The Florida Gators were literally one or two plays away from reaching the BCS National Championship Game this past season. Instead, they finished in third place in the final regular-season BCS standings and were relegated to the Sugar Bowl.
Will Muschamp's squad came out of nowhere to become one of the lead title contenders in college football. Despite a new starting quarterback and one of the toughest schedules in the country, Florida fought and clawed past opponents en route to an eleven-win season.
This year's edition of the Gators will have to overcome similar obstacles in order to reach the promised land for the first time since January of 2009. All eyes will be on Gainesville to see if the orange and blue can overcome new challenges and prove that last season's performance was no fluke.
Here are six things that could get in the way of another Gator title run.
Florida was able to leave Tallahassee with a victory in 2012.
Last year the Gators were able to beat multiple college football heavyweights, including South Carolina, Texas A&M, Florida State and LSU. They will have to do the same thing in 2013 if they have BCS aspirations.
Although Florida should comfortably handle Miami in Week 2, the Hurricanes could set the tone for the season by putting together a solid performance and forcing the Gators to win a close game.
The real trouble, however, begins with game No. 6 against LSU in Baton Rouge. Following that tilt are matchups against Georgia, the upstart Vanderbilt Commodores, South Carolina and the squad's yearly clash with the Seminoles.
Like the slide title says, this is a brutal second half. The Gators will more than likely lose at least one of these duels. As last season proved, they can stay in the title race with one loss. Should they lose multiple games, however, a BCS bowl will not be in the picture.
The Gators have overcome a tough schedule before, and they will need to do it again this season.
Johhny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin proved to be a deadly combo for the rest of the SEC.
Should the Gators win the SEC East with one or fewer defeats, they will likely face one of two huge roadblocks in the SEC title game. They will either need to conquer Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M for a second time in two seasons or get past the BCS powerhouse that is Alabama.
Florida's last three showdowns with the Tide have been absolute blowouts in favor of the men from Tuscaloosa. In fact, since Florida's 2008 SEC Championship victory over Alabama, Saban's bunch has dominated the entire conference and won three crystal footballs. The Crimson Tide would be a heavy favorite against the Gators in Atlanta.
Likewise, Florida would be a huge underdog against the Aggies. The Gators lucked out last year by drawing A&M in Week 2, which turned out to be Manziel's first collegiate start. Despite this, they still needed a comeback victory to escape College Station unblemished. Currently, their defenders simply do not have the experience needed to shut down Manziel and the vaunted Aggie offense.
The Gators can reach the conference championship, but they will likely be stopped cold by either of these opponents.
Driskel will need to spend less time on the ground this season.
One of the usual components to a championship football team is an elite quarterback. When the game is on the line during the fourth quarter, a winning squad has a gunslinger who can take charge and lead the offense under immense pressure.
Unfortunately for the Gators, Jeff Driskel has done nothing yet to indicate that he is in that elite category.
Sure, he was at the helm during multiple second-half comebacks last season. However, you can only point to his performance against Tennessee if you are looking for cases where he was the key difference-maker. He completely unraveled against Georgia and looked lost during the Sugar Bowl. These poor performances led to the team's only two defeats.
He did not turn the football over, and his ball security turned out to be a huge asset for the entire team. However, there were too many occasions when he simply missed open receivers or took a big sack at a crucial time. The same level of inconsistency will spell doom for the Gators this season.
Muschamp has said that Driskel has made vast improvements since the end of last season. If the Gators do not have this new and improved Driskel in 2013, they will have no chance to win the BCS title.
The Cardinals found themselves celebrating during and after the Sugar Bowl.
The Gators lost their two biggest games of the season in 2012. Whether you think Muschamp or the team deserves more of the blame, the fact remains that Florida has not executed on the biggest and brightest stages in recent years.
Against Georgia, Driskel and the offense struggled to get anything going. A mistake-filled afternoon was topped off by a Jordan Reed fumble inside the Bulldog five-yard line to seal the loss.
Against Louisville, Driskel's first pass was taken the other way for a touchdown. On the next possession for the Cardinals, Jon Bostic's personal foul began what was an evening of undisciplined penalties and breakdowns. Simply put, the Gators looked completely flat and careless.
Until they prove that they can deliver when it counts the most, the Gators are not a legitimate title contender. They have not been able to piece together a complete game where every unit was at its best, and they will need that kind of performance on multiple occasions to win a championship.
Floyd's departure is a significant loss on the defensive line.
Teams are forced to replace departing contributors after every season, and the Gators are no exception. However, Will Muschamp and his staff have been hit especially hard by the loss of talent to graduation and the NFL.
On offense, Mike Gillislee and Jordan Reed left as Florida's leading rusher and receiver, respectively. However, Matt Jones appears to be a solid solution in the backfield, and Quinton Dunbar has emerged as a receiver. These two losses will not severely sting the team.
The situation on defense, meanwhile, is completely different. Sharrif Floyd, Jelani Jenkins, Jon Bostic, Matt Elam and Josh Evans are no longer part of the Florida roster. As talented as their potential replacements might be, it will be an extremely difficult task for them to replicate the defensive efficiency of their predecessors. For a team with an occasionally unreliable offense, this could be a problem.
To top it all off, the greatest kicker in team history, Caleb Sturgis, is also gone.
Add up all these losses, and it becomes apparent that the Gators will have to overcome an immediate experience disadvantage. It may not be a huge one, but I do expect the Gators to take a step back on defense. The loss of Sturgis also has the potential to prove very costly.
The Gators simply need to replace too many athletes to be considered an immediate championship threat.
It took a late punt block to survive a scare from Louisiana-Lafayette.
The current BCS system will come to an end after this season. Gator fans should be very happy with this development because the current process does not do Florida any favors. Because the Gators tend to "win ugly," they are at an immediate disadvantage for the infamous "eyeball test."
For those who need a refresher, the eyeball test refers to the way in which poll voters view each contending team in comparison to the competition. It is a critical component in their decision to rank each team at a certain spot.
Using last year as an example, the Gators were able to maintain their high BCS ranking mainly based on the computer formulas used by the system. Of all one-loss teams, Florida simply looked to be the least dangerous squad. The team did not have the offensive firepower to earn as many style points as Oregon or Kansas State.
The 2013 Gators will have to rely on a similar formula of close, unconvincing victories to remain undefeated. Should they lose a single game, they will not have the same effect on voters as other one-loss teams. In other words, the eyeball test could cost them a trip to the title game at the expense of another out-of-conference contender.