ESPN’s preseason outlook for Florida football, SEC in 2023

College football season is getting underway as the days of August wane into the autumn season. Among the many schools preparing for their gridiron grinds this coming fall are the Florida Gators, who are headed by second-year head coach Billy Napier.

Last season was a tough pill for the program to swallow, falling to its second-straight losing season — the first time since 1978-79 — and the upcoming campaign does not appear to be much easier. Much of the sports media projects the Orange and Blue’s schedule to be among the most difficult in the nation, much less the Southeastern Conference.

ESPN’s Chris Low and Alex Scarborough put together their 2023 college football conference outlook for the SEC, which included a few entries on the Gators. Take a look below at what the pair had to offer on Florida’s uphill battle in the nation’s premier football conference, along with their other takes as well.

Transfers to know

Matt Pendleton/Gainesville <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Sun;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Sun</a>
Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun

It was tempting to go with the other top transfer quarterbacks in the conference — Payton Thorne at Auburn, Devin Leary at Kentucky, Tyler Buchner at Alabama and Spencer Sanders at Ole Miss. But Mertz is in a unique position because of the pressure he’s under to turn around a Florida offense that was so bad last season it cranked up the heat on coach Billy Napier after only one year on campus. It’s easy to write off Mertz, who was underwhelming in 32 starts at Wisconsin. But don’t forget he was once the top-rated pocket passer in the 2019 class, and don’t discount the benefit of a fresh start. Napier is optimistic about Mertz’s “incredible motor and work ethic.” — Scarborough

Mertz has a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders this season as he tries to fill the void left behind by Anthony Richardson, who is now the starting QB for the Indianapolis Colts. While he put together a perfectly cromulent body of work with the Wisconsin Badgers, the SEC is a different beast than the Big Ten and will likely be a tough transition for the redshirt junior.

Also mentioned were LSU Tigers linebacker Omar Speights and Georgia Bulldogs wide receivers Rara Thomas and Dominic Lovett.

Must-see September Games

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols finally broke through against the Gators last season after losing 16 of the previous 17 meetings in the series. Tennessee last won at the Swamp in 2003, so it has been a while. Florida needs to build some early momentum in Year 2 under Napier, and taking down the Vols in the SEC opener would be a great way to do it. Think we’ll hear much about Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III’s “I don’t lose in Florida” proclamation leading up to the game? — Low

This season’s edition of the Florida-Tennessee game has the makings of an instant classic and the revival of a once-storied rivalry between the two schools. While the Vols certainly have the upper hand coming into the game on Sept. 16 there is no reason to count out the Gators — even if they lose to Utah to open the schedule.

The other two games mentioned are the Texas Longhorns at Alabama Crimson Tide (Sept. 9) and LSU at the Ole Miss Rebels (Sept. 30).

On the hot seat

Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun
Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun

It’s crazy to think Naper is (or should be) on the hot seat going into just his second year at Florida, but if the Gators are hovering around the .500 mark again after going 6-7 in his first season, the restlessness in Gainesville will reach an uncomfortable level for everybody involved. — Low

Very few in the sports media feel like the second-year skipper is entering the season on the hot seat, but the Gator Nation’s patience is running thin after the first consecutive losing seasons since the late 1970s. Generally, Napier ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack among current coaches but given the highly-ranked 2024 recruiting class he has assembled, he deserves a chance to see things through.

Also mentioned was Texas A&M Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher, who has been walking a tight line for a while now in College Station.

How They'll Finish

Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun
Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun

Low: 12th

Scarborough: 11th

Both predictions are within the general consensus among the sports media, with some outliers on both ends, of course.

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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire