Gators believe improved Driskel, rebuilt defense will carry them to top of SEC East
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida got a bunch of breaks in coach Will Muschamp's second season.
The Gators stayed relatively healthy, won several tight games and were oh-so-close to playing for the Southeastern Conference championship and maybe the national title.
Although many outsiders believe last year's 11-win season and trip to the Sugar Bowl were flukes, the Gators see them as the framework for more success — including a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game in 2013.
"We were so close last year we could taste it," quarterback Jeff Driskel said. "We really want to get there this year. I think we have a good chance to get there."
Florida opens the season Aug. 31 against Toledo. The schedule also includes games at Miami (Sept. 7), at LSU (Oct. 12), against Georgia (Nov. 2), at South Carolina (Nov. 16) and against Florida State (Nov. 30).
Muschamp likes his players' mettle, but he knows it will only carry them so far.
"Talk is cheap," he said. "You've got to do it on the field. I'm glad that our guys have confidence that (getting to Atlanta's) going to happen. ... We've got some depth in some positions, but any time you want to talk about a run to Atlanta, you've got to have things fall your way."
Here are five things that could make or break Florida's quest to win the SEC East:
1. DRISKEL'S PROGRESS: Coaches expect Driskel to make huge strides in his second year as the starter and second in Brent Pease's offense. It also should help that the 6-foot-4 junior no longer has to look over his shoulder. Backup Jacoby Brissett transferred to North Carolina State after last season, essentially leaving Florida with Driskel and little else at the QB position. That also means Driskel has to be smarter about sliding, getting out of bounds and avoiding extra hits.
2. RELOADED DEFENSE: It's not often a top-five defense can lose its coordinator and seven starters and improve. But the Gators have an outside chance to do that. Sure, the Gators will miss Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Josh Evans, Omar Hunter and Lerentee McCray. But they believe they have enough depth on the defensive line — Dominique Easley, Jonathan Bullard, Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell could be special — and plenty of talent in the secondary to remain one of the best units in the country.
3. LOTS OF LOU: Expect to see Loucheiz Purifoy all over the field this season. Not only is Purifoy widely considered one of the best cornerbacks in the country, the speedy junior will see playing time at receiver and on every special teams unit. With the loss of senior Andre Debose (knee), Purifoy also might return punts and kickoffs.
4. PLAYMAKERS: Florida's Achilles' heel this fall could be a lack of offensive playmakers. The Gators lost running back Mike Gillislee, receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. and tight end Jordan Reed, the team's leading receiver last season, to the NFL. Who will replace them? Running back Matt Jones was supposed to be the workhorse of Florida's run-oriented, wear-defenses-down scheme. But the 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore has yet to practice while recovering from a viral infection. Without Jones, junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor have been handling the load. Maybe more concerning is who will step up at receiver. Can Quinton Dunbar be the go-to guy? Will youngsters Ahmad Fulwood, Latroy Pittman or Demarcus Robinson emerge? If not, the Gators might have a tough time improving on a passing offense that ranked 114th in the nation last year.
5. KICKING CONCERNS: The Gators were spoiled last season with place-kicker Caleb Sturgis. The Lou Groza finalist made 24 of 28 field goals, including eight of nine from beyond 40 yards, and provided a security blanket for coaches any time Florida crossed the 35-yard line. Without Sturgis, the competition is wide open between senior Brad Phillips and freshman Austin Hardin. No matter who wins the job, the Gators won't have the same confidence, which likely will result in changes in play-calling and offensive strategy.
Predicted finish in SEC East: Second.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/