Florida football: 10 bold predictions for the 2019 season
Talking season is finally over.
The 2019 college football season kicks off Saturday and Florida will be front and center nationally when they reunite with storied rival Miami in the Camping World Kickoff game in Orlando (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
For the Gators, the game is an opportunity to firmly assert their in-state dominance as the state’s flagship football program (the Gators trounced rival FSU in Tallahassee last November) and build on on what was a promising first season under Dan Mullen that saw the Gators win 10 games and dominate Michigan in a New Year’s 6 Bowl.
Outside of the state, Florida is still chasing rival Georgia and Alabama in the SEC, but another strong season under Mullen would certainly be a statement of intent from the Florida program that it is ready to compete for championships again after spending the bulk of the past decade wandering college football’s wilderness of afterthoughts.
Here are 10 bold predictions for Florida’s 2019 season.
1. The Gators will dominate Miami
The spread is 7.5 and the recent money is moving toward The U or the Under, which at the time of this writing sits at 47. I don’t dislike the under, but color me confused as to why a Florida team that returns 14 starters from a New Year’s 6 Bowl winning team is only a 1-touchdown favorite against a Miami program featuring (a) a new head coach, (b) a new starting QB and (c) replacing all but one starter in the defensive secondary.
I get that the Gators are breaking in 3 new starters on the offensive line, but Lamical Perine is one of the best running backs in America at powering through contact (3rd in the SEC last season in that statistic) and will help UF grind out enough tough yards on the ground to open up the passing game. That’s where Florida should feast: a vastly improved 3rd-year starting QB Feleipe Franks and one of America’s most talented WR corps (more below) vs. a Canes secondary that has talent but aside from All-ACC corner Trajan Bandy will feature multiple guys playing their first meaningful college football.
The Canes special group of linebackers will keep things interesting, but eventually, the Hurricanes will tire defensively and the Gators will win by multiple touchdowns.
2. Florida finishes in the Top 25 nationally in total offense for the first time since 2009
Yes, it has been that long.
The 2012 Gators won 11 games with a dominant running game that did just enough in the air, but they finished just outside the Top 25. Florida’s last “elite” offense came in Tim Tebow’s senior season, when Florida finished in the top 5 in total offense and 2nd in S & P+ offense (which uses five key analytical factors to determine how explosive an offense is as a whole).
Last year’s Gators finished 15th in S & P+ offense but only 32nd in yards per play and 42nd nationally in total offense. Those were vast improvements over the moribund McElwain era offenses that cracked the top 100 only once in total offense and yards per play, but the Gators still have plenty of room for improvement. Expect them to make more strides in 2019 behind a confident Franks, a good stable of running backs led by Perine and a marvelous group of WRs that features 2 surefire high-round NFL Draft picks in Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson.
3. Florida will be undefeated in The Swamp
Under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, The Swamp was a fortress, one of the most fearsome venues in college football. The Gators lost only 5 times in 12 years in The Swamp under Spurrier, and the Meyer era featured several electric home victories. All told, Florida had the best home record in FBS college football from 1990-2009.
That dominance has waned. Florida has only had undefeated home slates twice this decade (2012, 2016) and in 1 of those seasons, the Gators played only 5 home games thanks to a hurricane and a hissy fit from LSU AD Joe Alleva, who refused to reschedule the game in Gainesville, forcing the Gators to give up a home game and play LSU in Baton Rouge instead. (The Gators won at LSU anyway).
Florida’s 2019 home slate isn’t easy, with a visit from Auburn as a cross-divisional opponent and rival Florida State to close the campaign, but it is manageable. When the Gators upset LSU last October, Florida proved last year it could win a big-time game in The Swamp again. But outside of that game, the Gators were pedestrian at home last season. Florida saw its 31-game winning streak over Kentucky snapped on their home field last September and the Gators were blown out in their Homecoming game by Missouri. Even when they won, it wasn’t always convincing, as the Gators needed a furious 2nd-half comeback to beat South Carolina in The Swamp last November.
This season, expect Florida to leave no doubt at home, winning all but the Auburn game comfortably, and coming out victorious in all 6 of their scheduled home contests.
4. Lamical Perine rushes for 1,000 yards
Very quietly, Perine was one of the best running backs in the SEC last season, despite splitting carries with the now-departed for the NFL Jordan Scarlett. Perine tallied 826 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging 6.16 yards per carry and finishing 3rd in the SEC (behind Scarlett and Kentucky’s Benny Snell) in yards gained after contact. Perine has the power to drive through tackles, as this run against LSU as a freshman demonstrates:
He also can outrun you when he gets to the second level, as this run against a fast FSU defense demonstrates:
"THERE GOES PERINE!"
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 24, 2018
Perine should command primary carries with Scarlett departed, but even in that scenario, Florida has too much talent behind him (Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce) for him to be a 1,500-yard type bellcow. Nevertheless, Perine is Florida’s most complete back, and given the bulk of the carries, he’ll become Florida’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Kelvin Taylor in 2015.
5. Florida has 5 wide receivers with 25 receptions or more
Florida’s returns one of the deepest, most talented wide receiver units in college football (ranked No. 7 nationally and No. 2 in the SEC by Phil Steele).
