Preseason countdown: No. 23 Florida
No, Urban Meyer didn’t leave the cupboard bare. No, Will Muschamp didn’t walk into a tough situation, and no, the talent level wasn’t down.
When it comes to infrastructure, facilities, support from the university, the administration and the fan base, everything is in place for Florida to field a national title-caliber team year-in-and-year-out, and there’s no reason to ever shoot for anything less. This is one of the premier football programs in America by every standard and any measure, and 11 losses in the last two years isn’t acceptable for a team that dropped a total of ten games from 2004 to 2009.
There’s no reason a top-shelf coaching staff couldn’t have walked into the situation last year and put out a team good enough to win the soft SEC East. Now it’s up to Muschamp to show that he’s a top-shelf head coach.
Year 1 of the Muschamp era didn’t work, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone in the top five recruiting class coming in. And yes, while a 7-6 season at Florida is unacceptable, so is a 10-3 campaign without an SEC title. The bar at places like Florida, Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and a few select others is unreasonably high, so any season that doesn’t end with a Sugar Bowl or BCS championship trophy is a disaster. And that’s part of what’s great about being an elite of the elite college program -- it shouldn’t take so long to jump from 7-6 to national title contention.
It’s one thing to be down, but the Gators finished 105th in the nation in total offense, couldn’t seem to force a turnover on defense, and never seemed able to come up with the big play at the right time.
To be fair, the schedule had something to do with it. The offense managed to put points on the board against the mediocre teams and wasn’t miserable against Ohio State and Georgia, but playing Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State will make just about any attack look bad. But this is Florida -- it’s supposed to be able to move the ball on anyone, and 194 yards of total offense and six points against a miserable Auburn defense was unacceptable.
But there’s hope for a quick turnaround. The defense really was good and there are future NFL players across the board ready to come up with a whopper of a year. After finishing eighth in the nation in total defense in 2011, expect more of the same thanks in part to a rotation at defensive tackle that could rival any in the country.
For all of the problems the offense experienced last season, the Gators still had chances to beat Georgia, South Carolina and even Florida State. If the attack can do anything on a consistent basis this year – and from most indications it will – that could be the difference between another disastrous 7-6 campaign and a things-are-on-the-right-track ten-win season.
What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. Two coaching staffs had a pro-style quarterback in John Brantley and each had no earthly clue how to get the passing attack moving -- and that included Charlie Weis. While Brantley might have been a disappointment as a player, he was a superstar recruit who was never developed properly and wasn’t given any help. Now the Gators have another elite quarterback prospect in Jeff Driskel, with the size and upside to be another Tim Tebow but with true NFL skills, and he hasn’t been able to show anything over a true freshman season and another offseason to prove he’s ready to take that next step up. Meanwhile, Jacoby Brissett - a nice recruit a few years ago, but not Driskel – is doing everything possible to keep the Driskel era from taking off. Florida appears to have everything on the right track to improve on offense, but Job 1 for Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease this preseason will be to make a call between the quarterbacks and stick with it through thick and thin.
What to watch for on defense: Boom. All of the focus this year will be on the offense, but it won’t have to explode with this defense about to emerge as something truly special. The defense never got enough credit for doing what it could last season with no help from the struggling offense, but now there are several fantastic players who appear on the verge of taking their games to a whole other level. Sharrif Floyd is a dream of an NFL 3-4 tackle, while Omar Hunter could end up sitting in the middle of someone’s line on Sundays if he puts together a big season. Jelani Jenkins will be a Top 50 pick the second he’s ready to come out, but Jonathan Bostic might be the more productive college linebacker. The secondary is loaded, the pass rush should be fine even with Ronald Powell out with a torn ACL, and there’s depth across the board.
The team will be far better if: It could force a turnover. For all the great things the defense did throughout last season, it couldn’t seem to come up with a key takeaway and produced a mere eight picks and six fumble recoveries. Worse yet, three of the recovered fumbles came in the final two games; two came against Kentucky, and one came against UAB. The defense went a whopping six games in a row without even forcing a fumble. After finishing 113th last year in turnover margin, it’s not crazy to suggest that being on the plus side could mean the difference between a decent year and winning the East.
The schedule: The Gators don’t get much time before diving into the fun, but it eases up late. Bowling Green is the lone tune-up before having to deal with the SEC opener at Texas A&M where emotions will be through the roof. If dealing with the 12th man in College Station wasn’t tough enough, going to Tennessee in an early make-or-break East game for both teams will be a test. While playing LSU is a problem, at least that game is at home and there’s a week off to prepare for it after facing Kentucky. The big key will be to get through the tough late October stretch of South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri. Win those three, and the East might be there for the taking. While the hope will be to get to the SEC Championship Game, the conference regular season ends for the Gators against Missouri on Nov. 3, with two tune-up dates against Louisiana and Jacksonville State before having to finish up at Florida State.
Best offensive player: Sophomore WR Quinton Dunbar -- but that’s a projection. Gator fans have been teased by the occasional report of a jaw-dropping play in practice only to see a fat load of nothing when the lights go on. He caught 14 passes for 216 yards and two scores, but now that he’s in the right system with an offensive coordinator who’s going to get him the ball, the all-world potential is there to be one of the SEC’s breakout players. However, the word potential can’t be emphasized enough – Dunbar hasn’t done anything yet and he has to show some semblance of consistency. In a perfect world, though, either Driskel or Brissett turns into the star of the show.
Best defensive player: Junior DE Powell. However, since he’s out injured, the best player on defense to start the season will either be linebacker Jelani Jenkins, middle linebacker Bostic, or defensive end Floyd. Back at full strength from a torn ACL suffered a few months ago, Floyd appears ready to put it all together as more of a pass rusher and a dominant run stopper. It’s salary drive time, and if he plays as well as expected he’ll boost his NFL stock through the roof.
Key player to a successful season: Besides the quarterbacks, it’ll be senior RB Mike Gillislee and sophomore RB Mack Brown. Florida doesn’t have to wing the ball all around the yard to win. All it has to do is rely on its great defense and get the ground attack going, and Gilislee appears ready to break out and be an impact playmaker in his final season. Brown was a top recruit a few years ago and can split the load to help the offense get moving. The more these two backs produce, the easier life will be for Driskel and/or Brissett
The season will be a success if: The Gators win the SEC East. Again, this is Florida, there’s never any reason to shoot for anything less than an SEC title. That’s not likely to happen with so many nasty teams in the West, but with LSU, South Carolina and Missouri coming to Gainesville, and Tennessee and Vanderbilt the only divisional road games, winning the East is a must for a team with this much talent.
Key game: Sept. 8 at Texas A&M. Of course the Georgia game is huge, and obviously the South Carolina game might be a big deal in the East race, but Florida has to come out and show that it can actually play and it has to do that in the SEC opener. College Station will be rocking on Sept. 8 with the Aggies also looking to make a big statement, but Florida and its offense have to be ready for a bit of a shootout. With a road trip to Tennessee to follow and with LSU coming up three games later, it could be a rough first half of the season and the pressure will be on.