It's a critical year for Florida head coach Will Muschamp, and the fourth-year head man of the Gators certainly doesn't lack confidence.
During the annual ESPN "car wash" where all 14 SEC head coaches make the rounds at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, Muschamp told SportsCenter that his Gators would play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2009.
“I feel very good about our football team going to Atlanta, I really do,” Muschamp said, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Bold? Maybe on the surface. But Florida has the talent to be successful, and who can criticize a coach with confidence in his team in July. After all, don't they all?
Coming off of a 4-8 season, though, Muschamp's claim may seem outlandish—especially considering the SEC media picked the Gators to finish third in the SEC East and Arkansas, fresh off a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season got more votes to win the entire conference (1) than the Gators did (0).
|SEC Predicted Order of Finish|
|Rank||SEC East||SEC Champ|
|1||South Carolina (1,895)||Alabama (154)|
|2||Georgia (1,777)||Auburn (75)|
|3||Florida (1,362)||South Carolina (32)|
|4||Missouri (1,263)||Georgia (19)|
|5||Tennessee (893)||LSU (9)|
|6||Vanderbilt (619)||Ole Miss (2)|
|7||Kentucky (395)||Arkansas / Mississippi State (1)|
|SEC Media Relations (votes in parenthesis)|
It shouldn't seem outlandish. After all, the SEC media has only predicted the correct champion four times in 22 years of voting (full disclosure: I picked Georgia).
Things change in a hurry in college football, as we learned last season when Auburn and Missouri played in the SEC Championship Game and, as we learned after the game, what turned out to be a de facto national semifinal. That same season, Michigan State—also out of nowhere—was a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame away from running the table and playing Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Why not Florida?
The easy criticism would be to simply say "Jeff Driskel," and immediately write off the Gators. That'd be a bit premature.
As I wrote earlier this offseason, the former top dual-threat signal-caller in the nation is finally in an offense that suits him, and he has adapted well to the tempo that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought in.
"In the new offense, we really want to create space and that's going to be the best thing for our guys," Driskel said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays in space, but when you don't have that space, it's kind of difficult. Spreading it out and getting more one-on-one matchups for our playmakers is going to be great for us."
That last sentence is key, because there are playmakers for the Gators. Most of them, like receivers Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose, are talented but unproven—but they exist. There are also young players with loads of potential, like wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and running back Kelvin Taylor.
It wasn't a personnel problem in Gainesville, it was a scheme problem. That's been addressed, as my B/R colleague Michael Felder pointed out in the video below on what to expect from the Gators offense.
The beauty of Florida this year is that the offense doesn't have to take a gigantic leap forward, it only has to take a few steps thanks to a defense that's consistent and loaded with talent.
Dante Fowler Jr., Jon Bullard and the rest of the Gators front seven will get pressure. They always do. Even when the offense wasn't helping them out last year, they still found a way to finish second in the SEC in total defense (314.3 YPG). That front seven, combined with one of the best secondaries in the country, will allow the offense some wiggle room and let it adjust on the fly.
The defense will keep the Gators in games, and it will be up to the offense to take advantage.
The schedule is tough, no doubt. But it's not as daunting as it looks on paper.
An inexperienced LSU offense in mid-October on the road against Florida's defense is a tough matchup for the Tigers. The same can be said the following week, when the Gators host defending East champ Missouri. South Carolina is also at home in mid-November to close out the Gators' SEC slate.
The biggest game for the Gators isn't even the trip to Alabama on September 20, it's the trip to Tennessee after a bye week two weeks later. If the Gators top the Vols and get some momentum, don't be surprised to see them make a run for the SEC East title.
Muschamp's statement isn't as outlandish as it may seem. Florida has talent on both sides of the ball, fixed the main problem from last year and is in a division that is still littered with questions.
Don't be surprised if the Georgia/Florida game in Jacksonville on November 1 is the one that decides the division title.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.