Outside of the Florida fan base, where expectations are always high, not much is expected from the Gators in Year 1 under new head coach Dan Mullen.
The SEC Media, who are rarely ever wrong (if you buy that, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you), picked Florida to finish third in the SEC East next season, behind 2017 SEC Champion Georgia and former Florida head coach Will Muschamp’s South Carolina program.
In truth, it’s difficult to project how Florida will do in 2018.
On the one hand, with a much-needed culture change, a roster featuring the best skill position talent the program has had in almost a decade and a schedule that features home tilts in toss-up contests with LSU, Missouri and South Carolina, perhaps Florida can surprise this autumn.
On the other hand, there’s an early visit to what promises to be a jacked-up Knoxville, brutal road contests at Mississippi State and Florida State, and Dan Mullen is no closer to having a starting quarterback — let alone one he trusts — than the day he arrived.
Here are some of the best-case and worst-case scenarios for Florida in 2018.
1. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones prove to be a reliable quarterback combination: Many of my SEC Media Days brethren were fixated on what Dan Mullen could do with Feleipe Franks, the blue-chip prospect turned reclamation project who was the second-worst starting quarterback in the SEC and Power 5 last season (behind Kellen Mond).
There’s an idea floating around that Franks, who had a beautiful but manufactured 52-yard run in the spring game and a Bambi-on-Ice 60-yard jaunt against Texas A&M last year, is athletic enough to handle the Mullen offense, and with his arm, how can you sit him?
With due respect to this argument, Franks and his cannon arm, the best answer might be to watch film, and afterward, relegate Franks to the bench.
Kyle Trask, a deadly accurate thrower who was by some distance the most consistent Florida quarterback in the spring, is still the guy many program insiders feel will win the job.
Trask was lightly recruited, but that’s never stopped Dan Mullen before, who reeled off 9-win campaigns with the likes of Chris Relf and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State. (Even Dak Prescott was a modest 3-star whose only other SEC offer was from LSU.)
Both Relf and Fitzgerald were better natural runners than Trask, but that’s where Emory Jones enters stage left.
Jones, the blue-chip quarterback who was the biggest recruiting victory in Mullen’s transition class, started to shine late in the spring, and he’s a fast and capable runner, well-suited to handle the quarterback power and zone concepts in Mullen’s running game.
Mullen has made a two-quarterback system work before at Florida. In 2006, he won a national championship with the laser-accurate senior Chris Leak handling most the passing concepts and a freshman ox named Tim Tebow handling the power. Trask is no Leak, who was an All-SEC signal caller in his own right, and no one is comparing Jones to Tebow. But the idea is conceptually similar, and if it works, a nine-win season could be in the cards.
2. Martez Ivey and a veteran OL buck their underachieving reputation: Let’s be honest: Martez Ivey might have been listed in most All-SEC publications this preseason, but if he had lived up to the 5-star hype, he wouldn’t be at Florida for his senior season.
Ivey has had a good career, not a great one, and he’s yet to have a season where he’s graded out as Florida’s best linemen. Mullen said at Media Days Ivey has “done everything the coaches have asked” and is in prime position to have a splendid senior year. Florida needs it.
Ivey is joined by Brett Heggie, who graded out as Florida’s best offensive linemen as a freshman in 2017 before being lost for the year with injury against Georgia; center T.J. McCoy; former freshman All-American Jawaan Taylor, who disappointed as a sophomore; Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan.
Collectively, the group has started 95 games, an immense number of battles in the SEC, where battle-tested lines are cherished. They are also versatile, with every member of the group save McCoy having started at least two games at multiple spots. Stone Forsythe had a monster spring, and securing the signature of blue-chip tackle Richard Gouriage, whose quick feet are perfect for Mullen’s zone schemes, was a big victory in recruiting that added depth.
In other words, there’s plenty to like about this group.
Consistency, however, has been a killer, and the unit has been dire in pass protect, surrendering a SEC high number of sacks a year ago. If Florida is to surprise on the field in 2018, the unit has to play its best football.
3. Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney and Tyrie Cleveland punish secondaries: Florida seems confident that they’ll get eligibility waivers for Van Jefferson (Ole Miss) and Trevon Grimes (Ohio State), allowing both former blue-chip receivers to play this fall.
Jefferson, a fluid route runner with marvelous hands and an NFL pedigree, collected nearly 1,000 yards receiving in two seasons at Ole Miss, where he used his 6-2 frame to gain separation against physical corners and beat smaller defensive backs on 50/50 balls in the air.
He would add instant, battle-tested production to a unit that never really recovered from the loss of troubled star Antonio Callaway last season.
If Grimes, who left Ohio State to be closer to his family, also receives a waiver, Florida gets an immediate deep threat to complement Cleveland, and yet another receiver with prototypical NFL size.
