Florida has scored 647 points in coach Will Muschamp’s first two seasons, scoring 331 points in 2011 and 344 points in 2012 for an overall average of 25.92 points per game. Florida ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring in 2011 and 10th a year ago, though the latter didn’t stop the Gators from reaching a BCS bowl, the program’s seventh.
But no Florida teams since 1988-89 had ever scored fewer points during a two-year span – and in Gainesville, 1988-89 are known more popularly as “the two years prior to Steve Spurrier’s arrival.” The Gators have lost four games during the past two years when allowing 21 or fewer points: Georgia in 2012 and Florida State, South Carolina and Auburn in 2011. In comparison, UF lost six such games from 1990, Spurrier’s first season, through 2010, Urban Meyer’s last.
So there’s a disconnect in Gainesville, one arm stronger than the other, an imbalance that will, unless rectified, threaten Florida’s chances at knocking off Alabama, Georgia and others to reclaim its perch atop the SEC. The defense is in place: UF’s group is ferocious, a personification of a coach, Muschamp, whose approach can be best defined with an onomatopoeia – boom. But where’s the offense? Gainesville wants to know, because Florida isn’t happy with second place.
NO. 125 TO NO. 1: College football countdown
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION
But you wonder about the magic number: the number of points this offense must average a game for Florida to win the SEC East title. Is it 21 points, 24 points, 27 points? It’s at least 20 points, and I look at this offense, look at this schedule, look at the SEC at large and wonder how a reworked group – one with some fairly large personnel issues – plans on scoring with consistency from September through November. Pease is an upgrade, but how long will it take the Gators to find their rhythm in his specific system? It won’t happen overnight, and it’s a process that will be slowed by teams like LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and others.
— In a nutshell: Florida rode a vintage defense back to a BCS bowl, adding four wins to its 2011 total and reasserting itself in the top-heavy SEC. It wasn’t perfect: UF’s offense was paltry, once again, though it’s obvious certain strides were made during the second half as the Gators grew more comfortable in coordinator Brent Pease’s system. No one game encapsulated the season better than this: UF topped South Carolina 44-11 on Oct. 20 despite accounting for only 183 yards of total offense and 2.83 yards per play – one point for every 4.16 yards of offense. The end result was an offense only slightly improved upon its 2011 total (344 points to 331 points) but a defense dramatically better than a year before, one that ended the year among the top five nationally in total yards, rushing yards and points allowed per game. This was a unit to remember. The offense was one to forget.
— High point: A three-way tie: LSU (14-6), South Carolina and Florida State (37-26). Three teams then ranked in the top 10, all with BCS hopes; UF topped all three despite gaining a combined 814 yards of offense.
— Low point: Losing to Georgia cost UF a shot at Alabama in the SEC title game, one that would have been played for a title berth, and led the Gators to the Sugar Bowl, where they were embarrassed by a hungrier Louisville team. Shades of Alabama against Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, perhaps? We know how that played out for the Tide a year later, of course.
— Tidbit: Let’s put all defenses led by Will Muschamp, whether as an assistant or head coach – a span from 2002-4 and 2006-12, with 2005 spent in the NFL – and compare them to other programs in the FBS. Where does this group (an LSU, Auburn, Texas and Florida amalgam) stand? Florida crunched the numbers. In terms of yards per game, the Fighting Muschamps would rank third in yards allowed per game (286.46), behind TCU and Alabama; fourth in passing yards allowed per game (179.97), behind Alabama, LSU and Miami (Fla.); and fourth in scoring defense (17.02 points per game), behind Alabama, Ohio State and LSU.
