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SEC 2015: The Florida Gators Face a Season of Unknown Expectations

The first year is often not the best season for a college coach at any program. Can Jim McElwain and his team buck the trend?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For reasons that we've already talked about, it's something of a fool's errand to say that you know with any degree of certainty what Florida will look like in 2015. They could be a good or even very good team. There's probably legitimately a very small chance they could be a great team; there's always some talent in Gainesville if nothing else.

But here's a note of caution: The four SEC coaches responsible for all of the national titles during the 2006-2012 streak averaged 8.75 wins and four losses in their respective first seasons. Les Miles, who went 11-2 during his inaugural year at the helm in Baton Rouge, is the only one to finish his first season with double-digit wins.

The others? Nick Saban went 7-6 (on the field) in 2007. Two years later, Gene Chizik -- who, yes, did somehow manage to win a national title -- went 8-5. Urban Meyer beat them all to the SEC in 2005, and went 9-3 for his troubles. The caveat with Meyer is that he missed a double-digit win season by one victory in the days of the 11-game regular-season schedule. With a 12-game schedule, he likely would have had an FCS opponent, and I think we can all agree that Florida should be able to always count an FCS team as a gimme win.

And as of this writing, first-year head coach Jim McElwain has not settled on a starting quarterback, and says he won't until after Saturday's game. At least. This, and his apparent threat to put practically every skill position up for grabs, is either a sign of deep uncertainty on the Florida offense -- which wouldn't be surprising -- or one of the great head-coach snow jobs of all time.

In most cases, the uncertainty would be warranted. The leading returning rusher is Kelvin Taylor, who gained 565 yards last year. Aside from Treon Harris, he is the also the only returning rusher to break 200 yards in 2014. Demarcus Robinson is the only returning starter with more than 15 catches last year. And at the quarterback position, the choice is between Harris, who completed just 49.5 percent of his passes in 2014, or redshirt freshman Will Grier. It is almost literally impossible to imagine an offense worse than the one Will Muschamp's team fielded last season -- and I mean "literally" in the original definition of the word -- but expecting huge strides might be a bit much. Getting to average or slightly above should probably be the goal.

On the other hand, there is reason for opponents to fear the talent coming back on defense. The Gators had 16 interceptions in 2014; the players responsible for all but one of them return this season -- though some of those players could miss at least one game or more. Among them: Antonio Morrison, the team's leading tackler last season with 101. (UPDATE: Somewhat unexpectedly, McElwain announced Monday that Morrison will play in the season opener.) The next-leading player had 64. The next-leading returning player had 62. As good as Vernon Hargreaves III and Co. are, missing that kind of player for an extended period of time is not a little thing when the defense is going to be expected to keep Florida in games as long as it can.

Layer all that on top of the usual first-year issues -- coaches instituting new systems and figuring out how to fit their roster into those systems -- and there's a reason for the optimism about Gainesville to be guarded optimism, if only for 2015. There are exceptions to the rule, like Gus Malzahn, but there are oftentimes explanations for those exceptions. (In Malzahn's case, he had been offensive coordinator two season before his debut as head coach, so it's not like he was starting from scratch.) It's not impossible for McElwain to win the SEC East this season -- with the possible exception of Vanderbilt, it's probably not a good idea to rule anyone out in the division this year. But trips to Atlanta are probably a bit further into the future for this team.

In fact, a division win this year would probably lead to an avalanche of even bigger expectations in 2016. That's not to say that Florida would be better off without claiming the SEC East title -- that would be absurd -- but that there are certain advantages to not winning it and certain disadvantages to doing so. This is Florida; the sky-high expectations will come with time. And it's not quite time for those just yet.

The perfect season: One of the quarterbacks -- probably Will Grier -- clicks almost instantly with McElwain's system. Demarcus Robinson and whoever emerges as the main running back both have great seasons, and the defense turns things up a notch from 2015. With the forgiving early schedule and the opportunity to play their toughest games over the first fives weeks at home, the Gators journey to Missouri at 4-1 or even 5-0. If Florida can get through the Oct. 17 game at LSU with two or fewer losses, they'll have at least a puncher's chance of winning the division.

The nightmare: With less than a year to pull everything together, McElwain fields an offense that is less of a basket case than last year's squad, but still somewhat sketchy. Injuries catch up to the defense, and either a close win or a road loss at Kentucky sets an ominous tone for this team. Even if they escape Lexington with a win, the Gators drop four of their next five -- or all of them -- and finish up at 2-6 or 3-5 in the SEC. A loss against Florida State means Florida either barely scrapes into the bowls or ends the season at below .500.

What actually happens: It would be easy to be more confident about 2015 for this Florida team if it weren't for the absolutely brutal stretch in the middle of the season. There's a very real chance that Florida could face five ranked teams in a row, with the last three of those games being played on the road or at a neutral site. There's even some risk in the games at Kentucky and at South Carolina. Florida probably has enough talent to get to the postseason, but might be a bit closer than fans would like.