Florida Football: 2012 Season Preview for the Gators
Are you ready for some football?
In less than a week the Gators will kickoff the 2012 football season. How good does that sound?
After a disappointing 7-6 first season, Will Muschamp will look to bring the Gators back to SEC and national relevance in his second season. On paper the Gators look to be much improved, but looking good on paper doesn't win games on Saturdays.
This slideshow will preview everything you need to know about the 2012 Gators. Do you want to know which freshman will make the biggest impact this season? How about who will be the Gators' offensive and defensive MVPs?
Let's take a look at all of that and more in your 2012 Gator football season preview.
The Gators entered the offseason on a high note after beating Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.
A disappointing 7-6 season didn't stop the coaching staff from hitting the recruiting trail. Muschamp and Co. secured one of the top 2012 recruiting classes and the coaches have also gotten off to a fast start for the 2013 recruiting class. With more than six months until National Signing Day the Gators recruiting class for 2013 will continue to change but the Gators are in position to sign another top-five class.
For the third season in a row the Gators will work in a new offensive coordinator. When Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Kansas the Gators hired former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Pease will keep the Gators in a pro-style offense but his scheme will spread the ball around and calls for a lot of pre-snap motion which should keep defenses on their toes. Pease is adapting his offense to cater to the strengths of the players he has at his disposal. Rather than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, as the former offensive coordinator did for much of 2011, Pease is putting players in positions where they can be successful.
The Gators also added a new strength and conditioning coordinator in Jeff Dillman. Dillman brought in an Olympic style lifting program and you can already see the difference in players like Xavier Nixon, Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins.
The Gators are flying somewhat under the radar this season as SEC heavyweights LSU and Alabama are being pegged as favorites to come out of the SEC and contend for a national title and Georgia and South Carolina are the favorites in the East.
As was noted in the last slide the Gators are working with their third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. The Gators also lost wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill this offseason when he resigned citing "personal reasons." Pease and graduate assistant Bush Hamdan will share Hill's coaching responsibilities this season.
The Gators offense sputtered through much of the 2011 season and will need to be much improved if the team wants to be better in 2012.
It may not be the most glamorous position but show me a good offense an I'll show you a good offensive line. The Gators line was one of their weakest units last season and simply need to be better in 2012. The line couldn't manage to get much of a push to support a power running game and couldn't hold blocks long enough to support a deep passing attack. The lineman have really benefited from Dillman's new lifting program and are determined to have a bounce back year.
The running game will be stressed this season and senior running back Mike Gillislee will finally get his chance to be the starting running back. Gillislee averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season and set some pretty lofty goals for his first season as the starting running back. Freshman, Matt Jones, will also receiver some significant playing time this season and has the size to carry the ball between the tackles, something the Gators struggled with last season.
The receivers are still untested and unreliable. Improved offensive line play could give the receiver unit a boost but they still need to get open. Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond appear to be the starters as of now but Latroy Pittman will also challenge for playing time.
The Gators have some playmakers at tight end in Jordan Reed and freshman, Kent Taylor. Reed has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the SEC if he realizes that he is allowed to stay on his feet when he catches passes and can get some YAC. Taylor has a ton of work to do as a blocker but we all knew that coming in and he wasn't signed to be a blocking tight end. At 6'5'', Taylor is a mismatch for defenses and has the route running ability and hands of a receiver. Clay Burton will also vie for playing time at the position.
As the slide show is being created the Gators have yet to name a starting quarterback. Coach Muschamp said that he will discuss the starting depth chart the Monday before every game but expect both quarterbacks to play an even amount. Neither Jeff Driskel nor Jacoby Brissett have been able to win the job outright and will continue to battle throughout the season.
The Gators defense should be one of the best units not just in the SEC but in the entire country. Florida returns 10 of 11 starters (only nine if you don't include the injured Ronald Powell) from a defense that finished as the eighth ranked defense a year ago.
Up front the Gators will miss Ronald Powell for at least the first four games of the season but the junior BUCK linebacker is on schedule to play at some point this season after tearing his ACL in the spring game. Lerentee McCray has filled in for Powell but he is being pushed by freshman Dante Fowler Jr. Fowler was determined to earn his way onto the field this season and the freshman has most definitely impressed the coaching staff in his short time on campus.
The best move the Gators made on the line this offseason is moving Sharrif Floyd back inside. Floyd struggled in 2011 while he adjusted to playing at defensive end rather than his more natural tackle position. With Floyd moving inside, Dominique Easley will be pushed outside to end more often. Easley has an explosive first step and should be able to get pressure on the quarterback from his new position.
The linebackers are anchored by Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins. While Bostic and Jenkins are the unquestioned starters at their positions there is a battle going on at SAM linebacker. Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball are battling for the spot but we should get an answer sometime this week as to who the starter will be. Mike Taylor and Antonio Morrison will be the primary backups at WILL and MIKE linebacker but both are capable of filling in at all three positions.
