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July 25, 2012Game date and location: Saturday, Oct. 13, Nashville
Key losses: DT Jaye Howard (NFL Draft 4th round), RB/WR Chris Rainey (NFL Draft 5th round), QB John Brantley, RB Jeff Demps, WR Deonte Thompson
Offensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters returning: 10
All-star candidates: LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, S Matt Elam, TE Jordan Reed, OL Xavier Nixon
After years of offensive juggernauted-ness under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, it was surreal to see the Gators average 329 yards of total offense last year. It might not get a lot better this season, but coach Will Muschamp is hoping for better after replacing Charlie Weis (who left to become the head coach at Kansas) with Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
The Gators lost their starting quarterback, which means that either of sophomores Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel will start. Both completed under 50 percent of their passes in limited action a year ago, but both were also high four-star recruits.
The Gators have had a slew of smaller speedsters at tailback the last few years, and now Mike Gillislee gives UF a bigger option - although he's barely 200 pounds himself. He averaged 5.9 yards a carry last season. Behind him, it's unclear who will emerge, but you can expect that do-it-all threat Trey Burton will probably get touches, too.
Nobody emerged much at receiver a year ago, although the occasionally-explosive Andre Dubose (16 catches, 432 yards, four scores) shows promise, if not consistency. As with running back, there are four or five other options here, but it's not clear who the best of them may be. Tight end Jordan Reed (28 catches, 307 yards last season) could wind up being the best target.
On the line, four of five starters return, and all are of junior or senior standing. Even senior James Wilson, the one guy who wasn't a full-time starter last year, has experience and talent. The bad news is that the group didn't impress last season, but the good news is that the Gators think that it's a more physical bunch that will be more cohesive due to the experience.
As usual, Florida is loaded on defense. Up front, the Gators will have plenty of depth and athleticism, and Phil Steele said in his preview that it's potentially the second-best defensive line in America. A key is the health of end Ronald Powell, who tore his ACL in the preseason. UF thinks he'll return this season, but it's not sure when. On the inside, Sharif Floyd can be a difference-maker. He's back at tackle, where he's better-suited, after playing at end last year.
Few teams have a better linebacker tandem than Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and they might not be the Gators' best player at the position, since freshman early enrollee Antonio Morrison stood out in the spring game.
The secondary has a chance to be great, too. Sophomore cornerback Marcus Roberson is a developing star, and Matt Elam already is. As with the other areas on defense, there's plenty of talent and depth to go around elsewhere, too.
Will Muschamp was one of the hottest young assistants before Florida surprisingly plucked him off the Texas staff a year ago. Muschamp is a defensive wizard, but because the offense was shockingly poor, the Gators limped to 7-6, and another year like that won't cut it in Gainesville.
The Gators should be good defensively, but it's anyone's guess what they'll get on the other side of the ball. If Pease turns out to be a genius, Florida is probably a Top 15 team.
VU normally plays the Gators later in the season, so catching UF in mid-October could be a slight stroke of fortune as UF tries to figure things out on offense.