GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After Saturday, it had to happen eventually. So, after Saturday, it had to happen immediately. And now that it has happened, Will Muschamp must decide how he will respond.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has long governed by the notion that once a firing becomes a fait accompli, it must be executed straight away. That way, the Gators can begin moving forward and the person separated from his job isn't left to twist in the wind. Florida lost to South Carolina 23-20 in overtime on Saturday afternoon. Foley fired Muschamp as the Gators coach on Sunday morning.
Muschamp has always governed by the notion that success is dictated not by what happens to a person, but by how that person handles what life throws his way. He said it again on Sunday in the statement he released following his firing. "... life is 10 percent of what happens to you," Muschamp said, "and 90 percent how you respond." As a visual reminder, he keeps in his office the rod that once held together the broken leg that turned him from a likely SEC scholarship player into a Georgia walk-on. Now Muschamp must choose his next step, and so must Florida.
The autopsy on the Muschamp era requires little sleuthing. The Gators went through three offensive coordinators and never found a quarterback who could consistently win in the SEC. There was bad luck, of course. Starting quarterback John Brantley got bent the wrong way by Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw in Muschamp's debut season, in 2011, and the offense never recovered. Fumbles against Georgia kept the Gators from playing for the SEC -- and possibly the national -- championship in ’12. September season-ending injuries to quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley sent the ’13 season spiraling toward 4-8. If the ball doesn't bounce back into the hands of South Carolina back Mike Davis in the closing seconds of regulation on Saturday, Muschamp might have a chance to return in ’15. But bad luck is what happens to a team. Florida never responded by developing a fully functional offense, and that ultimately proved to be Muschamp's undoing. "I was given every opportunity to get it done here, and I simply didn't win enough games," Muschamp said in his statement. "That's the bottom line."
Muschamp's teams nearly always played great defense, and that's why programs will line up to hire him this offseason to be their defensive coordinator. It is telling that on Twitter on Saturday night fans of Auburn, Texas A&M and South Carolina were all rolling out the welcome mat for Muschamp in spite of the fact that he still had a job and their schools still had defensive coordinators. There is a clause in Muschamp's Florida contract that forbids him from recruiting any player he recruited at Florida for a year following his termination, but that isn't likely to keep schools from tossing high six-figure or low seven-figure offers his way to run their defenses. And here's a prediction: Like his defenses at Florida, Texas, Auburn, LSU and Valdosta State, Muschamp's defenses will be excellent at his next stop, too. That's not exactly going out on a limb. Here's another prediction: Muschamp's defenses will be so good that he will get another chance to run his own program, and he'll succeed the next time.
Despite the caricature of Muschamp, he's smart and self-aware. He knows exactly what mistakes he made at Florida. As long as he isn't too proud to correct them, he'll be fine. Plus, he'll have two more regular-season games with the Gators to audition for potential employers. Fired Ron Zook beat Florida State in Tallahassee in 2004, and it's possible a Florida team playing for a fired Will Muschamp will be more dangerous to the Seminoles than one playing for a retained Will Muschamp.
What will Florida do long term? Anyone who tells you they know who Foley wants to hire is a liar. Florida's AD keeps his coaching searches tight, and he'll probably go full Planes, Trains and Automobiles to keep media and fans from tracking his movements. Foley has an opportunity here. Like Zook, Muschamp stocked the program with some phenomenal defensive talent. With help from co-defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen -- yes, that combo happened, and it was as unfair to opponents as it sounds -- Urban Meyer won a national title in his second season after replacing Zook.
The difference is that there is no Meyer at Utah this year. There is no mid-major coach with a proven track record ready to make the leap to a program that expects to annually compete for the SEC title. Arizona's Rich Rodriguez might want the job, and he would fit the (somewhat silly) unwritten rule that an AD is supposed to hire the opposite of the last guy he hired. Like Zook, Muschamp was a defensive-minded assistant. Like Meyer, Rodriguez is an offensive-minded head coach. Rodriguez has done well at Arizona, but his people would have to work hard to convince Foley that the way things ended at West Virginia or the NCAA issues at Michigan -- which Arizona officials vetted and were completely comfortable with -- are not red flags. Unless that happens, Rodriguez wouldn't be on Florida's list.
Every Florida coaching search since Steve Spurrier resigned following the 2001 season has included speculation about Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. While Stoops-to-Florida might be the best move for the Gators, Sooners and Stoops, it's tough to envision Stoops leaving a program where he has had great success and where he has a great boss (AD Joe Castiglione) and a place that makes his family happy.
