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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Florida (7-6, 3-5)

Taking stock of Florida’s offense in two points:

1. The Gators went 5-3 when holding opponent to 21 points or less. From 1990, Steve Spurrier’s first season, through 2010, Urban Meyer’s last, Florida lost only six games when allowing 21 points or less. Only one of those losses came under Spurrier. In 1998, the Gators lost to Tennessee, 20-17, in overtime. Another two came under Ron Zook: 17-14 to Mississippi in 2002 and 20-17 to the Rebels a year later. There would have been more, but Zook was relieved of his duties after the 2004 season.

Another three came during Meyer’s wildly successful stint in Gainesville, believe it or not. During Meyer’s debut season, in 2005, Florida gained only 206 yards of offense in a 21-17 loss to L.S.U. in Baton Rouge. In 2007, Wes Byrum’s last-second field goal gave the Tigers a 20-17 win in Gainesville. In 2010, the Gators hit rock bottom in a 10-7 home loss to Mississippi State.

Each of Florida’s three such defeats in 2011 was uglier than the last. Auburn, which couldn’t stop anyone all season, held the Gators to 194 yards of offense and forced three turnovers in a 17-6 win. South Carolina’s 17-12 win in November was the program’s second straight in the once one-sided series. The defense held Florida State to 95 yards of offense; the offense, thanks to three turnovers, mounted only one scoring drive.

2. The Gators ranked 111th nationally in third down conversions. Florida converted on 51 of 159 tries, a success rate of 32.1 percent. That sandwiched the offense right between two-win Mississippi, at 110th, and one-win New Mexico, at 112th. Conversely, Florida ranked second in the F.B.S. in third down defense; only Alabama did it better.

Only twice, in wins over Florida Atlantic and Ohio State, did the Gators convert at least 50 percent of their chances on third down. Florida converted a total of 15 third downs in its six losses. That’s out of 75 tries — a success rate of 20 percent. The low point came against the Seminoles, when the Gators were 2 of 15 on third down.

For a sample size of ineptitude, see how Florida fared on third down over its final four games of SEC play — against Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The Gators went a combined 13 of 48 on third down over these four games, with six of those conversions coming in the lone win, over Vanderbilt.

Thirty-five failed conversions. Sixteen via incomplete passes: two against Auburn when needing five or less yards and one against Vanderbilt when needing two yards. Six on complete passes that didn’t net enough yardage: twice against Georgia on 3rd-goal from the 7. Five on sacks, with two each against Auburn and Georgia.

Eight on running plays that ended short of a first down. Consider this series: Florida takes over at the Georgia 45; Jeff Demps gains two yards on 1st-10; he adds six on 2nd-8; on 3rd-2, Florida gives it to Trey Burton, who is stuffed at the line of scrimmage; after two timeouts and a delay of game, Florida punts from its 42. This was Florida’s offense.

Like Ohio State, its opponent in the Gator Bowl, Florida’s roster was one of the youngest and least experienced in program history. Entering the season, Florida’s 148 returning starts — career starts among returning players — was the third-fewest in the SEC. The 37 returning starts on defense ranked last in the conference.

Florida’s depth chart at the end of the season featured 37 freshmen and sophomores, which tied the Gators with Tennessee for the most in the SEC. Florida played 51 first- and second-year players altogether, the second-highest total in program history; Meyer played 55 such underclassmen in 2007. Florida had nine scholarship seniors on the roster, the program’s third-fewest since 1951.

There are your excuses. Yes, youth certainly played a role in Florida’s struggles offensively. But why didn’t the defense suffer a similar decline? After all, the defense returned only 37 career starts heading into 2011; the offense, on the other hand, returned 111 career starts.

Can you blame Will Muschamp for hiring Charlie Weis? Don’t let hindsight cloud your judgment: On paper, Weis brought a strong track record of pro-style results on the N.F.L. and college ranks. “Philosophically, he and I are on the same page with what we want to do,” Muschamp said of Weis, speaking to a crowd of Florida supporters last May.

“We want to be balanced on offense. You have to be able to run the football to win games in our league consistently. You can’t be a one-dimensional team in our league and survive the season.”

After helping the Kansas City Chiefs lead the N.F.L. in rushing in 2010, Weis failed to get Florida’s ground game going over his lone season in Gainesville. And that was the offense’s fatal flaw: the Gators couldn’t pass, obviously, and needed the running game to carry the offense as a whole. No such luck. Weis went down in flames, though he landed on his feet.

It’ll be up to former Boise State coordinator Brent Pease to shift Florida’s focus back to the running game. In hiring Pease, Muschamp took a cue from his former boss, Mack Brown, who last season tabbed another former Chris Petersen disciple, Bryan Harsin, to remake his too-timid offense.

That hire worked — or has worked, based on the results of one season. Expect Pease to take Harsin’s framework and bring it to Gainesville: less finesse, more power, more of the traditional running game that Boise has used to such great effect over the last half-decade. It is that simple? Well, yeah. Sort of.

Pease will improve Florida from top to bottom by taking care of the little things. First, find a quarterback. Next, start running with consistency on first down. Set up play action; Boise’s offense is unstoppable when the run sets up the pass.

Convert on third down. Don’t rely on the pass to convert on third down. Run in short yardage situations. Protect the quarterback. Get tougher, please. Don’t call for six-yard routes on 3rd-7. Be flexible. Whatever Weis did, do the opposite. Be the anti-Weis.

