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SEC Season Preview: Florida

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Florida Gators.

Head Coach: Jim McElwain – third year at Florida; sixth year overall (41-24 overall, 13-3 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Doug Nussmeier (third season)

Defensive Coordinator: Randy Shannon (first season)

2016 Record: 9-4 (6-2 SEC); defeated Iowa in Outback Bowl

Returning Starters: 13 (9 offense, 4 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – vs. Michigan (Arlington) (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Sept. 9 – NORTHERN COLORADO (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – TENNESSEE (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Sept. 23 – at Kentucky
Sept. 30 - VANDERBILT

Oct. 7 – LSU
Oct. 14 – TEXAS A&M
Oct. 28 – vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Nov. 4 – at Missouri
Nov. 11 – at South Carolina
Nov. 18 – UAB
Nov. 25 – FLORIDA STATE

What We Know

-The receiving corps is finally proven. Antonio Callaway, assuming he stays out of the doghouse, is a star with his ability to test defenses at all distances. Sophomore Tyrie Cleveland only had 14 receptions as a true freshman, but had a 98-yard go-ahead touchdown in the division title-clinching victory against LSU. Brandon Powell is the speedster who excels in the short passing game, while junior Dre Massey is a welcome addition after missing last season with a knee injury. This is the SEC East’s best group of wideouts.

-The offensive line has transitioned into a strength. After being a major liability in McElwain’s first season, the unit progressed nicely in Year 2, lowering the sack total from 46 to 28 (Florida did play one fewer game in 2016 than 2015). Now, with five offensive linemen back who made at least four starts last season, it’s time to get the ground game cranked up. Only once in the last four years have the Gators reached four yards per carry, and that was under the previous regime. Junior tackle Martez Ivey, who moves outside this year, and junior guard Tyler Jordan are NFL talents.

-Perhaps no team in the nation has more special teams weapons than Florida. Kicker Eddy Piniero has a booming leg, and converted 11 of 13 field goal attempts from 40 yards or longer last season. Johnny Townsend is a third-year punter who averaged nearly 48 yards per punt in 2016. Then, there’s Callaway, who did dip a bit last year after a great 2015 season with two punt return touchdowns. Count on at least one win this season coming because of special teams play.

What We Don’t Know

-Can the front seven reload? The losses on the field are immense, but the biggest departure might be at coordinator with Geoff Collins moving on to Temple. Randy Shannon hasn’t been a coordinator in more than a decade, and he’s taking over an inexperienced unit. Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson are nice pieces off the edge but the Gators are completely starting over at tackle and linebacker.

-Just how thin is this secondary? Three NFL Draft picks are gone, and the Gators were dealt a big blow in July when senior safety Marcell Harris tore his Achilles tendon. The starting contingent is still more than adequate with seniors Duke Dawson and Nate Washington and versatile sophomore Chauncey Gardner, but it’s imperative that the top guys stay healthy. With a much-improved group of quarterbacks in the division this year, the Gators need to be strong on the back end to stay atop the division.

-Florida has plenty of options at quarterback. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is the likely starter against Michigan, but the Gators also have spring favorite Feleipe Franks and returning starter Luke Del Rio. There might not be a star in this group, but Florida should get the best quarterback play it has had since Tim Tebow, save from six pre-suspension starts from Will Grier in 2015. Zaire and Franks have similar strengths and weaknesses (strong arm, accuracy concerns), but the former is more of a threat in the running game, and won’t fear Michigan given the stage he played on at his former home.

X-Factor

LB David Reese – You can argue that it’s the quarterback, but there’s enough to work with that one of the three candidates should emerge as serviceable at worst. The defense concerns me, and linebacker more than any other unit. Reese made four starts last season due to injuries to Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, but now moves into an expanded role as the predominant run defender at the second level. His 49 tackles lead all returning players.

Ranking The Units

1.   Wide Receivers
2.   Offensive Lines
3.   Defensive Line
4.   Defensive Backs
5.   Running Backs
6.   Quarterbacks
7.   Linebackers

Season Prediction

The SEC schedule is quite friendly thanks to the LSU game moving to Gainesville, but the Gators have two huge non-conference bookends with Michigan and Florida State. Catching a young Wolverines team early will allow the Gators to pull a mild upset, but there will be a seventh loss in eight tries to the Seminoles. Florida will match last year’s 6-2 mark in the league, which, thanks to a fourth straight win over Georgia, will be enough for a third straight division title . . . and a third straight loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Overall Record: 9-4
SEC Record: 6-2
Final CFP Ranking: 16
Bowl: Citrus Bowl vs. Miami (FL)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.