Last Updated: 2018-07-18
The Florida Gators are hoping that bringing back a familiar face will lead the program to greatness once more. After mostly forgettable seasons under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, the Gators are harkening back to the halcyon days of Urban Meyer by hiring former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. Mullen is leaving Mississippi State as the most successful coach in recent memory, and fans are optimistic that he can turn around what used to be the best program in the SEC East.
Although it is Mullen’s first year with the Gators, there is reason to believe he can be successful. He inherits a team that returns 10 starters on offense and 9 starters on defense, and the schedule is very manageable. McElwain was able to recruit well in spite of his struggles, so the cupboard is stocked in terms of potential too.
Many are calling for Florida to finish in second place in the SEC East in 2018. The sportsbooks agree with that consensus, with 5Dimes giving the Gators the second-lowest odds to win the SEC in the division at +1800. However, the sportsbooks are split when it comes to Florida’s win total. BookMaker and 5Dimes both have the Gators O/U at 8, but BookMaker is more optimistic about their chances with a -121/+100 split towards the over. 5Dimes is more pessimistic with a -120/+100 split favoring the under. You can get both the over and the under at even money, so be sure to shop around. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
||@ MISSISSIPPI STATE
||@ FLORIDA STATE
Mullen’s first task is to get better production out of the quarterback position. The Gators have not had a quality quarterback since Tim Tebow was on campus, and a number of heirs to the throne have come and gone.
Feleipe Franks is the frontrunner to be the starter in 2018. Franks was the team’s primary starter as a freshman last season, but he struggled to make an impact. He completed just 54.6 percent of his passes, threw eight interceptions, and was sacked 29 times. His mobility gives him an edge, but Kyle Trask and Emory Jones will battle him for the starting job throughout the summer.
Jordan Scarlett is likely to be the team’s starting running back, and he will be looking to make up for lost time. Scarlett was suspended for the entirety of last season and was just reinstated by Mullen in January. He is a big play threat who ran for 1,000 yards as a freshman and will be someone to watch. Lamical Perine and Malik Davis will provide depth, while Adarius Lemons has explosive speed.
Wide receiver has been perhaps the most disappointing position for Florida over the last few seasons. This is a program where the wide-outs have typically thrived, but no one was able to even get to 500 receiving yards in 2017. Tyrie Cleveland should be the No. 1 option, and the Gators are hoping that he can stay healthy. The big question though is whether or not transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes will be able to suit up in 2018.
The offensive line might be one of the top units in the SEC this year. This is a very experienced group, with 112 career starts altogether and all five starters returning from last year. Left tackle Martez Ivey has the talent to be a first round pick.
Although the offense has been a problem throughout the decade, the defense hadn’t struggled until last year. Florida brought back just four starters in 2017, and the inexperience showed throughout the campaign. The Gators finished in the middle of the pack in terms of defense in the SEC, allowing 27.3 PPG and 349.3 YPG.
Todd Grantham will look to turn their fortunes around this season. Grantham is a defensive coordinator known for his aggressiveness, so look for the defense to pick up more sacks and force more turnovers than it did last year. However, that aggressiveness might also lead to the team giving up big plays.
Grantham will have a lot of talent to work with, especially in the front seven. CeCe Jefferson has the potential to be a star in the 3-4, and he could have double-digit tackles for loss in 2018 after racking up 9 TFL last year. Jabari Zuniga will be asked to take on a different role as a 3-4 end, and he will need to take up space without being displaced.
David Reese is likely to be the team’s leading tackler again this year. He was the one Gator with over 100 tackles in 2017, and he picked up all-SEC honors for his performance.
There is a lot of potential in the secondary, but the unit is very young. Cornerbacks Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson looked great as freshmen, and if they continue to develop that will free up the safeties.
Florida’s special teams are set to take a big hit this season. Eddy Piniero had brought much-needed stability as a kicker, and Johnny Townsend was one of the top punters in the nation. Townsend’s brother is set to take over the punting responsibilities, while Evan McPherson was the nation’s top rated kicking recruit coming out of high school and will handle the placekicking duties.
