We continue to press on with our 2011 opponent preview series. We’ re up to the Florida game. If you missed a past opponent, here are the ones we’ve covered so far: Mississippi State, Clemson, Florida Atlantic and Arkansas.
- Head coach: Will Muschamp (1st season at Florida; was defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas)
- 2009 record: 8-5 (4-4, 2nd SEC East), beat Penn State 37-24 in Outback Bowl
- Returning starters: 7 (5 offense, 2 defense)
- Total offense: 350.9 ypg (10th SEC, 82nd nationally)
- Total defense: 306.5 ypg (2nd SEC, 9th nationally)
- Series: Auburn leads 42-38-2
- Last meeting: Auburn won 20-17 in Gainesville in 2007
- Consensus prediction: Third in SEC East
Five-week schedule glimpse
- Oct. 1: Alabama
- Oct. 8: at LSU
- Oct. 15: at Auburn
- Oct. 22: Off
- Oct. 29: vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville)
After three seasons off the schedule, Florida rotates back on. And there are big changes from the last time the Gators and Tigers met on the field. Urban Meyer is out; Muschamp is in. The spread offense is out; the pro-style is in. It’s a whole new ballgame in Gainesville. Muschamp is a first-time head coach, but he’s been given the keys to the kingdom in a football haven.
To see how well he’ll do, I went to Rachel George of the Orlando Sentinel. Follow her on Twitter here and read her work here. Also, big thanks to her for knocking out these questions just before her vacation (because I didn’t send them until the last second), even though I ended up having to postpone the start of the series. Here are her answers to a few questions:
AB: Florida didn’t waste any time hiring Will Muschamp after Urban Meyer resigned last December, but he’s a first-time head coach and, at age 39, one of the youngest in the league. Obviously he has all the credentials to be a great head coach, with the pedigree to boot, but how do you think he’ll transition to running the show for the first time in his career?
RG: One of the big questions from outside the program is whether Muschamp can be that same fired up coach as he was when he was a coordinator. He earned the nicknames Coach Boom and Coach Blood for a reason, and former players say it feels like he wants to put on a helmet and get into the game. Muschamp has maintained that he’s going to be himself, but I suspect he would tone it back a little bit. Teams reflect their coaches, and he wouldn’t want the Gators to be so volatile.
A lot has been made of Muschamp’s age – he’ll be 40 next week – but he’s surrounded himself with some experienced coaches. Certainly, Charlie Weis is the most well-known of that group, but someone like offensive line coach Frank Verducci has been in the business for a long time. He’ll learn things just because he’s never been a head coach before, but he’s got people on his staff who aren’t afraid to speak up. That will help.
AB: The Gators’ offense was a mess by the end of Meyer’s run last year, but Muschamp overhauled the scheme by hiring Weis from the NFL ranks. Weis has made a career of developing quarterbacks. Will he be able to work some magic with John Brantley, a talented player who struggled last year as a first-time starter?
RG: Magic might not be needed since Brantley’s skills should better fit this offense. By all accounts, he’s adjusting under Weis and learning. While Brantley certainly had a difficult year, it’s necessary to point out there wasn’t many good things going on around him. Despite the experience on the line, it underperformed at times. Deonte Thompson, who was expected to be Florida’s best receiver, had problems with drops all year. No other receivers really distinguished themselves. And the Gators were struggling to manufacture a running game for much of the year with Chris Rainey suspended for five games and Jeff Demps hurt. So, yes, I think everyone is expecting Brantley to have a better season in part because the hope is those around him will be better.
AB: Weis’ pro-style offense is an adjustment from the spread attack Meyer employed. How long of an adjustment period are the Gators in store for? Will it be a jumpstart to players like Rainey and Thompson, who had down seasons last year? And what will happen with Trey Burton, who dabbled in a bit of everything last season?
RG: The offense is the big unknown, which is why a lot of people are leaving the door open for the Gators to surprise them despite an incredibly difficult schedule. Rainey was suspended for five games, but made an impact when he returned. Thompson, for his part, said he hopes for his best season and that he and Brantley are doing well in the new offense. Of course, they had high expectations last year as well.
Burton will be a factor, but not at quarterback. Muschamp said in the spring that he wouldn’t play there, but can play several other offensive positions. He’s one of the smartest players on the team, so I think the expectation is that he can affect the game wherever they put him.
The biggest question mark, to me, is whether the receivers can prove something this year. They’re high on potential, and Muschamp hates that word. He says it means they haven’t done something yet, but they really haven’t. It’s a mostly young group with a lot to prove. Fortunately for them, it seems there will be plenty of chances in the new offense.
AB: Muschamp is a defensive coach at heart, so he’ll obviously take a larger role on that side of the ball. How do you think he tweaks a group that lost nine starters from a year ago to better fit his preferred style of play? And what are the biggest concerns for the defense?
RG: Given all that Florida lost on defense, no one really knows what it could look like. Muschamp is happy with the tackles, with upperclassmen Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter providing some experience while sophomores Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley were some of the top recruits in their class. There’s a lot of questions at end, where Florida had two seniors last year. Ronald Powell, the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2010, will play a hybrid end-linebacker position called the buck. Again, a lot of potential but not a lot of unknowns.
At linebacker, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are the best two returning players, but neither had great seasons last year. Muschamp retained linebackers coach D.J. Durkin, and I’d expect him to help Durkin get more out of this group.
The secondary is probably the area of greatest concern, with strong safety and defensive leader Ahmad Black getting drafted and weakside safety Will Hill leaving early for the draft. Janoris Jenkins’ departure from the team after his second marijuana-related arrest this year leaves a huge hole as the All-SEC corner transferred to North Alabama. Jeremy Brown is the most experienced player, but has missed a lot of games with injuries. In short, Florida could have a lot of growing pains in the secondary.
AB: Meyer had some historic recruiting classes in the latter part of his time in Gainesville. Who are some players from those groups that are going to burst on the scene this year?
RG: Well, many of them have been mentioned. That 2010 class was one of the best, if not the best, in the country, and many experts say it was the best defensive haul in the past 20 years. Floyd, Easley, Powell and safety Matt Elam were all some of the best at their positions nationally and will have a chance to make an impact this year. On offense, receiver Ja’Juan Story is someone who could have an impact as a freshman because of his size.
NCAA ’12 says …
No. 16 Auburn 28, No. 15 Florida 16. Barrett Trotter threw two touchdowns, Mike Dyer added another and linebacker Daren Bates had a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ victory. Philip Lutzenkirchen had six caches for 99 yards. Dyer had 64 on the ground and Onterio McCalebb added 66. Auburn improved to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the SEC.
That will do it for the Gators. This should be an interesting matchup after the long layoff in the series. Games against Florida always seem to be memorable ones. Big thanks to Rachel for helping me out on this one.
Up next: LSU.