To call the Florida Gators' 2013 football campaign a debacle is a grand exercise in understatement, as whatever could have gone wrong for Coach Will Muschamp and staff did go wrong. The snake-bit Gators amassed injuries early and often in 2013, losing 12 starters through the course of the season, including starting QB Jeff Driskel and defensive nightmare Dominique Easley.
But one cannot simply blame the quagmire that was the 2013 Gator football season on injuries alone. There are things afoul in Gainesville, and now Muschamp finds himself squarely in the hot seat after a historically bad season was paired with the rise of the Gators' most hated rival, 2013 National Champion Florida State.
Things couldn't get much worse for Florida, right? One need only take a glance at the 2014 schedule to know that things can indeed get worse, and if the injury bug once against bites the Gators, a grueling season could be the straw that broke the camel's back regarding Muschamp's tenure in the Florida swamp.
What Happened Last Year?
A better question would be what didn't happen to Florida last year. The aforementioned injuries were horrendous and debilitating. A Gator offense that had already proven itself lethargic and unable to keep pace with its high-scoring stable mates in the SEC got even worse as the starters succumbed to various injuries. Quarterback Jeff Driskel went down in the third game, but even before his season-ending injury, the Gator offense under first-year OC Brent Pease just couldn't get the engines purring.
Pease was summarily canned following the Gators' final game, which led to the hiring of Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. While Roper is a fine coordinator who should be able to better utilize the Gators talent than his predecessor, one must remember that Roper will be the third coordinator in Gainesville in as many years. Yes, Roper may be able to get things going eventually, but the lack of success on the part of those who preceding him indicates there may be a more systemic problem at play in the Swamp.
In 2013, the traditionally high-octane offense of the Gators sputtered. The unit was ranked 112th overall in the nation, which is in stark contrast to the offensive pedigree developed by former Gator coaching legend Steve Spurrier. The Gators were ranked 14th in both yardage and scoring in the SEC (out of 14 teams, mind you). You read that correctly...14th...behind Vanderbilt, behind Kentucky. A long shadow has definitely been cast across the program, to say the least.
The same issues that plagued the offense did not carry over to the other side of the ball, where the Gators were able to assemble one of the most feared defenses in a league of feared defenses. Despite a rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball as well, Muschamp's defenders parlayed young talent into proven game experience. Last year, the Gator defense allowed only 21.1 points per game and 314.2 yards per game, giving the unit instant credibility as a force in the league and across the nation.
By the numbers, the 2013 season was historically bad for Florida, as the team endured its first losing season since 1979 with a record of 4-8 (3-5 in the SEC). The Gators missed the post-season for the first time since 1990, breaking a 22 year streak that was among the nation's longest. To top it off, the Gators lost to both in-state rivals (Florida State and Miami), as well as traditional rival Georgia and inter-divisional foe LSU. Things were so bad that Florida couldn't even muster a win against lowly FCS foe Georgia Southern, a loss that could easily represent the low-water mark for the Gators over the last three decades.
In 2013, it was definitely not great...to be...a Florida Gator. It remains to be seen whether Muschamp can do the unthinkable and will the team to greatness in 2014. While the pieces may be in place for a decent squad, much remains to be proven for both the Gators and Muschamp as well. And the road to success is paved with many, many pitfalls in 2014.
How Does Florida Look in 2014?
Quite simply, it is nearly impossible to predict whether the worm will turn for the 2014 Florida squad, or whether they will suffer much the same fate as their predecessors. After all, the Gators entered the 2013 season ranked 10th in the preseason after a fantastic campaign in 2012. One would certainly suppose that an abysmal spate of injuries surely couldn't once again befall the Gators, as such would be akin to lightning striking the same spot twice.
Muschamp made the aforementioned change at the helm of the offense, and Roper is indeed a respected and innovative play-caller who helped Duke to a historically successful season under head coach David Cutcliffe in 2013. However, both Charlie Weis and Pease were considered offensive gurus before their respective short stints in Gainesville, so a history of success is not exactly a fail-proof indicator of future outcomes in the Swamp. What Roper will bring to the offense is a little faster pace, a few more moving parts. Roper will ask Driskel to line up in the shotgun a good bit, and he has been known to employ no-huddle principles in his game plans. Whether these innovations will play to the strengths of Florida's current roster of offensive talent remains to be seen, but certainly, the offense couldn't be much worse than it was last year.
