A deep dive into what preseason magazines have right, and wrong, about the 2018 Florida Gators
The fireworks are over, and across the South, if you closed your eyes and tried hard enough, you could probably taste how close college football season is in the brisket at your Fourth of July cookouts.
SEC Media Days are nearly upon us, and with it, the homestretch of college’s football’s offseason and the height of what Steve Spurrier affectionately called “talking season,” when fans puff their chests about the year to come, debating hopes and dreams with a conviction typically reserved for discussions of fact.
Most the preseason magazines have been released ahead of Media Days, adding “expert” color to talking season, along with all manner of predictions, some destined to be bulletin board material and others certain to be wrong.
If you’re like me, you probably bought one of the “Big Three” magazines: Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, Athlon Sports or Lindy’s.
I bought all three, mostly to see what they had to say about Florida in Year 1 under new head coach Dan Mullen. Mullen, of course, won two national championships at Florida is an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer before departing for Miss State, where in just under a decade he became the second-winningest head coach in school history (both in terms of overall wins and win percentage for a coach with more than 50 games in charge).
Naturally, Mullen’s familiarity with the Florida program and his success at Miss State is a reason for optimism in Gainesville, no?
Teams in transition are often the most difficult to project, which is understandable. After all, a coaching change usually means something went wrong for the previous coach, and the program has lost its way a bit. Whether there are talent issues, culture issues, scheme issues or, sometimes, all three, it’s tough to predict what a program will do when injected with new blood.
Often, it takes time to get rolling. Nick Saban famously lost to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season at Alabama. Kirby Smart took a 10-win roster and managed only a Liberty Bowl berth in his first campaign in Athens.
Those hires turned out just fine.
Other times, the pieces are mostly in place and the new coach changes everything nearly immediately. Gus Malzahn went 12-2 and would have won a national championship Year 1 at Auburn, but for Jameis Winston’s 2-minute drill heroism. Les Miles went 11-2 at LSU in Year 1, a two-game improvement over Nick Saban’s 2004 team that had Will Muschamp and Jimbo Fischer as coordinators.
But what are the big three magazines saying about Florida?
I reviewed them all, noting what is fair and unfair.
2018 Season Projection: 8-4, No. 17 ranking, Outback Bowl vs. Purdue
FAIR: The 8-4 record prediction.
Athlon correctly notes that in hiring Mullen, many knocked the career record in the SEC (33-39 in nine seasons). They’re also absolutely right that any coach who “takes Mississippi State to eight straight bowl games and has the Bulldogs ranked in the top 25 at some point in six of nine seasons” did a fantastic job. This is Florida’s best hire since legendary Athletic Director Jeremy Foley outfoxed Notre Dame for the services of Urban Meyer, and in time, it’s hard to argue with Athlon’s assessment that Mullen “will have Florida competing for SEC East titles and playoff spots in short course.”
But for now, this is a team with no proven answer at quarterback, questions on the offensive line and a daunting schedule. There’s a brutal pair of cross-over games in LSU and away to a Miss State team Mullen left stacked, plus the annual tilts with Georgia and Florida State. Even if the Gators steal one of those games, a loss somewhere else seems reasonable to project.
UNFAIR: Ranking the WR unit 7th in the SEC.
The departure of the talented Antonio Callaway shouldn’t be a factor in the rating, to be honest. He didn’t play last year and culturally, his departure is addition by subtraction.
Athlontabs six units — including Missouri, South Carolina and Ole Miss — ahead of the Gators’ wide receivers, but it doesn’t show its work.
In fact, they acknowledge that in transfers Van Jefferson and Ohio State’s Trevon Grimes, Florida adds size, speed and sure hands to a unit that already includes playmaking Kadarius Toney and highly-recruited Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain and incoming freshman Jacob Copeland, who chose the Gators over Alabama. This is the best unit in Gainesville in a decade, and with Dan Mullen scheme and highly-respected position coach Billy Gonzales to coach them, one of the top three units in the SEC.
LINDY’S: Unranked, 8-9 wins, No. 3 in SEC East
FAIR: Ranking the running backs unit third in the SEC, behind only Alabama and Georgia.
