NCF Nation: Jeff Driskel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At SEC media days, coach Will Muschamp was asked when his Florida Gators hit rock bottom in 2013.

Naturally, it involved an injury.

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
AP Photo/John RaouxThe Gators lost tackle Tyler Moore for the remainder of the 2013 season after a scooter accident Nov. 5.
"On a Tuesday night, it was about 9:30, 10 at night," he said, recalling the night of Nov. 5. "I'm in the defensive staff room preparing third down for the next day. Our trainer Paul [Silvestri] knocks on the door. I come to the door. He's usually not there at 10 at night.

"What do you want?" Muschamp asked.

"Tyler Moore just wrecked on his scooter and broke his elbow," Silvestri said.

The thought that burst into Muschamp's mind was, "You've got to be kidding."

"I can't tell you exactly what I said, but it wasn't good," Muschamp said. "That was at a point where it was just very frustrating."

The final tally by UF officials was 21 injured players who missed a combined 126 games during the 2013 season. There were 15 season-ending injuries, including 10 to starters.

The Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, backup QB Tyler Murphy, starting tailback Matt Jones, defensive tackle Dominique Easley (their best player and most important leader), and most of the starting offensive line.

"It was rough," said right tackle Chaz Green, who missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in preseason camp. "I can only say it so many times. It was a rough year just going to practice in the training room and you see half the team in there."

Perhaps it was Moore's scooter accident, but at some point the rash of injuries smothered the team's spirit. It quelled any hopes of pulling out of the tailspin that turned into a season-ending seven-game losing streak.

"I haven't ever faced anything like that," Muschamp said.

No one had. Coaches and players just shook their heads, while Muschamp began an offseason quest for answers.

He spoke to medical experts like famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. He gathered UF's training staff and strength staff for a full day in his office.

"Honestly, I'm a football coach," Muschamp said. "I'm not a doctor, and I need to sit down and have someone explain to me why this happened.

"... We looked at a lot of stuff, went back and looked at film, looked at training methods. Are we doing the right thing? Absolutely. It just reaffirmed what we're doing."

One decision for fall camp was to cut down on midday practices on days after a two-a-day.

"I think we only have three or four," Muschamp said. "The midday practice was hard from the standpoint of the heat and also weather. Sometimes you get lightning.

"We're going to practice every morning. When we do have opportunities, per the rules, to have a two-a-day practice, [we'll] go later at night and a little lighter than we had been doing before, so it won't be as taxing for the players."

Just over a week into camp, Florida has avoided the big injury. But everyone seems aware of the threat.

Last Thursday, the Gators' first public practice was marred by an injury to the team's best player -- All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III -- that turned out to just be a bone bruise.

"Football is a tough game and injuries happen," Muschamp said the day after Hargreaves' injury sent chills throughout his team and fan base. "We had our share last year. We've just got to move forward."

There's a balancing act going on, as players are obviously conscious of injuries but know they can't let up, either.

"[Being hesitant is] the worst thing to do because generally injuries come when some guy is pulling up," Muschamp said. "I feel like we've addressed that with our team and I feel pretty comfortable where we are."

He's also addressed the scooter issue.

"There's been many a night I've thought about trying to ban them, but I don’t know if that’s the right thing," Muschamp said. "Be smart. Let's be responsible. No texting and scootering at the same time. We do have that rule."

Despite his best intentions, scooters and Gators continue to not mix well.

"Keanu Neal got fortunate," Muschamp said. "He had a tire slip this summer. His girlfriend is a gymnast. ... Nothing happened to her. He messed his finger up. She's a lot better athlete than him. I should have recruited her.

"But no, I haven't made that rule. It’s something we emphasize with our players. We tell them about it. They've got to understand being careful. But they can’t live in a glass bubble. You just can't do that."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The specter of last season's plague of injuries still looms over the Florida football program.

That much was obvious after the team's best player, sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, was hurt during Thursday night's practice, the team's first session that was open to the public.

The news spread like wildfire through the stands and on social media, reminding everyone of the Gators' protracted run of bad luck that started about a year ago. When the 2013 schedule was finished, and Florida's seven-game losing streak culminated in a 4-8 record, an astounding 15 players (10 of them starters) had suffered season-ending injuries.

Before Hargreaves' injury, which head coach Will Muschamp later announced was just a bone bruise, the Gators had been basking in the glow of good health.

Players and coaches were quick to recall how bad the injury situation was in camp a year ago when Florida was without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, starting running back Matt Jones and starting guard Jon Halapio before its first practice.

Having just one player unavailable this year (true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher is out after back surgery) offers an extremely sharp contrast. Muschamp called it "drastically different," and players said they were grateful for each healthy day.

"It feels good after every practice that everybody made it through with no injuries," sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor said on Wednesday. "That's the great part.

"This year we've just got to practice smart, practice fast and take care of our players. We'll be OK. We'll be fine."

The mood took a sudden turn when Hargreaves was helped off the field on Thursday night, and the rest of the practice was far more subdued on the field and in the stands.

Players crowded around Hargreaves in the medical tent, showing concern and looking for a prognosis before the All-SEC performer was carted off the field.

"A lot of people were definitely surprised," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said on Friday. "I was surprised myself. I really didn't know what was going on.

"Coach Muschamp addressed the team at the end of practice and I was kind of shocked to hear that somebody actually got hurt. And then just to hear that it was Vernon kind of sent a shock through everybody because of just what kind of impact he has for our team. It threw a lot of us off."