Driskel is back under center, and Gator fans can hope that his year of rest and rehabilitation will produce an increased understanding of what it takes to thrive in the position. The unpolished QB is a bit of a wild card, as his playing time has been scant and in the games he did start for Florida last season, he wasn't exactly Danny Weurffel. While Driskel completed an impressive 68.9% of his passes, those completions were of the short, high-percentage variety, yielding a mere 477 yards and two touchdowns over three games. He also threw three interceptions, which is enough to give Gator fans pause before throwing their hopes and dreams on the young QB's unproven arm.
The strength of the Gator offense this year will unquestionably be the running back and wide receiving corps. Though the Gators rushing numbers in 2013 were not overly prolific, much of that can be attributed to the injury attrition suffered along the offensive line.
The Gators field three tailbacks who could start at many other schools across the country, with that grouping led by Kelvin Taylor (son of former Gator rushing great Fred Taylor). Taylor emerged in the latter stages of the 2013 season, when the Gators' offensive options were severely limited and the running game was the only consistent offense that Florida could produce. The shifty Taylor (508 yards rushing on 111 carries with four TDs) split time with between-the-tackles banger Mack Brown (543 yards and four TDs) and Matt Jones (339 yards, two TDs). All three will return this year for Florida, and with a rebuilt offensive line, the trio could be primed for a big year. While the 2013 rushing totals may seem pedestrian, remember, the Gators were working with a patchwork line and little to no support from the passing game.
The wide receiving corps must cope with the loss of the Gators' only reliable big-play threat from a year ago, Solomon Patton. But the unit is strong overall and should be able to keep defenses off balance if Roper's new scheme can milk more from Driskel and the passing game. Quinton Dunbar will be the unquestioned leader of the unit, but the playmaker in the group could prove to be sophomore Demarcus Robinson. Robinson was limited in 2013 to five receptions, but the 6'1, 201 pound player is big and athletic, and combines those features with explosive speed and elusiveness.
The Gators will return tight end Clay Burton, and Burton will be joined by Virginia transfer Jake McGee, who amassed 43 receptions for the Cavaliers in 2013. Fullback Hunter Joyer is also back, which will only contribute to the already strong offensive backfield for the Gators.
Though the offensive line must replace both guards and last year's center, the unit has plenty of experience after seeing a rash of injuries that thrust younger players into immediate playing time. Tackles D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown are both SEC caliber sledders, and journeyman plug-and-play lineman Max Garcia is expected to anchor the line at center. The Gators did lose a great deal of experience at the guard position in Jon Halapio, Kyle Koehne and Ian Silberman, but Florida has enough in the cupboard to fill in those gaps and build upon the experience already in place.
The Florida defense once again projects as the team's dominant unit. Despite replacing several starters and players with substantial experience, the unit will return ten starters from its previous incarnation. Though the likes of Easley, Louchiez Purifoy, Ronald Powell and Marcus Roberson, all of whom left for the NFL, cannot be easily replaced, the Gators have the players to possibly be a better overall defense in 2014.
The defensive line, while physically imposing and freakishly athletic, was not as dominant as one would have expected given the strangling defense the gators fielded last season. For example, while the line held the point of attack well, the Gators ranked 11th in the SEC in sacks per game. Muschamp will count on his defensive line to be more disruptive in the opposing back field in 2014, and Dante Fowler Jr. is a prime candidate to lead the renewed charge. Fowler tallied 50 tackles in 2013, including a whopping 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
The Gator linebacking corps will be solid once again, led by sophomore phenom Antonio Morrison (56 tackles in eight games). Morrison was inconsistent at times last season, but with a year of experience under his belt, he is expected to be a force in run defense. Fifth year senior Mike Taylor (62 tackles, three fumble recoveries) will provide veteran leadership, and Jarrad Davis has reportedly made great strides through the spring and summer. Neiron Ball (25 tackles) saw action after injuries struck in 2013, and this year he will be counted on to make more of a contribution as a projected starter.
The true strength of the Gator defense will once again be the secondary, where Muschamp continues to recruit elite talent and develop it to NFL standards. Stud corner Vernon Hargreaves III (38 tackles, three INTs) is an athletic freak and could easily be counted among the nation's best cover corners as a sophomore in 2014. Beyond Hargreaves, the defensive backs are extremely talented yet largely unproven. Brian Poole (32 tackles, two INTs) is expected to get the nod as the other cornerback opposite Hargreaves, and the two represent a formidable obstacle to the passing attacks of future opponents.
