SEC: Kurt Roper

Florida season review

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
Florida's 2014 season didn't exactly live up to the preseason hype. The arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement, but the offense never really got off the ground, and head coach Will Muschamp was fired before the end of the Gators' disappointing 6-5 regular season.

The Gators owned one of the SEC's best defenses, but ranked near the bottom of the league in passing (180.7 yards per game) and total offense (370.2). The Gators averaged just 269.8 yards in their five losses. This should have been a much different year for the Gators, but the offense never really took off, and Florida suffered some ugly losses along the way. There was the blowout at Alabama, a last-second lost to an LSU team that rallied in the Swamp, getting thrashed by Missouri on Homecoming, and an ugly overtime loss at home to South Carolina. The Gators lost three games at home, and will be handing over the keys to the Swamp to former Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain soon.

Best win: That would have to be the Gators’ thunderous 38-20 drubbing of Georgia. Two weeks after that embarrassing loss to Mizzou, the Gators bounced back with new starting quarterback Treon Harris and an ferocious running game to blow out then-No. 11 Georgia. Thanks to some masterful running by the duo of Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones, the Gators piled up 418 rushing yards, averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Harris, in his first start of the season, threw the ball just six times for 27 yards, with a long of 13 yards. The loss eventually knocked the Bulldogs out of the SEC title game.

Worst loss: While the overtime loss to South Carolina eventually cost Muschamp his job, that 42-13 home loss to Mizzou was just awful. It was a night game a week after that heartbreaking loss to LSU, and you would have thought the Gators would have come out with some inspiration. Instead, the special teams completely imploded alongside the offense. Florida allowed two kick returns for touchdowns and two defensive touchdowns, while holding Mizzou to just 119 yards of offense, including 20 passing yards. Florida mustered 283 yards and six turnovers in a shameful Homecoming loss.

Player of year: Florida’s defense was pretty solid all season, and while cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was fantastic yet again, defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. was an absolute terror for the Gators. He was one of the league’s best pass-rushers and seemed to be involved on almost every play that was near the line of scrimmage. Fowler, who has declared for the NFL draft and will likely be a first-round pick, led Florida with 12 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries and was second with 5.5 sacks. He was also third on the team with 57 tackles, had 26 solo stops and forced two fumbles.

Breakout player: A year after being a major disappointment as a freshman, Demarcus Robinson was easily the Gators best wide receiver in 2014. Robinson’s 774 yards and seven touchdowns were the most by a Florida receiver since 2009. At one point, Robinson, who finished the regular season with 47 catches and four 100-yard games, was near the top of the SEC in receiving, and really was Florida’s only true go-to receiver all year. He’s still raw and had some inconsistency issues, but Robinson is a great athlete and should only grow as a player if he can stay focused off the field, something that hampered his first season.

Play of year: With the Gators on fourth-and-7 and down 27-20 in overtime to Kentucky at home, the Gators pulled off a miracle of a touchdown pass. There was pre-snap confusion, a play clock that clearly hit double zeros and a fantastic backpedaling catch by Robinson over a Kentucky defender. However, the play never should have happened because quarterback Jeff Driskel didn’t get the snap off before the play clock ran out. However, the refs never saw it and Driskel was able to deliver a beautiful pass to Robinson to the left side of the end zone. The score kept the Gators alive in a thriller they eventually won.

video 2015 outlook: Right now, it’s one of the great unknowns in the SEC. McElwain’s tenure will officially begin after the bowl game, which will be coached by defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. We don’t even know what assistants will stay or go from the previous staff, so Florida truly is an enigma. A lot of talent returns on defense, and there are certainly pieces to work with on offense for such an offensive-minded coach, but it's yet another year of offensive change for the Gators. Is Harris the guy at quarterback, or will redshirt freshman Will Grier get a good crack at it? All we know is that Florida has to have a pulse on offense to compete.
The simple answer for why things didn’t work out for Will Muschamp at Florida is the fact that he could never figure things out on offense.

For as great as his teams were at executing on defense, they were equally as bad on offense. Charlie Weis’ one-year offense did nothing. Brent Pease’s Boise State magic never made it to Gainesville. Kurt Roper’s explosive spread offense has been anything but that this season.

All that really needs to be said is that Muschamp lost two games when his defense allowed less than 120 yards of offense.

Whether Muschamp ever really got out of his own way when it came to offensive play calling or not, the truth is that there was never continuity. Having three offensive coordinators in four years didn’t help, but there was no creativity or adequate development on that side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWill Muschamp built a great defense at Florida but could never find the offense to match.
While Muschamp signed some hefty defensive classes during his Florida tenure, he missed on a lot of offensive guys and never brought in the type of game-changers the Gators should be consistently reeling in with the school nestled in the middle of a recruiting hotbed.

For Florida not to sign more than one elite wide receiver or have any consistency at quarterback in four years is inexcusable.

But here Florida is. Muschamp is stepping down at the end of the season, and a program that won two national championships under Urban Meyer and was a consistent SEC title threat under Steve Spurrier in the 1990s is spiraling.

Even Ron Zook’s offenses had more of a pulse.

During Muschamp’s 27-20 run at Florida, the Gators have yet to finish a season ranked higher than 103rd nationally in total offense. Currently, the Gators rank 88th nationally in total offense, averaging a paltry 373.3 yards per game. They are 63rd nationally in scoring offense, averaging 29.3 points per game. Both are highs during Muschamp’s tenure.

While Florida’s offense has been statistically better this season, the losses have shown just how inept this offense has been for the majority of the past four years.

In Florida’s four losses this season, the Gators have averaged just 266.8 yards and 20.2 points per game. Conservative play calling with a talent pool lacking substance has continually kept the Gators from advancing.

Even in Muschamp’s most successful season -- Year 2 in 2012 that featured 11 wins and an Allstate Sugar Bowl appearance -- the Gators won with great defense and a power running game. Yet they still ranked 103rd nationally in total offense and scored only 26.5 points per game.

Bad misses on guys like Stefon Diggs (Maryland) and Nelson Agholor (USC) set Florida’s receiver corps back. Two current running backs struggle with blocking, and legitimate playmaker Demarcus Robinson isn't consistent enough but appears to be the only real receiving threat on the team.