Ironically, it was a scuffle in practice that knocked Hargreaves out of action. Ironic, because injuries were the biggest factor in Florida's 4-8 record last season, and the team that had been channeling so much of its anger and frustration from 2013 into some very intense practices.

"I feel like fights are definitely a part of it," Davis said. "As football players, we're all trying to be out there and be aggressive and show how dominant we are as a player.

"... But now that Coach Muschamp has addressed it, we've all got that in the back of our head. We've got to take care of our team, got to take care of each other, because we're all we got right now."

Tussles in practice are nothing new, but neither is the injury bug that bit Florida so hard last year. The sight of Hargreaves limping brought back all of the pain and fear.

The drama ended a couple of hours later when Muschamp announced the star cornerback was day-to-day. A shaken fan base heaved a sigh of relief, hoping Thursday night's episode was a sign that the Gators' luck might be changing.

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
10:30
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video
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:

2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)

Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.

Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs

Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDante Fowler Jr., a preseason All-SEC first-team player, hopes to lead the Gators back to respectability.
Projected starters: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Jake McGee, LT D.J. Humphries, LG Tyler Moore, C Max Garcia, RG Trenton Brown, RT Chaz Green, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DT Leon Orr, DT Darious Cummings, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Jalen Tabor, S Jabari Gorman, S Marcus Maye

Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe

Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.

Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.

Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?

Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.

Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

Potential 2014 SEC villains

July, 10, 2014
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It’s over now, so you can admit it.

AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel are gone, so it’s time to come clean.

Chances are you hated one or both. How much they won, how they won -- you hated it all. There might have been some respect for their play, but above all, most of you couldn’t stand them.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsSEC fans don't have Johnny Manziel to kick around anymore.
It’s OK. AJ and Johnny were the SEC’s necessary villains last season. And for that they will be sorely missed.

This year won’t be the same without them. Who will you boo? Who will you tune in to watch in hopes of seeing them fail?

It’s totally unreasonable, but it’s also unavoidable: SEC fans are haters.

Who will fill their unceremonious shoes in 2014? Who will be the ones SEC fans love to hate?

Note: Before we get to the candidates, let us apologize to them. We’re sorry, fellas. It’s not fun being disliked, but look at it this way: The more people boo you, the more you’re probably doing something right. So take this as a badge of honor. After all, villains make the SEC a more entertaining place.

Subjects are listed is in alphabetical order, as there is no scientifically known way to measure levels of dislike.

Jacob Coker, Alabama: He’s no McCarron. Let’s get that out of the way first. Unlike his predecessor, Coker is about as unassuming as a major talent can get. He started out as a humble three-star recruit, and his disposition has remained the same. But with the runaway hype machine that’s surrounded his landing at Alabama -- not to mention that he transferred to Alabama in the first place -- you’ve got the perfect recipe for blind dislike.

Jeff Driskel, Florida: Is anyone else tired of hearing about how Driskel is going to get better? Before you start, that was a rhetorical question. The answer, for everyone outside of Gainesville, is a resounding yes. You can hear the chants of “O-VER-RATED” now, can’t you? Because he’s Florida’s starting quarterback, Driskel has to be discussed. Because he has a cannon for an arm and good mobility, his potential is a constant source of discussion. And because he’s so discussed, he’s so disliked. If Driskel does progress into an All-SEC quarterback, he’ll have plenty of detractors. They’ll boo him because he plays for Florida and they’ll boo him because they’ll all want to know what took so long to get there.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesNew Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has said some things that caused a stir in SEC country.
Lane Kiffin, Alabama: Coordinators are rarely the subject of such scorn, but the hate for Kiffin burns more intensely than for any head coach in the SEC. And the naysayers need only focus on his tumultuous time at Tennessee. There, he “turned in” Urban Meyer for a recruiting violation only to find that no violation was committed and that he, in fact, was the one violating an SEC rule by mentioning a recruit by name. He also made the Alshon Jeffery “pumping gas” comment, which didn’t exactly ingratiate himself to the rest of the league. Then, after one season, he left the Vols to return to USC. And now, after flunking out of Southern Cal, he’s back as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: He’s as quiet as a church mouse, but Marshall has baggage. His unflattering dismissal from Georgia ruined whatever reputation he had long before he found his way to Auburn. Then he led the Tigers to the BCS title game and invoked the ghosts of Cam Newton. Marshall might not have invited the limelight a fraction of the way Newton did, but hate is unreasonable like that. They’ll obsess over his supposed shortcomings as a passer and neglect his utter effectiveness as a runner and orchestrator of Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall’s quiet nature ultimately will be mistaken for cockiness and fans will hate him just the same.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He’s been a rock star since he was 16 years old, and that alone is enough to do him in. It’s a matter of overexposure and jealousy. By simply choosing to commit to Ole Miss in the first place, he offended every other fan base that was actively pursuing him. In many ways, Nkemdiche is the face of Hugh Freeze’s out-of-the-blue 2013 signing class. Fans cried foul when the Rebels finished in the top five of the recruiting rankings that year, and Nkemdiche was the primary target. The fact he plays with so much fire will be wrongly taken as showboating, and if he dominates on the defensive line the way he should, he’ll accumulate haters quickly.

Ranking the SEC quarterbacks

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
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Earlier, we ranked all 14 quarterback groups in the SEC. Now, we'll look at who we think will be the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesWith his experience and talents, Nick Marshall is the SEC's top QB heading into the 2014 season.
1. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: With a spring practice under his belt and a year in Gus Malzahn's offense, Marshall gets the nod as the top quarterback in the league. His athletic ability is off the charts, and even though he was erratic throwing the ball at times last season, he's improved in that area and has some big-time playmakers around him. Marshall also seems to thrive with the game on the line, which is perhaps the best quality a quarterback can possess.

2. Dak Prescott, RJr., Mississippi State: Prescott's upside is tremendous. He's a bullish runner with an equally strong arm and showed some real courage last season playing through injuries and his mother's death. The challenge is for him to become a more polished passer. But in Dan Mullen's offense, Prescott is a perfect fit and should have an All-SEC type of year.

3. Bo Wallace, RSr., Ole Miss: The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span.

4. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Even though the Tigers are losing a ton of firepower at receiver, look for Mauk to be one of the more improved players in the league. He got a taste of it in critical situations last season while filling in for the injured James Franklin, and he delivered. He has the athleticism, arm strength and toughness to be an elite quarterback.

5. Jacob Coker, RJr., Alabama: Every year, it seems, a quarterback comes out of the shadows in the SEC to have a huge year. Cam Newton did it in 2010, Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Marshall last season. Coker could be that guy in 2014 after transferring in from Florida State. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, says Coker will be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has had at Alabama.

6. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: The Gators and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are building what they do offensively around Driskel's strengths. He's a super athlete (and trimmed down some by nearly 15 pounds) and is throwing the ball with renewed confidence. Coming off a broken leg, Driskel has the physical skill set to flourish in Roper's system as he enters his fourth season of college ball.

7. Dylan Thompson, RSr., South Carolina: There wasn't a better reliever in the SEC over the past couple of years than Thompson, who came off the bench in several pressure situations and led the Gamecocks to big wins. With Connor Shaw gone, Thompson now gets a chance to prove that he can get it done as an every-game starter. His forte is throwing the ball from the pocket.

8. Hutson Mason, RSr., Georgia: Mason has waited his turn while sitting behind the record-setter Aaron Murray and even redshirted in 2012 to get this opportunity. He's an accurate passer and knows the offense inside and out. He played late last season after Murray was injured, which should help the transition. Mason's another one who could easily shoot up this list.

9. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: The best news for Worley is that he'll have more guys around him who can make plays. The Vols played their best football last season before Worley injured his thumb. They nearly knocked off Georgia and upset South Carolina with Worley at the helm. He's improved his arm strength and has worked hard this offseason. His senior season should be his best yet.

10. Brandon Allen, RJr., Arkansas: Not much of anything went right with the Hogs' passing game last season, and much of that centered around Allen never really being healthy. To his credit, he continued to fight through injuries and is looking forward to showing what he can do now that he's back to 100 percent. If he stays healthy, Allen could be one of the league's top bounce-back players.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ask Florida coach Will Muschamp about rebounding from an atrocious 4-8 2013 season and he’ll nearly bowl you over with an almost immediate answer.

“We gotta get better on offense,” he said.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel, now healed from a broken fibula, is immersing himself in learning a new scheme.
Mushchamp’s straight to the point and doesn’t really have to add much else. The Gators lost seven straight games with the SEC’s worst offense and one that ranked as one of the worst in the entire country, averaging 316.7 yards per game, 4.8 yards per play and 18.8 points per game.

The Gators had the unfortunate task of trying to manage their way through the SEC with a rash of injuries that ended the seasons of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel during the third game of the season and starting running back Matt Jones a few weeks later. Before the season even began, starting right tackle Chaz Green was lost for the year with a torn labrum. Players dropped like flies, and Florida’s offense sputtered to an embarrassing finish.

Muschamp has to be realistic about his evaluation of the 2013 team –- specifically his offense -– but he refuses to lean too heavily on the injury crutch.

“We could have managed it better -- done something differently, changed more,” Muschamp said. “There are a lot of things that I look back and thought we could have done this, but at the end of the day, sometimes it was hard.”

This spring, Muschamp wants to see his offense trend upward with a new offensive coordinator and what should be a more spread attack with much more shotgun sets. And it has to. Florida can’t win any games this spring, but it can lose some if players don’t buy in and meticulously take to the offensive overhaul that spring practice has essentially become in Gainesville.

Former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and former USC offensive line coach Mike Summers were hired for both a quick and long-term fix for Florida's offense. To Muschamp, the main objective this spring is to install Roper's new offense and immerse players in a new scheme that carries so much weight in terms of getting this program back on track.

Roper helped direct a Duke offense that averaged 100-plus more yards a game than Florida and nearly doubled the Gators in points per contest. The Blue Devils also set a school record for total touchdowns (54) and became the first team in program history to post 20-plus rushing and passing touchdowns in the same season.

“Just from watching Duke last year, they’re going to run inside-zone; that’s the play,” said Driskel, who has successfully returned from a broken fibula. “I don’t think we’re trying to hide that. We’re going to have a lot of quick pass plays to get the ball out of our hand.”

It isn’t exactly what Driskel ran in high school, but it suits him better because he’s a shotgun quarterback. He can see the field better and he can utilize his legs better when he’s farther away from the line of scrimmage to start a play.

During their 11-win 2012 season, the Gators were more successful on offense when Driskel used his feet more on zone-read plays. Driskel hopes that continues under his third offensive coordinator in four springs.

“I’m real excited about going into the no-huddle-type offense,” he said. “It’s really easy to get into a groove as a quarterback when you’re in the no-huddle offense, and we have the players to be successful [with it].

“When you’re under center, you’re not a run threat. When you’re in the gun, the defense has to account for the running back and the quarterback as run threats.”

