SEC: Brent Pease


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."

Muschamp says he can change

December, 2, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis have been sacrificed as a way to wash away the sins of Florida's 2013 offense, the spotlight shifts to head coach Will Muschamp.

For such a strong-willed leader, for such a defensive-minded coach, the obvious question in regards to his offensive philosophy is, "Can Muschamp change?"

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesThe Gators' inability to score points became a weekly post-game complaint from Will Muschamp.
After his team was drubbed one last time last Saturday in a 37-7 loss to Florida State that saw his Gators generate just one score, eight first downs and 193 yards, Muschamp was quick to answer that question.

"Perception is not always reality," he said and then repeated himself for emphasis. "Perception is not always reality. So, I'm willing to do what we need to do to score points and win games."

It's doubtful that portends a complete shift to another style of offense, however. Since Muschamp arrived in December 2010, he has recruited for the pro-style offense. He installed it on the heels of Urban Meyer's spread-option, and it has taken years to usher in the personnel required for such a drastic change. It's extremely unlikely a head coach on a hot seat would scrap the base offense and start over.

What is more likely to change is the heavy emphasis on a downhill running game that was designed to shorten games by hogging time of possession.

That approach worked to perfection with Florida's stout defense and strong special teams in 2012. Even with one of the nation's worst passing games that averaged 146.31 yards and ranked 114th out of 123 FBS schools, the Gators won 11 games and defeated four top-1o teams on their way to a BCS bowl.

This year, injuries on defense and new faces on special teams conspired to spotlight the shortcomings of Muschamp's offensive philosophy. The Gators' margin of error had always been small, but without a reliable defense and kicking game, it shrunk to a level of absurdity.

By the end of the dismal 2013 season, one interception, one sack-fumble, one drive that ended in a missed field goal was enough to torpedo the entire team's fragile psyche. Muschamp started calling out his "inept" offense, saying it had "infected" the rest of the team.

The need to change was obvious to Muschamp, the players, the fans and most importantly to Muschamp's boss, athletic director Jeremy Foley.

"Will is going to figure those things out," Foley said to reporters in giving his embattled coach one more vote of confidence before the FSU game. "I do think in this league playing good defense is important, and that's why I hired Will. I think he's done that. But we do have to fix that side of the ball.

"No disrespect to anybody. That's just reality. You look at the stats and some of the scores that have caused us problems. We'll get that fixed. We're going to have to get that fixed, and I think we can."

An offense that was built to do more than run could have pivoted this season, taken on more of the burden to win games and help salvage a passable season instead of the 4-8 quagmire that resulted.

The final outcome -- 112th in the nation and last in the SEC in total offense, 107th in the nation in passing offense, last in the SEC in scoring -- forced Muschamp's hand.

"We need to take a look at ourselves schematically with what we’re doing," Muschamp said. "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."

Yes, the injuries were difficult to overcome. Any team that loses its top two quarterbacks, top running back and top three offensive tackles is in for a turbulent season. But this is Florida, where quality depth is more than just expected -- it's practically a birthright at a school surrounded by such fertile recruiting turf.

The offensive line was unable to pass-block in 2012 or before it suffered all those injuries this season. And when those injuries struck, there were no sophomores or redshirt freshmen ready to compete for starting jobs. It's no surprise Davis was fired.

The offense's inability to generate points became a weekly complaint from Muschamp in his recent post-game assessments. So much so that it was no surprise Pease was fired.

In replacing him, Florida will need an offensive mind that can devise multiple ways of attacking a defense, employ varying tempos and do a better job of developing skill-position talent.

It starts with Muschamp, who will hire his third offensive coordinator heading into his fourth season.

"I think obviously the first person you look at is yourself," he said. "That’s what you’ve got to be able to do and see where we are. I think as a coach, you’ve got to do what your players can do. That’s something I’m looking at."

No doubt the players will welcome a change. Even Muschamp's defensive players say they want the same thing.

"Right now, whatever they do hopefully is changed for the best," sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard said once the season was over. "Give us 21 [points] a game. If they can do that, then I would put the blame on us if they score 21 points or over. Hopefully change for the better, because what we're doing right now just ain't working."

