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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Florida Gators

Can the Gators capture a second straight division title?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

2020 at a Glance

Record: 8-4
SRS: 16.85
SOS: 8.02

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/4: FAU (7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
9/11: At USF (1 p.m., SEC)
9/18: Alabama (3:30 p.m., CBS)
9/25: Tennessee
10/2: at Kentucky
10/9: Vanderbilt
10/16: at LSU
10/30: Georgia
11/6: at South Carolina
11/13: Samford
11/20: at Missouri 11/27: Florida State

Overview

For the third straight season under Dan Mullen, the Florida Gators enter the season ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll. The Gators checked in at #8 in each of the past two seasons heading into the year, and will head into the 2021 season as the 13th best team in the nation according to the AP.

Florida likely comes into the year with a sour taste in their mouth, following last season’s 8-4 finish. The Gators were 8-1 and looked like they could possibly sneak into a College Football Playoff spot, but lost to LSU in their final regular season game, then lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship, then lost to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

Emory Jones will take his spot under center for the Gators after seemingly being around forever at this point. He will bring an interesting dual-threat dynamic that Florida hasn’t had from its quarterbacks in quite some time. The Gators will likely be more run-heavy in general this year considering the departures of Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts. They return their top four rushers from last season, so the writing is on the wall.

Biggest Questions

We talked to Andy Hutchens from Alligator Army about how the Gators look this season.

1. Emory Jones is a player that it feels like those around college football have heard about for a long time at this point. We’ve seen glimpses of him in the past couple years, but what are your expectations for him as the definitive #1 QB on the depth chart as opposed to the change of pace role he’s provided in his time at Florida?

AH: I think Emory Jones has been patiently waiting for a field to blow up on.

My expectations for him are what they’re going to be for any QB at Florida under Dan Mullen: Competence at worst, the ability to beat teams by dint of QB play alone at best. The composite stats for Florida QBs under Mullen are really staggering, and Jones is arguably the most talented of the three that will have started for the Gators after Saturday night, with his cameos to date generally showing a lot of promise along with some things to work on. Mullen’s system and the talent that should surround any signal-caller he picks means the floor is high.

But I think the ceiling is really high for Jones. He’s a better passer than he’s been given credit for, though he’s really only been tossed the keys to Florida’s offense with the highway before him once or twice to date, and he’s been devastating as a runner, with an elite, mercurial slipperiness to him that has helped him wriggle through holes for five or seven or 12 yards rather often even in spot duty. And I think Jones biding his time behind another Florida QB who bided his time and came out the other side as a shocking Heisman finalist and a second-rounder is being underrated as a factor in his development: There’s no shortage of QBs who wait to play, even in a era in which accelerated development is increasingly common, but the number of QBs who have been able to learn behind and from the example of Kyle Trask is countable on one hand.

Jones could be bad and Florida could be non-competitive in its big games while still having a decent season, but if he’s good, I think this team can throw scares into even Alabama and Georgia. And if he’s really good, maybe those games are blow-for-blow classics.

2. Thanks to Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts, Florida didn’t really find itself in a position to be a team that ran the ball too often last year. With those players having departed for the NFL, do you think that will change this season?

AH: That’s the easiest yes possible. With a senior Dak Prescott, Mullen still kept 2015 Mississippi State’s rush attempts within 100 of its pass attempts; last year, with Trask, Pitts, and Toney, Florida threw it just 106 more times than it ran ... and it felt like it was pulling teeth to do that much throwing.

I think Mullen believes in offensive balance like all coaches say they do, but, for better and worse, he trusts in the running game as a setup to and necessary counterweight for his passing game rather than as the less efficient means of moving the ball in an ever more efficiency-based sport. And in Jones, he might have his fastest quarterback ever; certainly, Jones has quicks that Mullen hasn’t had at his disposal in a starter since at least Nick Fitzgerald. Mullen also has the closest thing to Cam Newton he’s had on this side of Chris Relf in backup Anthony Richardson, whom every Florida fan is dreaming on being the Newtonesque prototype for Mullen’s scheme and leanings.

Oh, and Florida has three experienced running backs and two five-star transfers.

Yeah, this team is going to run the ball unless it is prevented from doing so effectively.

3. Who is a player on both sides of the ball that you could see having a breakout year this season?

AH: On offense, picking either of those running backs — Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman, both recent legends of the Florida prep ranks — feels too easy, and I think Jacob Copeland is already halfway broken out. So I’ll go with Trent Whittemore, whom I joke is The Greatest Wide Receiver Ever because he’s white and I want to make fun of the idea that his athleticism might rate as “surprising.” That said, I sincerely believe the Gainesville-raised pass-catcher fits Mullen’s offense really well: He won’t be Toney — no one without rubberized joints from hip down to ankle is — but he could be a mismatch in the slot, where his ball skills and size give him an edge over where Toney was prior to 2020.

The other side of the ball finds Mohamoud Diabate as the clear breakout candidate on a unit that I think is going to be steadier than it was a year ago but might lack for game-changers. Diabate, though, has terrifying closing burst, and has bulked up from undersized freshman to a player who can be more than a missile fired off the edge. Deployed well, I think he could reach double-digit sacks; if he’s good enough to play for two or three downs per set of them, he might be the player who flies around and makes plays on this defense whether or not he lives in opponents’ backfields.

4. Finally, what would you consider the best and worst case scenarios for the Gators this year?

AH: The best-case scenario is the College Football Playoff. I don’t think it’s likely, as I believe Florida may need to win two of three games against Alabama and Georgia to get there — if the Gators fall to Alabama in September but beat Georgia in October, they’ll probably need to beat Alabama again in Atlanta to make the field; reverse those outcomes, and Florida is probably second behind Georgia in the East — but I do think the potential is there for an unexpected breakthrough if Jones is brilliant and the defense is at least adequate on most Saturdays.

The worst-case scenario, provided relative good health, is probably just a 7-5 season in which the big games are blowout losses and a couple of perceived also-rans step up and nip a Florida team that takes a step back on offense and barely improves on defense.

And given that Florida fans are hopeful enough to envision the former but proud enough to be dissatisfied with the latter, the band of potentially satisfying outcomes this fall is rather narrow, I fear.