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2017 SEC Football Season Preview: The Florida Gators

The Florida Gators look to repeat as SEC East Champions in 2017

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators’ 2017 season begins on the road against the Michigan Wolverines at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

The Gators will be leaving Gainesville for a season opener for the first time since 1987, when they were walloped by Miami down in the Orange Bowl. The 2017 AdvoCare Classic provides a nice change of pace for Florida fans who are accustomed to playing directional schools and FCS opponents to open the season.

As the preseason No. 16 team in the Amway/USA Today Coaches Poll, and No. 17 in the AP Poll, there is plenty to be optimistic about heading into a new season.


2016 Review

The 2016 season provided some highlights like the 4th down, goal line stand to beat LSU after the Hurricane Matthew debacle; the pick-six party against Missouri and beating Georgia a 3rd time in a row.

We also saw the emergence of workhorse running back Jordan Scarlett and the gutsy performances of true freshmen linebackers David Reese and Vosean Joseph. Highly touted freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland showed flashes of his ability against LSU and Missouri. He did so while providing explosiveness alongside star Antonio Calloway. Lamical Perine moved his way up the depth chart and had multiple 100+ yard outings as a true freshman. 3-star freshman tackle Jawaan Taylor broke onto the scene and was recognized on the 2016 SEC All-Freshman Team.

The Gators ended the year by demolishing Big Ten foe Iowa 30-3 in the Outback Bowl with clutch defensive plays by true freshman Chauncey Gardner. We all got to see the growing legend of Eddy Piniero.

Because of injuries, the Gators were forced to play freshmen at critical positions down the stretch. They gained valuable experience against strong rosters like LSU, Alabama and FSU.

Because of the baptism by fire, most if not all of these 2016 breakout players project to be starters in 2017.

NCAA Football:  Florida at Louisiana State
Nov 19, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Florida Gators defensive back Teez Tabor (31) celebrates the win over the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium. The Gators defeat the Tigers 16-10.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season also provided some low moments, such as giving up a 21-3 lead to Tennessee, en route to losing to the Vols for the first time in a decade. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against FSU (again). And they were run out of the Georgia Dome in the second half against Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone were forced to miss significant time due to injuries. A season that started with promise at the much-maligned quarterback position quickly became the same storyline as it was through 2010-2015. Luke Del Rio went down with a knee injury against North Texas in Week 3. Purdue graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby took over and performed well in the first half against Tennessee, but struggled against Vandy.

Del Rio returned and struggled in a win against Missouri and a blowout loss at Arkansas. Del Rio injured his shoulder against Arkansas and Appleby was forced to finish the season under center.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida
Dec 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) greets Florida Gators wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland (89) after the SEC Championship college football game at Georgia Dome. Alabama Crimson Tide won 54-16.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators finished the 2016 regular season 8-3 (due to the cancelled game against Presbyterian), but finished first in the SEC East. For the second year in a row, the Gators were decimated by injury and still managed to make it to Atlanta despite poor QB play.


Notable Departures

Linebackers: Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone

The 2016 Gator defense, led by these vocal and emotional leaders, will have to look to some new faces after they went to the pros. Both missed significant time last year due to injury and still managed to finish the year 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles.

The bad news here is that both will be tough to replace. They collectively accounted for over 50 percent of the tackles by the linebackers last year. The good news is that two freshman linebackers (and a former safety in redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson) were thrown to the dogs to finish the year instead of Davis and Anzalon. They exceeded expectations and will look to become a strength of the defense going forward.

True sophomore David Reese played in all 12 regular season games and racked up 49 tackles in relief. The converted safety stepped in and impressed with his speed and coverage ability and will look to secure a starting spot on the outside.

The young man everyone remembers is true sophomore Vosean Joseph from Miami. He, like Reese, was forced into some very valuable playing time down the stretch.

Joseph only recorded 13 tackles in relief last year, but no one can forget the goal line pop that put him on the map. Look for these three and Jeremiah Moon to be the mainstays at the linebacker position this year.

Tackles: David Sharpe

All-around athlete and left tackle David Sharpe left for the NFL and was the 129th overall selection in last year’s draft. Sharpe came in from Jacksonville as a Top 5 player at the tackle position and was a two-year starter for the Gators. Over his three seasons, he proved to be consistent anchor to a young offensive line. It is expected that two-year starter Martez Ivey will move to his more natural position of left tackle and leave the left guard position open to be fought out in camp. The Gators should not miss a beat and may gain more stability by moving Ivey outside where he feels more comfortable.

