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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 19. Florida Gators

19. Florida Gators

Improved QB play means a third straight SEC East title is a real possibility

  • Location: Gainesville, FL.
  • Conference: SEC (East)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Jim McElwain (third year)
  • Last Years Record: 9-4 (6-2 SEC)
  • Bowl Result: Victory in Outback Bowl


Entering 2016 it was hard to get a read on which Florida Gators' team would come out. Was it going to be the team that started off 6-0 in 2015? Or the one that sputtered down the stretch, going 4-3? The answer: a little bit in-between. Once more, a physical defense kept the Gators in every game they played but the same old offensive issues prevented the team from really taking the next step. However, a big win in a hard-fought battle against LSU helped Florida seal the SEC East for the second consecutive year and while they were eventually blown out, it shows Jim McElwain's crew has at least developed some form of consistency. Will an improved QB situation and offense mean a third straight SEC East title, or will be the program's continued offensive issues once more put a damper on their impressive talent?

Jordan Scarlett
Offense: Once Alabama's offensive coordinator, head coach Jim McElwain is known as a great offensive mind and one who has produced impressive results at multiple stops throughout his coaching career. However, entering Year 3 in Gainesville, it's hard to see any form of improvement from this offense. The group was 107th in the nation in scoring, 113th in rushing offense and 116th in total offense. One of the biggest issues has been the lack of a true, star quarterback, which Florida needs to change if they want to return to true national prominence. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks impressed coaches and fans alike with his poise and playmaking ability in the spring, but the transfer of Notre Dame grad Malik Zaire could force him to backup duties. Zaire was very good for the Irish at the start of 2015 but was lost for the year to injury. We saw him occasionally in '16 for Notre Dame, but the play of DeShone Kizer quickly overshadowed the veteran quarterback. Zaire is not the most accurate quarterback and still struggles with mistakes but his running ability adds a whole new dimension to an offense that has been stale for too long. After Florida limped along behind the arms of former transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby last season, it has to be assumed Zaire is a big improvement. The Gators must also develop a consistent ground game after the running back group underperformed a year ago. Junior Jordan Scarlett returns after rushing for 889 yards and six touchdowns last year. Scarlett isn't the type of running back that will break open games too often but the powerful rusher is very reliable and still averaged nearly five yards a carry in 2016. Sophomore Lamical Perine is the cousin of former Oklahoma back Samaje (now in the NFL) and plays very similar to him; he is a very physical runner with just enough shiftiness to him. He will be a quality backup to Scarlett. There shouldn't be much of a question that wide out Antonio Callaway is the best overall player on this offense. Despite not having any consistent signal-caller to catch passes from Callaway had 721 yards on 54 receptions and has averaged 14.5 yards per touch since he arrived in Gainesville. Defenses are definitely going to focus on containing Callaway but his impressive versatility and speed ensure he'll still be able to contribute. It would certainly help this offense in a big way if another go-to receiver arose, and there are some intriguing candidates. Senior Brandon Powell isn't quite the playmaker that Callaway is but is as sure-handed as they come, while sophomores Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland have the explosiveness and potential to become major factors. At tight end, Florida returns two experienced weapons in senior DeAndre Goolsby and C'yontai Lewis. Goolsby quietly caught 38 passes for 382 yards and remains a solid red zone threat, while Lewis is a proven blocker. What should really help Zaire succeed is the offensive line, which returns four starters and has quality depth. Junior Martez Ivey has to be the most recognizable
Brandon Powell
face on the line, and the most talented. Ivey is a former five-star recruit and the nation's top offensive line recruit in 2015, but has had some major ups-and-downs in his short Florida career. Florida hopes that a move from guard to left tackle will truly unleash his vast potential. The rest of the O-Line includes junior Tyler Jordan (left guard), sophomore Jawaan Taylor (right tackle) and Fred Johnson (right guard) all back. The only position that is of concern is at center, where sophomore T.J. McCoy is the presumed favorite.

Defense: It is no secret the Gators' strength over the past few years has been their defense, and that shouldn't change even as their former coordinator, Geoff Collins, moves to Temple to take over the head coaching gig there. Former Miami head coach and linebacker Randy Shannon will take over the D-coordinator role, but will have to deal with a group that loses plenty of starters, including NFL draftees like linebacker Jarrad Davis and corners Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor. The defensive line has no returning starters, but there are a number of breakout candidates. Junior Cece Jefferson has the size and power to evolve into a top-tier pass rusher at defensive end, while sophomore Jabari Zuniga already has shown flashes of his impressive talent (8.5 tackles for loss last season). Both Jefferson and Zuniga have seen plenty of action so while this group isn't as experienced as others in the SEC, it should still be able to hold its own. The interior of the D-Line is the bigger question, but juniors Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark looked good during the spring. The linebacker corps will miss Davis in a big way. The now-Detroit Lion had 60 tackles last year, and was really the leader of the group. With his absence, as well as the losses of Alex Anzalone and others, Florida will be wrought with inexperience. Sophomore David Reese will battle senior Christian Garcia to take over Davis' middle linebacker role, while Kylan Johnson and Vosean Joseph appear to be ready to lock down starting jobs on the outside. Johnson is particularly intriguing; the former high school quarterback doesn't really look like a typical SEC 'backer but plays with a kind of toughness and grit that can't be taught. Inexperience could also be a problem in the secondary, especially at corner, where Wilson and Tabor were so good. However, there is still some proven playmakers remaining, and the group should still be nearly as good as last year's edition, which allowed just 148.5 yards per game (2nd in the entire land). Senior safety Marcell Harris has a very good chance of earning All-Conference honors after leading the Gators in tackles in 2016. He is joined in the group by fellow senior Duke Dawson, who played cornerback in the spring and could take over as the team's top CB. Dawson has played most nickelback throughout his UF career but the team's need at corner and his impressive versatility pushed him there, where he should excel. The likely starter opposite of him at cornerback is sophomore Chauncey Gardner. Gardner is still very young but still managed three interceptions a year ago (one which he took back for a score) and earned Outback Bowl MVP honors for his fabulous play in the team's dismantling of Iowa.

Special Teams: Even if the offense doesn't take off like Florida hopes, the wonderful special teams play could mask some of those deficiencies. Junior kicker Eddy Pineiro has one of the strongest legs in the sport and nailed 21 of 25 field goals last year, while punter Johnny Townsed led the country in punting average with 47.9 yards. Callaway was a terrific returner his freshman season but struggled last year. If he can regain the 2015 form, it would be a huge lift to the Gators.

Two straight SEC East titles and 19 wins in that span prove Jim McElwain's pedigree as a head coach but it is hard to envision what the next step is for the Gator program. The defense should keep them in every game even as it breaks in plenty of new faces, and this is the best special teams group in the country. But, the X-factor is the offense, particularly quarterback. If Zaire can breath new life into this offense and the ground attack can really take off, this team has an outside shot of a Playoff berth and possible SEC Championship. But, if the offense continues to struggle it's hard to see Florida returning to Atlanta or doing much non-conference, where they'll have dates with Michigan and archrival Florida State.

Player to Watch
Martez Ivey, OT
When Ivey arrived on campus two seasons ago, people were already envisioning him being the anchor of the offensive line, a future All-American and eventually, high NFL Draft pick. It hasn't been like Ivey's career has been a bust, but the junior is still improving and learning. It will be interesting to see whether the switch from guard to tackle can result in improved play from him, or whether it will be an experiment doomed to fail.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)*
2013: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
2014: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)*
2015: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)*
2016: 9-4 (6-2 SEC)*

*= Bowl game

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