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October 20, 2013

Holt: Plenty of questions face Muschamp, Florida



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    Will Muschamp is not as doomed as Twitter decided he was during Saturday's 36-17 loss to Missouri. The folks in charge at a premier college football program tend to be a bit more rational than your average 140-character athletic director.

    But unless you've been sitting in a dark room with "We are the Boys" blasting through noise-cancelling headphones the past two weeks, you know there are problems at Florida.

    "Circle the wagons. The arrows are flying," Muschamp said Saturday. "We've got to figure out who's going to move forward with us. Understand we're going to get this thing back turned the right way. It's a down time. It's a time we're all hurting, but we're going to be fine."

    It has been 14 months since UF athletic director Jeremy Foley elected to extend Muschamp's $2.7 million annual contract through 2017. He did so because he said he liked the direction in which the program was headed. Saturday, Foley felt the need to defend his football coach.

    "(Muschamp's) not going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere," Foley reportedly told Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun.

    At the very least, that means Muschamp has serious issues to deal with in what appears it will be the Gators' fourth consecutive year without a trip to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

    Saturday was Muschamp's 11th loss as Florida's coach. By comparison, Ron Zook lost 14 games in three years and was fired during the 2004 season after his 13th loss. Muschamp still has two games remaining against top-25 opponents this season.

    There are numerous questions that will face Muschamp and Florida moving forward. Here are the most prominent concerns.

    How much of the 2013 season can be blamed on injuries?

    Going into Saturday's game, the Gators had dealt with seven season-ending injuries with five of those injured players being starters. Florida was down an additional three starters against Missouri when defensive tackle Damien Jacobs (head), linebacker Darrin Kitchens (shoulder) and linebacker Ronald Powell (sprained ankle) were unable to play.

    Florida's defense has been a shell of its former self without star defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Its offense is one bad hit on the quarterback away from starting a redshirt freshman, and the Gators are playing a natural guard at right tackle because of a preseason injury to junior Chaz Green.

    A major program is supposed to have enough depth to avoid personnel excuses, but it's tough to call this a judgment year for Muschamp when he's playing a heavily crippled hand at the SEC's poker table.

    Can this staff properly evaluate offensive talent?

    Backups are always the most popular players in town when a team is struggling, but fans have been given added reason to feel that way under Muschamp. Florida's first 1,000-yard back since 2004 watched the majority of 2011's 6-6 season from the sidelines. Tyler Murphy has, at the very least, been a better game manager than Jeff Driskel since Driskel went down with a season-ending injury. Kelvin Taylor was Florida's only bright spot Saturday, and he may have never seen serious carries this year if sophomore Matt Jones hadn't torn his meniscus.

    The Gators' most explosive receiving threat, Solomon Patton (15.21 yards per catch), has said he feels he could have made the plays he has been making in the past but was relegated to jet sweeps and gimmicks. Taylor gave the Gators their only substantial drive Saturday and was then absent the next two series.

    Are the defensive woes here to stay in 2013?

    Muschamp's entire philosophy at Florida has been to build a defense that wins games and an offense that facilitates that defense's needs by owning time of possession and putting the Gators in advantageous field position situations. It's not exactly an aesthetically pleasing style in victory, but it's especially ugly when it doesn't work.

    Florida has given up 827 yards of offense in its past two games. In the Gators' four wins this season, they have allowed a total of 873 yards. The run defense has specifically taken a nosedive, with the Gators allowing 380 yards on the ground the past two games after allowing 325 yards in their first five games of the season.

    Losing Easley for the season has transformed Florida into a pedestrian defense. Unfathomable, considering the amount of stars the Gators should still have on that side of the ball.

    How can this offensive line be saved?

    The most glaring issue on a team suddenly full of problems is Florida's inability to block anyone offensively. The result is an offense that gets hit in the mouth before anything gets started.

    To quote Muschamp: "We struggle to do anything we try to do. We try and spread it out, we try to throw it and we can't protect the quarterback. We try to grind it out, and we can't get any explosive runs."

    Florida's issues are currently in development. Too often, star high school recruits simply have not improved as linemen during their time at Florida. That is beginning to look like the case with former five-star D.J. Humphries, who was benched to start Saturday's game.

    Going forward, personnel could be an issue as well. Florida signed five offensive linemen in 2013 and have three committed for 2014, but seven of those players are three-star prospects. This is on the heels of Humphries being the only offensive linemen from the 2012 recruiting class still on the roster.

    Will any changes to the coaching staff be deemed necessary?

    Florida is on the verge of finishing with one of the nation's 20-worst offenses for the third time - No. 105 in 2011, No. 104 in 2012, No. 106 in 2013 - in Muschamp's three seasons as head coach. During that time, there has not been one offensive assistant coach relieved of his duties for performance reasons.

    It's safe to say that everyone aside from wide receivers coach Joker Phillips should be on notice. The aforementioned protection issues have to bring offensive line coach Tim Davis' name into the discussion. Florida's tight ends have devolved into a group of blocking-only specialists that have somehow not helped a stumbling offensive line.

    Muschamp must seriously evaluate both the coaches he has on the offensive side of the ball, as well as the Nick Saban-like tendency he has to control what his offensive coaches are allowed to do.


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