In a bit of a surprise, Will Muschamp’s Florida Gators come in at No. 12 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared based on on-field success, preseason expectations, coaching stability, recruiting and program momentum.
As we approach the Top 10, don’t look at these rankings solely from a win-loss standpoint, but delve deeper.
Final SEC Rankings of 2013:
And enjoy the debate.
12. Florida (4-8, 3-5)
It’s tough to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Muschamp and his supposed SEC East contending Gators this season, but an unexpected rash of injuries to key players and no consistency on offense is a good place to start. The Gators suffered their first losing season since 1979, saw their 23-year bowl streak snuffed out by an FCS opponent at home and ended the 2013 campaign on a seven-game skid in what was one of the most disappointing stretches of Florida football in several decades.
On-field performance: D; Florida hits rock bottom
Fans hurried to the exits and the coaching staff was left searching for answers as the Eagles erupted on the visiting sideline with helmets raised to the sky. How could this happen?
Georgia Southern’s 26-20 win at the Swamp in November was particularly embarrassing for Florida’s defense, a unit bludgeoned for 429 yards rushing and the go-ahead score with three minutes remaining. The shocking defeat was the sixth in a series of seven straight to end the regular season after the Gators jumped out to a 4-1 start. Questions of Muschamp’s future were almost instantaneous and yielded an immediate response from athletic director Jeremy Foley reminding outsiders that Florida was keeping its fiery coach.
A rough count reveals 21 Gators missed time due to injury this season including six that suffered season-ending injuries. Some of those were standout performers, none bigger than defensive ankle Dominique Easley and running back Matt Jones. Without leadership on both sides of the ball and sporadic play from the quarterback position, Florida brought a knife to a gunfight every weekend during SEC play.
Expectations: D-; From BCS to cellar
From a No. 9 final ranking in 2012 to eight losses in 2013, Florida’s fall from grace was catastrophic in Muschamp’s third season. Last season’s 11-2 proved to be smoke and mirrors with an offense that suffered the same problems that crippled the Gators this fall. Lots of third-and-longs and backtracking with the football damaged Florida’s shot at a respectable season. Many say the beginning of the end started at Missouri when the Gators fell flat in the second half of a 19-point loss to the eventual East champions. A home loss to Vandy three weeks later turned Muschamp’s hot seat up a notch when the lack of fan support was noticeable.
RELATED: Florida regular season recap
Excitement was slowly being sucked away from a program that’s captured two crystal balls in the last decade. It certainly didn’t help the fanbase that Florida State, a 30-point winner over the Gators in the regular season finale, won a BCS National Championship in Pasadena a month before National Signing Day. Suddenly, the Seminoles became the new ‘it’ in the Sunshine State and Florida’s downward spiral only made matters worse.
Coaching: C-; Muschamp needs an offense
Struggles on offense in 2012 were overshadowed by an elite defense, a unit that carried the Gators into a Sugar Bowl berth against Louisville. Depleted by injury and personnel losses, that side of the football and caved when the Florida offense averaged just 18.8 points per game — good enough for 114th in the country — this season and suffered from a lack of big plays.
The Gators averaged a league-low 4.8 yards per play, scored four fewer touchdowns (25) than its nearest SEC competitor and shot themselves in the foot with a conference-leading 59.2 penalty yards per contest. You can attribute that to a number of first-year players on the field, but the sheer number of flags still falls on Muschamp and his staff. Florida wasn’t well-coached and it showed. Despite being offensively challenged, the Gators still managed to play ‘Gator Ball’ with a stranglehold on time of possession. Florida wouldn’t have won four games had it not been for its stellar play defensively.
At some point however, the Gator offense must improve during Muschamp’s tenure of the ex-Texas defensive coordinator will be looking for work elsewhere. The offseason firing of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis was an initial step in the right direction.
Recruiting: A-; Help is on the way
You’ve got to give it to Muschamp and his coaching staff — those guys have salvaged everything they can from the 2014 recruiting cycle and have one of the league’s top classes coming in despite the ugliness that transpired between the lines this season. They’ve convinced rising talent to look toward the future and Florida’s rich football tradition rather than rest on a 2013 campaign that got away from the Gators and spiraled out of control.
RELATED: Florida’s National Signing Day wrap
Davidson Day quarterback Will Grier is the headliner, North Carolina’s player of the year and the recently named Mr. Football USA. Former Gator quarterback and eventual national champion Chris Leak was also awarded the honor as a prep senior at nearby Charlotte Independence. Grier finished his high school career with 14,565 yards passing and 195 touchdowns. He won’t be a first-year starter in Gainesville, but Jeff Driskel’s leash could be short with an elite signal caller waiting in the wings.
The gem of this year’s class is 247Sports five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound ballhawk that can do a little bit of everything in the secondary. He is one of nine early enrollees with a chance to play early for the Gators. The Under Armour All-American had a slew of offers from major Division I programs before ultimately deciding on Gainesville during the second week of January.
By most accounts, Muschamp signed his fourth consecutive Top 10 class.
Program momentum: C; Sizable hiccup for Gator Nation
There’s no doubt Florida took a step back this season, but how the Gators respond in 2014 will define Muschamp’s regime. There are few teams in college football that faced as much adversity as Florida and it was reflected on the field. The good news is that a much-anticipated signing class suffered few hits and Foley’s reputation as someone who believes in second chances grew stronger when he reminded fans a turnaround was imminent. It’s difficult to label a program with so much prestige as a conference sleeper this fall, but coming off an eight-loss season, expectations have been scaled back a bit. Getting back to a bowl game and competing with other East contenders should be circled on Muschamp’s dry-erase board at Ben-Hill Griffin Stadium.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports