It has been two years since the Florida Gators were national championship contenders, but this is a program that doesn't expect to be out of the national spotlight for much longer. It is clear that head coach Will Muschamp is committed to building something special in Gainesville.
The Gators return 17 starters from a year ago, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball—a unit that finished the year ranked eighth in the country.
But while there are reasons to feel positive about this football team heading into the 2012 season, there are many issues that remain. Here are five questions that the Gators must address before we can begin to call them SEC contenders once again.
If there is one thing to feel great about with this Florida team, it is certainly the defense. While everyone is drooling over LSU and Alabama, the Gators have a unit that should rank in the top 10 nationally once again. And that alone is good enough to win many games this season.
But if there is one thing to improve on, it is discovering some playmakers on that side of the ball. Sure, the defense is terrific, but it ranked dead last in the SEC with only 14 forced turnovers. There were actually five games in which the Gators didn't force a turnover at all; they went 2-3 in those contests.
Returning 10 starters from one of the top defensive units is great. But creating game-changing plays is something that will not only put this defense in elite class, but also help the team improve overall this year.
Florida had a great one-two punch last year in Jefferey Demps and Chris Rainey at the running back position. But both of those backs have moved on, leaving a hole at the position heading into fall camp.
Now, it will likely be a more physical style of running for Florida, as Mike Gillislee is now the front-runner for the starting job.
Heading into his senior year, Gillislee is the most experienced back on the roster. And he actually averaged more yards a carry than both Demps and Rainey last season. He also has huge goals this year, according to the Tampa Bay Times: He wants to be the first Gator to rush for over 1,000 yards since 2004 and would like to score over 20 touchdowns.
But while Gillislee seems to be a reliable back, there isn't much experience behind him. Omarius Hines and redshirt freshman Mack Brown are the likely two backs behind him, but neither has seen much action so far. Trey Burton will continue to be the X-factor on offense, but just how many carries will he receive this season?
There is potential in this Gators' backfield, but there are a lot of unknowns as well.
Maybe this team has been too blessed over the years with players such as Tim Tebow, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper, Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. But this year’s offense is really lacking that big-time playmaker.
Andre Debose has all of the talent in the world, considering he was 5-star recruit a few years ago, but 26 receptions in two seasons aren’t going to scare opposing defenses. Maybe Jordan Reed can build off of his successful season of 28 receptions and two touchdowns.
It is great that players such as Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond had solid springs, as the Gators need all the depth they can find at the receiver position.
Florida was ranked 105th in the country last year in total offense. If wide receivers don't decide to step up this year, it could be another long season for this unit. We know there are athletes on this squad; we just need to see some type of overall improvement from this group.
Probably the area that this team needs to improve the most is at the offensive line. Florida only allowed 23 sacks last season, but could not seem to block anybody when matched up against some of the better defenses in the conference.
The good news is that there is a bunch of experience returning, and players are feeling a lot better about their bodies with new strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman taking over.
"Coach Dillman has done everything you can ask for," said Cornerback Marcus Roberson, who has added three “good” pounds of muscle (via Cody Jones of Scout.com). "He trusts his work, and we trust him. We bought into the program, and we’re able to get better.
The Gators also have a new offensive line coach in Tim Davis, who seems to have this group working well together, as it looked like an improved unit during the spring. Still, there are a lot of positions on the line that remain unsettled, which, of course, has to be figured out during the fall.
Like many teams in college football, the Florida Gators have a quarterback battle on their hands. It comes down to two sophomores in Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel—two quarterbacks who have strong arms and can hurt you with their legs, but are still very young and trying to find themselves.
Even with the question marks surrounding the position, head coach Will Muschamp doesn't seem at all worried.
“I feel really good about that position because we have two players that are competing that are going to make each other better, our offense better and our team better.” Muschamp said, via Robbie Andreu of Gatorsports.com.
Muschamp has also not ruled out playing both quarterbacks this season.
Brissett only threw the ball 39 times last year for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile Driskel threw the ball 34 times for 148 yards and two interceptions. With neither quarterback able to gain an advantage in the spring and both playing similarly through the fall (so far), it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see a two-quarterback system in Florida this year.