Coupled with the playmaking chops of Toney and depth that includes blue-chip receivers Joshua Hammond, Daquon Green and freshman Jacob Copeland, and this could be one of the most electrifying position units in the SEC, which is something we haven’t said about Florida’s offense at any position since at least 2012 (running backs).
4. The return of DBU: It isn’t that Florida was bad in pass defense in 2017.
It’s just that they were very ordinary, finishing 74th in the NCAA in pass efficiency defense, largely due to an enormous number of chunk plays (5th in the Power 5 in passes surrendered over 20 yards or more) despite intercepting a respectable number of passes (14) in 11 games.
That decline, coupled with an inability to help much in run support in the absence of All-SEC safety Marcell Harris (lost for year in preseason), helped precipitate a finish of 54th in S&P defense for the Gators last season, marking the first time since 2007 Florida finished outside the top 50 in S&P+ defense.
There were bright spots, however, and two of those, SEC All-Freshmen team corners C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson, return for their sophomore campaign. Also back is safety/nickel Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a potential first-round draft pick with high-level speed and range who became a better tackler late in 2017 and continued to trend up in the spring.
Florida has some questions it needs to answer at the safety positions, but if Wilson and Henderson continue to develop into the lockdown corners that we saw at times in 2017, the Gators have a chance to reclaim the DBU label and be outstanding on the back end of the defense in 2018.
5. Upset Florida State: Florida hasn’t defeated their in-state rival to the west since 2012, a 5-game stretch of futility that is already the longest drought for Florida in the history of the rivalry. A Seminoles victory in Tallahassee this November would stretch the streak into a third-coaching staff and improve FSU to a staggering 8-1 over the Gators this decade.
The argument for Georgia being Florida’s largest rival has always been that to accomplish any of Florida’s in-season goals, the Gators must beat the Bulldogs. That’s true, and arguing about that, as some Florida fans do, doesn’t change history.
But here’s what is also true: Dating to 2004, the winner of the Florida-Florida State game has finished with the better recruiting class every season but two.
In other words, Florida-Florida State is an epic game from a recruiting standpoint, and as Mullen’s staff tries to place its imprint on this program, a critical part of the foundation has to be reversing the course of this now one-sided rivalry. That reality is all the more important this autumn, with FSU also playing under a new coaching staff in the wake of Jimbo Fisher’s departure for Texas A&M.
1. The quarterback situation never resolves itself, and Florida struggles on offense again: As good as Florida’s running back room and wide receiver room are, it won’t matter if they can’t find reliable play at quarterback.
Whether Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Emory Jones or some combination of the three wins the job, Florida doesn’t need to be elite at quarterback. Decent will do.
But it can’t be another year of more of the same, or the Mullen era will get off to a lukewarm start, and as we all know, panic sets in rather quickly in Gainesville.
2. Florida’s new specialists cost the team a big football game: Arguably, Florida’s best two football players in 2017 were their specialists: punter Johnny Townsend and fan favorite kicker Eddy Pineiro.
Both are gone, off to punt and kick for a long time (probably) in the National Football League.
Johnny Townsend will be replaced by his brother, Tommy, and big brother wasted no time reminding little brother of the substantial shoes he had to fill.
Pineiro, meanwhile, is replaced by Evan McPherson, the nation’s No. 1 kicker according to 247 Sports, who flipped from Mississippi State to Florida shortly after Mullen arrived in Gainesville.
Florida’s history with highly-touted kickers is mixed: Pineiro delivered the goods in his two years on campus, but before him, save one glorious kick against Vanderbilt, Austin Hardin was largely an unequivocal disaster.
If McPherson and Townsend don’t deliver, and Florida can’t control field position with the punting game and convert decent drives that fall short of the end zone into points in the kicking game, then this will be a season of “what ifs” for a team that does not have much margin for error.
3. The linebackers are still something south of average: David Reese found his way onto All-SEC Media ballots and was consistently praised in preseason magazines, so analysts clearly believe in him. From a leadership standpoint, there’s so much to like as well. It was Reese, remember, who called out his teammates for quitting and embarrassing the uniform in a 45-16 loss at Missouri last November.
But Reese has his limitations: He’s not the sideline-to-sideline force Jarrad Davis was and he’s too slow to be excellent in pass coverage, despite his high football IQ compensating for some of the speed issues.
Despite his limits as a star, Reese will likely have a good year, but who will help him?
Vosean Joseph has lived off the hype of a big hit against LSU for most of his two seasons on campus. Jeremiah Moon was a blue-chip recruit but has spent most his career in the training room instead of on the field. James Houston and Ventrell Miller were highly-regarded recruits, but how much did a year away from the game hurt them?
Florida’s linebackers were short on depth and production in 2017. That can’t happen in the SEC, and if they fail to adjust to a new scheme under Todd Grantham in 2018, this defense won’t take the leap that’s expected and more critically, needed to win this fall.