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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#26 Florida Gators

NATIONAL FORECAST

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SEC East PREDICTION

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HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

If there’s a formula to hiring the perfect Florida football coach, athletic director Jeremy Foley hopes he’s found it. The Gators have fired their second defensive-minded, first-time head coach with Will Muschamp joining Ron Zook in the former Gator coach club. Replacing Muschamp is a Mountain West coach with an offensive background. The strategy worked once before with Urban Meyer. Can it work again with Jim McElwain?

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Previewing Florida’s Offense for 2015
 

The home to Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun, Urban Meyer’s spread offense and three Heisman-winning quarterbacks ranked last in the SEC in passing in 2012, last in scoring in 2013 and 12th in total offense in 2014. 

Florida hired Jim McElwain from Colorado State to revive its beleaguered attack. Unlike former coach Will Muschamp, McElwain has an offensive background. All eyes will be on his decision between quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris. As a freshman in 2014, Harris’ dual-threat abilities helped him go 4–2 as a starter. Grier, who redshirted last year, is a pocket passer better suited to McElwain’s scheme, which favors high-percentage throws with some vertical passes off play-action mixed in. But Harris’s running ability could be invaluable behind an inexperienced offensive line.

Florida finished the spring with just six healthy scholarship linemen. It is critical center Trip Thurman returns from a shoulder injury, sophomore left tackle David Sharpe develops and incoming freshman Martez Ivey lives up to his billing as the nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit.

Without a strong line, McElwain will struggle to establish a physical running game, the backbone of his offenses during four seasons at Alabama (2008-11). The past two seasons, Colorado State averaged close to five yards per carry. Florida tailback Kelvin Taylor hopes to break out in his third season, while incoming freshman Jordan Scarlett should make an immediate impact.

Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee should be the go-to receivers, but the rest of the lot is unproven. Converted tailback Brandon Powell turned heads during spring practices until a recurring foot injury sidelined him.

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Previewing Florida’s Defense for 2015
 

For all of Muschamp’s failings, fielding a dominant defense was never an issue. The Gators finished the past four regular seasons ranked among the nation’s top-10 defenses. New coordinator Geoff Collins does not envision a letdown. “We want to be one of the best defenses in the country,” he says. 

Many pieces are in place, beginning with one of the nation’s most talented secondaries. Two-time All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III anchors the Gators’ star-studded group that also returns three other starters. “I am really impressed with the amount of talent they have collected at the position,” McElwain marveled during the offseason.

Meanwhile, Florida’s front seven has some holes. The Gators’ top two linebackers, Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis, continue to recover from knee injuries sustained late last season. 

Jon Bullard’s decision to return for his senior season was huge for the front four. He and Bryan Cox Jr. are the only Florida linemen who have started a college game. Tackles Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark, both redshirt freshmen, earned raves during the spring.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing Florida’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker Austin Hardin must become reliable after hitting just 11-of-22 field goals in 2013 and 2014. Punter Johnny Townsend earned SEC All-Freshman honors in 2013 and might be an upgrade over Kyle Christy, a former Ray Guy Award finalist. Florida looks to replace returner Andre Debose, who had five return touchdowns at Florida.

Final Analysis
 

Muschamp’s failure to identify an offensive coordinator or quarterback doomed him, leaving McElwain with a program that won just 11 games the past two seasons. The 53-year-old immediately set out to upgrade Florida’s offensive talent and address lagging facilities. Faced with a massive rebuild, McElwain will need time to field an SEC East contender at a school where championships were once the standard.

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