Pick: Over 8 (+100, 5Dimes)
There is going to be a rebuilding period, but Mullen can have success with this year’s team. The other teams in the SEC East are relatively weak outside of Georgia and maybe South Carolina, and the non-conference slate features two FCS opponents and a Colorado State team that is retooling.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
SEC – East
2016 record: 9-4 SU & 6-7 ATS
Head Coach: Jim McElwain – Head Coaching Experience: 6 years (3rd with Florida)
Season Over/Under Win Total: 8 Over -155; Under +125
Odds to win 2017 College Football Championship game: 33/1 (15th Best odds)
Returning Starters: 14 (Offense: 9 Defense: 5)
Rivals 2017 Recruiting ranking: #9 (total recruits: 23, 5-star: 0)
Sep. 2 Michigan (Arlington, TX)
Sep. 9 Northern Colorado
Sep. 16 Tennessee
Sep. 23 @ Kentucky
Sep. 30 Vanderbilt
Oct. 7 LSU
Oct. 14 Texas A&M
Oct. 21 Bye
Oct. 28 Georgia (Jacksonville, FL)
Nov. 4 @ Missouri
Nov. 11 @ South Carolina
Nov. 18 UAB
Nov. 25 Florida State
Returning 9 starters from an offense that averaged 464 YPG before So. Luke Del Rio was injured, the Florida Gators have the talent and experience for their best offensive production yet under McElwain and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
The Quarterback position will be the key for Florida’s success, as injuries and inconsistency at the position have derailed McElwain’s offenses these last 2 years. Luke Del Rio will return for his Junior year, but was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery this spring with Redshirt Freshman Feleipe Franks taking the 1st team reps. Franks (6’ 6’’ 219 lbs) is a highly touted, borderline top 5 QB prospect from 2015 with a big arm and very well could end up starting for the Gators. Enter Malik Zaire, who as of early June transferred to Florida as a Graduate student from Notre Dame with one year left of eligibility to also compete for this starting job. Zaire started 2 games for Notre Dame in 2015 before breaking his ankle in week 2 and permanently losing his job to Deshone Kizer. He offers an athletic capability that neither Franks nor Del Rio do as well, but the starting QB for the Gators at this point is up in the air and will come down to who wins the open competition in August camp.
It was a four-headed monster in the backfield for Florida in 2016, with So. Jordan Scarlett, Jr. Mark Thompson, Fr. Lamical Perine, and Sr. Jordan Cronkrite all getting work. Scarlett did receive twice as many carries as any of the other backs with 179, and lead with 907 yards and 6 TD (5.0 YPC). With all back except Cronkrite (31 ATT, 148 YD), expect a similar workload distribution for 2017 between the 3 remaining. In considering their acquired experience and the starters returning along the offensive line, an uptick in production out of the Gator run game should be expected for 2017.
The passing game should improve for Florida as well in 2017, with their top 7 WR on roster returning from a year ago. So. Antonio Callaway was the leader among those WR with 57 REC, 721 YDS, and 3 TD, and will return to start as a Junior alongside Sr. Brandon Powell, who was second on the team with 45 REC, 387 YDS, and 2 TD. TE DeAndre Goolsby will also return as a senior, finishing 3rd on the team in receptions in ’16 with 38. Additionally, look for So. Tyrie Cleveland to make his mark, as McElwain’s most highly touted WR recruit of 2016, for a WR Corps returning a lot of experience and talent for 2017.
What was overlooked, and attributed a great deal to the down year offensively for the Gators, was that in 2015 Florida lost 4 offensive linemen to the NFL. They returned just 10 starts and had only 7 offensive linemen on scholarship: 2015 was a rebuilding year to say the least. In 2016, they were a bit more seasoned, but still only rushed for only 128 ypg, and allowed 28 sacks with most of those starters returning from 2015. Now in 2017, though they will lose LT David Sharpe to the NFL (4th Round), they will return 7 linemen who have started before with 53 starts in total. One of those returners in #1 high school LT prospect and 2nd Team All-SEC Jr. Martez Ivey, who will lead the way for an offensive line that should take a giant step forward in 2017.
New Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon (Head Coach & Player for the Miami Hurricanes), will take over a defense that, for the last decade now, has been consistently stingy (17.6 ppg). Last year, they were on pace to be special, allowing only 11.7 ppg through 7 weeks; but were hit hard by injuries and gave up 26.6 ppg the last 5. This year, they will return 5 starters, but with all of the experience gained from backups due to injury, will actually return 57% of the tackles and are more seasoned than the 5 starters coming back would suggest.
Only one of those 5 returning starters, Jr. DE Cece Jefferson, is a defensive lineman; however, this defensive line will still return 7 of the top 10 on roster. Two of those 3 losses are to the NFL though, with 2nd Team All-SEC DT Caleb Brantley (6th round) and DT Joey Ivey (7th) both getting drafted. With Jefferson as leader of the pack to start alongside 2 Juniors and So. Jabari Zuniga, who was the first Gator freshman since 1987 to have 5 sacks in a season; Florida has the talent to not only rebound from these losses, but even improve in ’17.
At the linebacker position, is where the injuries that dismantled the Gator defense in ’16 hit the hardest. Jarrad Davis (1st round NFL draft pick) was injured week 7 and missed 4 of the last 5 games, while Alex Anzalone (3rd Round) was also injured week 7 and missed the rest of the season. The silver lining for Florida was that true freshmen David Reese and Kylan Johnson got valuable playing experience in light of these injuries and will now return to start alongside 2 other sophomores for this unit that will likely be down a notch with these 2 giant holes to fill.
Recently becoming known for their recruiting and developing of talent in the secondary, last year was no exception; as Florida, in replacing 2 1st round draft choices at CB and S, produced 3 more 2nd round draft choices! This pass defense was surprisingly able to not only bounce back from the losses of Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal, but actually improve to grading out as the 2nd overall rated secondary (45.1%, 8-16). In ’17, the losses are mighty once again and recovering from the departures of CB Jalen Tabor, CB Quincy Wilson, and S Marcus Maye will be a tall task. They will start 3 seniors, however, with the team’s leading tackler from last year, Sr. FS Marcell Harris, coming back to captain the bounce-back effort.
Hitting on 21 of 25 kicks last year for a long of 54, while kicking for touchbacks on 48 of 66 kickoffs; Juco transfer, and now Junior, Eddie Pineiro will return as one of the nations’ best kickers. Joined by 2nd Team All-SEC P Johnny Townsend (47.9 YPP), who McElwain called “a next level Punter,” this is one of the better K/P combos in college football. Punt Returner Antonio Callaway will return as well for a Special Teams unit that should continue to be one of the better ones out there in 2017.
2017 Season Outlook
In light of all of the injury concerns and the overall youth of the Florida Gators in 2016, it could be considered an accomplishment for the team to go 9-4 in Jim McElwain’s second season. Now in 2017, going from being the 103rd most experienced team to the 64th, they will return 13 starters and a depth of experience gained from compensating for the injuries last year. Some of that experience will return at the QB position, where whether it’s Zaire, Del Rio, or Franks, this offense should take a big step forward in 2017 with 9 of the returning starters.
As far as scheduling goes, it doesn’t get much more favorable in the SEC, as Florida will really only play 3 true road games, and should be favored in all of them (Kentucky, Mizzou, South Carolina). They will get their toughest in-conference game at home vs. LSU and their most difficult out of conference game vs. Florida State in the swamp as well. They will kick off the season against Michigan on a neutral, but there is really no better time to play a team with only returning 5 starters than in week 1.
For a team that is, albeit a long-shot, but still a National Title Contender (15th best odds) and playing a favorable schedule, coming up with the 5 losses that would drive this total under 8 is difficult to do. Now in his 3rd season, it’s time for McElwain to complete his turnaround of this program and he finally has the experience at QB to do it. Look for the Gators to surprise some people out of the SEC East and reach double digit wins for the second time under McElwain in 2017.
Season Win Total Prediction: Over 8
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