USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
They grabbed each other, brought it close, embraced and hugged, creating a Hallmark moment in shoulder pads but for three crucial facts: Both played for Florida, both played offense for Florida, and Florida was on offense.
Certain images linger. This one, for example, was worth the 1,000 words. The second half of a date with Georgia Southern began with a sweep around end from wide receiver Solomon Patton; center Jonotthan Harrison and wide receiver Quinton Dunbar met early in the play, engaged and never let go, unaware of the matching color scheme and the general theory of offensive effectiveness.
The second half of a loss to Georgia Southern, mind you. Only later did the Gators find some comic relief among the proceedings, laughing off the moment as just another lowlight amid a season of nadirs, low points, pits and rock bottoms.
"I thought it was comical," offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We were all in the locker room joking around about it. I've never seen anything like it."
It's no longer funny. Will Muschamp has already earned one vote of confidence; athletics director Jeremy Foley said last November he had "total confidence" in Muschamp and his staff, though he did chose to call last season "unacceptable." You don't get two.
The offense has already moved forward. Former Duke assistant Kurt Roper is the new coordinator, bringing along a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, a simplify-simplify technician and the antidote to the Gators' season of discontent – though Florida could take a massive step forward and still be merely average, such was last year's disgrace.
Perhaps Florida itself can move forward, pushed by a ferocious defense, an improved offense and the motivation that stems from becoming a national punchline. Laugh now, the Gators could say, and we'll laugh last – or something like that, and I'm sure the Gators would come up with something better.
It might pay to plaster last November's orange-and-blue embrace on the walls inside Florida's home base. Other programs might enter the fall with motivation of the positive variety; the Gators should look inward, finding jet-like propulsion from a one-year turn as the laughingstock of the Southeastern Conference.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
On one hand, it's hard to find the Gators' ceiling if the offense improves dramatically; on the other, it's hard to see the Gators coming close to last year's record if the attack remains stuck in the doldrums. It's a fine problem to have, in a sense, since Florida could explode if this side of the ball behaves. Nonetheless, it's my opinion that UF can't be viewed as a title contender in 2013 with an elite defense but an unpredictable offense.
In a nutshell: In the span of three months, Florida lost to Miami (Fla.), Georgia, Steve Spurrier and Florida State. All that was missing to complete the disaster was a loss to Tennessee; the Gators pulled that one out, scoring a season-high 31 points in the process, though it would've been a different result had the two teams met in November. The result: UF suffered a losing season. Not just a losing season, I'd guess, but the sort of disaster-in-pads campaign that occurs with about half the frequency of Halley's Comet yet with the same degree of wide-eyed amazement – it's been a long, long time since Florida occupied this rung in the pecking order. The culprits: one, the offense; two, the offense; and three, injuries. The Gators' attack lacked punch, true, but remember that UF's offense started three different quarterbacks and trotted out a different starting lineup in each game of the regular season.
High point: Tennessee. One rivalry foe vanquished, at least.
Low point: Georgia Southern.
Tidbit: The last time Florida started three quarterbacks was in 1979. The last time Florida suffered a losing season was in 1979. Florida also enters the fall on a seven-game losing streak, starting with LSU and extending through the Seminoles; this streak exceeds the Gators' loss total in any season since 1980.
Tidbit (losing season edition): As noted, last fall marked the Gators' first losing season in 34 years. During this 34-year span, every other SEC program suffered at least four losing seasons: Georgia had four, Alabama five, Texas A&M six, Auburn seven, Tennessee eight, Arkansas and LSU 10, South Carolina 13, Mississippi 17, Mississippi State 19, Missouri 20, Kentucky 23 and Vanderbilt 30.
