In 2014, Jim McElwain, Florida’s head coach, said that he could win SEC football games with his dog Claribelle at quarterback. Florida had continued to struggle to fill the quarterback position ever since #15 won a Heisman and rode off to glory. John Brantley to Jacoby Brissett to Tyler Murphy to Jeff Driskel to Treon Harris, with a few others sprinkled through, all struggled to keep the University of Florida football team from being a bottom third offensive attack. As you may remember, McElwain was considered a huge offensive improvement after leading Colorado State to success, and while his in-game coaching and a stout defense has led to two strong seasons and trips to Atlanta, there are still questions remaining over whether his 9 pound Yorky should have suited up at quarterback over the aforementioned Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby.
But things are different in Gainesville. For the first season since he arrived, Mac has his quarterbacks on the roster, and a deeper offensive line, receiving corp, and running back tandem. There will definitely be more pressure this season. He has demonstrated he can win the close wins. The wins in the finals moments against Tennessee in 2015 and LSU in 2016 have told Florida fans that McElwain has the ability to out-fox the coach on the other sidelines. You can even point to games last season like Vandy’s 13-6 win and Georgia’s 24-10 win as indicators that McElwain can still win even when the team doesn’t turn in its best performances. But he also has to find a way to avoid the collapses, like the second half against Tennessee and the entire game against Arkansas. Those two clunkers led to two losses that could have completely changed last season. Remember, Florida had a 21-3 lead at the half against Tennessee only to give up 35 points in the second half.
As mentioned, this is the source of optimism amongst Florida fans. There is a legitimate quarterback competition in Gainesville, and as of this writing, the starter still hasn’t been named. It could be Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, or last year’s starter Luke Del Rio. Whoever it is, the expectation is that they can be the serviceable quarterback Florida has been lacking. And regardless, that QB will have plenty of help. Florida returns a healthy, deep offensive line, a talented receiving corp, and a two running back setup. The talent receiving corp will miss their leading receiver Antonio Callaway for the indefinite future due to suspension, but there is plenty of talent between SR Brandon Powell, SO Tyrie Cleveland, SO Josh Hammond, and JR/TR Dre Massey. Florida will only go two deep with running backs with returners JR Jordan Scarlett and SO Lamical Perine expected to get the bulk. The offense could light up the scoreboard for the first time in a long time.
Sadly, one can’t be quite as positive with the defense. The defense loses 4 starters from last year and will have more underclassmen than they’ve had in the past. To compound problems, Marcell Harris, the leader of the defense, is injured and out for the year. Fortunatley, former head coach Randy Shannon is now leading the defense, and with the two previous DCs leaving for head coaching jobs, Shannon will be able to do the same with a rejuvenation of the defense. This isn’t Will Muschamp’s defense anymore, though, and the offense will have to improve because we’ll certainly see a drop in defense.
It’s hard to get excited about special teams. They can’t put a lot of points on the scoreboard, and the punt team only comes in when there’s a problem. But they have the #1 punter in the country per punting avergae in Jonny Townsend, and kicker Eddy Pineiro finished All-SEC as a freshman and could be a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. This is a unit that can be an unsung hero for Florida.
Good news and bad news on the schedule. Bad news is that Florida plays its usual SEC East, FSU and LSU spread, but instead of opening the season with Cupcake U, they have Michigan in the first week and Texas A&M mid-season. The good news is that they play Michigan in a neutral site, and FSU, A&M, LSU, and Tennessee all have to come to Gainesville.
Florida could easily go 8-4, or they could end up 11-1. I think they beat one of Michigan and FSU, but lose one of Tennessee, A&M, Georgia, and LSU for a 10-2 season.