Preview 2014 - Florida Gators
Florida QB Jeff Driskel
Florida QB Jeff Driskel
Posted May 21, 2014

Preview 2014 - Florida Gators: After a year of devastating injuries, Florida reloads for a big season. (Getty Images)

Florida Gators

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

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Head coach: Will Muschamp
4th year: 22-16
Ten Best Florida Players
1. CB Vernon Hargreaves, Soph.
2. DE Dante Fowler, Jr.
3. LB Antonio Morrison, Jr.
4. LB Michael Taylor, Sr.
5. DT Leon Orr, Sr.
6. QB Jeff Driskel, Jr.
7. DE Jon Bullard, Jr.
8. OT D.J. Humphries, Jr.
9. RB Matt Jones, Jr.
10. WR Quinton Dunbar, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30  Idaho
Sep. 6 Eastern Michigan
Sep. 13 Kentucky
Sep. 20 at Alabama
Oct. 4 at Tennessee
Oct. 11 LSU
Oct. 18 Missouri
Nov. 1 Georgia (in Jax)
Nov. 8 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 15 South Carolina
Nov. 22 Eastern Kentucky
Nov. 29 at Florida State

It's not that hard to figure out why Florida had a disastrous year. It came down to three problems …

Injuries, injuries, injuries.

Yes, the offense gave away the Miami game with mistakes, and yes, there was little margin for error considering the team's style of play, but this isn't that hard. Florida went from being in the hunt for the national title in 2012 to a miserable 4-8 campaign with seven straight losses to close things out because top players were dropping left and right.

And it's not like there were any truly cheap losses, and – don't scoff - that sort of includes Georgia Southern.

Miami turned out to be a nine-win team, as was Vanderbilt. There's no shame in losing on the road at LSU, Missouri or South Carolina, the Georgia game was a fight under trying circumstances – but the Bulldogs were banged up, too – and Florida State turned out to be pretty good.

The Georgia Southern game? Late in a lost year against a devastatingly-quirky running game? Okay, fine, you can't lose to Georgia Southern, but that was a perfect storm type of moment with a devastating triple-option attack catching the Gators looking ahead to the Seminoles.

But considering all the top talents coming into Gainesville, and with so much NFL upside across the board, Florida is supposed to be fantastic no matter what. Still, it's not fair to judge head coach Will Muschamp or the state of the program based on what happened last year.

Who got hurt? Who didn't?

Jeff Driskel might not be Peyton Manning, but take any starting quarterback off an elite team in the third game of the season and things will take a sweeping left turn.

The Gators had a slew of problems, illnesses and injuries before the fall practices even started, and then came the cavalcade of disasters including Driskel's broken leg and DT Dominique Easley's torn ACL – he was considered a top ten NFL prospect before getting hurt before the season could get rolling. Top running back Matt Jones was knocked out for the year with a knee injury, star pass rusher Ronald Powell missed time with an ankle injury, starting offensive tackle D.J. Humphries suffered a knee injury, fellow offensive tackle Tyler Moore fell off a scooter, linebackers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison were hit by knee injuries, part QB/part WR Trey Burton hurt his shoulder, and on and on and on and on.

And even with all of the problems, and even with all the energy sucked out of the team, and even with an offense that couldn't find anything that worked, the Gators were right there with chances to beat Miami, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Georgia Southern. Those were the types of games the team came up with in 2012, and those are the types of games a healthy team would've won.

On the plus side, several young players saw playing time trying to fill in the gaps, and now the 2014 Gators are loaded with depth and options like never before in the Muschamp era. So will this team be more 2012 or 2013, or somewhere in between?

The defense has to fill in the defensive back gaps, but the front seven should be its typically devastating self right out of the gate. The spotlight will be on the offense that's looking to be more explosive and more effective, and it should be with all the key parts returning to the backfield. The kicking game needs work, too, with 2012 superstar punter Kyle Christy needing to get his mojo back after a horrible year.

It'll be easy to dismiss and write off the Gators with all the question marks, it's stodgy style of play, and its nasty schedule, but be careful. This is the type of team with the type of style that should be able to hang around every game with its defense, and it could bludgeon and wear down defenses with its power offense. The formula worked in 2012, and attitude and experience should mean everything.

And health should play a wee bit of a factor, too.

What to watch for on offense: Remember, the offense that was so mediocre – but effective – in 2012 was banged up and without its key parts last season, losing QB Jeff Driskel to a broken leg early on and missing top runner Matt Jones in the fifth game of the year. Don't expect fireworks, and don't look for the Gators to go back to the old fun ‘n' gun days, but there will be more downfield passing and the machine should be far better on third downs and controlling the ball.

The offensive line has the potential to be a major plus with veteran starters across the front, and yes, having Driskel and Jones back really will make a big deal. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is going to keep pounding away with the ground game, but it'll be a faster attack. In the end, though, as long as Driskel isn't making mistakes, and the power game is working, the offense will be doing its job.