FORMER PLAYERS IN THE NFL
— 39: S Ahmad Black (Tampa Bay), LB Jon Bostic (Chicago), WR Andre Caldwell (Denver), WR Riley Cooper (Philadelphia), WR Jermaine Cunningham (New England), DE Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati), S Matt Elam (Baltimore), S Josh Evans (Jacksonville), DT Sharrif Floyd (Minnesota), OT Marcus Gilbert (Pittsburgh), RB Mike Gillislee (Miami), QB Rex Grossman (Washington), CB Joe Haden (Cleveland), WR Frankie Hammond (Kansas City), WR Percy Harvin (Seattle), P Chas Henry (Tampa Bay), S Will Hill (New York Giants), WR Omarius Hines (Green Bay), DT Jaye Howard (Seattle), OG Maurice Hurt (Washington), LB Jelani Jenkins (Miami), LB Lerentee McCray (Denver), DT Ray McDonald (San Francisco), DT Jeremy Mincey (Jacksonville), WR Louis Murphy (New York Giants), S Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati), WR David Nelson (Cleveland), OT Xavier Nixon (Washington), DE Earl Okine (Houston), C Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh), C Mike Pouncey (Miami), TE Jordan Reed (Washington), LB Brandon Spikes (New England), OT Max Starks (San Diego), K Caleb Sturgis (Miami), QB Tim Tebow (New England), DE Justin Trattou (New York Giants), S Major Wright (Chicago).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST
— NFL quarterback also taken in the MLB draft
1. John Elway (New York Yankees, 1981)
2. Tom Brady (Montreal Expos, 1995)
3. Dan Marino (Toronto Blue Jays, 1979)
4. Joe Theismann (Minnesota Twins, 1971)
5. Ken Stabler (Houston Astros, 1968)
— Will Muschamp (Georgia ’94), 18-8 after his second season. Muschamp eschewed the opportunity to be Mack Brown’s eventual successor at Texas for a shot at replacing a legend at Florida, taking on a premier program with mammoth-size yearly expectations. He has started living up to his end of the bargain after two years, following up a rocky 2011 campaign with 11 wins and a BCS berth a season ago. Muschamp has succeeded in many respects, improving UF’s overall talent level, developing players very well on defense and, in all, creating one of the stronger defensive units in the FBS. But the Gators’ offense remains an enigma – putting pressure on Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease to deliver in 2013.
Muschamp has slight ties to Florida, having attempted to join the football team as a walk-on only to be rebuffed, but has very deep ties to the SEC. These ties date back to his playing days at Georgia, where he went from walk-on to team captain, and continue with a coaching career that includes stints at LSU (2001-4) and Auburn (2006-7). Muschamp’s a Nick Saban disciple, as his tenure at LSU suggests: He began as Saban’s linebackers coach in 2001, was his defensive coordinator from 2002-4 and followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Auburn gave Muschamp the opportunity to return to his roots, and he responded by leading the Tigers to back-to-back outstanding defensive efforts in 2006 and 2007 – seventh in scoring defense in 2006, sixth in 2007, as solid, well-coached and fundamentally sound as any unit in the country. Texas made an offer no coach could refuse a year later, writing a huge check for him to become Brown’s coordinator in 2008 and then, in November of that fall, naming him the head-coach-in-waiting.
For three years, it was simply assumed that he would eventually step into Brown’s shoes; the only issue was when, as Brown showed no sign of slowing down while countless premier programs offered enticing job openings. One school, Florida, had everything Muschamp was looking for: talent, prestige, fertile recruiting grounds, history and, perhaps most of all, a return to the SEC. Was he a surprise choice as Meyer’s replacement? Perhaps, but only because it was so widely assumed that Muschamp wasn’t going anywhere. Well, boom: he’s gone, in Gainesville, and enters his third season having already built a defense in his image. Next, Muschamp must bring Florida’s offense back into relevancy.