The Gators secondary will be infinitely more experienced than a season ago. For a good portion of last season the Gators started freshmen at both cornerback and safety alongside two sophomores. At corner back the Gators have four players competing for two spots. Cody Riggs, Jaylen Watkins, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are all competing but Roberson and Purifoy will likely win out. Riggs played a lot of safety in the spring and that appears to be a move to have him play safety while Matt Elam moves in to play the nickel corner spot.
Elam and Josh Evans are the two starters at safety. Evans is a senior and looking to leave his mark at Florida before graduating while Elam could decide to test the NFL waters if he has another good season.
Special Teams Preview
When Urban Meyer took over at Florida he made a point to be one of the best teams in the country on special teams. While special teams are often over looked, the Gators have made it a priority and it has certainly paid dividends. The Gators didn't miss a beat in Muschamp's first season on special teams and should have a top notch unit again in 2012.
The Gators return Lou Groza watch list kicker Caleb Sturgis as well as the top kicker in the 2012 recruiting class Austin Hardin. Hardin will handle kickoff duty which should lessen the load that the injury prone Sturgis has to carry.
The Gators return their punter in Kyle Christy who took over the starting job midway through last season.
On kick returns and punt returns the Gators should be deadly. Andre Debose is one of the most electrifying kick returners in the country with three return touchdowns under his belt already. As of now Mike Gillislee is slated to be back on kickoffs with Debose. I'm not sure if putting your injury prone first string tailback on the return team is the best choice but time will tell.
While Debose has kick returner locked up the job of punt returner is a little foggy. Muschamp said if the season started today that Marcus Roberson would be the starter there but also mentioned Debose, Trey Burton, De'Ante "Pop" Saunders and Loucheiz Purifoy.
The Gators are also a threat to block a punt or kick at any time. The team tied for the sixth most blocked punts and kicks in 2011 with six. Look for Frankie Hammond Jr. and Solomon Patton to be the Gators most likely to block punts for you in 2012.
As we have touched on a little bit in previous slides the Gators have some change in their coaching staff this offseason.
The coaching staff brought in Tim Davis to coach the offensive line, Davis held the same position at Utah last season and was on the Miami Dolphins staff with Muschamp in 2005.
Jeff Dillman joined the staff as the new strength and conditioning coordinator and brings an Olympic-style lifting program to Florida that is already paying dividends. Most notably Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic both look much bigger than they were in 2011. The program has also gotten Xavier Nixon back up over 300 pounds. Nixon has struggled keeping his weight up and his performance on the field has suffered because of it.
Brent Pease will take over the offense in 2012 and lucky for him, he does not have a tough act to follow. The Gators finished with the 105th ranked offense in 2011 and the offense cannot get much worse than it was in 2011.
Pease's offense will use pre-snap motion and look to spread the ball around the field more so than Weis' offense did a season ago. Using pre-snap motion can force the defense to show what they are doing and should be able to help the Gators young quarterbacks.
Sept. 1: Bowling Green
Sept. 8: @ Texas A&M
Sept. 15: @ Tennessee
Sept. 22: Kentucky
Oct. 6: LSU
Oct. 13: @ Vanderbilt
Oct. 20: South Carolina
Oct. 27: Georgia (In Jacksonville)
Nov. 3: Missouri
Nov. 10: Louisiana Lafayette
Nov. 17: Jacksonville State
Nov. 24: @ Florida State
Unlike in previous years where the Gators would play two warm-up games before starting SEC play the Gators will get just one in 2012.
Two early road tests await in September before the Gators return home for Kentucky a bye week and then a big rematch against LSU.
After being on upset alert in Nashville the Gators will have two of their biggest games of the season in late October. The winner of the SEC East will most likely come from either Florida, South Carolina or Georgia and we should have a good idea of who the SEC East champion will be after the Gators and Dawgs play on October, 27.
Missouri comes next followed with two cupcake games and a trip to Tallahassee to take on FSU.
One Game the Gators Absolutely Will Win
If you're looking for a sure thing, count on the Gators to continue their winning streak over Kentucky. The Gators current 25-game winning streak is the longest uninterrupted active streak over one opponent.
The Gators have been so dominant over Kentucky that even in the worst season since 1979, Florida still beat the Wildcats 48-10.
One Game That's a Tossup
The SEC East consists of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and everyone else.
The game against South Carolina will be particularly hard to predict.
Last season the Gators and Gamecocks struggled to put up points in what was a 17-12 victory for South Carolina. The Gators struggled to stop the running attack even with Marcus Lattimore not in the game but still had a chance late in the game to win.
Speaking of Marcus Lattimore, the last time he played the Gators as a freshman he carried the ball 40 times for 212 yards. The Gators defense will have to focus again on shutting down the running attack but if they can force Connor Shaw to throw the football they stand a very good chance of coming out of this game with a victory.
So it's simple. Stop Shaw and Lattimore from running all over you and win the game.
Well, that's a lot easier said than done but not impossible and why South Carolina will be a toss up game this season.
One Game the Gators Could Lose
Now I know you don't like to read it but the game against LSU is a game the Gators will not and should not be favored to win.