Not having the right pieces in place in Year 4 is on the coaching. Not expanding the playbook or having more looks for your young quarterback at this point in the season is on the coaching.

Clinging to embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel for too long is on the coaching. Driskel showed strides in practice and other coaches have said he has NFL talent, but it never translated to the field.

Even in a new spread offense that was supposed to suit Driskel’s skill set better, the junior looked lost and regressed this fall. Bad losses at home to LSU and Missouri were mired in awful offensive execution that goes back to the quarterback position.

The move to freshman Treon Harris was appropriate but might have come too late. That temporary spark faded Saturday when a limited playbook led to an overly conservative plan that contributed to the final backbreaking loss against South Carolina.

There were no mass injuries to lean on. Muschamp had time to find his quarterback. The excuses are gone, and change is coming.

How Florida goes about this is crucial. This is an incredibly important hire for Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who has to bring in a more offensive-minded and established head coach. There needs to be a new, offensive-friendly philosophy in Gainesville, and coaches with real winning experience should clutter Foley's list.

Foley also has to sell more than just the notion that “This is Florida.” That no longer carries the weight it once did. The facilities aren’t up to par with a lot of other SEC schools, and name alone won’t win over a coach good enough to bring Florida back to relevancy.

Florida will have to dip into its wallet and improve the look of the program from the inside out. The funds are there, and Foley is smart enough to know he has a critical search on his hands as he looks to start a new chapter in Gainesville.
Will Muschamp’s decision to bench Jeff Driskel for Treon Harris had to be an emotionally difficult one for Florida’s head coach, but it’s proved to be the right move.

With the Gators floundering at 3-3 and regressing offensively, Muschamp had no choice but to replace his embattled redshirt junior quarterback for the true freshman, who has led the Gators into the SEC East Division race with back-to-back wins.

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida has looked like a different team with Treon Harris at quarterback.
Harris has brought a spark to a Florida team that began the month in danger of missing a bowl game in consecutive years. But after routing Georgia by 18 and handling Vanderbilt by 24 on the road, there’s renewed energy in Gainesville, as the Gators have rallied around their new signal-caller.

“Sometimes it takes a drastic decision like that to get the team going,” senior center Max Garcia said.

Harris, who won back-to-back state championships at Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, is far from a savior, but there’s something about him that has invigorated this team. In the four games prior to Harris’ ascent, Florida averaged just 255 yards and 17.5 points per contest. In Florida’s last two wins, the Gators have averaged 437 yards and 36 points.

Harris has galvanized his teammates, who are playing better around their silent leader. Guys naturally gravitate toward the 5-foot-11 sparkplug, who is standing tall and slowly developing as more responsibility is thrust on his shoulders.

"Treon is a guy that has been overly coachable since he's been on campus,” Muschamp said. “He continues to work hard. He's a guy that the game comes easy to him.”

Harris certainly has a long way to go with his progression as a starter, but as Garcia sees it, Harris has pushed the team to play better. There’s more urgency because he’s so green.

The playbook was simplified for Harris against Georgia, leading him to throw just six times and the Gators to run for 418 yards. The playbook expanded some against Vandy, and Harris threw for 215 yards and six first downs on 13 of 21 passing. He also ran for 49 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty 33-yarder in the Gators’ 17-point fourth quarter.

Muschamp says Harris has “it.” We saw “it” when he rescued the Gators from a 9-0 hole early in the season at Tennessee. We saw “it” when his first two collegiate passes went for 148 yards and two touchdowns. We saw “it” when he waved Muschamp off Saturday after taking a shot to his throwing shoulder.

“I went over, said, 'You all right?' He said, 'Go over and worry about someone else, I'm fine,’” Muschamp said. “That's part of the physical part of it, but also the mental side of it, the toughness aspect of it you've got to have at that position, especially here.”

“It” isn’t overwhelming, but it’s working.

“He’s just a playmaker,” Garcia said. “That’s just what he does naturally.”

While dangerous with his arm and legs, Harris’ best attribute might be how he deals with pressure. Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said Harris does a great job of "not seeing" the pass rush while simultaneously seeing downfield and buying time.

What hindered Driskel so much was his incessant pressing against the rush or when things broke down. Harris has had better composure in those situations, extending plays more and not forcing mistakes.

“He has an incredible pocket presence," Garcia said. "He feels when the pressure is coming left or right.

“He’s so calm and his demeanor is something that I haven’t seen in a freshman. He’s so cool, calm and collected. It’s crazy to see.”

It’s really paid off on third down, where Harris has completed 9 of 15 passes (.600) for 120 yards. A few times against Vandy, Harris stood in the pocket and found receivers when the Commodores brought heat. He stayed relaxed and evaluated his options, like when he hit Quinton Dunbar for a 60-yard bomb on a play designed for an intermediate route.

For someone so young, Harris has an innate ability to avoid pressure, read defenses and go through his progressions.

“I think he enjoys playing so much that he doesn’t feel the outside pressures,” Roper said.

“Obviously, he understands the role, but I think he just goes and plays and doesn’t let the other things influence him.”

And here the Gators are, a win over South Carolina and some help away from a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. There’s more cohesion, and Harris is a major part of that. It was a painful process to get to this point, but change has gone a long way.

“It’s unfortunate that we went through three losses to get to where we are now, but I have full confidence in this team and we’re peaking at the right time,” Garcia said.

“Now that we are producing on the field, like we are on the practice field and in the locker room, I don’t think anyone can stop us.”
While the excitement surrounding the World's Largest Outdoor, eh, Party isn't as fervent as it once was -- or should be -- Saturday's annual meeting between SEC rivals Florida and Georgia is very much a big deal.

It's huge for both schools, and both fan bases. For Georgia, it's about continuing to move forward toward an SEC East title and a possible spot in the College Football Playoff.

For Florida, it really is about the direction of the program and the man leading the Gators in yet another season of discontent.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWill Muschamp has had reason to look away given how his team has played in going 7-11 since the start of the 2013 season.
That man is coach Will Muschamp, and it's no secret that his job is most definitely on the line as his 3-3 Gators get ready for that short trek over to Jacksonville to meet the 11th-ranked Bulldogs in a game that truly will bring Florida's embattled coach full circle.

