Florida Gators: Brent Pease


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Somehow, Florida coach Will Muschamp has done a good job blocking out the Gator Nation seemingly tumbling down around him.

Only a couple months removed from an embarrassing 4-8 campaign that delivered the Gators' first losing season since 1979 and no bowl appearance for the first time in more than 20 years, Muschamp has stayed steady. He's a prideful man who breathes football and removed himself from last year's tumult almost immediately.

His job is very much on the line in 2014, but as Muschamp walks through Florida's football offices toward his own lavish hideaway, Muschamp's stride is steady, his head up. He greets an assistant with a massive smile before delivering a brawny handshake to a reporter. He's calm, yet still possesses an edge about him -- a certain endearing intensity. His office remains as tidy as any coach would allow, but there's no unnecessary clutter.

That's just the way he wants his coaching life as he enters a critical fourth season and spring in Gainesville. A year ago, he eyed a national championship after an 11-win season and a BCS bowl berth. Now, he's stitching together a squad mangled by injuries and self-doubt.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida coach Will Muschamp believes the pieces are in place for the Gators to turn things around in 2014.
"You are what your record is," said Muschamp, whose team lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including 10 starters, last season and had 25 players miss a combined 126 games due to injury. "The worst you can do is have the Band-Aid approach of, 'Well, we had a bunch of guys get hurt.' That's absolutely the worst thing you can do because that creates release syndrome for how miserable the year was."

The hard-nosed, robustly built Muschamp, who was born in Georgia but grew up in Gainesville, insists that isn't occurring. Players are going through the process of improving, shutting out last season to get faster, stronger and turn their attention to 2014.

He knows that outside his program, negativity is pounding at the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, demanding change. Some wanted him fired and everyone wants this storied program fixed. Muschamp, who has gone 22-16 during his three seasons at Florida, knows he must prevent that toxicity from touching his players.

"They understand what's out there," he said. "The biggest thing is to stay process-oriented in what we do and our approach.

"To me, more than anything, is focus in the now, not in the what if. We can't get into the what-ifs of life. Let's just get into the now, and that's going to help us as we move forward."

That's why workout intensity has surged and offensive players and coaches are learning a new scheme under a new coordinator. That's why the mentality is about getting better, not winning anything. Victories won't come without vast improvement, both physically and mentally.

"I think we're coming around as a team," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the 2013 season with a broken leg. "I don't think we're coming around an individual or a new coach. I see a lot of guys who are embarrassed about last year and are ready to get back on track and win some games because we all know that the Florida Gators aren't supposed to be a 4-8 program."

Muschamp can see leaders forming. Adversity, including a historically humiliating home loss to FCS Georgia Southern and a seven-game losing streak to end 2013, pummeled this program last year. Through any sort of adversity this team has faced during his tenure, Muschamp said he's found guys he could really depend on. Last season might muddle the vision, but Muschamp sees the right pieces for a turnaround.

"It's kind of like when there's water in a boat," he said. "When the water starts leaking in the bottom of the boat, those rats float to the top and you start to see those rats. And those rats are not here anymore, so we need to move forward.

"When you start questioning their effort, that's when you start questioning the buy in. I never saw that [last season]. I see a lot of guys who have lot of pride about playing at the University of Florida and understand about competing and moving forward. We have a bunch of guys committed to this program."

That commitment stretches beyond players. Coaches are held accountable, too. For all the injuries Florida suffered, the absolute necessity for the Gators in 2014 is enhancing every aspect of the offense. That's why Brent Pease was replaced by Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator. The former Duke coach is installing more of a spread approach with more shotgun, tempo and zone-read in hopes of rectifying an offense that has ranked in the 100s nationally in each of Muschamp's three seasons.

Roper's scheme won't get away from Florida's rugged rushing approach, but it should help Driskel, who will be 100 percent for spring practice, be more comfortable, see the field better and be an actual throwing threat. It'll also help him use his legs more, an element that has always made Florida's offense more potent.

"Moving forward, we're in a better situation for them," Muschamp said of his offense.

Really, Muschamp feels that way about his entire team. The Monday following Florida's season-ending 37-7 loss to Florida State, Muschamp called a team meeting to discuss Florida's present and future and said he immediately felt his team's resolve and sensed the woe-is-me attitude disintegrating after delivering a "very to-the-point and matter-of-fact" message about the state of the program.