Starting safety Cody Riggs departed from Florida after the 2013 season to join the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but fortunately for the Gators, the safety cupboard is far from bare. Senior Jabari Gorman (48 tackles, one INT) will be among the league's best safeties in 2014, and he will have plenty of help from up-and-coming sophomores Keanu Neal ad Marcus Maye.
The Gator special teams are an unknown at this point after an underwhelming effort in 2013. Johnny Townsend is expected to assume the punting duties after winning out a competition with former Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy. Place kicking was a weak point for the Gators last season, with the place kickers combining for a horrid 12-for-22 performance in field goal attempts. Sophomore Austin Hardin probably gives Florida its best chance of success, but even he was a dismal 4-of-12 in field goal attempts last season. Andre Debose handled much of the return responsibility last year, and is expected to continue in that role once again.
Why Florida May Win...
Dat defense doe. While there may be schematic differences, the style of defensive play employed by Nick Saban padawan Will Muschamp is quite similar to that of his former master. Like Saban, Muschamp counts on the athleticism of his defenders and disciplined execution of the game plan in order to be successful. Thus far in Muschamp's tenure, no one can discount that he is a defensive coach par excellence. With Alabama breaking in a new QB (or maybe two new QBs) this early in the season, the Gator secondary could give Bama's green signal-caller nightmares. They are big, fast and physical, and any hesitation or failure to execute could result in turnovers and pick-sixes. In other words, if Bama's eventual quarterback falters, the Gator defense may give Florida all the offense it needs to pull off a stunner.
While a 180 degree turnaround is not expected for the Gator offense with Roper in his first season in Gainesville, expect the Gator offense to be vastly improved (if healthy). Roper's offense plays to Driskel's supposed strengths and comfort zone. If the revamped offensive line gels, Florida should be able to have success running the ball with Taylor, Brown and Jones. Alabama's defense is traditionally stifling against the run, but if any back field can knock the Tide on its heels early, it could be the Gators' trio of thoroughbred backs.
A stifling defense, a solid running game and a few lucky breaks, and the Gators could find themselves sitting pretty in Tuscaloosa. While it's not likely, stranger things have happened.
Why Alabama May Win...
Alabama's defense is one of the few in the SEC that can match the attack the Gators bring to the table. While the Tide defense may be slightly greener than Florida's defenders overall, the Tide is probably more talented top to bottom. Much of that talent remains unproven, but if the Alabama defense can flex its muscle early in the season, the burgeoning Gator offensive attack may never ignite at all.
Alabama plays extremely well against the run traditionally, and one would expect a continuation of that trend in 2014. The running game will be the Gators' primary offensive weapon, so if the Tide can shut the ground game down, the Gators may find yards hard to come by, and scoring opportunities few and far between.
Alabama's secondary, while much maligned after 2013, has the athletic ability to cause problems for quarterbacks like Driskel when combined with Saban and Kirby Smart's aggressive defensive game plan. A turnover here and there could result in absolute disaster for the Gators in Bryant Denny, and until Driskel proves that the turnover phantoms of the past no longer haunt him, one can expect that the Tide defense will force him to make mistakes.
Alabama is one of few teams in the league that has the offensive talent to go head to head with that stellar Gator defense and come out on top. Even with an outstanding secondary, the Gators will likely have a hard time keeping all of the Tide's offensive weapons in checks. Despite the defensive talent on the Florida roster, there will be mismatches to be exploited with wide receivers Chris Black and Christion Jones, tight end O.J. Howard and running back Kenyan Drake in the passing game. Mr. Kiffin, please take that bubble screen off the shelf and dust it off...as we're going to need it.
What I Think Will Happen...
Of course, I think Alabama will win this game, but it won't be a blowout. This will be old-school smashy-smashy style football at its best, with elite athletes pounding one another into oblivion. Bama will have to play its usual physical style of offensive football and attack the mismatches that present themselves.
OC Lane Kiffin will have to be innovative in attacking the Gator defense, but I like the match-ups that can be exploited in the middle of the field. There simply aren't any linebackers not named C.J. Mosley who could have a prayer of keeping up with Howard or Drake, and because the Florida defense is sometimes overly aggressive, the screen game could result in big plays for the Tide.
Defensively, I can only imagine that Alabama will dominate the trenches with a rejuvenated defensive line and vastly improved secondary. Florida will struggle to run the ball, and the passing game will all but fall silent. In the meantime, even a struggling Tide offense should be able to work out the kinks and score enough to outpace the still-developing Florida attack.
I am going with 21-6, as I think the Bama running game will put points on the board while the Tide defense stumps a Gator O still trying to find its way. This is a dangerous game, but it's one that Alabama should win.