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2018 SEC Football Season Preview: Florida Gators

Jim McElwain is out after a horrible 2017. Now, Dan Mullen returns to the Swamp in an attempt to fix the offense and reclaim the magic he once felt as an offensive coordinator.

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

2018 Season Preview - Florida Gators

2017 Win-Loss Record: 4-7 (3-5 SEC)

2017 S&P+ Rankings: 86th (Overall), 108th (Offense), 54th (Defense)


The 2017 season was one to forget for the Florida Gators. The year started off with a dismal performance against the Michigan Wolverines in Dallas for Week 1. Then a hurricane cancelled the first home game of the season. UF was able to snag three SEC wins in the weeks after, all in dramatic fashion, but would then lose five straight. The season capped off with a win over the UAB Blazers and another loss to the Florida State Seminoles (five straight now). Gator fans looked up, and a season once filled with promise ended in turmoil.

The prime culprits for the losing season: a credit card scandal to start the year, an anemic offense that never developed, a depleted defense, and an undisciplined special teams unit. Head coach Jim McElwain did not survive the season, both due to the issues on the field and issues with the athletic administration. The solution for Athletic Director Scott Stricklin: bring in former Florida offensive coordinator and former colleague at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen.

Mullen was at Florida from 2005-08. Those were four of the greatest years in program history. They included two National Championships, two SEC titles, and a Heisman Trophy winner. Since those days, he’s put Mississippi State on the map with an eight-year bowl streak and the school’s first ever #1 ranking in 2014. Mullen knows what it’s like to win at Florida, and his directive is to fix the offense, develop the strength and conditioning program, and get back to consistent, winning ways.


The Offense

Oh brother. Where to begin?

This unit was flat out terrible all-around last year. It started with the credit card fraud suspensions (just your typical college football team off-season suspensions) of nine players, including star wide receiver Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett. Both players were suspended for the season (Callaway is now in the NFL), which eliminated the top playmakers at two skill positions. On top of that there were injuries, an offensive line that did not develop at all, and a mismanaged quarterback situation. One could even say SUPER-mismanaged.

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

But enough about the Jim McElwain era. What does Dan Mullen have to work with on offense? In the running back room the short answer is: a lot. Jordan Scarlett returns after missing the season due to suspension and Malik Davis, the most explosive surprise of last year’s team, returns from a knee injury. Lamical Perine was the leading rusher on the team last year and also led the team in touchdowns with 9 (that’s a relatively low number but we are gonna move on).

Adarius Lemons also provided some explosive burst and special teams potential late in the season. The Gators also brought in two freshmen in Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement, both of whom have promise. The fit is there, as Mullen loves to run the ball in his spread-option offense. Expect the Gators running back room to be the stars of the offense for this season.

The receiver positions got a huge overhaul with the addition of transfers Van Jefferson from Ole Miss and Trevon Grimes by way of Ohio State. Jefferson’s polish and Grimes’ physical size make both NFL Draft prospects, and drastically improve the receiving corps. The loss of Brandon Powell to graduation hurts, since he was Feleipe Franks’ security blanket (not a very secure blanket at times), but the rest of the group is solid.

Tyrie Cleveland has shown serious deep threat ability, but needs to stay healthy. Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond are reliable, while Kadarius Toney is an explosive athlete. This corps has grandiose potential, but it has yet to be unleashed.

All that is great, but the receivers and running backs still need someone to get them the ball. That’s where the quarterback position comes in. Mullen recently announced that Feleipe Franks would be the starter, stating he gives them the best chance to win right now. Franks was baaaaaaaaaaaaaad last year, but had some moments in games against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M (emphasis on ‘some’). Mullen is renowned for his ability to develop quarterbacks and Franks’ physical tools are no joke. The question is, can Mullen develop the mental part of the game? That was oftentimes Franks’ biggest issue in 2017.

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback is a spot that will be judged harshly by both Florida fans and, well, probably everyone. In all honesty though, it may not be that important. This team’s offense, like any Mullen offense, will be centered on the ground game. While stellar quarterback play could elevate this team, the most anyone should expect is serviceable play and the use of Franks’ legs to supplement the rushing attack. The most important unit on the offense however may not be the quarterback, but the offensive line.

The offensive line returns basically every major contributor from 2017. The issue: those contributors weren’t very good. Left tackle Martez Ivey was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, but has not played at a high level. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor and center T.J. McCoy both had stellar 2016’s, but struggled in 2017. Utility players Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan have been serviecable, yet unreliable. Guard/center Brett Heggie might be the best of all of them, but he is still coming back from injury. In short, this unit is experienced, but bad experience doesn’t mean anything. Whether he wants it to or not, the offensive line will be the key to the Gators’ season.


