HOOVER, Ala. — As he moved from room to room, interview to interview at SEC Media Days, Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel was reminded more than once of his next scheduled trip to the Yellowhammer State.
Sept. 20. Bryant-Denny Stadium. Florida at Alabama.
If things go the way the Gators hope in their first three contests — home games against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky — they will be 3-0 heading to Tuscaloosa for a matchup with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
Coming off a 4-8 season and trying to climb their way back from the dark days of a year ago, the visit to Tuscaloosa will provide an early-season litmus test for the Gators.
Alabama has won three national titles since the Gators claimed their last one in 2008 and is 60-7 since the start of the 2009 season. Driskel has vivid memories of one of those Tide wins: a 38-10 loss to Alabama at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in 2011.
A true freshman, Driskel wasn’t expected to play. And then starter John Brantley met Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw. Brantley suffered an injured ankle that forced him to leave the game.
Driskel came on in the second half and finished 2 of 6 for 14 yards. He also got beat up, sacked twice and suffered an ankle injury that prompted Jacoby Brissett to make his first college start the following week in a loss at LSU.
Driskel reflected on serving as a pinata that night for the Alabama defense that helped Saban claim the first of back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012.
”It was tough. They kind of lit me up a little bit,” Driskel said. ”I was a wide-eyed freshman. Looking back on it, it was a good experience. It welcomed me to the SEC a little bit.”
Three years later Driskel gets another shot at the Crimson Tide in a game the Gators figure to be a heavy underdog. That is if he stays healthy.
When listing reasons for Florida’s first losing season since 1979 last season, you can start with the loss of Driskel in the third game of the season to a broken leg against Tennessee.
The Florida offense found brief respite as Tyler Murphy led the Gators to wins over the Vols, Kentucky and Arkansas. But once teams began to adjust to Murphy — an injury to Murphy’s throwing shoulder at LSU didn’t help the cause — the Gators’ offense looked lost.
They enter the 2014 season on a seven-game losing streak.
The return of Driskel has Florida coach Will Muschamp confident the Gators can quickly put the past to rest.
First-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and his no-huddle, up-tempo offense factor greatly in Muschamp’s optimism. But Driskel’s ability to run that offense is the key piece to Florida’s winning puzzle.
”I went back and looked at our numbers from 2012 when we were in the shotgun as opposed to being under center,” Muschamp reiterated at SEC Media Days. ”When Jeff was in the shotgun our yards were better, our explosive plays were better in both the run and pass game.
”He was recruited to Florida to be a gun quarterback. This is his comfort level.”
The mission for the Gators between now and Sept. 20 is simple. First, stay healthy in fall camp and then rediscover the feeling of winning.
Despite last fall’s disaster, the Gators will be favored to win their first three games in the friendly confines of The Swamp. If they take care of business, they could be ranked by the time they head to Alabama.
Muschamp knows what awaits the Gators when they step off the bus in Tuscaloosa.
”They have an outstanding football team,” he said. ”Everybody knows I got great respect for Nick and his entire staff. I’ve worked with a bunch of them.
"They recruit extremely well. They develop their players extremely well. We look forward to our trip to Tuscaloosa.”
Whatever happens in 2014, a healthy Driskel gives Florida the best chance to show significant improvement. Driskel possesses the size, arm strength and athleticism that NFL scouts covet.
If he can put the whole package together in Roper’s offense, he wins and Florida wins.
His teammates have his back.
”Once you get an injury and you sit out that long, you’re just ready to play again, and you’re hungry,” teammate Dante Fowler Jr. said. ”I think that was a time for him to sit back and realize things that were going on, and it helped him get better. He looked better (in spring practice). This is the best I ever saw him.”
On Aug. 30 everyone will have an opportunity to see what Fowler said he’s seen when the Gators open against Idaho. After that, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky come to town.
The best-case scenario: Driskel looks sharp, the Gators win all three, and they head to Alabama full of confidence.
”Never been to their stadium. Heard it’s awesome, by the way,” Driskel said. ”That’s why you come to Florida is to play in big SEC games like that. Couldn’t think of a better way to start the SEC schedule than a win at Alabama on the road.”