Can the Gators overcome heavy losses on defense to make it three SEC East titles in a row?
Last season, Florida played in the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row. And once again, the Gators lost to Alabama in Atlanta, this time to the tune of a 54-16 beatdown. Florida was able to rebound with a convincing 30-3 victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl to finish 9-4 in head coach Jim McElwain’s second season.
This season, the Gators are starting over on defense in many ways with eight starters gone from last year’s unit that finished fifth in the nation in yards allowed per game. To make matters worse, fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris, one of the three returning starters, has already been lost for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon. New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who replaces Geoff Collins after he left to become Temple’s head coach, has his work cut out for him
So with so much uncertainty on defense and a few question marks on the other side of the ball as well, can Florida win a third straight SEC East title? Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Gators’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Florida Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
With Malik Zaire transferring from Notre Dame, it appears the Gators have finally stabilized the quarterback position. Running back Jordan Scarlett emerged from a crowded backfield to gain 889 yards and six touchdowns in 2016. The offense also features wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who went for 54 catches for 721 yards and three touchdowns a season ago.
The biggest question mark is Florida’s defense. The team has relied on its defense to win games the last few years, but losing eight starters on that side of the ball will be tough to overcome. Florida can't afford many injuries with such a young defense to begin the season.
It will be tough for the Gators to return to Atlanta for the third straight season. For Florida to win the SEC East again, the offense will need to make great strides in head coach Jim McElwain's third year in Gainesville.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s a tough call between Florida and Georgia in the SEC East. The Gators are the back-to-back champions, but coach Jim McElwain’s team has a few question marks – much like the Bulldogs do – to address this fall. The addition of Malik Zaire adds some clarity to the quarterback room, and the skill talent and offensive line is in the best shape of McElwain’s tenure. While Florida’s offense looks poised to show marked improvement, the defense opens 2017 with question marks. This unit returns only two starters after safety Marcell Harris was lost for the year due to injury. New coordinator Randy Shannon has plenty of talent but a lot of new faces stepping into full-time roles. One advantage Florida does have over Georgia? The schedule. The Gators play only three SEC road games and catch LSU and Tennessee at home.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The Gators have won the SEC East in each of the first two seasons of the Jim McElwain era but going three-for-three will prove much, much tougher. There's no easing into the schedule with a big-time meeting with Jim Harbaugh and Michigan to start the season so we'll know quickly whether all those losses on defense – and there were a ton – will be a long-term issue or if the team can reload once again. Quarterback play has nowhere to go but up regardless if highly touted Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire starts or not and you can count on the offense carrying the team early given the offensive line and run game. As a result, this might be a more enjoyable season to watch the Gators on both sides of the ball even if Florida winds up not having quite as good of a year as the past two when all is said and done.
Mike Ferguson (@MikeWFerguson)
It's entirely possible that Florida fields a better team in 2017 than ‘16, but finishes with a worse record. The biggest question mark for the Gators looks again to be the quarterback position. Luke Del Rio returns, but redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire appear to be the front-runners.
If the Gators can find some consistency under center, Florida could have its best offensive team under Jim McElwain. The problem is that on defense, there is significant attrition and the schedule is more difficult.
Florida fortunately does get Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State all at home. Georgia and LSU however, are expected to be much improved. In addition to the annual rivalry contest against Florida State, the Gators will play their first non-conference regular season game outside the state of Florida in more than a quarter century when it takes on Michigan in Arlington, Texas, to open the season.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
Defense has carried the Gators to back-to-back SEC East titles. But if they are going to make it back to Atlanta in 2017, it might have to fall on the shoulders of the offense. Florida must replace all but three starters from its elite 2016 defense. While the Gators are still well-stocked on that side of the football, it's hard to believe that the loss of so many playmakers won't result in at least a small step backwards.
Meanwhile, a Gators offense that has struggled mightily at times over the last two seasons should be able to gain some traction in 2017 with nine starters returning. More importantly, there are finally solid options at quarterback in Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. Florida certainly has its share of challenging matchups on the schedule. However, the Gators only play three true road games all season. All three against opponents they should beat regardless of location. This should help their cause significantly as well.