Will Florida Gators Take the Next Step in 2013 or Take a Step Back?

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2013

Florida QB Jeff Driskel
Florida QB Jeff DriskelKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In recent years, we've seen several second-year head coaches make an immediate impact in the SEC.

Former Florida head coach Urban Meyer won the 2006 BCS National Championship in his second year in Gainesville. Current Alabama head coach Nick Saban led Alabama to an undefeated regular season and within one quarter of the BCS National Championship Game in 2008. Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik hoisted the crystal football following the 2010 season—his second on the Plains.

Florida head coach Will Muschamp kept that tradition alive in 2012, leading the Gators to an 11-1 regular-season record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl in his second year at the helm.

Talk about setting the bar high for yourself.

Can the Gators take the next step in 2013, play for the SEC Championship out of the wide open SEC East and thrust themselves back into the BCS National Championship picture?

It's going to take some work.

Florida wasn't so much embarrassed in its 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl as much as it was exposed. 

The Gators relied on defense and the ground game all season long, but when the defense let the team down in New Orleans, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and quarterback Jeff Driskel were simply unable to mount any sort of sustained comeback through the air.

An offseason of work as the starting quarterback should help Driskel's development, and the arrival of five wide receivers in the class of 2013—including three with four stars, according to 247Sports.com—should give the passing game a small boost, too.

However, that may not be good enough.

Thanks to the departure of seven starters, Florida is going through a massive overhaul on the defensive side of the football, and will have to find someone—likely Matt Jones—to replace departed running back Mike Gillislee.

Sure, the Gators have recruited well. Players like defensive ends Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard should grow into stars. The return of Ronald Powell from injury should go a long way towards stabilizing that defense, too. However, that's still a lot of roster turnover to overcome.

The schedule doesn't exactly set up well, either. In addition to tough out-of-conference games at Miami (Fla.) and vs. Florida State, the Gators visit annual cross-division rival LSU on Oct. 12, try to break their two-game losing streak to Georgia in Jacksonville on Nov. 2 and travel to South Carolina to close out the SEC schedule on Nov. 16.

Navigating that schedule to a point of getting back into title contention with so many question marks won't be easy.

There's no doubt that Florida was ahead of schedule in 2012, but what's done is done. Whether it's fair or not, expectations for the program are back to the somewhat expected level of competing for SEC and national titles on a regular basis.

There's a lot of uncertainty in the SEC East. Georgia lost 10 key contributors from its defense, South Carolina has to replace running back Marcus Lattimore and six senior starters from its defense, Vanderbilt is still building and Tennessee is still a year or two away from getting back into legitimate contention. 

The door is certainly open for Florida to make it back to the Georgia Dome as the champions of the SEC East. However, the division is more likely to beat itself up in 2013 than it is to produce a national title contender. That may mean that Florida will be stuck in neutral for the next 12 months or so.

Judging from the way Muschamp is recruiting, it looks like that will only be temporary.



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