Florida Gators 2016 Preview and Prediction
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#20 Florida Gators
SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jim McElwain, 10-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Doug Nussmeier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins
Florida was one of college football’s biggest surprises last season. The Gators finished 10-4 and claimed the SEC East title under first-year coach Jim McElwain. While McElwain’s first season was a success, there’s plenty of work ahead for this team in 2016. The offense struggled after the suspension of quarterback Will Grier in the second half of last year. Transfer Luke Del Rio is slated to replace Treon Harris under center, but question marks remain on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Despite losing a couple of key pieces, the defense should remain one of the best in the SEC. Winning the East Division once again will be a challenge, but an improved offense should allow Florida to stay within striking distance of Tennessee and Georgia in 2016.
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Previewing Florida’s Offense
In four seasons under Will Muschamp, the Florida Gators had five different starting quarterbacks, three offensive coordinators and some of the nation’s least-productive attacks. Florida hired Jim McElwain to breathe some life into the side of the ball the Gators were known for under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Florida showed promise early on, highlighted by a 38-point outburst against Ole Miss. But after the NCAA suspended quarterback Will Grier for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the Gators went into a tailspin with Treon Harris at the helm.
McElwain now turns to transfer Luke Del Rio, the son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, or Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby. The winner of the quarterback race will become Florida’s ninth starting quarterback since Tim Tebow’s final season, in 2009.
Last season, the Gators’ lack of depth and experience up front were hard to overcome. At times UF started three true freshmen and ended the season surrendering a nation-leading 45 sacks. Left tackle David Sharpe is the veteran of the group, while sophomore Martez Ivey looks to live up to his billing as the nation’s No. 1 offensive line recruit in 2015.
McElwain values a physical run game, the backbone of his offenses during four seasons at Alabama (2008-11). Sophomore Jordan Scarlett hopes to emerge from the shadow of 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor and lead Florida’s trio of tailbacks. Keep an eye on juco transfer Mark Thompson.
Receiver Antonio Callaway is a gamebreaker who averaged 17.6 yards and scored six touchdowns on 69 touches. But the Gators still need more from their receiving corps.
Previewing Florida’s Defense
Muschamp left behind the ingredients for a top defense, and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins did not squander the opportunity. The Gators ranked fourth in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense in 2015. But the physical and mental fatigue of propping up a moribund offense took its toll, and Florida yielded 503 yards to Michigan during a 41–7 Citrus Bowl beat-down.
The Gators look to bounce back despite losing some key pieces, including two All-Americans (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and tackle Jon Bullard) and a tone-setting safety (Keanu Neal). Many quality players remain, beginning with All-SEC cornerback Jalen Tabor and one of the SEC’s best linebackers, senior Jarrad Davis. Junior cornerback Quincy Wilson and senior safety Marcus Maye are established SEC talents, giving Florida a top secondary once again.
The Gators’ defensive line is loaded, beginning with tackle Caleb Brantley and end Cece Jefferson. Senior end Bryan Cox Jr. is equally effective against the run and pass, while two young ends — Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga — have bright futures. Quality depth abounds, too.
Previewing Florida’s Specialists
Placekicker Austin Hardin has moved on after making just 16-of-36 field goals at Florida, opening the door for Eddy Pineiro, a former Alabama commit best known for kicking a 77-yard field goal on YouTube. Punter Johnny Townsend is among the nation’s best and averaged 45.4 yards per kick in 2015. Callaway scored twice as a punt returner.
McElwain led Florida to a 6–0 start and its first top-10 ranking in three seasons en route to the Gators’ first outright SEC East title since 2009. But a season-ending three-game skid exposed Florida’s deficiencies on offense, and teams outscored the Gators 97–24 during that stretch. Despite the ugly finish, McElwain brought a new vibe to the program, selling out The Swamp four times and overseeing facility upgrades. But to take the next step on the field, McElwain must develop a long-term answer at quarterback.