SEC Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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We have a new No. 1 in our Power Rankings, and there's a chance that either of the top two teams on this list could back its way into the BCS title game:

1. Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC; last week: 3): Call it luck, but don't forget to call the Tigers good. Auburn won the Iron Bowl 34-28 over No. 1 Alabama on a last-second field goal return for a touchdown by Chris Davis. It was another improbable win for the Cardiac Cats, but Auburn also ran for 296 yards on the SEC's best rush defense. Back-to-back thrillers have Auburn No. 3 in the BCS standings and SEC Western Division champions.

2. Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 2): These Tigers will meet those Tigers in the SEC championship game on Saturday. After beating Texas A&M 28-21 at home, Mizzou completed its own improbable season in its second year in the league. Missouri now has five wins over opponents that were ranked when it played them. Like Auburn, Mizzou is very much in the national championship picture. The Tigers need help, but a win over Auburn would push a team that was left for dead last season a step closer to Pasadena, Calif.

3. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC; LW: 1): The three-peat is likely over after Alabama was bested by its archrival. Why Nick Saban would attempt a 57-yard field goal with a second left without any speedy athletes on the field is mind-blowing. Saban rarely makes mistakes, but this one will sting for a very long time. Alabama is still very much in the hunt for a BCS bowl game, but a return to the title game is a long shot.

4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC; LW: 4): Another year, another win over Clemson. That makes five in a row for Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks after his guys walked over the Tigers 31-17. South Carolina forced six turnovers, and quarterback Connor Shaw impressed yet again with 246 yards of offense and two touchdowns. The BCS is out of reach for the Gamecocks, but they have a shot at three straight 11-win seasons.

5. LSU (9-3, 5-3 SEC; LW: 5): This is easily the most confusing team to follow in 2013. The Tigers started hot, hit some bumps and then finished strong with an exciting 31-27 win over Arkansas. LSU was without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger (knee) late, but it didn't matter, as freshman Anthony Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, with a 49-yard go-ahead touchdown pass with 1:15 left. This could be another double-digit-win season for the Tigers.

6. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 6): Johnny Manziel went from carving up defenses to being smothered in his last two outings. In Saturday's loss to Mizzou, Manziel was held to a season-low 216 total yards and a touchdown. The defense was gutted -- again -- allowing 225 rushing yards, including a 57-yard Henry Josey touchdown run with 3:34 remaining. It's been a long November in College Station, but at least Kevin Sumlin is locked up for the long haul.

7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC; LW: 8): Coach James Franklin might be near the top of USC's coaching list, but for now, he's doing a heck of a job as Vandy's coach. There's no wonder he's on the Trojans' radar. Vandy has won four straight, will make its third straight bowl game and is in line to win nine in back-to-back seasons. The Commodores didn't make it look easy against Wake Forest, but a Carey Spear field goal with 39 seconds left kept the Dores' winning streak alive.

8. Georgia (8-4, 5-3 SEC; LW: 9): Another team that didn't want things to be easy over the weekend, Georgia needed double overtime to beat rival Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs' defense was pushed around for 495 yards, but the offense was there to bring the Dawgs back from deficits of 20-0 and 27-17. When you have a guy like Todd Gurley (158 total yards and four touchdowns), it doesn't matter who you have at quarterback.

9. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5 SEC; LW: 10): After being on the outside of the bowl picture just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulldogs rallied to win their last two, including an overtime victory against bitter rival Ole Miss on Thanksgiving. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but injured quarterback Dak Prescott came into the fourth quarter and threw for 115 yards, while running for 29, including the eventual winning 3-yard score. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in the postseason for the fourth straight season.

10. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 SEC; LW: 7): Oh, what could have been for this team. Not only have the Rebels lost two straight, but they allowed their archrivals to make it to the postseason. For a season that started 3-0, some poor play in the red zone -- especially near the goal line -- against Missouri and turnovers against Mississippi State cost Ole Miss in its final two games.

11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC; LW: 11): A long first year for Butch Jones ended with a nice 27-14 win over Kentucky. The Vols aren't going bowling, but now is the time when Jones has to ramp up the development phase and keep an already stellar recruiting class together. Remember, this team was a fake Vandy jump pass from a bowl berth.

12. Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC; LW: 12): The Gators' nightmare of a season ended with a 37-7 rout by rival Florida State inside the Swamp. Florida then fired embattled offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis. Florida lost seven straight to end the season without scoring more than 20 points. And it isn't going bowling for the first time in 22 years and has its first losing season since 1979.

13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC; LW: 13): With that heartbreaking loss to LSU, the Razorbacks have dropped a school-record nine straight and went 0-8 in conference play for the first time. This team fought hard in its final act, but it's clear that development and recruiting need to amp up during the offseason if Bret Bielema is going to have a chance at really competing in this league.

14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC; LW: 14): The Wildcats have now gone 0-8 in SEC play in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1941-42 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Mark Stoops is building a pretty impressive recruiting class right now, but we all know it takes more than recruiting. The Wildcats need more than talent, as they took steps back on both sides of the ball late in the season.

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.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 27, 2013
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We’re just a day away from Thanksgiving and the first SEC game of the week. It’s a good time to check out what’s going on around the league.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 20, 2013
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Talking quarterbacks, BCS bowls, penalties, turnovers and even a punter in today's edition of the lunchtime links:

What to watch in the SEC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
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1. Avoiding the letdown: Georgia and LSU played a thrilling, memorable contest last weekend. But the Bulldogs and Tigers have SEC opponents on the docket Saturday, and it's imperative for each to not have a hangover from the previous week. Georgia travels to Tennessee, which struggled to beat South Alabama. LSU heads to Starkville, Miss., to meet Mississippi State.

2. First true test for Mizzou: Missouri is quietly undefeated (4-0) but has faced only one power-conference opponent so far (Indiana). Missouri hits the road for its first SEC game of the season at Vanderbilt, a team that has already suffered two SEC defeats (against Ole Miss and South Carolina). It's hard to know what to expect from the Tigers, but we know that both teams can pile up the yards and points, so it should be entertaining.

[+] EnlargeMississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell
Marvin Gentry/US PRESSWIRETyler Russell is likely to return as the starter for Mississippi State on Saturday.
3. Tyler Russell returns: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen indicated that he plans to start quarterback Tyler Russell, who has been sidelined since suffering a concussion in the Bulldogs' season-opening loss to Oklahoma State on Aug. 31. Mullen did leave the door open, saying, "that’s still the plan, and we’ll see how it goes Saturday." But for now, it looks like Russell will start. Russell had a breakout season in 2012, throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns.

4. Missing Clinton-Dix: Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated that standout safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. While the timetable, and the violation itself, is unknown, don't expect it to have a major impact, at least in the short term. Alabama has a layup of a game this week against Sun Belt squad Georgia State, and though the Crimson Tide resume SEC play after that, they'll get a struggling Kentucky team. So if anything, the timing of an absence for a star defensive player is good because the Tide can use the coming weeks to develop younger players such as Landon Collins and Geno Smith.

5. Low-scoring affair in the Swamp? Florida's methodical offense hosts an Arkansas team that isn't afraid to run the football, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be three yards and a cloud of dust Saturday evening. Arkansas showed that it can be an explosive offense and that it can throw the football when starter Brandon Allen returned from a shoulder injury last week and helped the Razorbacks keep up with No. 9 Texas A&M. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week that he still wants his team to have "explosive plays." Florida looks to remain unbeaten in SEC play; Arkansas is looking for its first SEC win under Bret Bielema.

6. Bounce back for Ole Miss? The Rebels’ offense was shut down in its showdown with No. 1 Alabama. The unit managed just 205 yards in a 25-0 loss. Now Ole Miss must go back on the road, traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face an Auburn team that's coming off an open date. Gus Malzahn's crew suffered its first loss of the season against LSU on Sept. 21 If Ole Miss plans to stay in the Top 25, it has to bounce back with a strong performance on the road against the Tigers.

7. Similar backgrounds, philosophies: Speaking of Auburn-Ole Miss, the coaching matchup is a compelling one. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn were both successful high school football coaches before finding themselves in the college ranks as rising stars. They both are believers in the uptempo style of offense that is becoming a staple in college football, so it should be interesting to see how the offenses fare on Saturday. Both teams are averaging 28.5 points per game this season.