Florida was dominated last season as Jacoby Brissett became the first Gators quarterback to take his first snap in his first ever collegiate start. No better place to do it than in Death Valley, right?
Les Miles and the Tigers will bring the best defense the Gators will see all season into Gainesville and starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger may be a better quarterback than the Tigers had last season when they were undefeated in the regular season and SEC champions.
One thing that will play in the Gators favor is that they will benefit from a bye week before playing LSU. This will give the team some time to nurse any injuries and the coaches two weeks to game plan.
Even with an extra week the Gators would have to play perfect football and get a couple bounces to go their way if they hope to come out of this game with a victory.
Offensive MVP Prediction
If Mike Gillislee can stay healthy he will be the Gators offensive MVP.
Muschamp wants nothing more than to have an offense that is predicated on a hard nosed, between the tackles rushing attack. Mike Gillislee is more than capable of being that type of running back but has yet to receive a legitimate opportunity to be the man. Now that he has his chance expect him to run away with it and give the Gators the kind of running back they haven't had since Ciatrick Fason rushed for 1,267 yards in 2004.
The Gators will need to lean on the running game especially while they are still rotating quarterbacks and trying to find a couple of receivers who can become reliable targets.
Defensive MVP Prediction
Matt Elam will just edge out Jon Bostic as the defensive MVP.
In 2011 Elam finished second on the team in tackles (78), tied for first in interceptions (2), first in tackles for loss (11), first in passes broken up (7) and first in forced fumbles (2). All of that in just his first year as a starter.
With the kind of talent and instinctive play that Elam brings to the table, expect all of those numbers to go up. If he plays to his full potential there is no reason that Elam couldn't be a finalist for the Thorpe award at the end of the season.
Newcomer of the Year Prediction
Dante Fowler Jr.
Dante Fowler was a man on a mission.
Fowler was listed at 6'3'' 232 pounds when he signed his letter of intent to the University of Florida. According to Florida Fowler is now at 6'3", 277 pounds and he hasn't lost any speed or quickness. When Fowler said he was going to do whatever it took to play as a freshman he meant it and he has impressed the coaching staff and his teammates in his short time on campus.
Even if Ronald Powell was healthy Fowler would have earned himself playing time. With Powell out for at least the first month of the season Fowler is now pushing Lerentee McCray for the starting position. It is unlikely McCray will lose out on the starting job as of now but Fowler is keeping the race close. Whether or not he wins the starting job Fowler will get playing time early and should provide the Gators with the kind of pass rush they were missing for most of the 2011 season.
Best NFL Draft Prospect
The Gators defense will feature several players who will get a chance to make an NFL roster. However the player with the chance to be drafted the highest is Matt Elam.
You already read the kind of production that Elam brought to the team in his first year as a starter and he is now poised to have an even better junior campaign.
As a junior, Elam will have a choice to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. If Elam plays to the level that he is capable of playing to, the NFL may look too good to pass up.
Best 5 Twitter Follows
Trey Burton - @TreyBurton8
Burton tweets every day and his conversations with former Gator safety, Ahmad Black, are hilarious.
Vernon Hargreaves (five-star cornerback recruit) -VH_5000
The Gator recruit tweets non stop.
Jeff Dillman - @Jeff_Dillman
Just reading Dillman's twitter feed can get you pumped up for football.
Kelvin Taylor (four-star running back recruit) - @ImKelvinTaylor
The son of former Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin tweets non stop and actively recruits other prospects to join him at Florida.
Florida Gators Buzz - @FloridaBuzzTap
Florida Buzz Tap tweets out links from anything and everything Florida Gators related daily. It provides links to articles from all over the Internet as well as breaking news.
What Does Vegas Say?
Vegas set the Gators over/under win total at 7 1/2 games. I think the Gators will win eight or nine games this season which would obviously mean you should bet the over.
The Gators are coming off of a 2011 season where they didn't beat a ranked opponent and had one of the worst offenses in recent history. The team will be much better in 2012 and their record should reflect that.
The best case for the Gators would be a 10-win season and a birth to the SEC Championship game. Worst case scenario is the Gators digress from a season ago and finish the regular season 6-6 and barely make a bowl game.
I think they will likely fall somewhere in between with eight or nine wins. With an eight or nine win season the Gators would likely be headed to the Outback bowl.
The Outback bowl makes sense for the Gators. Being located in Tampa makes traveling to the game very easy for the fan base and the Outback Bowl committee has loved having the Gators play in their bowl game.
So what is the bottom line? What should you expect from the 2012 Florida Gators.
I have the Gators winning nine games in 2012. Those games are Bowling Green, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Missouri, Louisiana Lafayette and Jacksonville State. The only one of those games that the Gators might not be favored in is against Georgia.
That leaves the Gators with three losses. Those come against LSU, South Carolina and Florida State. LSU and Florida State will be too good on defense for the Gators while the Gamecocks will pound the ball on the ground and squeak out a victory in the Swamp.
A 9-3 season would be a great rebound from 2011 and Gator Nation should be very happy if the Gators can finish with that record.
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