Season grade: C- A few noteworthy streaks were kept alive. Florida posted its 24th straight winning season, the longest streak in the country. The program has not posted a losing season in 32 years, since that great 0-10-1 year in 1979; this is also an F.B.S. high. Another current record: Florida reached bowl play for the 21st straight season. The Gators beat Tennessee for the seventh year in a row. There’s your good news. The bad? Losses to Alabama and L.S.U. by a combined score of 79-21. That loss to Auburn, which was horrific. The program’s fourth loss to Georgia since the series moved back to Jacksonville in 1996. A second straight loss to South Carolina. A second straight loss to Florida State. It was a season to forget.

High point The 24-17 win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. The victory kept Florida’s streak of winning seasons alive, for starters. It also pushed the Gators into the offseason on a high note; while I’d hate to create any real comparison between the two teams, Meyer’s first squad, in 2005, capped its season with a bowl win over Iowa. A national title followed. Then again, so did Tim Tebow. He’s not walking through the door for the Gators in 2012.

Low point Any number of SEC losses. Losses to L.S.U. and Alabama indicated just how far Florida has to go before returning to the SEC and national title hunt. Florida State’s win, though ugly, did illustrate one painful fact: the Seminoles own the Sunshine State.

Offensive M.V.P. Running back Chris Rainey averaged 95.3 yards per game in the six wins in which he played. In Florida’s six losses, on the other hand, Rainey averaged 48.2 yards per game. Fellow back Jeff Demps had 83 combined offensive touches against Florida Atlantic, U.A.B., Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Furman and Ohio State — all wins. In his six remaining games, missing Auburn, Demps had 28 total offensive touches. Silly, this offense, and terrible. Florida didn’t have one offensive player earn postseason recognition by the SEC.

Defensive M.V.P. On the other hand, the defense was pretty good. Only one F.B.S. opponent, L.S.U., gained more than 377 yards of total offense. Alabama scored 38 points, but that total wasn’t as impressive as it seems: the Tide scored one defensive touchdown and had scoring drives of 46 and 29 yards. The engine behind Florida’s defense was a front seven that starred only one senior, tackle Jaye Howard, and featured at least four sophomores in substantial roles. Rush linebacker Ronald Powell began flashing his potential, leading the Gators with six sacks. Howard added 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Junior linebacker Jonathan Bostic led the team with 94 tackles. Despite its youth, Florida’s front seven might have been tied with South Carolina’s for the third-best in the SEC — behind Alabama and L.S.U., of course.

Stock watch The defense is already there. And this group will be even better in 2012: 10 returning starters — the team leader in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions — as well as 19 of the 22 players on the final two-deep. With the defense in place, all eyes return to the offensive side of the ball. This unit’s progression will define Florida’s season; in addition, this hire, bringing in Pease, may define Muschamp’s entire tenure. There will be growing pains, but Pease has one factor in his corner: his first offense can’t fare any worse than last year’s inept offense. All the offense needs to do is score 24 points per game; if Florida averages that total during SEC play, it can easily add two wins to its three-win conference total of a year ago.

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Comments

  1. Gotham Gator says:

    Great stuff. I will be forwarding this around to my friends.

    A few things, big and (mostly) small.

    You can’t overstate the impact of Brantley going down on the last play of the 1st half against Alabama. To that point, he had shredded Tennessee and Kentucky and had thrown for 190 yards against the Tide. The rest of the way, the Gators had to play untested true freshmen or a hobbled Brantley, and it showed.

    You didn’t mention the offensive line, which was terrible all season. It was the reason Brantley got hurt and why Florida couldn’t run the ball or protect the young QBs. There is a reason why Weis isn’t the only offensive coach not returning next year.

    It wasn’t just the 4th loss to Georgia since 1996, it was the 4th since 1990.

    The FSU loss hurts even more. It gives them huge momentum in the series and, by extension, in recruiting. Sad, because it was our defense’s best performance since the win at LSU in 2003, but was wasted by total incompetence on offense.

    Finally, and only because my mom was a 7th grade English teacher, it’s “21 points or fewer” not “21 points or less.”

  2. Jon says:

    Doesn’t FSU have 36 consecutive winning seasons?

    Paul: Well, they’ve won more games than they’ve lost for more than 24 years. But the Seminoles had to vacate wins in 2006 and 2007. So by the N.C.A.A.’s standard, F.S.U.’s streak ended during those years.

  3. Lee says:

    Spot on Gotham.

    UF will be a much inmproves team this year for several reasons.

    1. Returning experience everywhere.
    2. Muschamp is Making Pease adjust his playbook to Weis’s old one. This way the players don’t have to learn a completly new system. Pease is just going to add to it which is nice. Smart move in my opinion.
    3. The defense is going to be nasty.
    4. The schedule is much easier.
    5. THe offense will be a little better bc the o-line will be better.

  4. Lee says:

    improved…hahaha wow my typing is awful.
    completely…..on a roll this morning.

    Forgive me, I haven’t had my coffee this morning.

  5. Nick says:

    UF has the second longest streak of winning seasons… FSU went 5-6 in 1976 and hasn’t had a .500 or losing season since!

    What’s next, you guys claiming the longest bowl streak too? :-)

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