Defensive Backs: Quincy Wilson, Teez Tabor and Marcus Maye

DBU lost a few of the more important pieces from a secondary that was 2nd in the FBS with 148.5 yards allowed/game. The unit comprised of Wilson, Tabor and Maye racked up eight interceptions and produced over 100 tackles. Since 2008, the Gators have been blessed with a string of blue-chip recruits and some great secondary coaches that ensure the backside of the defense is one of the stoutest in the country.

The Missouri game last year was just a taste of how entertaining DBU can be on any given Saturday. New DB coach Corey Bell has his work cut out for him in replacing this crew (and injured returner Marcell Harris) but has veteran leadership in Nick Washington and Duke Dawson. He also has a budding star in Chauncey Gardner and six new freshman DBs that will fight for the corner positions throughout fall camp.

The secondary will look drastically different from last year and expect one of these true freshmen to be starting at CB or Nickel to begin the season.


Notable Additions

Quarterback Malik Zaire

By now, everyone knows about the drama with the SEC rule change that allowed Notre Dame transfer QB to head to Gainesville as a graduate transfer this summer. The former Elite 11 QB left Notre Dame with one (possibly two) years of eligibility remaining and threw himself into McElwain’s QB battle.

Zaire is a smart player with tools that are unique in the UF QB room. He is a dual-threat QB but can light it up through the air as he did against Texas as a starter in 2015. He adds an athletic wrinkle and has experience in big-time games.

McElwain has yet to name a starter, but Zaire figures to play a key role in fall camp and has the experience and the tools to win the starting job over favorites Feleipe Franks and Del Rio.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game
Apr 16, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Malik Zaire (8) looks to throw in the first quarter of the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. The Blue team defeated the Gold team 17-7.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackles: Slaton, Conliffe and Campbell

The Gators lost two big men to the NFL in Caleb Brantley, with the 185th pick by the Cleveland Browns, and Joey Ivie, with the 228th pick by the Dallas Cowboys.

The Gators have to look to youth at one of the most important positions in the SEC to help complement the returners Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark and Luke Ancrum. Enter the three giant defensive freshmen Conliffe, Campbell and Slaton.

These three big men (980 lbs. combined) will look to add depth and spell Bryan and Clark through the grueling SEC schedule. Kyree Campbell was a four-star recruit coming out of Virginia, but failed to qualify after initially committing to North Carolina. He ended up at Junior College in Wyoming and enrolled at UF in January. Campbell is the most polished of the newcomers and looks to back up Clark at the nose tackle position.

The two freshmen additions to the 2017 recruiting class, Slaton and Conliffe, bring size and raw skill to the defensive line. Both were 4-star recruits and have the size to compete early in the SEC. Conliffe came from Hampton, Virginia and chose the Gators over Alabama, Tennessee and Penn State. T.J. Slaton came from American Heritage in Fort Lauderdale and was recruited by many schools as an offensive lineman. He is athletic and versatile enough to play both sides of the ball and his recruitment came down to schools that would give him an opportunity to play on defense as well.

With the projected depth at offensive line and lack of depth on the defensive side, Slaton signed with the Gators to play defense to begin his UF career. DL Coach Chris Rumph has a talented group to groom into the next Brantley and Ivie duo. All three newcomers should get extensive playing time this season.

Defensive Backs: Henderson, Stewart, Wilson, Davis, Edwards and Stiner

With the losses of Wilson, Tabor and Maye to the NFL Draft, it was crucial for the Gators secondary to reload during the 2017 recruiting class.

The departures leave open starting positions all over the secondary. The preseason injury to Marcell Harris has left the Gators with just Washington, Dawson and Gardner that have real playing time.

Enter young bucks Christopher “C.J” Henderson (10), Brad Stewart (13), Marco Wilson (22), Shawn Davis (23), Brian Edwards (94), and Donovan Stiner (74) who were all ranked in the Top 100 at their position according to ESPN.

Randy Shannon and defensive backs coach Corey Bell are keeping their plans close to the vest as they work in camp to come up with the best starting five. We can assume that Duke Dawson will be the CB1 and Nick Washington will be the strong safety.

Beyond that, the coaches have Joseph Putu, C.J. McWilliams and McArthur Burnett competing for the corner and nickel positions with the freshmen and Chauncey Gardner splitting time between corner and free safety.