But Driskel has to have someone -- or two -- to catch his throws. As Driskel continues to develop as a more fluid passer, he’ll have to generate better chemistry with a receiving corps that returns one receiver with 20-plus catches from a year ago in redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar (40) and one with a touchdown reception (Ahmad Fulwood, 1).

Muschamp sees potential in Dunbar and Fulwood, who will be a true sophomore this year, and is waiting to see how guys like Chris Thompson, Andre Debose, Demarcus Robinson and Letroy Pittman improve during a critical spring.

The fourth-year Gators coach also says he has the players in place to be successful and believes that Roper can mold the offense around their abilities. That’s why the offense is different. That’s why the ground-and-pound theme of this offense has been tweaked. That’s why Roper was hired.

“Since he’s been here, the biggest thing I would say [he brings] is a positive energy for the players, a positive energy for the staff,” Muschamp said of Roper.

Now, Muschamp needs that positivity to turn into production.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel has every reason to be bitter.

From immediately being compared with all-everything stud Tim Tebow as the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect more than three years ago to now working with his third offensive coordinator, Driskel has been thrown around like a rag doll.

Now, Driskel is entering his fourth spring at Florida coming off a leg injury that ended his 2013 season.

But he doesn't have time to pity himself. He doesn't pout or whine. He's focused on taking on yet another playbook and righting a Florida ship that won just four games last season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Courtesy of Jeff DriskelWhen the cast came off, it was immediately evident that Jeff Driskel had lost a lot of muscle in his right calf.
"I'm not upset I had to go through it. I'm not the first person to get injured," Driskel told ESPN.com last month. "I'm excited to get back, and I think that when I get back, I'll be right where I left off."

Just looking at Driskel, you can sense things are different. There's no anxiety in his eyes, and his shoulders are slumped. He jokes with a stadium staffer and giggles like a child. He leans back in a chair, legs propped on a desk with his vertical ankle scar visible to the world.

It's a mark that keeps Driskel, who will be a redshirt junior this fall, humble and hungry. It's a constant reminder of how much was taken away when Tennessee defensive lineman Marlon Walls awkwardly landed on Driskel's right leg, breaking his fibula in Florida's third game.

"You wouldn't imagine how much muscle you lose in six weeks in a cast," Driskel said with a laugh as he showed a reporter a picture of his puny right calf.

"It looked like all bone. The bone was sticking out of my skin, is what it looked like. And it was all flopping down here (points to where his calf muscle grew back)."

Driskel powered a one-legged scooter around campus and constructed a makeshift scooter ramp out of 10 computer mats just to get to the front door of his house, which had a pebble driveway.

Fixing a sandwich and taking a shower went from routine to grueling.

"I didn't know how hard it was to go to the kitchen when you can't walk," Driskel said. "It was tough. I had to plan out when I had to go to the bathroom and go to the kitchen. A lot of Netflix."

Driskel said he finished the hit FX show "Sons of Anarchy" in about three weeks, but left "Friday Night Lights" alone because, well, that "Texas forever" scene gets everyone.

When Driskel wasn't scooting or lounging in front of the tube, he was with teammates. He attended film sessions, even with no games to play. He couldn't be on the sideline because he was on crutches, so he made sure he advised backups Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg as much as he could during the week. He also attended every quarterback meeting, even though it wasn't a requirement.

When he finally got into a walking boot seven weeks after surgery, he started going through countless hours of rehab, which started with simply flexing his foot for various periods of time. He returned to the gym a month and a half after his cast came off.

"You wouldn't imagine how stiff you'd get staying in the same spot for six weeks," Driskel said.

"I did just about every calf exercise that you can imagine to get back to where it is now."

Coach Will Muschamp said Driskel is ahead of schedule and has been cleared for spring practice, which was pushed back so he would be 100 percent.

"You could tell after he got hurt that he was determined, he was ready to work," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Now, during the offseason, he's ready to work. You can tell, he's trying to get everybody together and have that bond with his receivers.

"I can tell he's taking another big step, and I think he's going to be fine."

But skepticism lurks. His three interceptions in three starts last season, especially two crippling ones in a bad loss to Miami, overshadow his 10 wins from 2012. He's thrown for more than 200 yards just three times in his career and has thrown for multiple touchdowns in a game only twice.

Driskel is aware of the negativity, but he copes by ignoring and concerning himself with only the people around him.

And those people have seen major strides being made. Muschamp points to the "nine explosive passes" he had against Miami (291 yards) and the comfort he showed running the offense last season.

There have been ugly parts to Driskel's career, but Muschamp has seen enough growth to know what he is capable of.

"Jeff's progressed well as a quarterback and we're going to do more things that fit him well and what he does," Muschamp said. "I'm excited about the year that he's going to have."

That excitement comes from knowing that Driskel will be running more of a spread offense with more no-huddle this fall under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. It fits Driskel's talents and will open up his running ability out of the shotgun, where Driskel said he has a more natural feel and can be more effective with his arm and legs.

More zone-read is coming, meaning the onus will be on Driskel to be more efficient. More runs and passes will go through him, and he welcomes that. He wants the pressure and he wants the responsibility.

"The quarterback is the most important person on the offense," he said. "Being asked to carry the ball more is something that is fun for me, that's what I've grown up doing. I can't wait to do it this fall.

