After stumbling to a 4-7 finish in 2017, the Florida Gators enjoyed a bounce-back campaign last season. The Gators went 10-3, including a season-ending, 41-15 beatdown of Michigan in the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl.
Florida enters this upcoming season with the expectations not just of contending for the SEC East title also of being part of the College Football Playoff discussion.
Head coach Dan Mullen has already done an impressive job in turning around the Gators in short order. But if his team wants to take the next step, Florida must navigate a tough schedule that includes games against a pair of in-state rivals (Miami and Florida State), as well as a conference slate that features Georgia, LSU and Auburn.
We will take a look at the best case for and against Florida getting into the College Football Playoff.
Three Reasons Why Florida Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. The improved play of Feleipe Franks
In just one year, Dan Mullen was able to improve Franks' play under center after having a subpar 2017 season. Last season, Franks threw for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He improved across the board with his touchdowns (nine in 2017) and yardage (1,438) seeing the biggest increases, while also cutting down on the mistakes (eight).
Not only was Franks a better decision-maker under Mullen, but he also continued to improve as the season progressed. That was clearly evident in the Gators' last two games when Franks threw for a combined 407 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in a pair of convincing wins over Florida State and Michigan.
There is no reason to think that Franks won't continue to elevate his game in 2019.
2. Florida's defense should be top tier once again
One of the staples of the Gators even through their struggles has been the play of their defense. Despite some losses on that side of the ball, Florida should once again have one of the better defenses in college football.
Jabari Zuniga could have entered the 2019 NFL Draft, but he decided to return to be the leader of the Gators defense. Zuniga will serve as Florida's top pass-rushing threat and will look to replace the production that Jachai Polite (11.0 sacks) provided before leaving for the NFL. Zuniga also has excelled as a run-stopper.
Louisville graduate transfer Jonathan Greenard could be a nice complement up front. Greenard missed all of last season with a wrist injury after recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss for the Cardinals in 2017.
Linebacker David Reese II and cornerback CJ Henderson are also two of the best in the nation at their position. Reese finished with 77 tackles last year while Henderson, a potential first-round pick next year, registered two interceptions and five pass breakups in 12 games.
Expect Florida's defense to not just be one of the best in the SEC, but to rank among the top units in the country.
3. Gators' offensive talent has improved
During their struggles in recent seasons, Florida hasn’t been able to produce many points on offense. This year will be different because of all the talent Mullen has amassed on his roster.
Yes, the Gators lost Jordan Scarlett to the NFL during the offseason, but Lamical Perine actually led the team in rushing with 826 yards and seven touchdowns. With his patience, vision, speed, and pass-catching ability, Perine could potentially be one of the best running backs in the SEC, which in turn would take some of the pressure off of Franks.
There's also talent at wide receiver. Van Jefferson, the Ole Miss transfer should provide the Gators with a deep threat thanks in part to his size (6-2, 197). Trevon Grimes, Tyrie Cleveland and speedster Kadarius Toney also return and should serve as reliable targets for Franks.
This is arguably as much talent the Gators have had on offense in recent memory.
Three Reasons Why Florida Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Franks has been inconsistent in Florida's losses
Franks certainly turned a corner last season, finishing with an impressive 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, in the three losses to Kentucky, Georgia, and Missouri, Franks struggled to say the least.
In those three games, Franks completed fewer than half of his passes and tossed just three touchdowns to go along with two picks. In the Gators' 10 wins, Franks completed 62 percent of his passes with a 21:4 TD-to-INT ratio.
Franks will need to play better and be more consistent, especially against the top-tier teams on the schedule, like Georgia. The Bulldogs currently enjoy a two-game winnings streak in their head-to-head series.
2. Florida has to replace a number of starters on their offensive line
Offensive line coach John Hevesy will have his hands full this fall as the Gators will need to replace four starters up front. The big loss was tackle Jawaan Taylor, a second-round pick in this year's draft.
Not only will Florida's line offensive line feature several first-time starters, but several freshmen are projected to serve as backups. How well Hevesy puts all of the new pieces together will determine how effective the Gators offense is this season.
3. Key starters gone on defense
Yes, Florida should be excellent defensively again in 2019, but that doesn't mean there aren't any pieces that need to be replaced.
Gone are defensive end Jachai Polite, linebacker Vosean Joseph, and defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who all left for the greener pastures of the NFL. Florida also had a few players transfer during the offseason, so depth on this side of the ball could be an issue if injuries happen.
Playing in the high-profile SEC will provide the Gators the chance to build a strong case to make the College Football Playoff. However, unless they're able to pull off an upset or two, Florida is probably a year away from contending for a national title.
Florida opens the season against the Miami Hurricanes in Orlando and gets Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn at home. But the Gators have to face LSU and South Carolina on the road as well as their annual date in Jacksonville with Georgia.
One key for Florida will be quarterback Feleipe Franks improving his play against tough opponents. This is especially crucial with the Gators breaking in practically a brand-new offensive line.
Florida's make-or-break stretch on the schedule is Oct. 5 to Nov. 2 when the Gators have to deal with Auburn (home), LSU (road), South Carolina (road), and Georgia (in Jacksonville).
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon's Projected Final Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9