It only makes since that after the Gators dropped three of their last four games and 10 of their last 13 that Muschamp's fate would rest on the Georgia game. The man who grew up in Gainesville but played college ball at Georgia after being blown off by Steve Spurrier during a high school visit has to beat his alma mater -- a team that is surging at the moment.

The football gods can be so cruel.

Hanging over Muschamp's head as well is the fact he never has won this game. He went 0-4 as a player and is 0-3 as Florida's coach. An eighth loss could signal the end of Muschamp's career as Florida's coach.

"Certainly the Gator Club meeting in Jacksonville will be easier next fall or next spring," Muschamp said of the importance of winning Saturday's game. "But again, it’s a critical game. It’s an East rival. It’s an SEC rival. It’s a rival of the University of Florida. And it’s very important to our university.”

Muschamp enters the game with a 25-19 record at Florida, but he's just 7-11 since the start of the 2013 season and in danger of missing out on the postseason for the second year in a row. The Gators are 2-8 in their last 10 SEC games and are coming off an embarrassingly ugly 42-13 loss (on Homecoming in Gainesville, no less) to a Missouri team that totaled just 119 yards of offense. There were chants of "Fire Muschamp!" and boos directed at Muschamp and battered quarterback Jeff Driskel that filled the Swamp, as a despondent Jeremy Foley looked on at the destruction of a one-time SEC masterpiece. Now, Florida's athletic director is left with a decision on his hands as he preps for his trip to Jacksonville.

What's really happening behind the scenes is unknown, unless you're a message board "insider," but you have to think Foley has a plan in place in case things continue to go sour.

But maybe this is a chance for some sort of redemption for Muschamp. Mathematically, the Gators aren't out of the East race. Of course, with three conference losses, Florida needs a lot of help, but winning out -- starting Saturday -- could keep the faint dream of Atlanta alive. Is it a pipe dream? Most likely, but it isn't impossible, and Muschamp has absolutely nothing to lose by throwing the kitchen sink, fridge, freezer, oven and microwave at the Dawgs.

He already has decided to start true freshman Treon Harris in place of the struggling Driskel. He' ha had two weeks to let offensive coordinator Kurt Roper come up with a simple yet capable plan for the frosh in order to create a winning spark. The offense has been on a continuous downward spiral during Muschamp's tenure, and Harris might have to trigger some sort of late-season revival to give this team a chance in November.

One win won't save Muschamp, but it will help. It has been a tough tenure for Muschamp, and Saturday could stand as his final stand or a chance at a new beginning.

But can Muschamp finally conquer his past?
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- You'll rarely hear Florida coach Will Muschamp criticize his quarterbacks. But his receiving corps? That's another story.

It's a chicken or the egg argument whether the Gators quarterbacks or receivers are more to blame for an offense that has stumbled and bumbled its way near the bottom of the SEC and FBS rankings.

Florida has averaged 135.7 passing yards in its last three games, and the condemnation has mounted for a group of pass-catchers that has just one player with more than 122 yards receiving in six games.

"Nobody can catch it for them," Muschamp said recently. "They've got to catch the ball. We work on JUGS [machines], we work on hand-eye, a lot of that."

Drops are a big part of the problem, but so are tipped balls that end up in opponents' hands.

Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel has thrown 10 interceptions in his last five games, and Muschamp has been adamant in saying "it's not all Jeff Driskel's fault."

Another Gator whom Muschamp resolutely defends is wide receivers coach Chris Leak.

"He can't catch it for them," Muschamp said.

Leak, the Gators' sixth receivers coaches in the last six years, was a graduate assistant before UF's previous WR coach, Joker Phillips, suddenly resigned in June because of possible recruiting violations.

Similarly, graduate assistant Bush Hamdan took over as Florida's receivers coach just weeks before the 2012 season opener when his predecessor, Aubrey Hill, resigned for personal reasons after his name surfaced in connection with recruiting violations at his previous stop with the University of Miami.

Former Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease, now a wide receivers coach for Washington, recently said the coaching turnover at the wide receiver position is a key element of the Gators' struggles.

"It's hard. There's no consistency," he said. "You've got to feel for the kids, what they're being taught and what their development is."

Sympathy abounds, but answers are harder to find.

Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, hired a few weeks after Pease was fired in December, feels his receivers might be trying too hard.

"I think right now, they’re like anybody else. They don’t want to let anybody down," he said. "I don’t see it as a lack of concentration for the most part. I see it as trying not to make a mistake, and it maybe leads to that."

Roper has faith in what he and Leak are coaching in practice, the way they simulate game conditions and preach that their receivers treat every play as if they are the primary target.

Pease, a proven receivers coach in his own right who has sent several players to the NFL, thinks the Gators just need some explosive passes to loosen everything up.

"I think the main thing it comes down to is just hitting some big plays, I really do," he said. "That's what changes the momentum of games."

Muschamp, who said before the season that this was his deepest and most talented group of pass-catchers, will rely on that depth and turn to the bench if necessary.

"When guys continue to not be productive," he said, "you've got to go another direction."

There's only one way to go -- up.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was supposed to be so different. Every story, every prediction, every quote in the offseason said this would be Jeff Driskel's year.

But so far, the Florida quarterback's junior season is no different than his first three.

Criticism, confusion and competition never cease to follow Driskel, the former No. 1 high school quarterback prospect in the nation.

At the midpoint of the season, Florida (3-2, 2-2 in the SEC) just can't seem to shake out of the offensive doldrums that have plagued the program since Driskel's arrival.

Much of the blame has fallen on the fourth-year quarterback.

"Yeah, there's a lot out there so you can't really shield yourself from all of it," Driskel said recently, adding that he tries to stay off of social media. "That's just part of playing quarterback here.

"You've just got to be even-keeled and keep moving forward. I'm grown. I can handle it."

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesJeff Driskel has become a scapegoat for the Gators' problems on offense.
Born and raised in Oviedo, Florida, Driskel knew what he was getting into at Florida when he committed to play for Urban Meyer in 2010. What he couldn't have foreseen was three offensive coordinators in a three-year span.

