Dan Mullen’s Florida program achieved a breakthrough in 2020 when the Gators reclaimed the SEC East crown from archrival Georgia. The Gators lost a heartbreaker to Alabama in a classic SEC Championship Game, but they proved they have the coach and scheme to compete for championships in the nation’s best conference. Now comes the hard part.

Was 2020 an aberration?

Or do Mullen and Florida truly pose a rising, annual threat to Kirby Smart’s Georgia and the Dawgs ascent as a national power? There’s a line of thinking that suggests the real answers to that question might not come until 2022. That might be true. Florida enters 2021 having to replace a Heisman finalist at quarterback and perhaps the best tight end in college football history on offense. They are relying heavily on the upperclassman leadership of a transitional recruiting class (Mullen’s first), the offensive line is a question mark as fall camp winds down and the always difficult schedule is especially brutal in 2021, as the Gators draw Alabama and annual partner LSU from the SEC West.

That said, there are reasons to be bullish about the Gators in 2021, especially on defense, where Florida’s reconstructed line has a chance to be dominant and the recruiting talent composite suggests the Gators have quietly assembled one of the nation’s most talented groups of linebackers behind them. Todd Grantham’s unit entered fall camp with a chip on their shoulder and the defense dominated the fall’s first scrimmage, something that simply didn’t happen a season ago.

A better Florida defense, coupled with a running backs group capable of picking up the playmaking vacuum left behind after the departure of Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, could help Florida again claim the SEC East.

But given all the unknowns, it’s hard to think of an SEC contender with a larger range of season possibilities than the Gators.

Here are 3 best-case and worst-case scenarios for Florida in 2021, with worst-case scenarios first.

Nightmare scenario: Emory Jones (and then Anthony Richardson) struggle and the defense doesn’t improve and Florida finishes 7-5 and unranked

When Emory Jones starts the Florida Atlantic game Sept. 4, he’ll become the highest-rated recruit to start at quarterback for Dan Mullen as a head coach. His backup, Anthony Richardson, was the top-rated quarterback out of Florida in his recruiting class, and the second-highest rated quarterback recruit to sign for Mullen. Mullen is a quarterback whisperer, one of the best developers of talent at the position in the sport. Having players with the natural ability of Jones and Richardson should be a good thing.

But if Jones struggles out of the gate and Mullen is forced to make a change, how does the locker room react? Even if team chemistry isn’t impacted, the schedule is difficult and if Florida can’t pass the ball well enough to stay multiple against the better teams, they could be fighting an uphill battle in a transitional 2021 season.

This “theoretically possible” scenario at quarterback avalanches into a “nightmare scenario” for the Gators if Grantham’s defense — objectively among the worst in the Power 5 in 2020 — doesn’t improve in 2021. On paper, Florida has done all the right things. But if Gervon Dexter doesn’t take the next step at defensive tackle until he’s a junior, and either Antonio Valentino or transfer Daquan Newkirk (often injured at Auburn) can’t bolster the interior of the defensive line as anticipated, a season filled with hope could turn into an exercise in frustration.

In this scenario, 7-5, with losses to Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Georgia and Missouri, is quite possible.

This would have worked but for the offensive-line scenario: 8-4, unranked

Another scenario that is causing some fans sleepless nights is one where Gators fans are never really sure if Emory Jones is the answer at quarterback because the offensive line can’t handle the transition back to a more run-first style spread.

The offensive line excelled at pass-blocking in 2020, but rarely, if ever, established their will in the run game. The Gators now must replace multiple starters up front, including their best lineman, Stone Forsythe, who is off to the NFL. Florida’s coaches believe they are deeper up front than they have been in the Mullen era. But outside of 6th-year senior Stewart Reese, no one Florida will trot out in their opening night offensive line can be considered a proven commodity.

If the unit’s “upside” isn’t realized, there’s a world where the Gators are good enough to beat the teams they should beat, based on talent differential, but not good enough to beat the 3 teams more talented than they are (Alabama, Georgia, LSU). Throw in the common “lost a road game because they didn’t block anybody” game and you get an 8-4 campaign that’s mostly about the hog mollies up front.

The “November trap games slow death scenario:” 9-3, but blow a trip to Atlanta late

There’s never a great time to see Nick Saban’s Alabama on your schedule, but I suppose if you have to play the Crimson Tide, you’d want to get them at home in September in Bryce Young’s first road game as a starting quarterback. Florida’s locker room knows it can stand toe-to-toe with the Tide after Atlanta a season ago and an early-season home game presents a great opportunity for the Gators.

