Even if Florida is the two-time defending champion of the East, that’s sort of like being the valedictorian of summer school.
It’s simply impossible to deny the fact that the SEC’s two divisions are out of whack, with the West vastly superior both at the top and bottom. Nevertheless, the Gators do deserve credit for making it to Atlanta one way or another.
There are a lot of experts who firmly believe UF is a quarterback away from heading to the College Football Playoff, although we have no idea what to expect at the game’s most important position in Gainesville this season. Orange-and-blue fans must do their very best to ignore West Virginia in 2017, as Will Grier is there now and likely to tear up the Big 12 statistically.
The defense has been strong, plus special teams have been sound. Still, unless the offense catches up, Florida will continue to be outclassed by elite programs.
2016 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Actual Record: 8-3* (6-2)
* doesn’t include postseason
Jim McElwain is going into his third season as coach of the Gators, and he already has two East titles under his belt.
Unfortunately, he’s been blown off the field at the Georgia Dome by an aggregate score of 83-31 in the last two conference championship games by Alabama. To be fair, it’s unlikely that another team from the division would’ve put up a better fight either time.
While McElwain arrived with the reputation as an innovative offensive mind, UF has been a mess at QB since Grier was popped by the NCAA for performance-enhancing drugs and transferred to the Mountaineers. Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby were equally mediocre in 2016.
After a slow start, McElwain has really revved up his recruiting. The recent commitment of 5-star signal caller Matt Corral for the class of 2018 grabbed headlines.
With Del Rio sidelined for spring practice due to shoulder surgery, it was a competition between a pair of redshirt freshmen in Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.
Both signed with Florida in 2016, Franks as a celebrated 4-star recruit and Trask as an under-the-radar 3-star kid. Based on what we saw in April’s spring game, Franks was way ahead of Trask and presumed to be the Week 1 starter.
That all changed once Malik Zaire, recently of Notre Dame, joined the Gators for fall camp as a graduate transfer. Zaire doesn’t have a ton of experience at the collegiate level, although Franks is yet to take a snap that counts beyond high school. Franks has a higher ceiling in the long run. But for right now, Zaire has a higher floor.
UF travels to Arlington for a season-opening matchup with Michigan, so McElwain has little incentive to announce his starter prior to kickoff at AT&T Stadium.
Strengths & Weaknesses
From a skill-position perspective, Florida seems to be deeper and more dangerous that it’s been previously under McElwain.
We know Jordan Scarlett is a fine running back and Antonio Callaway — provided he can stay out of trouble — is an explosive receiver, but pass-catching weapons like wideout Tyrie Cleveland and tight end DeAndre Goolsby still have plenty of upside.
However, McElwain has leaned on the defense left behind by one-time coach Will Muschamp for two years now, and it remains to be seen just how much is left in the cupboard. Alex Anzalone, Caleb Brantley, Jarrad Davis, Joey Ivie, Marcus Maye, Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson were all selected in the NFL Draft, so that’s seven pro-caliber starters gone for good at once.
Making matters worse, safety Marcell Harris, who led this unit in tackles a season ago, tore his Achilles last month and will miss 2017.
Week 1: vs. Michigan (W)*
Believe it or not, but the Gators will have the more experienced D in this one. The Wolverines have to replace 10 starters there.
Week 2: vs. Northern Colorado (W)
UF has never been bashful about scheduling cupcake games, especially in the home opener, so this should be an old-fashioned romp.
Week 3: vs. Tennessee (W)
The Vols finally broke through against Florida last year in Knoxville, but this UT club coming to Ben Hill Griffin is a shadow of its former self.
Week 4: at Kentucky (L)
Speaking of streaks, one of these years the Wildcats will end their three-decade drought vs. the Gators. Now is as good a time as any.
Week 5: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
The ‘Dores usually play UF tough, plus Ralph Webb is from Gainesville, but he missed out on his chance for an upset in 2015.
Week 6: vs. LSU (W)
Florida benefits from the Hurricane Matthew scheduling snafu of a year ago and gets the best of the Tigers yet again.
Week 7: vs. Texas A&M (W)
No matter who ends up playing quarterback for the Aggies, the Gators should have more than enough defense to make his day miserable.
Week 8: bye
Week 9: vs. Georgia (L)**
The outcome of the Cocktail Party will likely determine who gets invited to the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bulldogs feel overdue.
Week 10: at Missouri (W)
Mizzou’s Drew Lock had a terrible time trying to throw the ball on UF last season at The Swamp. A change of venue isn’t enough relief.
Week 11: at South Carolina (L)
Muschamp won’t lack for motivation facing his former employer, even if most of his loyal defensive signees are no longer there.
Week 12: vs. UAB (W)
After eight consecutive league opponents, Florida gets a much-needed break before the eagerly anticipated battle of the Sunshine State.
Week 13: vs. Florida State (L)
The Seminoles appear to be loaded in 2017 and have beaten the Gators six of seven times under Jimbo Fisher. Make it seven of eight.
* at AT&T Stadium in Arlington
** at EverBank Field in Jacksonville
2017 Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC East
UF isn’t the favorite in the East for 2017, even after back-to-back first-place finishes. That honor goes to rival Georgia.
It was a similar story in 2016, when Florida was fresh off a division title yet took a back seat to Tennessee on the Media Days hype machine. The Gators might have lost to the Volunteers, although they absolutely used the preseason slight as motivation.
If McElwain and Co. do indeed relish playing the disrespect card, then they’re right where they want to be heading into this season. Sure, UGA is more established under center with Jacob Eason and has 10 starters back from a pretty stout defense, but I felt better about picking the Vols last year than the Dawgs this year.
Zaire could certainly be an upgrade over Del Rio/Appleby. That’s not a very high hurdle for the new Gator to jump, though.