SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Florida football in 2018
Is any team in America in a more drastically different state than it was in 365 days ago than Florida? Maybe UCF and Florida State could make an argument for that.
But think about it. At this time last year, the Gators were fresh off a pair of division titles with a third-year coach. Some thought they were in for their third straight West crown and that McElwain was going to resurrect the offense with Malik Zaire or Feleipe Franks (keep in mind that was also pre-credit card fraud scandal).
Woof. That take is freeeeeeezing cold.
McElwain’s made-up death threats put a cap on his brief, but bizarre run as Florida’s coach. Dan Mullen, the guy many believed would never come back to Gainesville, did just that. There are a lot of unknowns to the start of the Mullen era, but it feels like at least one bet is safe.
There’s no way Florida will experience a 2018 quite like 2017.
2017 record: 4-7 (3-5)
Patience, patience, patience
It’s going to take time. History shows us that Mullen’s offense isn’t built overnight, especially at the quarterback position. As much as McElwain’s struggles were a product of his own doing, we’re still talking about an offense that ranked No. 108 in the country. Don’t expect 40-point performances out of the gate.
What I will say is that I do expect immediate improvement in the running game. It’s baffling that a backfield with Lamical Perine, Malik Davis and Mark Thompson only totaled 13 rushing touchdowns in 11 games. That unit, combined with the return of Jordan Scarlett, should be vastly improved under Mullen.
The issue with Florida’s offense early on could be how 1-dimensional it is. Against elite defenses, teams will dare the Gators to throw the ball downfield. I’m not saying that’ll be as ugly as it was last year, but it takes time to develop that balance. If there was a flaw in Mullen’s developed Mississippi State offense last year, it was that the passing game was rarely efficient.
Obviously the weapons are a bit different. MSU didn’t have a versatile playmaker like Kadarius Toney or a deep threat like Tyrie Cleveland. That’ll produce some nice flashes early on.
But don’t be surprised if there are still a few flashbacks in store.
I’m probably higher on Todd Grantham than you are
I wrote this summer why I thought Grantham was worth the high price that Florida lured him with to leave Starkville. I was surprised how many people disagreed with that notion. Perhaps some of his antics at Georgia are still fresh on the minds of SEC fans.
But I’m a believer that he worked some wonders at MSU last year. He took over a group that was routinely trucked in 2016 and turned it into a unit that ranked No. 10 in total defense in 2017. Yeah, having All-SEC playmakers like Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons certainly helped.
It’s not like Florida is lacking talent on the front 7, either. Cece Jefferson, if he’s healthy as he expects to be, has All-America potential. David Reese shouldn’t have any problems leading that defense. And led by Marco Wilson, Florida has a trio of defensive backs who received preseason All-SEC honors. That’s usually a pretty good sign.
If Florida can actually sustain drives on offense, this defense will get a chance to catch its breath and perform like one of the conference’s best. That’s still a big “if.”
My boldest take of the offseason?
My boldest take of the offseason is … that Kyle Trask will be Florida’s starting quarterback in 2018. That doesn’t sound that bold anymore, I guess. But we’re still talking about someone who wasn’t even a starter on his high school team. He was the lowest-rated recruit in Florida’s 2016 class while Franks was playing in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl.
But I think Mullen winds up rolling with Trask because of his ability to make the intermediate throws. Mullen’s offense is predicated on that more than which quarterback throws the best deep ball. Trask doesn’t have Franks’ arm or mobility. That much we know.
Still, Trask looked plenty capable in the spring game, and reports out of camp suggest that Franks isn’t exactly outshining anyone, despite his superior talent. Mullen admitted that he didn’t think Franks was ready for what he faced last year. Perhaps the McElwain staff felt pressure to see what it had in Franks.
I just have a feeling that Mullen favors someone who he feels like he can develop and mold into what he expects from the position. Trasks’ shortcomings won’t cost Florida in the way that Franks’ could. Maybe Trask is the diamond in the rough who’s ready to shine with a prime opportunity.
Week 1: vs. Charleston Southern (W)
I’ll have “FCS schools that even McElwain’s Florida offense could score against” for 600, Alex.
