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NCAA Football Preview - Florida Gators

2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: After being an afterthought in the SEC in 2011 (7-6, 3-5), Florida made major strides in Will Muschamp's second year as head coach, going 11-2 overall for its fourth double-digit win campaign in the last seven seasons.

The Gators jumped out to a fast start to the season by winning their first seven games, including triumphs over nationally-ranked foes Tennessee (37-20), LSU (14-6) and South Carolina (44-11), rising all the way to No. 3 in the AP Poll themselves. In a hard-fought, neutral-field contest versus Georgia on Oct. 27, Florida fell in a 17-9 final, but closed out the regular season by capturing four straight victories.

Because of its loss to Georgia, Florida was unable to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game, but its 7-1 league mark was strong enough for an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl, although it lost to a heavy underdog Louisville, 33-23. The Gators have played in a bowl game in 22 consecutive years, the second-longest active streak to Florida State's 31.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Florida was far from a dynamic offensive squad a year ago, putting up 26.5 ppg on 334.0 ypg while scoring touchdowns on just 52 percent of its red zone possessions.

Muschamp employs one of the most run-heavy offenses in the SEC, with more than 65 percent of the plays coming on the ground in 2012, but with the loss of top tailback Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards, 10 TDs) and the continued maturity of quarterback Jeff Driskel, things could change a bit in coming campaign.

Driskel won the quarterback competition last offseason and made the coaching staff look real smart after posting an impressive year (.637 completion percentage, 1,646 passing yards, 408 rushing yards, 16 total TDs, five interceptions). Now firmly supplanted as the starter, he knows that he must take on an even bigger leadership role as a junior.

"It's easier to be more vocal when you're the set quarterback," Driskel said. "When there's a competition, you don't want to step on anyone's toes. I'm a lot more confident because I've played more and gotten a lot more snaps and played one year as the starting quarterback. I'd say the guys respect me a lot more this year."

Although leading pass catcher Jordan Reed (45 rec, 559 yards, three TDs) has moved on, Driskel built a strong rapport with Quinton Dunbar (383 yards, four TDs) and Trey Burton (172 yards) last season and both should see increased production. Loucheiz Purifoy, who tallied 51 tackles in the defensive secondary last year, is slated to see action at receiver in 2013.

Matt Jones (275 yards) was impressive in limited action last season, averaging more than five yards per carry, and as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart, he is primed for a breakout year.

DEFENSE: The Gators' defense was the biggest reason the team spent the majority of last season ranked in the top-10, as they held opposing teams to just 14.5 ppg and 288.2 ypg, both figures ranking the team fifth in the nation. However, UF will need to overcome the loss of several key players, including defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jon Bostic, and safeties Josh Evans and Matt Elam.

Of the four returning starters, defensive tackle Dominique Easley (8.5 TFL, four sacks) and cornerback Jaylen Watkins (39 tackles, three picks) are the most polished and both should contend for All-SEC honors in 2013.

With the departure of so many key defensive components, there will be ample opportunity for young players to step up and become the next superstars. Jonathan Bullard (five TFL) and Dante Fowler Jr. (eight TFL, 2.5 sacks) each saw plenty of playing time in the defensive line rotation as freshmen, and both are expected to take a big leap with another year of seasoning. Antonio Morrison (34 tackles) was also an impressive freshman a year ago and appears to have what it takes to supplant Bostic at middle linebacker.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The loss of Caleb Sturgis -- one of the most trusted placekickers in the nation who made 24-of-28 field goal attempts as a senior -- could haunt the Gators. Brad Phillips will take over as the field goal kicker after missing his only attempt last year. Kyle Christy, who averaged nearly 46 yards per punt, will try to become a Ray Guy Award finalist for the second straight season.

Andre DeBose will be Florida's primary return man once again in his senior season. He racked up over 600 total return yards in 2012, including a 100-yard touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. He now has four career kickoff returns for scores, which ties him with Willie Gault, Felix Jones and Brandon Boykin for the most in SEC history.

OUTLOOK: Although the SEC West has been the stronger division over the past several seasons, it appears as though the East is starting to close the gap, with Florida (No. 9), South Carolina (8) and Georgia (5) all ranked in the top-10 in the final 2012-13 AP Poll.

With the loss of so many keys players, Florida appears to be in slightly worse shape than it was a year ago, but Muschamp is optimistic that an equally strong campaign is on the horizon.

"I'm excited about year three, making positive strides in our program," Muschamp said. "In our league, there's going to be tight games. Doesn't matter who you play. You better coach and play well in those situations. I'd love to have some 40-point wins, (but) at the end of the day I worry about one stat, and that's winning, and it doesn't matter how you do it."

The three-horse race between Florida, Georgia and South Carolina is sure to be a fun one to watch unfold as the season progresses. In addition to contests with the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks, the Gators also have to fight through a tough schedule that includes matchups with LSU, Vanderbilt, Miami-Florida and Florida State. They might not be the favorite to capture the SEC East crown, but a double-digit win season is well within reach, as is perhaps another BCS at-large bid.