Brent Pease, Florida's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who was fired last December after a 4-8 season, has sympathy for Driskel's situation.

"What life’s all about is finding a comfort zone, a security blanket," Pease said. "You know, I’m sure I was different than Charlie Weis and Kurt Roper is different than me. It’s tough no matter what. I don’t think you can find a lot of success when that happens."

Roper, Florida's current coordinator, and Pease agree that Driskel has the mental toughness to handle the role. But expectations have always been so high.

"Even if you accomplish something well, is it going to be enough at Florida?" Pease said. "It’s hard on him. Eventually all that stuff does wear down on you."

Pease said he still follows all of his Florida QBs. Two who transferred -- Jacoby Brissett and Tyler Murphy -- played against each other last week as starters for NC State and Boston College.

Neither could win the job at Florida, but both have found some success elsewhere. Driskel's career, meanwhile, has been plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness.

Pease, now the wide receivers coach at Washington, said he still thinks about being at Florida right now had Driskel not broken his leg and missed most of the 2013 season.

"I just hope the kid plays with confidence and everyone keeps their confidence and competitive edge around him," said Pease. "He’s definitely got the ability, and there is a lot of talent on the team."

The difference is that at this point in Florida's season and with coach Will Muschamp's job very much on the line, patience is running thin.

The Gators benched Driskel after three turnovers and no points against Tennessee two weeks ago. True freshman Treon Harris quickly turned the game around in a come-from-behind win.

Driskel will start, but both quarterbacks will play on Saturday in Florida's homecoming game, a critical SEC East matchup against Missouri.

"We're both going to work for each other and we're both going to hope that other person does well when they're in," Driskel said Monday. "Obviously that's something that we think that can help the team. So if it's going to help the team, I'm all for it."

Roper remains solidly behind Driskel and has tried to temper the growing expectations that are being heaped upon the 19-year-old Harris.

"He doesn't understand what we're doing quite as well obviously because of his time that he's been here," Roper said of Harris on Tuesday. "The best way that I can say it is that he finds a way to make plays. Hopefully that continues."

Muschamp said there will be an ongoing evaluation during Saturday's game.

"We’re going to see who has the hot hand and see who’s helping move our football team and gives us the best opportunity to win," he said on Wednesday. "We’ll make that decision as we go through the game. Both guys deserve and have earned the opportunity to play."

Driskel says he's never shared snaps in a game before. He isn't sure how it’s all going to shake out, but he hasn't lost faith in himself, the offense or the team.

"Believe it or not, I'm not worried about me; I'm worried about the team," he said. "I want the team to play well. ...

"We’re confident in Treon. I think the guys are confident in me as well. It’s not going to be something that’s going to divide the team or anything like that."

At first glance: SEC Week 7

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
The state of Mississippi is on top, but Auburn is lurking.

Alabama isn't out of it, but South Carolina is.

Texas A&M doesn't have a defense, but Ole Miss certainly does.

Todd Gurley has the Heisman lead, but Dak Prescott isn't far off.

A lot happened this weekend, but like all the coaches we run into, we have a 24-hour rule, so it's time to take a look at the weekend ahead:

Game of the week: No. 2 Auburn at No. 3 Mississippi State
Yeah, no one thought this is how we'd see this game before the season started. But both of these teams appear to be for real, and, man, are they fun to watch. Both have explosive offenses, Heisman candidates at quarterback and defenses that are getting better every week. Mississippi State is coming off of a historic blowout over Texas A&M, while Auburn took LSU to the woodshed on the Plains. Both have a lot of momentum, and will likely be very emotionally charged in Starkville. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be in town, and for the second straight week, the state of Mississippi will be front and center for the college football world to see. The matchup at quarterback could be the best we've seen yet. Prescott and Nick Marshall are a spread coach's dream with the way they can run, but they are also throwing the ball better. This one will come down to defense. First one to hold strong, wins.

Player under pressure: Bo Wallace
After a dazzling performance in the win over Alabama (251 yards and three touchdowns), it's time to go right back out there and do it all over again. You better believe Wallace and his teammates will still be coming off a high from that upset win over the Crimson Tide, but it's time to shake that win off. Wallace has had a very up-and-down career with the Rebels in big games, but he took a major step forward against Alabama. Now, he has to keep it up if the Rebels are going to really challenge for the SEC West crown. As he goes, so does the Rebels' offense. He can't afford a letdown on the road in College Station. He gets a bad defense in Texas A&M, but he also faces a team that is reeling after such a bad day in Starkville. They'll be motivated and will throw everything at Wallace.

Coach under the microscope: Kevin Sumlin
No, Sumlin isn't remotely close to the hot seat, but it will be interesting to see how Sumlin changes things with his team this week. The offense, which was ineffective for most of the day against Mississippi State's defense, gets the SEC's top defense. The Rebels' defense has allowed just four touchdowns this season and is barely giving up 10 points a game. Sumlin needs to make sure quarterback Kenny Hill gets better protection against a very athletic Ole Miss front. Obviously, the defense is in major need of some real work. Now, a week won't fix everything, but the Aggies gave up 559 yards and 7.3 yards per play to the Bulldogs Saturday. Prescott engineered that performance, and Wallace should be licking his chops at the thought of playing this defense. If the Aggies want to stay in the West race, Saturday is a must-win game.

Storyline to watch: How much will Treon Harris play?
There is a quarterback controversy in Gainesville, but coach Will Muschamp isn't ready to say how he's going to handle it. Just what Gators fans need. Veteran Jeff Driskel just hasn't been effective enough in games, and his benching for Harris against Tennessee looked inevitable. Harris wasn't great, but he did lead the Gators on their only two scoring drives in an ugly win over Tennessee on the road. Hey, it's a start, right? Now, the Gators face an LSU defense that was torched by Auburn and steamrolled by Mississippi State. This is the perfect week to get Harris really involved in the offense because it needs a spark. Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have to have some packages for Harris, regardless of who starts.