There's still too much to fix in Gainesville for one meeting and one offseason training regimen to handle, but the chemistry is evolving. Players are responding and appear to be quietly rallying inside the Swamp.

"We're going to bounce back from it," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Sometimes you need things like that just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody's humble, everybody's ready, everybody's a team guy. I'm really looking forward to it. It should be fun."

Muschamp says he can change

December, 2, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis have been sacrificed as a way to wash away the sins of Florida's 2013 offense, the spotlight shifts to head coach Will Muschamp.

For such a strong-willed leader, for such a defensive-minded coach, the obvious question in regards to his offensive philosophy is, "Can Muschamp change?"

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesThe Gators' inability to score points became a weekly post-game complaint from Will Muschamp.
After his team was drubbed one last time last Saturday in a 37-7 loss to Florida State that saw his Gators generate just one score, eight first downs and 193 yards, Muschamp was quick to answer that question.

"Perception is not always reality," he said and then repeated himself for emphasis. "Perception is not always reality. So, I'm willing to do what we need to do to score points and win games."

It's doubtful that portends a complete shift to another style of offense, however. Since Muschamp arrived in December 2010, he has recruited for the pro-style offense. He installed it on the heels of Urban Meyer's spread-option, and it has taken years to usher in the personnel required for such a drastic change. It's extremely unlikely a head coach on a hot seat would scrap the base offense and start over.

What is more likely to change is the heavy emphasis on a downhill running game that was designed to shorten games by hogging time of possession.

That approach worked to perfection with Florida's stout defense and strong special teams in 2012. Even with one of the nation's worst passing games that averaged 146.31 yards and ranked 114th out of 123 FBS schools, the Gators won 11 games and defeated four top-1o teams on their way to a BCS bowl.

This year, injuries on defense and new faces on special teams conspired to spotlight the shortcomings of Muschamp's offensive philosophy. The Gators' margin of error had always been small, but without a reliable defense and kicking game, it shrunk to a level of absurdity.

By the end of the dismal 2013 season, one interception, one sack-fumble, one drive that ended in a missed field goal was enough to torpedo the entire team's fragile psyche. Muschamp started calling out his "inept" offense, saying it had "infected" the rest of the team.

The need to change was obvious to Muschamp, the players, the fans and most importantly to Muschamp's boss, athletic director Jeremy Foley.

"Will is going to figure those things out," Foley said to reporters in giving his embattled coach one more vote of confidence before the FSU game. "I do think in this league playing good defense is important, and that's why I hired Will. I think he's done that. But we do have to fix that side of the ball.

"No disrespect to anybody. That's just reality. You look at the stats and some of the scores that have caused us problems. We'll get that fixed. We're going to have to get that fixed, and I think we can."

An offense that was built to do more than run could have pivoted this season, taken on more of the burden to win games and help salvage a passable season instead of the 4-8 quagmire that resulted.

The final outcome -- 112th in the nation and last in the SEC in total offense, 107th in the nation in passing offense, last in the SEC in scoring -- forced Muschamp's hand.

"We need to take a look at ourselves schematically with what we’re doing," Muschamp said. "There have been some things that have happened that are very difficult to overcome, but schematically, there’s no question we need to take a look at ourselves."

Yes, the injuries were difficult to overcome. Any team that loses its top two quarterbacks, top running back and top three offensive tackles is in for a turbulent season. But this is Florida, where quality depth is more than just expected -- it's practically a birthright at a school surrounded by such fertile recruiting turf.

The offensive line was unable to pass-block in 2012 or before it suffered all those injuries this season. And when those injuries struck, there were no sophomores or redshirt freshmen ready to compete for starting jobs. It's no surprise Davis was fired.

The offense's inability to generate points became a weekly complaint from Muschamp in his recent post-game assessments. So much so that it was no surprise Pease was fired.

In replacing him, Florida will need an offensive mind that can devise multiple ways of attacking a defense, employ varying tempos and do a better job of developing skill-position talent.

It starts with Muschamp, who will hire his third offensive coordinator heading into his fourth season.

"I think obviously the first person you look at is yourself," he said. "That’s what you’ve got to be able to do and see where we are. I think as a coach, you’ve got to do what your players can do. That’s something I’m looking at."

No doubt the players will welcome a change. Even Muschamp's defensive players say they want the same thing.

