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Gators offense must improve skill positions

It has been nearly a decade since Florida sat at the bottom of the Big Three in its own state, a situation only made worse by watching bitter rival Florida State win the national championship last season.

But even when Florida State outperformed Florida over the last 10 years, the Gators could always count on being better than Miami.

Now, there is not much to count on at all, no guarantees to be made, no automatic Ws on the schedule. Not after Georgia Southern. Not after a miserable losing season. No guarantees for coach Will Muschamp, either, essentially coaching for his job in 2014.

It is easy to see why Florida State has separated. But where both Florida State and Miami have separated from Florida is in their recruitment and development of skill players on offense, an area the Gators once dominated.

Florida has lacked a dynamic playmaker since Percy Harvin in 2008. That is simply unacceptable for a program in a state the produces enough supremely fast and ultra-talented recruits to fill multiple FBS rosters.

So what has happened in recruiting? Let us take a look back at the players all three programs have signed between 2011 -- when Muschamp signed his first class at Florida -- and 2013. During that time, Florida signed 12 ESPN 150 players at either quarterback, running back, receiver or tight end. Six have transferred.

In 2012, when Muschamp brought in the first class he recruited entirely on his own, he stacked his defense with elite recruits. The only two ESPN 150 offensive players in that class outside the offensive line were two tight ends: Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor. They have both left the program.

Now take a look at what Florida State and Miami have done. Since 2011, Florida State has signed eight ESPN 150 players at the same four offensive positions. The Noles have hit on nearly all of them. Karlos Williams, Nick O'Leary, Rashad Greene, Kermit Whitfield and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston are expected to be All-ACC selections or All-Americans. James Wilder Jr. was drafted a few months ago.

Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman, four-star recruits out of high school, are in the NFL, too.

Miami has signed nine ESPN 150 skill-position players over the same time frame. While the Canes have missed on some, they have hit on several key players who helped them get to nine wins a season ago. Running back Duke Johnson, receivers Stacy Coley and Malcolm Lewis and tight end Standish Dobard are starters. Receiver Phillip Dorsett, a three-star recruit in 2011, is better than anybody Florida has on its roster.

Muschamp has focused his efforts on building a strong defense, something Miami has lacked over the last several years. While the old adage is that defense wins championships, you need a little more than a rusted-out shell of an offense to win games in today’s era.

That holds true most especially in Florida. Consider the two Gators coaches who have won national championships -- Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer -- were offensive coaches. Each had a quarterback who won the Heisman.

Florida State and Miami have won their championships with terrific skill players -- and Heisman winners -- as well. If we look at what Florida State accomplished last season alone, the Seminoles were stellar on both offense and defense with playmakers at the skill positions all over the field. All three programs have produced equally impressive offensive and defensive players in their championship seasons.

So, it seems, Florida is missing a giant piece to its puzzle.

That is a big reason why the Gators have fallen behind both Miami and Florida State for the first time since 2004. Not even 2004 was as bad as 2013, mind you. Because at least in 2004, Florida beat Florida State and finished above .500.

At that time, Florida was in the middle of the Ron Zook era (or error, depending your point of view), but the down times did not last long. Three years later, Florida won its first national championship under Urban Meyer.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is banking on a short-lived dip, a big reason why Muschamp still has his job. Most believe Florida will be better. But how much better? Foley is putting his faith in a man who has shown equal propensity to win big and lose big.

So the objective for Muschamp seems pretty simple. Improve the offense and win. But we are not talking about merely finishing with a winning record, no matter how good 7-5 looks right about now. Florida must once again flex its power in state.