As I sit down to write this, there are still 107 days until the opening kickoff of the 2013 football season against Toledo. That’s 2,568 hours or 154,080 minutes or 9,244,800 seconds that we have to wait until we get some meaningful football back into our lives.
Despite losing some key players on both sides of the football, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the 2013 version of the Florida Gators. But as Will Muschamp is quick to tell you, “You’re only as good as your last game and the last one wasn’t very good.”
It’s been 134 days since the Florida football team walked off of the turf in the Superdome, cardinal and white confetti falling all around them. 134 long days since Charlie Strong’s Louisville Cardinal team pulled off an upset that would leave a sour taste in the mouth of Gator fans and the team alike. A game so disappointing, it almost made fans forget the magical ride Florida had taken them on in 2012.
Eight come from behind victories, shutting down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Jeff Driskel’s record-breaking rushing performance against Vanderbilt, a second half beat down of Tennessee in Rocky Top, a close call against Louisiana Lafayette and a hard fought, physical win against LSU.
It’s those moments that make up a season, make it special and leave us wanting more after the final whistle has been blown.
With 2012 in the rearview mirror, and our football fix still unquenched, why not take an early look at the 2013 schedule and rank the games from easiest to toughest? I almost want to say “most important” but until the playoff system changes the landscape of the regular season, as we know it, every Saturday is the “most important” game of the season (yes, even against Toledo and Georgia Southern).
12. Georgia Southern (Nov. 23, @Home)– The one and only non-FBS team on Florida’s schedule this season, the Eagles of Georgia Southern come in as the easiest game on the schedule. Yes, I’m totally aware of how dangerous calling any game “easy” is after the scare that the Ragin’ Cajuns gave Florida last season. At the end of the day, when you stack this game up against the others on Florida’s schedule, it’s an easy choice.
The only similar opponent that was on Georgia Southern’s schedule last year was Georgia and the Dawgs put their FCS opponent in their place with a 45-14 drubbing.
Florida may not score ‘half a hundred’ but they should handle the Eagles as they prepare for Florida State the following week.
11. Toledo (Aug. 31,@Home ) – The Rockets lose eight starters on defense, including Dan Moll, a linebacker who led the nation in tackles (166) a season ago. Losing eight starters might seem like a bad thing but considering the Rockets finished 12th in the MAC in total defense giving up over 473 yards a game last season, it might be good for them to get some new blood on the defensive front. The Rockets do, however, bring back senior quarterback Terrance Owens and four other players who earned All-MAC honors in 2012.
In the end, Florida is too big, fast, physical and just down right better than Toledo and that should show in week one.
10. Kentucky (Sept. 28, @Kentucky)– The last time Kentucky beat Florida, November 15, 1986, I wasn’t even born yet. Neither was any player who will put on pads and play on September 29.
The hire of Mark Stoops has excited the Big Blue Nation as 50,831 people were reported in attendance at the Wildcat’s spring game. Did Kentucky have 50,000 people show up to all of their games combined last season?
This year shouldn’t be any different than the past 24 years of my life, the sun will come up in east, Florida will beat Kentucky and the sun will set in the west later that night.
9. Tennessee (Sept. 21 @Home) – Last year, at my former employer, I predicted that Florida would beat Tennessee 23-21. Tennessee fans filled the comment section calling me a biased homer and some other things I’d rather forget. With Tyler Bray starting the season off strong, Vol Nation was as confident as they had been in a long time. The streak of seven straight Gators wins was going to end and it wasn’t even going to be close!
Uh, yeah, those people who left comments on Thursday and Friday must not have been able to find the article on Saturday and were never heard from again.
This year, the Vols are working under a new head coach in Butch Jones and will be without Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson on offense. Jones will bring a decidedly more run-oriented offense to Tennessee, but the Gators held the Vols to just 83 rushing yards on 28 attempts last season for a season low 2.96 yard-per-carry average.
Tennessee won’t be able to run effectively enough against Florida and they don’t have the big-play threats that could give them a punchers chance against the Gators.
Televisions will be turned off early in Knoxville and the Gators should extend their winning streak to nine straight.
8. Missouri (Oct. 9, @Missouri) – Since James Franklin took over the starting job at quarterback, Missouri has gone only as far as Franklin’s legs and arm have taken them. Unfortunately for Missouri, Franklin has spent almost as much time on the sidelines due to injury than he has spent on the field. Franklin is now entrenched in a battle for his starting job and unless the offensive line improves by leaps and bounds from last season, the Tigers won’t be able to take advantage of talented sophomore receiver, Dorial Green-Beckham.
Missouri got a rough wake up call to what life will be like in the SEC last year, remember their “old man football” comments before getting trounced by Georgia?
If the SEC is old man’s football than Missouri might want to start aging like Patch Adams to catch up.
The biggest test for the Gators in this matchup will be how they handle traveling to Columbia, Missouri for the first time. It’s a long trip but if the team stays focused and treats it like the business trip that it is, this should be another one in the win column for the Gators.
7. Arkansas (Oct. 5, @Home) – The Razorbacks were poised to make a serious run at an SEC Championship in 2012. Then Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle wreck and ensuing scandal revolving around his affair with a staff member foreshadowed the wreck that Arkansas’ season would become.
The best part of watching Arkansas last year was waiting to see what John L. Smith would do or say on the sidelines or in his press conferences.
The team is trying to move past the embarrassment that was the 2012 football season and they took a step in the right direction by hiring Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin. Bielema will bring his run-heavy attack from Wisconsin, if you thought Florida ran the ball a lot wait until you see this offense.
As Gator fans are well aware of, it’s not easy to go from one extreme to the other. Under Petrino, Arkansas recruited players to run a spread-out passing attack. Similar to Florida under Urban Meyer, that calls for lighter, quicker offensive linemen, not the kind of linemen who you want upfront while running the ball 40 times a game.
Arkansas will be fine with Bielema as their head coach but it will take some time for the new head coach to get the right personnel on campus.
Florida rolls at home before setting their sights on LSU the following week.
6. Miami (Sept. 7 @Miami) – What was once one of the best rivalries in all of college football will more than likely be coming to an end for the foreseeable future this year. With conference expansion and a potential 9-game conference schedule, it doesn’t make sense for the Gators to schedule Miami on a regular basis.
Miami had won six games in a row dating back to 1986 before losing to Florida in the Swamp in September of 2008, the last time these two teams met.
Miami returns Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson to what should be, yet again, an explosive offense but their problem is defense. The Canes return 10 starters on defense but those 10 starters were on a defense that finished dead last in the ACC in total defense (486.4 ypg.), rushing defense (217.9 ypg.) and passing defense (268.5 ypg.) Not to mention that Miami allowed their opponents to score an average of more than 30 points a game.
Miami should be able to put some points on the scoreboard against Florida, and they will score on a lot of teams in 2013, but Florida will be able to pound the ball on the ground all game and control the clock to win their second straight game against the Hurricanes.
5. Vanderbilt (Nov. 9 @Home) – These aren’t your father’s Commodores. James Franklin has created a new culture at Vanderbilt and they are no longer the doormat of the SEC.
The last two seasons Florida has merely survived their games against the ‘Dores 31-17 last season (the game was much closer than the final score) and 26-21 in 2011. Those scores are a far cry from the 55-14, 27-3 and 42-14 drubbings that Florida handed out in the previous three seasons.
While Vanderbilt is certainly on the rise under Franklin, so is Florida under Muschamp. Franklin’s team will be confident and they definitely won’t be afraid of the Gators but in the end, Florida has too much talent and they will wear Vandy down as the game goes on.
4. Florida State (Nov. 30, @Home) – A game that went back and forth in 2012 eventually ended with the most satisfying Gatorade bath Will Muschamp has ever taken.
Personally, I was never as high on E.J. Manuel as some people in the media. His successor, Jameis Winston, will be a step down from Manuel this year. I’m of the opinion that Winston will be a better quarterback than Manuel eventually but as a first time starter who split time between baseball and football this past spring, the Noles will struggle on offense as Manuel settles into his new role.