And what about the Head Ball Coach himself, who created the standard that made Florida's annual expectations so high? He turned 69 in April and has always said two things: He'd be done coaching by now and a coach shouldn't stay in a job more than about 10 years. Spurrier is wrapping his 10th season at South Carolina, and earlier this month he told Josh Kendall of The State newspaper that his plan is to return to the Gamecocks in 2015.
So, who is left? Mullen is having his best year at Mississippi State, but would he and Foley want to work with each other again? Also, would Mullen want to rebuild another SEC program when he has one up and running? The same question might be asked of Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze. Justin Fuente is in the midst of working a miracle at Memphis, but has he had enough success to merit consideration? Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee looks like a fantastic future head coach, but he's a 31-year-old coordinator. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is a former Georgia player who has had tremendous success as a defensive coordinator under a legendary coach. That one is probably a little too on-the-nose for the Gators. Another name you might hear is former Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who served as Florida's offensive coordinator during Charley Pell's tenure. Shanahan won two Super Bowls as the Denver Broncos head coach, but faltered in Washington and was fired after last season. Another name with college and NFL ties is Greg Schiano. But Schiano would have to prove he truly is a changed man and that he has dropped the control-freak tendencies that helped him win zero Big East titles at Rutgers and helped get him run after two seasons at the helm of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It's quite probable that the next Florida coach is a sitting head coach who has not given any indication that he might desire to leave his current gig. The agents will work through their back channels to apprise Foley of their clients' interest, and Foley will match those names against the list he always keeps -- just in case.
Meanwhile, Muschamp will try to win his final games with the Gators and then choose how he'll respond to this latest challenge.
Projected College Football Playoff
The Crimson Tide controlled all but about six minutes of a 25-20 victory over Mississippi State that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. A week after barely surviving a 20-13 overtime win at LSU, Alabama handled the SEC’s best offense by intercepting Dak Prescott three times. A quarterback who, like Prescott, can run and who takes better care of the ball might give his team a chance against the Tide. (Hmmm. Perhaps there is a team with a lightning-fast quarterback who doesn’t throw many picks in this very projected playoff.) The problem is that team’s defense will have to stop an Alabama offense that has an abundance of weapons. Amari Cooper is the nation’s best receiver, and T.J. Yeldon averaged 4.5 yards a carry against the Bulldogs on one healthy ankle. The Crimson Tide can be beaten, as proven by Ole Miss on Oct. 4. But at the moment they seem to throw up the most obstacles for an opponent to overcome.
As long as center Hroniss Grasu is back by the Pac-12 title game, I’m comfortable with Oregon here. Marcus Mariota is that quarterback I described in the Alabama section, but a matchup between the teams would mean Oregon would have to be able to cover Cooper and tackle Yeldon and Derrick Henry. That’s a huge if. Still, as currently constituted, Oregon’s résumé stacks up against anyone’s.
3. Florida State
In his postgame interview on Saturday night, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher explained his team’s habit of falling behind early and roaring back to win by basically saying that this is who these Seminoles are. If that tendency is indeed encoded in the 2014 Florida State team’s DNA, then that team needs to be ranked behind Alabama and Oregon. Of all the playoff contenders, Alabama and Oregon are the two most capable of stepping on an opponent’s throat after taking a decent lead. Alabama would do it by smothering the opponent’s offense and then milking the clock with the ball. Oregon would do it by piling on points. The ‘Noles are incredibly resilient, and quarterback Jameis Winston has been superb in the second halves of these comebacks. Against most teams -- even against most of the teams still in the playoff hunt -- Florida State could fall behind and rally to win. I’m just not sure the Seminoles could do it against the Tide or the Ducks.
Other than Alabama, the Bears have the best win of the playoff contenders (61-58 over TCU). They also have one of the worst losses (41-27 at West Virginia). They looked sharp offensively and defensively at Oklahoma on Nov. 8, and TCU’s struggle in a 34-30 win at Kansas should make the committee finally realize the team that won head-to-head between the Bears and the Horned Frogs should be ranked higher. Yes, Baylor played a terrible nonconference schedule (SMU, Northwestern State, Buffalo), but so did Mississippi State (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin). I suspect the committee will put Mississippi State in this spot on Tuesday, but let’s not forget the Bulldogs drew Kentucky and Vanderbilt from the SEC East. Also, their wins over LSU and Auburn suddenly look less impressive after Saturday. Meanwhile, Ohio State looks like the team no one would want to play right now, but that Virginia Tech loss remains an albatross.
