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College Football Preview 2021: 14. Florida Gators

Kaiir Elam, Florida

 14. Florida Gators

The offense will need to reload, but an improved defense will keep the Gators in SEC East contention

2020 Review
After going 8-1 to begin the 2020 campaign, Florida went into their final few weeks in serious contention for the program's first ever Playoff berth. However, the Gators were then shocked by LSU in Gainesville in one of the most chaotic games of the season, likely killing any chances at earning a spot in the four-team field. They responded by giving Alabama their toughest game of the season in the SEC Championship Game, but still ended up coming up short. In the Cotton Bowl, with a major chunk of their team opted out to prepare for the NFL, the Gators were blown out by five touchdowns to a scorching hot Oklahoma team. The three consecutive losses left the program with a bad taste in their mouth as they prepare for the 2021 campaign. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: Quarterback Kyle Trask was a great story over the last two seasons for the Gators. He was a backup for several years and waited his turn before finally getting an opportunity in 2019 when Feleipe Franks went down with injury. He was able to build on that with a Heisman-level 2020, in which he threw for 4,283 yards and 43 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Florida, Trask is now off playing on Sundays, meaning that head coach Dan Mullen will need a new guy to run his show.

The obvious favorite to take over is redshirt junior Emory Jones, who has seen playing time each of the last few seasons. Jones is a much different quarterback than Trask; his arm leaves a little bit too be desired, but he's an elite athlete whose legs add an interesting element to this offense. However, don't be surprised if redshirt frosh Anthony Richardson ends up pushing him. The Gainesville native flashed some upside in garbage time of the Cotton Bowl.

The Gator offense has really lacked a ground game the last few seasons, ranking as one of the worst in the SEC in 2020. They have talent at the position, but it's unclear who the feature guy is at this point. Seniors Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis both have played a lot of snaps, with Pierce finishing as the top rusher a year ago. Looking to push them are a pair of former transfers from the ACC: Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard. Both were former five-star recruits who just never got an opportunity to show what they could do at their original schools, Clemson and Miami. Bowman transferred out a matter of weeks into his freshman season, but has serious potential. 

Although the quarterback situation certainly needs to be ironed out, the biggest question mark on this offense is at receiver. The Gators had a trio of elite pass-catchers in 2020, all with different strengths. Kadarius Toney was the ultra-versatile game-breaker on the perimeter, Kyle Pitts was the nation's best tight end and a touchdown machine, while Trevon Grimes was a highly reliable, traditional wide out. With all three gone, the Gators must turn to a group of Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson, Jacob Copeland, and Trent Whittemore. Shorter is technically their top returning receiver in the position group, but the former Penn State transfer has struggled to live up to the hype he received coming out of high school. My bet is a breakout from Henderson, a speedster with serious yards after catch potential.

Pitts will go down as one of the best tight ends in school history, becoming the first at his position to finish in the Top 10 of Heisman voting since 1977. Junior Keon Zipperer stepped into his role in the Cotton Bowl and should be the favorite to start, while senior Kemore Gamble will also feature. It will be interesting to see what role the position plays; is the Mullen offense becoming a breeding ground for successful tight ends, or was Pitts a special case?

The offensive line was average in 2020, but should be better this fall. Seniors Stewart Reese and Jean DeLance are crucial returnees, with Reese anchoring at center and DeLance at tackle. Neither guard spot is settled at this point in the off-season, which could lead to some interesting competition in fall camp.

It will be awfully difficult to replicate last year's offensive numbers, when Florida finished with a Top 10 offense and the top passing attack in the nation. There's definitely talent here, but a lot of it is unproven at this point. Mullen has earned a reputation as an elite offensive mind, and this year could be the time to show it.

Defense: Once the unquestioned strength of the Florida program, the Gator defense took a major step back in 2020. They allowed nearly 31 points per game, their worst mark since World War II, and also had the 100th ranked pass defense. The pressure is on for coordinator Todd Grantham, a longtime Mullen assistant who is one of the higher-paid coordinators in the game.

The defensive line should be solid, even if it's short on big-name stars. Senior end Zachary Carter is the team's top pass rusher, coming back after a five-sack 2020 season. On the inside, a pair of former transfers, Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton, are likely to start. Newkirk comes over from SEC foe Auburn, while Shelton comes south from Penn State. Shelton played in 40 games during his PSU career, but will need some time to adjust to the SEC. Don't be surprised if former five-star recruit Gervon Dexter begins to emerge as a contributor on the interior. He didn't see much action last fall, but the coaching staff has raved about his potential.

