A lot can and will happen between now and when the Gators take the field for their 12 scheduled games next year, both for Florida and their opponents. But with the 2013 debacle in the rearview mirror, why not fast forward to 2014?
I’ll go far more in depth as the season draws nearer, but I need to know who’s won starting jobs, who got hurt in spring practice, etc. before I do the type of full scale game projections that made me famous over at Alligator Army. This is just the first of two or three game by game projections.
Game 1: Idaho Vandals (1-11 in 2013)
Take your pick between this game and the following week against Eastern Michigan in the “which will be more boring” poll. I don’t care how negative you are about new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, Jeff Driskel will more likely than not light Idaho up for some big numbers. This is an Idaho team that won just one game against very poor competition in 2013, and gave up 80 points (yes, in football) to Florida State, and 2014 promises to be little better. It could quite possibly be a false indicator of how Driskel’s (and the offense’s as a whole) season will go, but worst case scenario… hey, let’s just enjoy the mirage while it lasts.
Projection: Florida 34, Idaho 10
Game 2: Eastern Michigan Eagles (2-10 in 2013)
Another week, another snoozer for Florida fans. The Gatorbait this time are the Eagles from Eastern Michigan, the cellar dwellars of the MAC, a conference that usually causes Florida more trouble than Gator fans would care to admit. Not this time, though. Not with a team that finished dead last in that conference and was rarely even competitive. After establishing Driskel against Idaho, I say Roper leans more on Kelvin Taylor, who burns Eastern Michigan’s famously bad defense for a near record number of yards in the Gators’ second straight blowout.
Projection: Florida 31, Eastern Michigan 6
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats (2-10, 0-8 SEC in 2013)
This game will probably be slightly more competitive, not necessarily because Kentucky is any better than the first two teams Florida plays, but because Kurt Roper will probably be saving something up for Alabama, who the Gators visit the following week. But while Florida’s offense may struggle ever so slightly, their defense will make sure this is never a game. Whoever Mark Stoops decides to start at quarterback (my personal guess is Jalen Whitlow) is going to regret the day he was born after the Gators’ defense gets done with him. This will be the Gators’ 28th consecutive victory over the Wildcats, and could give Florida some false confidence heading into the meat of the schedule.
Projection: Florida 30, Kentucky 9
Game 4: @Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-2 SEC in 2013)
You can bet Nick Saban will have his guys ready for this game. Alabama will be breaking in several new starters, including a new QB, so they may not run the table next year, but no way will they blow a game this early, especially not to a team as bad as Florida and that goes double on its home turf. The Gators’ storybook 31-20 win in the 2008 SEC Championship Game is already a distant memory, as Alabama has beaten Florida three straight times since then. The Gators might actually make this game competitive for a little while with Kelvin Taylor gaining some yards, but failures in the red zone and the inability to contain TJ Yeldon will have the Tide will rolling along by the time the fourth quarter starts. An explosive, two/three headed running game is needed to beat a Nick Saban coached Alabama team. The Texas A&M and Auburn teams that upset Alabama over the last two years each had one. Florida does not.
Projection: Alabama 38, Florida 16
Game 5: @Tennessee Volunteers (5-7, 2-6 SEC in 2013)
Here’s the game that makes or breaks Will Muschamp in Jeremy Foley’s eyes. If Florida loses to Tennessee, who can they realistically be expected to beat? Butch Jones has showed his teams don’t mess around on their home field against teams not up for the challenge. The Vols took 6th ranked Georgia to overtime and totally wrecked South Carolina’s national championship dream. Next up is the team that’s beaten them nine straight and is gunning for a double digit win streak. Tennessee certainly won’t be scared of Florida; their two prior games are road trips to Oklahoma and then Georgia, and last year, they played Florida very tough after replacing the ineffective Nathan Peterman with Justin Worley (note: I believe if Tennessee starts Worley last year, the Vols win that game). If Tennessee doesn’t end the streak in 2014, they never will. I’ll go with Florida, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps the defense stops Worley on a potential game winning drive- but don’t get me wrong, I would not be surprised at all if Tennessee pulls it off.
Projection: Florida 24, Tennessee 20
Game 6: LSU Tigers (9-3, 5-3 SEC in 2013)
The Tigers typically employ a nasty, physical defense under Les Miles, but in 2013 it seemed to be gone until they shut down Texas A&M. Of course, their D also looked really good against Florida, but hey, who didn’t look good against Florida? In other words, there are a couple of games I think Florida could potentially win that they’re not supposed to, but forget about this one. LSU may lose some key defensive players to the NFL such as Ego Ferguson and maybe Anthony Johnson, but they always seem to reload. They’ll swarm Jeff Driskel and blanket Kelvin Taylor. On the other side of the ball, as long as Jeremy Hill stays out of trouble and on the field and give new QB Anthony Jennings a nice security blanket, LSU will cruise. Florida’s scored three touchdowns on LSU’s defense in the last three meetings. Make it three in the last four meetings for LSU. The Tigers are my way-too-early pick to win the national championship.
Projection: LSU 31, Florida 6
Game 7: Missouri Tigers (11-2, 7-1 SEC in 2013)
Missouri won’t dominate the SEC in 2014 quite like they did in 2013, but they’re still the defending SEC East Champs and I expect them to play the part. Maty Mauk will step in James Franklin, and he did a hell of a job this past season in relief effort (though Mizzou’s only regular season loss came against South Carolina with Mauk). Henry Josey will also come back, and that doesn’t bode well for a Gators defense that he gashed for 136 yards last season. The Tigers do have a shoddy defense, thanks to the departure of ball hawking safety EJ Gaines (among others), and thus, I expect Jeff Driskel to have some success throwing the ball and Kelvin Taylor running it. But I can’t expect Kurt Roper to work a miracle and outduel Mizzou’s potent attack. Give me Missouri in a shootout, with Josey breaking off a long, clinching touchdown run with just a few minutes to go.
