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Florida vs. Tennessee: Can Jeff Driskel prove he is a good quarterback?

Turnovers mask how Jeff Driskel has improved in 2013. Can he prove that those sleeping on him are wrong?

John Sommers II

Here is a line from a quarterback: 37 completions on 53 attempts for 444 yards and two touchdowns. This would be good for a 152.63 NCAA passer rating, itself the No. 34 mark in college football in 2013.

It is Jeff Driskel's line from this year when his two interceptions are removed.

There is an argument that has been made again and again about Driskel — especially over the last fortnight, in the wake of his two-interception, three-turnover performance against Miami, one that masked his career high for passing yards — that takes two tones. When it is only "Jeff Driskel may or may not be good," it is usually spoken quietly; when it is "Jeff Driskel is garbage" or "Florida can't win with Driskel," it is the sort of thing that lights up Twitter and message boards and blogs with half-cocked slander from those half-drunk on frustration. The latter is a compelling argument, given that Driskel's mistakes have been central to Florida's last three losses, and Driskel errors have been the defining feature of the Florida offense this year.

I also think it's wrong.

Driskel was a caretaker for much of 2012, and there was nothing wrong with him being one. He was a reluctant thrower, but an accurate one, completing 63.7 percent of this throws. That rate was the sixth-best mark of Spurrier-to-Present Era that has produced the standards most Florida fans judge by; it is better than all of Chris Leak's completion rates, all but one of Danny Wuerffel's (his 1995 season, not his 1996 Heisman campaign), all of Shane Matthews's, and all but one of Rex Grossman's.

Few called Driskel bad in 2012, in part because the data set was small, though the same problems that he's had over the first two games of 2013 — Driskel sometimes takes too long to make a decision, and tries too hard to make a play — were evident last season. He wasn't "good," though, despite excellent component stats and a gaudy record as a starter (10-2, with four wins over 10-win teams), because the bar for quarterback play at Florida is set impossibly high.

Now, with Driskel's mistakes costing Florida a game that most fans thought Florida should have won and an uncertain future before this team, those flaws and mistakes have been magnified, and Driskel's become Public Enemy No. 1. Some subset of Gator Nation turned its lonely eyes to class of 2014 super-prospect Will Grier last week; others have spent time wondering whether UCF's Blake Bortles has been the better quarterback to come out of Oviedo in 2011.

To be fair to those who have often been less than fair to Driskel, the errors he's made in 2013 have been mostly on him. Justin Wells's sympathetic recap of Driskel's Miami performance notes that he made several mistakes; my own Rapid Recap was very much critical of Driskel's errors. But those errors were not all Driskel did against the Hurricanes, and what he did outside the red zone was probably the most encouraging work of his college career as a passer.

Driskel found open receivers time and again, and placed a lot of balls right on players in holes in the defense. His patience allowed him to convert three third downs with passes, including the late bomb to Quinton Dunbar that kept Florida's second touchdown drive alive. The two truly poor passes Driskel threw on the day were both intercepted; his other bad passes resulted in drops and/or incompletions, which is what you want on misfires. For the first time in his career, it felt to me like Driskel had command of a competent passing attack.

The newness of that feeling is really less Driskel's fault than his offense's: Open receivers have been rare in his time as Florida's starter, and time to throw was scarce in 2012. Toledo yielded plenty of open targets, too, but the Rockets also sat back and dared Florida to beat it deep, something the Gators have no interest in doing or incentive to do if they can chip away underneath and/or run just as effectively.

But if Driskel throwing for a career high in yardage isn't enough to beat Miami, it's perhaps less an indication that Driskel sucks, and more one that Florida's best chances of winning don't depend on Driskel throwing for tons of yardage. The Gators can lean on a stout defense and sound special teams that don't make mistakes, as long as Driskel and the offense don't make too many. Had Driskel been a little more accurate on his throw to an open Dunbar the play before his first interception, Florida would likely have shaved Miami's eight-point lead to a point — and, given how the rest of the game shook out, I would think Florida would have found a way to win from there.

The core reason fans thought Driskel was better in 2012 was his propensity to avoid costly mistakes. He's now demonstrated that ability and the ability to be a more effective passer, though not at the same time, and will have a fuller and better complement of weapons for the rest of this season now that his line and starting running back are both closer to full health. And there's never really been a question about what Driskel can do physically.

Last season, against Tennessee, Driskel played so well that Bill Connelly, not one to overreact, thought he was a Heisman candidate. Watch the tape and it's impossible to be unimpressed.

This Saturday, Driskel faces a Tennessee team that is not that different on defense with an offense that could be much improved by his side. Florida is at home. Driskel and his teammates — who stood by him after his struggles against Miami — are liable to play well and angry after an embarrassing loss. Why shouldn't Driskel look as good or better as he did in what was arguably his best game?

If you would like to think Jeff Driskel is not good, well, that's your prerogative. But get it in over the next 48 hours. You may not have much longer to think that without being laughed at.


Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.