"Right now, whatever they do hopefully is changed for the best," sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard said once the season was over. "Give us 21 [points] a game. If they can do that, then I would put the blame on us if they score 21 points or over. Hopefully change for the better, because what we're doing right now just ain't working."

SEC Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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We have a new No. 1 in our Power Rankings, and there's a chance that either of the top two teams on this list could back its way into the BCS title game:

1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.

2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.

3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.

4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.

This is where we find out how good of a coach Will Muschamp is and how much pride and heart Florida's players have.

The firing of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis means that the Gators will move in a different direction with their offense in order to attempt to rebound from a disappointing 4-8 (3-5 SEC) season.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp won't be fired after going 4-8 this season. But he needs to have a great season in 2014 to stick around.
“I think we need to take a look at ourselves schematically,’’ Muschamp said after Saturday's 37-7 home loss to in-state rival Florida State. “There have been some things that have happened that are very difficult to overcome. But schematically there’s no question we need to take a look at ourselves."

It's not like this should come as a surprise. Florida lost its last seven games of the season without scoring more than 20 points in any of those contests and finished the regular season with the SEC's worst offense, averaging just 316.7 yards per game and a league-low 4.8 yards per play. Florida also ranks 112th nationally in total offense.

The Gators suffered their first losing season since 1979 and will miss a bowl game for the first time since 1990.

Injuries on both sides of the football ravaged this team, especially on offense, but with Muschamp stating loud and clear that many things on offense have to change, this is where we will find out just how good he is, because there are no more excuses going forward.

While many in Gator Nation will say that Muschamp should have been a casualty as well today, athletic director Jeremy Foley made the right decision to stick with Muschamp. This season was a disaster, but Florida came off an 11-win season and a BCS appearance. Last season, Muschamp was the SEC Coach of the Year, and you'd be hard-pressed to find another staff that coached better in the second half of games. Also, most of 2013 was taken out of the hands of this staff at times because of devastating injuries.

Florida's injury count went into double digits, and lost four key offensive starters in Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and Andre Debose. Eventually, No. 2 quarterback Tyler Murphy, who never quite showed the potential and upside that Driskel possessed, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, meaning Florida was down to third-stringer Skyler Mornhinweg, who was on the practice squad last year.

The offense certainly went through the wringer, but if Muschamp is going to right the ship in Gainesville, he had to make changes. He had to make changes to an offense that regressed each week and was even near the bottom of the SEC barrel last season (334 yards per game). He had to make changes to an offensive line that gave up 27 sacks on the season, injuries aside. He had to make changes to a staff that didn't develop players well enough.

But by making these moves, Muschamp now has to win big in 2014. Year 3 was unacceptable in Gainesville, so Year 4 likely means that it truly is Atlanta or bust for Muschamp. Foley stood by Muschamp this time, but another fall or stagnation in 2014 will force Foley to have to look in another direction.

It's time for Florida to get over the fact that Urban Meyer left this team with a nearly empty cupboard of talent. It's time to get a more functional offense on the field that can move the ball through the air and on the ground and can actually score points. And it's time to develop the guys on both sides of the ball.

The good thing about Florida's injuries is that they will heal. Driskel, Jones, Green and Debose will be back, but they have to be better, as well. Florida needs legitimate competition at every position, and that's where coaching and recruiting comes in.

There's no question that Florida had some offensive misses in its last couple of recruiting classes. That can't happen in the 2014 class, which also has to keep its ESPN 300 prospects, running back Dalvin Cook, quarterback Will Grier and receiver Ermon Lane, who could all make immediate impacts next season. Finding replacement coaches is the crucial first step; keeping this 2014 class together is the second.

The honeymoon with Muschamp faded this year, but there's still time to turn things around, even if it's going to be a toxic time in Gainesville until Florida wins again. At the first sign of failure, this fan base is going to spit fire at its fervent coach, and players could lose trust.

Muschamp has to guard himself and his team against that. He has to instill some pride back into this program and has to make sure that his players don't lose faith, even if the fans have.

It's not going to be easy for a team that will likely take another hit to its defense with the upcoming NFL draft and now has a trip to Alabama on next season's schedule. It won't be easy for a team that went all "woe is me" late in the year. It won't be easy with Florida State, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee still on the schedule, but improvements have to be made.

This team has to compete, and we're about to find out if Muschamp really is the right man for the job.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 27, 2013
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We’re just a day away from Thanksgiving and the first SEC game of the week. It’s a good time to check out what’s going on around the league.

