NCAA Football Preview - Florida Gators

08/18/2014 10:58 AM

08/18/2014 11:01 AM

The campaign started off rather smoothly for the Gators with wins in four of their first five contests, losing only a non-conference road matchup at Miami- Florida. From there however, the squad sputtered out of control with losses in each of its last seven games, with the low point coming on Nov. 23 when it fell at home to Georgia Southern, 26-20, in its first-ever loss to an FCS team.

Florida wrapped up the season just 4-8, including 3-5 in the SEC. It was their worst showing since going winless in 1979, and it was also the first time it failed to qualify for a bowl game since 1990, snapping one of the nation's longest bowl streaks at 22.

Despite the disastrous season, Muschamp was able to retain his position heading into 2014. The Gators' were plagued by some bad luck a season ago with 17 players suffering season-ending injuries (eight in August or September), but there are no more excuses for Muschamp heading into year three, as his coaching hot seat is as scalding as ever.


OFFENSE: Undoubtedly Florida's biggest problem a season ago was its inability to generate consistent offense, as it ranked last in the SEC in both scoring (18.8 ppg) and yardage (316.7 ypg). In response to the poor showing, the university fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and brought in fresh blood in Kurt Roper, who held the same position last season with the upstart Duke Blue Devils.

"We needed to make some changes on offense," Muschamp said. "I felt like our kids had lost confidence in some things we were doing offensively.

"Roper was a great hire for us from a standpoint of a guy that philosophically is on the same page with me as what we want to be," he continued.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel was one of the many season-ending casualties, but even before suffering a broken fibula in September, he wasn't impressive. He completed a high percentage of passes (.689), but only threw for 477 yards in three games with two touchdowns and three interceptions. It'll be important for the Gators to have stability under center, but Driskel will need to show improvement if the team is poised for a rebound.

Kelvin Taylor (111 carries, 508 yards, four TDs) is back after emerging as the starting running back late last season. Mack Brown (543 yards, four TDs) and Matt Jones (339 yards, two TDs) round out an experienced backfield.

Quinton Dunbar is the only seasoned receiver returning. He piled up 548 yards a year ago on 40 receptions but failed to score a touchdown.

With fullback Hunter Joyer, tight end Clay Burton and most of the offensive line (D.J. Humphries, Trenton Brown, Max Garcia) back in the fold, the squad returns eight starters from last season on offense.

DEFENSE: The silver lining for the Gators last season was their play on defense, which remained top-notch despite their poor record in allowing just 21.1 ppg and 314.2 ypg, and the production on that side of the ball is expected to remain high as the team returns nine players with starting experience.

One of the unit's most exciting playmakers is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who racked up 50 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a sophomore, and is poised to take the next step in becoming one of the most disruptive forces in the SEC.

The linebacking position is strong with Michael Taylor (62 tackles, three fumble recoveries) and Antonio Morrison (56 tackles) returning as the top tacklers from 2013. Neiron Ball (25 tackles) filled in nicely for injured players last year and will get his chance to be a full-time starter.

In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III (38 tackles, three INTs) and Brian Poole (32 tackles, two INTs) are strong cover corners, and safety Jabari Gorman (48 tackles, INT) brings veteran leadership as well.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Austin Hardin will assume his place-kicking duties, but he'll need to improve upon his dreadful 2013 performance (4-of-12 on FG attempts) to keep his job. Johnny Townsend (42.0 yards per punt) returns as the punter.

The team will need to find a new kickoff and punt return specialist now that Solomon Patton and Marcus Roberson have moved on.

OUTLOOK: It's easy to chalk up last season's failures to the slew of injuries, but great teams find a way to overcome adversity, which Florida clearly failed to do. Now, with a healthy squad and a fresh slate, Muschamp needs to find a way to get the program back on the winning side of things.

"(Last year) falls on my shoulders," Muschamp said. "There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business. The way you combat that is to have a good football team, which we're going to have."

With all eyes on his performance, Muschamp is setting the bar high, but even though the roster is very talented, it's tough to gauge just how good the team can be until all of its pieces finally play together. It won't be an easy road -- the Gators draw Alabama and LSU as their SEC West competition this season and will have to play national-championship winning Florida State in their season-ending rivalry game -- although they did luck out with two of their more difficult SEC East contests against Missouri and South Carolina falling at home.

Florida has the talent and the coaching pedigree to make an improbable return to prominence, but while a bowl bounce back appears within reach, competing for an SEC championship will be very difficult for this squad.

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