"Hopefully I won't be gimping around."
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:

FLORIDA

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.
GEORGIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.
KENTUCKY

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.
MISSOURI

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.
TENNESSEE

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.
VANDERBILT

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.
Spring football practice in the SEC begins in earnest over the next two weeks, and there’s a bit of a "Twilight Zone"-feel in the air.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesExpect Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to begin the season in the top 10.
For the first time since 2006, nobody in the SEC enters the spring as the reigning national champions.

Need a little perspective?

The last time a school in this league wasn’t sporting a brand new crystal football in its trophy case, Nick Saban was coaching the Miami Dolphins. Gus Malzahn had just departed the high school coaching ranks, and Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel had yet to take a college snap.

“We all knew it wasn’t going to last forever,” Saban said.

Auburn, though, came agonizingly close to extending the SEC’s national championship streak to eight straight years last season, but didn’t have any answers for Florida State and Jameis Winston in the final minute and 11 seconds of the VIZIO BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

So for a change, the SEC will be the hunter instead of the hunted in 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff. And much like a year ago, the SEC’s biggest enemy may lie within.

The cannibalistic nature of the league caught up with it last season, even though Auburn survived an early-season loss to LSU to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national title game.

Alabama and Auburn will both start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls, and Georgia and South Carolina could also be somewhere in that vicinity. And let’s not forget that Auburn and Missouri came out of nowhere last season to play for the SEC championship, so there's bound to be another surprise or two.

The league race in 2014 has all the makings of another free-for-all, and with a selection committee now picking the four participants in the College Football Playoff, polls aren’t going to really matter.

The translation: The playoff in the SEC will be weekly, or at least semi-weekly.

“When you have this many good teams, it’s really hard to play well every week,” Saban said. “If you have a game where you don’t play very well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.

“It’s the consistency and performance argument and whether your team has the maturity to prepare week in and week out and be able to play its best football all the time. If you can’t do that in our league, you’re going to get beat and probably more than once.”

While the SEC hasn’t necessarily been known as a quarterback’s league, the quarterback crop a year ago from top to bottom was as good as it’s been in a long time.

Most of those guys are gone, and as many as 10 teams could enter next season with a new starting quarterback.

“We’re all looking for that individual who can lead your football team and be a difference-maker at the quarterback position, and it seemed like every week you were facing one of those guys last season in our league,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyMississippi State's Dak Prescott has a chance to be one of the new QB stars of the SEC.
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott has the talent and experience to be the next big thing at quarterback in the SEC, and the folks on the Plains are stoked to see what Nick Marshall can do with a spring practice under his belt and another year of experience in Malzahn’s system.

Florida’s Jeff Driskel returns from his season-ending leg injury a year ago, and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will shape that offense around Driskel’s strengths in what is clearly a pivotal year for fourth-year coach Will Muschamp.

The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, and if they’re going to be next season’s turnaround story similar to Auburn and Missouri a year ago, they have to find a way to be more explosive offensively. In Muschamp’s three seasons in Gainesville, Florida has yet to finish higher than eighth in the league in scoring offense and 10th in total offense.

There are big shoes to fill all over the league and not just at quarterback.

Replacing Alabama’s “defensive” quarterback, C.J. Mosley, and all the things he did will be a daunting task. The same goes for Dee Ford at Auburn. He was the Tigers’ finisher off the edge and a force down the stretch last season. Missouri loses its two bookend pass-rushers, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, while there’s no way to quantify what Vanderbilt record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews meant to the Commodores the past two seasons.

The only new head-coaching face is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, who takes over a Commodores program that won nine games each of the past two seasons under James Franklin. The last time that happened was ... never.

Auburn will be trying to do what nobody in the SEC has done in 16 years, and that’s repeat as league champions. Tennessee was the last to do it in 1997 and 1998.

Alabama’s consistency since Saban’s arrival has been well-documented. The Crimson Tide have won 10 or more games each of the past six seasons and 11 or more each of the past three seasons. To the latter, the only other team in the league that can make that claim is South Carolina, which has three straight top-10 finishes nationally to its credit under Steve Spurrier.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done, but we think there’s an SEC championship out there for us,” Spurrier said. “That’s still the goal, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

With Texas A&M having already kicked off its spring practice last Friday, the 2014 race has begun.

We'll see if there's another streak out there for the SEC.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Somehow, Florida coach Will Muschamp has done a good job blocking out the Gator Nation seemingly tumbling down around him.

Only a couple months removed from an embarrassing 4-8 campaign that delivered the Gators' first losing season since 1979 and no bowl appearance for the first time in more than 20 years, Muschamp has stayed steady. He's a prideful man who breathes football and removed himself from last year's tumult almost immediately.

His job is very much on the line in 2014, but as Muschamp walks through Florida's football offices toward his own lavish hideaway, Muschamp's stride is steady, his head up. He greets an assistant with a massive smile before delivering a brawny handshake to a reporter. He's calm, yet still possesses an edge about him -- a certain endearing intensity. His office remains as tidy as any coach would allow, but there's no unnecessary clutter.

That's just the way he wants his coaching life as he enters a critical fourth season and spring in Gainesville. A year ago, he eyed a national championship after an 11-win season and a BCS bowl berth. Now, he's stitching together a squad mangled by injuries and self-doubt.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida coach Will Muschamp believes the pieces are in place for the Gators to turn things around in 2014.
"You are what your record is," said Muschamp, whose team lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including 10 starters, last season and had 25 players miss a combined 126 games due to injury. "The worst you can do is have the Band-Aid approach of, 'Well, we had a bunch of guys get hurt.' That's absolutely the worst thing you can do because that creates release syndrome for how miserable the year was."