A random ranking
When you reach No. 10 of the First-and-10 section, you’ll understand why I chose this category. Here are the top five handheld, mass-produced frozen desserts.
1. Klondike Bar
2. Dove Bar (dark chocolate with chocolate ice cream)
3. Dilly Bar
4. Snickers Ice Cream Bar
5. JELL-O Pudding Pop (R.I.P.)
Play of the week
How has Florida State managed to stage these second-half comebacks? A huge reason is freshman tailback Dalvin Cook. Playing in his hometown on Saturday in spite of a painful hip bruise suffered against Virginia on Nov. 8, Cook carried seven times for 92 yards with two touchdowns. His final run was the 26-yard score that gave the 'Noles the lead with 3:05 remaining, and that is the play of the week.
It’s a simple zone play from a one-back set, with no tight end and Winston in the shotgun. The formation forced Miami to spread out, leaving only six men in the box. This is ideal for a special back. If each lineman can take a man, the back can make one defender miss and be in the secondary before anyone has a serious chance to tackle him. Though the Seminoles don’t run a lot of read-option, this play used a similar quarterback-tailback mesh. Miami linebacker Tyriq McCord was left unblocked. In Auburn’s offense, quarterback Nick Marshall would probably see McCord favoring the back, pull the ball and run for an easy first down. Winston isn’t asked to do that very often, but in this case McCord had to respect the fact that Winston would have gained at least 15 yards if he pulled and ran. That gave the Cook the space he needed to slip McCord once he got the ball.
Meanwhile, Florida State’s line had it easy. Every lineman had a favorable angle on the defender he blocked. Freshman left tackle Roderick Johnson and left guard Josue Matias combo-blocked the three technique (Miami’s Olsen Pierre). When Pierre slanted inside, Matias took him, allowing Johnson to climb to the next level. The formation forced the Miami defense to spread, so the next player Johnson encountered was a safety. Matias didn’t block Pierre that well, but Cook managed to slip through the fingers of the 300-pounder. Then he saw a huge swath of green.
The only player who had a realistic chance of tackling Cook at that point was cornerback Ladarius Gunter, but receiver Bobo Wilson blocked Gunter for the entirety of the play, allowing Cook to slip past him and into the end zone. Everything about that play -- from its design to execution -- was perfect.
Big Ugly of the week
It would be wrong to give this award to just one person this week. Football is the ultimate team game, and the offensive line is the ultimate unit within a football team. So, when a back runs for an FBS single-game record 408 yards in three quarters, his entire line should take a bow. Congratulations to the Wisconsin line that paved the way for Melvin Gordon’s record-breaking day against Nebraska.
“It showed Melvin Gordon and 408 yards, but it should have everyone up there, all the offensive linemen because they really made it easy for me today,” Gordon told reporters after the game on Saturday. “And they allowed me to have a lot of one-on-one matchups. And it’s kind of been like that all season. Those guys have really been looking out for me. I couldn’t thank them more.”
1. Courtesy of Wisconsin sports information guru Brian Lucas, here are some more numbers to explain just how amazing Badgers tailback Gordon is with the ball in his hands. Saturday, Gordon broke the FBS single-game rushing record with 408 yards -- in three quarters, mind you -- in Wisconsin’s 59-24 win over Nebraska.
• This was the fourth game this season in which Gordon has run for at least 200 yards. He needs one more to tie Ron Dayne for the school single-season record. Dayne went 200-plus five times in 1996 and again in ’99.
• Gordon ran for 189 yards in the second quarter alone. That broke Dayne’s school record of 170 in a quarter set in 1997 against San Jose State. Dayne is now tied for second with Gordon, who also ran for 170 yards in Saturday’s third quarter.
• After adding four more on Saturday, Gordon has 14 runs this season of 40 yards or more.
Wisconsin’s social media campaign to promote Gordon for the Heisman Trophy is the #GordonToGotham hashtag. I don’t think that’s necessary any more. Gordon is going to New York. He practically ran there on Saturday. The only question now is whether he wins the trophy.
2. Brian Towle of CornNation.com brought this Bo Pelini quote from 2012 out of mothballs on Sunday. “Contrary to what you guys think, I haven't forgotten how to coach defense and how to stop the run.”
