The 23rd-ranked Florida Gators come into this new season with high expectations despite a modest 2011 campaign, and they attempt to start the year off strong in Saturday's opener against the visiting Bowling Green Falcons.
On the surface, Bowling Green's 5-7 record in 2011 (3-5 in Mid-American Conference) may seem like a disappointment, but considering the team was hampered with injuries all year long, the three-game improvement over the 2010 campaign should be considered a mild success. However, third-year head coach Dave Clawson has a much bigger goal in mind, and finishing below .500 is not it.
"Going 2-10 two years ago and last year going 5-7 really takes a toll on you," defensive tackle Chris Jones said. "Losing is not anybody's favorite thing. It's probably my least favorite thing. This year being my senior year I really want that MAC Championship."
Florida got off to a hot start in Will Muschamp's first year as its new head coach, opening the season at 4-0, but then the wheels came off as the team would go winless in the month of October and finished the regular season at just 6-6. The Gators did not fare well against the cream of the crop in the SEC, going 0-5 against ranked opponents, with losses at LSU (41-11), Auburn (17-6) and South Carolina (17-12), and at home versus Alabama (38-10) and Georgia (24-20). The Gators accepted a bid to play in the Gator Bowl, where they defeated Ohio State, 24-17. The win brought their overall record to 7-6, thus avoiding their first losing season since 1979.
Saturday's game marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs.
Leading the Bowling Green offensive attack once again will be quarterback Matt Schilz, and he showed plenty of great things in his sophomore season with 3,024 passing years and 28 touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero plans to let Schilz air it out once again this season, but the Falcons don't have much in the cupboard at wide receiver after graduating six players at the position a year ago. Between Shaun Joplin, Chris Gallon, Heath Jackson, and Michigan transfer Je'Ron Stokes, someone will need to step up as Schilz's new go-to guy.
Anthon Samuel was impressive in his rookie season, rushing for 884 yards at 5.9 yards per carry en route to being named the MAC Freshman of the Year. If Samuel can stay healthy - he missed three games last season - he should be in for an even better year behind a veteran offensive line.
The Bowling Green defense appears to be an even more cohesive unit than the offense, with seven starters returning to the fold.
Though all four starters return in the secondary, safety Jerry Gates is the only senior in the bunch. After making the full-time switch to the defensive backfield a year ago (73 tackles, 2 INTs), the team expects Gates to be one of the leaders of the unit.
Jones (47 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 11 TFL) is perhaps the best interior lineman in the MAC, and he is able to make big plays in both the passing and running game. Linebacker Dwayne Woods (111 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is as solid as they come in the middle.
The Florida offense was not up to snuff in 2011, as the unit ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring (25.5 ppg) and 10th in total offense (328.7 ypg). With last season's quarterback John Brantley now graduated, the team will turn to a pair of sophomores in Jacoby Brisset and Jeff Driskel to try and fill the void.
Muschamp is keeping his quarterback situation under wraps until game time. While he's stated that both signal-callers will see action, he's still mum about who will get the start.
"I met with both quarterbacks (last Friday) morning," Muschamp said. "Both guys will play in the first game. They both deserved the right to play. They have earned that. They both have had really good camps. I told both of them that the last position I'm worried about is the quarterback. I feel very comfortable about both guys."
No Florida receiver amassed more than 400 yards last season, but whichever young QB lines up under center, he will have a number of experienced pass catchers to aid him, including returning starters Quinton Dunbar (216 yards, 2 TDs) and Frankie Hammond (181 yards), and tight end Jordan Reed (307 yards, 2 TDs).
With the top two rushers from 2011 gone, senior Mike Gillislee will have his chance to make an impact this year after rushing for 328 yards (5.9 ypc) a season ago. It will help that a veteran offensive line will be blocking for him, with tackle Chaz Green, guard John Halapio and center Jonotthan Harrison all returning as starters.
In an league chock full of stout defenses, the Gators managed to hold their own last year, ranking sixth in scoring defense (20.6 ppg) and fifth in total defense (299.6 ypg).
The strength of the unit lies in the linebacking corps, where all three starters return. Jon Bostic (team-best 94 tackles, 10 TFL, 3 sacks), Jelani Jenkins (75 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 interception) and Lerentee McCray (7.5 TFL) should all benefit from playing together for an entire season.
The secondary remains largely intact as well, with safeties Matt Elam (78 tackles, 11 TFL, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries) and Josh Evans (51 tackles) hoping to improve upon stellar seasons.
Only one member of the defensive line returns (Ronald Powell, who had a team- high 6 sacks in 2011), but Muschamp likes what he sees in his defensive unit as a whole.
"I feel comfortable with our leadership where it is," Muschamp said. "(The defense) has a high expectation level of themselves of what they need to do to be successful."