2017 RECORD: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in the SEC East
KEY RETURNING PLAYER: QB Felipe Franks, RB Jordan Scarlett, WR Antonio Callaway, WR DeAndre Goolsby, WR C'yontai Lewis, LT Martez Ivey, DE CeCe Jefferson, NT Khairi Clark, MLB David Reese, CB Duke Dawson, CB Chauncey Gardner.
Florida has won the SEC East two consecutive years, and if Georgia wants the end that run it would behoove the Bulldogs to win the annual grudge match in Jacksonville.
The Gators come into the year with plenty of questions, mostly on the defensive side, although the quarterback situation will need to be watched.
To help us get a better handle on Florida, we turn to InsideTheGators beat writer Landon Watnick, who fills us in with some of the details below:
UGASports.com: What’s your outlook for Florida this year? What will be the biggest keys to the team's success?
Watnick: "Florida’s schedule, which kicks off with a meeting with Michigan in the season-opener in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, certainly isn’t the easiest. There are a lot of factors that could sway things, but I’ll put the over-under at eight wins. What should benefit Florida is that it has only one true road game in the first two months of the season (after the Hurricane Matthew postponement fiasco brought a home game against LSU to Gainesville in 2017), with five of its first eight games being true home contests.
"A lot of it will depend on whether Florida can finally find some stability at the quarterback position, the offensive line can take a considerable step forward and a young but promising defense doesn’t fall off despite losing a number of contributors."
UGASports.com: How much better do the Gators feel they will be on offense this year, and with all the losses on defense, can the team live up to its recent success there?
Watnick: "Well, it can’t get much worse on offense, right? A year after ranking 112th in total offense in 2015, Florida was 116th in total offense and 126th in red zone offense this past season. However, Florida does feel confident about the offensive line’s progress – something McElwain has sold on his speaking tour – and its young weapons at the skill positions figure to fare better after being thrown into the fire the past few seasons. How good the quarterback situation will be, though, remains to be seen. Florida could end up starting a true or redshirt freshman, an underwhelming veteran in Del Rio or a grad transfer in Zaire who has just roughly three months to learn the playbook before the season-opener.
"On defense, Florida has a number of solid talents in all three phases. The question remains whether any players will work their way toward elite territory in 2017. CeCe Jefferson, a former five-star recruit, could be poised for a big year in an increased role at defensive end. Duke Dawson, who will now play outside cornerback full-time, and safety Marcell Harris should also serve as leaders on defense, while Chauncey Gardner offers Florida versatility on the back end.
"With so many notable contributors departing, I would expect a drop-off – but I don’t believe it’ll be a huge one. A lot of the players in the starting lineup now were thrown into action last year while players like defensive tackle Joey Ivie (thumb), defensive ends Jordan Sherit (knee) and Bryan Cox Jr. (various injuries), Jarrad Davis (ankle), Alex Anzalone (arm) and Marcus Maye (arm) missed time."
UGASports.com: Where is Florida right now as far as its depth chart for next year on both sides of the ball?
Watnick: "Offensively, the numbers are certainly better than they were a year ago. The running back stable led by Jordan Scarlett will be one of the deepest positions on offense, while Jim McElwain has stacked up some young but impressive talent at wideout. At tight end, Florida returns two of its top options in DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis while adding a promising freshman in Kemore Gamble to the mix. The offensive line, which made slight progress last year but still was shaky, should benefit from another year of experience and take a step forward.
"Really, the only key departures on offense are quarterback Austin Appleby, left tackle David Sharpe and center Cameron Dillard. Florida has more-than-capable replacement in Martez Ivey .
"As far as the quarterback position, it’s still up in the air. Feleipe Franks exited the spring with an edge against fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask, but the Gators added Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire to the mix. The debate as to whether Franks or Zaire will win the starting quarterback will go into at least fall training camp, and it'll be interesting to see whether Florida goes with a veteran in Zaire or will look to build for the long-term future with a youngster like Franks. Also at quarterback is Luke Del Rio, who missed the spring due to two shoulder surgeries, and freshmen Jake Allen and Kadarius Toney.
"On defense, Florida loses eight starters – with some truly notable departures in linebackers Davis and Anzalone, cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor, safety Maye, and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley. The defensive end position should still feature plenty of options, but the depth at tackle right now is questionable. Florida has a young crop of talented linebackers, but the majority are either freshmen or sophomores. The top of the rotation in the secondary (Dawson, Gardner, Harris, Nick Washington) is strong, but that’s still a puzzle in progress as six defensive backs from the 2017 class arrive in late June.
UGASports.com: What were the key spring position battles waged over the spring, and how much is still to be decided in fall?
Watnick: "Quarterback is obviously the first one to point to, but really Franks was ahead of Trask from the start of practices. The Zaire factor can shake up the whole room.
"The competition at both guard spots will be worth watching this fall, after it was a competitive one this spring. Fred Johnson held onto his job at right guard, but Brett Heggie supplanted Tyler Jordan in the starting lineup at left guard and held a strong grasp on that responsibility for much of the spring. Two players who could add depth there this fall as Kavaris Harkless (knee) and Antonio Riles (torn ACL) return to the mix, while summer enrollee T.J. Moore could also be a factor there."
UGASports.com: Who will Florida's top players on both sides of the ball will be?
Watnick: "On offense you have to look at three in particular: wide receiver Antonio Callaway, running back Jordan Scarlett and Ivey. If Florida’s offense is actually fully functional this year, then Scarlett and Callaway could very well accomplish 1,000-yard seasons, respectively, in the rushing and receiving categories. Ivey, who will slide to the outside from left guard to tackle, is widely projected as an early-round selection in the 2018 draft.
"Looking at defense, you have to turn to Dawson and Harris in the secondary. Florida’s young defense will rely on that duo’s experience a good bit this upcoming season."
UGASports.com: Which players will people be talking about this fall, that maybe are under the radar right now, and why?
Watnick: "I’ll go with two who redshirted last year: Heggie and linebacker Jeremiah Moon. After redshirting last season to allow a wrist injury to heal, Heggie looks poised for a considerable role in the rotation and could be a regular starter this season. He’s a physical, aggressive interior lineman with a mean streak. Meanwhile, Moon is a long, athletic outside linebacker who displays excellent downfield coverage ability. He should see plenty of playing time this year as a hybrid strongside linebacker/nickel in Randy Shannon’s defense. He would have played as a true freshman, but a broken thumb suffered in the first month of the season set him on the redshirting path."
Florida 2017 Schedule
at South Carolina
& - Jacksonville, * - Dallas