A No. 3 ranking for the Florida Gators in CBS Sports' "Best of College Sports" series is hardly a surprise. With second-place finishers in three of the past four NACDA Directors' Cups, Florida touts one of the country's most potent football-basketball tandems and commands respect in most non-revenue sports.
If one ranking surprises, it's No. 104: Florida football's place in national total offense last year while still pushing for national title contention and 11 wins.
In the past 20 years, fans in The Swamp have witnessed some of the best offensive football ever played in the college game. In 2012, they watched handoff after handoff while hoping the defense would take them home with a smile.
This could change in 2013. At least coach Will Muschamp is hoping for more downfield prowess.
The Gators won three games with quarterback Jeff Driskel throwing for less than 100 yards. Driskel ranked 12th in the SEC in passing average, passing efficiency and total offense.
This was, in part, by design. Grinding out games and winning at the line of scrimmage is an SEC custom that Muschamp embraces, especially with the tough defense that he has established in Gainesville. Driskel needed time to develop in his first year starting, he's an impressive runner, and the Gators are in a curious three-year stretch of receiver ineptitude.
The game plan of limiting turnovers and running early and often lifted the Gators to arguably the best regular-season résumé of the year after wins over Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State.
|Best in College Sports:|
No. 3 Florida
|WC (W. Gymnastics)||100|
|WC - wild card sport|
This wasn't a bad offense -- they didn't waste possessions, and Driskel flashed at times (four passing touchdowns against South Carolina, 219 yards against Tennessee) -- but opponents didn't exactly fear the pass.
Muschamp makes clear, however, that the Gators have a chance to replace conservative with prolific at times during Year 2 of the Driskel/offensive coordinator Brent Pease union.
Questions loom at several positions, like whether a UF receiver can eclipse 600 yards for the first time since 2009. The two best playmakers from last season, running back Mike Gillislee and tight end Jordan Reed, must be replaced.
Muschamp feels he has the quarterback to ease concerns. When asked inside his office about Driskel's growth, Muschamp points to the team's video room. Apparently, Driskel uses it often.
"We don't come from behind to win eight games last year without Jeff Driskel," Muschamp said.
Which is why he must stay healthy. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State in the offseason, leaving Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, without a collegiate pass attempt between them, as primary backups.
The Gators want to limit big hits on Driskel but probably value his running ability too much to abandon it.
Giving Gillislee the ball 244 times for 1,152 yards last year eased the burden on the passing game, but the Gators might not have that luxury now unless a stable of young running backs (Matt Jones, Mack Brown, Kelvin Taylor) can handle the workload. The play-action passing game, especially on third down, should be crucial for Driskel's development.
The Gators hired former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, who, when not tweeting Batman-inspired recruiting messages, is known as a useful receivers coach. His mission will be simple: Maximize the talent of an underachieving group.
Quinton Dunbar should mushroom his 36-catch performance from a year ago. Muschamp is high on freshman receiver Demarcus Robinson. Sophomore Latroy Pittman could make a jump. Trey Burton is a versatile senior. Andre Debose has been relegated to a secondary option after a mostly disappointing career.
There's potential here, but the Gators have seen that before.
"It's time to do it under the lights," Muschamp said.
Despite injury issues in the spring, the offensive line should have solid depth. Replacing Reed at tight end will be a challenge, one likely bestowed on junior Clay Burton.
Player development won't matter much if Florida can't avoid more curious collapses like the 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
That's the only game that Muschamp remembers from last season when the Gators played with no edge.
He doesn't want to see that happen again. Unleashing Driskel could help.