The SEC has eight new defensive coordinators. Three of them are replacing guys who left for other jobs, while five are replacing guys who were fired or otherwise not retained. In that second group, none has more pressure on him than Florida's Geoff Collins. If his unit isn't one of the best in the nation, there easily could be a free fall at a program that doesn't take kindly to free falls.
Welcome to Gator football in 2015, where it's not all that different from Gator football in 2010-14.
It's hard to fathom the wreckage that Jim McElwain has to sort through with the offense in Gainesville. This program was on the forefront of offense under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, but now, just putting together an above average unit would be a significant improvement. The past six years of defense-first Gator football have been like watching Alabama try to outscore teams with an Air Raid offense and no defense.
The last quarterback to have an above average season for the program signed in January of 2006, as did the last receiver to have at least 900 yards. The last time it had the same wide receivers coach from one year to the next was 2008-09, and it basically had grad assistants take the job in two different seasons. The offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach spot has turned over five times in the last six seasons, while the offensive line coach spot has turned over four times in the same span. It has alternately tried to run a spread option with a pro-style quarterback (2010) and a pro-style with a spread option quarterback (2012-13). It tried to build that manball pro-style scheme while signing four total offensive linemen across 2011-12. If there's a mistake to be made with an offense, Florida has probably done it in the past six seasons.
And yet, it's a testament to the draw of the program and the richness of the recruiting grounds that it mines that the offense might not be a complete disaster again provided McElwain and Doug Nussmeier do well in installing their system.
Will Grier has size and showed arm strength in the spring game that hasn't been seen in Gainesville in a while. He made throws that we haven't seen made since probably 2008. His ceiling is higher than that of Treon Harris, who might still get some playing time thanks to his running talent. Still, there is reason to hope with Grier getting snaps.
Kelvin Taylor sounds ready to be a feature back after waiting his turn for a few years. During SEC Media Days, McElwain praised him for his blocking, something that's been lacking in his game so far. Adam Lane looked like a fine alternate in the bowl game, and electric freshman Jordan Scarlett might burst onto the scene at one of the easiest positions for freshman to come in and play right away.
Demarcus Robinson figures to blossom into a true high level playmaker under McElwain, a guy who knows how to feed stars. The speedy Brandon Powell will be a major threat from the slot, and Jake McGee will finally be a true catching threat from the tight end spot.
The offensive line is not in great shape, but it could turn out to be OK. There are three good options at tackle in talented sophomore David Sharpe, two-time FCS All-American grad transfer Mason Halter, and five-star freshman Martez Ivey. Senior Trip Thurman takes over at center, while converted D-lineman and redshirt sophomore Antonio Riles impressed coaches in the spring at one of the guard spots. That means UF might conceivably only have to start one freshman on the line, which is far better than things were looking months ago.
Of course, this all falls apart if injuries set in. Every backup O-lineman but one is either a redshirt or true freshman, and Thurman hasn't ever had a fully healthy season. If Grier goes down or doesn't live up to his potential, it's all on a guy who doesn't have the size, arm strength, or accuracy to be a high grade SEC quarterback in Harris. If either Robinson or Powell goes down, opposing defenses can blanket the other and neutralize the only home run threat on the field.
So yeah: everything is on the defense. It has stars at every level, even if linebacker is thin. It might have the best secondary in the entire nation with Vernon Hargreaves III, Brian Poole, Marcus Maye, Jalen Tabor, and Keanu Neal patrolling the backfield. That side of the ball will keep the team in most, if not all of its games.
McElwain's first team at Colorado State didn't just go 4-8; it was a legitimately awful team. He doesn't have some kind of magic touch where he can walk in and make everything better in an instant. If the mishmash of offensive players recruited for several different schemes doesn't gel and the defense alone can't win a handful of games, then a second missed bowl in three years is on the table. Collins has shown himself to be one of the better defensive coordinators out there, but don't forget UF's 2013 defense was one of the best in the conference.
But if the offensive line stays healthy, Grier comes through, and the expertise of McElwain and Nussmeier build an offensive scheme that fits its disparate parts, Florida could be a divisional dark horse. The teams on the conference schedule that look a cut above it—Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss—all have potential quarterback problems that could hold them back. If the great secondary makes big plays, Florida could have a chance to win all of its SEC games. It's too thin, inexperienced, and unsettled to do so, but it could be in every game towards the end.
There are so many unknowns, so many breaks that could go either way, it's impossible to know for sure what Florida will be in 2015. It's the biggest wildcard in the SEC this year.