The Florida Gators finished Will Muschamp’s third season as head coach with a tough 4-8 record. In the process, the team set benchmarks for futility not seen in Gainesville in over twenty years. While fans have groused over the poor record, which included losing to an FCS team for the first time in history and losing to Vanderbilt for the first time in 22 seasons, The Monday Morning Quarterback believes most of the problem was due simply to the record number of season ending injuries and that the program overall is on solid footing moving forward.
In total, the Gators lost 10 players to season ending injuries including 7 starters. The other 3 were backups expected to provide valuable depth.
The Gators lost starting wide receiver and kick returner Andre Debose and true freshman linebacker Matt Rolin to knee injuries at the beginning of fall camp. Two weeks later just before the start of the season they lost starting right tackle Chaz Green due to a torn labrum.
Additionally, starting running back Matt Jones missed the first two games while he recovered from a virus that kept him out of the entire fall camp and left him 20 pounds lighter while fourth year starting right guard Jon Halapio missed the first three games due to a torn pectoral muscle. These injuries caused a tentative start to the Gators season but were only the tip of the iceberg as the injury bug continued to snowball out of control throughout the entire season.
Starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had shown promising signs of becoming more of a downfield threat in the early part of the season, was lost for good in the Tennessee game with a broken leg. A few weeks later Matt Jones who had finally begun to regain the form he finished last season with after his tentative recovery from the viral infection went down for good with a torn meniscus. Bad news turned to worse when senior tackle and defensive leader Dominique Easley went down with a torn acl and torn meniscus.
Overall, 26 players on the two deep chart missed some, all, or most of the season due to injury. This was arguably the worst season in Gator history in terms of injuries and certainly the worst The Monday Morning Quarterback has seen in 36 years of watching Gator football. In spite of the frustrating nature of this past season’s futility, it’s important for fans to keep it in perspective.
The wide receiver corps which returned only three players with more than five total career receptions lost one player, Andre Debose, before the season started. Jeff Driskel, the only qb with more than five career pass attempts on the roster, was lost for good in the season’s third game. The Gators played most of the last half of the season with a scout team qb.
Matt Jones the only running back with any significant playing time prior to this season appeared in only a few games. The offensive line which was thought to be a team strength coming into the season never saw its original starting five in any game and showed up with a different lineup in every game. Overall, their top three tackles were lost at some point to season ending injuries and most every player on the two deep missed significant time during the season.
Additionally, on defense, all three units were decimated by injuries throughout the season. There was no unit offensively or defensively which had any level of stability or continuity due to injuries.
I’m aware that most fans are tired of hearing about the injuries. They’ve watched the gif of Gator on Gator blocking, they’ve taken the ribbing from FSU fans who watched their team dominate all the way to the BCS championship game. They need a scapegoat not named injuries. Many have called for Muschamp’s head. Sacrificing offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis was not enough to satisfy Gator fan bloodlust.
However, not so fast my friend, says The Monday Morning Quarterback. There’s a difference between a reason and an excuse. Injuries often are used as an excuse for poor play or bad seasons, but in this case injuries aren’t an excuse they are a reason, the main reason, for this season’s futility.
Keep in mind this was a rebuilding year for the Gators. The Gators lost their leading receiver from a thin corps, their leading rusher, their top defensive tackle, both starting defensive ends, both inside linebackers, and both starting safeties after last season. Did anybody really think those losses would be easily overcome? Not The Monday Morning Quarterback. This was an 8-4 team at best especially considering the schedule and the veteran SEC teams that returned this season. Then losing as many players as they did to injury and the resulting lack of roster consistency left the Gators no shot at a winning season. Realistically, they were lucky to get out with victories against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas.
As a fan it’s easy to get down on a team that performs poorly. It’s even easier to blame the coach, particularly one that had yet to be accepted by a consensus of fans coming into the season despite last years 11-2 record.
What needs to be considered is that the program had been left in shambles depth-wise and talent-wise by Urban Meyer’s flip-flop and recruiting misses. In fact, when Muschamp took the reins the program arguably had less talent overall than at any point since scholarship reductions killed it in the late 80’s. Add in the fact that most all of the top talent Muschamp inherited had been coached up and moved on to the NFL after last season.
That left the Gators with a mix of veteran players with average talent and some talented yet inexperienced players to dot the roster. Is this team a 4-8 team talent-wise? The Monday Morning Quarterback doesn’t believe so. With recruiting starting earlier and earlier most new coaches don’t get solid classes filled with “their” players until their third season and Muschamp’s first two classes were a wash with many leaving the program because they didn’t measure up. Last season, Champ’s third class, was a top five class nationally and met all their needs talent-wise and depth-wise. The first of his classes to do so.
Generally it takes 3-4 recruiting classes to stock up enough of the right kind of talent that fit a coach’s scheme. It took Jimbo Fisher, the major recipient of Meyer’s bumbling and ineptness, three classes to stock the FSU program with championship caliber athletes and it has paid off with the Seminoles in the BCSCG game this season. And arguably his cupboard was not nearly as bare as Muschamp’s.
While this year’s recruiting class may not quite measure up nationally with last years class it should still be a top ten class on signing day and will likely once again meet needs talent-wise and depth-wise.
Last season, as ugly and nerve racking as it was, is over. The upside to losing a ton of players to injury is that a lot of younger players and backups received valuable playing time which should aid depth for next season.
With another good solid recruiting class poised to sign, eight of which are early entries, and the 2015 class looking deep and promising, The Monday Morning Quarterback believes the Gators have a bright future ahead. Unfortunately for many fans who can’t see the forest for the trees their impatience may get the best of them.
Next season looks to be another 8-4 or 9-3 team at best. That, despite the grousing of impatient fans, would actually show an improvement. There’s still pieces of the puzzle yet to be put together.
New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will need to show he has the right ability to scheme, teach, and improvise to put a product on the field that will both score points and pacify the fan base.
The new offensive line coach will need to be able to coach up an extremely young and merely moderately talented offensive line. This unit head-scratchingly has been a team weakness since 2009 despite having a solid veteran core the last few seasons.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will need to prove he can coach up a young talented defense and get them to play with more consistency particularly on third down. Overall the defense is loaded with talent and is bringing in another solid crop this season they just need to take it to another level.
So fear not Gator Nation. The program is not nearly as inept as it looked this past season. Just as Auburn turned it around from winless in the SEC to SEC champions and BCSCG participants in one season so too can the Gators recover from their worst season since the infamous 0-10-1 season in 1979. Recover they will. With or without you.
I’m The Monday Morning Quarterback and I’m out.