Coming into Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville, not much was expected of the Florida Gators, especially after finishing a disappointing 7-5 record in 2014. But not only did McElwain and the Gators exceed expectations with 10 wins last season, they also played in their first SEC Championship Game since 2009.
Florida slumped in the second half of the season after starting 7-1. The campaign ended with three straight losses to Florida State, Alabama in the SEC title game and Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
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Just like last season, not many experts and preseason magazines are picking the Gators to win the SEC East. Florida won’t have to travel far this season, as nine of their 12 games will be played in the Sunshine State.
Let’s taking a look at the Gators’ 2016 schedule from the easiest to the most difficult matchup:
12. Nov. 19 vs. Presbyterian
Everyone knows Florida’s game against Presbyterian is pretty much a scrimmage in preparation for Florida State the following weekend in Tallahassee. In last year’s warm-up game against FAU, the Gators needed a touchdown pass in overtime to win 20-14.
Florida should make quick work of a Blue Hose team that went just 2-9 last season.
11. Sept. 17 vs. North Texas
The North Texas Mean Green will be the second non-conference opponent the Gators will face in 2016. Last season, the Mean Green won just one game (1-11), as head coach Dan McCarney was fired after five seasons in Denton.
Florida will use this game as a tune-up to its big matchup against Tennessee, who is the favorite to win the SEC East this season.
10. Sept. 3 vs. UMass
To open the 2016 season, the Gators will play a UMass program that has had trouble adjusting to the FBS. Last season, UMass finished with a 3-9 record and is still looking to qualify for its first bowl game since returning to the FBS in 2011.
This should be a great opportunity for the younger Gators to get some playing time and reps. Florida will begin its SEC schedule the next week against Kentucky.
9. Nov. 12 vs. South Carolina
South Carolina went 3-9 last season, as head coach Steve Spurrier retired midway through. Former Gators head coach Will Muschamp was hired as Spurrier’s replacement last December.
This is clearly a rebuilding job for Muschamp and the Gamecocks. South Carolina could have a true freshman starting at quarterback along with very little depth at receiver and on defense.
8. Oct. 15 vs. Missouri
After winning two straight SEC East titles, the Tigers went from 11 wins in 2014 to five last season. This season, the Tigers have a new head coach in Barry Odom and their fans are hoping the team can return to their winning ways.
Sophomore Drew Lock returns at quarterback and should produce better results now that he and his receivers have some experience under their belts. Missouri’s defense should be as strong as it has been the last three seasons.
7. Sept. 10 vs. Kentucky
After a fast start to the season, the Wildcats finished with a disappointing 5-7 record, extending a bowl game drought that goes back to the 2011 campaign. Kentucky has new co-offensive coordinators this season as Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw have made the move from Cincinnati to Lexington.
That should result in more of a high-powered Kentucky offense and an improved Wildcats team.
6. Oct. 1 at Vanderbilt
Despite finishing 4-8 last season, the Commodores have made noticeable progress under head coach Derek Mason. With 12 starters returning and a stout defense, Vanderbilt could find itself in a bowl game by season’s end.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s play will need to improve, but getting back wide receiver C.J. Duncan and tight ends DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney should help him and the offense develop.
5. Oct. 29 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Florida had a lot of success against former Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt, but a new era is set to begin in Athens.
Former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was hired as head coach last December and he is hoping to develop Georgia into a consistent national title contender once again.
Georgia has a lot of talent returning this fall, but a spot in the College Football Playoff this year seems unlikely. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Bulldogs could win the SEC East however.
4. Nov. 5 at Arkansas
The Razorbacks must replace several key pieces from last year’s 8-5 team, but they should still be a factor in the SEC West. Austin Allen is in line to replace his brother Brandon as Arkansas’ starting quarterback.
With nine starters returning on defense, the Razorbacks will be relying on that side of the ball to be successful in 2016. A trip to Fayetteville is never easy, so the Gators will have their hands full.
3. Oct. 8 vs. LSU
Florida lost a close game to LSU 35-28 a year ago in Baton Rouge. With the game in Gainesville this season, the Gators could be in position to break their three-game losing streak to the Tigers.
Florida will have to slow down preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette. LSU also returns 17 other starters from a team that was ranked second in the nation at one point last season.
2. Nov. 26 at Florida State
Normally Florida State is No. 1 on this list every year, but there’s a bigger game this season. In any event, the Seminoles should be a contender for the national championship again in 2016 after having a bit of a rebuilding season a year ago.
Whoever is the Seminoles quarterback this fall, there will be a ton of talent around them. Florida State’s defense also should be better than the unit that allowed 17.5 points per game in 2015.
1. Sept. 24 at Tennessee
Yes, the Gators have defeated the Volunteers 11 straight times, but that streak could come to an end this season. Tennessee will field its best team since going 10-4 and winning the SEC East in 2007.
All four of Tennessee’s losses last season were by seven points or fewer. For the first time in years, big expectations are expected in Knoxville and the Volunteers could finally fulfill them.
— 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.