What we learned about UF opponent playmakers

As Florida prepares for an important 2014 season, the focus is on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators need progress on that side of the ball, but the defensive side needs to get better, too. Florida struggled on defense last year, but that should change this season, especially with the way the schedule sets up.

There are still challenges set up by opposing offenses this season. The Gators end the regular season by traveling to Tallahassee to take on the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and they face off against some of the best running backs in the country, too.

However, take a look back at the stories I've written this week about the top offensive players on the Florida schedule.

What quarterbacks that Florida will face scare you? Jameis Winston is an obvious pick, and he will terrorize opposing defenses he faces all season. But after that, the Gators will face mostly first-year starting quarterbacks.

Let's take out the three games against Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Idaho. Taking the remaining nine games -- eight conference and one against Florida State -- on the schedule, there are five schools that are guaranteed to start a first-year quarterback. They are Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina.

The Seminoles are the only one of the nine programs guaranteed to start a returning quarterback. The remaining three -- Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- are still up in the air about the quarterback position. However, the fact that all three are dealing with uncertainty shows that it probably won't be a position that scares most defenses.

First-year starting quarterbacks don't always spell doom for an offense, but it should be a boost for the Florida defense to face that large of a number of programs starting a new quarterback.

The running backs will be the toughest offensive position the Florida defense sees this year. Of the five programs listed above that are using a first-year starting quarterback, I put four of those teams' running backs on the list of top five running backs the Gators will face.

Georgia's Todd Gurley, South Carolina's Mike Davis, Alabama's Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and LSU's Leonard Fournette will all make life difficult on the Gators this fall. That should help ease the possible nerves and uncertainty from the quarterbacks the Gators face in those games this season.

It didn't seem like it, but Florida was the second best rushing defense in the SEC, giving up 142.4 yards per game. Florida coach Will Muschamp was the first to admit this spring that his team needed to play blocks better up front and keep offensive linemen from getting their hands on the linebackers. That will be even more important with the difficult slate of running backs the Gators are set to face this year.

The top five receivers on the Florida schedule all come from different teams. Of the five, at least three of them will be catching passes from a first-year starting quarterback, and that number could be four, depending on which starter Tennessee selects.

Good receivers get open and make plays, regardless of who the quarterback is. That should still happen with this group, but it doesn't have the star power that most would expect. Amari Cooper is an incredible talent at Alabama, as is Rashad Greene at Florida State.

But who is the third best receiver on the Florida schedule? I went with Marquez North because of his upside after a solid season last year as a freshman, but it could go many different ways. South Carolina's Shaq Roland and Georgia's Chris Conley were my fourth and fifth best receivers, respectively, on the Florida schedule. They've shown flashes in their careers, but they aren't world-beaters.

The top five tight ends list isn't much different. Honestly, it was difficult to find five tight ends even worthy to be on that list. Alabama's O.J. Howard and Florida State's Nick O'Leary are matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, and the Gators will have to find a linebacker they trust on tight ends by the trip to Tuscaloosa on September 20. The third, fourth and fifth tight ends on the list of best ones Florida faces this season combined to score one touchdown last year.

There's a lot on these lists that will change in the early weeks of the 2014 seasons. Players will break out and go from unknowns to household names. It happens every year, and this one will be no different.

But if you look only at returning players and what they've done in previous seasons, the schedule sets up nicely for the Florida defense to rebound this season.

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