Will Florida football continue its run of success? Here’s what ESPN thinks

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Each of coach Dan Mullen‘s three teams in Gainesville have certainly had its drawbacks and limitations. But it’s hard to argue he hasn’t massively improved the overall product on the field. He inherited a program coming off a 4-7 season in 2017. Even during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, when the team won SEC East titles, it struggled to be competitive against top-tier teams as the offense lagged behind.

Though Mullen is looking to build a team that can make it to the College Football Playoff, he showed in 2020 that he’s on the cusp. The 8-4 record was very deceiving, as the Gators were competitive for the CFP until arguably the final game of the season. And in that game, they were six points away from knocking off eventual national champion Alabama, closer than either of the Crimson Tide’s playoff opponents managed.

However, to beat the best consistently, you have to recruit like the best. And right now, Florida is playing catch-up in that department. With new facilities coming, there’s reason to be optimistic about the quality of recruiting improving, but it will continue to be a limiting factor until it does.

It’s for that reason ESPN is wary of putting the Gators too high in its future power rankings, which take the next three seasons into account. Here’s why UF ranks No. 8.

8. Florida Gators

Future QB ranking: 8
Future offense ranking: 8
Future defense ranking: 12

Scouting the Gators: Despite finishing last season on a three-game slide, Florida showed it could keep up offensively with anyone, including Alabama. Coach Dan Mullen’s work with Kyle Trask reaffirmed why he belongs among college football’s best quarterback developers. But Florida hasn’t put together a complete product yet, and must continue to demand excellence in recruiting, given the teams it competes against in the SEC. Quarterback Emory Jones finally gets his opportunity, but will lead a unit losing two top-20 NFL draft picks (tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Kadarius Toney). Florida has experience at running back with Dameon Pierce, Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman and others, but needs playmakers to emerge in the passing game and a transitioning line to hold up in front of Jones. Wideout Jacob Copeland (18.9 ypr in 2020) could be a huge piece to the puzzle in 2021, and Florida signed two ESPN 300 tight ends in Gage Wilcox and Nick Elksnis.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham needs better and immediate results from his unit after a poor performance in 2020. The line could be very good this fall, as transfers Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) join Zachary Carter and other holdovers. Productive junior Ventrell Miller leads the linebackers again, and while Florida needs more from its secondary, cornerback Kaiir Elam projects as a star in 2021. The Gators have signed six top-100 defenders in the past two recruiting classes, including Jason Marshall, ESPN’s top-rated cornerback in 2021.

Though Florida may take a step back in 2020 due to the youth on the roster, it will still be a very telling year for Mullen. Nobody expected Trask to do what he did in 2020, and that is (understandably) being credited to coaching. Mullen’s track record at developing the quarterback position speaks for itself, but with Jones under center, the offense will look a lot different. We’ll get a good feel for Mullen and his staff’s versatility in designing an offense.

Despite defensive struggles in 2020, Mullen made the decision to retain Grantham. The two have a long history together, and Grantham is generally well-regarded in the industry. But his defenses haven’t been up to par at UF, and Mullen will hope his loyalty to his staff doesn’t come back to bite him.

The Gators have proven they are a top-10 program in the country as long as Mullen is in town. But that’s not where the program wants to be, and now heading into Year 4, it’s time to start being competitive for national titles.

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Pat Dooley Florida Gators
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