8. Shaw to start: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw was knocked out of the Gamecocks' 28-25 victory over Central Florida with a shoulder injury and was expected to be out at least two to three weeks, but head coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday that Shaw will be able to start this Saturday when the Gamecocks host Kentucky. Shaw has practiced this week and, according to Spurrier, looks good throwing. This weekend is also a chance to finish stronger against a struggling Kentucky squad after allowing UCF to linger last week, which led Spurrier to say that he thought his team might have deserved to lose.

9. Who takes charge at QB for UK? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops would like to settle on a starting quarterback between Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow but doesn't believe that either has shown enough to make the coaching staff comfortable enough to tab one of them as the guy. Stoops said they'll continue to evaluate the quarterbacks. In the meantime, he seems to be getting more frustrated as time passes, blasting his team for a poor practice Wednesday, calling it "a wasted day."

10. Tennessee's "smokey grays": The Volunteers, who usually have a classic look in orange and white, will change things up and wear what they call "smokey gray" uniforms against Georgia on Saturday. The team unveiled the uniforms in August. They'll wear gray pants and jerseys with orange numbers and lettering. Back when the jerseys were introduced, head coach Butch Jones noted that Tennessee's 1914 team went undefeated wearing gray. He can only hope it brings similar good fortune Saturday.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
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From defensive struggles to quarterback quandaries to head coach hot-stove talk to even nature walks, there's plenty going on in SEC football this week. Here's a sampling of discussion points from around the league:

Jones could see heavy workload

September, 4, 2013
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Florida running back Matt Jones will be back on the football field against Miami, and he wont' be held back in the least. The 226-pound sophomore could get as many as 25 carries on Saturday, according to UF offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

Jones was cleared to play late last month after recovering from a viral infection, but Florida decided not to rush things and chance a relapse, instead targeting Week 2 for his return.

Pease told reporters in Gainesville, Fla., that he was confident Jones could handle the sudden comeback, saying that, "He'll know the game plan."

Jones ran for 275 yards and three touchdowns last season behind departed starting tailback Mike Gillislee.

Florida's ground game didn't suffer without Jones in the season opener this past weekend, as Mack Brown and Co. ran for 262 yards and two touchdowns against Toledo.

For more on Jones, read the rest of our news story.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 3 days

August, 26, 2013
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Hey, it's game week, which means our countdown is nearing its completion. The 2013 season begins in just three days.

One of the things that will shape the SEC championship race this season is how much Florida improves on offense, particularly in the passing game. The Gators finished last in the league a year ago in passing offense and threw just 13 touchdown passes. They should again be outstanding on defense, which will give them a chance in every game. But if they're going to win their first SEC title since 2008, they will need to rev up that passing game considerably.

The number on the docket today: 19.
Naturally, much of the focus on whether the Gators will take a step forward in the passing game has centered around junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. It didn't help that he was slowed this preseason after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Timing and practice reps are a huge part of generating a consistent passing game, but Driskel demonstrated this spring and summer that he was ready to make a big jump and should be fine. Several coaches around the SEC have indicated that they expect Driskel to be one of the more improved players in the league. The key will be how well the people around him play, specifically the Gators' receivers. They made very few plays down the field last season in the deep passing game. In fact, the longest scoring pass play last season in an SEC game by a returning player was Quinton Dunbar's 19-yard touchdown catch against Kentucky. The Gators return just two players who caught more than four passes last season -- Dunbar (36) and Trey Burton (18). Burton has lined up just about everywhere during his Florida career and will mostly play in the slot this season. The longest pass play, period, a year ago by a returning player was a 32-yard catch by Burton. So, again, it's crucial that the Gators find more big-play ability in their passing game, which is where freshman Demarcus Robinson comes in. He separates well from defenders and makes plays down the field. Another true freshman, 6-4, 200-pound Ahmad Fulwood, has also shown that he should be able to help, and Dunbar has played well enough this preseason to think that he could be in for a breakout season. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants to get the wide receivers and running backs more involved in the passing game this season. Tight end Jordan Reed (now in the NFL) was the go-to guy a year ago. The X-factor is Loucheiz Purifoy, who spent most of his time this preseason at cornerback. He's one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC and could get a chance to catch a few passes on offense as well as intercept a few on defense. The feeling coming out of camp, though, is that the Florida receivers have made enough strides that Purifoy won't have to pull as much double duty as originally expected back in the spring.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
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Kirk Herbstreit is excited about the return of college football. Are you? Read up on the SEC this afternoon and don't miss "The Herbie Awards" tonight at 8 ET on ESPNU.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sometimes, Jeff Driskel had no idea what had happened.

