No. 17 Florida
Florida is facing two overwhelming questions as they aim for a third-straight division title.
Can a new yet-to-be-named starting quarterback turn around one of college football's worst offenses? And can new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon replace seven draft picks on one of college football's best defenses?
2016 Record: 9-4 (6-2, SEC)
Florida won a second-straight SEC East title with a 6-2 conference mark. However, they didn't exactly roll through a brutal schedule. They beat LSU and offensively challenged wins over South Carolina and Georgia were nice, though far from impressive.
Their defense carried the offense all year, ranking among the nation's best in most areas, including scoring (16.8 points per game, sixth in the FBS) and total (293 yards per game, fifth).
Head Coach: Jim McElwain (3rd year, 19-8 overall)
Florida's run of back-to-back division titles hasn't been as quiet and met with as much "so, what?" as Missouri's 2013-14 run, but it's still been a strangely successful first two years — at least win-loss wise — for head coach Jim McElwain.
McElwain, who went 10-4 overall and 7-1 in the SEC in 2015, and others inside the program have noted a lack of credit for their accomplishments. He feels like they're in great position to win championships.
“Yes, I do. I feel like we’re at that point now. I’m not going to give you a Joe Willie Namath,” he said, referring to the former New York Jets' quarterback guaranteeing a Super Bowl win. “But I know this, we’re OK. We’re better than OK. We’re pretty darn good.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
RB Jordan Scarlett, WR Antonio Callaway, WR Brandon Powell, TE DeAndre Goolsby, OT Martez Ivy
Florida won 10 games despite averaging 344 yards of offense and 23.9 points per game. They reached 30 points just four times and won five games in which they didn't score more than 24 points.
McElwain hasn't shied away from discussing their unreliable and oftentimes inept offense but he's also expressed optimism for 2017, saying he loves their speed and explosiveness.
“We’re better, we’re back where we’ve got the roster balance,” said McElwain in April. “The offensive line is better, got explosive playmakers. I like our ability to stretch the field, create some explosives for those guys. It should be fun.”
He has yet to name a quarterback (see below in Player Additions) but can rest easy knowing the Gators have one of the SEC's best running backs for a ground game that averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Junior Jordan Scarlett had 889 yards (five yards per carry) and is trying to become a rare Gators' 1,000-yard rusher.
Their top four receiving targets back, led by Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell and supplemented by senior tight end DeAndre Goolsby.
“That’s one of those spots in an ideal world to be able to be flexible with your shifts, motions and formations,” McElwain said of his tight ends. “You can do a lot with those guys. We put a lot on them and we got to get a lot out of them.”
The offensive line — that yielded 28 sacks last year (71st nationally) — is led by Martez Ivey, a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder who an All-SEC player at guard but is moving to left tackle this year. He should compete with Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey and Texas' Connor Williams to be first offensive linemen off the board next April.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Cece Jefferson, DE Jabari Zuniga, LB David Reese, LB Kylan Johnson, CB Chauncey Gardner, CB Duke Dawson, S Marcell Harris
Florida's defense was gashed by departures. They were ripped up, blown apart, absolutely annihilated. Seven defenders who helped them hold eight teams to 14 or fewer points were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. They also lost defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to Temple.
Former Miami (FL) head coach Randy Shannon takes over and he'll lean on upperclassmen, most of whom have never had prominent roles, along with a bunch of sophomores.
Junior defensive end Cece Jefferson (below) has 15 tackles for loss in two seasons but only five sacks. He, like everyone on the defense, is sick of hearing about the departure of 10 starters.
“It’s been that way since I’ve been here,” Jefferson said. “My freshman year, when that group left, ‘Oh, I don’t know if Florida will be able to replace those guys.’ Last year, ‘Oh I don’t know if Florida will be able to replace those guys.’ Back-to-back 10-win (sic) seasons with those guys they didn’t know we’d be able to replace. I feel like it’s just the same every year. Like I said earlier, until we come out and just beat people to sleep that Florida football is back, people are just going to disrespect us.”
Three sophomores will start at linebacker, including David Reese in the middle spot vacated by Alex Anzalone. Reese had 49 tackles despite playing with two fractured wrists for much of his freshman season.
The backend features the only two projected senior starters on defense in corner Duke Dawson and safety Marcell Harris. The pair combined for three interceptions and eight passes defended, though the most intriguing player is sophomore Chauncey Gardner. After being forced into action at safety late last season, he'll move to corner.
“We feel comfortable with Chauncey being able to move nickel, safety, corner, but we still want him early in camp to really focus on the corner because he didn't get a bunch of it last year,” McElwain said
Notable Player Losses
OT David Sharpe, DT Caleb Brantley, DT Joey Ivie, LB Jarrad Davis, LB Alex Anzalone, LB Bryan Cox Jr., CB Teez Tabor, CB Quincy Wilson, S Marcus Maye
Seven of Florida's eight draft picks were defenders, four of whom were selected in the first two rounds.
Caleb Brantley led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss, while do-it-all linebacker Jarrad Davis had 60 tackles and four passes defended. Three stud defensive backs are also gone. Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor combined for 12 interceptions and 31 passes defended the last two years.
Offensively, don't overlook the loss of David Sharpe. Martez Ivey should thrive at left tackle but Sharpe still developed into an elite blind-side blocker.
Notable Player Additions
QB Malik Zaire, QB Feleipe Franks, G Brett Heggie, CB Marco Wilson
Redshirt junior quarterback Luke Del Rio is still on the roster and competing for the starting job after a rough 2016, though it's widely believed the competition is truly between redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire.
McElwain refuses to tip his hand, only saying he's pleased with the healthy competition and praising all three players' footwork and technique, among other things.
“This is good, man, because there’s like some guys fighting for this starting job," he said at the start of fall camp. "I mean, not just, ‘Now it’s kind of mine.’ You know what I mean? There’s a true competition and that’s a good thing.”
Elsewhere, redshirt freshman guard Brett Heggie has run with the first-team offense for most of the offseason, and true freshman corner Marco Wilson — the younger brother of Quincy — has worked as a first-team nickel.
They only have three true road games and don't leave the state between a Sept. 23 game at Kentucky and Nov. 4 game at Missouri, playing three straight at home and the World's Largest Cocktail Party against in Jacksonville against Georgia.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Michigan|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Northern Colorado|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Tennessee|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Kentucky|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. LSU|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Missouri|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at South Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. UAB|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Florida State|