SEC Countdown: No. 7 Florida

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (1) projects to be the next star on the Florida Gators' defense.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Will Muschamp’s tenure in Gainesville has been a see-saw ride. After taking over for two-time national title winner Urban Meyer in December 2010, the 42-year-old could not immediately duplicate his predecessor’s immediate success, going 7-6 with the Gators’ first losing record in conference since 1986.

Everything — well, almost everything — changed in 2012, though.

The Gators lost just one game in the regular season, a coin-flip outcome against rival Georgia that was all but decided on an excellent defensive play from the Bulldogs’ All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones … a play that could have kept Muschamp from leading Florida to the doorstep of the BCS national title game in just his second season. Instead, Georgia won the East division and advanced to the SEC Championship to lose to Alabama while Florida, which some advanced ratings systems ranked as the No. 1 team in the country before the bowls, went on to the Sugar Bowl where eventual first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals torched its typically stout defense.

Then came 2013, the year that put Muschamp firmly on the hot seat. Coming off a 4-8 record, the program’s first losing season 1979, there’s plenty riding on the ’14 campaign in Gainesville. Once one of the premier programs nationally, Florida finds itself trying to keep its head above water in the SEC East. Muschamp has made major changes, but will it be enough?

Florida’s strength under Muschamp has unquestionably been its defense, finishing in the top-20 nationally in scoring defense in each of his three seasons on the sidelines. Given the Gators’ returning talent and top-rated (and defense-heavy) recruiting classes, it’s probably best to start there.

Florida loses some excellent pieces on that side of the ball — more on that in a minute — but an experienced defensive line should be led by a group of upperclassmen: ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard and tackles Leon Orr and Darius Cummings. Fowler, who will fill the "Buck hybrid" role as the defense’s main pass rusher, projects to be a standout and high NFL draft pick if he elects to leave school early. He’s coming off a season where he posted 10.5 tackles for loss, and he’ll be expected to do more this time around. And with more experience in the linebacking corps — notably seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor — it will be up to returners like Vernon Hargreaves III and Marcus Mayes to make some strides in the secondary.

All in all, with this much talent, it’s difficult to worry too much about this group.

On offense, the backfield returns intact … if it can stay healthy. Redshirt junior Jeff Driskel has seemingly been on campus for five years, but injuries have derailed what have been promising moments from the former top quarterback recruit. Behind him, the Gators should be taken care of by two of its three top rushers from a year ago, Kelvin Taylor (508 yards, four TDs) and Matt Jones (339 yards, two TDs). There are questions at receiver and offensive line, but the return of wideout Quinton Dunbar and tight end Clay Burton should give Driskel some usable targets.

The Gators lost 11 players who were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents — seven coming from the defensive side of the ball, which says plenty about the type of pure defensive talent Muschamp has signed with three straight top-10 classes. The standouts include first-round pick Dominique Easley (defensive tackle), who the Gators unfortunately were forced to replace early last season due to a season-ending injury, fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins (defensive back) and linebacker Ronald Powell, who was picked up in the fifth round by the Saints.

Though they went undrafted, the Gators also lost two very good corners in Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.

Also gone are guard Jon Halapio, who started 43 games for Florida and is now playing for the Patriots, versatile offensive playmaker Trey Burton and wide receiver Solomon Patton.

Perhaps the biggest addition, though, will be on the sidelines, as Florida replaced offensive coordinator Brent Pease with Duke assistant Kurt Roper. This is Muchamp’s third offensive coordinator in four seasons, and the team is still looking to finish in the top-100 in total offense for the first time. Roper has a big task on his hands, as he might only get one season to turn things around.

Expect to hear the name Vernon Hargreaves III early and often in the Gators’ secondary. Muschamp could also run out freshmen corners Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson and/or J.C. Jackson at different times in 2014. Other than those names in the secondary, the Gators should feature experience at most positions, though there certainly could be some breakthrough stars coming out of Florida’s recent success on the recruiting trail, such as sophomore linebackers Keanu Neal and Daniel McMillian.

On offense, keep an eye on two former four-star wide receivers Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson to help provide some production on the outside.