What to watch for on defense: Watch out for the plays behind the line. The defense received absolutely no help from the offense last season, but it was still able to keep the team alive in game after game. Don't expect there to be too many massive tweaks and changes – if any – considering the production in the Muschamp era. Remember, the 2013 defense had to replace Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Jon Bostic and a few other key parts, and it turned out to be just fine. However, the key will be to generate more of a pass rush from several spots, and it should come.

In 2012, the Gators came up with 30 sacks from 14 different players, and 28 from 14 defenders in 2011. Last year, the defense generated just 19 sacks from nine players and a mere 61 tackles for loss after generating 88 in 2012. Expect Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to bring the heat.

The team will be far better if… the offense takes advantage of absolutely every opportunity to score. Coming up with points has been like pulling teeth over the last few seasons, and considering how many close games the Gators play, and with a defense that can rise up and shut down just about everyone, there can't be any misfires in the red zone. The offense was able to get the ball to the cup, but it kept missing the four-foot putt finishing 119th in the nation in red zone scoring. The midrange placekicking was a killer, with Gator kickers going 1-of-8 from 40 yards or longer, and overall there were too many empty trips.

Against Miami, Florida dominated, but bad interceptions and scoring just two of six times in the red zone turned out to be the difference. In the four wins, Florida scored on 14 of 17 times in the red zone, but in the eight losses, the offense scored just 16 of 26 times, and scoring just 69.8% of the time overall. In 2012? 82.6% and 86.5% in 2011. By the way, in the 2008 national title season, the Tebows scored 91% of the time, and by comparison, last year Florida State came away with points on 97% of its red zone chances.

The Schedule: For a team in need of a little bit of confidence and a lot of seasoning, starting out the season with two scrimmages against Idaho and Eastern Michigan is a major plus, and easing the way into the SEC season against Kentucky should help, too. And then the fun begins with a trip to Alabama.

The SEC schedule-makers never seem to give the Gators any sort of a break, and this slate is no exception playing LSU as its regular interdivisional partner to go along with the West date against the Crimson Tide. On the plus side, road games at Tennessee and Vanderbilt are manageable, getting a week off to get ready for Georgia is good, and hosting LSU and South Carolina should help. But even if everything is going along great, and even if the season is strong, there's still the trip to Florida State to close.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Jeff Driskel. The quarterback Florida fans love to blame, and SEC fans want to mock, is actually a lot better than you think. While it's easy to focus on the two interception meltdown against Miami – and rightly so – he completed 69% of his passes and was great at keeping the chains moving before suffering a season-ending leg injury. Driskel was the ultimate game manager in 2012, converting clutch third down try after third down try, and he did what the offense needed him to do. While he doesn't push the ball down the field, that's not his role. As long as he's using his legs and midrange arm to move the chains, he's doing his job. Keeping interceptions to a minimum is also a must – the Gators are 12-0 when he doesn't throw two picks, and 0-3 when he does.

Best defensive player: Sophomore CB Vernon Hargreaves III. In a corner-rich 2014 NFL Draft, if Hargreaves had been eligible, he still would've been a first rounder. All the parts are there for the nation's No. 1 corner prospect of 2013 to become special at the next level, but for now, he's doing his part holding down the Florida secondary making big play after big play, coming up with three picks on the year – coming in the first four games – with 11 broken up passes. He's a terrific open-field tackler who doesn't miss, and while he's at his best when the ball is in the air, he's not going to be challenged too much this season with new parts in other spots in the secondary.

Key players to a successful season: Senior WR Quinton Dunbar, sophomore WR Ahmad Fulwood and junior WR Latroy Pittman. The Gators need to find a second corner to hold his own on the other side of Hargreaves – likely relying on a true freshman - Driskel will have to be fantastic, and the kickers have to be far better, but the biggest hope for a better season comes from the receiving corps that looks the part, but certainly doesn't play it. There won't be a lot of big bombs down the field, but offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will make sure his targets will get chances to make things happen. It's time for Florida to have a passing game again.

The season will be a success if ... the Gators win the SEC East. If Missouri could get the job done, then Florida should certainly be able to come up with a surprise year, even with a brutal schedule that doesn't provide any breaks. As long as the defense can continue to be among the ten best in the country, and if the offense can do anything to not be so pitiful, it really should be possible to survive the East unscathed – at least that has to be the goal. Split with Alabama and LSU, and hope for the best.

Key game: Oct. 11 vs. LSU. After getting a few weeks of scrimmages against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and the annual win over Kentucky, it's statement time at Alabama and Tennessee. Assuming Florida is back to being Florida, it should play well in a loss to the Tide and should be able to get through the Vols. Then come the real tests and the games the Gators have to win at home against LSU and Missouri. For most programs, getting through the first part of the SEC schedule before facing Georgia would be a killer, but beating LSU is a must to show that things really are back on track to being among the elite.

2013 Fun Stats:
- First Quarter Scoring: Opponents 78 – Florida 39
- Time of Possession: Florida 33:49 – Opponents 26:11
- Penalties: Florida 89 for 711 yards – Opponents 64 for 545 yards

- 2014 Florida Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players