The hard-nosed, robustly built Muschamp, who was born in Georgia but grew up in Gainesville, insists that isn't occurring. Players are going through the process of improving, shutting out last season to get faster, stronger and turn their attention to 2014.

He knows that outside his program, negativity is pounding at the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, demanding change. Some wanted him fired and everyone wants this storied program fixed. Muschamp, who has gone 22-16 during his three seasons at Florida, knows he must prevent that toxicity from touching his players.

"They understand what's out there," he said. "The biggest thing is to stay process-oriented in what we do and our approach.

"To me, more than anything, is focus in the now, not in the what if. We can't get into the what-ifs of life. Let's just get into the now, and that's going to help us as we move forward."

That's why workout intensity has surged and offensive players and coaches are learning a new scheme under a new coordinator. That's why the mentality is about getting better, not winning anything. Victories won't come without vast improvement, both physically and mentally.

"I think we're coming around as a team," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the 2013 season with a broken leg. "I don't think we're coming around an individual or a new coach. I see a lot of guys who are embarrassed about last year and are ready to get back on track and win some games because we all know that the Florida Gators aren't supposed to be a 4-8 program."

Muschamp can see leaders forming. Adversity, including a historically humiliating home loss to FCS Georgia Southern and a seven-game losing streak to end 2013, pummeled this program last year. Through any sort of adversity this team has faced during his tenure, Muschamp said he's found guys he could really depend on. Last season might muddle the vision, but Muschamp sees the right pieces for a turnaround.

"It's kind of like when there's water in a boat," he said. "When the water starts leaking in the bottom of the boat, those rats float to the top and you start to see those rats. And those rats are not here anymore, so we need to move forward.

"When you start questioning their effort, that's when you start questioning the buy in. I never saw that [last season]. I see a lot of guys who have lot of pride about playing at the University of Florida and understand about competing and moving forward. We have a bunch of guys committed to this program."

That commitment stretches beyond players. Coaches are held accountable, too. For all the injuries Florida suffered, the absolute necessity for the Gators in 2014 is enhancing every aspect of the offense. That's why Brent Pease was replaced by Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator. The former Duke coach is installing more of a spread approach with more shotgun, tempo and zone-read in hopes of rectifying an offense that has ranked in the 100s nationally in each of Muschamp's three seasons.

Roper's scheme won't get away from Florida's rugged rushing approach, but it should help Driskel, who will be 100 percent for spring practice, be more comfortable, see the field better and be an actual throwing threat. It'll also help him use his legs more, an element that has always made Florida's offense more potent.

"Moving forward, we're in a better situation for them," Muschamp said of his offense.

Really, Muschamp feels that way about his entire team. The Monday following Florida's season-ending 37-7 loss to Florida State, Muschamp called a team meeting to discuss Florida's present and future and said he immediately felt his team's resolve and sensed the woe-is-me attitude disintegrating after delivering a "very to-the-point and matter-of-fact" message about the state of the program.

There's still too much to fix in Gainesville for one meeting and one offseason training regimen to handle, but the chemistry is evolving. Players are responding and appear to be quietly rallying inside the Swamp.

"We're going to bounce back from it," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Sometimes you need things like that just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody's humble, everybody's ready, everybody's a team guy. I'm really looking forward to it. It should be fun."

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Grier knows the deal. He has been hearing from Gator fans for months, knows how excited they are about his future and is flattered by the attention.

Some have even called him a savior.

"Yeah, I see that all the time," Grier said. He's rated the No. 3 quarterback prospect in the nation and is one of the most anticipated recruits in Florida's top-10 class. He gets it.

"When a program is down a little bit, they're looking for anything to put their hope into. It's just something that I hear, and it's great. I thank you for your support, that kind of thing. But I've got a long ways to go. So we'll see."

It's easy to understand the buzz. Grier is 6-foot-2, 186 pounds with a live arm, advanced footwork and a truckload of accolades and accomplishments.

The two-time Gatorade North Carolina Player of the Year finished his career at Davidson Day School with 14,565 yards passing, 2,955 yards rushing and 226 touchdowns in three years of varsity play. He made headlines in 2012 when his 837-yard game set a national record for single-game passing yardage.

Will Grier
Miller Safrit/ESPNWill Grier is rated the No. 3 quarterback prospect in the nation after an outstanding high school career.
The success didn't get to Grier, though. He's a calm, mature, level-headed 18-year-old.

He's excited about the future, too. Grier is enrolled in his first college semester, 17 credits. He wants to major in business and minor in communications, but it's more like a dual-major with football. Grier is taking a crash course with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

The moment UF lost No. 2 quarterback Tyler Murphy to transfer, Grier became most likely to back up Jeff Driskel this fall.

It's a situation his father and high school coach, Chad Grier, hopes will go according to script.

"The perfect scenario would be for [Will] to be able to go play behind an All-American, a Heisman candidate, an NFL prospect," Chad said. "He could learn from a guy that's having success at that level and watch his practice habits and off-field habits and get a feel for playing in the SEC in general.

"On a much smaller scale, when I went to college I was in a similar situation. I played behind a guy who was an NFL prospect and an All-American candidate. It was ideal. He taught me a lot. It was great to have him take me under his wing and get me prepared for what was going to happen. Unfortunately he ended up getting hurt and I had to play as a true freshman."

Will has always had a lot to learn from his dad, the coach and former player. Now that he's preparing to play the same position in college, Will can turn to Chad for even more advice.

