In his first year at Florida, coach Jim McElwain exceeded all expectations and seized the SEC East title.

It may have been a bit of a mirage, though. The Gators had several narrow escapes early, lost Will Grier to suspension and then were pounded by Florida State in the regular-season finale at home, Alabama in Atlanta and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

On offense, four fresh quarterbacks are in the mix to start, although two-time transfer Luke Del Rio is the leader in the clubhouse. Defensively, UF had five players taken in the NFL Draft. However, plenty of talent remains. Jalen Tabor is a great cornerback, maybe better than Vernon Hargreaves.

Print, radio and television reporters are forecasting McElwain and Co. to come back to reality in 2016, as Tennessee was the runaway pick to win the East at Media Days. Florida players didn’t like it and said so.

The Gators won’t catch anybody napping this year. McElwain’s magic hat might be fresh out of rabbits, too.


SDS 2015 projection: 6-6 (3-5)
Actual record: 10-2* (7-1)

* doesn’t include postseason

Predicting every game in 2016:

Sept. 3 vs. Massachusetts (W): Aside from its annual intrastate clash with the Seminoles, Florida’s non-conference schedule is particularly weak this season. UMass is cupcake No. 1.

Sept. 10 vs. Kentucky (W): Florida has won 29 consecutive times. One of these years, the Wildcats will actually close out the Gators and pull off the upset. It probably won’t be in Gainesville, though.

Sept. 17 vs. North Texas (W): Cupcake No. 2 comes calling in Week 3. The Mean Green lost by 59 to Portland State last year. At home, too. UF hangs a big number.

Sept. 24 at Tennessee (L): The Volunteers have lost 11 straight to Florida, some of them in spectacular fashion. But the Vols end that dubious streak and take control of the East early.

Oct. 1 at Vanderbilt (W): The Gators had trouble with the Commodores a year ago. Gainesville native Ralph Webb had a lot to do with it. Last season may have been Vandy’s chance, though.

Oct. 8 vs. LSU (L): Even with all those soon-to-be draft picks on defense, UF surrendered 180 yards to Leonard Fournette on the ground. Look for him to run wild at The Swamp.

Oct. 15 vs. Missouri (W): Mizzou, on the other hand, didn’t run the ball very well at all in 2015. The Tigers couldn’t throw it, either. It’s a transition year for rookie coach Barry Odom.

Oct. 29 vs. Georgia* (L): First-year coach Kirby Smart, a former Dawg himself, understands the importance of the Cocktail Party. He’s going to want to make an impression in Jacksonville right away.

Nov. 5 at Arkansas (L): The Hogs are one of only two teams in 2016 to play the East and West champions from a year ago. They won’t beat Alabama, but they can take Florida at home.

Nov. 12 vs. South Carolina (W): Plenty of Gators still on the roster were recruited by Will Muschamp. With Coach Boom now a Gamecock, they’ll want to show him what he’s missing.

Nov. 19 vs. Presbyterian (W): The annual pre-FSU cupcake is especially tasty this season. The Blue Hose play home games before a capacity crowd of 6,500. UF’s walk-ons see plenty of action.

Nov. 26 at Florida State (L): Jimbo Fisher is 5-1 against Florida and 6-0 against Miami. He owns the Sunshine State these days. The ‘Noles look to be loaded this year, too.

* in Jacksonville, Fla.

SDS 2016 projection: 7-5 (4-4)
SEC race: 3rd in the East

The Skinny: Gator Nation should be happy to have McElwain on the job. He’s a good coach and should do big things with this program. But since Florida overachieved in 2015, a mild step back this season shouldn’t come as a shocker. Tennessee might be the team to beat this year, but next year we’ll see.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.