The Gators rank No. 16 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Florida is two-for-two in winning the SEC East under head coach Jim McElwain but the Gators have their work cut out for them this fall. Not only will there be a new, inexperienced quarterback, but one of the nation’s stingiest defenses in 2016 returns just two starters and has a new coordinator. Florida still has plenty of talent, but it will be tested right out of the gates with games against Michigan and Tennessee on tap within the first three weeks, not to mention an always-tough SEC slate.
Previewing Florida Football’s Offense for 2017
Florida hired Jim McElwain to revive a languishing offense. Two seasons later, the problems continue on the side of the ball where the Gators dominated during the days of Steve Spurrier and, later, Tim Tebow. Florida rode a stout defense to consecutive SEC East titles but will need to score more points to beat the top teams. Among SEC teams, only South Carolina, now under Muschamp, scored fewer touchdowns than the Gators’ 35.
To turn things around, McElwain must develop a quarterback and get dramatically improved play from an offensive line with four returning starters. Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks ended spring practices the frontrunner, but the battle for the starting job took an interesting turn in June with the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. Meanwhile, junior Martez Ivey moved from guard to left tackle. The nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit in 2015 has All-SEC potential.
The past two seasons, receiver/returner Antonio Callaway has averaged 14.5 yards every time the touched the ball. Defenses will key on him. Sophomore deep threat Tyrie Cleveland and junior slot receiver Dre Massey need to capitalize.
Tailback Jordan Scarlett emerged from a crowded backfield last season to become the Gators’ No. 1 option. Coming off an 889-yard season, the 5'10", 213-pound junior has a good chance to become just Florida’s fourth 1,000-yard rusher in 20 years.
Previewing Florida Football’s Defense for 2017
Now, the hard part. Shannon, 51, looks to replace eight starters and uphold a standard on defense few can match. Florida ranked among the nation’s top-15 defenses the past nine seasons. To field another top unit, several veterans need to thrive in expanded roles, and several young defenders must mature quickly.
Junior end Cece Jefferson has the tools to become a top pass rusher, while redshirt sophomore end Jabari Zuniga (8.5 TFLs in 2016) has breakout potential. The middle of the line is unsettled. Big things are expected from junior tackle Taven Bryan.
At linebacker, the Gators will turn to a trio of sophomores who were thrown into the fire. David Reese has a nose for the ball; Kylan Johnson, a former high school quarterback, is instinctive; and Vosean Joseph is the unit’s enforcer.
Cornerback is the biggest question mark. The SEC’s best tandem — Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson — left early for the NFL. Senior Duke Dawson moves from nickel back to corner, while sophomore Chauncey Gardner is expected to fit in at cornerback or safety, where he earned Outback Bowl MVP honors. Fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris (team-high 73 tackles in 2016) was slated to anchor the secondary but was lost for the year in July with a torn Achilles. With Harris out for the year, Shannon could move Gardner back to safety.
Previewing Florida Football’s Specialists for 2017
No team can boast a better pair of specialists. Eddy Pineiro was 21-of-25 on field goals while Johnny Townsend led the nation in punting (47.9-yard average). Florida needs Callaway to regain his form as a punt returner. He averaged 15.5 yards and scored twice in 2015 but averaged 8.4 yards and failed to score last season.
Two trips to Atlanta for the SEC title game are an impressive start to McElwain’s regime. The next step will be more difficult. The 55-year-old coach will get a feel for his Gators quickly. Florida opens 2017 against Michigan in AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys. Tennessee visits on Week 3 to begin a stretch of five SEC games, including visits from LSU and Texas A&M.
McElwain is just 3–7 against ranked opponents. That will have to change, or 2017 could be a step back for his program.
NATIONAL RANKING: 16
SEC EAST PREDICTION: 2
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