Reports out of camp have Wilson taking a good share of the first team snaps at nickel and Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart are giving redshirt freshman Jeawon Taylor everything he can handle in the battle at safety.

Stiner has received praise at the dime position and C.J. Henderson is pushing Putu, McWilliams and Burnett for the other corner position. He is being mentioned as a possible contributor in the return game, as well.

It is unlikely that all five will avoid the redshirt, but you should anticipate seeing some new faces in the secondary this season. Playing freshmen in the secondary always leaves room for rookie mistakes as they learn the schemes and speed of the game. Leadership from Dawson, Washington and Gardner should help mask early mistakes for whoever wins the job.


Offseason News

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QB Battle

As mentioned above, the Gators have a QB battle on their hands for the third straight year under Jim McElwain. The coaching staff has been playing it close to the vest.

The Gators have struggled in recent years securing a capable quarterback for the entire season. Our friends at Alligator Army recapped the tumultuous position dating back to 2010. The 2017 QB room includes six scholarship quarterbacks, and the offensive roster around them has improved drastically.

Assuming that freshman Jake Allen takes the redshirt, the five quarterbacks beginning fall camp were Del Rio, Zaire, Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney.

All have strengths and weaknesses, but reports out of camp have the two veteran transfers, Del Rio and Zaire, battling it out with Felipe Franks (who won the first team job over Trask in the spring).

These reports remove Trask and Toney from the competition, but the freshman speedster has been taking snaps at wide receiver. This is because the coaches want him on the field in any capacity.

Zaire brings experience and mobility. Del Rio was competent last year battling through injury until the Arkansas game ended his year. Franks is raw but has a rocket arm and performed well with the first-team offense in the Spring Game.

It is anyone’s guess who will take the first snaps against Michigan Saturday. Judging from previous years, McElwain is in no hurry to tip his hand. I expect one of the two veterans, Zaire or Del Rio, to start in North Texas because it is the first game against Michigan (as opposed to Eastern Michigan) and is away from the comfort of The Swamp.

Even though neither Del Rio nor Zaire have more than six games as starters, Franks has none. In a tight race, the experience could be the tipping point.

I predict Del Rio to start against Michigan and depending on the outcome, the Northern Colorado game will determine the starter for the remainder of the year. I will qualify this with the caveat that I am not at all confident in this prediction.

Youngster to Watch - Offense

Freshman Athlete Kadarius Toney

Toney came to Gainesville as a 3-star athlete. He was given the opportunity to try his hand at the quarterback position in the spring and beginning of fall camp. Since the quarterback battle got underway, Toney has been splitting time with the wide receivers and looks to be featured in the offense in some capacity from Day 1.

He is a dynamic player the coaches need on the field. The speedster is currently pushing Dre Massey and Brandon Powell at the slot position. As an electric high school QB from Alabama, there may be a learning curve for the new position. Don’t be surprised to see #17 line up all over the field this year or under center as a wildcat or traditional QB.

Youngster to Watch - Defense

Sophomore DE Antonneous Clayton

Clayton came to UF in 2016 as a highly touted pass rusher from South Georgia known for his speed and athleticism. Last season, the consensus No. 2 DE commit played sparingly as a true freshman behind Bryan Cox, Cece Jefferson and Jordan Sherit. He then unfortunately suffered a season-ending injury that kept him out of the last few games.

In 2016, Clayton struggled to learn the position that in high school allowed him to succeed on his speed alone. An underwhelming freshman campaign has Clayton determined to make a name for himself as a sophomore and has added 35+ lbs. (currently listed at 254 lbs) to his 6’2 frame. He will be able to use his new strength along with his natural speed.

Watch for Clayton to emerge alongside Jabari Zuniga, Jefferson and Sherit as strengths of the young Gator defense.

Special Teams

The Gators return two of the most dynamic special teams players in the country in kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend. Pineiro connected on 21-25 field goals and went 3-3 from beyond 50 yards. The redshirt junior transfer from Miami looks to add more points to the board in 2017 while keeping the special teams hyped with his energy.

The ever-consistent Townsend looks to end his Gator career as the best statistical punter in school history (45.7 yard/punt career average is best in UF history) while being a safety-net for the Gators young defense.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pineiro was named to the Lou Groza Award preseason watch list and Townsend was on the same shortlist for the Ray Guy Award. This duo provides consistency in the special teams game and could be the deciding factor in some of the close games this year.