Intriguing matchup: No. 7 Alabama at Arkansas
The Tide has now lost to its last three ranked opponents. For all the unnecessary flack that Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt took when he said that this wasn't the same Alabama team people were used to, he was absolutely correct. The offense took a few steps back against a talented Ole Miss defense, and its own defense gave up 20 points in the second half to the Rebels. Now, Alabama has to face a rested Arkansas offense that is rushing for 316 yards per game. The Tide will be jacked up to turn things around, but this is no gimmie for Alabama. Arkansas might not have much of a passing game, but running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams have combined to rush for 1,107 yards and 14 touchdowns. Alabama is allowing only 64 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry, but the Tide haven't faced a running game like this. Should be interesting to see how the defense responds Saturday in Fayetteville.

Don't forget about ...: No. 13 Georgia at No. 23 Missouri
The SEC East is still around, and this game will say a lot about how that race shapes up. Even though both of these teams are ranked, this game will take a back seat this weekend because of how strong the West is. That's OK, because these teams have no concern with what's happening on the other side of the league. Here are the matchups to watch: Todd Gurley vs. Missouri's defensive front and Maty Mauk vs. Georgia's secondary.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When he was introduced as Florida's offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper made one thing clear about his philosophical approach. It's not about yards or drives. It's all about points.

That is why Roper was all smiles after the Gators' offense was responsible for all but seven of the team's 65 points in the season opener. It was the kind of performance that made everyone -- fans, players and coaches -- happy.

In fact, the defining moment last Saturday might have come near the end of the game when fans were chanting "We want 70!"

A reporter asked coach Will Muschamp if he had ever heard that before.

[+] EnlargeKurt Roper
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoordinator Kurt Roper's offense totaled 655 yards on Saturday, more than twice what Florida averaged last season.
"You’ve been here," the embattled coach said with a laugh. "What do you think?"

In Muschamp's first three seasons, Florida's defense thrived while the offense languished near the bottom of many FBS categories. A rash of key injuries devastated any chance at a competent offense in 2013, which led to a seven-game losing streak, a 4-8 record, no bowl game for the first time since 1979, and some irate fans.

Last Saturday it all came to a head, as the Gators sought redemption in the Swamp.

"I knew the team was ready to explode and put on a great show for the fans, so I’m glad that we were able to do that," tight end Clay Burton said. "We have a lot more talent.

"We have a lot of belief in Coach Roper’s system. As a team, we’ve collectively bought in to his offense, and I’m just really excited for the rest of the season. It was great. We really needed it. That’s kind of an understatement, but we needed it."

For the first time in a long time, Florida's offense was able to just play. A good first drive bolstered the confidence that turned into a good first quarter, first half and so on.

"We talked about it as an offensive staff that it would be nice to have some success early, because then it does feed on itself," Roper said. "It does help."

Roper's offense was the big story of Florida's offseason. Among its promises were a faster tempo and open receivers. It delivered on both last week.

Here is a closer look at Florida's offensive improvement by the numbers:
  • The Gators averaged 66 offensive plays a game in 2013. They ran 50 plays in the first half against EMU and 86 total.
  • The total of 655 yards on Saturday was more than twice what UF averaged last season (316.7).
  • Florida had seven offensive touchdowns in the opener compared to 25 all of last season.
  • The Gators averaged 17.8 first downs last season and had 17 in the first half on Saturday.

Perhaps more important than the raw statistics was the emphatic change in Muschamp's approach to offense.

Two instances show a significant change. First, Muschamp called a timeout with 2:13 on the clock in the second quarter after linebacker Neiron Ball had a sack. It was clear that the coach wanted to get his offense into a two-minute drill.

Second, he told Roper in the fourth quarter not to "sit on the ball" with regards to developing true freshman backup quarterback Treon Harris.

Afterward, Muschamp denied that his philosophy had changed.

"Well, we hadn’t been in that situation very often to be honest with you," he said. "So no, it’s not really a change. He needed to go play the game."

When it was over the players basked in the afterglow of their first win since beating Arkansas on Oct. 5, 2013.

"Yeah, this is what I envisioned, just being successful, winning football games like this, winning football games big," said senior center Max Garcia, who transferred to Florida from Maryland in 2012.

"I couldn't say that we would have beaten Eastern Michigan last year like that. I don't think we would. Guys were really excited just to play the game today."

Andre Debose, the gifted senior receiver/kick returner who returned for a sixth season after missing last season with a torn ACL, provided the ultimate perspective.

He was asked if he knew the last time Florida had scored as many points. He did. It was 2008, when Tim Tebow's Gators scored 70. He was asked if he recalled the opponent that day. He did. It was the Citadel.

“I’ve been here forever," Debose said with a huge grin. "Come on, man.”

Recruited in 2009 by Urban Meyer to be "the next Percy Harvin," Debose played with Tebow, Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper.

None of that compared with last week's season-opening romp, he said.

"This is the most fun that I’ve seen everybody have in the last six years, man," Debose proclaimed. "Just our offense, we know we’re good. You can see putting up 65 points.

"I haven’t seen that since I’ve been here. So this is just amazing, man. I’m very excited about this season."

SEC morning links

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
After what was a dull weekend around the SEC, we get a bit more spice in the lineup this week. We’re a long way from Saturday, though. Let’s regroup and take a quick look around the league with several days to go before some big games arrive for SEC clubs.

Poll watching: I’d imagine some Alabama fans were a bit perturbed by dropping a spot in Sunday’s new Associated Press poll, from second to third, after dismantling Florida Atlantic on Saturday. It doesn’t matter much, though. Here’s why: teams ranked fifth, seventh, 10thand 14th are also on the Crimson Tide’s schedule. They’ll have more than enough opportunity to prove they deserve a higher ranking before long.

Many national writers have been having a field day lately writing early obituaries for the Big Ten. The weekend was an unmitigated disaster for that league, so that’s obviously fertile column material these days. Meanwhile, the SEC keeps on keeping on, placing four teams in the AP’s top seven (Alabama, Auburn at No. 5, Georgia at No. 6 and Texas A&M at No. 7) and five in the top 10 (LSU comes in at No. 10). Overall, eight SEC teams are in the top 25 (add No. 14 Ole Miss, No. 20 Missouri and No. 24 South Carolina).

