Preseason countdown: No. 14 Florida

Will Muschamp’s grace period ends … wait for it … wait for it  …


There’s no excuse for this to not be another wildly successful era of Florida football, at least in theory. Muschamp, the former Texas defensive coordinator who’s succeeding legendary Urban Meyer, is as groomed and as any assistant can possibly be – he probably was ready for this gig five years ago. And he doesn’t have to go it alone.

Charlie Weis as an offensive coordinator, even at a reported $2.625 million over the next three seasons, is a ridiculous steal.

And defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a great hire considering the Gators’ front four, with the right teaching, is more talented than the Seattle Seahawks line Quinn coached last year.

The coaches are in place, the infrastructure of Florida athletics is peerless, and the cupboard is fully stocked with one of the five best talent bases in the country, if not No. 1.

Everything is set up perfectly for a good coach to step in, turn the key and win very, very big right away, meaning there’s more pressure on Muschamp than just about any other recent new coach has had to deal with.

Les Miles stepped in for Nick Saban at LSU and had to keep the national-title-caliber program rolling, but that’s about it when it comes to recent seamless transfers of power at big-time schools.

Lane Kiffin walked into a train wreck at USC; Derek Dooley will have streets named after him at Tennessee because he’s not Kiffin; Bo Pelini was an instant hit at Nebraska because he wasn’t Bill Callahan; Brady Hoke already has succeeded at Michigan by not being Rich Rodriguez; Al Golden is taking over the Miami job from an ineffective Randy Shannon; Brian Kelly had the luxury of following Weis at Notre Dame; Jimbo Fisher was seen as an energy boost for a stale Florida State; Saban was seen as the savior from the moment he blew off the Miami Dolphins for the Alabama job; and woe to Luke Fickell as he dives into the mess in Columbus.

By comparison, Muschamp has everything set out for him on a silver platter, and that includes the climate. Meyer might be a legend, but he also overstayed his welcome, leaving the program in desperate need of some fresh air. Fortunately for Muschamp, the 2010 recruiting class didn’t quite see it that way, bought into the line of bull muffins Meyer was slinging about how he’d be the head man at Florida for several seasons, and now there are plenty of fun toys to play around with.

Rebuilding needed to be done last year no matter what, and while going 8-5 is jump-off-a-bridge time in Gainesville (if you can find a bridge there), it really wasn’t a total disaster considering that it was the first year after Tim Tebow, that NOTHING worked on offense and that puck was on the team’s stick against South Carolina with a chance to win the East title.

This year, the right coaching staff is in place to handle a pro-style quarterback in John Brantley and a slew of potential superstars on defense.

Weis has the quarterbacks to tutor and has speedsters in running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to utilize. If the line can be merely adequate, the attack can take an express boat and should be devastating. It might take a little time, and this offseason wasn’t exactly inspiring, but Weis knows how to get an offense moving when he’s not a head coach.

The defense was good last year and should be phenomenal this season if and when everyone matures at the same time, led by a line that might the best Muschamp has ever had to work with. There’s more star power on the way from the incoming recruiting class for an already ultra-athletic secondary, and the linebacking corps should have a strong rotation to work around rock-solid starters Jelani Jenkins and Jonathan Bostic.

Muschamp’s job is to take what he’s been given and let the machine run.

He already has taken a page out of the Meyer paranoia playbook by closing off practices. That could either mean he’s taking care of business early on after a disappointing season, or it’s the first sign of pressure in a win-or-fail job. Either way, there’s no room for losing, considering there’s no rebuilding to be done; a few adjustments need to be made.

Muschamp’s measuring stick will be national titles, with an "s.” He has the program, he has the support, he has the talent, and he has the right SEC division to be in.

Welcome to the head coaching job, Will. Now win the SEC title.

