Jeff Driskel can sense the mounting pressure in Gainesville.
All eyes are on Florida’s football team after an unexpected 11-2 season that included a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl -- the first BCS bowl for the Gators since 2009 -- and Florida’s rising junior quarterback understands that expectations are at their highest level of the Will Muschamp era.
“We’re no longer the underdog, like we were a little bit last year,” Driskel told ESPN.com in a phone interview earlier this week. “We’re going to have a bigger target on us this year, but we like that role. That’s where we should be at the University of Florida.”
Driskel is right on a couple of levels. A program like Florida’s should have lofty expectations each year, and an 11-win season certainly should grab people’s attention.
But if the Gators are going to take the next step and finally make it back to the SEC championship game in Atlanta for the first time since 2009, a lot has to get fixed, and holes have to be filled.
And when you think about fixing Florida, that inconsistent offense immediately comes to mind. While a complete overhaul is off the table, repairing and a little renovation aren’t.
“Luckily, we do have a great defense, so we don’t have to force anything, but we know we have to make more plays,” Driskel said. “We have to make more vertical plays down the field, because you can’t just drive the ball down and score every time, you gotta hit big plays.”
For big plays to happen, Florida has to generate a respectable passing game. Driskel has to have more comfort and confidence, reliable receiving threats have to emerge and the offensive line has to protect better.
Muschamp doesn’t want to get away from the blue-collar running game, which averaged 187.7 rushing yards per game last fall (third in the SEC), but he knows that his offense can’t operate with the inconsistency and low margin for error it had in 2012.
The Gators averaged an SEC-worst 146.3 passing yards per game, and when they had to throw in critical situations, they usually failed, causing double-digit deficits to Georgia and Louisville to doom this offense.
Getting things on track will require a balancing act of blending power with flight.
“We’re going to be a physical football team. I really believe in order to win this league, you’ve got to be physical,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “You’ve got to be able to win on the line of scrimmage. You can’t get away from that.
“But I do want to make sure that we’ve got to improve some things in the throwing game. We’ve got to work on that, but not get away from being a physical football team.”
More emphasis will be put on throwing this spring, and offensive coordinator Brent Pease is even having people come in to visit and bounce some ideas around.
Then, it’s all about becoming a more situational offense. Sacks have to decrease, red zone efficiency has to increase (Florida scored touchdowns on just 52 percent of its red zone visits) and third downs have to be converted (36 percent in 2012).
“That's something as we hit spring, we're going to be working on a little bit more as far as throwing the football is concerned,” Muschamp said. “We're going to be a little thin up front with some injuries, so we've got to be more efficient throwing it, and that's going to be a big part of it in spring.”
He also wants to hit quality control.
Last season, Florida had a league-high 105 penalties (8.1 per game), so silly self-inflicted wounds, like drive-killing false starts, jumping offside and unsportsmanlike conduct, have to be considerably cut down.
“We created a lot of issues for ourselves as far as down and distance is concerned,” Muschamp said.
The defense has some bruises of its own, but the Gators should mask some issues, even with seven starters and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn gone.
This is still Muschamp’s defense, and Quinn’s replacement, former linebackers/special-teams coach D.J. Durkin, is very familiar with this personnel and isn’t changing any old terminology.
A major advantage he’ll have is that Florida rotated in about 20 players per game on defense last season, so these youngsters aren’t exactly green.
“I think one of the great things about this place and what we’ve been able to do is we play a lot of guys on defense,” Durkin said.
“We have a good nucleus of guys coming back that have played a lot for us already in games, and then we’ve got the next group coming up.”
In the end, it all comes back to Florida's offense, and Muschamp knows his team has as much work to do as maybe any team in the SEC, but he embraces the challenge. He also understands that offensive excuses won't fly in 2013 -- it's time for this team to make another jump.
“We totally embrace the expectation that Florida has to go to Atlanta,” Muschamp said.