Tidbit (unbalanced edition): Last year's team finished eighth nationally in total defense, as Muschamp-coached groups tend to do, but 113th in total offense. The Gators were the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to finish among the top 15 nationally in defense but in the bottom 15 on offense. Two teams went in the other direction: A&M and Indiana finished among the top 15 on offense but the bottom 15 on defense.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Florida-based quarterbacks, 2013
1. Jameis Winston
2. Blake Bortles
3. Stephen Morris
4. Jaquez Johnson
5. Jacob Coker
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The beauty of Roper's offense is in its simplicity: Florida will simplify, simplify behind a simpler, easy-to-process system that plays to one of the few things this offense has done well during Muschamp's tenure – basically, find success with a mobile quarterback playing out of a shotgun formation. The Gators have the quarterback, Jeff Driskel, who has flashed an ability to make plays when given space to operate; now Roper and this staff must rebuild the senior's confidence, keep him clean and let him go to work, fully embracing his dual-threat gifts as the centerpiece of the entire attack. How this goes will determine the season: Florida isn't perfect elsewhere but simply won't go anywhere if Driskel doesn't play close to an all-conference level, giving the program the sort of consistency sorely lacking under center for the better part of a half-decade.
The physical gifts are clearly evident. Driskel has the arm to match Roper's wish list and the accuracy – if in a dumbed-down offense – to work well in a quick-look passing game. His athleticism is off the charts: Driskel's coming off a leg injury, true, but he's as gifted a dual-threat quarterback as you'll find in the SEC. It's all about putting it together, doing it now or never, and let's remember that Driskel really hasn't tasted that much starting experience; he was the second or third option as a freshman, started as a sophomore and then lasted only two-plus games as a junior. That's a negative and a positive, in a sense: Driskel is a lump of clay despite his age, readily moldable to fit what Roper desires from the position. The funny thing: He's either going to be one of the SEC's best quarterbacks or a disappointment. I'm not sure if Driskel – much like the entire team – is going to inhabit any middle ground. At the very least, he's going to receive solid tutoring for the first time in his career.
I also think Driskel – and, by extension, the entire offense – will benefit from Roper's speedier mentality. Another shift installed this offseason trades a power-based running scheme for more spacing, a fairly substantial change in overall mindset that will, believe it or not, take advantage of the Gators' overall speed. In general, the health of the passing game hinges on five factors: one, Driskel himself; two, whether Quinton Dunbar (39 receptions for 528 yards) is ready to grab a take-charge role; three, if Andre Debose is healthy; four, if we can believe the hype surrounding sophomore Chris Thompson; and five, if Jake McGee, a transfer from Virginia, can be the intermediate weapon this offense needs to be successful.
I think McGee can be a difference-making addition. He would've been one of the top tight ends in the ACC, toiling away miserably in the Cavaliers' Florida-like offensive system. He'll instead step into a system that knows how to take advantage of the tight end, with Duke as evidence, and hold a bit of a hybrid role in and out of the backfield. If used correctly, McGee's an All-SEC pick. The key to the passing game isn't Dunbar, though he'll need to embrace the mantle of being a go-to target; the key will be the development of a young and unproven group with the athleticism to shine in the system: Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fullwood, Valez Showers, Thompson, Latroy Pittman, C.J. Worton, Moral Stephens and Ryan Sousa – a long list loaded with speed and talent to burn, if entirely untapped. Thompson's been the talk of the spring and even SEC Media Days, mentioned by Muschamp and teammates alike as the player to watch on offense. But we've been down this road before, obviously, and any optimism that Florida can now take advantage of this explosiveness at wide receiver stems entirely from the idea that Muschamp hired a good offensive coordinator.
Slowly, sophomore Kelvin Taylor (508 yards) is making a name for himself. It took a few weeks: Taylor needed every practice to get into form before taking charge of the Gators' running game during the second half, eventually averaging just shy of 70 yards per game in Florida's last five tilts against SEC competition. That solid close – especially given the putridity of last year's offensive front – gives Taylor the starting job heading into September. But the Gators will rotate at least three and perhaps four backs, depending on the staff's comfort level with redshirt freshman Adam Lane and true freshman Brandon Powell. Look for a smaller role for senior Mack Brown (543 yards), a far better fit in a power scheme, but a substantially increased look for a healthy Matt Jones (339 yards), should the junior stay healthy.
