Can you feel it? Football season is right around the corner, and we at Hailstate Takeover couldn’t be more excited. Mississippi State kicked off fall camp last week, and numerous other teams are slated to start camp this week. Over the next month, we will be doing a season preview of all fourteen SEC schools as we inch closer and closer to the opening kickoff of the 2017 College Football season. We will start the SEC Season Preview series by previewing the Florida Gators.
Jim McElwain is entering his third season as the Florida Gators head coach and has made it to Atlanta in his first two years in Gainsville. Although this team has been the best in the East the last two seasons, there are a lot of questions surrounding this team, primarily on offense, as they head into fall camp on August 3rd. When McElwain was hired at Florida in 2015 out of Colorado State, he was thought of as an offensive-minded coach that could help rejuvenate the Gator offense to where it was in the late 2000s with Tim Tebow at the helm. Unfortunately for Florida, the offense hasn’t made the strides that many expected in McElwain’s two seasons. This doesn’t necessarily fall all on his shoulders as a play-caller though. Florida has been plagued with sub-par play at the quarterback position, including a year-long suspension to Will Grier, who is now at West Virginia, and that is simply not a recipe for success.
Heading into camp, Florida fans are faced with uncertainty at quarterback yet again. Luke Del Rio returns to Gainsville as a junior, add in talented freshman Felipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, and you have an interesting battle for the starting job come game one against Michigan. However, whether or not any of these guys can emerge as the leader of this offense remains to be seen. Del Rio started six games for the Gators last season, where he completed 56% of his passes for 1,358 yards and 8 touchdowns while throwing 8 picks. Del Rio sat out in the spring recovering from injury, which opened the door for Felipe Franks to get the majority of the snaps. He did not disappoint. Franks showed off his arm strength early in the spring game by tossing a 46-yard completion to Josh Hammond on the opening series of the game. Franks would finish the game by completing 8-14 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-6 freshman showed that he is the future of Florida football, the only question now being: is the future now or later? Don’t forget about graduate transfer Malik Zaire coming in from Notre Dame. Zaire played sparingly for the Irish in three seasons with the team, completing 58 of 98 passes for 816 yards and six touchdowns in those seasons. Zaire is a mobile guy that can run McElwain’s spread offense, but has seemingly reached his ceiling. With that in mind, Zaire wouldn’t have chosen Florida as his final collegiate destination if he didn’t have a good shot at being the starter. Ultimately, whoever emerges from this quarterback battle will be the deciding factor in determining which direction this team goes.
As for the rest of the offensive groups, they seem to be set going into camp with a lot of guys returning. The receiver group should be one of the best in the SEC this year headlined by Antonio Calloway (54 catches, 721 yards, and 3 TDs) and Josh Hammond (14 catches, 177 yards) on the outside with Brandon Powell (45 catches, 387 yards, 2 TDs) in the slot. Dre Massey also figures to be a big-time contributor this season. Massey, a heralded junior college transfer, was supposed to play meaningful snaps last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury against UMass on the opening kickoff. This group will be what powers the offense for Florida this year, if they can find a guy who can get them the ball.
Another strangth for the Gators this season should be the offensive line. Florida returns seven guys on the offensive line, including tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor. Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan also return at guard, and with talented redshirt freshman Brett Heggie, the Gators appear set at the guard position as well. They also return center T.J. McCoy. who took over for injured Cameron Dillard as a freshman last year. Whoever wins the quarterback job should have plenty of time to get the ball out to their talented receivers on the outside.
Last season the offense struggled to move the ball with consistency, thanks in large part to a rushing attack that ranked dead last in the conference. Florida returns their leading rusher in Jordan Scarlett, who carried the ball 179 times for 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. Sophomore Lamical Perine, who managed to cross the century mark twice as a freshman last season and finished with 421 yards on 91 carries and a touchdown, will also play a major role in the backfield. Senior Mark Thompson also returns for the Gators. Thompson had some flashy moments last year, but ultimately finished with a disappointing season, accumulating 299 yards on 68 carries and two touchdowns. The Gators are extremely deep at the running back position this year, now its up to the players to do their job and improve on a lackluster 2016 campaign.
The defense is what has won games for Florida over the past couple of seasons, and don’t expect that to change this year. The Gator’s defensive line is the driving force of the defense and it appears to be in good hands once again. The Gators bring back eight linemen from last year’s squad, and add a group of talented freshmen along with them. I expect Florida to play a rotation of 8-10 guys this fall, so don’t expect starters at the beginning of the season to be there at the end. The two guys I expect to be mainstays throughout the season are defensive end Cece Jefferson and tackle Taven Bryan. Bryan has been one of the more impressive athletes at Florida since stepping on campus in 2014. Although he has been held on the sidelines for much of his Florida career, Bryan is set for a breakout season in 2017.
The Gators lost both starting linebackers to the NFL last season, which opens the door for some younger guys to step up in a big way. It appears sophomore David Reese and redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson are at the forefront of this position battle. Both Reese and Johnson played meaningful snaps last season after Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone went down with injuries late in the year against Arkansas. That could be beneficial this season as Florida looks for new guys to step up in the holes Davis and Anzalone left.
The Gators are tasked with trying to replace Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson, and Jalen Tabor, who were all selected in the NFL draft, in the back end of the defense. To make it worse, starting safety Marcell Harris suffered a torn achilles just two weeks before camp began. The two seniors, Duke Dawson and Nick Washington, appear to be locks as starters going into camp, and sophomore Chauncey Gardner, who had two picks in the Outback Bowl, is primed for a big year. With only three guys locked into the secondary, it leaves a lot of opportunities for some young guys to step into a big role and play meaningful snaps early in their careers.
Wins: Northern Colarado, Tennessee, at Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, at Missouri, at South Carolina, UAB.
These are games I feel are Florida’s to lose. The Tennessee game is always a big game for both schools, and this year is no exception. Tennessee finally snapped an 11 year losing streak to Florida last year in Knoxville, which I believe will be used as fuel for this year’s match up. The Kentucky game is a bit tricky to me. I feel like Kentucky is an up-and-coming program in the SEC, and it’s always tough playing on the road in the SEC, but Florida has beaten Kentucky 30 years in a row. So until Kentucky finally breaks through, this game is Florida’s to lose.
Losses: Michigan, Florida State
Florida opens the season September 2nd against Jim Harbough and Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Florida couldn’t have chosen a tougher match up to start the season. I think Michigan takes a small step back this year, but they have all the tools to beat Florida. The Gators will likely be playing a new quarterback week one and will be debuting a lot of new faces on the defensive side of the ball. I think the defense keeps the game close early, but Michigan pulls away in the second half. I hate saying the Florida State game is a loss before the season even starts, especially with it being a rivalry game, but I just can’t help but feel like Florida will just be over-matched by the Seminoles. Florida State is one of the early favorites to come out of the ACC and make the College Football Playoff, and I expect them to live up to those expectations. Florida definitely has a chance to win this game with it being at The Swamp, but it will be difficult.
Toss-ups: LSU, Georgia
These two are games I could see going either way. Last year Florida was able to stuff Derrius Guice at the one to clinch the SEC East title in Tiger Stadium. This years’ game could be decided on the final play as well. Both teams have question marks at quarterback, and the winner could be decided by which quarterback has the better game. If I had to pick a winner today, I would lean towards Florida. The Florida-Georgia game, also known as “the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” often has SEC championship implications, and the same is expected this year. There is little doubt that these two teams will be atop the East all year long, and this game could go a long way in deciding who plays in Atlanta.
Final record: 9-3