WILL MUSCHAMP sees the sign and swerves. He is about to swing his Mercedes sedan into a parking spot in front of a private air terminal in Gainesville, Fla., but the placard makes clear that the spot is reserved for someone who isn't Muschamp. "I'm not the Employee of the Month," Florida's football coach says. "That's for damn sure after 4--8."
After he finds a space, Muschamp walks through the terminal and boards the six-seater that saves him time but occasionally leaves him close to puking. Small planes have always tested Muschamp's stomach, though not as much as the 2013 season. On this sticky May afternoon, six days after his father, Larry, died at 79, Muschamp spends a bumpy 25 minutes en route to Lakeland, where 500 have gathered in a barn of a meeting hall to hear how Muschamp intends to pull the Gators out of their tailspin. Muschamp takes the stage to a standing ovation. He explains how much he loves Polk County. "It's one of my favorite stops. I can't say it's my favorite. That usually makes somebody mad," Muschamp says. "Folks, after going 4--8, I don't need to piss anybody else off."
If Muschamp, 43, seems to be quick to point out last year's record, he prefers that to having anyone think he is hiding from it. Sure he could explain how he lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken right fibula), backup quarterback Tyler Murphy (sprained right shoulder), mercurial but unstoppable defensive tackle Dominique Easley (torn right ACL), top running back Matt Jones (torn left knee cartilage), starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (sprained left MCL) and right-tackle-turned-left-tackle Tyler Moore (compound right-elbow fracture), but none of that matters. Florida isn't supposed to go 4--8. It isn't supposed to lose to Georgia Southern. At home.
If a player came into the coach's office with a case of the poor me's, Muschamp would jab a thumb toward the 17-inch steel rod that once held his lower right leg together. Muschamp broke the tibia and fibula playing high school baseball, and the injury transformed him from an SEC-caliber recruit at safety into an SEC-caliber walk-on. Before Muschamp began playing at Georgia, his doctor removed the rod, and Muschamp's mother, Sally, placed it in a shadow box and presented it to her son. Muschamp has displayed the rod in his office throughout his coaching career. It's a reminder that what happens to a man doesn't matter; what matters is how that man responds to what happens. Terrible misfortune befell the Gators in 2013. They responded with 4--8. Muschamp can't sulk about the circumstances. He wouldn't accept that from his players, so he can't accept it from himself.
Instead Muschamp laughs when a fan in Lakeland tells him that the clip of two Florida players blocking each other against Georgia Southern has finally stopped running on ESPN's "Not Top 10." "That," Muschamp tells the fan, "was the gift that kept on giving." He remains quiet when another fan offers coaching advice: "You've got to throw the ball down the field this year. The crowd does not like it when we don't." If Muschamp were as unstable as his on-field demeanor suggests, his face would twist into that soul-eating stare that the television cameras always seem to catch, and nose to nose he would say, "Well, it's tough to throw the ball down the field when your third-string quarterback is playing behind third-string linemen and your best back is out, allowing the defense to drop seven or eight on every play—unless we wanted to call guaranteed interceptions." Except Muschamp would lace his tirade with an unprintable adjective, which he also uses as a participle and occasionally as a gerund. He doesn't do this. He simply smiles through gritted teeth. Yes, he'd rather be in his backyard, with salmon in his smoker and assistants calling from the recruiting trail, than dealing with a second-guesser who probably thinks quarters coverage has something to do with a pay phone. He can't. He went 4--8.
TO TRY to change Florida's fortunes, Muschamp had to first admit a mistake. When he arrived in December 2010 after three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Texas, he pledged to run a pro-style offense similar to the ones Alabama and LSU used to dominate the SEC. Muschamp's first coordinator hire was Charlie Weis, who left to become the coach at Kansas after one lackluster season. In 2012, Muschamp tapped then Boise State coordinator Brent Pease, whose offense finished 92nd in the nation in yards per play (5.25), just enough to complement a suffocating defense that lifted Florida to an 11--2 record. But Pease couldn't cobble together an effective game plan with his banged-up personnel in '13, and the offense finished 110th, with 4.79 yards per play. That number fell to 3.53 during a seven-game losing streak to close the season. During the final weeks the Gators looked as if they were running into a brick wall repeatedly while hoping for a different result each time. Muschamp doesn't blame Pease for this failure, but he fired Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis anyway. Then he swallowed his pride.
When Muschamp was with Texas, he mocked the hurry-up style that dominated the Big 12. He called such schemes "look-back offenses" because the players at the line of scrimmage routinely turned to the sideline to get play calls and adjustments from their coaches. After last season's failure Muschamp decided to ride the hurry-up wave by hiring Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Roper has a pro-style background, having worked repeatedly with Manning whisperer David Cutcliffe at Tennessee (twice), Ole Miss and Duke, but he had experimented with the no-huddle while working for offensive coordinator Joker Phillips at Kentucky in 2005. In '07, Cutcliffe and Roper decided to shift into hurry-up mode, with Cutcliffe pressing Roper to cut the time between plays each year. "I thought we were going faster," Roper says. "Then he'd chew my ass." Last year the Blue Devils averaged 72.6 plays a game, 5.87 yards a play and won the ACC Coastal Division. That isn't Oregon or Baylor fast, but it was faster and far more effective than the Gators' offense. "Kurt is really, really smart," Cutcliffe says. "One of the things he'll bring to Florida is a better way to communicate offense."