Schedule

The 2017 schedule is unlike those in recent years due to the Hurricane Matthew deal with LSU and the two neutral site games (AdvoCare Classic against Michigan at Jerry World and the annual Florida - Georgia Game in Jacksonville).

This means that the Gators have only three true road games on the schedule (at Kentucky, at Missouri and at South Carolina), featuring teams with a combined 17-21 record in 2016. Season ticket holders should be pleased and in-state fans should be racing to the ticket office for the best home slate, possibly ever, in Florida football history.

Rivals Tennessee, LSU and FSU all come to the Swamp in the same year and SEC West opponent Texas A&M comes to Gainesville for the first time. Along with Michigan and FSU, the out of conference schedule includes home games against the football phoenix UAB Blazers of Conference USA and FCS Northern Colorado.

According to ESPN’s FPI Rankings, the 2017 schedule figures to be the 4th most difficult in the country.

2017 Schedule:

University of Florida

The obvious challenges come at the beginning and end of the season with matchups against preseason Top-15 teams Michigan and FSU.

The Wolverines lost almost all of their stout defense from a year ago, but the recruiting efforts of Jim Harbaugh and stars like Rashan Gary should keep the Michigan defense from dropping off too much. FSU returns Heisman hopeful Deondre Francois at quarterback although they no longer have game-breaking running back Dalvin Cook (Who Gator fans will not miss). The defense returns injured defensive back Derwin James and should be improved over last year’s struggles.

In between will be the usual SEC rivals Tennessee and Georgia who are in similar situations as the Gators. Both teams will be filling holes from 2016 and hoping recruiting efforts pay off when the youth hits the field.

The Vols lose quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Alvin Kamara to the NFL and have a QB battle to sort through before opening weekend between junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.

The SEC media-favorite ‘Dawgs return young gunslinger Jacob Eason and may have the best backfield in the country with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. UGA is young on defense, but Kirby Smart has recruited well and looks to put his mark on that side of the ball.

The most interesting game on the schedule has to be the October 7th matchup with the cross-divisional rival LSU Tigers. The much-maligned dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew last year sets up a potentially nasty clash in Gainesville, and for homecoming no less.

The Gators won the emotional trip to Baton Rouge last year and clinched the SEC East in the process. LSU always provides an interesting rivalry and since 1992, the loser of this game has only gone on to win their division once (2003 LSU).

The Tigers and Coach “O” return quarterback Danny Etling, Heisman hopeful running back Derrius Guice and hope to get star edge-rusher Arden Key back before the season begins.

The other SEC West opponent is Texas A&M, who brings in star running back Trayveon Williams and wide receiver Christian Kirk. They will have to decide who will run the show in Kevin Sumlin’s offense. The Aggies will be choosing between veteran Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and incoming blue-chipper Kellen Mond.

This is the first time the Aggies will visit Gainesville and should feature two ranked teams, if A&M is able to avoid their patented mid-season derailment.

The rest of the SEC schedule for the Gators includes Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Missouri and South Carolina, all games in which the Gators will be favored. All four teams are on the rise and I expect all to be bowl eligible by the end of the season. The best of the group may be the Kentucky Wildcats, who return the dynamic Benny Snell Jr. and are anxious to build on a 7-win bowl season a year ago.

The others are working through growing pains and coaching changes, but are talented enough to beat the Gators if the ball bounces the right way. A few players to keep an eye on are Missouri’s quarterback Drew Lock and wide receiver J’Mon Moore, South Carolina’s quarterback Jake Bentley and linebacker Skai Moore and the ever-reliable Ralph Webb at Vanderbilt who could challenge for SEC Offensive POY.

Should Win (6): Northern Colorado, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, UAB

Toss Ups (4): Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia

Underdogs (2): Michigan, FSU


Worst Case

4-8

Hear me out Gators. Remember 2013? That’s how bad it could be any given season. Injuries happen. Boneheaded coaching happens. Lack of recruiting at critical positions happened that year and the Gators went 4-8.

I absolutely do not believe this will happen in 2017 because McElwain has proven to be a better in-game coach than Muschamp and has proven he can recruit a football team not just a defensive backs room.

Still, the SEC schedule presents inherent challenges and each week (with the exception of UAB and Northern Colorado) could land the Gators a loss. To end up 4-8, the Gators would have to lose the two underdog games, lose all four of the toss-up games and drop two of the six games they will be drastically favored in.