Projection: Missouri 37, Florida 28
Game 8: Georgia Bulldogs (at Jacksonville, FL) (8-5, 5-3 SEC in 2013)
Here comes the next test for Will Muschamp. Sporting an 0-7 lifetime record in this rivalry, he’s going to have to avoid falling to 0-8, or he will be righteously fired unless this is Florida’s first loss. Georgia loses a lot of offensive firepower, but they don’t lose running backs Todd Gurley or Keith Marshall. Hutson Mason has a lot of upside replacing the iconic Aaron Murray at QB, and this defense promises to be much improved with guys like Jordan Jenkins having learned from a shaky 2013 and stepping up. I think Florida’s actually going to be the (slightly) better team, if not dead even, but that’s not going to matter. Florida will never beat Georgia again as long as Muschamp’s the head coach, and you can hold that against me forever if I’m wrong (the curse, folks, the curse). The defense holds their own against “Gurshall” and Mason, but Jeff Driskel throws a late pick in the end zone to clinch the loss, and sealing Muschamp’s fate.
Projection: Georgia 20, Florida 13
Game 9: @Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4, 4-4 SEC in 2013)
Having recently dismissed Will Muschamp after the fourth straight loss to Georgia, I expect the Gators to play dead against Vandy. Remember how that worked out in the Sugar Bowl, and against Georgia Southern? Patton Robinette figures to make his second start at QB against Florida, and it could be even better for him and worse for Florida than the first one even if he only gains 50 yards or so like he did last year. All he has to do is not turn it over, wait for Florida to do just that and it’ll all be easy as pie for the Commodores. This is, of course, assuming James Franklin stays at Vandy and doesn’t take another job, and is able to light the fire into his team that convinces them that they can actually win the SEC East. If Vandy can survive a road test to Georgia and split home games with Missouri and South Carolina, they could very much be playing for their first ever trip to Atlanta. Florida actually outgained Vandy two to one last year, but turnovers doomed the Gators that day, and I expect them to again.
Projection: Vanderbilt 23, Florida 7
Game 10: South Carolina Gamecocks (11-2, 6-2 SEC in 2013)
The Gamecocks have been the one team Will Muschamp coached Gator teams have always been competitive against. With the game being moved to the Swamp, and considering how close Florida came to pulling off the upset in Columbia last year, I can actually envision this upset happening. Much has been made about the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, but perhaps even more important is the departure of Kelcy Quarles, who made big plays when the opponent focused on Clowney, and focused away from him. Also gone are top cornerback Victor Hampton and dual threat QB Connor Shaw, and star wideout Bruce Ellington might join them. In other words, the Gamecocks’ personnel losses are huge, and won’t be able to replace them adequately enough to have the kind of success Steve Spurrier is used to. Meanwhile, the Gators will turn this into the Will Muschamp version of Ron Zook Field, winning a game for their lame duck coach that essentially means nothing. Kurt Roper turns Jeff Driskel loose, and Florida pulls it off.
Projection: Florida 28, South Carolina 23
Game 11: Eastern Kentucky Colonels (6-6 in 2013) (FCS)
Can Florida avoid choking on the cupcake this time around? No promises, but I think this time, they’ll be OK. For one, the Colonels don’t run the triple option. For another, Muschamp is a player’s coach, and though the team will be upset that he’s been fired, they’ll play their hearts out for them. That should be sufficient against a team that’s just about average in the FCS, and likes to use physicality to bully opponents around, which falls right into Muschamp’s strike zone. One last time under Will Muschamp, Florida’s defense will put on a show, and Jeff Driskel will have a field day against a defense that allowed four of its twelve opponents last year to score 42 points or more.
Projection: Florida 37, Eastern Kentucky 0
Game 12: @Florida State Seminoles (13-0 in 2013) (ACC)
FSU may not be an SEC team, but they sure play like one. Under Jimbo Fisher, they’ve built a blueprint not unlike the best SEC teams of the past decade. Receiver Kenny Shaw may be leaving for the NFL, and Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. could join them, but assuming FSU holds on to Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene, and with Jameis Winston throwing them the ball, look out. On the other side of the ball, Jalen Ramsey has risen up to be one of the nation’s best cover corners, and figures to lead another stout FSU defense. I actually think FSU will take a step back in 2014 due to an increasingly tough schedule and I also think that with nothing to lose, Florida will play hard for their lame duck coach. Neither will stop FSU from pounding the Gators into pig slop on their home turf.
Projection: FSU 45, Florida 17
So, that puts Florida at 6-6, and likely in the Liberty, BBVA Compass or (if they’re lucky) the Gator Bowl (which they made at 6-6 in 2011, so you never know). There are a handful of games I could see going either way, such as Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee. I have Florida going 2-2 in those games, and that’s not going to be good enough. If there’s any chance whatsoever that Will Muschamp will remain in Gainesville, he’s simply got to win all four of those games. That would put Florida at 8-4 on the year, which isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s also not going to undo the damage of going 4-8 and losing to an FCS team the year before where going 10-2 probably would.
If Muschamp plans on remaining the Gators’ head coach, he’s got to do better than 8-4. He’s got to pull off a huge upset, meaning two of the games that I wrote off as impossible. That means either LSU at home, or Vanderbilt, Alabama or Florida State on the road. Bottom line: he has to go 2-2 in those four games, and sweep the four tossups I mentioned, and of course the four gimme wins I marked down as well.
Again, I’ll be doing updated, much more in-depth previews of each game as the season gets closer. For now, though, chew on this, and let me know what you think.