He was trying to be studious last season and watch extra film on his own to become better at pre-snap reads and pass-protection adjustments, but he found confusion instead of clarity. That’s when he’d call offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

"At times I didn’t really know what I was looking at or what I should be looking at," Driskel said. "There were times where I was confused as to why this guy came free on a pressure or why I should have gone to another guy rather than this guy."

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJeff Driskel knows he and the Gators must improve greatly from their rank in 2012 as the nation's No. 114 passing attack.
That shouldn't have been a surprise, considering Driskel was in his first season as Florida’s starting quarterback. Plus, he got only half of the reps in the spring and August practices because of the competition with Jacoby Brissett that stretched into the first week of the season. Confusion was expected.

Not this season. Not knowing the protection adjustments, where to go with the ball, or recognizing a blitz will be unacceptable mistakes for Driskel. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound junior knows he can’t make them this season, or Florida’s offense won’t be any better than the unit that ranked No. 103 nationally in 2012.

"I just think I’m a lot more comfortable," Driskel said. "I know where to throw the ball and I know where to throw the ball in certain situations and we’re a lot better at timing. I’m getting the ball out before they’re breaking rather than waiting for them to break to throw the ball. That’s a big difference in catching the ball and getting tackled or catching the ball and turning it up field.

"I feel like I have [gotten much better]. I’m excited for the first game to really show it off."

Florida’s season depends on Driskel’s transition from a player whose main role was to take care of the ball and not put the Gators in bad situations into a quarterback who can win games. Driskel threw for 1,646 yards -- the fewest by a Florida starter since Kyle Morris threw for 1,098 yards in 1989 -- and 12 touchdowns last season, and the passing offense was No. 114 nationally. Four of the six teams that ranked below the Gators run the option.

With running back Matt Jones’ return from a viral infection still uncertain, Driskel has to be able to put the offense on his shoulders, and Pease said he has seen encouraging signs. Part of that is because Driskel’s the clear-cut starter and has been in the offensive system for a year.

"He’s comfortable with that and he knows the expectations," Pease said. "Some bullets have flown at him before. I think he’s probably a little more comfortable not having the situation of the controversy, so to speak."

Pease said Driskel is more at ease in the pocket and has done a good job of recognizing blitzes and changing protections, which were two of his biggest issues last season. But perhaps the biggest leap Driskel has made is in his leadership. If a player is more comfortable with his role and confident that he knows everything he needs to know, he’s naturally going to play better.

"Just hearing [Driskel] in the weight room stepping up and saying things to teammates and making teammates accountable, making himself more accountable to the situation of what the goals for this team are," Pease said. "It’s to win the SEC. He’s not afraid to step up and say something. He’s demonstrated that. I think when you get a kid who becomes vocalized in a good way and demonstrates that and talks to his teammates and challenges and encourages them, you know he’s taken the next step because he’s earned some respect."

Driskel knows he’ll earn even more if the passing offense produces significantly more than the 146.3 yards per game it did last season. It should improve, now that he knows what he’s watching on film, he said.

"We’re going to have to throw the ball more and we’ll have to be more efficient throwing the ball," Driskel said. "We’re going to have to hit more big plays. We can’t run the ball 50 times a game like we did last year at points.

"We’re still going to run the ball effectively and we have an offensive line that loves running the ball and we have explosive backs. That’s still going to be a big part of our game, but we do have to make more plays throwing the ball, which I think we’ll do."
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A quarterback throwing for 300 yards used to be a regular occurrence at Florida.

