Georgia is considered by many to be the favorite in the SEC East heading into summer and will likely receive the majority of votes to win the division when SEC Media Days kicks off in early July. While many are projecting the Dawgs to play in Atlanta in early December, college football expert Phil Steele isn’t among them.
In fact, not only is Steele picking Florida to win the SEC East for the third consecutive season, he has selected the Gators as his No. 1 surprise national title contender heading into the 2017 season. Steele defines a “surprise team” as a national title contender that ranks outside the preseason Top 10.
Steele recently joined WJOX 94.5 FM radio program The RoundTable to discuss the SEC following the release of his popular annual preseason college football magazine. Florida’s chances to rise in the rankings and threaten for a Playoff birth were among the topics discussed.
To his credit, Steele’s No. 1 surprise team heading into the 2016 season, Washington, made the Playoff after winning the Pac-12.
“This is a non-Top 10 team, and Florida will not be in the Top 10 this (preseason), I think can win the national title,” Steele said on the air. “Go back to last year, for example, Washington was coming off a 7-6 season, I had them as my No. 1 surprise team in the country. Non-Top 10 (preseason) team, made the Playoffs and had their shot at the end.
“When I look at Florida this year, here’s what I like about them, start on the defensive side of the ball. These guys are always good on defense, right? Well last year they lost quite a few guys to injury in the second half of the year, they had to play a lot of freshmen, guys like Jabari Zuniga up front at the defensive end spot, they gained experience. So even though they lose a lot of talented players off the defense, a lot of guys only started seven or eight games. They have a lot of the guys that gained experience back, I think they’ll be strong.”
While Steele believes the strong tradition of defense will continue in Gainesville, he sees the recent history of offensive struggles coming to an end for the Gators. Noting that the offense hasn’t looked like a Florida offense since the Will Muschamp era, and pointing out Jim McElwain’s squads have been plagued by issues at quarterback, Steele expects things to change in 2017.
“They are in pretty good shape at QB. They got Feleipe Franks, big 6-foot-6, 220-pound redshirt frosh, Luke Del Rio started out last season like gangbusters, then got injured and wasn’t the same when he returned and they also add in (graduate transfer Malik) Zaire from Notre Dame,” Steele said. “I think all three of those guys are capable, solid set of running backs… best set of receivers they’ve had in 5-10 years, a veteran offensive line.”
The special teams units, and in particular, the schedule, all factor into Steele’s favorable projection for Florida.
“Special teams? How about No. 3 in the country,” Steele continued. “What I really like about Florida this year is the schedule. Here’s Florida’s road games: Missouri, South Carolina, and Kentucky. Those are their three road games.”
Add it all up and Steele envisions a scenario in which Florida, not Alabama, represents the SEC in the Playoff following an SEC Championship Game featuring both schools for the third consecutive season.