The SEC’s lofty poll position only reinforces its spot as the home of the “Haves” in college football – a sport where the class divide between rich and poor seems to grow by the season. However, I never would have expected the Big Ten to languish among the “Have Nots” – not this early in the season, anyway. They usually wait until bowl season to receive that annual reminder.

Points to prove: Jokes aside, this is going to be an enormous weekend for a few of the ranked SEC teams. Specifically South Carolina and Missouri.

If Georgia goes into Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday and wins, not only will the Bulldogs jump into the driver’s seat in the SEC East, they might hand Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks an early knockout blow. South Carolina is already wobbly after a humiliating beating from Texas A&M in the opener, and the effects seemed to linger in Saturday’s 33-23 win against East Carolina. If they fall to 1-2 and 0-2 in league play, it will be time to re-evaluate things. They typically give Georgia all it wants in Columbia, though, so I’m sure Mark Richt doesn’t expect anything to come easily on Saturday. It never does for Georgia at Williams-Brice.

When it comes to Mizzou, I’ll be honest: I’m not impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Seriously, if the Tigers lose to Central Florida this weekend – I doubt that will happen, but UCF was a handful for Penn State in Ireland – I’m going to start wondering whether Mizzou will even become bowl eligble.

That would be an overreaction since Mizzou’s schedule is so weak that a decent non-BCS team would have a shot at getting to six wins. But reasonable Tigers fans can’t love what they’ve seen so far. South Dakota State was down by just three points about five minutes after halftime in the opener. And Toledo had 410 yards of total offense on Saturday, but repeatedly shot itself in the foot after gashing the Missouri defense for huge gains.

Nonetheless, the Tigers closed strong in both games and posted two 20-point wins while breaking in a bunch of new players. I didn’t think last season’s Mizzou team would be able to go the distance, either, and that group certainly proved me wrong. From what I’ve seen of these Tigers, though, they’ve got a lot of improving to do before they’re poll-worthy, much less legit contenders in the SEC East. But like I mentioned earlier with Alabama, Missouri will have the chance to prove where it belongs soon enough – particularly in the three-game stretch that arrives in a couple of weeks where it will visit South Carolina and Florida and host Georgia.

Gator believer: Here’s a team I am on board with, though: Florida. At least to the extent that I believe they’re going to make life interesting in the SEC East.

I’m not sitting in the front seat of the bandwagon yet, but it’s been apparent since Will Muschamp arrived in Gainesville that his teams will field a championship-caliber defense. The trick seemed to be building an offense that a smart-aleck sportswriter couldn’t accurately describe as “bumbling.”

The Gators appear to have at least that, and probably one that is much better than average, judging by its 65-0 win against Eastern Michigan. That defense will indeed be great and Kurt Roper seems to have things rolling with Jeff Driskel and company. The schedule is unforgiving, though, seeing how Florida’s cross-division games are against Alabama and LSU, plus they’ll have to face Florida State at the end of the year. But I’ve already seen enough to believe that Muschamp’s team is going to hang around the Eastern Division race this season – partially because the division is not that great and partially because this team looks to have legitimate firepower on offense, defense and special teams.

A few more links for the morning:

" LSU’s defense has held opponents scoreless for nearly six quarters.

" Auburn defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker continues to deal with an “irritating” knee issue.

" Richt called receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell doubtful for the South Carolina game.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
OK, so the competition wasn’t the best in the SEC this weekend. But players play, they don’t make the schedule.

Here’s a look at the top performances from Week 2:
  • Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: Granted, he didn’t have to do much. But Allen made the most of every pass attempt he had in the 73-7 win over Nicholls State. The junior who entered this season battling for his starting job was sharp, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. There may have been some quarterbacks in the SEC with better overall numbers, but none was more efficient than Allen.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: Maybe it’s Gus Malzahn’s system. Or maybe Artis-Payne is the same caliber running back as his predecessor, Tre Mason. However you draw it up, Artis-Payne sure looked like an All-SEC back in the 59-13 win over San Jose State, racking up three touchdowns and 100 yards -- in the first half. It’s scary to think what he could have done if he had carried the ball more than twice in the final two quarters.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: It didn’t matter who was throwing him the football, Cooper was going to make a play in the Crimson Tide's 41-0 win. Of the 26 Alabama receptions on passes from Blake Sims and Jake Coker against Florida Atlantic, Cooper caught half of them. His 189 receiving yards pulled him within 15 yards of Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's career record at Alabama.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: Jarvis Landry is where now? And Odell Beckham? No matter. LSU seems to have found its playmaking receiver in Dural, who was third fiddle to Beckham and Landry last season. After a solid season opener against Wisconsin, Dural followed it up in the 56-0 victory over Sam Houston State, catching three passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a 94-yard bomb.
  • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: Mauk single-handedly carried the Missouri offense against Toledo, accounting for six of the Tigers’ seven total touchdowns. The sophomore threw for a whopping 325 yards and five touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing in the 49-24 win. He also ran the ball 12 times for 36 yards and a score.
  • Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator, Florida: We don’t often hand out helmet stickers to coaches, but this felt like the exception to the rule. I mean, just look at how bad -- and stagnant -- Florida’s offense was last season. Now look at how efficient and explosive it was Saturday. Even if it was Eastern Michigan, you have to tip your cap to Roper, who helped UF to 655 total yards of offense in the 65-0 victory. He checked all the marks: quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for nearly 250 yards, three running backs ran for 50 yards or more and 11 different players had a reception.
You really can't take a lot from a week that featured more cupcakes on the slate than your neighborhood bakery, but we did learn a little more about SEC teams Saturday:

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
John Raoux/Associated PressDemarcus Robinson was a key cog in Florida's explosive offense on Saturday.
1. Florida's offense is better: OK, so it was against Eastern Michigan, but there's no question Florida's offense looked better during the Gators' 65-0 route of the Eagles than it has since Tim Tebow was running things in Gainesville in 2009. The Gators outgained an incredibly outmatched EMU team 655-125 and averaged 7.6 yards per play. Quarterback Jeff Driskel returned from last year's season-ending injury to throw for 248 yards and a touchdown on 31 completions. Running backs Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Brandon Powell combined to rush for 215 yards and four touchdowns, while backup quarterback Treon Harris threw for 148 yards and two touchdowns on two passes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida posted the most points (65), yards (655) and 30-yard plays (six) in any game under coach Will Muschamp. This isn't what Florida's offense will look like every week, and its opponent wasn't much competition at all, but it was the exact dress rehearsal Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wanted -- and needed. Roper had the Gators' offense moving with that tempo, as Florida ran 86 plays and had run 49 plays on EMU's side of the field by the early part of the fourth quarter. Driskel looked comfortable throwing downfield, as he went through his progressions and his receivers were actually finding space and making plays. Keep an eye on sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson, who caught six passes for 123 yards and a 70-yard touchdown.

