Unlike most members of the media, coaches, fans and even the other contributors on the Grit Tree, I think Florida will have a “down season”. Now, a down season for the Gators is one where they aren’t beating every opponent by 40 points and aren’t contending for a National Championship. I am not saying they won’t be good; I am not saying they won’t win the SEC East. I am saying the Gators won’t be as good or great as they have been in recent years and a preseason #4 ranking is preposterous.
Reason 1: Replacing Legends
Like him or not (and I don’t ), Tim Tebow was the greatest player the SEC, even college football, had seen since Herschel Walker was stalking the goal lines. Don’t even look at his talent-his leadership made him valuable, too. Yes, it was cheesey. Yes, it was douchey. Yes, Tebow was obnoxious every time he celebrated a three yard gain. But you can’t deny his leadership ability. Look what kind of leadership Florida has now.
Florida lost Tebow, star receiver Riley Cooper and tight end Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was an absolute monster. He was an exception athlete who was also open for big gains at crucial times. He also was a weapon in short yardage; I don’t know how many times we saw Tebow do that shovel pass to him.
You don’t have to look any further than UGA to see what happens when a team must replace great players at once. UGA’s offense went from being one of the top ranked offenses in the SEC and being very dynamic in 2008 to being inconsistent in 2009 (despite having good ppg vs SEC opponents). The losses of Stafford, Moreno and Massaquoi were very apparent last season. Florida has always recruited great. Brantley appears to be poised to be the next great Gator QB. They still have Rainey, Demps and Moody. But you honestly can’t expect to lose 3 talented, NFL caliber, integral parts of your offense and not expect some speed bumps along the way.
And that’s just on offense skill positions. The defense must replace all three starting linebackers-Ryan Stamper, Dustin Doe and who else? Um, let’s see…I don’t know-Brandon Spikes. The Gators must also replace star DE Carlos Dunlap. The transition to a 3-4 defense will provide some growing pains (as it will for UGA) and, while has recruited well in the secondary, Florida has to replace a lot of talent in its front seven.
Again, they have recruited exceptionally well and have fast, talented players waiting in the wings, but you must expect some sort of regression after losing all talent they have lost. You just can’t replace a Tebow, Spikes and Dunlap overnight.
Reason 2: Loss of Great Assistant Coaches
Again, you don’t have to go any further than Georgia to see how the loss of a good assistant(s) can have a negative impact on a team-see Brian Van Gorder. In College Football, attrition from both the players AND assistant coaches can be detrimental.
It is easy to trace the demise of Bobby Bowden to 2001 when Mark Richt and Dave Van Hallanger left Florida State.
In 2007, LSU’s strong defense led by Bo Pelini that helped lead the Tigers to a BCS National Championship. In 2008, LSU’s defense plummeted (worse that UGA!) to dead last in the league.
Pete Carroll had great teams at USC in the early-mid 2000s. In 2009 Pete Carroll had his worse season since his first year at USC. Now Matt Barkley isn’t Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer or Mark Sanchez, but USC had some great assistants over the years, too. Norm Chow, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Ed Orgeron, etc… When a team loses top players, you can recruit more. Finding great assistants and coordinators is harder to replace year in and year out.
Charlie Strong has been a great defensive coordinator at Florida and South Carolina. So good, Urban Meyer retained him following the Zook era. Florida’s defense under Meyer/Strong was 18.8, 13.5, 25.5, 12.9 and 12.4 points per game from 2005-2009. Except in 2007 when the Gators faced major personnel losses the Gators’ defense has been their strongest area on the team-and that’s saying something!
Dan Mullen has been with Urban Meyer since he was at Bowling Green. Florida went from scoring 44.9 ppg (!) in 2008 to 27.6 ppg in 2009. It may take some time, but Dan Mullen is going to bring Mississippi State back to consistent credibility-and has some swagger to go along with it.
By my count, 7/9 Florida Assistant Coaches are either in their 1st or 2nd year in the Gator Program. QB and Tight End Coaches Scott Loeffler and Brain White are in their second year. Stan Drayton (RB), DJ Durkan (LB), Zack Azzanni (WR) and Teryl Austin (DC/Cornerbacks) are in their first seasons in Gainesville. The pieces of the puzzle that were there when the Gators had their great success aren’t there anymore.
Reason 3: Schedule Gets Tougher
Florida replaces Arkansas for Alabama in the SEC West rotation. The Gators must replace Charleston Southern with South Florida. The Gators will easily handle the Bulls, but South Florida has proven they are capable of playing good football. In a span of 3 weeks, Florida must go to Knoxville and Tuscaloosa. Tennessee won’t give the Gators much a problem, but the Tide will. The toll of traveling to two large SEC environments in 3 weeks will be a test to this team.
Even if Florida beats Alabama, you know the Crimson Tide are going to be a tough game. LSU is a team I think will surprise people this year. Florida must play Alabama AND LSU in back to back weeks. Even if LSU isn’t good, you know it is going to be a physical team and John Chavis’ defense-that held Florida and all its stars to 13 points last year-will not be a push over. Two tough, emotional and physical games in back to back weeks could spell trouble.
Depending on how well Jimbo Fisher has Florida State going Thanksgiving weekend, the trip to Doak Campbell could be pesky, too.
Just the addition of Alabama to the schedule makes it tougher.
Again, Florida could be good this year. Can they still win the SEC? SEC East? Sure. But to expect another 12-0, 11-1 regular season with the personnel losses, attrition of great assistant coaches and a tougher schedule is unrealistic . The Gators will come back to earth in 2010.