Week 2: vs. Kentucky (W)
Can you imagine if Florida had lost that game last year? Would McElwain have had a ride home from Lexington? OK, I’ll stop with the McElwain jokes. The streak continues, but Florida’s offense struggles to get a ton going in this one. I’ll say it’s 20-10 game that stays far too close for comfort.
Week 3: vs. Colorado State (W)
There’s a coach who’s no longer at Florida who would have really enjoyed this game (OK, that was the real last one). Instead, Mullen’s team will welcome the Group of 5 school to Gainesville with open arms. An inexperienced CSU squad struggles facing its second SEC foe in a row.
Week 4: vs. at Tennessee (W)
This ends up being a nice feather in the cap for Mullen early on. The opportunity to clinch a 4-0 start in Knoxville would certainly make Gator fans breathe a sigh of relief. In what could still be an ugly game from an offensive standpoint, Scarlett and Perine help Florida pound out a 17-14 win.
Week 5: at Mississippi State (L)
In case you haven’t heard, Mullen returning to Starkville is kind of a big deal. In case you also haven’t heard, MSU is the better team in 2018. In what’s sure to be a special atmosphere, the Bulldogs put together a convincing win that makes some question the validity of Florida’s 4-0 start.
Week 6: vs. vs. LSU (L)
For all the questions surrounding the LSU offense, that defense should be one of the nation’s best. Devin White and Rashard Lawrence stymie Florida’s ground game and force Trask into more obvious throwing situations than he’s comfortable with. You know it’ll be close, but LSU finds away to get out of The Swamp with a win for the second consecutive year.
Week 7: at Vanderbilt (W)
In baseball, there are certain pitchers who develop a reputation as being a “stopper.” As in, when a team is on a losing streak, the “stopper” can be counted on to deliver a quality start and end the losing streak. I feel like that’s going to be Vandy’s role for the SEC this year.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Georgia (L)*
It was almost comical hearing people tout history as a reason Florida was going to hang tough with Georgia last year. Then 42-7 happened and a certain coach linked with a shark was fired. Do I expect Florida to have such a massive disparity in terms of coaching and on-field talent in 2018? No, but I also saw how far apart those two programs were. Simply bringing in Mullen won’t change that in a year. The Dawgs still roll, but not in the embarrassing fashion they did last year.
Week 10: vs. Missouri (W)
I love the feud that was started from Jefferson’s comments bashing Mizzou fans. We need more of that. I don’t think that Gators are in shambles the way they were when they went to Columbia last year. This year, the front seven actually bothers Drew Lock and makes it an unwelcome environment in The Swamp.
Week 11: vs. South Carolina (L)
I went back and forth on this one because while I’m not crazy high on the Gamecocks like some are, I feel like they’ll stand a much better chance of putting up points on the road after they have 2-plus months in this new offense. This has the feel of a gritty, 24-21 win in which Muschamp dials up a key defensive stand late to seal a win in his return to Gainesville.
Week 12: vs. Idaho (W)
The younger Petrino (Paul) is coming off a 4-win season in the Sun Belt. Let’s just say that doesn’t set up well for me having much preseason confidence in the Vandals’ 2018 outlook.
Week 13: at Florida State (L)
Florida fans don’t want to hear this, but in many ways, the Gators and Seminoles are in similar situations. Despite both having new coaches after disastrous seasons, both teams still have plenty of talent returning in 2018. In Tallahassee, though, FSU controls the clock late with Cam Akers and pulls out a nail-biter to close the regular season.
*at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville
2018 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC East
On the surface, a lot of Florida fans would probably be disappointed to only go 4-4 vs. the SEC. The schedule sets up pretty well for a bounce-back year after last year’s free-fall, and given the experience on both sides of the ball, 7 wins might not get many people excited.
But I would spin it a different way. Improving by 3 wins is nothing to scoff at. Only 6 SEC programs in the last 3 years accomplished that feat. Perspective is key for this.
A 7-win regular season would still give Mullen a chance to have a month of extra practice and possibly a bowl win to get an eighth victory. If that happened, the only SEC team with better year-to-year improvement in the Playoff era would be 2017 Georgia.
This has the makings of a team that can at least threaten the SEC’s best — unlike last year — and flash the potential we expect from the Mullen era. If Florida can couple that with a quiet year off the field — also unlike last year — this could be a solid step in the right direction for Mullen.
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