Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After an outstanding 2012 campaign that resulted in a trip to the Sugar Bowl, the Florida Gators' expectations were sky-high to repeat or even improve upon their success last season.
Instead, the squad was one of the nation's biggest disappointments in 2013 with its worst season in more than 30 years.
Florida began the season ranked 10th in the AP Top 25, and while it stumbled early with a 21-16 loss at Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 7, it righted the ship with three straight wins to open up SEC play and move to 4-1 overall. From there, however, the team went into a tailspin with seven consecutive losses to close out the season (to finish 4-8), which included falling on the wrong end of arguably the biggest upset in college football last season when it lost at home to FCS program Georgia Southern, 26-20, on Nov. 23.
It was the first time since 1990 the Gators failed to qualify for a bowl game and the first time since an 0-10 1979 campaign that they finished with a losing record.
After such a disastrous season, many called for the firing of head coach Will Muschamp, who has compiled a modest 22-16 record (13-11 in the SEC) since taking over for Urban Meyer in 2011. Ultimately, Muschamp was spared his job, although offensive coordinator Brent Pease was relieved of his duties after the team finished the year ranked 112th nationally in offense.
The poor showing was hardly all Muschamp's fault. No other team in the country was more plagued by injury during 2013 than the Gators. Among the players lost to season-ending injuries were starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, top defensive tackle prospect Dominique Easley, right tackle Chaz Green, running back Matt Jones, and linebackers Jeremi Powell and Antonio Morrison. In total, 27 players missed at least one game, clearly a huge reason for the underachieving season.
The injury situation may have been Muschamp's "get out of jail free card" in 2013, but there's no room left for excuses as the coach moves forward into his fourth season.
While remaining healthy is obviously priority No. 1, fixing a stagnant offense is also at the top of the Gators' offseason priorities, as the team put up a measly 18.8 points per game on 316.7 yards per game, ranking 112th and 113th, respectively, in the FBS.
Enter new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who had spent the past six seasons working under David Cutcliffe at Duke. Roper's up-tempo approach allowed the Blue Devils to rack up 32.8 ppg and 426.1 ypg a season ago as one of the nation's most pleasant surprises.
Although its resources were certainly limited at times, Florida had a very conservative approach on offense last season with more running plays (382) than passing (311). Roper has already breathed new life into the unit early this offseason, displaying new spread looks in last week's Orange & Blue spring game.
"Whenever you get a new offensive coordinator, you get re-energized," Driskel said. "We feel like it's a new start, playing no-huddle, there's something about it where you can get rolling. It's been a lot of fun and our guys have fun making big plays."
"Our kids have been very receptive," Muschamp added. "They have confidence in what we're doing, and I think it's a good fit. I think our attitude is much better and much more positive, as far as the offensive side of the ball. I think our guys have a lot of confidence in what we're doing. I think we lost that late in the year and that's changed automatically without having to do anything."
Implementing a new offensive scheme isn't a magic cure, however. The onus still lies on the shoulders of Driskel to orchestrate the offense with precision and confidence. Even during the Gators' outstanding 2012 run, Driskel was never asked to do much (156-of-245, 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns, five interceptions), and he failed to impress last season prior to breaking his leg against Tennessee on Sept. 21, throwing for 477 yards, two TDs and three interceptions in two-plus games.
Driskel still has a lot to prove if he wants to be an effective quarterback in an up-tempo, spread offense. He posted modest numbers during the spring game (19-of-33, 171 yards, TD), while backup Skyler Mornhinweg put some pressure on the veteran with a stellar 14-of-18 showing for 149 yards and two scores.
If an exciting new offensive approach isn't enough to inject some optimism into the Gainesville faithful, the team also returns several key players to important roles, including all three top ball carriers -- Mack Brown (543 yards, four TDs), Kelvin Taylor (508 yards, four TDs) and Jones (339 yards, two TDs) -- although none averaged more than 4.6 yards per carry a year ago.
There's some intriguing talent returning at receiver as well. Quinton Dunbar impressed in limited opportunities with 40 receptions for 548 yards, and Andre DeBose, who missed all of last season and much of 2012 with injuries, brings a dynamic home-run threat to the table. DeBose has over 1,500 career return yards and four TDs and averaged an incredible 27 yards per catch in 2011.
Throughout their struggles last season, the Gators still had a very good defense, allowing only 21.1 ppg despite the poor position they were often put in by the offense. Hybrid defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. (10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) is primed for a breakout season as a junior. Welcoming back a strong linebacking corps of Morrison, Powell and Michael Taylor and playmaking defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole should ensure one of the SEC's top defenses once again in 2014.
With plenty of talent and a new scheme in place, it's now up to Muschamp to put all the pieces together, especially after such a bad season, that process needs to start as soon as possible.
"Our older players understand the importance of this time of year," Muschamp said. "Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it's going to take to be successful and win in this league."
After firing Pease, the Florida athletic department is out of scapegoats, meaning Muschamp won't last in Gainesville if the struggles carry over into 2014. But with the injury bug hopefully in the past, the head coach believes he has the right kind of squad in place to keep his tenure alive for the foreseeable future.
"We're going to have a good team next year," Muschamp said. "We just need to continue to progress. The summer months are going to be critical for us to continue to take advantage of those opportunities to take the next step offensively and then defensively as well."