Chad started his career at Division I-AA Richmond, backing up Bob Bleier in the mid-80s. Then he transferred to East Carolina, where eventually he was Jeff Blake's backup.

"I was the most popular guy in Greenville," Chad said. "Jeff struggled a little bit [in 1990]. He was hurt a little bit. So, man, every time he threw a bad ball I could hear 'em screaming for me. They'd chant my name. That's because I wasn't the guy. If you're the guy doing well, they're going to love you. If you're the guy not doing well, they're going to love your backup.

"So that may be what [Will is] getting into. I don't know Jeff Driskel from Adam's house cat, but I see a big, good-looking kid that's got a big arm and can run. I think he came with a lot of expectations. And I hope he gets healthy, and I hope he has a tremendous year. But if he doesn't they're going to start calling for Will, and I'd hate for that to happen to Driskel. Because the very same thing, it could be Will one day.

"When you're the backup, you're the next guy. Until you get out there and face live bullets, everybody thinks you're the greatest thing ever."

Undoubtedly, there is pressure on Will Grier. He comes to Florida with high hopes and a good chance that he'll be one injury away from taking over at quarterback.

As a dad, as a coach and as a former player, Chad knows exactly what Will is getting into. He says backup quarterback is the toughest position in football.

"If you're the backup running back, the backup safety, the backup linebacker, backup anything else, you're going to play," Chad said. "You may not be in the program as a starter, but you're going to play. If you're the backup quarterback you have to be ready to play. The next play you might be the guy for the rest of the game, the rest of the year.

"But it's very hard when you're hyper-competitive to prepare yourself for that and be all excited, ready to go, and then game day comes and goes and you never break a sweat."

As an ECU Pirate, that pretty much summed up Chad's career.

"I've got one record that still stands from East Carolina," he said, "and that's the most consecutive quarters wearing a baseball hat."

His own fond memories aside, Chad believes Will has the right mindset for his first year at UF.

"If they want him to redshirt, he'll redshirt," he said. "He's ready to go run the scout team. … He's champing at the bit to get into it."

But one thing Chad can't advise Will on is the hype his son has heard, seen and felt before even taking a snap.

"I've heard it," Will said. "Especially nowadays with social media stuff. But I think overall, they're fans. That's what they're supposed to do. I don't expect anything less. You know, it's something I acknowledge, and I want to show my appreciation for their support and that type of thing. But I just don't get too much into it.

"They'll be excited until I throw my first interception."

Thanks to his dad, whenever that happens Will should be well prepared for what comes next.

Final SEC Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
PM ET
We're done with the 2013 college football season, so it's time to see how all 14 SEC teams finished the year in our final set of conference power rankings. It was a collaborative effort on our side, and we think it jibes pretty well:

1. Auburn (12-2, 7-1 SEC; last ranking: 1): The Tigers lost a heartbreaker to Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship, but they did exactly what Gus Malzahn predicted: make the biggest turnaround in college football. Auburn had the nation's best running game behind Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and a championship attitude that grew all season. The future looks very bright on the Plains.

2. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2 SEC; LR: 3): With a 10-point victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina became only the fourth team in the country to win at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. The Gamecocks made a fun, end-of-the-year run at Atlanta but fell short with a loss to Tennessee and an equally as fun Missouri run.

3. Missouri (12-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 4): These Tigers also had a magical 2013. After rebounding from a five-win 2012 season, Mizzou won the SEC East Division, displayed one of the conference's best, most explosive offenses and ended the season with a back-and-forth victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Gary Pinkel went from the hot seat to beloved by erasing an ugly SEC debut with a stellar encore.

4. Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC; LR: 2): The Crimson Tide's SEC and BCS title game chances ended on a miraculous "Kick Six" by Auburn's Chris Davis in the Iron Bowl. With no national championship at stake for the first time since 2010, Alabama failed to match Oklahoma's toughness and intensity in its 45-31 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss. Despite another impressive regular season, the Tide's chance to make a case as the nation's best team ended inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3; LR: 5): We never really knew what we were going to get from these Tigers (so many Tigers!), but after their loss to Alabama on Nov. 9, they closed the season on a tear with three straight wins. Even without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (ACL) for their bowl game, the Tigers grinded out a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa on the back of running back Jeremy Hill and his 216 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Texas A&M (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 6): Of course Johnny Manziel went out in style. A month after ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak, Johnny Football helped orchestrate a comeback win after a 21-point halftime deficit to Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with 455 total yards and five touchdowns. Texas A&M outscored the Blue Devils 35-10 in the second half to win 52-48. What a Johnny Football way to say goodbye.

7. Vanderbilt (9-4, 4-4 SEC; LR: 7): For the first time in school history, Vandy won nine games in back-to-back seasons and consecutive bowl games. The Commodores went undefeated in November for the second straight year and beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever. Their reward? Saying goodbye to coach James Franklin, who left to become Penn State's head coach.

8. Georgia (8-5, 5-3 SEC; LR: 8): The Bulldogs started the season as the favorite to win the East, but injuries and a young, struggling defense knocked Georgia out of contention late. Even with how poorly the defense played at times, you have to wonder what might have been had injuries to receivers and the loss of Todd Gurley for a month not happened. The Bulldogs ended the season with a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5 SEC; LR: 9): What looked like a disaster of a season ended with three consecutive wins. The first two were overtime victories and the last one was a 44-7 blowout of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dan Mullen's popularity level in Starkville took a hit, but he enters his fifth season with much higher expectations with a solid offense and defense returning.

