Jim McElwain’s second season with Florida Gators went about the same as his first. The team finished 9-4 and won the SEC East for the second consecutive season. But the Gators again lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
If Florida wants to win the SEC East again and play in Atlanta, it will need to replace several key players from its top-five defense from last season.
The Gators return just three starters on defense and have a new coordinator with Randy Shannon replacing Geoff Collins, who left to become Temple’s head coach.
Unlike recent seasons, Florida opens its 2017 campaign with a quality opponent, taking on Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Two weeks later, the Gators host SEC East rival Tennessee. Here’s how Florida’s entire schedule shakes out from easiest to most challenging matchup.
12. Nov. 18 vs. UAB
This is UAB’s first football season since 2014. This also serves as Florida’s warmup before hosting Florida State over Thanksgiving weekend. The Gators shouldn’t have a lot of problems putting away the Blazers.
11. Sept. 9 vs. Northern Colorado
After opening against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, Florida will return home to face Northern Colorado from the FCS ranks. The Bears went 6-5 last season.
10. Nov. 4 at Missouri
In Barry Odom’s first season as Missouri’s head coach, the Tigers went 4-8 with a 2-6 SEC record. Mizzou does have a potential budding star in quarterback Drew Lock, who finished second in the SEC with 3,399 passing yards to go along with 23 touchdowns.
9. Sept. 30 vs. Vanderbilt
Last season, the Commodores were 4-6 entering their final two games needing a sweep to qualify for a bowl game. Vanderbilt did just that beating Ole Miss and Tennessee at home to give head coach Derek Mason his first bowl berth in three seasons. The Commodores lost 41-17 to NC State in the Independence Bowl, but there’s still plenty of optimism surrounding the program entering this season.
8. Sept. 23 at Kentucky
Kentucky finally ended its bowl drought last season, winning seven games before losing to Georgia Tech 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell are expected to lead the Wildcats’ offense. Kentucky gets another shot at home at ending its 30-game losing streak to Florida.
7. Nov. 11 at South Carolina
Former Gators head coach Will Muschamp had a solid first season in Columbia. The Gamecocks won six games and made a bowl appearance when many experts predicted them to finish in last place in the SEC East.
This season, Muschamp has 16 starters returning, including quarterback Jake Bentley, who threw for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and just four interceptions in just seven games. This could be Florida’s toughest true road game on the schedule.
6. Oct. 14 vs. Texas A&M
The Aggies usually start strong, and last season was no different. But a 6-0 start gave away to another late-season collapse, as Texas A&M lost four of its final five games, including the Texas Bowl to Kansas State, to finish 8-5. The Aggies have talented playmakers, including wide receiver Christian Kirk and running back Trayveon Williams, but will be breaking in a new starting quarterback for the fourth consecutive season.
5. Sept. 16 vs. Tennessee
Tennessee finally got the proverbial monkey off of its back by beating Florida 38-28 last September to end its 11-game losing streak to the Gators. Now head coach Butch Jones is tasked with replacing 10 starters on both sides of the ball as the Volunteers try to take the next step by winning the SEC East. Both teams will have plenty of new faces in key places for their SEC opener.
4. Oct. 7 vs. LSU
Following Les Miles’ dismissal, interim head coach Ed Orgeron guided the Tigers to a 6-2 record. However, one of those losses was to Florida, as the Gators won 16-10 in Baton Rouge in the game that had to be rescheduled and moved due to Hurricane Matthew.
Orgeron is now the permanent head coach and will get another shot at Florida, but this time it will be in The Swamp. Even though LSU lost Leonard Fournette, the Tigers still have one of the best running backs in the country in Derrius Guice, who led the SEC with 1,387 rushing yards.
3. Sept. 2 vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
Unlike recent seasons, Florida will open the 2017 campaign outside of the Sunshine State, taking on Michigan in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Wolverines went 10-3 last season, earning a spot in the Orange Bowl, but similar to the Gators, Jim Harbaugh is dealing with some significant roster turnover. Michigan returns a total of six starters with only one of those on a defense that tied Alabama for fewest yards allowed per game in 2016. This should be a matchup of top-20 teams and one of the more intriguing openers to watch.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
While most experts will pick Alabama to win the SEC yet again, Georgia could up being the Crimson Tide’s biggest threat. The Bulldogs have an excellent young quarterback in Jacob Eason and a dominating running game with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Head coach Kirby Smart also returns 10 on a defense that finished 16th in the FBS last season.
1. Nov. 25 vs. Florida State
Florida’s toughest game in 2017 is against the archrival Seminoles. Florida State could enter the season ranked No. 1, and if not will most likely be among the top three. Running back Dalvin Cook is now in the NFL, but quarterback Deondre Francois returns and should be the focal point on offense.
The defense has nine starters returning, including All-America candidates in cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and safety Derwin James, who is coming back from a knee injury. It’s possible that the Seminoles enter this game on Thanksgiving weekend undefeated.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.