Ouch. Before the Badgers stampeded the Cornhuskers almost as badly as they did in the 2012 Big Ten title game, Pelini seemed like he would finally manage to get through a season without losing four games. He still may get through this year without incurring a fourth loss, but that might be the product of not making the Big Ten championship. There are a lot of similarities in the way people talk about Pelini and the way they talk about Muschamp. They are good guys who are beloved by their players. They don’t match the popular caricatures of themselves. While Pelini has had more sustained success than Muschamp did, games such as Saturday’s loss in Madison frustrate the Nebraska fan base to no end. This is a program accustomed to competing for titles and unaccustomed to being humiliated. The Huskers still have a mathematical shot at the Big Ten West title, but after what they showed at Wisconsin, why would anyone believe they actually have a chance?
3. Arizona State’s 35-27 loss at Oregon State changes the face of the Pac-12 South. Though USC is in first place by virtue of having one more game in the win column than UCLA, the Bruins control their destiny thanks to head-to-head wins over Arizona State and Arizona. Here’s how the teams remaining in the hunt can win the division. They’re ordered from the least help necessary to the most.
• UCLA: Beat USC and Stanford. That’s it.
• USC: Beat UCLA. Hope Arizona State loses to Washington State or Arizona.
• Arizona State: Beat Washington State and Arizona. Hope USC beats UCLA.
• Arizona: Beat Utah and Arizona State. Hope UCLA beats USC and Stanford beats UCLA.
• Utah: Beat Arizona and Colorado. Hope UCLA beats USC, Stanford beats UCLA and Arizona beats Arizona State.
4. During his tenure at Louisville, Charlie Strong hated the idea of retreating to the indoor facility when cold weather struck. He often had his team practice in the cold anyway, as the Cardinals’ indoor practice field stood toasty, warm and unused. Strong reasoned that if the Cards were going to win at Connecticut or Rutgers in November, they would need to learn to handle the cold. Plus, the cold practices allowed his team to practice mental toughness. If you think you’re cold, you’re cold. If you think you’re not, you’re not.
The temperature was 44 degrees on Saturday when Strong’s Texas team kicked off at Oklahoma State. But before the game Strong noticed some players dressing as if they were going on an arctic expedition. So, he told his linemen to remove the tights they wore under their pants. He told his skill players they didn’t need hand-warming pouches around their waists. At the time, Strong wore the same mock turtleneck he wears for most games. “They thought it was cold,” Strong told the Dallas Morning News. “I told them it isn’t cold. I said, ‘Look what I have on.’”
Warmed from the inside, the Longhorns rolled to a 28-7 win that made them bowl eligible in a season that looked a month ago like it would end on the final day of the regular season. Since a 23-0 loss to Kansas State on Oct. 25, Texas has beaten Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State by a combined score of 95-36. While the Red Raiders and Cowboys are at the bottom of the Big 12, Texas looked to be one of the easiest wins in the league heading into Halloween. The days of jokes about Strong booting players from the team are long gone. Now, the Longhorns have 15 extra practices to develop young players for 2015, and they are developing the mentality Strong wants. Imagine how much more they’ll improve with another offseason and an entire class of players recruited by Strong's staff.
5. Missouri keeps chugging along toward what could be a second consecutive SEC East title. While the Tigers have no margin for error -- Georgia sits in the SEC barn with a 6-2 conference record and a head-to-head win in Columbia -- Missouri has a four-game winning streak and control of its destiny. All the Tigers must do to punch their tickets to Atlanta is beat Tennessee and Arkansas. Unfortunately, those might be the SEC’s two hottest teams right now.
6. The Tigers will play the Volunteers on Saturday in Knoxville, and they’ll face a team that looks completely different than the one that fell behind Alabama 27-0 on Oct. 25. The insertion of Josh Dobbs at quarterback during the Alabama game has radically altered Tennessee’s offense, and the Vols now need a win over either Missouri or Vanderbilt to clinch bowl eligibility. Considering this team is painfully young and had to replace every starter on both lines of scrimmage this offseason, that feat would be nothing short of amazing.
After Saturday’s 50-16 win over Kentucky on Saturday, Tennessee coach Butch Jones was quite Zen about the performance of Dobbs, who went 19 of 27 passing for 297 yards with a touchdown and who ran for 48 yards with a score. “He has not exceeded my expectations,” Jones told reporters. “Josh is very talented young man. He adds another dynamic, and he does a great job of distributing the football. I believe we didn’t turn over the football, and the quarterback is the caretaker of the football. That football holds all of our goals, dreams and aspirations.”