10. Ole Miss (8-5, 3-5 SEC; LR: 10): What started as a promising season hit a bit of snag in October before the Rebels reeled off four consecutive victories to turn things around. Ole Miss lost to Missouri and Mississippi State to close the regular season but bounced back with an impressive, 25-17 victory over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Eight wins, despite injuries and depth issues, was impressive for Hugh Freeze in his second season.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LR: 11): For the third year in a row, the Vols failed to make it to a bowl game, but you can tell that the attitudes are different in Knoxville. There's a bit more excitement with Butch Jones in town, especially after that upset win over No. 11 South Carolina. The next step is development on both sides of the ball. Tennessee struggled with quarterback play all season and owned the SEC's No. 11 defense, allowing 418.4 yards per game.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LR: 12): For the first time since 1979, the Gators had a losing season. For the first time in more than 20 years, Florida failed to make a bowl game. The Gators suffered 15 season-ending injuries, 10 to starters, including quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Florida ranked 113th nationally in total offense, lost to Football Championship Subdivision foe Georgia Southern (at home) and said goodbye to offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after the season.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LR: 13): The first year of the Bret Bielema era was a dud on the field, as the Razorbacks lost a school-record nine straight games to close the season. Arkansas owned the SEC's worst passing offense (114th nationally) but had quite the spark in freshman running back Alex Collins. The next step for the Hogs is getting the right players on both sides to fit Bielema's system.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LR: 14): It was a tough first season for Mark Stoops in Lexington, but he really was behind from the start. This team struggled with positive consistency, and it didn't help that the staff had to rotate quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow all season. Kentucky was 13th in the SEC in both total offense and total defense.

This is where we find out how good of a coach Will Muschamp is and how much pride and heart Florida's players have.

The firing of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis means that the Gators will move in a different direction with their offense in order to attempt to rebound from a disappointing 4-8 (3-5 SEC) season.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp won't be fired after going 4-8 this season. But he needs to have a great season in 2014 to stick around.
“I think we need to take a look at ourselves schematically,’’ Muschamp said after Saturday's 37-7 home loss to in-state rival Florida State. “There have been some things that have happened that are very difficult to overcome. But schematically there’s no question we need to take a look at ourselves."

It's not like this should come as a surprise. Florida lost its last seven games of the season without scoring more than 20 points in any of those contests and finished the regular season with the SEC's worst offense, averaging just 316.7 yards per game and a league-low 4.8 yards per play. Florida also ranks 112th nationally in total offense.

The Gators suffered their first losing season since 1979 and will miss a bowl game for the first time since 1990.

Injuries on both sides of the football ravaged this team, especially on offense, but with Muschamp stating loud and clear that many things on offense have to change, this is where we will find out just how good he is, because there are no more excuses going forward.

While many in Gator Nation will say that Muschamp should have been a casualty as well today, athletic director Jeremy Foley made the right decision to stick with Muschamp. This season was a disaster, but Florida came off an 11-win season and a BCS appearance. Last season, Muschamp was the SEC Coach of the Year, and you'd be hard-pressed to find another staff that coached better in the second half of games. Also, most of 2013 was taken out of the hands of this staff at times because of devastating injuries.

Florida's injury count went into double digits, and lost four key offensive starters in Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and Andre Debose. Eventually, No. 2 quarterback Tyler Murphy, who never quite showed the potential and upside that Driskel possessed, was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, meaning Florida was down to third-stringer Skyler Mornhinweg, who was on the practice squad last year.

The offense certainly went through the wringer, but if Muschamp is going to right the ship in Gainesville, he had to make changes. He had to make changes to an offense that regressed each week and was even near the bottom of the SEC barrel last season (334 yards per game). He had to make changes to an offensive line that gave up 27 sacks on the season, injuries aside. He had to make changes to a staff that didn't develop players well enough.

But by making these moves, Muschamp now has to win big in 2014. Year 3 was unacceptable in Gainesville, so Year 4 likely means that it truly is Atlanta or bust for Muschamp. Foley stood by Muschamp this time, but another fall or stagnation in 2014 will force Foley to have to look in another direction.

It's time for Florida to get over the fact that Urban Meyer left this team with a nearly empty cupboard of talent. It's time to get a more functional offense on the field that can move the ball through the air and on the ground and can actually score points. And it's time to develop the guys on both sides of the ball.

The good thing about Florida's injuries is that they will heal. Driskel, Jones, Green and Debose will be back, but they have to be better, as well. Florida needs legitimate competition at every position, and that's where coaching and recruiting comes in.

There's no question that Florida had some offensive misses in its last couple of recruiting classes. That can't happen in the 2014 class, which also has to keep its ESPN 300 prospects, running back Dalvin Cook, quarterback Will Grier and receiver Ermon Lane, who could all make immediate impacts next season. Finding replacement coaches is the crucial first step; keeping this 2014 class together is the second.

The honeymoon with Muschamp faded this year, but there's still time to turn things around, even if it's going to be a toxic time in Gainesville until Florida wins again. At the first sign of failure, this fan base is going to spit fire at its fervent coach, and players could lose trust.

Muschamp has to guard himself and his team against that. He has to instill some pride back into this program and has to make sure that his players don't lose faith, even if the fans have.

It's not going to be easy for a team that will likely take another hit to its defense with the upcoming NFL draft and now has a trip to Alabama on next season's schedule. It won't be easy for a team that went all "woe is me" late in the year. It won't be easy with Florida State, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee still on the schedule, but improvements have to be made.

This team has to compete, and we're about to find out if Muschamp really is the right man for the job.

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