Every season has its memorable moments and game-changing performances, so we’re counting down the 25 most important figures within or around the Crimson Tide program (or foes) who will determine whether Alabama’s upcoming season is a success.
No. 20: Jeff Driskel
Alabama’s 2014 season officially begins with a trip to its home away from home, Atlanta, against a West Virginia team that went 4-8 last season. The Mountaineers should be better, but the Crimson Tide will likely enter that particular game as a 20+ point favorite.
Another 4-8 team shows up on Alabama’s schedule a few weeks later. This opponent, though, enters with lofty expectations in a season that could ultimately determine the fate of its head coach.
One of the biggest reasons why Florida projects as a likely preseason top 25 team and a sleeper pick to win the SEC East centers on who’s back under center. Driskel, a fourth-year junior, is back and inspiring confidence in his teammates and coaches after missing most of 2013 with an injured ankle.
He’ll be operating a new-look Florida offense commanded by former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. He’s the latest play-caller hired by fourth-year coach Will Muschamp, who could be out of a job if the Gators don’t make the necessary improvements to appease a dissatisfied fan base.
“I think it fits his skillset better, and I’ve been very pleased with his maturity and handling it,” Muschamp told reporters in March. “He’s running well, he’s moving it around well. The ankle is not bothering him as far as those things are concerned. I think continuing just to work on the fundamentals because he really didn’t throw much to my knowledge until we started practice.”
Without Driskel, who went down with the injury in Florida’s annual September tilt against Tennessee, the Gators initially won three games against three SEC teams that failed to make a bowl. Once the competition ramped up, the losses followed suit. The Gators lost the rest of their games — seven in a row — and failed to score more than 20 points in the process.
With Driskel at the helm in 2012, the Florida offense wasn’t Oregon by any means, but it was proficient enough to score 37 against Tennessee, 44 against South Carolina and 37 against Florida State. Driskel’s numbers weren’t off the charts, but he was efficient, completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions as the Gators just missed out on winning the SEC East.
The return of Driskel, coupled with an influx of talent and depth at running back and wide receiver and a defense that was far from its biggest problem in 2013, could make Florida a formidable foe when Alabama opens its SEC slate Sept. 20.