The linebacker corps has a chance to be very, very good, although depth could be a concern. Junior Brenton Cox is a pure pass rusher who has attracted NFL Draft attention playing at the "Buck" end/linebacker spot. He was dismissed from his first stop, Georgia, but seems to have acclimated nicely to Gainesville. Returning next to him are steady veterans Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate, who finished No. 1 and 2 in tackles on the Gators last year. Senior Jeremiah Moon last his spot when Cox came on but returned for a sixth year, likely backing him up, while Diwun Black should also find a role. Black was a big-name recruit in 2019 but due to eligibility problems, never enrolled. He instead played the last two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and now returns as the top linebacker coming up from the JUCO ranks.

Although losing C.J. Henderson certainly played a role, it was still surprising how bad Florida's pass defense was in 2020. Not only did they let up a bunch of yardage, they also let up the most touchdown passes by a wide margin. The unit has the potential to be better this fall, although there are several notable names missing. Junior Kaiir Elam emerged as the team's most consistent coverage option in 2020 and has a chance to be a Jim Thorpe Award candidate. However, it's unclear who will start opposite him at corner, with junior Jaydon Hill and true freshman Jason Marshall Jr. set to compete. Marshall's the top recruit in the '21 Class and impressed in the spring, but can he handle the SEC in his first year on campus? 

Trey Dean III came on and played a key role for the Gator secondary in both 2018 and 2019, but saw his playing time decrease in a big way last season. With several pieces gone, expect Dean to step into the starting strong safety position, where he will play an important leadership role. Free safety is set to be a competition between sophomores Mordecai McDaniel and Rashad Torrence II.

The defense simply has to be better in 2021, and there's enough talent here for Grantham to have a really strong unit. The secondary is still the primary concern and while Elam and Dean are key returnees, the lack of proven experience behind them is a real worry. We will see just how improved this group is early on, as they face Alabama in mid-September.

Special Teams: Evan McPherson moves on at kicker following a 2020 in which he was 17-22 on field goal attempts. Luckily, the Gators have a proven option waiting in the wings in former Mississippi State transfer Jace Christmann. Christmann, who once kicked for Mullen while in Starkville, went 32-40 in his MSU career. Punter is slightly concerning as of right now, and we will have to see what becomes of the UF return game.

Bottom Line: It's difficult to effectively evaluate Florida's weird 2020 season. They won the SEC East for the first time in the Mullen era and were in the Playoff race until the very end, but going 8-4 with generational talent like Pitts seems underwhelming. Expect the 2021 group to be more consistent overall, but both sides of the ball have questions. The offense will have to find out whether Emory Jones is really ready to step in for Kyle Trask, and the receiver group leaves something to be desired. Defensively, the front seven should be stout, but it's hard to imagine the secondary being good enough to keep up with some of the SEC's elites. A slight step back from the reigning division champs may be expected, but Mullen has proven he can build winners no matter the roster construction. The schedule should also be a help, as the Gators get a bye before their huge meeting with Georgia in Jacksonville, and the November slate is very favorable, assuming Florida State is still in a rebuilding mode. With this schedule working in their favor, the Gators may be worse overall than the 2020 team but actually end up winning more games.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Offensive MVP: RB Dameon Pierce
Defensive MVP: CB Kaiir Elam
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Xzavier Henderson
Impact Freshman: CB Jason Marshall Jr.

Recruiting Breakdown
Mullen and this staff's recruiting has been criticized, but the 2021 group is strong across the board. It ranks 12th nationally, which comes in at fifth in the SEC. Corner Jason Marshall Jr. is the headliner as a five-star prospect from the Miami area and due to the team's need at corner, expect him to see immediate action. Fellow secondary pieces Corey Collier Jr. and Donovan McMillon may also see action this fall, particularly Collier. Collier was high school teammates with Marshall, both coming from powerhouse Miami Palmetto. Another name to watch is quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, coming from the state of Georgia. He's got a huge arm and could be a nice fit in a Mullen offense, but it would be a shock to see him playing at all this fall.

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