If Florida needs any inspiration for the 2014 season, it needs to look no further than across the SEC to the 2013 Auburn team.
In just one year, the Tigers went from a 3-9 team that went 0-8 in the SEC to one that finished mere seconds away from a national championship.
Florida will spend the offseason attempting to climb out of its own abyss after its first losing season since 1979.
The Gators’ horrendous 4-8 season included an embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern—the low point of a seven-game losing streak to end the season.
It also left coach Will Muschamp on arguably the hottest seat to open 2014.
Though the record fails to indicate it, Florida’s roster—like Auburn’s this season—features enough talent to turn the season around quickly.
Injuries, not talent or ability, primarily caused the rapid downfall from an 11-win 2012 season.
Before Florida played its season finale against rival Florida State, 10 Gators had suffered season-ending injuries and 26 players missed all or part of games.
One obvious key will be for Florida to avoid such devastating setbacks on the health front.
Early NFL departures don’t make it easy, though. Superstar cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson turned pro early. So did outstanding defensive tackle Dominique Easley and linebacker Ronald Powell, the No. 1 prospect in the nation in 2010.
Muschamp’s biggest challenge might well come from trying to change the energy and enthusiasm in the locker room.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn didn’t face the same situation.
A one-year stint at Arkansas State provided separation. When Malzahn returned—this time as head coach instead of offensive coordinator—he promised a new beginning.
Muschamp can—and should—offer the same, but it won’t be accepted as easily as a brand new start under a new head coach.
Defense hasn’t been a huge issue since Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator, arrived in Gainesville.
Despite losing several key starters on defense, Muschamp’s track record suggests he can replace them without a dip in production.
Returning key figures such as linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive end Dante Fowler gives the front seven a strong foundation.
Plus cornerback Vernon Hargreaves appears to be a budding superstar. He led the team in interceptions (three) and pass breakups (11) as a true freshman in 2013.
Florida is also primed to sign Jalen Tabor, rated by 247Sports as the top high school cornerback in the country.
Without question, the biggest improvement to take place must come on offense.
Muschamp fired Brent Pease, the coordinator of Florida’s lackluster attack, and replaced him with Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
Under Roper, the Blue Devils averaged 32.8 points per game—two touchdowns more than Florida in 2013—while breaking in a new starting quarterback.
Roper must perform another remarkable turnaround at Florida.
Part of it should come naturally.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel was one of the 10 Gators who suffered season-ending injuries, doing so when he broke his leg in the first quarter of the third game.
Driskel, a good athlete, has yet to show he can be an elite SEC quarterback but might flourish under new tutelage.
The senior will have a couple of dynamic running backs in the backfield in Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones—another key figure lost for much of the season.
Taylor, the son of former Florida great Fred Taylor, emerged as a breakout star late in the season for the Gators, taking advantage of extra opportunities provided to him by injuries. With little passing threat to alleviate pressure from the run game, Taylor still averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
An offensive line that lacked punch—and, sadly, awareness at times—must improve despite challenging depth numbers.
Florida commit David Sharpe, rated by 247Sports as the No. 2 offensive tackle in the country, might be a candidate to provide immediate support along the line.
If the Gators can show new toughness along the offensive line under new line coach Mike Summers and Driskel can progress under Roper, they can absolutely be the surprise team in the country.
Florida might never have been as good as its 11-2 record in 2012 indicated. Remember, it survived several close calls, including nail-biters against a 5-7 Missouri team and Louisiana-Lafayette from the Sun Belt.
However, the Gators aren’t nearly as talent-deprived as they appeared to be in 2013.
Florida seems likely to bounce back during Muschamp’s hot-seat season, especially considering the top three teams in the SEC East—Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia—break in new starting quarterbacks.
Turnarounds like the one seen from Auburn don’t come around every year. They don't come around every decade, for that matter.
If there’s a team most likely to follow a similar script, though, it’s Florida.
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