- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was a rough first year for Will Muschamp in Gainesville, but he did pass his first year with the Gators:
A year removed from the offensive disaster that was 2010, immediate improvement was expected. With Charlie Weis and his pro-style offense coming in, quarterback John Brantley was expected to rebound after his first year as the Gators' starter. There was just no way things could get worse for this offense. Florida was near the top of the SEC in offense after the first four games, and had a star in running back Chris Rainey, but after getting blasted at home by Alabama everything changed. Brantley was sidelined for two games after going down with an ankle injury before halftime, and undersized Rainey and Jeff Demps just couldn't get going against SEC defenses. The offense completely fell apart. Starting a young, very thin offensive line, the offense averaged less than 300 yards in eight league games. Florida relied on true freshmen quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel while Brantley was down, but experience was all Florida got from them. Florida also had no consistent receivers and Weis bolted for Kansas after the season, leaving Florida with an offense that's No. 101 nationally.
Overshadowed by a bad offense was the Gators' up-and-coming defense. Florida flew around the field when opponents had the ball and were one of the more aggressive Gator defenses we've seen in a while. Opponents converted third downs just 27.7 percent of the time. The defensive line play was expected to be better, but the Gators got a lot out of tackles Dominique Easley, who is out for the bowl game with a knee injury, and Jaye Howard. We also saw improvement from linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who combined for 157 tackles. The secondary was very young and overly aggressive at times, but improved throughout the year. Safety Matt Elam was Florida's best defensive player, ranking second in tackles (72) and leading with nine for loss. He also broke up seven passes. But Florida struggled with discipline, becoming susceptible to silly penalties, and forced just 12 turnovers. There were also times when it looked like Florida’s defense wore down from opposing running games. Growth is needed, but Florida still ranks 10th nationally in total defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Kicker Caleb Sturgis was the star of this group. Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist, connecting on 21 of 25 field goals, including hitting three of his five from 50-plus-yards. Florida was in the middle of the pack in punting with a 37.3 net average, but only allowed 99 punt return yards. Florida also blocked four kicks. Jeff Demps scored on a kickoff return, and Rainey returned a blocked punt for a score. Opponents netted 44 yards on kickoffs against the Gators and Florida was 11th in the SEC on punt returns, averaging 5.8 yards per return. Also, two muffed punts doomed Florida against Auburn.
It was a rough transition year going from the iconic Urban Meyer to Muschamp. The offense failed to take a step forward under Weis' watch and Muschamp ended the regular season by calling his team soft. (It might have been his best coaching move all year.) There was no shortage of athleticism, but the team never turned the corner on offense and was undisciplined a lot of times on defense. Penalties and a lack of toughness reflect on the head coach, and Muschamp owned up to that. Florida is 6-6 and had its first losing record in conference play since 1986, but made a bowl and has a chance at a 24th straight winning season.
1dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf