Saturday Storylines: Can reeling, injury-riddled Florida make a run at bowl eligibility?
Steve Spurrier has a pretty good memory. He remembers that only a year ago, Florida was a force in the SEC and in contention for the BCS title. The 2012 Gators went 11-1 during the regular season before losing to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. That’s why Spurrier says the Gators’ ‘13 campaign is hardly indicative of an otherwise high-caliber program.
“I made mention that I think last year, [Will Muschamp] was SEC Coach of the Year,” Spurrier said on this week’s SEC teleconference. “After they beat Florida State, they were third in the country in that BCS poll. If Notre Dame had lost to Southern Cal, I believe Florida would have been in the national championship game last year.
“Obviously this year they’ve had a rash of injuries on the team that's really hurt ‘em. But they’ve still got plenty of good ball players.”
The Head Ball Coach isn’t wrong. The 4-5 Gators have lost 10 players, including six starters, to season-ending injuries. The most recent was linebacker and leading tackler Antonio Morrison, who underwent surgery this week to repair his torn meniscus. Among the others key losses: quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Matt Jones, defensive tackle Dominique Easley and offensive tackle Tyler Moore.
Heading into this Saturday’s game at South Carolina, only five players for Florida have started every game this year.
The Gators’ offense has particularly suffered. Florida ranks last in the SEC and 111th nationally with an average of 336 total yards per game. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s attack manages 4.82 yards per play, and it’s scored just 16 touchdowns on 35 trips to the red zone. Even the SEC’s stingiest defense (279 yards per game) hasn’t made up for an offense that’s largely responsible for the team’s current-four game skid.
Florida must win two of its final three games to avoid its first losing season since 1979. That won’t be easy. The Gators close with No. 11 South Carolina, FCS Georgia Southern and No. 2 Florida State. Muschamp said righting the ship begins with looking at the man in the mirror.
“I just have to coach through it,” Muschamp told reporters at his press conference on Monday. “We have to find ways to put our guys in better positions and situations to overcome the psychological battle of getting our guys in the right situations so they can be successful. And that’s our job as coaches, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Even with the injuries, fans are growing restless in Gainesville. Calls for Muschamp’s head have gotten louder in recent weeks, and anonymous signs were posted outside the Florida football complex that demanded the third-year coach’s dismissal.
On Wednesday, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley voiced his support of Muschamp when he told the school’s website that he remains “1,000 percent convinced” the Gators have the right man for the job. The rigors and expectations of an SEC coaching gig often don’t allow for the drastic drop-off the Gators have experienced, but Pease said Florida’s coaches are focused on the things they can control.
“It’s the same thing we tell the kids: You’ve got to be mentally tough. You've got to shut it out,” Pease said of the criticism. “I understand what people are saying and frustrated with. Do they understand all the circumstances? Not all the time. But you've got to work through it.
“Last year, it was a situation where we knew how to manufacture and get wins ... it was productive. We were a lot healthier in spots, too. It's tough, but you've got to work through it.”
Muschamp would greatly benefit from an upset of the Gamecocks, especially since Spurrier helped build Florida into what it is today. Spurrier won 122 games in 12 seasons at his alma mater, including six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship. Moreover, he’s known as a quarterback mentor, a spot where Florida’s roster has incessantly flailed this season.
Driskel went down with a broken fibula against Tennessee on Sept. 21. Tyler Murphy, who originally sprained his shoulder in a 17-6 loss to LSU on Oct. 12, re-aggravated it in last week’s 34-17 defeat to Vanderbilt. On his radio show on Thursday night, Muschamp told listeners that Murphy hasn’t practiced this week and indicated that redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg is likely to start against South Carolina. Mornhinweg has never taken a college snap and is set to go against what Muschamp calls “as good a front seven as we’ve faced.” That unit includes heralded defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
“You need to account for [Clowney] every snap as far as the run game and the pass game,” Muschamp said. “He’s an explosive player, he’s got great initial quickness for his size, he’s got great power.”
Perhaps even more foreboding for the Gators: South Carolina has won 15 consecutive home games, the nation’s longest active streak.
The frustrations in Gainesville aren’t lost on Muschamp. He laments that the Gators haven’t been able to take advantage of a wide-open SEC East race. At his weekly press conference, he shrugged off questions about bowl eligibility -- “Right now we just need to focus on South Carolina,” he said -- while emphasizing that his only focus is on dealing with the task at hand. The next step comes on Saturday in Columbia.
“It’s frustrating, it’s very frustrating,” said Muschamp, “but you work and people are dependent on you to do a good job and do a good job for the players and do a good job for the university. And that’s my job.”
The other big ones
• No. 25 Georgia at No. 7 Auburn: Last week, Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall, a former Georgia defensive back, steamrolled Tennessee for a career-high 214 rushing yards. He only attempts 17.7 passes a game. Think the Bulldogs have an idea how Auburn plans to attack their defense?
• No. 12 Oklahoma State at No. 23 Texas: Despite all the turmoil surrounding Mack Brown, Texas is 6-0 in league play and atop the Big 12 standings. With the exception of Baylor, Oklahoma State is the Longhorns’ biggest threat to a conference title. Texas has won six straight games; the Cowboys have won five in a row. Something has to give.
• No. 14 Michigan State at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have squeaked by both of their last two opponents, Northwestern and Michigan, to remain in the Big Ten title hunt. Facing Michigan State’s vaunted defense seems daunting, but Nebraska has history on its side: The Spartans have never beaten the Huskers in seven all-time meetings.
Time to bounce back?
• Miami: Two straight losses have crushed Miami’s momentum, but recent history suggests a meeting with Duke is just what the Hurricanes need. Miami has won all eight games against the Blue Devils since joining the league in 2004. This isn’t the same old Duke, though. David Cutcliffe’s squad controls its own destiny in the ACC Coastal.
• Oregon: The Ducks didn’t look like the team we’re used to seeing in a 26-20 loss to Stanford last week. The Cardinal defense smothered Oregon’s offense and made quarterback Marcus Mariota one-dimensional. The Ducks have the edge over visiting Utah on paper, but the Utes already shocked Stanford earlier this year.
• Michigan: The Wolverines survived early-season close calls against Akron and UConn, but Michigan was exposed in losses to Michigan State and Nebraska. A date with reeling Northwestern, which has dropped five in a row, could be a welcome sight for coach Brady Hoke.
Houston at No. 19 Louisville: For those who didn’t watch the game, it may appear that Louisville dominated UConn in last week’s 31-10 victory. But the Cardinals managed only two offensive touchdowns and 369 yards of total offense against the lowly Huskies. Houston has the potential to match Louisville offensively as the two programs jockey for conference position. The Cardinals haven’t been home in nearly a month, but in their last game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, they lost to American Athletic Conference leader UCF.