Today we continue our conference wide preview and take a look at Florida, the longtime King of the East, a program searching for identity and direction under second year man Will Mushcamp. The 2011 season will be briefly reviewed and a team by team break down of the schedule will be included along with a couple of keys to the season. Stats and returning starters come from Phil Steele.
2011 recap: 2011 saw rookie head coach Will Muschamp take over a program that was experiencing an abrupt fall from grace. 2006-2009 saw the Gators notch 13 wins three times. 2011 would not be as kind. Urban Meyer and his spread offense were gone, but the players he had recruited for it still remained. Former Patriots OC and Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis seemed to be a sure thing hire, but when senior John Brantley was injured against Alabama, any and all confidence the offense had was gone.
Florida opened the season against the usual suspects from the pay for play Sun Belt. Florida Atlantic and UAB could not compete with Florida athletically and the Gators headed into the traditional battle with Tennessee at 2-0. The Gators notched a 10 point win over the Vols but UF struggled running the football and scoring in the redzone; issues that would haunt this team for the rest of the season.
Kentucky offered little resistance in a 48-10 route. It would be the last game Florida would win for a month. After scoring on the opening play to take an early lead on Alabama, Brantley was knocked out in the second quarter and any chance of a Florida win went with the ill-fated senior. The following week, Florida headed to Baton Rouge to play LSU with 3rd string true freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett (Jeff Driskel was also injured against Alabama). The outmatched Gators never had a chance in a 41-11 loss.
An off week gave the Gators an opportunity to prep their two young quarterbacks before the back to back swing of Auburn and Georgia. Muschamp's young defense played well on the Plains but multiple special teams miscues and missed opportunities resulted in an ugly loss. Brantley was available for Georgia but was unable to take an snaps from under center. The resultant lack of mobility and confidence led to 7 UGA sacks as Weis's offense was unable to move the ball and protect a lead, losing 24-20. Richt was able to notch a rare win in Jacksonville as UF plummeted to 4-4. Florida returned to Gainesville to get win number 5 against a Vandy team that didn't quit.
Florida finished the SEC slate against Gator Great Steve Spurrier and current rival, South Carolina. The Gator defense again played well, holding the Gamecocks to a pair of Connor Shaw touchdowns, but Florida's offense could not get anything going against a seasoned and talented Carolina defense. The 17-12 loss dropped UF to 3-5 in the SEC, Florida's worst in conference record in over two decades. The following week, the Gators beat Furman to earn a bowl bid and the much needed additional practices. The Gators closed the season against in state rival FSU in Gainesville. Muschamp's defense again rose to the occasion holding Florida State to less than 100 yards of total offense, but it was not enough to overcome 4 John Brantley interceptions, who was concussed in the 2nd quarter. Following the 21-7 loss, Muschamp publicly called his team "soft". In Jacksonville, a blocked punt and kickoff return for a touchdown was enough to ensure Florida avoided a losing season (last one was in 1979) as Florida trumped Ohio State 24-17.
Best case/Worst case (10-2/5-7) 2011 was the worst season of Gator football since the Carter presidency, and on paper there is not much to suggest that 2012 will be much better. Florida has unproven quarterbacks, few proven playmakers, and questions regarding Muschamp as a head coach. There are signs that this UF team could compete for a division title. Florida was outclassed by Alabama and LSU in 2011; it was clear to anyone that watched that the Gators could not compete with the cream of the conference. The one big positive in Gainesville is a defense that kept Florida close and competitive in the other losses. If UF can get steady and efficient quarterback play, this defense is good enough (14 of top 15 tacklers returning from the overall #8 defense nationally in 2011) to keep UF in most every game on the schedule in 2012.
Keeping with conference tradition, Florida opens with a paid for W against Bowling Green before heading to College Station as the Aggies play their first conference game in the SEC. Muschamp is familiar with Big 12 spread offenses, but it may not be enough for a young QB to overcome on the road. The following week Florida trips to Rocky Top to try for 8 in a row over the Vols. This becomes a must win game if the Gators fall against the Aggies. Florida will return home to face Kentucky before an off week that will see LSU roll into town on October 6. Short of winning the turnover battle by at least 3, Florida does not have the talent at this time to compete with LSU; however, playing in the Swamp could help a young team fighting for its life.
The Gators hit the road to Vanderbilt for what should be a win. The Gators then return to the Swamp to face South Carolina. UF was able to keep it close in 2011, but a healthy Marcus Lattimore will swing this game Spurrier's way. Next up is a trip to Jacksonville where the Gators dropped their 4th game in 22 years. If this team has any fight left, the Gators should notch a win, especially if Georgia is having offensive line problems. Missouri wraps up the SEC slate. Muschamp's familiarity with Pinkel's scheme along with what is sure to be a physically worn down Mizzou team will get UF a home. Two more pay for play W's are next with Louisiana Monroe and Jacksonville State. This should allow Florida to rest some guys and prep some guys for the season finale in Tallahassee against Florida State.
While this Florida team will be improved from the 2011 version, the record may not reflect it. Florida opens the SEC slate with two road games to venues that have earned national reputations as tough places to play. If Florida can get off to a strong start, this team can challenge for and win the East. If not, it could be another forgettable season. I like Florida to go 8-4 in 2012. The Florida-South Carolina could be for the East.
Will Muschamp hired a new strength and conditioning coach in the offseason. Jeff Dillman apprenticed under Tommy Moffett when Muschamp was at LSU. The players, reportedly, have responded well. The Gators have added mass (linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins have each added about 15 pounds) and improved chemistry in the locker room. Make no mistake, Urban Meyer left a mess in Gainesville. The story will be the quarterbacks, but the key will be the Gator O line. In 2011 the starters had a combined 27 career starts. The 2012 version has 81 starts. Improvement will be the key.
Bryant Roberts is a life long SEC fan, has 2 autographed pictures of Steve Spurrier, is addicted to BBQ, and a graduate of Presbyterian College. Follow him on twitter here.