Our ranking: No. 18 FLORIDA
Coach: Jim McElwain (19-8, entering third season; 41-24 overall)
2016 record: 9-4 overall, 6-2 Southeastern Conference; first in East Division
Look back: The Gators defended their SEC East title, but not without plenty of suspense.
A second-half collapse in September at Tennessee ended the Gators’ 11-game win streak in the series and left them playing catch-up in the division race. But other than a stunning 31-10 November loss at Arkansas, McElwain’s team responded, while the Vols’ stumbled badly. UF ended SEC play with a goal line stand during a 16-10 upset win at LSU — in a make-up game caused by Hurricane Matthew — to lock up the East crown.
But for the second consecutive season the Gators let off the gas, losing at Florida State and against Alabama in the SEC title game by a combined score of 85-29. These defeats once again exposed the gap between UF and the nation’s elite. Unlike a season earlier, though, the Gators bounced back in the bowl game, routing Iowa 30-3 in the Outback Bowl to end McElwain’s second season on a high note.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters returning: 3
Defensive starters lost: 8
Key losses: LB Jarrad Davis, CB Jalen Tabor, CB Quincy Wilson, S Marcus Maye, DT Caleb Brantley, DT Joey Ivie, LT David Sharpe
Top returnees: WR Antonio Callaway, RB Jordan Scarlett, LT Martez Ivey, RT Jawaan Taylor, C T.J. McCoy, TE DeAndre Goolsby, DE CeCe Jefferson, DE Jabari Zuniga, CB Duke Dawson, DB Chauncey Gardner, K Eddy Pineiro, P Johnny Townsend
Strengths: The Gators must replace eight starters on defense, but the until still boasts many talented, promising players.
DE CeCe Jefferson, who combined for 15 tackles for loss during his first two seasons, looks to become the unit’s next star. Quick, powerful and versatile, the 6-foot-1, 261-pound Jefferson will move along the line to create mismatches. Redshirt sophomore DE Jabari Zuniga might have even more upside. Zuniga was second on the 2016 Gators with 8.5 tackles for loss and garnered high praise spring drills. Senior Jordan Sherit is relentless off the edge, while 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore pass rusher Antonneous Clayton is long and cat-quick.
Three members of last year’s secondary were selected in the second round of the NFL draft. Big things are expected this year from fifth-year senior Duke Dawson, who moves to cornerback a season after leading UF with seven pass breakups from the nickel back position. Sophomore Chauncey Gardner is a rising star who totaled 17 tackles during the final three games and won Outback Bowl MVP honors after intercepting two passes, returning one for a score.
With nine starters back, the Gators’ embattled offense returns many of the pieces needed to vastly improve a year after finishing last in the SEC in total offense. Antonio Callaway returns as the team’s top playmaker and leader of a increasingly deep receiving corps; he averaged 14.5 yards and scored 11 times on 157 touches during his first two seasons. Callaway should have more help. Sophomore Tyrie Cleveland’s 98-yard touchdown at LSU was the longest by a Florida player in 41 years. Meanwhile, slippery Dre Massey is back from an ACL tear and has breakout potential.
A 108-yard day at LSU highlighted a 889-yard season by TB Jordan Scarlett. Expect the junior to become just UF’s fifth 1,000-yard rusher in 20 seasons. But the key to the offense’s success will be up front. UF returns four starters led by All-SEC preseason pick Martez Ivey. McElwain believes the unit will go from a weakness to a strength.
No team can match the Gators’ 1-2 punch in the kicking game. Eddy Pineiro tied for third in SEC with 21 field goals in 2016, while Johnny Townsend led the nation in punting (47.9 yards per punt).
Weaknesses: For the third consecutive spring, the quarterback competition seized center stage. The offensive-minded McElwain is under increasing pressure to identify the right QB to lead his attack. It shapes up to be a three-man race among Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio, the starter to open 2016.
Tight ends were expected to have a key role in McElwain’s offense, but the group has just 12 touchdowns in two seasons. Senior DeAndre Goolsby scored during the final two games, but averaged fewer than 10 yards a reception in 2016. Redshirt junior C’yontai Lewis scored key touchdowns against Georgia and South Carolina, but generally was a more effective blocker than receiver.
The nation’s fifth-ranked defense last season looks to replace both tackles and both linebackers with a some promising, experienced reserves. Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark will step in at tackle with 52 combined appearances. Injuries to linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone forced freshmen David Reese and Vosean Joseph into action. Each was impressive, recording double-digit tackles during a game.
The 2016 Gators backed up their claim to the fictional title of DBU (Defensive Backs University), leading the nation in passer rating (92.6) or touchdown passes (eight) allowed. To maintain the standard, UF must find a cornerback opposite Dawson and his replacement at nickel back. First-year freshmen C.J. Henderson, Brad Stewart and Marco Wilson will get their shot. A recent question is who will replace fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris, the team’s leading tackler a year ago. Harris tore his Achilles tendon in late July to leave UF without one of the veteran leaders. Gardner could be a star on the back end, while senior Nick Washington is solid. Sophomore Jeawon Taylor could be the X-factor.
Outlook: McElwain’s teams have overachieved much of two seasons but also underwhelmed too often. The 2017 Gators expect to improve on offense, but are likely to drop off a bit on defense. Playing well on special teams and limiting turnovers and penalties could be the difference against such a demanding schedule. The Gators open against Michigan and face LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State. Two seasons after he was named SEC Coach of the Year, McElwain still has much to prove.