<
>

Florida's football program at a crossroads

8/26/2014

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sitting in a freshman humanities class, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III learned the harsh reality of losing in a Gators uniform.

The class was "What is the Good Life?" -- a required course for freshmen -- and students were asked to list their short-term life goals. With three football players -- Hargreaves, linebacker Matt Rolin and defensive back Nick Washington -- present, a student said she'd like to attend a Florida football game and actually see the Gators win.

Her words and eyes pierced through the players, shooting a humbling feeling through their bodies.

"We really couldn't say anything because we didn't win so she was basically telling the truth," Hargreaves said.

It was an uncomfortable reminder of one of the worst seasons in Florida football history. A rash of injuries and loss of leadership resulted in a disastrous 4-8 year, the first losing season for the Gators since 1979 and a missed a bowl for the first time since 1990.

"People are going to bash Coach [Will] Muschamp, they're going to bash us, even around campus," Hargreaves said. "… If you don't win at Florida they're going to talk about you, and they're going to talk about you right to your face."

As the Gators enter Year 4 of the Muschamp era, they'll do so with the program at a critical crossroads. Rebounding could throw a program six years removed from its third national championship back on its intended track. Another let down could send Florida into a tailspin.

There is no Urban Meyer for athletic director Jeremy Foley to hire if Muschamp doesn't work out. Florida can't afford to fall any further behind Eastern Division rivals Georgia and South Carolina, and the gap between instate rival Florida State is already wide enough. Not to mention, Miami, which beat Florida and won nine games last year, and Tennessee are having recruiting resurgences.

Florida's own recruiting has been successful, but coaching turnover could cut into that, leaving unknowns for the future.

There's panic and unrest in the Gator Nation, as Florida finds itself in a make-or-break situation in 2014.

Muschamp isn't blind to that reality. While he refuses to publicly acknowledge any sort of talk surrounding his job, which he's very much coaching for this fall, he understands how important this season is for a program that won 11 games two years ago. There's a reason he decided to completely change his offensive philosophy and hire former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will run an uptempo, spread offense.

So far, Muschamp has liked the progress made during practices. The offense is moving more smoothly and the defense still has the patented Muschamp bite to it.

"I feel like everything is headed in the right direction, personally," said Muschamp, who is 22-16 at Florida. "Every year is a pivotal year. I don't put any more pressure on myself, I don't work any harder than I worked last year. I worked hard last year so it's not like I have renewed energy. ... I was energized last year."

"I'm excited about this football team and moving forward."

What this team -- and Muschamp -- has to show is significant improvement. That will start with an offense that finished last year's regular season ranked 112th in total offense, but end with more victories than losses.

How many wins? That's yet to be seen, and athletic director Jeremy Foley has even come out recently and said that he has no requirement for Muschamp, he just wants progress.

That means a competitive offense, a team in the postseason and some sort of run toward an Eastern Division title. Winning the East probably isn't a must for Muschamp, but being in the race late in the season could be.

Florida has a certain standard it should be living up to, and losing to the top teams on its schedule -- even by the smallest of margins -- isn't good enough. This is a program used to winning, not settling for close losses.

"This is the best team chemistry I've been around ever since I started playing football," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "I feel good about this year. I think this year's going to be special.

"We have a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys with bad tastes in their mouths and they're just ready to get it out."

After a year that featured an embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern, any sort of positive news out of a camp comes with cautious optimism for fans. For a program that achieved wild success in the 1990s and won two national titles under its last coach, Florida hit a wall last season.

Now we find out which direction this team will propel the program in.

"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Muschamp said. "You get your ass kicked enough and you get tired of it and you decide to do something about it. That's what this team has done."