It started when Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990 and it continued with Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. Quarterbacks surpassed the 300-yard mark 71 times under those three coaches, including a school-record 17 by Rex Grossman.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesCould Jeff Driskel join the list of Florida QBs who have passed for more than 300 yards in a game?
Tim Tebow did it five times and his final game is the best in school history: 482 yards in the Gators’ 51-24 victory over Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010.

Since then, however, Gators quarterbacks haven’t exactly been lighting things up. Only once in the past 39 games has a UF QB thrown for more than 300 yards: John Brantley had 329 yards against Furman in 2011.

Offensive coordinator Brent Pease believes Jeff Driskel could be next.

“I think he has the ability to do it,” Pease said. “He has the ability to do it in this system. He has the ability to do it off his skills.”

The biggest reason why Driskel hasn’t done it and Brantley only did it once is a lack of explosiveness in the offense. The Gators had 67 pass plays of 20 or more yards in Brantley’s two seasons as a starter -- but only 22 were 30 yards or longer. UF had 27 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season, which was Driskel’s first as the starter, but only 11 were longer than 30 yards.

The blame for the lack of explosiveness is shared by the offensive line (poor pass protection), the quarterback (holding onto the ball too long, not reading the defense correctly, or being inaccurate) and the receivers (not getting separation). However, Pease believes all three positions have improved enough in the second year of his system that the offense will produce more big plays in the passing game.

"I think they’re going to have more of an impact," Pease said. "I think some of it is on me. I have to be willing to pull the trigger and let them perform. But I’m confident on that.

"It’s more throwing the ball over the top, just stretching the field vertically, which we need to do. That’s route running, accuracy with the ball, protection at times and there’s a lot that becomes involved in it. I think with the respect that our running game has gained that when people start to stack the box, we’ve got to be able to do that."

The biggest key to more explosive plays, though, will be the improvement of the receivers. The position has really struggled since the 2009 season ended but the players should be helped by the hiring of former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience as a receivers coach and helped Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson reach the NFL. Pease said the group has been better than last season, when they were coached by graduate assistant Bush Hamdan after receivers coach Aubrey Hill abruptly resigned the day before preseason practices began.

That’s also partly because they’re more comfortable in their second season in the offense, Pease said.

"The kids are playing confident," Pease said. "There’s most instinct with what they’re doing. They understand the calls. They’re not thinking. It’s more reactionary now."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s easily evident to those not inside the Florida locker room every day that Jeff Driskel has changed.

He’s still focused and driven, but he comes across as much more confident and definitely more relaxed, which was obvious when he hammed it up with a significantly shorter member of the media just before doing a video shoot.

That’s an indication that Driskel is much more at ease with who he is and more comfortable and confident in his knowledge and abilities as the Gators’ starting quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNow the undisputed starter, Jeff Driskel has been a more relaxed presence at QB for the Gators this offseason.
Driskel knows the offense completely now that he’s in his second season under offensive coordinator Brent Pease. He knows where his receivers are supposed to be (even if they don’t), knows his pre-snap reads and adjustments, and feels much more comfortable in the pocket. His fundamentals are better, too.

He should be a better player in 2013, someone capable of putting the team on his shoulders and winning a game instead of being a caretaker whose main directive was to not turn the ball over.

“It’s his football team,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “[Driskel] attacked the offseason the way you’re supposed to as far as his mental preparation, watching film. He understands what we’re doing offensively much better than a year ago, which is expected.”

The main reason for Driskel’s improvement is that he’s no longer fighting for the job. He’s not competing with Jacoby Brissett, who left for NC State after the season ended, or worried that a couple of poor drives or games would get him benched.

The biggest benefit of that situation is that he’s essentially getting twice as many practice reps, twice as much time in the film room, and twice as much individual work with Pease. He’s taking all of the first-team snaps instead of sharing them. He’s breaking down every play in the film room. He’s explaining every protection and adjustment and getting nearly all of the feedback.

That showed during the spring, Muschamp said.

“When the game slows down a little bit, you get a little more mental quickness of where to take the ball down the field, first progression read to the second, and understanding where the pressure may come from,” Muschamp said. “That’s part of the growing process of a young quarterback.”

