Florida football enters the 2014 season at a crossroads, in desperate need of an offensive overhaul that, with the arrival of Kurt Roper, is seemingly already on its way.
Coach Will Muschamp enters this season firmly planted on the hottest seat in the SEC in large part because of an abysmal offense that floundered without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and other key parts in 2013.
Credit Muschamp for taking the necessary first step in dramatically improving his team—evaluating offensive trends and looking for an innovator to spice up an all-too-vanilla attack.
Now comes the hard part.
Muschamp must resist all temptations to circumvent Roper from running exactly the system he was hired to run.
So far Muschamp has said all the right things—that he loves what Roper is doing.
It’s even easy through the first three games of the year—when the Gators host Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. The real test comes in the following weeks, when Florida faces far more daunting challenges against teams like Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
During defining moments in season-altering games, will Roper have the green light to run his offense?
Pat Dooley of The Gainesville Sun asked made a similar inquiry Thursday when he described it as “the million-dollar question.”
Dooley’s point is well-taken, though it’s more like the multimillion-dollar question considering buyouts and salaries of today’s SEC coaches.
Muschamp, like all SEC coaches, recently wrapped up his tour of ESPN facilities to preview the coming college football season.
During his appearance on ESPNU’s College Football Podcast, Muschamp told host Ivan Maisel that he made the change because he wants to run more up-tempo offense.
He also said Florida hasn’t changed its philosophy on offense—that the program wants to run the ball when it needs to run it and throw when it needs to throw.
In a perfect world, Muschamp said multiple times during his Bristol, Connecticut, visit, the Gators would prefer a 50-50 balanced offense.
Doing so would mark a substantial departure from the fourth-year coach’s history.
Duke quarterbacks attempted at least 30 passes in eight of 13 games last season.
Florida has done so four times out of Muschamp’s 38 career games. Worse, the Gators are 1-3 in those four games with their lone win coming in Muschamp’s first game—a 41-3 win over Florida Atlantic.
Driskel enters this season with exactly one 30-pass game to his credit—a largely disastrous performance against Miami last year that was marred by miscues.
The only other time Driskel attempted more than 27 passes came in the 2013 Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville—another game the senior would just as soon forget.
Muschamp won’t be the first SEC coach to attempt a mid-career switch from one offense to another.
Having a high measure of success would mean bucking the recent trend.
Muschamp made a wise—or perhaps lucky—career move by escaping one disaster at Auburn.
When Tommy Tuberville lost faith in Al Borges’ system, he turned to Tony Franklin from Troy. Franklin, a former Hal Mumme protege, fancied an aerial assault that set up the run by throwing the ball effectively.
Muschamp and Franklin coached one game together—the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl in which Auburn defeated Clemson in overtime.
After the season, Muschamp left Auburn to claim the same post at Texas.
Spring and preseason camps saw the infusion of positive headlines for Auburn. Receivers previously buried in the run-heavy offense were suddenly expected to break out, as was the winner of the Chris Todd-Kodi Burns quarterback battle.
The beginning of the season even seemed fine, with the Tigers handily beating Louisiana-Monroe and Southern Miss.
Then came the infamous 3-2 game at Mississippi State. Yes, the Tigers won—and beat Tennessee two weeks later—but the offensive struggles were obvious.
Tuberville never fully turned over the offensive reins to Franklin.
He didn’t call offensive plays, but his input left Franklin trying to run an offense that was neither his own nor productive.
Tuberville fired Franklin midweek after an especially punchless loss at Vanderbilt. The Tigers finished the season 5-7, resulting in Tuberville’s departure from the program.
Franklin, like Roper, didn’t bring with him a single assistant coach from his last stop.
So when Tuberville lost faith in Franklin’s system, the offensive coaches reverted back to training the variations of offense they knew.
Maybe Muschamp learned from the mistakes committed by his former boss.
But Tuberville certainly isn’t the only coach to fall into that trap.
Look at Houston Nutt, who turned to Gus Malzahn to spice up his offense at Arkansas in 2006.
By the second game of the season, Nutt had marginalized Malzahn’s role in the offense to the point that not even a division title kept Malzahn from leaving for the same position at Tulsa.
Dooley also pointed out in his column that former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer tried to replace David Cutcliffe with Dave Clawson in 2006.
Running Clawson’s offense, the Volunteers slumped to a pathetic offense season. Before the year even ended, Fulmer lost his job at Tennessee.
So even when coaches do allow coordinators to run their systems, the end result isn’t always positive.
Coincidentally, of course, Roper served as Cutcliffe’s offensive coordinator for six seasons at Duke.
Muschamp hired Roper to breathe life into a flat-lining offense.
Now, whether Muschamp likes it or not, his best bet would be to allow Roper to run the system that made him a hot-name prospect.
That means staying quiet when a critical, late-game 3rd-and-2 pops up and Roper calls a pass instead of an inside handoff.
It means believing in game plans even when they fly in direct opposition of what Muschamp envisioned when he first took over as Florida’s head coach.
Muschamp, one of the sharpest defensive minds across the nation, finds himself at a crossroads in large part because his offensive philosophy is no longer relevant in college football.
Like a good manager, Muschamp hired someone with greater expertise in a specific area. Now he needs to avoid micromanaging or downright meddling.
Muschamp is all-in on his bet that Roper can save his job.
He would be wise to remember that all season.