Florida likely doesn’t escape Baton Rouge with a win in October, but if the Gators get to the Cocktail Party with only 1 SEC loss, they’ll control their SEC East fate in Jacksonville for the 4th consecutive season under Mullen.

If Florida beats the Dawgs, the “November trap game slow death” scenario is triggered. South Carolina doesn’t seem daunting, but a trip to Columbia a week after a huge win over Georgia screams trap game. Then there’s the chance that Florida has to play a cold weather, night game at Mizzou (what Eli Drinkwitz wants!) on Nov. 20. Two road, trap-style games in November with no margin for error? That’s a tough ask. There’s a scenario where Florida wins in Jacksonville and Georgia goes to Atlanta anyway. For any Gators fan, that’s a slow death.

The Dream Season Scenario: Emory Jones is transcendent, the defense is back, and a 12-1 Florida wins the SEC

I was asked on talk radio a week ago what the scenario was for a Florida College Football Playoff performance. I think it is as follows:

Emory Jones, in his 4th year on campus, shows he has complete control over Mullen’s scheme and has simply been waiting his turn behind a Heisman finalist. Florida’s offense hums in Mullen’s preferred run-dominant spread scheme, and Jones’ improved accuracy on intermediate throws keeps the Gators multiple in big games offensively. The offensive line is “good enough,” bolstered by a dynamic group of running backs who don’t need much space and the running ability of Jones, the best runner at quarterback in the country in 2020, per Pro Football Focus.

While Florida’s offense isn’t as prolific as it was in 2020, it doesn’t have to be. The defense takes more than a step forward — it becomes dominant, led by a star turn from 5-star Gervon Dexter and Penn State transfer Antonio Valentino inside and a nasty group of linebackers featuring first-round draft pick Ventrell Miller and an All-SEC turn from Mohamoud Diabate. Kaiir Elam shuts down one boundary, narrowing the field for a vastly improved secondary.

The Gators drop a game — to Alabama or LSU — but win a Cocktail Party for the ages and finish 11-1. In Atlanta, they finish the job, avenging 2020’s loss to Texas A&M, which wins the West after beating Alabama in College Station on Oct. 9.

If that reads like fantasy fan fiction, it’s because it is absolutely the “dream scenario” for Florida in 2021.

The “Yeah there were ups and downs, but that win over Alabama in The Swamp was glorious” scenario: 10-2, Peach Bowl vs. Notre Dame

See above.

If there was ever a wonderful chance to beat Alabama, it’s in the first sold-out Swamp since the pandemic, on national television, in Bryce Young’s first road game as a starting quarterback.

Mullen was close to beating Alabama twice at Mississippi State — and again last year in Atlanta. He’s too good a football coach not to get the breakthrough, and this time, it happens.

Florida returns to earth the rest of the way, finishing 10-2 overall and missing on the SEC Championship Game. Angered by last year’s opt-out embarrassment, Florida takes a fourth consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl trip seriously, and plays a memorable Peach Bowl game against a very good Notre Dame.

Florida fans don’t care about the result much, though — as they mostly spend the offseason remembering “that win” over Alabama in The Swamp.

The “Win the Rivalry Games but no championships” scenario: 10-2, Peach Bowl

A 3rd consecutive win over Florida State? It sure would be useful on the recruiting trail, where the Seminoles have gained momentum under second-year coach Mike Norvell and, at least at present, appear poised to sign a better class than the Gators for the first time since the Jimbo Fisher era in Tallahassee.

Consecutive wins over Georgia? It wouldn’t ease the sting if the Dawgs finished 7-1 and won the East ahead of a 6-2 Florida team (losses to Alabama, at LSU), but it would be fun for Gators fans to keep the 1980 jokes going by forcing a 10-2 Georgia to beg the committee for a Playoff berth should the Dawgs win in Atlanta but have 2 regular-season losses (Clemson, Florida).

Is Florida-Tennessee a rivalry game anymore? If it is, then chalk up “W” number 16-of-17 for the Gators over the Vols in September. Mullen’s Gators are 3-0 vs. Tennessee, winning by an average of 23 points. This one should be around that lopsided.

If Mullen does go 3-0 vs. Florida’s traditional rivals, he’ll improve to 9-2 against Florida’s rivals in his Florida tenure. That’s almost “Meyer” like in its efficiency. It would also ease the sting of no trip to Atlanta.