Driskel said he’s gaining a much better rapport with the receivers, which was something that he wasn’t able to do last season because there was always some awkwardness between the quarterbacks and receivers because of the competition between Driskel and Brissett.

“When there’s a competition, you know, some guys are going to -- not be on one side or the other -- but there’s not as close of a bond because no one wants to step on anyone’s toes and no one wants to get on someone’s bad side,” Driskel said. “When there’s one set quarterback I think everyone responds well to it and everyone kind of is looking at the same person and getting on the same page with one person instead of doing it with two.”

Driskel still has a lot on which to improve, specifically mastering the pass protections and knowing which adjustments to make and when and getting rid of the ball quicker to avoid sacks.

But he appears to be on his way to becoming the kind of quarterback he was projected to be when he came out of Oviedo (Fla.) Hagerty High School in 2011 -- which should keep the Gators in contention for an Eastern Division title.
On Monday, we took a look at the top five offenses and if they could replicate their success from 2012. But what about those offenses that struggled last season? Can they rebound this fall?

Thirteen might be an unlucky number in the realm of superstition, but I think it could bring some good luck to a few offenses that weren't so good a year ago.

It's early, but here are three offenses that I think will rebound in 2013:

Auburn
2012 total offense: 305 yards per game
2012 scoring offense: 18.7 points per game

The Tigers' offense never really adapted to former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's pro-style offense. It was the whole square peg and round hole deal. Quarterback play suffered, which meant the receiving game struggled. The only real bright spots were running back Tre Mason and wide receiver Emory Blake. Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Blake registered 789 receiving yards, which was 650 yards more than the second-highest total on the team.

But help is on the way with Gus Malzahn bringing his spread offense back to the Plains. He has to find his quarterback, but Kiehl Frazier is very familiar with Malzahn, and Jonathan Wallace fits the spread nicely. Mason is back, but the Tigers have to find consistency at the receiver spot with Blake gone. Luckily, guys like junior Quan Bray and freshman Ricardo Lewis made good strides this spring. Trovon Reed will still be counted on, and so will tight ends Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah.

Having a solid offensive line and the return of the spread should help Auburn's offense dig itself out of the offensive cellar of the SEC.

Florida
2012 total offense: 334
2012 scoring offense: 26.5

If not for a solid running game (187.7 yards per game), the Gators' offense would have really sputtered. Quarterback Jeff Driskel averaged just 137.2 passing yards per game and failed to reach 100 yards in a game four times last fall. Outside of tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators had no real consistent receiving target. When a play had to be made, the passing game rarely delivered.

The good news is Florida will have the same offensive coordinator -- Brent Pease -- for consecutive years for the first time since Urban Meyer was in charge. Driskel feels -- and looks -- much more confident, and he'll have a more physical offensive line to work with. The receivers still have to prove themselves, but Driskel will be able to defer to his running game yet again. Mike Gillislee might be gone, but the staff was very impressed with sophomore Matt Jones this spring, while Mack Brown, Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane will provide the Gators with a nice running back stable.

Florida's coaches are counting on Quinton Dunbar and true freshman Demarcus Robinson to lead the receivers, but more players have to step up. Still, having a strong offensive line and another year in the same offensive system will really help the Gators this fall.

Missouri
2012 total offense: 356.4
2012 scoring offense: 25.8

The Tigers dealt with a ton of injuries on offense last fall. Only Evan Boehm was able to stay healthy along the offensive line through the entire season, and quarterback James Franklin dealt with a bad shoulder, a concussion and a bad knee. Thanks to that, Mizzour averaged less than 220 passing yards last season.

Most of the same pieces are back on offense, and players seemed comfortable with new offensive coordinator Josh Henson, who was promoted after David Yost resigned. Franklin's shoulder is better, and his confidence is high. It also helps that his main receiving targets are back, and explosive running back Henry Josey is returning from his devastating 2011 knee injury. Dorial Green-Beckham, the former top recruit, is more mature and made a handful of plays this spring.

The offensive line was healthier this spring, but had some communication issues throughout the spring. That has to get fixed before the season. If it does, the Tigers' offense should make good strides in 2013.

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