Florida was a very, very good football team last year, even if the Gators mastered the art of not showing it. Their 11 wins weren't a mirage ... but admit it: Of Mizzou's big three home opponents (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M), the Gators are by far the one you think Mizzou has the best shot of beating, right? They were last year, anyway.
The school of Steve Spurrier and fun 'n' gun and Wuerffel-to-Anthony-and-Hilliard, the school of Urban Meyer and the spread and Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, once again won big in 2012. After two lackluster seasons that saw the Gators go just 15-11, their worst two-year win percentage since 1987-88, they were back in the national title race. They beat South Carolina by 33 points, came back to win at Texas A&M, and rode late surges to wins over LSU and Florida State. They beat three top-10 teams and went 11-1 in the regular season (their only loss featured some really bad breaks in the turnovers department), and if there were a four-team playoff, as there will be beginning in 2014, they would have probably been in it.
But goodness, did Florida play some ugly football. It was ugly by design, of course; it perfectly matched the intense, aesthetics-eschewing personality of head coach Will Muschamp, who seemed to watch recent Alabama teams and think, "I like what they're doing, but I don't know why they have to be so flashy." Florida leaned on a fast, suffocating defense, brilliant special teams, and an occasional running game -- two parts destructive powers, no parts creative players -- and it worked.
When you've got four- and five-star talent everywhere, you don't have to get too creative tactically. You're bigger, stronger, and faster than your opponent. Just lean on them and punch them in the gut for 60 minutes, and you'll probably end up with more points on the scoreboard.
But Florida took murderball to its conceptual extreme in 2012; what happens now that the Gators have some holes to fill on defense?
But unless you double down on potential, it's hard to rationalize Florida's passing game getting better, considering three of last year's top four targets are gone, and only one returnee averaged better than even a poor 6.6 yards per target last year. Tight ends Clay Burton and Kent Taylor and fullback Hunter Joyer combined to average 1.9 yards per target in 2012; five average passes to these three still wouldn't have gained a first down. I don't even understand how your average can be that low unless you're doing it intentionally. The passing game definitely isn't going to get worse, but yeah, throw the ball away, Jeff.
Despite passing game issues, the combination of Driskel rollouts, delays, draws, and screens to the running back, and camp-out-at-the-first-down-line passes to tight end Jordan Reed gave Florida better passing-downs success than one might have expected. If someone can replace Reed as ace in the hole, Florida could still figure out ways to move the chains once it falls behind schedule.
And a solid (from a run perspective) line should once again ensure that, by the third or fourth quarter, the Florida run game is getting more and more effective, even without Mike Gillislee.
Florida didn't even have the decency to put a flashy, fun defense on the field. The Gators went with the Alabama-esque, submission-holds-instead-of-flying-elbow-drops style of defense. With a great push from the middle of the line and fast linebackers and safeties in pursuit, Florida leaned on its athleticism and adaptability in 2012, and the results were impressive.
Athletic offenses could occasionally find room to work (Texas A&M and Louisville in the first half, to name two), but if you didn't have enough speed or depth, you would quickly find yourself in passing downs, and you would likely find yourself getting picked off soon thereafter.
The only chance offenses had came through the air, and opponents knew it. Florida's pass rush was a bit passive, so quarterbacks usually had time to get passes off; that was better than the running back getting gang-tackled two yards downfield (or getting lit up by tackle Sharrif Floyd behind the line of scrimmage). The problem with passing was that opposing quarterbacks were throwing into spaces with a lot of fast defenders nearby, and the Gators were frequently able to break passes up or intercept them.
(Actually, they were a bit lucky in the number of interceptions they pulled in. They picked off 29 percent of their defensed passes; the national average is 21 percent, so they nabbed about 5.5 more INTs than they probably should have.)
The names are changing, but the defensive identity probably won't. The run stuffs will still be there -- Floyd and Omar Hunter are gone, but Dominique Easley and Leon Orr made 14 of their 32.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- and there is help at tackle coming from junior college transfer Darious Cummings. And sophomore ends Dante Fowler, Jr., and Jonathan Bullard should only get better after showing well in their debut seasons. Florida should once again get a hell of a push up front, which will do a green back seven quite a few favors.
Florida's biggest advantage
Even with Henry Josey back, even with a much more experienced and (hopefully) continuous/healthy line, and even with some losses up front for Florida, Mizzou still won't be able to run the ball very well against the Gators. Tackles Dominique Easley, Leon Orr, and company are still top notch, the ends are healthy and strong, and the linebackers are fast and mean. If Mizzou is going to score enough points to win this game, it's going to be because James Franklin both found open receivers again (like last year) and hit them this time.
Mizzou's biggest advantage
Even with Jeff Driskel having another year of experience under his belt, even with returnees like Solomon Patton, Trey Burton, and Quinton Dunbar at receiver, and even with Mizzou's secondary depth a bit of a question mark, Florida still probably won't be able to pass very well against the Tigers. Really, that's the key to the whole season for Florida. The mix of defense, field position, and timely running will work against most teams, but when the Gators absolutely had to pass last year (mainly against Louisville), they couldn't. If Mizzou can put Florida into must-pass situations (either second- or third-and-long or simply a late lead), the Gators will struggle to do so.
So far I've played the odds. I've predicted individual wins in each of the four non-conference games while saying that 3-1 is more likely overall, and I've picked Vandy to beat Mizzou because they would do so six of 10 times. But while this is another "six or seven losses in 10" game, it's a lot more fun to go against the odds at least once. Give me something like Mizzou 27, Florida 20. James Franklin hits the open guys, and Marcus Murphy (because I haven't mentioned him yet) rips off a late return touchdown. So that puts Mizzou at 5-2 or 4-3 or so.
Ahh, that felt nice. Now back to the odds...