Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series shifts to the SEC East, beginning today with Florida. Tuesday morning: Georgia.

Last year, I wrote that 2020 was Florida’s time.

In many ways, it was. It was Florida’s time to get over the Georgia hump and win the SEC East. It was also Florida’s time to produce the nation’s No. 1 passing offense and a Heisman Trophy finalist for the first time since Tim Tebow.

Of course, that didn’t tell the entire story. It was as bizarre of an 8-4 season as one could have because of the way in which 2 of those losses happened. Marco Wilson’s thrown shoe will live in infamy, as will Dan Mullen’s brushing off of Florida’s disastrous Cotton Bowl showing against Oklahoma.

Did Florida’s time pass it by? We don’t have an answer to that.

We do have an answer to the “will Mullen get an extension” question that lingered for longer than expected. Yes, Mullen did get that deal done after his third season, which again ended with a New Year’s 6 bowl berth.

We don’t, however, have an answer to whether 2020 was Florida’s window to really make a Playoff push. Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes led a passing attack that was reminiscent of the Steve Spurrier-era Fun ‘n’ Gun groups that changed the landscape of modern offenses.

Year 4 of the Mullen era should be telling. Will it include a return to Atlanta? Let’s discuss.

The Emory Jones era is finally here

Jones is the 2021 version of Myles Brennan. He stuck it out and watched multiple guys start while he waited his turn until Year 4 to finally run Mullen’s offense. Hopefully, for Jones’ sake, he doesn’t have the same injury issues that stalled Brennan’s promising start to his career.

Florida fans have been waiting to see Jones get the keys to the car for years. And no, getting the occasional series doesn’t count. It’s hard to fault Jones’ inefficiency as a passer (7.1 yards per attempt) when his reps have been so random. Does he need to be more accurate? Sure. Should we assume that he’ll never have the accuracy of Trask? I wouldn’t go there yet.

Jones will get compared to Trask, though not from a skill set standpoint. Florida fans only care about the result. Can Jones lead an offense that puts up 40 points per SEC game like Trask did? Can he sustain scoring drives and do the heavy lifting when the defense doesn’t have it? Can he beat Georgia?

Fair or not, those are the questions that’ll be asked about him. What’ll be interesting is how much Jones throws compared to last year’s group, which averaged 39 pass attempts a game. My guess is that Jones will be more in the 25-30 range. This isn’t going to be Nick Fitzgerald 2.0, though Jones did have PFF’s No. 1 run grade among FBS quarterbacks in 2020. We know he’s going to excel in that area in a way that Trask and Feleipe Franks didn’t.

Jones’ ability to beat teams with his arm will determine his ceiling. Well, it’ll also determine Florida’s.

What about those pass-catchers?

In case you haven’t heard, Florida lost just a wee bit of its passing game production to the NFL. Pitts and Toney went in the first round, Trask went in the second and Grimes somehow went undrafted. I still don’t get that. But the result is the same. They’re all gone. That’s 2,343 receiving yards and 31 receiving touchdowns off to the NFL.

So what’s next? Well, that’s a good question. It’s unfair to say that the Cotton Bowl was a glimpse into the future, though that performance didn’t necessarily fire up the hype train with those 3 aforementioned NFL-bound guys out.

Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson are getting a lot of that attention, and understandably so. They’re the guys who could fill in those traditional pass-catcher roles on the outside. And every time a Florida tight end makes a play, a Pitts reference will soon follow.

But I think the Gators rely a lot on guys like Rick Wells in the slot and Malik Davis out of the backfield. Wells replaced Toney in the bowl game — he played more than twice as many snaps (55) as he did in any other 2020 game — and showed he could be a possession receiver. Davis’ career stalled a bit because of injuries, and the fumble last year in the A&M game was, unfortunately, his most notable moment, but he’s ready to step into a bigger role.

I think Mullen caters the game plan to those high-percentage throws and we see a ton of those intermediate routes. That’ll take pressure off guys like Shorter and Copeland, who might not be ready for high-volume roles like the guys they’re replacing.

