Florida Gators ranked No. 7 in Sentinel's preseason college football countdown

By Edgar Thompson | Orlando Sentinel

August 19, 2013


Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.

Today at No. 7: Florida

Coach: Will Muschamp (18-8 entering third season; 18-8 overall)

2012 results: 11-2 (7-1 SEC, second place in SEC East)

Look back: The Gators bounced back from Will Muschamp's tough first year to go 11-2. The Gators increased their regular-season win total by five over 2011. Florida's defense led the way, beginning with a 20-17 win to open SEC play at Texas A&M. The Gators had an SEC-high 20 interceptions last season and ended with a plus-15 turnover margin, compared with minus-12 in 2011. The Gators relied on a mistake-free offense (15 turnovers in 2012), opportunistic defense and strong special teams all season. The game plan helped Florida upset unbeaten LSU 14-6, trounce South Carolina 44-11 and escape with a 27-20 win against Louisiana, capped by a blocked punt for a touchdown in the final seconds. The Gators' winning formula failed them in their two losses. Florida committed six turnovers in a 17-9 loss to Georgia that cost Florida a shot at the SEC title. Quarterback Jeff Driskel opened the Sugar Bowl with a pick-six, the first of three Gators' turnovers in New Orleans. Florida closed on a sour note, losing 33-23 to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Driskel said the Sugar Bowl performance still bothers the Gators and inspired intense offseason workouts.

Offensive starters returning: 6

Offensive starters lost: 5

Defensive starters returning: 4

Defensive starters lost: 7

Key losses: DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, LB Jon Bostic, TE Jordan Reed, LB Jelani Jenkins, RB Mike Gillislee, K Caleb Sturgis, S Josh Evans, LB Lerentee McCray, DT Omar Hunter

Top returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, DE Dante Fowler Jr., P Kyle Christy, LB Antonio Morrison, WR Quinton Dunbar, G Jon Halapio, C Jon Harrison, OT D.J. Humphries, DE Jonathan Bullard, S Jaylen Watkins, S Cody Riggs, WR Trey Burton, FB Hunter Joyer, LB Ronald Powell

Strengths: The Gators lost seven defensive starters, but they still have the makings of another strong defensive unit. DT Dominique Easley will anchor the front seven, while cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins, like Easley, are NFL talents. Sophomore ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, key reserves as first-year players, will join Easley and should give Florida a relentless pass rush. MLB Antonio Morrison is a big-time talent, too, but Muschamp suspended him the first week of practice, as well as the season's first two games, following two offseason arrests. On offense, Driskel has the tools to become a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. Now in his second year as the starter, the former Hagerty High standout has improved his accuracy and decision making. He already was an excellent runner with traditional tailback size (6-4, 237) and speed. An experienced line should be the strength of Florida's offense. But a torn pectoral muscle has limited OG Jon Halapio, the team's best player in the trenches, during camp. Sophomore LT D.J. Humphries could be a future star. Sophomore RB Matt Jones was expected to step in for 1,000-yard rusher Mike Gillislee without Florida's run game missing a beat. But Jones remains sidelined as he recovers from a viral infection. P Kyle Christy led the SEC in 2012 with an average of 45.8 yards per punt and had 27 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line, including three inside the 10 against LSU.

Weaknesses: Florida ranked last in the SEC in passing a season ago (146.3 yards per game). To create much-needed balance on offense, Driskel needs to improve and playmakers need to emerge. Driskel's go-to receiver in 2012, TE Jordan Reed, is gone, but Quinton Dunbar and true freshman Demarcus Robinson have been consistent targets in camp. With Jones sidelined, Mack Brown steps in, but he has just 167 career rushing yards on 40 carries in two seasons. Florida lost its three starting linebackers (Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Lerentee McCray) to the NFL, but coaches expect junior Ronald Powell to return from two ACL surgeries and live up to his billing as the nation's top recruit in 2010. The Gators also lost their best defensive lineman (Floyd), top two leading tacklers (safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans) and record-setting placekicker Caleb Sturgis to the NFL. Players like those will be missed, even with Florida's ability to recruit.

Outlook: The Gators staged five second-half comebacks and committed just six turnovers during their 11 wins last season. Such resiliency and efficiency might be difficult to duplicate in 2012. Much of Florida's success will depend on Driskel. During the offseason, he assumed a leadership role and continued to expand his knowledge of second-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease's scheme. But defenses are going to dare Driskel to beat them as a passer until he proves he can. Jones' return to health and Robinson's emergence as a downfield threat at wide receiver are critical to the offense, too. The Gators might not be able to lean on the defense quite as heavily. Florida's defense has boundless potential but lacks the experience and cohesiveness of a season ago. On special teams, Christy will be hard-pressed to match last season's performance. No one will replace Sturgis, who virtually was guaranteed points inside the opponent's 35-yard line. The schedule should give Florida time to work out some kinks and develop chemistry. Other than a Sept. 7 visit to Miami, the Gators should be heavily favored in their first five games. This will change on Oct. 12 at LSU, the first of several tough games the rest of the way.

2013 schedule

Aug. 31 Toledo

Sept. 7 at Miami

Sept. 21 Tennessee

Sept. 28 at Kentucky

Oct. 5 Arkansas

Oct. 12 at LSU

Oct. 19 at Missouri

Nov. 2 vs. Georgia in Jacksonville

Nov. 9 Vanderbilt

Nov. 16 at South Carolina

Nov. 23 Georgia Southern

Nov. 30 Florida State