2. New Vanderbilt looks more like old Vanderbilt: After three great years with James Franklin manning Vandy's ship, the anchor appears to have dropped on this program. Through two weeks, the Commodores have been absolutely embarrassed in their home city by Temple (37-7) last week and Ole Miss on Saturday (41-3). Vandy is without an offensive touchdown and averaging just 222.5 yards of offense per game. This team looks nothing like the three that went to three consecutive bowl games and had back-to-back nine-win seasons. The body language was bad, and there just didn't seem to be much rhythm among the players or between the players and the coaches. Quarterback Stephen Rivers finished Saturday's game completing 6 of 25 passes for 60 yards and an interception. Vandy's defense surrendered 547 yards of offense to the Rebels, who moved up and down the field at will and never punted. Vandy is the only team in the SEC without a win, and it appears next week's game against UMass is far from a given for the 'Dores. Oh, and this.

3. Alabama's quarterback competition is ... complicated: We finally saw extensive work from Jake Coker, but we also saw a very efficient Blake Sims in Alabama's 41-0 win over FAU. So now what? Well, as my esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough said earlier, it's complicated. Sims finished the day with 214 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-13 passing. Coker threw for 202 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-24 passing. Sims did everything he was asked to do, but where Coker clearly has the advantage is throwing downfield. He has a cannon for an arm and might be the best solution down the road when it comes to facing better defenses, but he still struggled with directing the offense and failed to score close to the goal line just before halftime. He hasn't earned the starting job, and Sims is clearly ahead right now. Still, Coker will have every chance to win the job. Both get one more tuneup in Southern Miss before they host Florida.

4. Mississippi State's defense has some fine-tuning to do: For all the positive talk about a very talented -- and deep -- defense coming back in Starkville, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said the pass defense in the Bulldogs' 47-34 win over UAB was "embarrassing." And he was right. Mississippi State, which allowed just 205 passing yards per game this past season, surrendered 435 passing yards and touchdowns of -- wait for it -- 75, 81 and 88 yards Saturday. The Blazers averaged 27.2 yards per completion. UAB's offense exposed Mississippi State's secondary and its pass rush. The good news for the Bulldogs is they get cream puff South Alabama next.

5. The SEC West worked out some kinks: Remember that saying about teams making the biggest jumps from Week 1 to Week 2? Well, that can be said about the SEC West. After contenders Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss all had their struggles, they bounced back royally Saturday. Yes, Bama and LSU were playing overmatched, nonconference opponents, and this certainly isn't the Vandy we've seen the past couple of years, but all three played exactly like they should. Alabama's secondary made vast improvements against FAU, while LSU ran, threw and stuffed Sam Houston State. Ole Miss went from ugly in Week 1 to a swan with its rout of Vandy, with Bo Wallace throwing for 320 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions. Auburn made quick work of San Jose State, and Arkansas ran for 495 yards and scored 73 points in their route of Nicholls State. Texas A&M manhandled Lamar 73-3 and didn't allow a touchdown. Mississippi State was the only West team to take a step back, but the offense still registered 516 yards.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
Noon ET

Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:

SEC morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
1. Raise your hand if you saw that coming from Texas A&M last night? Nobody? That's OK, I didn't and neither did my SEC colleagues, as evidenced by our Week 1 predictions. The Aggies coming out of Columbia, South Carolina with a win wasn't far-fetched but absolutely dominating? That was unexpected. Especially for the College Station-area Ashley Furniture store. Ashley promised customers free furniture if the Aggies beat the Gamecocks by 10 or more points. The result? More than $1 million in free furniture given away. The Aggies themselves were pretty fired up, evidenced by this celebration video involving Kevin Sumlin and the team. But the biggest story on Thursday night was none other than quarterback Kenny Hill, who -- in his first career start -- broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record for passing yards and completions. Hill proved that the Aggies are far from a one-trick pony.

2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.

3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."

More from around the SEC
Tweets of the day

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you ask Kurt Roper the coach to go back in time and evaluate Kurt Roper the quarterback, you'll get a belly laugh as he describes himself essentially as a recruiting whiff.

"Not good enough!" he chortles. "A miss!"

It's easy for Roper, now the offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators, to wax nostalgic about his all-too-brief career as a college quarterback since he's carved out a reputation as something of a quarterback whisperer more than two decades later.

A winning quarterback at Ardmore (Okla.) High School, Roper was good enough to earn a scholarship to play quarterback for the Rice Owls. His first meeting with his offensive coordinator, the late Mike Heimerdinger, brought a sense of inadequacy that offense was something far more complex than what he was used to.

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Kurt Roper
AP Photo/Phil Sandlin"He's always a positive guy, and we need that around here," Jeff Driskel said of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
"We're having a meeting the night before the first practice and he starts talking to me about defenses," Roper says. "And I had never even thought about defenses. I'm sitting there going, ‘Hey wait a second, what play are we running? Tell me the play.'

"And he's talking to me about how a defense is going to be manipulated by this formation and it's going to remove this guy. And I'm already looking out the window and I see the other guys going to eat dinner. I'm thinking, ‘What am I doing? What's going on here?' "

A week later Roper was moved to defensive back.

The irony that he is now known for being a coordinator, QB coach and play caller is not lost on Roper. His vivid recollection of that first meeting illustrates how far he's come.

"It was all eye opening," Roper said last week. "I don't really know that I start getting a huge understanding of [offense] until I really started coaching it and Coach Cut started teaching me how to coach it."

Coach Cut is David Cutcliffe, a graybeard of Southern football who's been head coach at Duke since 2008.

