Why Florida and Michigan Will Play for Conference Titles in 2014

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Why Florida and Michigan Will Play for Conference Titles in 2014
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Like Will Muschamp, Brady Hoke needed new ideas for his offense in 2014.

Two weeks apart, spanning December 2013 and January 2014, two powerful programs looked for the same thing in two very different ways.

The 2013 season was not kind to Florida or Michigan.

Both teams entered last fall with high expectations. Florida was No.10 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, while Michigan checked in at No.17.

As 2013 wrapped up, both programs found themselves in very similar spots: picking up shattered dreams.

Florida suffered through injuries and offensive ineptitude, slipping from an 11-win 2012 to a 4-8 2013.

Michigan suffered similar offensive struggles. The Wolverines were expected to build on an 8-5 record, but instead slipped to 7-6 ending the season by absorbing a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl whipping at Kansas State’s hands.

Those disappointments put Will Muschamp and Brady Hoke on respective hot seats. So the high-profile head coaches did the only thing they could do. Muschamp sent offensive coordinator Brent Pease packing, and Hoke did the same to Al Borges.

Facing must-win seasons, both coaches made must-succeed hires. Muschamp hired Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, while Hoke plucked Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama.

With a little luck, those hires could look like the offseason’s best come December.

Both Florida and Michigan have the talent to play for conference titles, and with some help from their moribund offenses, there’s no reason they can’t do so in 2014.

Here’s a look at the Gators' and Wolverines’ fortunes and why this fall will be a turnaround season for both high-powered programs.

 

Florida 

You know the old saying, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you’d have no luck at all?” That certainly applied to Florida last fall. The Gators lost 15 players to season-ending injuries last fall and 10 of them were starters.

John Raoux/Associated Press
A healthy Jeff Driskel is a major key for Florida in 2014.

Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel was poised for a breakout season as the clear starter, but he broke a bone in his right leg on Sept. 21, ending his season. Standout tailback Matt Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the Gators offense turned into a cavalcade of misery.

Freshman Skyler Mornhinweg and junior Tyler Murphy were ineffective, and Florida wound up as one of the nation’s worst offenses.

The Gators finished 113th nationally in total offense (316.7 yards per game), 112th nationally in scoring offense (18.8 points per game) and 107th in passing offense (170.9 ypg). That wasted an excellent defensive effort, as Florida finished eighth nationally in total defense (314.3 ypg) and 15th in scoring defense (21.1 ppg).

Muschamp told The Gainesville Sun:

You’ve got to have belief in what you’re doing. I feel like that was a huge issue for us last season. We lost belief and confidence in what we were doing. It affected our entire team from the offensive side of the ball.

Enter Roper. The David Cutcliffe acolyte guided an offense that helped Duke to its first-ever ACC championship game, a 10-win season and a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth. The Blue Devils averaged 426.1 yards per game (47th nationally) and 32.8 points per game (41st nationally) while using a pair of quarterbacks in Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Roper also spent six years at Ole Miss under Cutcliffe as quarterbacks coach, where Eli Manning was one of his pupils.

Roper runs a fast-paced offense which uses the shotgun and spread elements, designed to wear defenses down. However, he also wants his offense to be balanced and use the run game, which is where Jones comes into play. The standout runner recently underwent a second knee surgery to repair his meniscus but is expected to be cleared for fall camp.

Assuming he is fully recovered from his broken ankle, Driskel’s mobility will help. Two years ago, he ran for a Florida quarterback-record 177 yards against Vanderbilt (breaking Tim Tebow’s old program record). And while the Gators have questions on their offensive line and at wide receiver (where top wideout Trey Burton graduated), if Driskel can pick up Roper’s system quickly, Florida will be exponentially better offensively.

The Gators suffered serious losses on their defense as defensive tackle Dominique Easley graduated and linebacker Ronald Powell and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson declared early for the NFL draft.

Florida’s 2014 schedule is not easy: The Gators must travel to Alabama and Tennessee and also draw LSU from the SEC West (the Tigers will visit the Swamp). However, Florida will welcome SEC East rivals South Carolina and Missouri to Gainesville and will have its typical neutral-site game against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Gamecocks and Bulldogs will be breaking in new quarterbacks, and Missouri will have first-year starter Maty Mauk.

With a few breaks and improved offense under Roper, there’s no reason the Gators can’t play for the SEC East title and return to the Georgia Dome in the first weekend in December.

 

Michigan

With the departure of multi-talented quarterback Denard Robinson, Michigan hoped to deploy a pro-style, run-based offense last season with junior Devin Gardner, widely regarded as an athletic quarterback who had better passing skills than Robinson.

The plan failed miserably. Behind a young offensive line, the Wolverines consistently struggled to establish the run. Against Michigan State, Michigan managed a miserable negative-48 yards rushing in an embarrassing 29-6 defeat.

Tony Ding/Associated Press
Devin Gardner will need to show improvement in 2014.

The Wolverines were 102nd nationally in rushing offense, averaging 125.7 yards per game. Leading rusher Fitz Toussaint averaged only 54 rushing yards per game (Gardner averaged 40).

At Alabama, Nussmeier ran a pro-style offense which was capable of moving the ball on the ground or through the air via play-action passes.

The Crimson Tide featured a balanced attack, averaging 454.1 yards of total offense per game (248.5 passing and 205.6 rushing). Alabama averaged 7.15 yards per play (5th nationally) while Michigan averaged 5.4 yards per play (76th).

According to MLive.com, Nussmeier’s offense won’t be flashy, but it will be effective.

The biggest thing where we have to start from, offensively, is that we're not going to go backwards. You look at the lost yardage plays in the rushing game, the sacks in the passing game, we've got to eliminate those.

Doing a few things correctly will be more important, at least early on, than doing a lot of different things. Nussmeier told MLive.com:

We have to start from a base. Maybe some of the plays we're running the first day or two won't be the base of what we run in week three or four. But you have to start with the foundation.

A young offensive line that will lose projected NFL first-round left tackle Taylor Lewan must also take a major step forward. After all, if players have no room to run, yards will be hard to come by (a major issue for Michigan in 2013).

The Wolverines also must get improved effort from sophomore tailback Derrick Green (290 yards as a freshman in 2013).

Big Ten realignment and the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers have sent the Legends and Leaders Divisions by the boards, replaced by geographically-balanced East and West Divisions.

That means Michigan is in the same East Division as BCS qualifiers Michigan State and Ohio State.

It sounds difficult, but consider the Wolverines lost four Big Ten games by four points or less last fall, including a 42-41 loss to the Buckeyes that was decided on a failed two-point conversion.

If Gardner can take a step forward and if the run game improves, the Wolverines could be in a position to challenge for the first Big Ten East title.

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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