After a 2011 schedule during which they only won six regular-season games, the Florida Gators entered their 2012 campaign with a lot to prove. Facing one of the country's toughest lineups of both conference and non-conference opponents, they needed to overcome inexperienced quarterback play and a perceived absence of defensive toughness in order to once again be considered a legitimate threat.
They did exactly that, as they won 11 games and earned their second Sugar Bowl berth in four years.
After this successful BCS run, expectations are through the roof in Gainesville. Even though many key defensive pieces either graduated or left early for the NFL, Gator fans still expect their team to be competing for a national championship during the upcoming season. Armed with dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel and one of the country's best recruiting classes, head coach Will Muschamp is looking to take the squad one step further this fall.
But will the Gators be able to survive another rough SEC schedule?
Here are early predictions for each of Florida's regular-season contests in 2013.
For the second consecutive season, the Gators will open the season at home against a MAC opponent. This year, the Toledo Rockets will touch down in Gainesville looking for an upset.
Returning for the Rockets is a variety of offensive threats, including leading rusher David Fluellen and leading receiver Bernard Reedy, who exploded for 237 yards against Eastern Michigan last season. Also returning is quarterback Terrance Owens, who is looking to bounce back from an inconsistent campaign.
Even with all these offensive weapons, the Rockets should be no match for the Gators. Florida has not lost a home opener since the turn of the new millennium, and the difference in talent between its roster and its opponent's is very significant. Expect the Gators to cruise in this matchup.
Final score: Florida 35, Toledo 14
Louis Murphy celebrates during Florida's previous matchup with the Hurricanes.
Things get tougher for the Gators the following week as they hit the road to battle with in-state rival Miami.
The Hurricanes also bring back talented offensive weapons, including senior quarterback Stephen Morris. Last season, he threw for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he broke the school's single-season record for pass attempts with 421 tosses.
The Gators could have a tough time depending on which Miami team shows up for the game. At times, the Canes looked like they could score at will in 2012, as they hit 40 points in six contests. Unfortunately, their offense looked lost during much of the rest of their schedule.
Ultimately, the Gators' stout defense should allow them to pull away for a second straight victory to open up the 2013 calendar.
Final score: Florida 34, Miami 21
It used to be one of the marquee rivalry games in college football. In recent years, however, Florida's domination over Tennessee has taken some of the luster away from their yearly clash.
The Gators have not lost to the Volunteers in nearly a decade. Amidst that streak are a variety of double-digit victories, including a 39-point thumping in 2007.
One of those came last season in Knoxville. Jeff Driskel threw for 219 yards and had his best game of the season, as the Gators scored 24 unanswered points en route to a convincing win.
The Vols enter 2013 with a new coach and a new quarterback. Eventually, I think Butch Jones and whichever signal-caller he chooses can bring the team back into the national conversation. I just don't see it happening during his first season at the helm.
Add in the fact that this game is at the Swamp, and you have the makings of another Gator victory.
Final score: Florida 34, Tennessee 17
In his first season as a Gator coach, Joker Phillips will return to his previous place of employment when Florida takes on Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium.
Unlike last season, Phillips should leave this matchup a happy man. While the Wildcats may have just nabbed one of the school's best recruiting classes in years, they will simply not have the manpower to compete in the SEC next season.
The only bright spot for Mark Stoops is that he and his team have two weeks to prepare for this game after what should be a blowout loss to Louisville.
Kentucky's offense was awful against Florida last season. In fact, the unit's ranking of 119th in the country in scoring is proof of just how awful it was during the entire campaign. Things can only get better for the Cats in that regard, but it will not result in a victory against the Gators.
Final score: Florida 38, Kentucky 10
Caleb Sturgis nails the final field goal to beat the Razorbacks in 2009.
The Gators have not faced Arkansas since Tim Tebow was delivering passes under the Gainesville sun. In their previous duel, Florida kicked a late field goal and avoided disaster against Ryan Mallett and the Razorbacks.
The 2013 edition of this series should be nowhere near as close.
Bret Bielema will have to navigate through this season without Tyler Wilson, who is now a newly drafted NFL quarterback. He will also need to improve a defensive unit that gave up over 30 points per game this past fall.
Meanwhile, the Gators should be in a groove after an easy victory over Kentucky. Jeff Driskel should be able to put up a lot of yards in this game, and the Gators should score a lot of points.
Unless the Gators get caught looking ahead to LSU, they should easily beat the Hogs.
Final score: Florida 35, Arkansas 19
Once the Gators get past Arkansas, the next stop is Baton Rouge. It will be an example of SEC football at its finest when they square off with the Tigers in Death Valley with potential BCS implications on the line.
