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Florida could be this year's SEC East darkhorse

It’s easy to forget that two years ago, Florida was 11-2 and finished third in the BCS standings, a spot away from playing for the national title.

It’s easy to forget because last season’s 4-8 campaign, which included a 26-20 loss to FCS opponent Georgia Southern, was all anyone could talk about as coach Will Muschamp entered what could be his final season as the Gators coach.

But Muschamp has a strange sense of optimism for a coach that came into Gainesville with high hopes of continuing the strong seasons that were synonymous with former coach Urban Meyer and has mustered a paltry 22-16 record in three seasons.

And it’s easy to think that the Gators could be the darkhorse pick of the SEC.

“There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business. That's part of it,” Muschamp said during SEC media days on Monday. “The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do. I’ve got a lot of confidence in this team and staff. This is probably the most complete team we've had since I've been at the University of Florida in all three phases.”

Last year, Missouri filled the darkhorse role in the SEC East. It finished 5-7 in its inaugural SEC year but then went 12-2 last season after taking advantage of injury-plagued Florida and Tennessee, an uninspired Johnny Manziel and key defensive play against Georgia and Ole Miss.

Florida walks in with a similar situation.

It opens the season against Idaho and Eastern Michigan, two teams that combined for just three wins a season ago, before beginning conference play against a Kentucky team that has improved but is still building. The game at Alabama on Sept. 20 will probably be the most difficult on the schedule. The Gators have LSU and South Carolina at home; Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are all rebuilding.

Of course, all of this depends on whether Florida can stay healthy and whether its gamble to change its offensive scheme pays off. Last season, the Gators ranked among the bottom 20 teams in the nation in four different offensive categories. Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and turned to Duke's Kurt Roper to change the pro-style offense into a no-huddle, spread attack.

“We needed to make some changes on offense,” Muschamp said. “I felt like our kids had lost confidence in some things we were doing offensively. I went back and looked at our numbers from 2012 when we were in the shotgun as opposed to being under center. When Jeff was in the shotgun our yards were better, our explosive plays were better in both the run and pass game. He was recruited to Florida to be a gun quarterback. In making that change, I felt like Kurt Roper was a great hire for us from a standpoint of a guy that philosophically is on the same page with me as what we want to be, that's a balanced offense.”

Driskel's play is the straw that stirs the drink. Muschamp is banking on him excelling in the new spread offense, but he also needs his starter to stay healthy, something he failed to do a year ago when he suffered a broken leg, which started the eventual derailing of the Gators’ season. But Driskel shouldn’t have to take as many scrambling chances with running backs Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown back as well as Matt Jones, who suffered a season-ending knee injury a year ago, returning.

"I think this offense fits him better as opposed to what we may have been doing before," Muschamp said. "To utilize his athleticism and space, some of the things he's able to do athletically is going to benefit him and us.

“Probably what excites me the most is this is probably the most talent we've had on offense in my four years at Florida."

The starting offensive line is veteran, but there’s little experience after that. Similarly, Driskel will need to strike an early rapport with his new receivers since Quinton Dunbar is the only veteran returning from last year and Andre Debose is coming off a torn ACL.

But if there was one part of Florida’s game critics couldn’t knock, it was the play of the Gators’ defense, which ranked first in passing defense, second in total defense and third in scoring defense in the SEC. Eight of those players are back, including the entire defensive line.

But more than anything on the field, Muschamp has to get his team to believe. He has to find that spark that led to the 11-2 season and see if he can ignite it again.

Florida isn’t just about winning, it’s about winning championships or at least competing for them. The Gators have a golden opportunity to get back on track this season, save Muschamp’s job and perhaps become the team everyone thought they could be just two years ago.

“I really draw from within,” Muschamp said of dealing with the struggles from a year ago. “I think we have a very strong staff at the University of Florida for the things we need to do to be successful moving forward. In most situations, even when I was a defensive coordinator, making difficult decisions, go with my gut and do what we need to do to be successful.

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at dr.saturday@ymail.com or follow her on Twitter!

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