Defense: Last year's defense was built on some smoke and mirrors: Florida finished 42nd nationally in yards per play, for example, even if among the nation's best in yards allowed per game. Blame the offense, in part, since this side of the ball largely failed to put the defense in advantaged situations – deep in territory, for instance, where the Gators can pin their ears back and be aggressive. There's some reason to think this year's defense will be a more vintage version despite some losses, particularly in the secondary. It's all about a few factors: star power, evident in spades; depth-boosting young arrivals, particularly along the interior of the line; Muschamp's own résumé of success, which speaks for itself; and the idea that the defense is sick and tired of carrying the water on a weekly basis and decides to take its frustration out during a three-month run through the regular season.
The defensive front is paced by Dante Fowler (50 tackles, 10.5 for loss), a hybrid-like end with the wall-to-wall talent to end his junior season as an All-American. His tendency to demand double-team attention will open things up across the entire line and front seven, trickling across the board and freeing up teammates against single blockers – so the Gators' front must take advantage. Seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings are locked into starting roles along the interior, but each must go from block-chewing reserves into productive, disruptive full-time starters. On the opposite side, Florida will bookend the line with junior Jon Bullard (33 tackles), a solid athlete with the frame to move inside on clear passing downs. Just in terms of the top four, the Gators' front is as solid as you'll find in the SEC.
The issue is depth. At tackle, for starters, Florida will be very reliant on true freshman Khairi Clark; redshirt freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley are also in the mix, but neither has impressed during the offseason. Sophomore Alex McAlister is the top reserve on the outside and a future starter when Fowler leaps to the next level, but Florida still needs help from rookies Gerald Willis, Taven Bryan and Jordan Sherit. Florida also was looking to top recruit Thomas Holley, an inside-outside prospect, but surgery for a torn labrum in his hip during preseason camp will force a redshirt season. Still, if the younger core cooperates, this front will set the tone for the entire defense.
One thing was obvious last season: Florida's linebackers need to be kept clean. If given space to operate, the likely starting grouping of senior Neiron Ball, junior Antonio Morrison (58 tackles) and sophomore Jarrad Davis (24 tackles) will make plays; if stuck in the mud, this unit will again be a significant disappointment. In terms of a position battle, perhaps the only matter left undecided is whether Morrison will play in the middle or the weak side. There's no substantial difference between the two positions, with the weak side handling a bit more in terms of coverage responsibilities, though Morrison and Davis could float between the two spots. As is the case up front, the Gators do need a group of sophomores – all extremely talented, and led by Alex Anzalone – to get up to speed in Muschamp's complicated scheme to provide depth.
At some point soon – if he's not there already – Vernon Hargreaves III (38 tackles, 3 interceptions) will be the best cornerback in college football. He arrived on campus as a six-star freshman, essentially, if such a designation exists: Hargreaves was expected to be a star and was just that, owning one side of the field and setting up the potential for a memorable, legend-making career. He'll take on an even greater load this fall as the Gators' lone proven defensive back; Hargreaves is the only returning starter from last season and the face of the entire defense, so keeping him on the field should be of the utmost importance – so let's watch out for those team-wide melees, guys.
The rest of the secondary follows a Hargreaves-like blueprint: Florida is going to roll the dice with a group that lacks only for experience, not talent. He'll be joined at cornerback by a number of true freshmen, with Duke Dawson holding the early edge but Jalen Tabor, a five-star signee, close behind. Counting nickel back Brian Poole, a junior, the Gators' top tier at cornerback includes a junior, a sophomore and three freshmen – one an All-American, a second solid in the slot and three pegged for huge roles. Another two sophomores will start at safety, with Keanu Neal at free safety and Marcus Maye at strong safety. Outside of Florida State, LSU and one or two others, no other secondary in the country sniffs Florida's overall athleticism. Perhaps none has as much potential.