It’s make or break time for Todd Grantham’s defense

Ask a Florida fan about Grantham and well, you’ll get a candid response. Mullen kept him on board after a disastrous 2020 season. Go figure that Grantham took the blame for the 2 losses to Georgia the previous years, and in 2020, his defense was even worse against the Dawgs, yet Florida pulled out a win in Jacksonville.

It’s pretty simple. You can’t be a $2 million coordinator and have consecutive bad seasons.

This defense should be set up well for improvement because of all the talent in the front 7. Brenton Cox, Ventrell Miller and Zachary Carter should be able to provide that much-needed veteran presence. Power 5 defensive tackle transfers Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk earned some rave reviews in camp for solidifying the interior defensive line. That group as a whole should be — and has to be — better.

The other positive for Florida is that Kaiir Elam is one of the best lockdown corners in America. He played an absurd 624 snaps at the outside corner spot last year. The only returning Power 5 corner with a better career coverage grade is, of course, Derek Stingley Jr.

Florida simply has to improve against the pass. Mullen said Florida’s pass defense (ranked No. 100 in FBS) was the byproduct of the style that the offense played. In other words, because the Gators led in so many games, they forced teams to air it out. His team ranked No. 96 in pass efficiency defense, so we can agree to disagree with that.

One thing everyone can agree on? If Florida doesn’t take a significant step forward on defense, Grantham’s days running a defense in Gainesville will be numbered.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Florida Atlantic (W)

Willie Taggart faced Florida only once while he was at Florida State because he was fired before the end of his second season. That game was a 41-14 home loss to the Gators, and that was with Florida State’s roster. So no, I’m not holding my breath on an FAU upset in Gainesville.

Week 2: at USF (W)

Florida is fortunate that a rare trip to Tampa lined up for 2021 instead of something like 2017. USF was 1-8 last year with its lone win coming against The Citadel. Knowing Mullen, Anthony Richardson will get plenty of reps in a lopsided Florida win.

Week 3: vs. Alabama (L)

In what’ll be Bryce Young’s first real road atmosphere, I’d expect Grantham to send pressure until the cows come home. Cox, Miller, Carter and a host of other Florida defenders will try to rattle Young in The Swamp. I expect that to put Alabama behind the sticks at times, but I don’t think we’ll see a 2019 Bo Nix-like performance from Young. Both defenses show up ready to roll, and a Henry To’o To’o strip sack of Jones proves to be the key play in the fourth quarter to put away a hard-fought Alabama win. Florida comes up short of capitalizing on a major opportunity.

Week 4: vs. Tennessee (W)

This has “bounce back game” written all over it for Jones. Finally, the passing game really gets going. Tight end Kemore Gamble does his best Pitts imitation (goodness even I’m doing it) and he hauls in multiple touchdowns against a porous Tennessee defense. Florida puts Tennessee in obvious passing situations all second half and forces multiple turnovers. Josh Heupel’s debut in the rivalry ends just how 15 of the previous 16 matchups ended — a Florida win in which Tennessee doesn’t hit 30 points.

Week 5: at Kentucky (W)

Who are we kidding? Of course this game is going to be bananas. Every time Florida travels to Lexington, it feels like we’re going to watch Florida somehow escape with a miraculous victory. Shoot, that dates to Chris Doering ripping the heart out of Kentucky fans with “Doering’s got a touchdown!” in 1993. Yeah, 2018 in The Swamp happened. But would anybody be surprised if Shelton blocked a potential game-winning kick or something like that? You could tell me that Kentucky will have a 4-touchdown lead in the second half, and I’d be sitting there on the edge of my seat waiting for the Florida comeback to unfold. But I don’t think Kentucky builds that type of lead and Will Levis struggles against Florida’s pressure.

Week 6: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

I’m pegging this one as a Demarkcus Bowman breakout game. Against an improved, but still subpar Vandy defense, Florida’s ground game takes over. The Clemson transfer by way of nearby Lakeland scores twice and the Gators roll.

