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Should Florida Really Be Considered a Sleeper in 2014?

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Should Florida Really Be Considered a Sleeper in 2014?
John Raoux/Associated Press

Despite just one losing season in Gainesville—last year's 4-8 disaster—Florida coach Will Muschamp could be fighting for his job in 2014.

However, the Gators also have a chance for a major turnaround—perhaps the biggest in the SEC. More importantly, they can atone for, well...

#NeverForget.

For one, Florida should have another solid defense this season. Of all the problems this program had a year ago, defense wasn't one of them. The Gators finished third in the SEC (15th nationally) in points allowed (21.1) and second in rushing defense (142 yards per game).

They were also one of the best in the conference at keeping big plays to a minimum, getting off the field on third downs and ending up tops in opponents' red-zone touchdown percentage.

The point being, if Florida didn't have, statistically, the worst offense in the SEC coupled with devastating injuries on both sides of the ball, last season could have looked drastically different.

John Raoux/Associated Press
Vernon Hargreaves

That defense lost some big names: Defensive tackle Dominique Easley, linebacker Ronald Powell and corner Loucheiz Purifoy come to mind.

But others return, like linebackers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrisonwho were Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in total tacklesdefensive end Dante Fowlerwho led the team in tackles for lossand All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves.

It's the offense that needs a reboot, which is why Muschamp brought in offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from Duke.

As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee pointed out in April, Roper and quarterback Jeff Driskel should be a perfect match.

"I didn't get to see him much before I got here,'' Roper told GatorZone.com in March. "That's a big, powerful, fast-twitch, natural throwing motion. He is talented, folks. We're sitting here talking about a guy who is really, really gifted."

That quick-strike ability from Driskel in Roper's uptempo offense should work nicely.

Driskel also has plenty of capable skill players around him, from running back Matt Jones to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson. The key will be staying healthy and stepping up on the consistency front.

So, in an ideal world where Florida is healthy and clicking on all cylinders, how does it stack up against SEC East favorites Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina?

John Raoux/Associated Press

The good news for the Gators is that they get the Tigers and Gamecocks at home (on Oct. 18th and Nov. 15th, respectively). Playing in The Swamp didn't mean much last year—the Gators were 3-3 there—but the opposite held true in 2012, when the team won every home game on its schedule.

It's still an advantage for Muschamp's team.

Like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina also return plenty of starters, despite the losses of guys like quarterback Aaron Murray and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, respectively.

Even Missouri, which loses a lot of starters on paper, has experience coming back.

However, each team also has its own set of question marks.

How will Georgia's defense look under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt after taking several licks last season? How will starting quarterback Dylan Thompson play for the Gamecocks after backing up the underrated Connor Shaw? Can Missouri's offense thrive without receiver Dorial Green-Beckham?

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The answers to those questions probably won't be known until we reach the heart of conference play. Florida will undoubtedly be favored—heavily—for their first three games against Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky.

Then, a Sept. 20 road game at Alabama arrives, followed by another road trip to Tennessee. LSU, Missouri and Georgia follow in succession.

It should be right around that part of the schedule when we find out what kind of team Florida has.

Are the Gators a sleeper team in the SEC? Given the players coming back and the coaching addition, it's hard to say no. The question is whether the program can put everything together and get Muschamp firmly off the hot seat.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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