Pease hopeful despite uncertain future

November, 26, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Brent Pease said on Tuesday he hopes he'll return as Florida's offensive coordinator and feels he has earned the right to stay. But overall Pease sounded resigned about the uncertainty he faces after the Gators' season ends on Saturday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeBrent Pease
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsOffensive coordinator Brent Pease said on Tuesday that the Gators' injuries aren't an excuse for the team's woes on offense.
"You look at the first year and some of the situations and knowing the body of work and not just one, a game-to-game basis and situations we’ve been under," he said during a media session that was dominated by questions about his job security. "I hope any evaluations are looked at that way. But, you know, I understand things, too.

"I know you’ve got to win and have success. If it’s not meant to be ... I came into this with friends, and I’m walking out of it with friends."

The Gators offense under Pease has sunk in his second year at the controls. Florida averages 327.9 yards a game -- including 176 yards a game through the air -- and 19.9 points per game. All of those figures rank among the worst offenses in the FBS.

After Saturday's 26-20 loss to FCS Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp seemed to blame many of his team's struggles on the offense's inability to put points on the board.

"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard," he said. "We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now."

Pease's response on Tuesday?

"He has a point in the fact that you got to continue to change the game," he said. "I think, one, we went out, got ahead early and then we falter and not find some consistency and continue to find points here or there. I guess [we] struggle with confidence at certain points in time."

As all of the Florida coaches and players insist, however, it's only fair to factor in the devastating effect of injuries this season. Florida's offense is playing without its first- and second-string quarterbacks, its starting running back and three top offensive tackles.

Pease agreed that it would be unfair to evaluate his offense considering all of the injuries, but then said, "You don’t want to use it as an excuse because you’ve got to play with the kids you have."

He also said he feels he is on the same page with Muschamp, saying, "I know what his philosophy is." Muschamp has favored a conservative approach in his three seasons as coach, but he admitted on Monday that he plans to reevaluate his philosophy after the season ends.

Muschamp also said he would evaluate his entire staff, as he always does after the season. But with Florida's results -- a six-game losing streak, no bowl game and a punchless offense -- such promises from the head coach have taken on an ominous tone with regards to his coaching staff's future.

"If [criticism is] coming my way, then it's coming my way," Pease said. "That's something you've just got to kind of take the blows."

Pease is certainly not alone under the microscope.

"I think our staff, everyone -- coaches, players, everyone alike in that locker room -- we're all in a tough situation right now," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "I think Brent is just like everyone else. We're trying to teach our guys to respond well when you’re in a tough moment. Tough people do that, and Brent’s a tough guy. We’re all in this together. It’s not just him or any one person on the staff. It’s everyone. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play better, we’ve got to do a lot of things better, and we will."

For all of their struggles, the players still have their coaches' backs, expressing their confidence and support.

"I'm a big fan of Coach Pease and I always will be," senior receiver Trey Burton said. "I thank him for everything he's done for me and my family and the lessons that I've learned from him. I can't put into words how thankful I am for him."

SEC lunchtime links

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
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Talking quarterbacks, BCS bowls, penalties, turnovers and even a punter in today's edition of the lunchtime links:

Planning for success: Florida

October, 3, 2013
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After a 24-7 win at Kentucky, Florida is looking to continue the positive results in SEC play. The Gators (3-1, 2-0 SEC), who are tied atop the SEC East with Georgia currently, host SEC West foe Arkansas at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Here are a few keys to watch:

Something's got to give: Arkansas comes into the game with the SEC's top rushing offense, averaging a league-high 237 rushing yards per game. True freshman Alex Collins is sixth overall in the country with 597 rushing yards this season and the Razorbacks have a solid one-two punch at the position when you add Jonathan Williams (471 rushing yards) to the mix. Florida, of course, is boasting college football's top rushing defense, allowing a measly 53.5 yards per game. The Gators allow just 2.43 yards per carry. So watching the battle at the line of scrimmage when Arkansas has the football will be compelling.

Keep away?: While Arkansas likes to run the ball, so does Florida. The Gators lead the nation in time of possession, averaging 38 minutes and 58 seconds of possession time per game. That keeps an opposing offense off the field, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease isn't necessarily looking to grind the clock down all the time. Pease said that sometimes he'll "still stress that you want to have explosive plays and you hope you get those where you’re scoring in two or three [plays], which limits your time of possession." So the Gators will continue to look for opportunities to make big plays on offense.