Where the Seminoles will be better this year is on defense. The Seminoles defensive numbers were inflated in 2012 due to their softer than tissue paper schedule, and the Gators proved that by putting up 37 points against them, but a new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, should give their defense new life.
Pruitt spent the past two seasons coaching the secondary at Alabama and will be the new play-caller for the Noles defense. With the return of players like Timmy Jerinigan, Lemarcus Joyner and Christian Jones returning, the Noles should have an improved defense even after losing Tank Carradine and Bjöern Werner.
James Wilder looks poised for a breakout season on offense and the Noles will give Florida all they can handle in the season finale.
Still, if Florida can stay relatively healthy heading into this game they should be able to make it two in a row against the school out west.
3. LSU (Oct. 12, @LSU) – LSU fans should have seen the writing on the wall when Les Miles spent most of last season trash-talking Gunner Kiel for going back on his LSU commitment. If Miles was confident in what he was seeing from Zach Mettenberger in practice, he might not have been so angry to lose out on a commit.
The Tigers added Cam Cameron as their new offensive coordinator this offseason. Cameron showed how good he was as a head coach with the Dolphins and as a coordinator with the Ravens [please note the extreme amount of sarcasm here] and should be fine in Baton Rouge.
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers have to replace eight players on defense that were lost to the NFL Draft. If you think Florida has it bad, LSU lost even more on defense than the Gators.
The toughest challenge that Florida will face is playing in Tiger Stadium. Looking at both team’s schedules, this could easily be a matchup of two undefeated teams come October 12. If that holds true, it could be slated for a night game and we all know how Les Miles led teams have fared at night in Death Valley.
This will be a tough, grind it out, defensive battle much like last season. Florida will need to be able to run the ball as effectively as they did in 2012 if they want to come out of Baton Rouge with a win.
Note: Yes, as a Dolphin fan I am still mad at Cam Cameron for drafting Ted Ginn Jr.
2. South Carolina (Nov. 16 @South Carolina) – Even now, there’s something strange about seeing Steve Spurrier in garnet and black.
Jadeveon Clowney is the best player in the country. No question in my mind. It doesn’t matter who Florida, or any team for that matter, lines up in front of him, Clowney is going to wreak havoc in the opponents’ backfield. Clowney is the type of player that, by himself, can make the entire defense better just by what he can do on the field.
On offense, the Gamecocks return Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Spurrier will rotate those two quarterbacks throughout the season and with Spurrier dialing up plays, USC can win with both of them.
South Carolina will be without Marcus Lattimore but they really played most of the past two seasons without him anyway. Mike Davis will assume a prominent role in the backfield to pick up the slack.
This game in Columbia comes after two tough games against Georgia and Vanderbilt, so the health of both teams will play a huge factor here. This is way too early to call this game and I could easily make a case for why either team could win here.
1. Georgia (Nov. 2, @Jacksonville) – No matter what the city of Jacksonville says, this will always be known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to Gator and Dawg fans alike.
It might be the only thing the two fanbases agree on.
Georgia spoiled Florida’s run at an SEC East Championship last season and Will Muschamp has lost in his first two tries at besting his alma mater. Muschamp vowed that Georgia’s winning streak won’t be a long one but this is by far the biggest, toughest, most important game on Florida’s schedule for a number of reasons.
First, Florida fans don’t like losing to Georgia. Will Muschamp took a fire extinguisher to his hot seat last season but a third consecutive loss to Georgia could leave fans restless.
Second, the road to Atlanta has run through Jacksonville the past two seasons. Every year the goal at Florida is to win the East and play for a championship in Atlanta. With Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall all returning, Georgia is poised to have one of the best offenses in the conference. While the defense is rebuilding after losing Jarvis Jones (Gator Nation popped champagne bottles and celebrated like it was New Year’s when his name was called in the first round of the NFL Draft), Bacarri Rambo, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings and Cornelius Washington, the offense just might be good enough to carry the defense. They’ll have to be.
Like the South Carolina game, this is a toss up in my eyes. Florida’s defense should be able to slow Georgia’s high-powered attack down but the Gators’ offense will need to pull their own weight if Will Muschamp wants to get the Georgia monkey off his back and end the losing streak to his alma mater at two.