Just as Florida is loaded at wide receiver, Mullen inherits as good a running back unit as Florida has had on campus since at least 2012, when Florida had three future NFL players among their top four ball carriers in Mike Gillislee, Matt Jones and Trey Burton.
Top to bottom, this unit is better than that one too.
As Lindy’s notes, Jordan Scarlett, the team’s leading rusher in 2016, returns from his year-long suspension. Scarlett’s a terrific ball-carrier with good second-level speed and knack for picking up tough yards after contact, but given his limitations as a blocker, he’s no longer the best running back on the roster.
Scouts I spoke to this summer are higher or as intrigued by both Malik Davis (above), a sophomore and a rare bright spot on last year’s 4-7 team that averaged nearly 7 yards a carry in just over half-a-season’s work, and Lamical Perine, the most complete back on the roster who runs with tremendous leg turnover and whose vision is perfect for Mullen’s zone blocking run scheme.
Add speedster Adarius Lemons and the highly-touted freshman Dameon Pierce to the mix, and this is a unit that’s every bit as good as any nationally.
UNFAIR: The strange claim that Florida has “lost a lot in the secondary.”
Put simply, no they haven’t.
Yes, after missing all of 2017 with an Achilles’ injury, team captain Marcell Harris graduated and opted for the NFL instead of returning for a sixth season. It paid off for Marcell though, as he was drafted in the sixth round by the San Francisco 49ers.
But the reality is Harris hasn’t played for Florida for a year, which gave the Gators time to get critical reps for the young backend of the secondary entering 2018.
Meanwhile, Florida is set at corner, despite the loss of All-SEC corner Duke Dawson, a second-round draft pick.
Both C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson return, and will look to build off All-SEC freshmen team campaigns a year ago.
And the team’s best NFL prospect by miles is Chauncey-Gardner Johnson, who will take over Dawson’s duties at the nickel and who ESPN draft guru Todd McShay thinks is a top 15 type pick.
In other words, DBU keeps DBU-ing.
PHIL STEELE’S COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW: No. 17 ranking, No. 13 Surprise Team, 2nd in SEC East, 8+ wins
FAIR: Florida’s defense isn’t all the way back, but will be vastly improved.
Steele’s preseason magazine is widely considered the authoritative text among preseason publications, mostly for Steele’s incredible attention to detail. This year’s is no different.
As it related to Florida’s defense, Steele correctly notes that in the decade prior to 2017, “the Gators defense allowed just 17.6 ppg,” among the top-five averages in America, and that the Credit Card Nine and preseason loss of Marcell Harris “gutted the defensive depth.” As a result, the Gators allowed 349 yards per game, their highest number since 2003, and 27.3 ppg, their highest-total this century. They also had their worst finish in S&P Defensive Efficiency (54th!) since 2007 (52nd).
But he’s also right that now, Florida’s depth is better, and the young players have plenty of experience under their belts. He rates every one of Florida’s defensive position groups in the top 25 nationally, and while he surprisingly omits Cece Jefferson from his All-American team, he’s rightfully high on Florida’s defensive line, especially in Todd Grantham’s new Steelers 3-4.
UNFAIR: Feleipe Franks as the starting quarterback.
Hard to have watched the Gators this spring and think Franks is the incumbent.
At a minimum, there’s a tie at the top of the depth chart between Kyle Trask, who had the best spring, and Franks, the incumbent who was the second-worst starting quarterback with six or more starts in the Power 5 last season (only Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, now a backup, was worse).
Trask is exceptionally accurate, a requirement in Mullen’s spread, and while he isn’t a gifted or natural runner, the reality is Franks isn’t either. If Mullen can rebuild Franks psyche, damaged after two seasons under the inept Doug Nussmeier and aloof Jim McElwain, there is certainly physical talent there.
But quarterback is about more than that, and the Gators are likely to go with Trask and a healthy dose of uber-talented true freshman Emory Jones from the beginning next autumn.
Steele’s been around long enough to know that, but like Athlon, sticks with Franks, presumably on talent.