Building on Kentucky performance: Sophomore running back Matt Jones had his best game of the season last week against Kentucky, exploding for 176 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. After missing practice and game time earlier this year because of a viral infection, it appears Jones is no longer feeling any effects that might have lingered. The Gators are fortunate to have another quality option in the backfield with Mack Brown, but Jones' emergence last week was key and he'll have a chance to build on it this week.

Continuing success at QB: Since being pressed into the lineup because of a season-ending injury to starter Jeff Driskel, quarterback Tyler Murphy has played well. He has completed 71.9 percent of his passes and has been a threat with his feet also, rushing for 120 yards. Pease said Murphy just needs to keep being himself. As long as others around him continue to do their job, all should be well for Murphy.

Improve the kicking game: Redshirt freshman kicker Austin Hardin missed a 53-yard field goal try last week and while long field goals are never easy, he is 4-for-7 on field goals (57.1 percent). That won't get it done if games are close and a field goal attempt is a deciding factor in a win or a loss. Hardin has been the lone successor so far to Caleb Sturgis, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist last year, but senior Brad Phillips is competing in practice with Hardin.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
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1. Avoiding the letdown: Georgia and LSU played a thrilling, memorable contest last weekend. But the Bulldogs and Tigers have SEC opponents on the docket Saturday, and it's imperative for each to not have a hangover from the previous week. Georgia travels to Tennessee, which struggled to beat South Alabama. LSU heads to Starkville, Miss., to meet Mississippi State.

2. First true test for Mizzou: Missouri is quietly undefeated (4-0) but has faced only one power-conference opponent so far (Indiana). Missouri hits the road for its first SEC game of the season at Vanderbilt, a team that has already suffered two SEC defeats (against Ole Miss and South Carolina). It's hard to know what to expect from the Tigers, but we know that both teams can pile up the yards and points, so it should be entertaining.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRETyler Russell is likely to return as the starter for Mississippi State on Saturday.
3. Tyler Russell returns: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen indicated that he plans to start quarterback Tyler Russell, who has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in the Bulldogs' season-opening loss to Oklahoma State on Aug. 31. Mullen did leave the door open, saying, "that’s still the plan, and we’ll see how it goes Saturday." But for now, it looks like Russell will start. Russell had a breakout season in 2012, throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns.

4. Missing Clinton-Dix: Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated that standout safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. While the timetable, and the violation itself, is unknown, don't expect it to have a major impact, at least in the short term. Alabama has a layup of a game this week against Sun Belt squad Georgia State, and though the Crimson Tide resume SEC play after that, they'll get a struggling Kentucky team. So if anything, the timing of an absence for a star defensive player is good because the Tide can use the coming weeks to develop younger players such as Landon Collins and Geno Smith.

5. Low-scoring affair in the Swamp? Florida's methodical offense hosts an Arkansas team that isn't afraid to run the football, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be three yards and a cloud of dust Saturday evening. Arkansas showed that it can be an explosive offense and that it can throw the football when starter Brandon Allen returned from a shoulder injury last week and helped the Razorbacks keep up with No. 9 Texas A&M. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week that he still wants his team to have "explosive plays." Florida looks to remain unbeaten in SEC play; Arkansas is looking for its first SEC win under Bret Bielema.

6. Bounce back for Ole Miss? The Rebels’ offense was shut down in its showdown with No. 1 Alabama. The unit managed just 205 yards in a 25-0 loss. Now Ole Miss must go back on the road, traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face an Auburn team that's coming off an open date. Gus Malzahn's crew suffered its first loss of the season against LSU on Sept. 21 If Ole Miss plans to stay in the Top 25, it has to bounce back with a strong performance on the road against the Tigers.

7. Similar backgrounds, philosophies: Speaking of Auburn-Ole Miss, the coaching matchup is a compelling one. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn were both successful high school football coaches before finding themselves in the college ranks as rising stars. They both are believers in the uptempo style of offense that is becoming a staple in college football, so it should be interesting to see how the offenses fare on Saturday. Both teams are averaging 28.5 points per game this season.

8. Shaw to start: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw was knocked out of the Gamecocks' 28-25 victory over Central Florida with a shoulder injury and was expected to be out at least two to three weeks, but head coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday that Shaw will be able to start this Saturday when the Gamecocks host Kentucky. Shaw has practiced this week and, according to Spurrier, looks good throwing. This weekend is also a chance to finish stronger against a struggling Kentucky squad after allowing UCF to linger last week, which led Spurrier to say that he thought his team might have deserved to lose.

