How Florida took back the Sunshine State from FSU ... by following Nick Saban's lead

Mike Ehrmann

Will Muschamp is the key to Florida's 2012 success. And he's made that success happen because he's a better Nick Saban disciple than Jimbo Fisher.

Florida and Florida State met last week in the first game between the two teams that has felt like a heavyweight bout since 2000, when Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden were prowling those respective sidelines. But the Gators beat the Seminoles like they did when Urban Meyer was in Gainesville, physically dominating FSU up front and capitalizing on a slew of mistakes by the Seminoles' offense in a 37-26 victory that left Gators crowing and 'Noles stewing.

And the result felt like more than a win: for Will Muschamp's Florida, it was a defining victory, the latest in a year of big wins that has made the Gators almost as fearsome as they were under Meyer, and it may have swung the balance of power in the Sunshine State. For FSU, it might be the loss that seals the 'Noles as Team 1B in Florida for a few years to come, a spot where "FSU IS BACK!!!" but FSU isn't really back.

To understand how the Gators have reshaped themselves, it helps to understand why Muschamp was the guy in Gainesville. Yahoo!'s Eric Adelson has that story, and, most importantly, a reminder that Jeremy Foley had his sights set on Muschamp:

Athletic director Jeremy Foley's first and only call on his drive home from Urban Meyer's retirement press conference was to Muschamp. This past offseason, Foley gave him a contract extension (but didn't announce it until Tuesday). Foley invokes John Elway when asked how long his list of candidates was.

"There was no Plan B," he says.

...

In 2007, Tebow suffered one of the few home defeats in his Florida career, held to 201 passing yards and losing in the Swamp for the first time in 17 games under Meyer. It was then that Foley noticed the excitable defensive coordinator on the other sideline. Three years later, Foley would offer him a head coaching job.

"He was a defensive coach," Foley says. "I'll be honest with you: that was important to us."

Adelson uses Muschamp's defensive ethos as evidence that he's the anti-Spurrier, but it's hard for someone who remembered Spurrier's brashness and snark to find Muschamp as a contrast to that: Muschamp's the guy who fires back when Nick Saban gripes about a system that will give the Gators a Sugar Bowl berth, the guy who says he'll take the players he wants in recruiting, stars be damned, and that "You're not a good guy, you go somewhere else. We'll play you. We'll beat you."

Muschamp isn't the anti-Spurrier, but the Saban-era Spurrier, and Foley's perfect choice for Florida: a players' coach with local ties (Muschamp grew up in Gainesville) and a toughness-based, defense-friendly mindset that was what Florida needed coming off the rise and fall of the Meyer-Tebow Empire.

More importantly, Muschamp appears to be the strongest bough on Saban's coaching tree — and Foley being dead-set on getting him, while Jimbo Fisher ended up as the coach-in-waiting in Tallahassee, shows one major difference in decision-making between Florida and Florida State.

Athletic directors and coaches across America might revile how Nick Saban does his work, but few can argue with his results: Saban has three BCS National Championships, more than anyone else, and might just win his fourth (and third in four years) with one of his lesser Alabama teams.

This is a rebuilding year for Alabama, after all, one in which people are rightly pointing out that the Georgia team that will play it for the privilege of the SEC's near-automatic berth in the BCS title game has more NFL-ready talent. And Alabama doesn't have a résumé on par with Florida's (no team does, in fairness), or even one on par with Georgia's, but coming off a title, having the revitalized Alabama brand name, and playing in the SEC helped keep the Tide ahead of other title contenders. Of those three things, Saban's more or less responsible for the first two, and his revival of the Tide has helped establish the SEC as a lions' den again and again.

About the only coach an athletic director would want as much as Saban is Meyer, and Florida already had him. But one of the next best things? A Saban disciple who had his defense-first and recruiting trail-ready mentalities, and also had the advantage of youth. That's a pretty good description of Muschamp right now, it seems.

Jimbo Fisher is a Saban disciple, too. But he's not the same kind of Saban disciple.