Cutcliffe became a mentor to Roper, and the two worked side by side at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Duke. Their long partnership came to an end when Roper was hired in December to fix Florida's ailing offense.

"When I called Coach Cutcliffe about Kurt, he wasn't happy I was calling about Kurt," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, Roper's new boss. "But he certainly endorsed him as a football coach and a man."

Roper gives plenty of credit to Cutcliffe for the no-huddle spread offense he is installing at UF. But there were other key influences that have shaped his approach to coaching.

His father, Bobby Roper, brought intensity to his son's football upbringing.

"He was a defensive coordinator," Kurt said. "He was really a no-nonsense guy. He was really intense and tough to grow up around if things weren't necessarily going well all the time on the football field."

Roper also counts two of his position coaches at Ole Miss -- offensive line coach John Latina and running backs coach Rich Bisaccia -- as influences. Latina showed Roper how a sound offensive system helps make a sound line. Bisaccia helped foster Roper's ability to connect in his relationships with players and head coaches.

Joker Phillips, under whom Roper worked as the QBs coach at Kentucky in 2005, added the uptempo element Roper brought to Duke and now Florida.

The amalgamation of his past and the present opportunity to redefine and revive an offense that floundered for the previous three years are what make Roper the Gators' most important offseason addition.

After what Duke accomplished last season, Roper's presence commanded immediate respect. His personality brought a sense of calm and instilled confidence in his new players.

“He's always a positive guy, and we needed that around here," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, a fourth-year junior who has witnessed most of Florida's recent struggles from under center.

To a man, Florida's offensive players beam when they speak about their relationships with Roper. They say he's fun and funny and always has a story to tell from his football past.

"He's like a player out there," receiver Valdez Showers said. "He loves the game. He's always got energy. There's not one day where he comes out there down. You feed off his energy.

"He's always uptempo, so you want to be uptempo. That's the way the offense goes.”

On the verge of a crucial season, the Gators' offensive players are exuding the kind of attitude that hasn't been seen at UF since Tim Tebow's days.

They say they owe it to Roper and his offense. It's made them believers from early in spring practice when installation began to more recently in preseason camp and into their preparation for the fall.

"We've made a lot of big plays against a really good defense," Driskel said of facing Florida's vaunted D. " When that happens, you start to feel a little bit more excited and a little bit more confident. ...

"We had a really great, great camp. We protected the ball and made big plays. When you put those two things together, you're going to be looking at a pretty good offense.”

And a pretty good offensive mind behind it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sitting in a freshman humanities class, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III learned the harsh reality of losing in a Gators uniform.

The class was "What is the Good Life?" -- a required course for freshmen -- and students were asked to list their short-term life goals. With three football players -- Hargreaves, linebacker Matt Rolin and defensive back Nick Washington -- present, a student said she'd like to attend a Florida football game and actually see the Gators win.

Her words and eyes pierced through the players, shooting a humbling feeling through their bodies.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Will Muschamp said.
"We really couldn't say anything because we didn't win so she was basically telling the truth," Hargreaves said.

It was an uncomfortable reminder of one of the worst seasons in Florida football history. A rash of injuries and loss of leadership resulted in a disastrous 4-8 year, the first losing season for the Gators since 1979 and a missed a bowl for the first time since 1990.

"People are going to bash Coach [Will] Muschamp, they're going to bash us, even around campus," Hargreaves said. "… If you don't win at Florida they're going to talk about you, and they're going to talk about you right to your face."

As the Gators enter Year 4 of the Muschamp era, they'll do so with the program at a critical crossroads. Rebounding could throw a program six years removed from its third national championship back on its intended track. Another let down could send Florida into a tailspin.

There is no Urban Meyer for athletic director Jeremy Foley to hire if Muschamp doesn't work out. Florida can't afford to fall any further behind Eastern Division rivals Georgia and South Carolina, and the gap between instate rival Florida State is already wide enough. Not to mention, Miami, which beat Florida and won nine games last year, and Tennessee are having recruiting resurgences.

Florida's own recruiting has been successful, but coaching turnover could cut into that, leaving unknowns for the future.

There's panic and unrest in the Gator Nation, as Florida finds itself in a make-or-break situation in 2014.

Muschamp isn't blind to that reality. While he refuses to publicly acknowledge any sort of talk surrounding his job, which he's very much coaching for this fall, he understands how important this season is for a program that won 11 games two years ago. There's a reason he decided to completely change his offensive philosophy and hire former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will run an uptempo, spread offense.

So far, Muschamp has liked the progress made during practices. The offense is moving more smoothly and the defense still has the patented Muschamp bite to it.

"I feel like everything is headed in the right direction, personally," said Muschamp, who is 22-16 at Florida. "Every year is a pivotal year. I don't put any more pressure on myself, I don't work any harder than I worked last year. I worked hard last year so it's not like I have renewed energy. ... I was energized last year."

"I'm excited about this football team and moving forward."

What this team -- and Muschamp -- has to show is significant improvement. That will start with an offense that finished last year's regular season ranked 112th in total offense, but end with more victories than losses.

How many wins? That's yet to be seen, and athletic director Jeremy Foley has even come out recently and said that he has no requirement for Muschamp, he just wants progress.

That means a competitive offense, a team in the postseason and some sort of run toward an Eastern Division title. Winning the East probably isn't a must for Muschamp, but being in the race late in the season could be.

Florida has a certain standard it should be living up to, and losing to the top teams on its schedule -- even by the smallest of margins -- isn't good enough. This is a program used to winning, not settling for close losses.

"This is the best team chemistry I've been around ever since I started playing football," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "I feel good about this year. I think this year's going to be special.

"We have a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys with bad tastes in their mouths and they're just ready to get it out."

After a year that featured an embarrassing home loss to Georgia Southern, any sort of positive news out of a camp comes with cautious optimism for fans. For a program that achieved wild success in the 1990s and won two national titles under its last coach, Florida hit a wall last season.

Now we find out which direction this team will propel the program in.

"It's a humbling experience to go 4-8 at the University of Florida," Muschamp said. "You get your ass kicked enough and you get tired of it and you decide to do something about it. That's what this team has done."



Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12