9. Who takes charge at QB for UK? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops would like to settle on a starting quarterback between Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow but doesn't believe that either has shown enough to make the coaching staff comfortable enough to tab one of them as the guy. Stoops said they'll continue to evaluate the quarterbacks. In the meantime, he seems to be getting more frustrated as time passes, blasting his team for a poor practice Wednesday, calling it "a wasted day."

10. Tennessee's "smokey grays": The Volunteers, who usually have a classic look in orange and white, will change things up and wear what they call "smokey gray" uniforms against Georgia on Saturday. The team unveiled the uniforms in August. They'll wear gray pants and jerseys with orange numbers and lettering. Back when the jerseys were introduced, head coach Butch Jones noted that Tennessee's 1914 team went undefeated wearing gray. He can only hope it brings similar good fortune Saturday.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
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From defensive struggles to quarterback quandaries to head coach hot-stove talk to even nature walks, there's plenty going on in SEC football this week. Here's a sampling of discussion points from around the league:

Planning for success: Florida

September, 26, 2013
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It's been a long six days for Florida's football team.

First, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken fibula during the win over Tennessee last Saturday. Then on Tuesday, star defensive tackle Dominique Easley tore the ACL in his right knee, ending what was looking like a very promising season. Two of Florida's top players are gone before the Gators even get into the meat of the SEC schedule.

Florida is turning to unproven, longtime backup Tyler Murphy to replace Driskel and hoping that a committee of players can help replace Easley up front.

Neither task will be easy, but there's a reason you recruit, and there's a reason we call this a violent sport. There's nothing the Gators can do now but move on and try to salvage a season that looks to be slowly slipping through their fingers because of injuries.

A step in the right direction could begin Saturday, when the 20th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., to take on a Wildcats team that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 consecutive tries. In a sport with parity like college football, you'd think the Wildcats could have sneaked a win in there somewhere in the last 26 years.

With a wounded Florida team limping into Lexington, maybe this is Kentucky's shot. But you have to think that with so many questions still remaining on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats, Florida's talent will be too much. Murphy played admirably in place of Driskel in Florida's 31-17 win over Tennessee. Granted, Tennessee's defense is surrendering more than 400 yards a game and 6 yards per play, but to come in and direct the offense to 31 points after not attempting a single college pass before the day began is pretty impressive.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDominique Easley's knee injury is another tough blow for the Gators to absorb.
How high is Murphy's ceiling? That's to be determined, but there's a reason he was the third-string quarterback last year and No. 2 this year. Expect offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who was Kentucky's offensive coordinator from 2001-02, to make things as simple as possible for Murphy during his first start. Murphy clearly knows the offense, and he's probably a more slippery runner than Driskel, but the goal is keep him safe. Another injury to a quarterback would run the Gators' season straight into the ground. This is a chance to get running backs Mack Brown and Matt Jones the bulk of the touches and wear down a pretty good Kentucky defensive front.

As for Florida's defense, the Gators shouldn't miss Easley as much this weekend because the Wildcats are still struggling to find a quarterback and playmakers at receiver. Saturday will serve as an opportunity to get players in the interior of Florida's line more reps and experience before SEC play really starts to heat up. Guys such as Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have played well, but need more quality snaps. Reserves Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. need to get their feet as wet as possible.

It's also a chance for outside players such as Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. to get used to life without Easley. The big man in the middle absorbed a lot of double-teams that created ideal one-on-one situations for his teammates, so Florida needs to learn how to generate a pass rush without him.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 3 days

August, 26, 2013
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Hey, it's game week, which means our countdown is nearing its completion. The 2013 season begins in just three days.

One of the things that will shape the SEC championship race this season is how much Florida improves on offense, particularly in the passing game. The Gators finished last in the league a year ago in passing offense and threw just 13 touchdown passes. They should again be outstanding on defense, which will give them a chance in every game. But if they're going to win their first SEC title since 2008, they will need to rev up that passing game considerably.