— Tidbit (coaching edition): Muschamp’s staff includes three new members. The first is wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, the former coach at Kentucky, who has since done a wonderful job sharing funny, sloppy and scary Photoshop entries on his Twitter account. The second is special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Jeff Choate, who took a strange path to Gainesville: Choate held the same title at Boise State in 2011, left for Washington State in 2012, was named the defensive coordinator at UTEP last winter and then left for UF in April. Choate is a superb special teams coordinator. Finally, Muschamp hired a one of the nation’s best defensive line coaches in Brad Lawing, who spent the previous seven seasons in the same capacity at South Carolina. No, Clowney remained in Columbia.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
— Offense: This offense enters 2013 with a heightened familiarity with Brent Pease’s offense, not to mention a slight degree of confidence after making some strides late in 2012 – not huge strides, mind you, but November’s offense was more balanced between the run and the pass than October’s impotent attack. The key remains Jeff Driskel, Florida’s junior quarterback, and the manner in which he improves heading into his second full season as the Gators’ starter. In a perfect world, with the Boise State comparison in place, Driskel’s 2013 season will resemble the growth Texas quarterback David Ash flashed a season ago under former Boise coordinator Bryan Harsin. One day, one snap, one throw at a time: Driskel has all the physical gifts needed to excel but still needs experience – and still needs a go-to receiver in the passing game. What is he today? Driskel is careful with the football, almost to a fault, and has the arm needed to make the throws demanded in this offense. But he’s still a bit of a work in progress – even if closer to all-SEC status than an SEC also-ran. Playing quarterback at Florida comes with its pressures, its close scrutiny and Swamp-size spotlight; Driskel should feel the pressure and feed off it, turning in the sort of season this offense demands should UF make a run at the national title. He gets better every day. What else can UF ask for?
It’s pretty clear, based on Driskel’s continued growth and the questionable nature of the passing game, that Florida’s offense will continue to roll through its running backs. The Gators lose a good one in Mike Gillislee, who cracked the 1,000-yard mark as a senior, but the staff has very high hopes for sophomore Mike Jones (275 yards), last year’s understudy. Can Jones be a 250-carry back? Oh, I’ll take it a step further: Jones is Gillislee multiplied, a quicker, stronger, more agile back than the former starter, and should – barring injury – end the year as one of the most productive backs in the SEC. Now, health is a factor: Jones is battling a viral infection that could keep him out of the opener, though not much longer. In the interim, UF will lean on Driskel (401 yards), junior Mack Brown, former walk-on Mark Herndon and former safety Valdez Showers. Wither Kelvin Taylor, the highly touted incoming freshman? He and fellow rookie Adam Lane may be headed for a redshirt season; Taylor’s been viewed by many as an immediate-impact recruit, so that would be surprising. That Herndon was recently put on scholarship bodes well for chances at serious playing time in 2013.
The offensive line will be Muschamp’s best, which is a great sign for the overall health of this offense. It’s a unit bolstered by two major transfers: Tyler Moore from Nebraska, Max Garcia from Maryland. While Garcia seems destined for a starting role at left guard, Moore could conceivably end up playing – if not starting – at any position up front but center. For now, Moore is taking snaps at right guard in place of senior Jon Halapio, a team leader who has been sidelined for much of fall camp with a pectoral injury. When Halapio does return, Moore could challenge junior Chaz Green for the starting job at right tackle or serve as a valuable swing reserve behind Green and sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison rounds out the front, helping give the Gators a vastly improved starting five – on paper, at least. But what I really like isn’t just UF’s starters but the degree of depth; in particular, I admire how potential reserves like Moore, Green, senior Kyle Koehne and sophomore Trip Thurman can play across the board, giving the Gators several different personnel options. This line is the strength of the offense.
— Defense: So, the defense. It’s going to be fantastic. Any worries? Well, the Gators are young in some spots, especially along the second tier of the back seven. Question the experience, perhaps; don’t question the talent – or the mentality, or the coaching. The front seven will land a huge boost from the healthy return of junior Ronald Powell, an all-conference talent who missed all of last season with a knee injury. If back to his old tricks, Powell will move around between two roles: one as Florida’s rush end, a spot he’ll share, and another as an outside linebacker. He should perform wonderfully, giving last season’s middling pass rush an enormous shot in the arm – and as an aside, Lawing has had an immediate and substantial impact on all of Florida’s potential rushers. Between Powell and sophomores Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard, the Gators have a terrific trio on the outside.
While it’s a bit confusing – I’ve confused myself – it’s safe to consider Bullard and Fowler as the Gators’ starting ends; Powell will be a hybrid, moving up and down. Having these talented options on the outside will allow UF to move senior Dominique Easley (26 tackles, 8.5 for loss) inside to tackle, where he’ll headline a group that includes experienced holdovers like Damien Jacobs and Leon Orr and incoming JUCO transfer Darious Cummings. The Gators also have a slew of talented freshmen entering the mix, and any number – Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Jordan Sherit – could see time in the two-deep as rookies. But you have to love what you see: Florida has speed on the edge, disruption and size on the inside, and the amount of experienced depth needed to house one of the finest fronts in college football.