While I could see the Gators struggle with the Vandy defense and may have issues slowing Drew Lock’s passing attack, losing to Kentucky would be the most likely of this group.

Best Case

12-0

For a daily dose of optimism, the Gators could reasonably end up 12-0 headed to face the SEC West champion in Atlanta for a chance to play in their first College Football Playoff.

For this dream scenario to take place, the Gators would have to start fast in North Texas and stay healthy throughout the SEC schedule. The winner of the QB battle will have to be more Tim Tebow than Austin Appleby and the young playmakers will have to prove they’re worthy of the early playing time.

As for the opponents. Georgia was picked to win the SEC East by the media, FSU is a preseason favorite to represent the ACC in the College Football Playoff and LSU always seems to have the best players. The Gators would have to beat all three while managing the difficult SEC schedule and staying healthy at positions with little depth. The good news is, the toughest games will be in neutral sites or at home in The Swamp.

While the QB questions and youth in the secondary make the first perfect season unlikely, the chances are far from impossible. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has the Gators at 40-1 odds to win the 2018 National Championship Game, tied for 7th best in the field. The Gators have three National Championships in years with a loss, so maybe the undefeated thing is overrated anyway?


2017 Prediction

9-3 (7-1); SEC East Champions

A more likely scenario is that the Gators fall somewhere in between. As I grouped the opponents together above, the Gators would need to sweep all six games they will be favored in. Coach McElwain has proven (with the exception of Arkansas last year) that he will win the games he is supposed to win.

All four SEC teams in this category fell to the 2016 Gators who were worse than 100th in total offense last year. If the QB play improves, the Gators should be able to flex their muscles against most of the SEC East.

For the toss-ups, the Gators owe Tennessee for the comeback last year and will have them in The Swamp without Dobbs. Coach Sumlin brings in another new quarterback and a stout running game but still has not figured out the defense even after the addition of John Chavis. The Gators front seven will be able to hold the A&M offense at bay and the Gators will be able to open the playbook up against a soft A&M defense.

I have little faith in UGA’s wide receivers and offensive line and we saw last year what happens to UGA when they have only the running game to rely on. Kirby Smart’s defense should grow this year, but unless the offensive line can protect Eason and the wide receivers step up to provide relief in the running game, the Bulldogs will continue to be an 8-4 type team.

LSU is the one in this group that scares me the most. Their coordinators Matt Canada and Dave Aranda are the best in the business and they return a lot from the underachieving team of a year ago. Guice is the best running back in the country and the defense is scary good like always. If Arden Key can get healthy before October, the Gators could be in for a little payback of their own.

Tennessee - W

Texas A&M - W

Georgia - W

LSU - L

The two games the Gators will be definite underdogs in are the Michigan and Florida State games to begin and end the regular season. With the uncertainty at quarterback and the loss of Antonio Calloway, I would not be surprised if the Gators lost to Michigan game one. The Wolverines are in a similar situation and actually have to replace more contributors than UF, but the inconsistencies on offense for the Gators have not been cleared up. It is unknown if they will be cleared up before September 2nd.

FSU comes into 2017 with a Top 5 ranking and a Heisman contender at quarterback. The past four years have seen the Seminoles grind Gator teams down after three quarters because the inept offense cannot stay on the field for longer than three plays. If the Gator offense improves to a place where it can threaten elite teams like Florida State even somewhat, the defense and special teams will always keep them in the game.

Michigan and FSU are currently the caliber of team that you cannot beat with average or subpar quarterback play. Unless and until the Gators have confidence that one of the three quarterbacks will take ownership of the offense, they will continue to struggle against the elite teams in college football.

Michigan - L

FSU - L

If this scenario plays out, the Gators will go 9-3 overall in the regular season. Even though the expectations are always high in Gainesville, if the Gators are able to get to nine or 10 wins with Franks as the starting quarterback, the future could be very bright.

If it is one of the veterans, it could be more like the last two years where the quarterback position keeps the offense from reaching their true potential. Or it could also be one of the veterans to elevate the offense just enough to allow the young defense to stay off the field. The Gators could be fighting for a playoff spot with Florida State and Alabama looming at the end of the season.

Will the result be any different? Will this be the year the offense breaks through?

Gator Football is less than a week away. Time to get excited again.