The last time the Florida Gators won fewer than six games in a season, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The team went 0-10-1 in 1979 in Charley Pell’s first season as head coach. Since then, the Gators have qualified for 29 bowl games (they’ve only missed going on a bowl trip four times since 1980) and won two national titles.
The 2014 season, that ended in seven straight losses and a 4-8 record, was not very Gator-like.
"It’s not what we’re about at the University of Florida," head coach Will Muschamp said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. Not only did Muschamp suffer through eight losses last season, he watched an anemic offense struggle at just about every turn.
The Gators finished dead last in the SEC in total offense, with 316.7 yards per game on average. Their 3,800 total yards of offense was not only bested by every team in the conference, one team (Auburn) gained more yards on the ground than Florida churned out total, and two teams (Texas A&M and Georgia) surpassed Florida’s total yardage with just yards gained through the air.
The difference between the top offense in the conference (Texas A&M with 538.4 yards per game), and Florida at the bottom, was 221.7 yards per game.
Like Muschamp said, that’s not what Florida football is about. Something had to be done.
Muschamp said after evaluating the film from last season, he knew a drastic change had to be made. Florida’s offense had to go through a metamorphosis.
"I felt like our kids had lost confidence in some things we were doing offensively," said Muschamp. "I went back and looked at our numbers from 2012, when we were in the shotgun as opposed to being under center. When (quarterback) Jeff (Driskel) was in the shotgun our yards were better, our explosive plays were better, in both the run and pass game."
The change that was made; the needed new element was Kurt Roper as Florida’s new offensive coordinator.
Roper spent nine seasons as an assistant in the SEC at Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee from 1999 to 2007. He helped Eli Manning amass more than 10,000 career passing yards with the Rebels, and later coached Arian Foster as he emerged as the go-to running back for the Volunteers.
Where Roper really made a name for himself is Duke, where he landed as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2008 to 2013.
Two former Duke quarterbacks grace the ACC’s all-time top 10 list in passing yards. Thaddeus Lewis is one of three ACC passers to ever throw for 10,000 yards or more in a career. Sean Renfree is eighth on the conference’s all-time list with 9,465 career passing yards. Both played under Roper.
The idea is for Roper to have the same kind of effect on Driskel, who threw for 477 yards in three games last season before a broken fibula ended his season.
One of the first things Muschamp and Roper did, was switch from a pro-style offense to the spread. This move should suit Driskel well, as it can open up defenses to give him more room to fit passes into space, and allow the quarterback to use his athleticism to run, if needed.
The new up-tempo Florida offense should help Driskel catch opposing teams in formations and personnel groupings that he can favorably attack. And since Driskel was recruited as a shotgun quarterback, according to Muschamp, moving to a shotgun formation in 2014 should make Florida’s quarterback more comfortable.
There’s enough proof in both the ACC and SEC record books that Roper can coach a quarterback to a good season. But, if Driskel is going to truly have a great 2014, he’s going to need help from his receiving corps. Someone is going to have to emerge as Driskel’s go-to guy, a receiver that can break down coverage, and explode when he has the football.
Valdez Showers in the slot makes some sense for the Gators. He’s a versatile receiver who made the switch from running back a year ago. He had a decent spring game; open frequently, and showed signs of quick-burst speed.
Latroy Pittman is another name that could be called on to man the slot position. He’s a receiver that can flourish on the underneath route, and make something happen in space. Which is a good fit for the new spread offense.
It’s likely neither Showers nor Pittman will be the playmaker Driskel needs to climb the ranks of SEC passers. They’ll be useful tools to move the chains, but Florida needs an over-the-top game-changer.
One of two players, currently on Florida’s roster, could fit that bill: Quinton Dunbar or Andre Debose.
With 25 starts under his belt, Dunbar has the experience that makes him attractive. And at 13.7 yards per catch, Dunbar was the leading receiver Florida had last season on a per catch average. If you broke down the 548 receiving yards Dunbar had last season, much of that yardage came from fighting for yards after the catch. Dunbar should find churning yardage after the catch to come easier in Roper’s offense.
The receiver to keep an eye on, however, is Debose. And Muschamp even laid the groundwork for that claim at SEC Media Days.
"Debose, who missed all of last year with an ACL, to get him back, a guy that can really play in space is great)," said Muschamp. "I think this offense benefits Andre well."
Always flashy and electric in the return game, Debose hasn’t ever been able to translate that same awe-inspiring effort, or results, on offense. Florida’s new offense should be the canvas for Debose to really start creating art.
Is it possible for Driskel to grow under Roper, and Florida’s new offensive system? Without a doubt, yes. It’s be hard not to. But before Driskel’s overhaul can truly turn into an emergence, he needs a true No. 1 receiver. It could turn out to be Dunbar. But, it should be Debose.
If both receivers step up in a big way, well then Florida would realy be looking at a special offense.