Muschamp has laid down the gauntlet for Driskel and, really, Roper. He expects the talented and oft-injured quarterback to enjoy a breakout season. If there’s good health involved, there’s no reason why Driskel shouldn’t be among the top signal-callers in the conference this season.

"He’s where he needs to be at this point," Muschamp said earlier this week. "Going through 2012 and winning 11 games, taking us to a BCS Bowl. Unfortunately getting hurt after the second ball game last year, he didn’t get a chance to show much he had matured from Year 1 to Year 2. Now schematically I think we’re doing things that he’s more comfortable doing — being in the shotgun, doing some of the things that he was recruited to do. … Really looking for him to have a breakout year this year."

In 20 career games, Driskel has passed for just 2,271 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Much of that lackluster production — although it should be mentioned that he has added 469 rushing yards and five scores — has come in bland offensive schemes that have challenged very few defenses. So Muschamp and his staff are banking on the fact that in the lone full season Driskel has played he managed games well enough to help Florida reach the Sugar Bowl as well as Roper’s past work with quarterbacks.

During his career working under quarterbacks guru and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Roper has worked with the likes of NFL QBs Eli Manning and Sean Renfree. Last season, the Blue Devils utilized a two-quarterback system with plenty of success, juggling Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette all the way to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke, despite its lack of comparable top-tier talent, has finished in the top-45 in scoring offense each of the past two seasons.

Driskel is looking to finally reach the ceiling that was set for him as the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in the 2011 class. The players he was ranked above in that class? Braxton Miller (Ohio State), Brett Hundley (UCLA), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Marcus Mariota (Oregon) and, yes, Johnny Manziel. He’s got some work to do.

Roper’s offense can finish top-50 nationally while the defense continues to shut down opponents. Really, everything held equal, it’s all riding on Roper’s ability to find ways to put points on the board. He’s working with more overall talent, more resources and more freedom than ever before, but he has something to prove: was the Broyles Award finalist a difference-maker on the sidelines or merely the product of working under Cutcliffe?

Driskel needs to make strides in the passing game while Taylor and Jones control the running game, combining for 1,500-plus yards on the ground. Dunbar, Burton and the Gators’ receiving corps has to play better than it has in years past, and the offensive line needs to plug up some holes left by graduation. On defense, same story as usual: plug and go. With so much recent success on that side of the ball, it’s difficult seeing a severe drop there.

A fast start wouldn’t hurt, either. The schedule is rather brutal once the conference slate gets going, so avoiding any potential Georgia Southern-type slip up in the first three games will be necessary.

This isn’t the first conference game. This isn’t the first significant conference game. This isn’t even the first conference game at home. But the Gators’ performance here could set the stage for the rest of the season.

The schedule opens with five games that should produce, at worst, a 3-2 record — although if a young Tennessee team trips Florida in Knoxville, the hot seat talk will reach a near-boiling point. A 4-1 start with a road loss to Alabama would not be the worst scenario leading into the LSU matchup in The Swamp. The Tigers are expected to be good, but they’ve hemorrhaged NFL talent over the past two seasons and they’ll be breaking in a first-year starting quarterback. If Florida is going to make a statement that it’s see-saw ride headed back the other way, this is the spot to make it.

A win here — given that 4-1 start — and Florida can start to go game-by-game and battle for SEC East supremacy once again. A loss and it looks like another .500 or worse record in conference (a 4-4 SEC record wouldn’t be too terrible with this schedule), and Muschamp is not going to be comfortable.

Following that LSU game, which I’ve given Florida the benefit of the doubt at home coming off a road win in Knoxville (yes, this is an optimistic scenario for the Gators), comes a stretch of four conference games: Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. There are two losses in there, although the three toughest games are played at home or at a neutral site. Florida should exact some revenge on Vandy in Nashville.

After that comes a "gimme" win against Eastern Kentucky before taking on the defending national champs in the season finale, rival Florida State. After getting pushed around by the Seminoles last season, the Gators could be better than they were a year ago and still be overmatched here. On paper, FSU looks that good.

Still, with a schedule that includes Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, eight wins is not too bad and it should buy Muschamp another season.