After a disappointing end to an outstanding 2012 campaign, the 10th-ranked Florida Gators will attempt to get the new season off to a positive start as they entertain the Toledo Rockets on Saturday afternoon.
Under first-year head coach Matt Campbell, Toledo endured a very successful campaign in 2012, as it finished the regular season at 9-3 overall and tied for second place in the Mid-American Conference West Division at 6-2. The Rockets even made a brief appearance in the BCS Rankings, earning the No. 25 spot following a 9-1 start to the season, but they went on to lose three of their final four games, including a 41-15 setback in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Toledo's schedule gets off to a tough start, but Campbell knows that his team needs to be in mid-season form to compete.
"When you play opponents like Florida right off the bat, if you don't show up, not only will you get beat, you will get humiliated," Campbell said. "That helps your focus. It's very exciting to play the best of the best. We'll find out a lot about where we are very early in the season."
Florida was an afterthought in the SEC in 2011 (7-6, 3-5), but the program 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. Because of its loss to Georgia (17-9), UF was unable to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game, but its 7-1 league ledger was strong enough for an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl, although it lost to a heavy underdog in Louisville, 33-23.
Despite the letdown at season's end, Muschamp is pleased with the path his team is on.
"I'm excited about year three, making positive strides in our program," Muschamp said. "At the end of the day I worry about one stat, and that's winning, and it doesn't matter how you do it."
This bout marks the first-ever meeting between these two schools on the football field.
Toledo had one of the top offenses in the MAC last season, averaging 445.2 ypg and 31.5 ppg, and with the return of nine starters on that side of the ball, the explosiveness should continue.
Senior running back David Fluellen will once again be the centerpiece of the unit, as he attempts to build upon a 2012 season where he ranked eighth in the FBS with 1,498 rushing yards. He's also a beast near the goal line (13 TDs), and the return of four starting offensive linemen can only help him going forward.
Returning under center is Terrance Owens, who has proven to be a capable dual- threat option after completing 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,699 yards and 14 TDs, to go along with 395 rushing yards and five more scores on the ground last year. While his interception total was low (eight), he was inconsistent, throwing multiple picks in three games.
Luckily for Owens, the Rockets return a deep and experienced group of receivers. Bernard Reedy was outstanding in 2012, logging 88 receptions for 1,113 yards and six TDs, while Alonzo Russell was a great deep threat as a freshman, turning his 56 grabs into 960 yards and five TDs. Justin Olack and Dwight Macon were solid as well with 19 and 18 receptions, respectively.
Defensively, the Rockets allowed plenty of yards last season (473.2 ypg), ranking 11th in the MAC, but they were able to tighten up in the red zone somewhat, as they ranked fifth in scoring defense (28.4 ppg).
The unit's top talent resides along the defensive line. Defensive end Jayrone Elliot logged 6.0 sacks and 7.0 TFL in 2012. Defensive tackle Elijah Jones also made an impact behind the line of scrimmage with 7.5 TFL, and added two forced fumbles as well.
The loss of high-volume tacklers Dan Molls (166 tackles) and Robert Bell (100) means that sophomore Trent Voss will have the opportunity to be the team's next great linebacker after tallying 47 stops, 6.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks as a freshman. Cheatham Norrils (74 tackles, two INTs) brings valuable experience to the secondary.
Florida was far from a dynamic offensive squad a year ago, putting up just 26.5 ppg on 334.0 ypg while scoring touchdowns on only 52 percent of its trips to the red zone.
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 the coming campaign.
Driskel won the quarterback competition last season and made the coaching staff look real smart after enjoying a solid year (.637, 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 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.
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.
Only three starters return from a season ago. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley (8.5 TFL, four sacks) and cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins (39 tackles, three picks) and Purifoy are all proven commodities and 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 rookie a year ago and appears to have what it takes to supplant Bostic at middle linebacker.