- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- It's funny how the perception of a team can change so quickly.
Most of the time leading up to Florida's bout with Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl involved conversations about how good the Gators could be in 2013. The overwhelming thought from pretty much every side of the college football spectrum was that the Gators would handle a talented, yet, overmatched Louisville team and then wait to see how high they would rise in next year's preseason polls.
With a chunk of talent returning on defense and an offense that just had to get better, Florida was looking at being a legitimate national title contender in 2013.
However, all that talk ceased when Louisville's Terell Floyd intercepted Jeff Driskel's opening pass and took it 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Cardinals an immediate 7-0 lead. At the time, the play looked harmless in the grand scheme of things, but it proved to totally break the Gators' offensive concentration.
From there, Florida panicked offensively (star running back Mike Gillislee ran the ball just nine times), and Driskel's composure and pass attempts became harder and harder to watch.
The offense rarely wowed in 2012, but during its first appearence in 2013, with a month of work, it totally collapsed, leaving the Gators with a load of question marks entering spring practice.
That Gators always found a way to bounce back with its mediocre offensive attack, but had no answers against the Cardinals. Now, it really is back to the drawing board for Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
But what does Florida do? Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is still unsure if he'll return, but if he leaves, players have to have more confidence in Driskel than they had this fall. The rhythm and timing has to improve or this offense isn't going anywhere.
Driskel became a major scapegoat for the offense in the Twitterverse Wednesday night, but as former Florida quarterback Chris Leak told me after the game: It's hard to do much of anything when there isn't much of anything around you. Driskel might have composure issues in the pocket, but he has just one consistent receiving weapon in tight end Jordan Reed, who got injured Wednesday night. He also played behind an offensive line that was wildly inconsistent in pass protection.
Pease has said that the offensive line will be better in 2013, but that might not matter much if the Gators don't find a couple of consistent receiving threats. Reed is still on the fence about coming back, and if he doesn't, Florida will enter spring with only one player who caught 30-or-more passes in 2012 -- wide receiver Quinton Dunbar (36).
Pease and new receivers coach Joker Phillips have to find someone who can catch the ball on a regular basis, with or without Reed in the lineup. The Gators just can't run their offense effectively next year without it because teams won't respect the pass next year. They were too respectful at times this fall.
With freshmen Adam Lane and Kelvin Taylor coming to help Matt Jones and Mack Brown, the Gators will look to be run-oriented again, but as LSU has taught us, you have to have a threat to pass or you'll get eaten up against tougher defenses. And the use of the "Wildcat" will have to be greatly scaled back because it really has lost its effectiveness.
Teams respected the running game in 2012. They will look to clobber it in 2013 if a receiver doesn't step up. Will it be a freshman? Dunbar? Tight end Kent Taylor? Who knows, but everything this offense got away with in 2012 won't fly next season.
Florida has the defensive talent to make another strong run through the SEC, but if the offense doesn't really evolve in the next nine months and if Driskel still isn't comfortable for a majority of the time, scenes like Wednesday night's might be a recurring theme.