Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series shifts to the SEC East, beginning today with Florida. Tuesday morning: Georgia.

If there were an SEC team keeping its fingers crossed that football wouldn’t be canceled, it was … well, everyone probably. It just means more, guys.

But if I had to pick one, I’d pick Florida. The Gators have a veteran-laden squad that has its sights set on earning the program’s first Playoff berth. The chance to finally beat Georgia for the first time since 2016 is obviously a popular topic of conversation in the Sunshine State these days. As it should be. That’s the only thing standing in Florida’s way of getting back to Atlanta and potentially playing for a Playoff spot.

This is not a “let’s just get to a New Year’s 6 bowl” type of year for Florida. The Gators have been there and done that. Dan Mullen actually became the first coach to win 2 such bowl games (or BCS) at a new school. That’s the new floor in Gainesville.

What’s the ceiling? Is Mullen, without the same load of 5-star talent to work with that Kirby Smart has, destined to always come up just short? Or is now the time for him to show the world that he’s on Georgia’s level?

Let’s dig into that, shall we?

What should we expect from Kyle Trask in 2020?

I think I can answer that question better for Trask than I could for any SEC quarterback. We know the basics. He’s accurate, he makes good reads and he’s a willing runner, though obviously not in the traditional Mullen mold. That’s OK. He made a bunch of big-time throws (contrary to what the PFF numbers said) and won a whole lot of games with those attributes last year.

So what should we expect from Trask after his first full offseason (sort of) as the starter? Progression. Progression with the deep ball is obviously of the utmost importance. Can he and Trevon Grimes develop that downfield chemistry? Will we see Mullen be willing to get Kadarius Toney some more go-route looks? Will Jacob Copeland be a consistent target on those 50-50 balls?

There are no shortage of weapons for Trask, who should have an improved offensive line with 4 SEC starters back (I’ll explain that in a minute) from what was a young and often frustrating group in 2019. Couple that with the increased understanding of the offense and yeah, there’s no reason to think Trask is about to regress.

Even if there’s a bit more turnovers, which Pro Football Focus has often pointed out, Trask isn’t the guy who is going to lose a team a game. He’s just not. He makes too many good decisions over the course of 60 minutes to continuously put his team in a hole.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he finished as the first-team All-SEC quarterback.

It’s all about the offensive line

Remember how last year’s group was a liability throughout the season and Florida only had the No. 107 ground game? Of course you do. Now, Florida has 4 seniors on that offensive line, 3 of whom were starters last year. One is Mississippi State transfer Stewart Reese, who has 3 years of starting experience in the SEC.

“Inexperience” is no longer an excuse. It’s a strength. At least it should be.

If there’s ever a time to have a veteran group in the trenches, it’s now. In an offseason when you wonder about things like continuity with atypical practice circumstances, Florida is set up well up front. We saw LSU take that next step on the offensive line from 2018 to 2019. Are the Gators due for a bump like that? I wouldn’t go that far just yet. LSU won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in America.

This offensive line will be what determines Florida’s upside. And unlike last year, it shouldn’t be the thing that limits the Gators.

Is Todd Grantham’s defense built to dominate in a year like this?

It took a conversation with Cole Cubelic to get me to realize something. This year is set up well for Grantham. Real well.

Think about it. In this offseason with limited spring ball (if any) and a lack of true live action, a defense that can consistently apply pressure and force quarterbacks to make quick decisions is ideal. So is the fact that the SEC actually has plenty of first-time starters. Florida’s top competition in the SEC — Georgia, LSU and Alabama — all have first-time starters at QB.

Here’s an interesting stat — 6 of Florida’s first 8 games are against teams with new offensive coordinators. By the way, that’s not including LSU, which has 2 returning starters on offense and lost wunderkind passing game coordinator Joe Brady to the NFL.

Grantham always finds edge rushers. Even after losing Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, I would bet on that happening. Zachary Carter and Mohamoud Diabate are major breakout candidates, and there are big expectations for Jeremiah Moon and 5-star Georgia transfer Brenton Cox.

That’s the type of style that’s going to take advantage of offensive lines that potentially have depth or communication issues. Grantham should have another elite defense after a pair of top-20 units to start at Florida.

Of course, it won’t mean much if they can’t find ways to dial up pressure against you know who.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Ole Miss (W)

Mullen’s return to Oxford won’t be the same without a full chorus of boos like the ones he got when he was at MSU, but it will be a relatively tricky place to open the season. At least from a defensive standpoint. Ole Miss could use Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee, and that backfield is loaded with home-run hitters if Florida’s tackling isn’t on point yet. But I expect the Gators to have a ton of success against the Ole Miss defense in the second half to fuel a 2-score victory.

Week 2: vs. South Carolina (W)

This is exactly the type of matchup that Florida should thrive in. A new offensive coordinator, a lot of new pieces on offense, a ground game that’s been at the bottom of the SEC in recent memory, etc. All the pieces are there for Florida to have a solid defensive showing against Mike Bobo’s offense. Even if the Gators don’t quite take off offensively just yet, I wouldn’t bet on them even having a repeat of the 2018 scare against the Gamecocks.

