Photo courtesy of Florida Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Will Muschamp's first year as the head coach of the Florida Gators was a disappointing one, at least with respect to the lofty standards expected from the program after two decades of unprecedented success.
Florida got off to a hot start, opening the season 4-0, but then the wheels came off as the team would go winless in the month of October and finished the regular season at just 6-6. The Gators did not fare well against the cream of the crop in the SEC, going 0-5 against ranked opponents, with losses at LSU (41-11), Auburn (17-6) and South Carolina (17-12), and at home versus Alabama (38-10) and Georgia (24-20).
Florida accepted a bid to play in the Gator Bowl, where it defeated Ohio State, 24-17. The win brought their overall record to 7-6, thus allowing the Gators to avoid their first losing season since 1979.
OFFENSE: The Florida offense was not up to snuff in 2011, as the unit ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring offense (25.5 ppg) and 10th in total offense (328.7 ypg). With last season's quarterback John Brantley now graduated, the team will turn to a pair of sophomores to try and fill the void.
Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel saw action last season but neither was very successful, the two combining for just 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions on 73 pass attempts. Both were highly-touted prospects coming out of high school in 2009, and although they each have the skills to be effective, neither has emerged as the clear-cut favorite to earn the job.
"Both guys are certainly qualified for the position," Muschamp said at the SEC media day. "If you saw the spring game, you saw what I saw for 14 practices: Two guys that are very even in that competition. They're even going into fall camp and they'll get equal reps."
No Florida receiver amassed more than 400 yards last season, but whichever young signal-caller lines up under center, he will have a number of experienced pass catchers to aid him, including returning starters Quinton Dunbar (216 yards, 2 TDs) and Frankie Hammond (181 yards), and tight end Jordan Reed (307 yards, 2 TDs).
With the top two rushers from 2011 gone, senior Mike Gillislee will have his chance to make an impact this year after rushing for 328 yards (5.9 ypc) a season ago. It will help that a veteran offensive line will be blocking for him, with tackle Chaz Green, guard John Halapio and center Jonotthan Harrison all returning as starters.
DEFENSE: In a conference chock full of stout defenses, the Gators managed to hold their own last year, ranking sixth in scoring defense (20.6 ppg) and fifth in total defense (299.6 ypg).
The strength of the unit lies in the linebacking corps, where all three starters return. Jon Bostic (team-best 94 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks), Jelani Jenkins (75 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 interception) and Lerentee McCray (7.5 tackles for loss) should all benefit from playing together for an entire season.
The secondary remains largely intact as well, with safeties Matt Elam (78 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries) and Josh Evans (51 tackles) hoping to improve upon stellar seasons.
Only one member of the defensive line returns (Ronald Powell, who had a team- high 6 sacks in 2011), but Muschamp likes what he sees in his defensive unit as a whole.
"I feel comfortable with our leadership where it is," Muschamp said. "(The defense) has a high expectation level of themselves of what they need to do to be successful."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Caleb Sturgis was fantastic last season, connecting on 22-of-26 field goal attempts, including three from 50 yards or longer. Kyle Christy shared the punting duties last season, averaging 40.9 yards on 30 punts, but with David Lerner gone, the job this year is his alone.
Andre Debose will likely serve as the team's primary kick returner once again after returning 19 kicks for 495 yards, which included a 99-yard touchdown return in the Gator Bowl.
OUTLOOK: Muschamp's first year in Gainesville was certainly not what he had hoped for, but he understands that building a team into a contender does not happen overnight.
"Every decision I make is for the long-term success of our program," Muschamp said. "As I said plenty of times, we're building a program, not a team. That's where we are right now. Very pleased with our off-season program. Very pleased with spring ball. (I'm) excited about this team, their commitment level, their discipline for what we're trying to do to be successful."
Obviously, much of this season's success rides on the performance of either Brissett or Driskel at quarterback, but whomever wins the jobs (or even a combination of both), exceeding the modest success Brantley had last season in paramount.
With a sparse pool of skill players and a solid defense, Florida might be able to make a small improvement from its 7-6 record in 2011. Expecting much more at this point is a stretch.