That streamlined communication system turns a play with a name such as Flip Right Duo Florida 468 Bench into a play called Ace Bench by teaching skill players various assumptions that allow them to line up correctly without excess verbiage. At the same time, Roper has a few one-word plays that can be run as quickly as six seconds after the previous play ends. Driskel, now healthy, will take most of his snaps in the shotgun. He and the rest of the offense will hurry to the line and receive a signal from the sideline. On most downs Roper will give Driskel the option to throw, hand off or keep the ball with no change in the protection scheme. "If you ask defensive coaches, they can't tell whether it's run or pass," Cutcliffe says. "They have no idea." Driskel, who was originally recruited out of Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.) High to run Urban Meyer's spread-option, will find himself doing something similar, mimicking Tim Tebow more than Danny Wuerffel.
Muschamp says he chose to drop the pro-style scheme after an examination of Florida's explosive plays from 2012—there weren't enough in '13 to even bother counting—showed that most occurred out of the shotgun. It's quite a departure for the coach who boasted after winning at Florida State in '12 that teams "better learn to [stop] the power and the counter when you play Florida." Has Muschamp gone soft to save his job? Roper contends teams still must stop the power to stop Florida. It will merely look different. Under Pease the Gators called power God's Play, because when run perfectly, it could feel like divine wrath to a defense. In it, a fullback or H-back kicks out the defender at the end of the line on the play side, while the backside guard and/or tackle pulls to lead the way for the back. This allows the other linemen to crash down on unsuspecting defenders, beating them with geometry before the ball is snapped. Pease would run God's Play with as many as seven offensive linemen on the field. Roper won't do that, but he'll still run plenty of power. As he was speeding up the offense at Duke, Roper always marveled at Oregon. He wondered: How are they running for 300 yards a game? He realized that because the Ducks used the entire width of the field, the defense couldn't pack the box. "Do you know where the biggest benefit is in the spread game? It's in your run game," Roper says. "Why? Because people have to defend everything on the edge."
That's especially true if the defense has to account for the possibility that a speedy 6'4", 230-pound quarterback might keep the ball. "This is what he was recruited to Florida to do," Muschamp says of Driskel.
WHEN MEYER resigned from Florida for the second time, in December 2010, Driskel still had a chance to change his mind and go elsewhere. In the class of '11, Rivals.com ranked Driskel ahead of Ohio State's Braxton Miller, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Louisville's Teddy Bridgwater, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and a three-star recruit from Kerrville, Texas, named Johnny Manziel. Driskel was the can't-miss prospect of the group. He had a huge arm and was almost as big as Tebow, but with better wheels. Even after Muschamp declared his intention to keep his quarterback under center, Driskel didn't waver. "I committed to a school, to a program," Driskel says. "One player, one coach, one season is not going to define the program. That was my thought process."
Driskel won the starting job in 2012, beating out Jacoby Brissett and leading the Gators to victories over four teams (Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, Florida State) in the top 14 of the final Associated Press poll. Yet they often won in spite of their offense. That '12 defense, which has produced three NFL first-rounders—so far—suffocated opponents. It allowed 4.35 yards a play (fourth in the nation) and 14.5 points a game (fifth). Driskel had avoided costly mistakes, but he was a minor part of Florida's success.
The Gators saw no reason to tinker with the formula in 2013. In fact, the offense grew even more conservative after Brissett transferred to N.C. State. With Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg—unheralded recruits—as backups, the coaches didn't want to risk calling runs for Driskel. It was a smart idea, but it wasn't enough to spare the quarterback. During a Sept. 21 game against Tennessee, Driskel broke his leg getting tackled while throwing. For six weeks he puttered around campus on a scooter. He didn't walk for two months. He couldn't travel with his teammates for road games, so he sat on his couch helplessly and watched the Gators' season circle the drain.
The darkness lifted slightly on New Year's Eve. Driskel spent the night with some friends in Tampa but kept an eye on the nearest television. Roper had been hired less than a week earlier, and he was coaching his final game at Duke against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-a Bowl. Driskel watched the Blue Devils' receivers repeatedly get open, a sight that hadn't been seen much lately in Gainesville. He saw Duke's quarterbacks with options on most plays; that certainly hadn't been the case for him. The Devils lost, but only because of a vintage Johnny Football performance in his final college game. Roper's attack had rolled up 661 yards and 48 points.