Week 3: at Texas A&M (L)

This will serve as a reminder to Florida after a 2-0 start that winning the SEC in a year like this is no joke. The Aggies’ defense knocks that Florida offensive line down a peg after an encouraging start. Ultimately, a Gators squad that comes into College Station a touch too confident sees an offense that adjusts well to the speed in the front 7. This ends up being a day in which Kellen Mond makes multiple big plays with his legs to lead A&M to a statement win to avoid that dreaded 1-2 start. Florida’s first blemish doesn’t hurt quite as bad because it happens in a crossover showdown.

Week 4: vs. LSU (W)

What do well-coached teams do after a loss? They bounce back. Call this a bit of revenge if you must, but I actually thought Florida held its own against that historically good LSU squad last year while not having Greenard or Zuniga at full strength. This time, an experienced Florida squad keeps its foot on the gas for all 60 minutes and has a banner offensive day after a humbling showing at A&M. Toney has his first major highlight reel play of the year on a jet sweep and the Gators pick up a huge victory to keep their East hopes alive.

Week 5: vs. Mizzou (W)

In terms of the offenses I expect to struggle against a Grantham defense in a year like this, Mizzou is certainly one of them. Who knows who will be starting at quarterback by then. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a pair of rushed throws lead to interceptions from Kaiir Elam and Shawn Davis. Mizzou’s defense keeps it closer than the experts predict, but the Gators overcome a slow start to get to the bye at 4-1.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Georgia in Jacksonville (W)

Yeah, I think it finally happens. In addition to not being able to run the ball at all last year — I’m betting on Florida to be much improved up front to prevent another ground game dud in Jacksonville — the Gators were bit by the same thing that cost them the 2018 game. That is, an inability to get off the field on 3rd down. Georgia was a combined 20-for-32 in those spots in 2018 and 2019. Five of Georgia’s 6 touchdowns in those games came on 3rd down, too. Florida fans know this. Grantham knows this. I have to think, given the sense of urgency and with so many new pieces on that Georgia offensive line and at quarterback with a new system, that narrative turns around. In a low-scoring, hard-fought thriller, the oft-injured Malik Davis winds up being the hero with a late rushing score to lift Florida to a 21-17 victory to take back the East lead and clear the path to Atlanta.

Week 8: vs. Arkansas (W)

In a way, this is sort of an ideal game following Georgia because Florida players won’t have to find ways to get psyched up for it, but it’s still a super favorable home matchup. Feleipe Franks’ return to Gainesville should be an interesting one. Rarely do we get such an occurrence within the conference. Something tells me that Grantham, after 2 years of watching Franks every day, is going to have ways to confuse him. Diabate and Carter steal the show in what turns out to be a frustrating day for the former Gators quarterback.

Week 9: at Vanderbilt (W)

Man, I’m worried about Vandy’s depth. Already. Between last year’s NFL departures and opt-outs, it’s hard to envision the Commodores staying competitive with one of the SEC’s best by season’s end. Who knows that that roster will look like, but I have to think even if the Gators are depleted themselves, there’s still more than enough talent to cruise to a win in Nashville.

Week 10: vs. Kentucky (W)

Let’s not forget that the last time Terry Wilson played Florida, he ended a losing streak that predated my lifetime. Wilson and that dominant ground game are no joke, which the Gators know all too well. That offensive line is experienced and darn good. Did you know that Kentucky actually is +2 against Florida over the past 3 years? That makes this an absolute grind for Florida. Mullen turns to Emory Jones in the second half to jumpstart the offense after a slow start, and unlike last year against LSU, it works. Jones provides a glimpse of the future and has his best moment in a Florida uniform to win a 28-24 thriller.

Week 11: at Tennessee (W)

Tennessee fans are pumped that Florida has to travel to face Tennessee in the cold this year. While I don’t expect this rare Florida-Tennessee clash in December to have quite the same feel as that famous 2001 showdown, I do believe it’ll be plenty entertaining. Florida will be playing for a division title, and Tennessee would love nothing more than to play spoiler. That nearly happens after some back and forth thanks to a big Eric Gray performance, but Trask keeps his cool with his back against the wall amidst all the Jones hype, and he silences a reduced capacity crowd at Neyland.

Florida is back in the SEC Championship.

2020 projection: 9-1, 1st in SEC East


If you’re a Florida fan, this is as good of a regular season as you can ask for. I say that because I don’t think it’s realistic for anyone to go 10-0 in conference play — even Alabama — much less the program that hasn’t won a conference title in 12 years. A 9-1 mark with a Georgia win would, in theory, give the Gators a Playoff shot even with a close loss in the SEC Championship.

The goal is to capitalize on a year in which the SEC seems totally up for grabs. Who knows how midseason opt-outs, quarantines and injuries will impact the race to Atlanta, but in Year 3 of the Mullen era, the depth should be there for Florida to thrive.

They have to be better up front. You cannot reach elite status in this sport with an ineffective ground game.

They have to find the right edge rushers to replace some big-time contributors. You cannot successfully execute Grantham’s defense without it (see 2013 Georgia).

And above all else, they’ve got to find a way to make those key defensive plays to beat Georgia. You cannot take that next step until you get past the 3-time defending division champs.

Maybe, in this bizarre offseason in which continuity and veteran leadership on both sides has never been more important, Florida finally has the right formula to make that happen. I believe they do, and I haven’t thought that at any point during the post-Urban Meyer era.

Now is Florida’s time.