This one has the makings of a program changer. A chance to take the perception of a program under its current leadership and reverse that perception from the minds of college football fans from Florida to California.
On the surface the Florida-Alabama game is a matchup of one team that is at the very top of the college football world at the moment and another that is sitting outside of the rankings trying to be a part. The underdog is on the road and staring into the teeth of a juggernaut that has been the king of the hill over the last five years.
It hasn’t always been that way, and it doesn’t have to be like that.
It used to be a shared environment. As a matter of fact, for most of the last 25 years, the fortunes of the two teams have been reversed.
Alabama and Florida will face off in a Southeastern Conference contest on Saturday that matters in the conference standings. The winner will continue unbeaten and have a leg up on other teams in their division for the right to play for the SEC title in early December. The loser will lose a step in the race for the title.
Florida is all too familiar with the SEC Championship Game, which pits the Eastern Division winner vs. that of the West. The Gators have been to the SEC Championship Game more times than any other team in the conference (10), and won it more than any other team (7). Alabama is closing in on trips to the game (8), but still a few games behind with SEC Championship Game titles (4).
The problem with the Gators is they haven’t made that trip to Atlanta for the big game, since 2009, where they of course lost to Alabama.
History says that will change, but the Gators want it to change now. Several steps have to be taken to get there, and Florida hopes they have completed a lot of them.
The next one comes Saturday.
Coming off a 4-8 season in 2013, where everything under the sun that could go wrong did go wrong, these Gators have had to try and put a lot behind them. And it hasn’t been easy.
Forget that 23 players in the two-deep that missed the last part of the season due to injury, including the first and second string quarterback, starting running back, 60% of their starting offensive line, their all-conference kick returner, the best player on defense, and the list goes on. Forget that they lost four of those eight games by less than a touchdown and led in those four games late in each contest—none of that matters to fans, media, and the followers of college football, where the only important numbers were four and eight.
Leading up to the off-season was brutal. Speculation of a coaches’ firing was rampant, even with Florida Athletics’ Director Jeremy Foley letting everyone know it wasn’t going to happen. Up until the final game was over, not many people believed it.
Then came the "hot seat" talk and all the issues that come from that. Recruiting takes a hit, retaining coaches isn’t easy and some coaches have to be let go. Hiring new coaches was difficult… and it should have been. Going 4-8 would do that to anyone, much less one of the top two programs in all of college football.
The Gators’ program deserves more than 4-8, regardless of the circumstance.
January rolled around and some things started to happen that needed to happen. The head coach, one Will Muschamp, owned up to the record. He claimed it for his own. He recognized the injuries for what they were but understood that the Gator program should never post a 4-8 record and lose to FCS Georgia Southern in The Swamp.
Muschamp vowed to change his philosophy on offense. Gone would be the three yards and a cloud of dust, downhill running game that he wanted to punish teams with. Instead he pushed to find someone to run a spread offense to take advantage of the offensive skill talent that the state of Florida produces at the high school level.
Muschamp surprised many by turning to Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Roper was certainly putting up big numbers at the ACC school. But, was he going to be able to do some of these things in the SEC? Muschamp needed it.
The more fans and media have gotten to know Kurt Roper, the more believable he has become. He’s been around football for a very long time and had a pretty good gig at Duke. The fact that he was willing to walk away from that and come into the hot mess that was the Florida program at the end of last season actually spoke volumes about what he actually thought was possible in Gainesville. He knows things have to improve fast.
Time will tell how much the offense has improved from the last few years, but there is no denying it is better… even after only playing games against Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. Florida posted five games of 400 yards or more out of 38 in the first three seasons of the Muschamp era. Just two games of more 500 yards. In the first two games with Roper at the helm of the offense, the Gators posted 664 yards and 523 yards of offense. The Gators have scored 11 touchdowns in two games this year. Florida lost their last seven games of last season and scored the same number (11) touchdowns in those seven contests combined.
The Fulcrum of the Offense
Roper is hoping to harness the skill set of junior quarterback Jeff Driskel who came to Florida in 2011 ranked as the top quarterback in the country out of high school. Driskel had 15 starts coming into the season and just three games where had thrown for more than 200 yards. So far in 2014, he has two 240+ yard games and a new career high of 294 yards he set against Kentucky this past weekend.
The first time Driskel happened to be thrown into the fire in a tough game was against the eventual national champion Alabama in Gainesville. Starter John Brantley was injured and Driskel was called to duty. It wasn’t pretty and he spent more time running for his life that day than trying to do something with the ball. He played most of that game with an injury he sustained early in the contest and saw action in only one other game after in that season.
“He has come miles,” Muschamp said earlier in the week about Driskel and his first encounter with the Crimson Tide. “A true freshman thrown in that environment was tough, but he is playing well for us right now and much better prepared this time around.”
Driskel is playing better, but has drawn some criticism for some parts of his game that haven’t shown up yet. Muschamp has been right there in defense of his guy and knows the different things he brings and expects from Driskel.
According to Muschamp, Saturday night there was a great example of the ability he possesses, and it all happened in one play. In the first overtime against Kentucky, the Gators found themselves in a precarious 4th and goal from the 9 yard line and they had to have a touchdown to tie and carry the game into a second overtime.
The Gator sideline crossed up their formation signal when sending it in, they had no timeouts and time was running off the clock. In six seconds, Driskel was able to reset the formation and overemphasize the direction to snap the ball from center. At the same time, upon receiving the snap, he threw a touch pass to the left corner of the end zone to sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson. Robinson hadn’t even made his break to the corner before the ball was in the air, but there it was when he turned around and he cradled it for the score. Two overtimes later the Gators would win the game.
“To have a mature quarterback and experienced quarterback like Jeff to get us in the right formation and right play versus the right look,” Muschamp said. “He takes it to the right place and a great throw and Demarcus Robinson makes a great catch. The execution was outstanding.”
Tools to succeed…
Maybe Muschamp has his quarterback that will see him through the issues of the past.
Maybe Robinson is that play maker he has been missing on the outside as well. Robinson has two 100+ yard games to start the season. The last time a Florida receiver had back-to-back 100+ yard receiving games was 2001. He also had 216 yards receiving in that Kentucky game. 2002 was the last time a Gator did that.
It’s another piece of the puzzle that has been missing around the Florida program. Robinson is the best receiver threat in a Gator uniform since Percy Harvin in 2008.
There are other pieces that were absent a year ago… like a healthy offensive line. Andre Debose is back and already has the school and SEC career record for kickoff returns for a touchdown (4). Debose looks like he hasn’t missed a beat after missing all of last year and is destined to add to that record. They have a pair of running backs in Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor that are helping the Gators run for 248 yards a game right now.
The Gators have always been strong on defense under Muschamp. That will continue even if there is some concern in the secondary. Muschamp brushed off a couple of breakdowns against Kentucky as something they can fix quickly, with his acumen, you expect that.
Junior punter Kyle Christy looks to have returned to his freshman all-conference form after earning conference special teams’ player of the week last week. From medium to short distances, kicker Frankie Velez has been great.
And it all comes back to Saturday.
Florida travels to Tuscaloosa with an offense that has done things already this season that no offenses have done since Muschamp has been at the helm. He has a defense with stars like Dante Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves, two of the best at their position in the conference and America. He has weapons on special teams.
These are the things Florida is supposed to bring to the table. This is what we have grown to expect from the top program in the SEC since conference realignment in 1992.
Just two years ago, Muschamp’s second year, the Gators finished the regular season at 11-1 and missed playing for the national title by the smallest of margins. One really bad year has erased a lot of that thinking.
This is why Saturday could very well be a statement game. The kind of statement that Florida should make.