Week 7: at LSU (W)

Wait a minute. Didn’t LSU go into The Swamp and beat a Playoff-hopeful Florida team last year? Yes, and Wilson’s shoe toss into the fog was as an infamous a moment as we’ve had in college football in recent memory (Elijah Moore’s Egg Bowl TD celebration might be the only thing that holds a candle to it). Assuming Grantham doesn’t insist on sending corner blitzes at Max Johnson again, I think the Florida defense has a big redemption showing in Death Valley. Jones picks up his first signature victory and the Gators keep their East hopes alive while LSU’s West chances take a massive hit.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: vs. Georgia in Jacksonville (L)

Remember how we kept wondering what it would’ve looked like to see JT Daniels in this game? Well, wonder no more. Daniels should match up extremely well against Grantham’s pressure. Why? Last year, Daniels had the highest passer rating against the blitz among returning FBS quarterbacks (via PFF). Much like last year, Georgia’s offense wasn’t built to play from behind, this year, I’m not so sure that Florida’s offense is built to play from a multi-score deficit. Jones gets forced into some tough throws and Kelee Ringo gets his first career interception to close out a monumental win for Georgia.

Week 10: at South Carolina (W)

I actually think the Gamecocks jump out to an early lead and Florida’s offense has a slow start coming off the East-hopes crushing loss to Georgia. Kevin Harris, who hit the century mark in The Swamp last year, has another big day. But like last year, the Gamecocks are too one-dimensional and eventually, Florida takes over. Elam hauls in his first career pick-6, Jeremiah Moon gets a strip sack of Luke Doty and the Gators turn an early scare into a 2-score win on the road.

Week 11: vs. Samford (W)

This will be Game No. 17 in a 9-month stretch for Samford. The depth might be lacking a bit. Eh, who are we kidding. That’s not gonna make or break this one.

Week 12: at Mizzou (L)

I have this weird feeling that once a year, Eli Drinkwitz is gonna have one of these “how do you like me now” games. It’ll always be at home, and it’ll be when his team is a 2-score underdog to an SEC power. Last year was LSU. This year is Florida. With their East hopes dashed, Florida comes out sluggish in Columbia. Drinkwitz, who had some fun at Mullen’s expense, throws the kitchen sink at Florida. Trick plays, 4th-down conversations, onside kick out of halftime … you name it. Mizzou plays like a team with nothing to lose and Florida plays like a team that doesn’t want to be in Columbia in late November.

Week 13: vs. Florida State (W)

Has Florida State figured out how to block anyone yet? No? Only 6 Power 5 teams allowed more sacks per game than the Seminoles in Year 1 of the Mike Norvell era. I worry about that for McKenzie Milton against Florida’s pressure. Mullen lit up FSU in his first 2 matchups in the rivalry. I think there’s a good chance that continues even if FSU shows improvement up front. With a New Year’s 6 bowl berth potentially on the line, Florida shows up with much more fire than it had the previous week against Mizzou. The Gators clinch their third consecutive win against their in-state rival for the first time since the Tebow era.

2021 projection: 9-3 (5-3), 2nd in SEC East


You could argue that this is a floor season for Mullen. It’s Year 4, his team ranks No. 118 of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production. His quarterback has never started a game and he has a pair of first-round pass-catchers to replace.

If Florida’s season floor includes going to a 4th consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl and competing for a 10th win, hey, you can do a whole lot worse. Before Mullen, the Gators had 1 New Year’s 6 bowl from 2010-17. There’s no doubt that he did indeed elevate the floor.

It does seem like so much of Florida’s future outlook will hinge on that Georgia game. If the Gators get blown out by a Georgia team en route to a Playoff berth, yeah, some will question if Mullen is ever going to have that upside. He enters 2021 with a career record of 2-28 against teams who finished in the top 10 of the AP Poll. If Mullen fails to be a team of that caliber, those questions won’t go anywhere.

But perhaps patience is a virtue. We’ve seen Florida’s floor look far worse. Mullen already surpassed his 2 predecessors, and he’s a lot closer to Urban Meyer than he is Will Muschamp. Jones’ development could shape opinions of Mullen moving forward. The name of the game in 2021 is developing the quarterback position, and there aren’t 5 people in the sport who are better at that than Mullen. We’ll see how that take holds up 4 months from now.

Who knows? Maybe we’re setting the bar low for a breakout season in Gainesville. It certainly feels lower than it has been since the first year of the Mullen era.

Perhaps that’s not the worst place to be.