7. Other than Alabama, which will move into the selection committee’s top four on Tuesday, the biggest winner after all the SEC carnage might have been a team that didn’t play on Saturday. Thanks to losses by Auburn and LSU, Ole Miss can win the SEC West if it beats Arkansas and Mississippi State and Auburn wins the Iron Bowl. That’s a lot of ifs, but a team that could have been eliminated on Saturday will gladly take them.
8. Sadly, Georgia tailback Todd Gurley’s return to the field from an NCAA suspension for selling his signature was cut short by a torn ACL. Georgia confirmed the injury on Sunday, and Gurley’s college career appears over. Still, the junior seemed to be keeping a positive attitude.
9. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year, and he didn’t touch what replacement J.T. Barrett is doing as a redshirt freshman. Saturday, Barrett made the longest run by a quarterback in school history. He also broke the school’s single-season touchdowns record. Barrett is now four touchdowns from breaking Drew Brees’ Big Ten single-season record for total touchdowns (42 in 1998). Ari Wasserman of the Northeast Ohio Media Group does a great job explaining the absurdity of those stats using four fantastic quotes.
10. Minnesota may have lost to Ohio State 31-24 on Saturday, but this guy became my new hero. How do you take your Dilly Bar? With a side of blizzard.
What’s eating Andy?
I don’t like seeing people cheer when a coach gets fired. I understand why they do, but remember, there are at least a dozen support staffers who don’t have $6 million buyouts who now must find new jobs, sell their houses and uproot their families. That’s not a reason to celebrate.
What’s Andy eating?
Nearly every decent-sized town has a gourmet grilled cheese place these days, and it seems most of them have similar names. On the same block as the SI home office in midtown New York is Melt Shop. Cleveland has Melt Bar and Grilled, the place that helped launch the trend. Suburban Philadelphia has Melt Down. The Bay Area has The Melt, which is more of a burger place but also serves grilled cheese. Suburban Toronto has Melt Grilled Cheese.
It’s actually quite amazing it took so long for restaurateurs to figure out classed-up versions of what I serve my 5-year-old three or four times a week would draw huge crowds. Love of grilled cheese is darn near universal. The only people who dislike it are either lactose intolerant or clinically insane. So, the proliferation of similarly named houses of grilled cheese is understandable from a demand standpoint.
Birmingham, Ala., has just plain Melt. The brick-and-mortar store sits in the trendy, gentrifying Avondale area, home to Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Post Office Pies and the Avondale Brewing Co. taproom. Melt also has a food truck that spreads the cheesy goodness around town.
On Friday I took a seat at Melt’s bar fully expecting to order one sandwich. I had scouted the menu online, and I was certain no combination devised by man or spirit could top what I planned to order. Melt offers a grilled macaroni and cheese sandwich. It also offers the opportunity to add bacon to any sandwich. Grilled cheese is the ultimate preschool comfort food. Mac and cheese is the king of side dishes. Bacon is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy. No sandwich could ever be better than this one. As sandwiches go, I would consider this combination the way Alabama fans consider one of Nick Saban’s teams. Nothing in this nation could possibly be better, and the very suggestion that something might be is utter blasphemy. This meal would be a snap. I would order a grilled mac and cheese with bacon, the angels would sing and I would be on my merry way.
Ten minutes later, I found myself staring at two baskets. “Please tell me these are both for you,” the server said as he set them down. I had called an audible. Yes, I had ordered the grilled mac and cheese with bacon, but something had nagged at me when I read the menu. The Three Amigos sandwich featured pepper jack cheese melted over ham, Capicola and a fried egg. The addition of a fried egg to what already appears to be a fully formed sandwich is the ultimate boss move. I couldn’t let this chance pass. So, I also ordered the Amigos.
And it crushed the grilled mac and cheese with bacon. In fact, The Three Amigos may have surpassed the pork belly sandwich at Cochon Butcher in New Orleans as my all-time favorite sandwich.
Much like Oregon State’s win over Arizona State in the latest edition of Pac-12 After Dark, this shouldn’t have been possible. But it happened. The spicy Capicola and the savory ham and egg melded with the tangy cheese and the soft bread to form a sandwich that surpassed a concoction that could have been designed in a lab to match every criterion I would expect in a perfect handheld comfort food.
Let that be a lesson, football and food sabermetricians. Sometimes you have to play the game on the field. Or on the taste buds. The result could be shocking.