Special teams: The offense was impotent even before last fall; the Gators' special teams, on the other hand, fell off the map. Senior punter Kyle Christy lost his form, leading UF to promote sophomore Johnny Townsend into the starting job midway through the regular season. If Christy does bounce back – and he's had a nice offseason – look for Townsend to wear a redshirt and take over in 2015. It's totally unsettled at kicker, where Florida could go with sophomore Austin Hardin, senior Justin Velez, Virginia Tech transfer Brooks Abbott or incoming freshman Jorge Powell.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: Lost in the shuffle amid Roper's arrival was Muschamp's decision to bring in Mike Summers, a very well-regarded and experienced positional coach, to remake the Gators' sputtering offensive front. Injuries played a role last fall, true, but that's just part of the story: Florida was entirely toothless from tackle to tackle. The staff has already taken steps to improve overall cohesiveness by shifting senior Max Garcia to center, a move that puts the Gators' most consistent lineman in the middle of the action; that move alone, along with right tackle Chaz Green's return from injury, is enough for some guarded optimism. Another move that made too much sense: Tyler Moore, the former Nebraska transfer, will move inside to left guard. Yet another move of extreme logic: Trenton Brown, once a JUCO transfer, will move inside to right guard – like Moore, he's a far better fit along the interior. Add junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle and you have your starting lineup, for better or worse. Let's call it better, since it is better, and hope that this starting five comes together before the opener, stays healthy and, you know, blocks. Again: I'm preaching the power of guarded optimism.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Tennessee: These are the swing games that will decide Florida's season: Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt. Sweeping this group – entirely doable, if not probable – will leave the Gators in position to mount a charge at the East Division title; losing just one of the three could make it a two-horse race between Georgia and South Carolina, leaving the Gators zero room for error in conference play. In a cruel twist of scheduling fate, the Gators draw both Alabama and Florida State on the road.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Guarded optimism. It's only fair to be pessimistic: Florida was a struggle under Muschamp even when the going was good – all the way back in 2012, which seems ages ago – and is fresh off an eight-loss season, so this staff and current program haven't earned the overwhelming benefit of the doubt. Yet the theory behind a projected rise into the SEC East division race is built on a simple premise: If you add even an average offense to this defense – just an offense that doesn't punch itself in the face weekly – you have the basic outline of a team balanced enough to place its full weight on divisional foes and bleed the clock for 60 minutes, eventually pulling out enough close wins to earn a shot at the conference championship. This is Muschamp-era football, for better or worse, and it can't get any worse than it was a season ago.
It can get markedly better. The defense is better if healthy and productive in the secondary, though that unit is going to need a little time in September to find a rhythm. If the Gators can locate adequate depth, the front seven will stand up with any in the SEC. In total, the defense has the tools, weapons and motivation to control and limit the majority of teams inside and out of conference play, with Florida State the likely exception. It's all about the offense: If a top-six unit in the SEC, the Gators are going to bash heads; if a bottom-four unit in the SEC, it's going to be another struggle. But no one said it was going to be easy.
I'll guardedly suggest that Driskel stays healthy, the line improves, the backfield finds three solid options, the receiver corps flourishes and Roper's system finds a way to get the ball in space. These are all possible scenarios, individually speaking, if hitting all the high notes seems unlikely. Florida's offense needs to be electric to compete for the national championship; Florida's not competing for the national championship, so that's fine. But the Gators are in the thick of things in the East, if stymied from making much national noise due to the schedule: Alabama and FSU on the road, Georgia at a neutral site and South Carolina and LSU at home. A guarded projection: If the offense is merely average, explosive at times, the Gators should still win eight games during the regular season.
Dream season: Florida loses to Alabama and Florida State. Painful but unavoidable.
Nightmare season: The Gators notch another losing season.
Who's No. 21? This program is tied with another FBS program in producing the third-most top-75 draft picks since 2011.