Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After finishing the 2012 regular season ranked No. 4 in the AP poll, Florida landed one of the coveted BCS at-large bids. However, an otherwise outstanding campaign ended on a sour note.
In the Sugar Bowl, No. 22 Louisville set the tone early by returning an interception for a touchdown a mere 15 seconds into the contest and rode that momentum to a 33-23 win.
It was just one of the many near-misses for Florida last season. In his second year as head coach, Will Muschamp improved the Gators from a seven-win team in 2011 to an 11-win team in 2012, blowing through a tough schedule with strong wins over Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State. At 7-1 in league play, the squad finished tied for first in the SEC East, but it lost the tie- breaker with Georgia after losing to the Bulldogs on Oct. 27, 17-9, leaving it shut out of a chance to win the SEC outright.
Since becoming the head coach, Muschamp has instilled a simple yet effective old-school style of football that relies on playing stout defense, controlling the clock with the running game and playing mistake-free football. He is the first to admit that he put his team out of its element in the Sugar Bowl.
"We got away from our formula," Muschamp said. "That was the one regret I had coming out of that game."
After Florida clearly established itself as one of the nation's elite teams, it's easy to understand why the end of the season was so frustrating.
Instead of wallowing on what could have been, the team is using it as motivation for the upcoming season.
"We've been living off that (loss) all offseason," senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. "They have the score posted right before we walk in the locker room, so everyday we have to see it."
With a new year comes a new set of challenges, however. For one, the Gators again have one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, with league matchups versus LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt to go along with non-conference bouts against Miami-Florida and Florida State. On top of their brutal stretch of games, they also lost several key pieces from the 2012 team, including running back Mike Gillislee, tight end Jordan Reed, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jon Bostic, and safeties Josh Evans and Matt Elam.
Still, despite all the obstacles, Florida, which is ranked No. 9 in the Preseason AP Poll, is still in great shape for a strong run in 2013 for several reasons.
Let's start with the defense. The unit was nothing short of outstanding a year ago, surrendering just 14.5 ppg to opposing teams, giving up under 288 yards per contest while collecting 30 sacks, 20 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.
Of course, losing All-SEC-caliber talent on all three levels of the defense certainly does not help matters for the upcoming season, but like most elite programs, Florida has plenty of playmakers ready to step up to become the next superstars.
Jonathan Bullard (five TFL) and Dante Fowler Jr. (eight TFL, 2.5 sacks) each saw plenty of playing time in the defensive line rotation as freshmen and are expected to take a big leap with another year of seasoning. Easley (8.5 TFL, four sacks), a senior, brings plenty of leadership to the front four.
Antonio Morrison (34 tackles) was also an impressive freshman a year ago and appears to have what it takes to supplant Bostic at middle linebacker. In the secondary, Loucheiz Purifoy will attempt to build upon a season where he tallied 51 tackles, three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
While the defense is sure to be solid, perhaps the biggest reason for the excitement in Gainesville is the return of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who won the starting quarterback job last offseason and exceeded expectations with an impressive campaign both passing (.637 completion percentage, 1,646 yards, 12 TDs, five INTs) and rushing (413 yards, four TDs).
Despite Driskel's strong campaign, however, his responsibilities were limited during his first year under center. The Gators were one of the most run-heavy teams in the SEC with 539 rush attempts compared to just 288 passes. Now Driskel has a year of seasoning under his belt, and Muschamp has admitted that he will open up the playbook for Driskel and his receivers to make plays in the passing game.
The year of experience also gave Driskel an immeasurable amount of confidence that he can be successful in the nation's best conference.
"It's easier to be more vocal when you're the set quarterback," Driskel said. "When there's a competition, you don't want to step on anyone's toes. I'm a lot more confident because I've played more and gotten a lot more snaps and played one year as the starting quarterback. I'd say the guys respect me a lot more this year."
There's plenty of questions that still need to be answered for this Gators squad. Can Matt Jones (275 yards on 52 carries in 2012) effectively replace Gillislee as the featured back? Will the defense be strong enough to make up for their lack of explosiveness on offense? Will they be able to dethrone Georgia and hold off a surging South Carolina in the SEC East? None of these can be answered until the season starts up in a few weeks, but one thing that's certain is Muschamp will have his team as prepared as anyone.
"I'm excited about year three, making positive strides in our program," Muschamp said. "In our league, there's going to be tight games. Doesn't matter who you play. You better coach and play well in those situations. I'd love to have some 40-point wins, (but) at the end of the day I worry about one stat, and that's winning, and it doesn't matter how you do it."