Will Muschamp's biggest test of the year comes on Saturday.
Of course, that title sounds kind of crazy, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Five weeks ago, after the Bowling Green debacle, many Gators fans—myself included—were grumbling about how Florida would waste another season accomplishing nothing and how Muschamp better prove himself quickly.
Well, he did prove himself. But only for a limited time. This is the Southeastern Conference, where success isn't forever. By walking into Texas A&M and Tennessee's houses and rudely destroying their valuables (Tennessee's season, Texas A&M's SEC debut), Muschamp bought himself a few more weeks. Beating Kentucky accomplished nothing.
Then came the LSU game.
As impressive at it was to completely and utterly dominate last year's co-best team, it probably gave Muschamp only the rest of the year in terms of job security. If, heaven forbid, Florida loses seven straight games, Muschamp wouldn't be fired but would easily be on the hot seat come 2013.
Having said that, let's remember that every Gators coach in history has had huge wins. Let's stick with Ron Zook since he is still somewhat fresh in our minds.
Zook had as many huge wins as any Gators coach over a three-year span. He had an enormous collection of them, starting in 2002 with wins at No. 4 Tennessee (30-13), No. 5 Georgia (20-13) and No. 22 Auburn (30-23 in OT). 2003 included wins at No. 6 and eventual national champion LSU (19-7) and No. 4 Georgia (16-13), and in 2004, of course, Florida wrecked Bobby Bowden's special night by upsetting eighth-ranked FSU 13-10 in Tallahassee.
Any good recruiter can win a big game. At some point, the team with great talent is going to beat the team with great talent and great coaching. That happens when the former team plays and executes just two percent better than the latter team. Upsets happen sometimes. That's football.
But you know what happened before and after each of those victories stated above? The Gators would have the tables flipped on them and be upset. In each of Zook's three seasons at Florida, the Gators lost five games. They'd win some big ones and then lose some bad ones.
While I don't think that Florida's win over LSU was an upset, I do think that Muschamp has to have his team extremely alert on Saturday. I'm not saying that Muschamp is anything like Zook, but just that up to this point, their profiles match up extremely well. Through a season and five games, Zook's record at Florida was 11-7, with two big wins. Muschamp's record so far is 12-6 with two big wins. Both are defensive coaches. Both were surprise hires.
In essence, it's time for Muschamp to pull away from Zook because so far, he hasn't done it yet. Again, Zook won plenty of big games in his time at Florida, but what he didn't do was win the trap games. Don't get me wrong, trap games are not easy, or else they wouldn't be called trap games. It takes a great coach to get his team through them. Unfortunately for Zook, Florida expects greatness and nothing less, as he found out when Jeremy Foley fired him.
James Franklin has definitely put his stamp on Vanderbilt. His Commodores team is not only a legitimate SEC team with bowl appearances and SEC wins, they are a legitimate threat to upset you if you mess around. They almost did it to Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas last year and almost did it to South Carolina this year.
In particular, Vanderbilt has been playing pretty well so far at home. They gave Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina the biggest scares of all, and all three of those games were in Nashville. Jordan Rodgers seems to have extra confidence throwing the ball in the comfort of his home stadium, his defense seems to fire off the ball quicker and even Franklin seems to coach better at home.
But the good—and bad—news is that Vanderbilt has never won the big game under Franklin. It's good because the recent trend is on Florida's side, but it's bad because Vanderbilt will be that much more desperate for a big win. Franklin is still looking for that elusive signature win as Vandy's head coach. Missouri and Kentucky don't fall in that category, and Franklin knows it.
Florida, the team that just knocked out LSU from the BCS Championship picture, provides the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. At 2-3, Vanderbilt's preseason goal of making a better bowl game than the Liberty Bowl, Music City Bowl or BBVA Compass Bowl appears dim. Starting out 2-4 would be an absolute death sentence for that dream, with at least four of their remaining six games being tossups. 3-3, however, puts them in a mighty good position to win eight games, and Florida just so happens to be the team in their way.
Plus, there's the whole thing with, you know, Vanderbilt not having beaten Florida since Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President (1989, to be exact).
If Vanderbilt is going to beat Florida, they're going to have to stop Mike Gillislee, who has to be licking his chops at the stats of Vanderbilt's run defense so far this year.
Marcus Lattimore's 110 yards on 23 carries wasn't an aberration or simply a case of a great running back. Nor was it even the best performance against Vanderbilt. Todd Gurley of Georgia, who ran for 130 yards on 16 carries, owns that distinction. Other impressive performances include Venric Mark of Northwestern (123 yards) Kendial Lawrence of Missouri (92 yards) and Keith Marshall of Georgia (82 yards).