The number on the docket today: 19.
Naturally, much of the focus on whether the Gators will take a step forward in the passing game has centered around junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. It didn't help that he was slowed this preseason after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Timing and practice reps are a huge part of generating a consistent passing game, but Driskel demonstrated this spring and summer that he was ready to make a big jump and should be fine. Several coaches around the SEC have indicated that they expect Driskel to be one of the more improved players in the league. The key will be how well the people around him play, specifically the Gators' receivers. They made very few plays down the field last season in the deep passing game. In fact, the longest scoring pass play last season in an SEC game by a returning player was Quinton Dunbar's 19-yard touchdown catch against Kentucky. The Gators return just two players who caught more than four passes last season -- Dunbar (36) and Trey Burton (18). Burton has lined up just about everywhere during his Florida career and will mostly play in the slot this season. The longest pass play, period, a year ago by a returning player was a 32-yard catch by Burton. So, again, it's crucial that the Gators find more big-play ability in their passing game, which is where freshman Demarcus Robinson comes in. He separates well from defenders and makes plays down the field. Another true freshman, 6-4, 200-pound Ahmad Fulwood, has also shown that he should be able to help, and Dunbar has played well enough this preseason to think that he could be in for a breakout season. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants to get the wide receivers and running backs more involved in the passing game this season. Tight end Jordan Reed (now in the NFL) was the go-to guy a year ago. The X-factor is Loucheiz Purifoy, who spent most of his time this preseason at cornerback. He's one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC and could get a chance to catch a few passes on offense as well as intercept a few on defense. The feeling coming out of camp, though, is that the Florida receivers have made enough strides that Purifoy won't have to pull as much double duty as originally expected back in the spring.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
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Kirk Herbstreit is excited about the return of college football. Are you? Read up on the SEC this afternoon and don't miss "The Herbie Awards" tonight at 8 ET on ESPNU.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jon Halapio knew Florida was playing host to junior college offensive lineman Trenton Brown on a recruiting visit and he was looking forward to meeting a potential teammate.

He did find it weird, though, that the coaches brought him over to meet Brown’s father.

Then he realized that was Trenton Brown -- all 6-foot-8 and 363 pounds of him.

Trenton Brown
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.comHuge offensive tackle Trenton Brown, once committed to archrival Georgia, now figures heavily in Florida's depth chart.
"I thought he was a grown man," Halapio said. "I didn’t think he was a recruit. I thought he was a dad. Seriously. We all thought that. When he walked into the room we were like, ‘Where’s the recruit at?’

"Tallest dude I’ve ever seen in person. I was looking up at him the whole time I was talking to him."

Halapio isn’t exactly tiny, either, but he’s 5 inches shorter and 48 pounds lighter than Brown. But then again, Brown dwarfs everybody else on the roster, too. The Gators’ second-biggest player is freshman offensive lineman Rod Johnson, who is nearly as tall at 6-6 -- but he’s 47 pounds lighter.

Brown, who played the past two seasons at Georgia Military College, might be the biggest player in UF history. He’s certainly the biggest since Max Starks, a 6-8, 345-pound offensive lineman from 2000-03. And everybody, it seems, has a "whoa, this dude is big" moment to share.

"It took us all back," said Tyler Moore, a 6-6, 312-pound offensive tackle. "We all felt like we were in third grade again looking up at a high schooler.

"I’m not used to looking up at guys. I’m used to looking at guys or looking down. I haven’t looked up at somebody in a while."

Said 6-3, 263-pound sophomore buck Dante Fowler: "Trenton Brown is the biggest person I ever saw in my life."

Fowler has spent a lot of time lining up against Brown during practice. He said he has been able to get past Brown with a speed rush – although he said Brown is quicker than most people would think -- but hasn’t had any success with a bull rush.

"Since he’s so big, people kind of [think he’ll have bad] footwork," Fowler said. "He can get off the ball as quick as we can get off the ball. When you see that big body around you, you don’t know what to do. Next thing you know you run into him, and that’s not a good thing to do."

That could lead to one of the worst things Fowler could imagine on the football field.

"I never want Trenton to fall on me," Fowler said. "If he does, I’m pretty sure my body will be imprinted in the grass. I don’t want that to happen."

Brown -- whom a school spokesman said is not allowed to talk to the media until after he plays in a game -- is working exclusively at right tackle. Moore or Chaz Green will be the starter at right tackle, and whichever one doesn’t start will back up D.J. Humphries at left tackle.

Brown is behind the other linemen in terms of fundamentals because he has only been playing football for four years. UF coach Will Muschamp said Brown was a basketball player at Albany (Georgia) Westover and didn’t play football until his junior season.

