As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
#18 Oklahoma Sooners
#17 Florida State Seminoles
#16 Northwestern Wildcats
#15 Oklahoma State Cowboys
#14 Louisville Cardinals
Coming in at #13…
2012 Record: 11-2
Conference Finish: Tie for first in SEC East (Lost tiebreaker to Georgia)
Bowl: Lost Sugar Bowl 33-23 to Louisville
2013 Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
At the end of the regular season last year I went on record saying Florida’s resume’ had as strong a case to be in the national title game as Alabama given the Gators four wins against top 15 teams (FSU, South Carolina, LSU, Texas A&M) including two on the road (A&M, FSU). Then the Gators went into the Sugar Bowl against Louisville and essentially got thumped in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. Coming into 2013 the Gators have some major holes to plug but Will Muschamp has been dominant on the recruiting trail the last couple seasons and has a number of players ready to step in and contribute. If there’s one spot I’m still weary of it is the quarterback position. While Jeff Driskel was the leader in camp regardless, Jacoby Brissett’s transfer leaves him with essentially nothing behind him to look over his shoulder at. Driskel was up and down last season and will need a big progression on a team that has significant turnover at the skill positions. Can he do it? I have my doubts due to questionable decision making and not the world’s greatest arm but his ability to make plays with his legs often makes that a moot point.
Muschamp plays to the brand of football in the SEC that generally separates the elite from the mediocre and often times that means running the ball first and foremost. Mike Gillislee showed the value of a premier back with his 2012 season where he carried the ball 244 times for over 1150 yards. With Gillislee gone, someone must step in to fill that void in 2013. Sophomore Matt Jones comes back but only carried the ball 51 times a season ago. The other name to watch is freshman back Kelvin Taylor (son of former Gator Fred Taylor) who brings high expectations and heavy praise after a standout high school career. Regardless of which one gets the nod or whether it becomes more of a tag-team attack, expect the run game effectiveness to make or break the Gators offense.
Trey Burton and Quinton Dunbar are the only two guys returning from last season who caught more than 10 passes. Nonetheless the Gators have pulled in four four-star receivers in the last two recruiting classes and will have a number of options at the team’s disposal coming out of spring ball. This team won 11 games last season with Jordan Reed leading the team with 45 catches and Driskel only throwing for 1,646 yards on the year. The reality is, this isn’t Baylor or Oklahoma looking to replace four top pass catchers. On the list of major needs to replace, receivers for the pass game isn’t all that high. This is a run-first offense that will depend much more on the backs and offensive line. Three offensive linemen are back from last years team including Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio who started all 13 games. With strength up front this group should pave the way to another stellar rushing attack. How about a couple numbers for the Gators offense to improve upon in 2013? The Gators were 85th in third down conversion percentage a year ago and tied for 85th in tackles for loss allowed. Given the sub par passing game, limiting third and longs is key for Florida in 2013.
Florida’s defense was the backbone of the team in 2012 ranking as one of the best in the entire country and it’s not earth-shattering analysis to say there’s a good chance the Gators will be one of the best defenses in the country again in 2013. Though there was a number of NFL departures from this group, the cupboard is still relatively stacked with talent to set the foundation for the future. Consider this statistic: Since 2011 the Gators have recruited 22 defensive players that ranked as four-stars or better coming out of high school. Now I’ve never been an enormous fan of “star rankings” for high school players but that figure gives Muschamp two defenses worth of talent to find the right parts from. Unless the staff has terrible luck or recruiting experts have gotten terrible at their jobs then the Gators simply are stacked with talent on that side of the ball.
Ironically pretty much all of the team’s top tacklers last season are gone so new guys will have to step up in the front seven but some key parts are back. Dominique Easley is the main returning defensive linemen and led the Gators with four sacks a year ago as well as contributed eight and a half tackles for a loss. Jonathan Bullard and Donte Fowler Jr also give the Gators two elite D-ends to come off the edge and try to improve a pass rush that did record 30 sacks a season ago but would like to get up into the elite pass rushing attacks in the country. The linebacker unit has to be better in the middle of the field as none of the team’s three main returning linebackers reached 40 tackles a season ago. Antonio Morrison will emerge as the man in the middle with Neiron Ball and Darrin Kitchens playing a major role as well. Alex Anzalone was one of the Gators top recruits at the linebacker spot but recently went down with a torn labrum sidelining him for four months. His name will be one to watch come the regular season however to see if he can overcome it and get back into the rotation which he was expected to do before spring.
For all the words on the front seven the secondary was just as strong in 2012. The nation’s number 15 pass defense does lose big-hitting Matt Elam who bolted to the NFL but has nickleback Marcus Roberson back as well as a Jaylen Watkins who picked off three passes including one for a score and defended 11 passes a year ago. The defensive back position is another Muschamp has beefed up on in recruiting the past couple classes and though corner Louchiez Purifoy is being given a shot at wide receiver to compensate for the issues there, he’ll still factor mostly at corner as an elite cover corner who was fourth on the team in tackles a season ago. Teams rarely had success throwing on Florida last season (which made Bridgewater’s Sugar Bowl performance all that more stellar) and odds are few will try it again in 2013.
This defense was exceptional in the red zone conceding touchdowns and on third down defense in 2012 and if they have that success with the turnovers they’ve shown they can generate, perhaps they become the favorite in the SEC East in 2013.
Talk about just an absolute brutal schedule. The first thing that jumps out at me is the road slate. After a home-friendly schedule in 2012, the Gators flip the script in 2013. The Gators travel to a Miami team early in the season with a ton of returning starters, have to go to Columbia to play South Carolina and go to Death Valley to play LSU. Add in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and a road trip to Missouri and that’s four games outside The Swamp in a five game swamp. The one home game in the middle of that is against Vanderbilt and a James Franklin program that has been on the rise. With all of that we haven’t even mentioned the season finale against Florida State in The Swamp. It’s a grueling schedule that will without question remove any doubt over how good Florida is and what caliber of team Will Muschamp has in 2013. The Gators had a phenomenal season in 2012 and the fanbase will expect the team to contend for an SEC title again, but with the road slate in front of them plus that tough stretch in the middle, when you add that to the turnover in some key spots, this team falls just outside the list of national title contenders in my mind. But that’s why they play the game.