*** Note *** This article ran in the Herald's 2013 College Football Preview
“There’s too many questions. There’s too many questions. I’ll show you how it works!”
Meet the 2013 Florida Gators.
On the heels of an unexpected BCS bowl berth, Florida reestablished itself among the nation’s elite.
The Louisville debacle notwithstanding, coach Will Muschamp’s team perfectly embodied his personality a year ago: tough, nasty and a little crazy.
The Gators won 11 games pulverizing their opponents into submission with a suffocating defense, a powerful running game and a fantastic turnover margin.
Florida is the consensus preseason No. 10 team in the country, so expectations -- despite significant losses on both sides of the ball -- remain high in 2013.
Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel said the Gators plan to reach Atlanta, Ga. for the SEC Championship game -- something they haven’t done since 2009.
“I think we have a really good team. We’re a close-knit bunch of guys. We were so close last year, we could taste it,” he said. “We really want to get there this year, and I think we have a good chance.”
But this is a new season, a new team and a lot fresh of questions.
Florida, with three top-five recruiting classes in the last four years, is extremely talented but flawed.
Driskel continues to blossom, yet an already pedestrian offense (No. 104 nationally) struggled with continuity during training camp due to so many injuries. Starting tailback Matt Jones, a potential breakout player, may miss games because of a serious viral infection, while the rebuilt starting offensive line has played a total of zero scrimmage snaps together.
At receiver, electric freshman Demarcus Robinson and improved junior Quinton Dunbar emerged as two viable options in camp, but as a whole, the unit remains a black hole. Ditto for tight end.
Defensively, the Gators must replace several standouts including defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebacker Jon Bostic, although their identity will remain the same. Muschamp’s team is constructed from the defensive line and secondary first, and UF is ridiculously talent-rich at both spots. Florida’s trio of cornerbacks -- Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins -- are better than most in the country, while linemen Dante Fowler Jr., a future star pass rusher, and Dominique Easley, a run-stuffing tackle, should propel a menacing front-four.
But the known’s stop there.
Florida’s linebackers lack depth, experience and versatility, while its safeties -- albeit very highly regarded -- are green too.
Florida’s success last season was particularly predicated by its top-notch turnover margin (+15, good for No. 4 nationally), rush-defense (No. 4 nationally) and the nation’s top kicker (Caleb Sturgis) -- three key components likely to regress.
The Gators’ grind-it-out attack also meant they forcibly played with little margin for error, even against lesser teams (see: close wins over Bowling Green, Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette).
“We won 10 games when we won the turnover margin, and we lost two when we didn't,” Muschamp said. “That is something that's obviously very critical for our success.”
With another brutal late-season schedule -- the Gators play four teams ranked in the preseason top 12 including, three away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (UGA, South Carolina and LSU) -- can Florida reach Atlanta with the same ugly, yet effective formula, only with worse luck?
For Muschamp, his team’s confidence is a positive reassurance,
but talk is cheap.
“You've got to do it on the field,” he said. “I'm glad that our guys have confidence that that's going to happen, and I feel like we have a deep roster. We've got some depth in some positions, but anytime you want to talk about a run to Atlanta, you've got to have things fall your way.”
With an improved offense and a still-scary defense, Florida could reach the SEC title game.
But with so many questions, it might not be until 2014.
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