Fresh off of an SEC East title and Cotton Bowl appearance two seasons, the 2021 campaign did not go according to plan for the Florida Gators. A 6-7 record produced the program's first losing campaign since 2017 and produced a bunch of changes.
Billy Napier was hired in late November as the 28th head coach in Florida history. He's taking over for Dan Mullen, who had led the Gators to three straight New Year's Six bowls prior to the 2021 season. The reasons for Mullen's dismissal go beyond the 5-6 record the team had before he was fired, as it became apparent a coaching change had to be made.
Enter Napier, who won't get the benefit of a laid-back honeymoon, if you will. Expectations are always high in Gainesville, regardless of who the coach is. Despite being in the same division as the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, Gator fans are hopeful Napier is the coach who can return them to their winning ways immediately.
Can the Gators live up to those championship expectations? Here are the three reasons to be optimistic about Florida next season.
1. Anthony Richardson is a star in the making
Emory Jones began and ended last season as the Gators' starting quarterback. But he certainly wasn't the best at the position on Florida's team.
Richardson played in seven games, throwing for 529 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 401 yards (7.9 ypc) and three scores. Richardson's dual-threat ability and rocket arm had people questioning why Mullen didn't just name him the full-time starter.
Richardson could have a Kyle Trask-like season for Florida in 2022. He has all the tools to be a Heisman candidate in 2022. It just depends on if Richardson can stay healthy.
2. Florida's defense should be improved
This side of the ball was a sore sport for Gator fans under previous defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and it was easy to see why. Florida gave up 367.8 yards last season, ranking eighth in the SEC and 51st nationally. But it was actually an improvement from 2020 when the defense was 83rd in FBS at 428 yards per game allowed.
The good news is that besides a coaching change (Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer serving as co-defensive coordinators) the Gators have some key players returning, namely linebackers Ventrell Miller and Brenton Cox Jr., and defensive lineman Gervon Dexter.
Cornerback Jaydon Hill also returns after tearing his ACL in the first week of fall practice last August. After starting five games in 2020, Hil was expected to play opposite All-SEC performer Kaiir Elam to anchor the back end of Florida's defense. Instead, he was lost early and the unit as a whole suffered. The Gators recorded just nine interceptions in 2021 compared to 19 touchdown passes allowed. If Hill can recover from a second torn ACL (suffered in 2018), he will provide a boost to a secondary that has to replace Elam, who left school early to pursue his NFL dreams.
3. The start of the Napier era
Napier didn't waste any time getting started at Florida. In less than two months on the job, the Gators were able to get a top-20 recruiting class. Napier recruited more talent to Gainesville in two months than arguably Mullen did in his four seasons.
Napier posted a 39-12 record in four years at Louisiana, including three consecutive 10-win seasons, four straight Sun Belt West Division titles and the Sun Belt championship in 2020. Prior to Napier's arrival, the Ragin' Cajuns had three consecutive losing seasons.
Napier also coached under Alabama's Nick Saban twice (2011, '13-16) and Clemson's Dabo Swinney (2009-10). So he knows how to win at a major program like Florida. So this should have Gator fans excited for years to come.
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— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.