"He thought he was going to be a basketball player until he started weighing 360 pounds," Muschamp said. "He found out very quickly he might be an offensive lineman."

Muschamp said Brown will play in the Gators’ jumbo package, which uses extra offensive linemen as tight ends, and possibly on the field goal and field goal block teams. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Brown will be a formidable blocker once he has an understanding of the offense.

"He’s got a lot of ability," Pease said. "He’s done a good job. The whole thing’s not thrown at him yet. The recognition of repetition of the same things over and over and over is not totally there. He’s kind of in that same sense a lot of the kids were last year [in the first year of the offense]: ‘Oh, gosh, there’s a new call. This one’s a new call.’

"But he’s getting it, you know, within the lineman’s world. He’s understanding it. When he’s in a one-on-one situation, he’s very talented. He’s big, he’s strong and he can move, so he’s going to be a real good football player."

Maybe even a big-time one.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sometimes, Jeff Driskel had no idea what had happened.

He was trying to be studious last season and watch extra film on his own to become better at pre-snap reads and pass-protection adjustments, but he found confusion instead of clarity. That’s when he’d call offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

"At times I didn’t really know what I was looking at or what I should be looking at," Driskel said. "There were times where I was confused as to why this guy came free on a pressure or why I should have gone to another guy rather than this guy."

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJeff Driskel knows he and the Gators must improve greatly from their rank in 2012 as the nation's No. 114 passing attack.
That shouldn't have been a surprise, considering Driskel was in his first season as Florida’s starting quarterback. Plus, he got only half of the reps in the spring and August practices because of the competition with Jacoby Brissett that stretched into the first week of the season. Confusion was expected.

Not this season. Not knowing the protection adjustments, where to go with the ball, or recognizing a blitz will be unacceptable mistakes for Driskel. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound junior knows he can’t make them this season, or Florida’s offense won’t be any better than the unit that ranked No. 103 nationally in 2012.

"I just think I’m a lot more comfortable," Driskel said. "I know where to throw the ball and I know where to throw the ball in certain situations and we’re a lot better at timing. I’m getting the ball out before they’re breaking rather than waiting for them to break to throw the ball. That’s a big difference in catching the ball and getting tackled or catching the ball and turning it up field.

"I feel like I have [gotten much better]. I’m excited for the first game to really show it off."

Florida’s season depends on Driskel’s transition from a player whose main role was to take care of the ball and not put the Gators in bad situations into a quarterback who can win games. Driskel threw for 1,646 yards -- the fewest by a Florida starter since Kyle Morris threw for 1,098 yards in 1989 -- and 12 touchdowns last season, and the passing offense was No. 114 nationally. Four of the six teams that ranked below the Gators run the option.

With running back Matt Jones’ return from a viral infection still uncertain, Driskel has to be able to put the offense on his shoulders, and Pease said he has seen encouraging signs. Part of that is because Driskel’s the clear-cut starter and has been in the offensive system for a year.

"He’s comfortable with that and he knows the expectations," Pease said. "Some bullets have flown at him before. I think he’s probably a little more comfortable not having the situation of the controversy, so to speak."

Pease said Driskel is more at ease in the pocket and has done a good job of recognizing blitzes and changing protections, which were two of his biggest issues last season. But perhaps the biggest leap Driskel has made is in his leadership. If a player is more comfortable with his role and confident that he knows everything he needs to know, he’s naturally going to play better.

"Just hearing [Driskel] in the weight room stepping up and saying things to teammates and making teammates accountable, making himself more accountable to the situation of what the goals for this team are," Pease said. "It’s to win the SEC. He’s not afraid to step up and say something. He’s demonstrated that. I think when you get a kid who becomes vocalized in a good way and demonstrates that and talks to his teammates and challenges and encourages them, you know he’s taken the next step because he’s earned some respect."

Driskel knows he’ll earn even more if the passing offense produces significantly more than the 146.3 yards per game it did last season. It should improve, now that he knows what he’s watching on film, he said.

"We’re going to have to throw the ball more and we’ll have to be more efficient throwing the ball," Driskel said. "We’re going to have to hit more big plays. We can’t run the ball 50 times a game like we did last year at points.

"We’re still going to run the ball effectively and we have an offensive line that loves running the ball and we have explosive backs. That’s still going to be a big part of our game, but we do have to make more plays throwing the ball, which I think we’ll do."

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