Facing the loss of many talented defenders, is there any chance that the Gators win the SEC East for a third straight time?
The college football season is rapidly approaching and as the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. We last checked in with #15 Stanford. Today we continue our countdown with No. 14 Florida.
Team Name: Florida Gators
2016 Record: 9-4
Finish in AP Poll: 14
Coach: Jim McElwain (19-8, third season)
Key Arrivals: QB Malik Zaire (Graduate Transfer - Notre Dame), DT T.J. Slaton, WR James Robinson, DE Zachary Carter, CB C.J. Henderson, CB Brad Stewart, CB Marco Wilson, OT Kadeem Telfort, OT T.J. Moore, TE Kemore Gamble
Previewing Florida’s Offense
Every year it’s the same old song and dance for Florida. They always seem to be a quarterback away from being a deadly team on offense. But the same rings true again for 2017. The Gators find themselves having a quarterback battle heading into fall camp once again, something that’s starting to feel like deja vu.
This year’s quarterback competition features the trio of graduate transfer Malik Zaire, formerly of Notre Dame, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, and former starter Luke Del Rio. And although some may view as not having a clear cut starter as a problem, Gators fans should see it as a positive in the fact that the team now has plenty of depth at the position. And if there’s one thing that Florida’s offense has taught us over the last few years it’s that it’s going to take more than one quarterback to make it through the course of the season.
Although Del Rio did well while he was healthy last season (1,358 yards, 226.3 yards per game, and eight touchdowns), he’s not the favorite to win the job back going into this season. Franks is a blue-chip recruit that was able to spend all of last year learning the playbook, and has the strong arm that McElwain’s offense requires. However, Zaire has shown that he too has great arm strength with the added ability to make things happen with his legs. Zaire’s sample size may be small (58/98 for 816 yards, six touchdowns), but his dual-threat ability could be a real weapon when it comes to facing tough SEC defenses.
Florida always seems to have plenty of talent at the skill positions, and 2017 is no different. Receiver Antonio Callaway is Florida’s best offensive player as long as he stays on the field and out of trouble. Tyrie Cleveland showed his big-play capability last season when he caught a 98-yard touchdown pass. Tight end should be an interesting position to watch as veterans DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis will be joined by newcomer Kemore Gamble.
Meanwhile, running back Jordan Scarlett is a breakout candidate this season after rushing for 889 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 4.97 yards per carry in 2016. Lamical Perine (421 yards, one touchdown) and Mark Thompson (299 yards, two touchdowns) are two solid backup options that bring both speed and power. For Florida to be successful on offense, it’s going to have to be efficient running the ball. Being able to generate successful carries will take the pressure off of whoever ends up under center for the Gators.
But in order to do that, the offensive line is going to have to play a lot better than it did last season. David Sharpe is now trying to earn a spot with the Oakland Raiders, but former five-star recruit Martez Ivey slides over from guard to take over the left tackle spot. The rest of the line has grown a lot over the past few seasons, now able to shake off the youth and inexperience that have plagued it. Look for freshman All-American Jawaan Taylor and Rimington Trophy watch list candidate T.J. McCoy to continue their progression from last season.
Previewing Florida’s Defense
Now that Geoff Collins has taken the head coaching job at Temple, Randy Shannon takes over where he left off, reloading the defense after losing a number of key pieces. Shannon is tasked with replacing eight starters on a defense that finished top-10 in the nation in total defense, passing defense, scoring defense, and opponent redzone conversion rate. Ordinarily, losing that much talent could really hamper a defense as it heads into a new season, but the combination of remaining talent along with the fresh crop of blue-chip defenders should make the transition pretty smooth.
Former five-star recruit Cece Jefferson (6.5 tackles for loss, five QB hurries) will take on a larger role as he looks to anchor the line along with fellow pass rusher and freshman All-SEC member Jabari Zuniga (five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 11 QB hurries). Look for junior tackle Taven Bryan to be a breakout candidate this season after forcing two fumbles, while racking up three tackles for loss and one sack.
A trio of sophomores are expected to control the middle of the defense at linebacker. David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and Vosean Joseph all came on strong during their rookie campaigns, and look to avoid sophomore slumps. Reese started in place of star linebacker Jarrad Davis during the South Carolina and LSU games, making his presence known with 23 total tackles over those contests. Johnson, on the other hand, showed that he was able to get into the backfield and stop opponents before they could get to the line with five tackles for loss. And Joseph quite possibly made the biggest hit for the Gators last year when he leveled LSU QB Danny Etling, knocking him short of the endzone.
The secondary faces the most questions after losing nearly all of its starters. Corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson bolted for the NFL a year early, leaving those spots having to be filled. Duke Dawson will move over to corner full time after spending last season at nickel back, while Chauncey Gardner could play either safety or corner. The injury of Marcell Harris puts a damper on the plans for safety, but Nick Washington should provide some stability there. The uncertainty of the secondary does open up some playing time for the Gators young talent, namely four-star recruits Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 2 vs. Michigan (Arlington, TX) - The last time the Gators took on Michigan they were embarrassed in the Citrus Bowl, losing 41-7. This time around, Florida is putting its 26-game season-opening win streak on the line as it heads to Jerry World to take on Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines. This Michigan team is far different though, having lost 10 starters on defense. If Florida irons out its QB issues in time for this game, it could have the edge in this game. The Gators have the most experienced defense of the two, and have plenty of skill players on offense that can take advantage of inexperienced defenders.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, FL) - Facing Georgia at this time of the season is never an easy task. That’s why there’s usually a bye week scheduled before this week for both teams. Georgia is the media’s favorite for the SEC East this season, but hasn’t looked great against Florida the past three times in Jacksonville, getting outscored 89-33. The Bulldogs have a strong defense returning and possess one of the more underrated offenses in the country. With the division title likely running through this game, look for this to be one of the most entertaining SEC matchups to watch this season.
3. Nov. 25 vs. Florida State - Simply, the Seminoles have owned the Gators since Urban Meyer took his talents to Ohio State. The Gators have only beaten the Seminoles one time in the past seven seasons. This is going to be one of the most crucial game for both teams this season. Florida State is expected to be a contender for the College Football Playoff, while the Gators are a fringe contender for the Playoff as well. If both teams are in the hunt come this time of the season, this could determine whether or not one is in and the falls short.
Overall, this Florida team should be one of the most intriguing squads to watch in 2017. A lot experts have the Gators as a possible dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff. However, this can only become a reality if Jim McElwain can fortify the weaknesses this team has shown.
The quarterback competition is wide open at this point, so don’t be surprised if McElwain doesn’t announce a starter until first snap of the Michigan game. Both Franks and Zaire both bring different dynamics to the position, and it’s likely that both will see action early on. Once one of these guys can separate himself from the other, the rest of this offense is ready to roll. Scarlett is poised to become just the fourth Florida running back to rush for 1,000 yards over the past 20 seasons, while Callaway and Cleveland are two of the most dynamic receivers in the SEC.
Florida’s defense will rebuild as it always does. There may be some questions as of right now, but Shannon will have those all ironed out by the time the Gators take the field against Michigan. A lot of fresh faces will make their debut for the Florida defense this season, but they will all play an important role this season.
All in all, the Gators should surprise once again. After being doubted the previous two seasons, Florida still managed to win the SEC East title both years. Fans shouldn’t expect anything less this season. Although this Florida team lost a good amount of players on defense last season, there is still plenty of young talent that is ready to take over on both sides of the ball. Expect Florida to finish the season with around nine wins with the potential for 10. A division title may not come as easy this season, but it’s certainly possible for McElwain to win his third straight SEC East crown.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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