The Defense

The 2017 Florida defense wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. Florida had the 7th- and 4th-ranked defense in 2015 and 2016, according to S&P+. The 2017 unit was not nearly as good, as it fell to 54th. This was due in large part to an exodus of experience and talent. Seven players from the 2016 Gator defense were taken in the NFL draft. That’s a lot of talent for a defense to make up, and they rightfully struggled. There is optimism heading into 2018 however.

The first wave of optimism comes with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who brings his attacking 3-4 scheme to Gainesville. Grantham was with Mullen at Mississippi State last season and mastered an excellent turnaround on the defensive side of the ball. His new aggressive mentality is a stark contrast to the conservative 4-3 that former defensive coordinator Randy Shannon ran last season. This new style fits the Florida roster and mentality much better however.

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

This defense also returns a majority of its contributors, including it’s breakout stars: cornerback duo Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson. Both started as true freshman and played well. With time the duo can develop into one of the premiere cornerback duos in the country. The nickel position is locked down by Chauncey Garnder-Johnson, who is better-suited there after a failed experiment at safety.

Speaking of safeties, this part of the secondary is the thinnest. Jeawon Taylor played well in limited time last season, but he is paired with an inexperienced lineup. Alongside him will be either Shawn Davis or Donovan Stiner, both of which are true sophomores. While Wilson, Henderson, and Gardner-Johnson could be excellent, the inexperience at safety will cause this team some big plays.

The linebacker corps is led by stalwart junior David Reese, who led the team in tackles a year ago. Kylan Johnson, Vosean Joseph and Jeremiah Moon also contributed last year, but all of Florida’s linebackers were mismatched in coverage. These players can tackle and bring the thunder to the backfield, but until a linebacker can emerge as a reliable coverage option, then the middle of the field will be an area of weakness for Florida.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line. It’s talented, fast and has incredible potential. But will it actually produce? The line returns senior standout Cece Jefferson, as well as Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite. All three have recognizable talent, but must harness it and create pressure in this new, aggressive scheme. On the inside, true freshman Elijah Conliffe and Tedarrell Slaton could be serious players for Florida, if they have developed well in the offseason.

Overall, this defense should be much improved in its physicality and mentality in 2018. The new scheme will create more positive plays for the defense, but with that comes more negative plays. If the Gators can use their athleticism and the secondary can hold out on the back end, then the Gator defense could be on its way back to the top of college football.


The Schedule

Florida Gators 2018 Schedule

Week Team
Week Team
Week 1 Charleston Southern
Week 2 Kentucky
Week 3 Colorado State
Week 4 at Tennessee
Week 5 at Mississippi State
Week 6 LSU
Week 7 at Vanderbilt
Week 8 BYE
Week 9 Georgia (in Jacksonville)
Week 10 Missouri
Week 11 South Carolina
Week 12 Idaho
Week 13 at Florida State

Florida’s schedule is pretty favorable early on, with easy nonconference match-ups against Charleston Southern and Colorado State sandwich the rivalry game against Kentucky. Florida should take care of Kentucky considering they are at home and the Wildcats are replacing a lot on offense.

The first gauntlet of the schedule comes with the three-week stretch of at Tennessee, at Mississippi State, and home against LSU. Tennessee will likely be a worse team, but Neyland Stadium is a tough place to play and this is a serious rivalry game. Mississippi State sees the return of Dan Mullen to Starkville (it’s MULLEN BOWL time!) next. The Bulldogs have a loaded roster, senior quarterback, electric new head coach, and will have a raucous atmosphere to go along with it. This is one of the toughest tests for Mullen’s new team. The home game against LSU is no slouch either, because the Tigers have talent for days.

A trip to Vanderbilt shouldn’t challenge the Gators (it will, because it always does) and then comes the bye week to prepare for Georgia. Thus begins the second gauntlet of the season. First, the Gators face the defending SEC Champion (who destroyed them last year), then they face Missouri at home (who also blasted them last season). They cap the stretch off by hosting South Carolina (who, you guessed it, beat them last year).

Florida gets a short reprieve against Idaho and then travels northwest to face chief rival Florida State. This game is fascinating, as it ushers in a new era of the rivalry with two different coaches, both in their first years. There is no way of knowing what either team truly looks like at this point in the season, but having to play in Doak Campbell Stadium is not a good omen for the Gators.

Mullen has high expectations for this team. Whether that’s deserved or not, he has them. The schedule sets up well early, but the two gauntlets will determine the ultimate outcome of the season for the Gators.


Projection

Despite a 4-7 season, the Gators still have talent on the roster. Dan Mullen will optimize it. The Gators will be able to beat up on teams they can run well against, but they won’t be able to overcome serious talent deficiencies. Additionally, the quarterback struggles in Gainesville won’t be completely remedied in year one and this team will likely take a serious dip in performance on the road. This team will be vastly improved, but the Gators are still a few years away from competing for any sort of championship.

Prediction: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)