When he returns to Muschamp’s good graces, sophomore Antonio Morrison (34 tackles) will assume the starting job at middle linebacker and produce at an all-SEC level – and give this defense a very nice mean streak. For now, however, UF’s starting trio on the second level has Powell on the strong side, junior Michael Taylor in the middle and junior Neiron Ball on the weak side. Powell will obviously step out or move down in certain situations, but UF’s plan is simple: Morrison will soon return to the lineup, and when he does, the Gators can use either Taylor or Ball on the outside. In addition, the Gators are planning on playing true freshman Alex Anzalone extensively as a rookie, currently penciling him in as the backup in the middle. In terms of depth, UF will use Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Jarrad Davis – three freshmen, but with off-the-charts talent. The Gators’ linebackers are built for success today and tomorrow.
The secondary has the potential for excellence, but one word of caution: I’m a little concerned about its youthful makeup. For one, the Gators are moving forward with redshirt freshman Marcus Maye and junior Cody Riggs as the starters at safety; Mayes is new, obviously, and while Riggs has past starting experience – he started 10 games at cornerback in 2011 – he missed all but two games of last season with a foot injury. Another option is senior Jaylen Watkins (39 tackles, 3 interceptions), but he may be more valuable as a flexible defensive back, playing cornerback, safety and the inside in certain packages. Watkins is one of three veterans with at cornerback, joining juniors Loucheiz Purifoy (51 tackles) and Marcus Roberson (23 tackles, 2 interceptions), and the expectation is that this trio will lead the way at the position. At the same time, however, UF must find a role for true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who has done nothing but prove to this staff that he can contribute in sub-packages as a rookie. Look for Hargreaves to play inside, potentially covering slot receivers and bringing pressure off the edge. He could be the top freshman defender in the SEC.
— Special teams: Florida loses a wonderful kicker in Caleb Sturgis, one of the more reliable options in the FBS, but returns another elite specialist in junior punter Kyle Christy, a preseason All-American. In terms of replacing Sturgis, UF could hand the job to senior Brad Phillips, who has a touch of experience, or turn the job over to redshirt freshman Austin Hardin. With Andre DeBose lost for the season, the Gators can hand return duties to Purifoy, though he’s got a full plate; another option would be Solomon Patton, who was listed third on the Gators’ post-spring two-deep. I realize there are some missing pieces and some new pieces, but I’m confident that UF’s special teams will be one of the best in the SEC and one of the most productive nationally.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH
— Wide receiver: This position remains one of some concern, as it has been for several seasons, and one that lacks a true go-to target for Driskel to rely upon in the passing game. The Gators’ options – and overall depth – have been stretched further by DeBose’s season-ending knee injury, one that robs UF of a big-play threat and return specialist. Why is this loss so painful? Consider: Florida’s receivers had nine receptions of 20 or more yards in 2012 – nine such plays in 13 games. It’s vital that the passing game land a spark out wide, so the pressure is on experienced holdovers like junior Quinton Dunbar (36 receptions for 383 yards) and senior Trey Burton (18 for 172) to lead by example for this otherwise untested receiver corps. Joining this pair are senior Solomon Patton and sophomores Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, who have contributed little since arriving on campus – which places pressure on the Gators’ five incoming freshmen to potentially produce from the start. Two of the rookies seem more prepared for immediate playing time: Demarcus Robinson enrolled early, helping his cause, and Ahmad Fullwood seems to possess the blend of size and speed Muschamp and the staff are emphasizing on the recruiting trail. Options are so slim that Purifoy could truly play upwards of 100 snaps per game, alternating as both UF’s starting cornerback and one of its most dangerous receivers. At tight end, UF returns juniors Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook, among others. Now, let’s be honest: This group scares no one. Think LSU’s cornerbacks – Collins and Mills – are worried about UF’s options out wide; think LSU won’t squeeze closer to the box? This is the difference between the Gators’ offense and its defense: Muschamp can scheme around any one defensive weakness due to the team’s almost unmatched speed, athleticism and options across the board; UF cannot, on the other hand, do anything to overcome what looks like a thin and inexperienced crop of receiving targets.