The new offense, Driskel thought to himself, might work. Three days into spring practice Driskel was even more convinced. It felt natural, and the pace of play meant that he couldn't dwell on mistakes, a bad habit that had plagued him before. Maybe Roper's scheme would allow Driskel to prove he was as good as his advance hype suggested. "Coming in, I was highly recruited and pumped up by sportswriters, by fans," Driskel says. "I just think it's time to show people that I'm a football player and that what I've shown in the past isn't always me."
Driskel's teammates, meanwhile, want to prove 2012 was accurate and '13 was the anomaly. While Muschamp must address 4--8 until the Gators kick off their season against Idaho on Aug. 30, Florida players have buried it—and not in a figurative sense. During a 90-minute May meeting to discuss the summer training session, strength coach Jeff Dillman tossed Muschamp and the position coaches from the room and told players to list all their reasons for the failures of '13. Dillman had an assistant jot down every reason the players offered on a sheet of paper. "They threw it all out there," Dillman says. "I said, 'O.K. Are we done with that? Anybody else got anything to say?' " Dillman wrote 4--8 across the top of the page and folded it up. After the meeting wrapped, he led the players out of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, across Gale Lemerand Drive and onto the practice field. The team formed a circle. Dillman showed the Gators their list one last time. "I took a shovel, I dug a hole and I buried it," Dillman says. After he filled the hole, Dillman made every player step on the spot where 4--8 was interred.
DRISKEL WORKED a pair of jobs this summer, and he found himself answering the same questions at each. Whether he was slicing brisket at 4 Rivers Smokehouse or operating as a utilityman at the Ironwood Golf Course, the customers always wanted to know two things.
1) How is the offense going to look?
2) Is Muschamp going to get fired?
"Obviously, we're behind our coach 100%, but we're not playing to save his job," Driskel says. "We're playing for the University of Florida. We're playing for each other." Besides, the only man in Gainesville who can decide whether Muschamp stays or goes is Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. It was Foley who, in 2002, explained to the AP that he dismissed successful-but-slipping baseball, tennis, gymnastics and track coaches in rapid succession because "if something needs to be done eventually, it needs to be done immediately." Foley fired Ron Zook in 2004, seven games into his third season as Florida's football coach. That move paved the way for the hiring of Meyer and two national titles. So why, given that history, is Muschamp still at Florida?
Because to Foley, 2013 didn't feel like '04. When Foley hired Muschamp in December '10, he envisioned an annual contender by December 2015. Foley still believes Muschamp can get the Gators there. He didn't feel that way about Zook. "Will gives me that confidence. I've been around him," Foley said. "He won 11 games the year before. I don't think that was an accident. I don't think he just rolled the balls out." Foley appreciated that Muschamp never developed a case of the poor me's. "Not one time did he make an excuse," Foley said. "Not one time. He just went to work."
Of course, Foley knows his judgement isn't infallible. Another season close to 2013 would alter that gut feeling. Unlike the callers to sports talk radio shows across the Sunshine State, Foley doesn't have a magic number that will determine whether Muschamp keeps his job. "I've never, ever, ever, ever, ever in my 23 years as athletic director told a coach he had to win X number of games, or you have to beat this team or you have to go to this bowl," Foley says. "We need to be better. We need to be in the hunt. We'll be able to tell at the end of the fall. Are the Florida Gators better? Are the Florida Gators headed in the right direction?"
Foley will watch and evaluate, and at some point he'll know if he made the correct choice in 2010 or whether he'll have to start over. Muschamp, meanwhile, has bet that Roper and Driskel can produce an offense that deserves to play alongside Florida's defense. "At the end of the day college coaches are always on the hot seat," Driskel says of Muschamp. "They're always getting evaluated. That's nothing new. But I think after this year, those questions will be gone."
Indeed. Those questions will disappear. One way or the other.
In the class of '11, RIVALS RANKED DRISKEL AHEAD OF Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota and even Johnny Manziel.
110 Florida's offensive ranking out of 125 FBS teams in 2013, based on a season average of 4.79 yards per play.
72.6 Number of offensive plays a game Duke averaged under Roper last year, when the Blue Devils won the ACC Coastal Division.
Photograph by Jason Parkhurst For Sports Illustrated
LATER GATORS Florida has been putting in the hours to install a hurry-up attack after its worst season since 1979.
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DRISKEL)
DOWN IN THE MOUTH Injuries to Driskel (6), Easley (2) and Moore (73), among others, put Muschamp (opposite) on his heels.
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (EASLEY)
[See caption above]
DOUG FINGER/THE GAINESVILLE SUN/LANDOV (MOORE)
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KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS
[See caption above]
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DOUG FINGER/THE GAINESVILLE SUN/LANDOV (ROPER)
BLUE BLOOD Roper will teach Driskel (bottom) all he learned at Duke in hopes of reviving an offense that yielded two BCS titles for Gator Nation.
STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES (DRISKEL)
[See caption above]