The WR unit features 8 blue-chip players (2nd-highest total in the SEC behind Alabama) and Florida returns a conference-high 7 players who hauled in double-digit receptions a season ago. Contrast that with SEC East favorite Georgia, which returns only 2 players and 0 wide receivers who caught 10 or more passes a season ago (Charlie Woerner, D’Andre Swift) and you get an idea of how loaded Florida is at the position.
Last year, 4 Gators (Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney and Josh Hammond) had 25 receptions or more. This season, expect the number to be 5 with 25 receptions or more, with Toney, Grimes and Hammond maintaining or improving on their 2018 numbers and a big senior season from do-everything weapon Freddie Swain giving the Gators a total of 5 pass-catchers over the 25-reception mark. Throw in matchup problem Kyle Pitts at tight end and downfield threat Tyrie Cleveland and Florida might even approach 6, a testament to the quality of recruiting and depth the Gators have done at the playmaker positions.
6. 10 sacks for Jabari Zuniga
Jachai Polite parlayed a year as Todd Grantham’s Buck/Rush DE into an 11-sack, All-SEC campaign in 2018.
Here’s the thing: Zuniga is probably a more complete football player than Polite. He had 5 sacks last season but is better in run support and has a motor scouts rave about (a stark contrast to Polite, who slipped on draft boards last spring amid questions about his work ethic). Zuniga knows last year could have been even better if he cleaned up some technique, such as finishing rushes with proper angles to the quarterback — a problem seen in the video below:
If he accomplishes that, the 23 pressures he had last season (same as Polite) might finish with better endings, helping him improve his sack numbers and make good on the financial decision he made to return for his senior season.
7. Amari Burney is the breakout star on defense
Burney’s speed and penchant for the big hit in practice and on special teams last season made him an ideal candidate to replace the departed Vosean Joseph at linebacker this season. In truth, Burney’s fluidity in pass coverage might make him an upgrade over Joseph, who played with great tenacity and effort but struggled with fluid hips and technique as a coverage linebacker.
Injuries and the dismissal of safety John Huggins may force Burney back into a role as a Star this season for Florida more than initially imagined, but Grantham’s blitz schemes in particular value versatility, and given Burney’s size and speed, he’ll be a 3-down player wherever Grantham decides to line him up. His versatility and athleticism make the highly-recruited sophomore the most likely breakout difference-maker for Florida on defense in 2019.
8. CJ Henderson wins the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back
The SEC has produced 5 Thorpe Award winners this decade, including the past 2 (Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Georgia’s Deandre Baker).
CJ Henderson is Florida’s best and most important football player, a guy who can lock down the opponent’s best receiver on an island, make a big hit in run support or make a big play on a boundary blitz. On 40 1-on-1 targets as a sophomore, Henderson allowed only 15 receptions (5th best in the FBS) and 0 touchdowns (best in FBS), per Sports Info Solutions. Henderson is also a freakish athlete, with a 500+ pound squat and track speed. Just ask Tennessee fans:
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 23, 2018
LSU’s Grant Delpit figures to be his primary competition for the Thorpe Award, and Delpit is a jack of all trades who could very well contend for the Bednarik Award (Most outstanding defensive player in college football) too. Both were on the preseason watch lists for both awards. My guess is they’ll both end up justifying preseason 1st-Team All-American selections, which could lead to split trophies come award season.
9. Florida is 6-0 when they head to Baton Rouge to begin a defining October stretch away from home
Florida will dominate Miami and, after a bye week and an FCS opponent, exact some revenge on Kentucky in Lexington come mid-September. They’ll harass and harangue a young Tennessee offensive line in The Swamp on Sept. 21, defeating the Vols for the 14th time in 15th meetings. And after dispatching of Towson, they’ll win a hard-fought, physical Homecoming game against an Auburn team whose freshman QB, Bo Nix, will be making only his second road start.
That means Florida will be 6-0 when it arrives in Baton Rouge on Oct. 12 to play in Tiger Stadium for the first time since 2016. That road game begins the most crucial 3-game stretch of the season for Florida, which will follow its date with LSU with a trip to South Carolina, where the Gators have only won once this decade, and then, after a bye, the Cocktail Party against Georgia, which I’m told is a rather big rivalry football game that might decide the SEC East.
10. Florida will beat Missouri. I repeat, Florida will beat Missouri.
Yes, Florida has lost its past 2 in this series by an average of 25 points.
Yes, Missouri and Barry Odom replaced Gator-slayer Drew Lock with Kelly Bryant, a dual-threat QB who has guided a team to the College Football Playoff.
Yes, Larry Rountree III is back after running over and around the Gators last season.
Yes, Albert Okwuegbunam is the best TE in the country and Florida has been known to struggle against great tight ends. (I think Isaac Nauta is still wide open).
Yes, this is a road game at Faurot Field in November. It will be cold and gloomy and if Florida is eliminated from SEC East contention, who knows how motivated the Gators will be. Isn’t that usually what Gators fans say after they get their clocks cleaned by Mizzou? “We weren’t motivated” or “it didn’t matter” or some such nonsense.
So maybe this prediction makes very little sense on paper.
But this is a bold prediction piece sooo …
Gators win at Missouri this November.