast stems from the simplicity of Roper's offense. Whereas the scheme Pease ran featured elaborate shifts and motions, Roper's group lines up and snaps the ball.
"In the interview process, one of the things that stood out to me was the simplistic ideas he has about the way we do things," Muschamp said of Roper. "[He's] really a good teacher as concepts are concerned and our players have caught on really well. When you're in a no-huddle situation, you can't have a lot of verbiage. Sometimes, when you are a huddle team, you have more verbiage to make description for what everyone needs to do."
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Roper appreciates the way the players have cottoned on to his concepts, but he isn't exactly ready to line up against an SEC opponent yet. "We try to make lining up simpler than most people," he said. "I think, because of that, part of what you see is we're able to get lined up in a hurry. It doesn't mean we always understand the little things that are going on, but we do decent job of getting lined up."
But once the Gators line up, can they move the ball? Florida's passing game ranked 107th nationally last season at 170.9 yards a game. Auburn was only one spot higher at 173 passing yards a game, but the Tigers reached the national championship because they led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards a game. The Gators ranked 87th in rushing with 145.8 yards a game. They were supposed to be balanced, but their inability to throw allowed defenses to stack the box and stifle their ground game.
Florida hasn't averaged more than 200 yards a game through the air since Tebow's senior season, and the blame doesn't fall entirely on the quarterbacks. The alma mater of Carlos Alvarez, Cris Collinsworth, Ricky Nattiel, Ike Hilliard and Percy Harvin can't seem to find anyone to catch the ball. Since Riley Cooper had 961 receiving yards in 2009, no Gators wideout has cracked 570. "There is a certain burden there," said Florida sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood.
At Duke, Roper's offense produced 1,000-yard receivers in each of the past two seasons, and Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon each pulled off the feat in 2012. The Blue Devils racked up passing yardage because Roper's offense excels at creating one-on-one matchups. Even while getting steamrolled by Florida State -- the nation's top-ranked defense -- in the ACC title game, Duke was getting opportunities. It couldn't always win those matchups, but the idea is that Florida's athletes should be able to win in those situations.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. Even if the Gators improve, their schedule is nasty and full of teams that know exactly what they are offensively and defensively. They are quite self-aware on one side of the ball, which is why, after Florida's fourth spring practice last week, Muschamp offered a quick assessment to his players.
"We've had four days of installation offensively. We've had four years of installation defensively," Muschamp said. "I think that puts things in perspective about where we are."
It certainly does. It means that Florida had better work fast. Because if this offense doesn't work, the defense is probably going to change along with everything else.