GAME(S) TO WATCH
— Georgia: Depending on your projections, UF’s biggest game is either Georgia, played in Jacksonville, or South Carolina, which plays host on Nov. 16. The Gators could split and win the East Division, though that would leave this team needing some help from outside parties – BCS standings, for one – to settle the various head-to-head tiebreakers. One thing for sure: UF can’t split that pair and then lose again if it wants to play for the national championship. The schedule is beastly, with trips to LSU and Miami (Fla.) and another date with Florida State joining the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. No one said it’d be easy.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION
— In a nutshell: So I think we’ve got a good handle on Florida heading into the opener, right? The defense is superb from top to bottom: UF has elite talent on the edges in Fowler, Bullard and Powell; size, experience and production inside, between Easley and his fellow holdovers; a solid top unit at linebacker, even if the second tier is dangerously young; and options to burn in the secondary, so much so that a few supremely talented recruits – Marcel Harris and Keanu Neal – could contribute primarily on special teams, if at all. After finishing in the top five in most major categories in 2012, there’s every reason to think the Gators’ defense will come back and put together an equally successful season. This defense can win championships.
The offense is a concern. It’s been a concern since Muschamp arrived; I see signs of life, but I am still worried about Florida’s ability – related solely to personnel, in my mind, and not coaching – to put forth a balanced attack. Driskel has all the talent to develop into a very solid starter, but does he have the supporting cast? The receiver corps is not a strength, to put it lightly. Jones could be a star in the backfield, but what if he misses time – can the ground game survive with Driskel, Brown and the freshmen shouldering the load? While the offensive line is in great shape, and should therefore do a nice job on the ground and in protection, the Gators must solve its passing-game riddle to make a serious charge through a very difficult schedule.
Here’s where I stand: Florida’s defense will keep it in every game, but the offense will continue to falter against premier competition. Translated: UF will win nine or 10 games during the regular season but lose the SEC East to Georgia and South Carolina, two teams with a greater degree of offense-defense balance. On one hand, it’s hard to find the Gators’ ceiling if the offense improves dramatically; on the other, it’s hard to see the Gators coming close to last year’s record if the attack remains stuck in the doldrums. It’s a fine problem to have, in a sense, since Florida could explode if this side of the ball behaves. Nonetheless, it’s my opinion that UF can’t be viewed as a title contender in 2013 with an elite defense but an unpredictable offense.
— Dream season: Florida teams a powerful running game with a stronger-than-expected passing game, riding this rejuvenated offense to a 12-0 regular season, a win against Alabama in the SEC title game and a shot at the national championship.
— Nightmare season: The Gators slip to 7-5, losing to Miami, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
— Where Florida fans hang out: If you’re interested in UF football chatter with a dash of recruiting coverage, look no further than Gator Country, Inside the Gators and Fightin’ Gators. For added coverage, check out the Web sites of Florida Today, The Gainesville Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. The best blog coverage can be found at Alligator Army.
— All-name team nominee: LS Kyle Crofoot.
— Who is No. 13? This program has reached at least two January bowls in a row four times in its history.
2013 TEAM OVERVIEW
— Conference: SEC, East
— Location: Gainesville, Fla.
— Nickname: Gators
— Returning starters: 11 (6 offense, 5 defense)
— Last year’s ranking: No. 34
— 2012 record: 11-2 (7-1)
— Last year’s re-ranking: No. 8
— 2013 schedule:
Aug. 31 Toledo
Sept. 7 at Miami (Fla.)
Sept. 21 Tennessee
Sept. 28 at Kentucky
Oct. 5 Arkansas
Oct. 12 at LSU
Oct. 19 at Missouri
Nov. 2 vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
Nov. 9 Vanderbilt
Nov. 16 at South Carolina
Nov. 23 Georgia Southern
Nov. 30 Florida State
Paul Myerberg, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.
PHOTOS: COUNTING DOWN TO NO. 1