If the Commodores can't stop those guys, what exactly do they plan to do to stop Gillislee, who is coming off of a 146-yard, two touchdown performance against the supposed co-best defense in the nation? With a shockingly stout offensive line blocking for him, Gillislee knows he could have a huge day and maybe break into the Heisman race with another 100+ yard effort. He's made it clear he wants 1,500 yards this season, and against Vanderbilt, he's counting on picking up a good chunk of that.
But it's this kind of talk that leads to an upset. On paper, Gillislee should run for circa 200 yards and four touchdowns, and Florida should roll. But then again, Tim Tebow was supposed to lead the Gators to 70 points against Mississippi a few years ago, and that didn't happen. This is why the games are played.
It's the upset losses that derail a team's championship hopes. It's the trap games that can ruin great seasons. Losing big games doesn't always hurt as much. Look at what happened to Alabama after losing to LSU last year. They merely dropped one spot in the polls, came back and beat LSU for the national championship. Of course, a loss to a divisional opponent could also cost you a trip to Atlanta—or at least bowl game positioning—if both teams finish tied with the same record.
But a loss in a trap game is always devastating. Always. If you're lucky enough to lose that trap game early, like Florida did to Mississippi in their fourth game of 2008, then you can survive the divisional race...but only by clobbering everybody else in your way, no matter how good.
The Gators survived a midseason loss to Auburn two years earlier, but that was due to a string of shocking late-season upsets that can never be counted on to happen again.
We're now in the middle of October. Florida doesn't have the offense to destroy their highly ranked opponents and impress pollsters enough to jump up in the rankings. That's the one drawback to Nick Saban's football philosophy—his teams are incapable of blowing teams out unless their opponents do it to themselves.
Getting to the BCS Championship Game requires your team to be one of the two most impressive teams in the nation according to the pollsters, who account for two-thirds of the rankings. The best way to impress the voters, who are often quite clueless (but that's a discussion for another day) is to win by big margins. They just see the numbers of your victory, that's all. To them, a 59-20 victory in which your team was up only 24-20 after three quarters is far more impressive than a 16-0 shutout of a team that never got across midfield. The voters like big numbers, and therefore, big offenses.
Instead, Saban likes to wear teams down with the ground and pound, put up 20 points or so, and whatever else happens is courtesy of his opponents self-destructing. See Alabama's games against Michigan and Arkansas for clarification.
Which Game Is Bigger For Muschamp?
Florida has one of the best students from Nick Saban's coaching school, which means that we can pretty much expect to see the same thing from Muschamp. So far, we have. I don't think Florida's offense has scored more than 21 points in any game without the other team turning the ball over.
Nor do I care. Florida is winning games, and nobody can argue with an undefeated record and an SEC championship on their resume.
But when this type of team has a loss, it becomes very difficult to overcome in terms of the BCS Championship. Yes, Alabama did it last year, but without Oklahoma State being stunned by Iowa State, Stanford falling to Oregon, Boise State choking against TCU or even Houston losing to Southern Miss, their chances of making it to the championship game would have been much slimmer. Alabama had zero control over each and every one of those games. They got lucky.
If even one other team had finished undefeated, Alabama would have risked SEC haters ignoring the fact that Alabama was 11-1 in the nation's toughest conference and picking the undefeated team—even if that team was Houston. We all knew that Alabama was better than Houston, but such is the partiality of some of the voters against the SEC who are looking for a reason to vote Alabama out of the BCS Championship, or in some cases, the downright stupidity of some of the voters who simply take the undefeated team over the one-loss team.
Don't test these voters. They were the ones who voted unbeaten Cincinnati, champions of the "Big Least," ahead of once-beaten Florida at the end of the 2009 season. Florida crushed Cincinnati 51-24, and the Gators stopped trying one drive into the third quarter, leading 37-3.
They were also the ones who voted Alabama ahead of Utah after the 2008 season. That's bad enough. Even worse, however, was the report in Death to the BCS that none of the voters had even watched a single live minute of Utah football all year.
The biases and the stupidity vary by year. But just like death and taxes, you can be sure that in some form, there will always be biases and stupidity reflected in the polls. In 2008, the SEC was just beginning its BCS dominance. It was kind of fun for voters to watch the SEC run college football at first.
But nobody is amused any longer. The streak is now at six years and believe me, any voter who does not love the SEC will be looking for an excuse to dump a one-loss SEC team out of the BCS Championship Game.
The thing is, there are still plenty of pro-SEC voters, and they can sway the rankings. It's just much easier to do if Florida's one loss was to LSU rather than Vanderbilt.
If Muschamp can pull his Gators through against the Commodores, he will avoid all that and prove that he is indeed a great coach that doesn't let his players let their guard down against anybody, no matter how bad or how desperate they are.
At least, for another week.