What to watch for on offense: The line. Rainey, Demps, and Mack Brown form a devastating trio of speedy backs who could dominate with a little room to move. Brantley has all the talent in the world, but the senior quarterback isn’t going to rebound if he doesn’t get more time. The problem is a line that returns banged, bruised, and in need of finding the right combination with four new starters to employ. It’s a big line, and there are plenty of good young talents, but the blocking should be far better next year with everyone but guard James Williams returning. Weis’ lines were awful at Notre Dame, doing little for the running game and struggling in pass protection in 2009, and with the running game finishing 100th in the nation in 2008. If the Gators’ line doesn’t show more after getting blown up by the Gators D line this spring, any dreams for a big season will be over immediately.

What to watch for on defense: The emergence of the defensive line. There’s talk of moving around alignments from time to time from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but why? The Gators are relatively thin at linebacker and are loaded up front. If the tackles can stay healthy, there will be a two-deep rotation better than any in America. William Green needs to step up at one end, while Ronald Powell is on the verge of superstardom on the other side.

The team will be far better if: The passing game is efficient early on. Call the Florida game the equivalent of the jump shooter who needs to come up with a deep three to get the confidence going. All season long it seemed like all John Brantley needed was a slump-buster. If he could have had one good, confidence-building performance, the floodgates would’ve opened. That game never came, the passing game was depressingly inefficient, and the offense didn’t work. Brantley, or possibly star freshman Jeff Driskel, has to get the midrange passing game going early, needs help with some yards after the catch, and could use a little luck.

The schedule: By far … BY FAR … this is the toughest schedule in the SEC. Welcome to the league, Muschamp, now you have to get your feet wet by facing Alabama, Auburn and LSU, with road games against both the Tigers teams. If that wasn’t a big enough lousy break, the Gators have to go against a loaded South Carolina team in Columbia. In one of the roughest stretches anyone in America has to face, Florida gets the Tide at home on Oct. 1 and doesn’t play in the Swamp again until Nov. 5, with Vanderbilt the only home game until Nov. 19. Playing three of the final four games at home will help, starting out the year with four of the first five games in Gainesville is a plus, and playing Furman a week before a showdown against a strong Florida State squad will help. The week off is before the Cocktail Party against Georgia.

Best offensive player: Senior RBs Demps and Rainey. The coaching staff, as well as the Gator Nation, would love nothing more than for Brantley or Driskel to turn out to be the star of the show, but early on the idea will be to utilize the veteran speedsters, Demps and Rainey, in a variety of ways. They’re the home-run hitters, and they’re the gamebreakers who bailed out the team at times, especially Demps early on, and they have the ability and potential to combine for over 2,000 yards of total offense.

Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Powell. There are so many tremendous young talents up and down the Florida defense, the "best player" tag could rotate by the week. Safety Matt Elam has NFL skills and could be the defense’s breakthrough star, while tackle Sharrif Floyd will be some pro team’s inside anchor sooner than later. Tackles Jaye Howard, Omar Hunter and Dominique Easley all are special, and linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins should get more respect as steady producers. However, the one standout of the lot should be Powell, the superstar, No. 1-overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. With an NFL-ready body right now, and with a defensive back-like burst off the ball, he needs to be the pass-rushing terror many hoped he’d by from the opening snap of last year.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Brantley. There’s enough raw talent and enough athletes on both sides of the ball to win the SEC title if everything breaks right, but it’s not going to happen unless the light goes on for Brantley. If the keys are handed over to Driskel, it’s officially time to look ahead to the 2012 season. If Brantley can be the next-level passing talent he was expected to become coming out of high school, the sky’s the limit.

The season will be a success if: Florida wins the SEC East. Things might not be back to national-title form quite yet, but it shouldn’t take much to be the best team in the division. The problem is the schedule with the three brutal road games against LSU, Auburn, and South Carolina, to go along with the home date with Alabama, which will make just winning the division and getting back to the title game a major achievement.

Key game: Nov. 12 at South Carolina. The Gators have a brutal schedule with several major landmines to sidestep, but when all is said and done the East should come down to the showdown in Columbia. It’s the final game of Florida’s SEC regular season, and coming off a date with Vanderbilt the team should be relatively rested and ready. After dealing with Alabama, at LSU, and at Auburn early in the year, there’s almost no way, no how the Gators can afford to lose to the Gamecocks and still play for the SEC title.