The recipe for a national championship in the SEC has been pretty simple of late: Coaches either win one in their second or third year.
Urban Meyer did it at Florida in Year 2 (2006). Gene Chizik did the same thing at Auburn in 2010. Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Les Miles did it in Year 3 following a double-digit-win season and a BCS berth.
That means Florida’s Will Muschamp should feel pretty good about his third year in Gainesville. After a mediocre 7-6 debut in 2011, Muschamp guided Florida to 11 wins and an appearance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl -- the same bowl Saban and Miles went to in their second years.
If recent history means anything at all, Muschamp and his Gators are basically two-thirds of the way from hoisting one of those shiny crystal footballs out in Pasadena, Calif.
Of course, it really isn't that easy, but Muschamp understands expectations are high. He has plenty of talent returning and there is no shortage of questions surrounding other teams in the SEC East. If not for an embarrassing loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, the hype surrounding Florida might be through the roof.
Even with all the offensive questions, a lot is expected from the Gators in 2013 and anything short of an SEC East title might be considered a disappointment.
“We all want to go to Atlanta and play for the championship, but that’s not the focal point,” Muschamp told ESPN.com in a phone interview earlier this month. “The focal point for us is understanding what it takes to get there. That’s what I’m trying to make sure our players and staff understand.”
And to understand that, Muschamp has to ram home the message that things have to be better in 2013. The defense must replace five starters, including two possible first-round draft picks, and the offense has to find some sort of spark in the passing game.
Florida might have as much work as any other team in the SEC to do this offseason because of how bad the passing game was in 2012. It cost the Gators two wins, and it might cost them even more this fall if there isn’t vast improvement.
“It’s not just one position, it’s a combination of things in the throwing game that we need to improve on,” Muschamp said.
That means quarterback Jeff Driskel, who enters his third year, has to do better than 137 yards per game, the offensive line has to be better in protection, and someone has to step up at wide receiver.
Florida still has veterans Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose, but neither has lived up to their billing. Dunbar made strides last season and was second in the team in receiving, but Debose went from 16 catches for a team-high 432 yards and four touchdowns in 2011 to three catches for 15 yards and zero scores last fall.
That means the pressure is on five freshmen receivers who signed this year. If none of them sets themselves apart, the Gators could be in real trouble this fall. Muschamp refuses to abandon his pound-the-ground offensive mentality, but he knows he can’t get through another season without a better passing game.
“We’re going to be a physical football team that’s going to be able to create explosive [plays] down the field in the passing game because of how we run the ball and be able to create a better balance and be able to spread the field a little more,” he said.
History has the Gators sitting pretty, but if the Gators want glamorous rings and confetti showers, they’ll have to earn them. Florida has the potential to make a title run this fall, but Muschamp’s crew must keep building.
“The end result is great, but we have to understand how to get there,” he said. “We’ll let the Gator Nation worry about the end result. We just need to worry about how we’re getting there.”