Fisher's from the other side of the ball, offense, and he was with Saban before Muschamp was, joining the LSU staff Saban assembled in 2000, a year before Muschamp came on as the linebackers coach. But he also didn't end up attached to Saban's hip like Muschamp did: Fisher stayed at LSU until 2006, then left for Florida State; Muschamp went with Saban to Miami for his failed stint as the Dolphins' head coach.

Whether that means Muschamp got more from Saban than Fisher did is probably unknowable, but the way Muschamp coaches and structures his program is slightly more Saban-ish than Fisher's method.

Saban, regarded as one of the greatest defensive minds of a generation, has kept a good defensive coordinator on staff, whether it was Muschamp at LSU and in Miami or Kirby Smart at Alabama now. Muschamp's done the same with Dan Quinn at Florida. Fisher, an offensive-minded head coach, doesn't have the same help on his side of the ball in Tallahassee, with converted wide receivers coach James Coley serving as offensive coordinator and Fisher calling the plays, coaching the quarterbacks, and running the show. That's a lot more work and a lot less delegation, and it's prompted debate over whether it's affected Fisher's ability to wear every hat well.

Florida State's always been a bit less picky about its recruits than Florida, because slightly lower academic standards allow it to be and it has had success (in most non-Randy Moss cases) with doing that. But Florida State's got a couple of players in its current recruiting class that are probably at least partly compromises, attempts to get a package deal with one great player and one average player in it to Tallahassee. That's Fisher's choice, and whether it's a good one or not can be debated. But it's a compromise that Muschamp would almost certainly not make.

And, most importantly, even in the era of explosive spread offense, defense is winning in college football. Notre Dame looks like a possible national champion because of a defense that resembles SEC titlists' defenses; even the Auburn team that had Cam Newton at the helm of a prolific offense needed its defense to step up against Oregon to win that title.

Florida State's defense, No. 1 nationally on a yards-per-play basis coming into last Saturday, got fat on a bunch of bad ACC teams and got run over by a Florida offense that had spent much of the last month doing very little right. The Gators scored more offensive points against the 'Noles than they had against in any two of their previous four games combined — and probably should have had more, but went with a fake field goal that failed and were moved out of field goal range by Jeff Driskel's inability to throw the ball away. And, previously, Florida State's defense couldn't hold a 16-0 lead against N.C. State, knocking the 'Noles out of national title contention.

For that effort, Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops has now become Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops. Fisher has a chance to get his next defensive coordinator hire right; Florida already has the right people in place at head coach and defensive coordinators, and the Gators only giving up touchdowns to the nation's No. 1 offense on a yards-per-play basis on two short-field drives (caused by a turnover and a special teams error) and a meaningless final drive is proof.

And all that happened despite Florida State's defense being arguably the most talented in the country, with a half-dozen players who will end up in the NFL on it even after excluding the injured Brandon Jenkins.

FSU has to play Florida every year, and will have to beat Florida to win national titles. He did that in 2010 and 2011 because Florida's offenses lagged well behind the FSU ones; hell, Florida's defense might have found a way to win the 2011 meeting between the two teams if all Florida's offense had done was hold on to the ball and punt.

Florida's verging on greatness on defense, and looks to be rebuilding a great offense. Florida State is going to have a hard time getting better on either side of the ball than it was this year. And with Florida getting the 'Noles at home next year and taking back the lead in recruiting, this feels like the beginning of another run by the Gators.

Fisher has proven that he can recruit, and he's built an offense that delivers killshot after killshot to teams with less star-studded defenses than Florida's. The defenses he's left up to Stoops have been good, but not great. Fisher's obviously a very good coach, and one only needs to watch his superb coach's show to see that he's a keen-eyed perfectionist.

But as an offensive coach, Fisher might not be quite as effective a perfectionist as Muschamp is, and he certainly doesn't have the same strands of Saban DNA Muschamp does.

Jeremy Foley and Florida fans seem sure that they have their man in Will Muschamp.

The jury is still out on Jimbo Fisher.

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