Florida Gators: Why They Will Compete for an SEC Championship in 2014

Brian RichieContributor IIIJanuary 8, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 02:  Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators yells to a referee during the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the Louisville Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 2, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Something happened to the Florida Gators in 2013 that Gator Nation was not used to.

They were the laughing stock of college football and sports fans everywhere.

In just five seasons, the Gators went from winning their second national championship in three years to being SportsCenter's No.1 "Not Top Play" for having two players on the offense block each other during a game.

That game happened to be when the Gators hit rock bottom. It was against Georgia Southern, an FCS school, and the Gators lost 26-20 in The Swamp.

Now, as of January 8, the Gators have lost their No. 1 recruit247Sports.com 5-star running back Dalvin Cookto bitter rival Florida State.

Oh, and those Seminoles have just won the national championship.

Fans who sat in misery on their hard bleacher seats and watched Steve Addazio conduct an offense that didn't look like it could ever get any worse were devastatingly shown just how much worse an offense can look in 2013even without Addazio.

Florida ranked 113th out of 123 Division I FBS teams in total offense in 2013, ranking behind teams like Idaho and Eastern Michiganboth of which are on the schedule for next season.

The Gators had the worst season in the school's history since 1979 and lost for the first time to Vanderbilt in Gainesville since 1945.

And yet, there is reason to be optimistic heading into 2014.

If nothing else, fans can look at the miraculous turnaround of Auburn from 2012 to 2013. Auburn was historically bad in 2012, losing every one of its eight conference games on the way to a 3-9 overall record before eventually firing Gene Chizik.

Everyone knows what happened this season, and while the Tigers came up just short of a national title, the 2013 Auburn Tigers will stand as one of the greatest turnaround stories in the history of college football.

Auburn needed a few miracles in 2013.
Auburn needed a few miracles in 2013.John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, they needed some miracles at the end of games to make it where they ended up.

No, they were probably not the second-best team in the country as far as talent goes, but that is my whole point! The beauty of college football is that it may not always be pretty and teams need a bit of luck to make it to the top.

The 2012 Gators ended up being one game short of playing for a national championship and needed a miraculous blocked punt touchdown against the lowly Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns on homecoming at the end of the game to keep that season alive.

College football is sometimes about the ball just bouncing your wayas it literally did for Auburn on the game-winning touchdown catch against Georgia this season.

The 2013 Gators had serious talent issues at some key places, but the team also had some of the worst luck imaginableespecially when it came to injuries.

For the entire 2013 season, 29 scholarship players missed snaps due to injury, 23 scholarship players missed entire games and 17 scholarship players suffered season-ending injuries during some point before or during the season.

Only five players made all 12 starts for the Gators.

No matter what kind of talent pool you have, it is impossible to replace that many men and expect to be competitive.

Furthermore, despite the disaster that was 2013, the Gators still currently sit at 10th in ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Of the Gators' top six recruits for 2014, three are offensive players and two are considered "athletes" who can play on both sides of the ball.

One of those recruits is quarterback Will Grier from North Carolina, who comes in ranked as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the class.

Will Grier has Gators fans hoping the future is bright.
Will Grier has Gators fans hoping the future is bright.Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Grier set a national record with 837 yards passing in a playoff game last season and broke his own state record in the game with 10 passing touchdowns.

As Gator fans know, though, Jeff Driskel came in as a highly touted playmaker as well and has yet to live up to his perceived potential.

With former offensive coordinator Brent Pease now gone from Florida, the Gators brought in Kurt Roper from Duke in an attempt to revive the offense.

The Gators plan to run a more uptempo and spread offense under Roper, as Will Muschamp knows he is on thin ice.

Roper had been the offensive coordinator, assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach of the Blue Devils and was named as a finalist for the 2013 Broyles Award, which recognizes the nation's top assistant coach. Duke ranked 43rd in total offense in Division I under Roper in 2013.

While the Gators still need more talent on the offensive side of the ball, they still return a talented stable of running backs that includes Mack Brown, Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, who had a very impressive freshman season.

The Gators also currently hold a commitment from ESPN's No. 2 wide receiver, Ermon Lane, whose 6'2" and 196-pound frame could give the Gators more size and big-play ability from the wide receiver position.

Defensively, the Gators will certainly lose a lot of talent to the NFL draft in April, as three startersDominique Easley, Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Robersonare projected to be selected in the first three rounds by WalterFootball.com.

Despite the injuries, the Gators still managed to deliver the nation's eighth-best total defense and seventh-best passing defense in 2013.

Vernon Hargreaves III has the highest ceiling for the Gators on defense.
Vernon Hargreaves III has the highest ceiling for the Gators on defense.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida will return in 2014 with an ultra-talented but young secondary anchored by Vernon Hargreaves III, who was named as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award recognizing the nation's top defensive back last season. Hargreaves was the only freshman named as a finalist for the list.

On top of everything else, the going should be at least a little easier for the Gators in the SEC East next season, as Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri will all be replacing senior quarterbacks.

All things considered, 2014 is an opportunity for a fresh start for the Florida Gators.

The 2013 season was disastrous, but the foundation is in place for a great team. After all, this team is just one season removed from an 11-2 record with not much of a difference in talent.

Will Muschamp knows the time is now, but he has the support of athletic director Jeremy Foley and, most importantly, his players.

The Gators can and will compete for an SEC Championship in 2014.


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