Florida won this tilt last season because of two main factors. First, Florida's defense was superb, only allowing 200 total yards. In addition, Mike Gillislee's tough running simply wore down LSU's defense in the second half, which allowed Florida to take the lead and not look back.
However, I think the Gators could be in trouble this time around. Yes, LSU lost a ton of contributors on defense. Yes, Zach Mettenberger has not played like an elite quarterback. Yes, Florida is probably the favorite on paper.
With the home crowd behind them, however, I think the Tigers will squeak by in this contest.
If Florida can protect Driskel and allow him to get in a rhythm, the outcome could be different. I just have a hunch that LSU will get the job done.
Final score: LSU 23, Florida 20
Should the Gators indeed fall to LSU, the Tigers from Missouri could be in the direct path of an old-fashioned beatdown at the hands of Florida the following week.
Driskel and the offense struggled to get much of anything going against the Tigers last November. Florida's defense once again proved to be the difference after four interceptions of James Franklin in a seven-point win.
If Florida's offense improves as much as it is capable of doing, there is no reason why the Gators should not manhandle Missouri. In addition, they will certainly have an edge after a bitter loss the previous Saturday.
The fact that this is another road game for Florida should make no difference. The Gators will come out swinging and get a victory.
Final score: Florida 38, Missouri 16
That brings us to this clash of college football titans.
For the Gators, their annual showdown with the Bulldogs was the one that got away in 2012. Despite a gutsy defensive performance, they wound up on the losing end thanks to six turnovers on offense. As a result, Georgia went on to play in the SEC title game as the champion of the East division.
Simply put, Florida cannot play any worse offensively than it did against the Bulldogs last October. With the prospect of revenge on the line, the Gators can very well win this game by executing when they have the football.
The key to victory will be stopping Georgia's loaded offense. If Florida's pass rush can get to Aaron Murray and fluster him, and also keep Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall in check, it will be Mark Richt's squad that has to play from behind.
It will be a heavyweight bout that does not disappoint. In the end, however, the Gators get their revenge.
Final score: Florida 21, Georgia 20
Thus, we come to a potential trap game for the Gators.
Until 2012, Vanderbilt was an example of a college program that always found a way to underachieve. After a nine-win season, however, the Commodores could finally be ready to break onto the national stage.
In last season's edition of this SEC series, the Gators won because of Driskel, who seemingly ran past anything and everything he came upon. He literally carried the team to victory as he carried the football into the end zone on three occasions.
The 14-point differential in the final score was not indicative of how close the game was in reality. If the Commodores get solid quarterback play in this year's tilt, they could give the Gators fits.
When all is said and done, however, Florida should escape with a victory.
Final score: Florida 27, Vanderbilt 20
When the South Carolina Gamecocks went to Gainesville last October, they put on a Christmas-like performance and basically gift-wrapped a victory for Florida.
You can bet Steve Spurrier and his squad will remember that fact when they face the Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium this fall.
Despite holding the Gators to only 183 total yards, the Gamecocks were left on the receiving end of a 33-point loss thanks to turnovers and blunders on special teams. As painful as the defeat was in terms of postseason implications, it also had to hit South Carolina players right in the gut.
This game could potentially be a defining moment in Connor Shaw's collegiate career. If he and his teammates can take care of the football and force the Gators to make plays on offense, they have a great chance of winning this game.
It is obviously early to consider this pick a lock. However, I think the Gamecocks can win this game and derail Florida's BCS aspirations.
Final score: South Carolina 24, Florida 20
On the bright side, there is no easier way to get over a tough loss than with a demolition of a non-FBS squad.
After non-BCS school Louisiana-Lafayette gave Gator fans a heart attack last season, you can bet that Muschamp will have his squad ready to play against the Eagles. This could also potentially be Kelvin Taylor's breakout game, as he is bound to get a lot of carries with a big lead.
Expect the Gators to jump ahead and quickly put the hammer down in this one.
Final score: Florida 49, Georgia Southern 6
The Gators will stay in Gainesville to close out the season against their other huge in-state rival, Florida State. As with all rivalry games, this matchup should be an entertaining one.
The key for the Seminoles will be quarterback play. EJ Manuel is now a member of the Buffalo Bills, and his replacement will have big shoes to fill. The top candidate right now is Jameis Winston after his strong spring game performance. Whoever it is will need to be superb in a tough road environment.
Defensively, the teams are pretty even. Both lost significant contributors to the NFL and will need to replace them. However, one could argue that Florida will have a minor defensive edge by the end of the season.
It may sound clichéd, but home-field advantage will be the determining factor in this game. The Gators end 2013 on a high note.
Final score: Florida 24, Florida State 20