It’s been three years since Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel last faced Alabama, and it might as well be 30 for everything that’s happened in between.
That night Driskel was a wide-eyed true-freshman thrust into action against the eventual national champions when starter John Brantley went down late in the first half. Seventeen career starts, three offensive coordinators and a broken leg later, the former top-rated high-school quarterback reunites with the third-ranked Crimson Tide Saturday in Tuscaloosa. In that last meeting, a 38-10 Alabama victory, Driskel was an overwhelmed rookie. In 2014, he’s a seasoned vet. Still, he and the Gators’ offense have yet to prove they can excel against a high-caliber SEC foe.
“At this point in my career, this stage won’t be too big for me,” Driskel told FOX Sports this week. “I know a lot more about football now. It’s two totally different players.”
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After three turbulent and injury-plagued seasons in which Florida’s offense went from bad to worse, coach Will Muschamp last winter brought in Duke coordinator Kurt Roper to transform the Gators’ pro-style attack into a no-huddle, shotgun system more conducive to Driskel’s skill set. They’ve played only two games, a 65-0 rout of Eastern Michigan and last week’s 36-30 triple-overtime win over Kentucky, but the makeover is obvious. Florida, which lost Driskel three games into an eventual 4-8 debacle last season, finished 115th nationally in total offense. So far this season, they’re No. 6, averaging 593.5 yards per game, and rank fifth in plays per game at 90.0, up from 66.1 in 2013.
"This is a much, much, much improved offensive football team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday.
Two days later he was even more effusive when speaking with local reporters. “Florida has an outstanding team,” Saban said. “Way better, way better than anybody here thinks, in terms of the players they have.”
Yet Florida fans remain nervous about Driskel, a career 63 percent passer who struggled again in the first half of last week’s Kentucky game, completing just 7-of-20 attempts with an interception as the Gators managed just three points against one of the SEC’s recent bottom feeders. Driskel went 18-of-23 the rest of the way, including a game-saving fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson in the first overtime. This week he downplayed the slow start and focused more on the end result.
“We had a plan for what we’d seen on film, and we got something totally different,” Driskel said of the Wildcats’ defense. “There’s going to be times we’re down in games. In the past, we didn’t have firepower and the people in place to come back.”
Indeed, the most notable aspect of the Gators’ offense in 2014 is that for the first time since the now-distant Tim Tebow era they have bona fide explosive playmakers. Robinson in particular has emerged as a star of the highest order. The sophomore receiver had 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns against Kentucky. The running game looks much-improved too. Tailback Matt Jones sprang for 156 yards against the Wildcats.
Alabama’s defense is a different animal than what the Gators have seen to date. Yet again, the Tide rank in the top 10 in total and scoring defense. They’ll bring pressure and force Driskel to make throws under duress, an area in which he’s struggled mightily in the past.
But Florida has at least a few morsels of hope. While Nick Saban’s teams have not faltered often in the past six seasons, when they have it’s often been against teams with no-huddle offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks. While Driskel hasn’t run much so far this season it remains a key component of Roper’s playbook.
“It all depends on the structure of the defense,” said the coordinator. “But it’s something [Driskel’s] got the ability to do.”
Furthermore, Alabama still has questions at the cornerback position, an area where the Tide did not play to their usual standard last season and again showed some cracks in the season-opener against West Virginia. If they’re still there, Robinson for one has the ability to exploit them.
Saban has said touted freshman cornerback Tony Brown will play more Saturday. Roper said the Gators will need to complete more throws when they take shots down field. They attempted four such passes in the first half against Kentucky, but Driskel did not hit any of them.
Asked whether Florida’s new style of offense may be more favorable given Alabama’s past struggles against similar attacks, Driskel offered a different and perhaps surprising reason he feels his team can hang with the heavily favored Tide.
“We stack up really well. We just feel we have the players,” he said. “It’s not scheme, it’s players. We feel like we have a really good shot.”
Given last year’s 4-8 nightmare and Muschamp’s dubious job security, Saturday’s game may well be the most important of both his and Driskel’s career. Coming off the scare against Kentucky, Florida needs to show it can still play with the top teams in the SEC. And a win would completely change the narrative surrounding its embattled coach and oft-criticized quarterback.
“Alabama has been one of the best teams year after year,” said Driskel. “This is a really good opportunity to show what we can do, get an SEC win on the road.”
It would be a much different result than the last time Driskel faced Alabama defenders.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.