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Folks, we made it.
The start of the 2021 college football season is here. And after a bizarre 2020 season in which fans were largely absent from the stands, non-conference games were largely eliminated and several leagues, such as the Pac-12, were essentially rendered pointless, we finally have at least some return to normalcy in the sport.
Things are so back to normal, in fact, that Florida is once again opening the season with what should be an opponent it easily disposes of. Florida Atlantic comes to town, a program that the Gators have played three times since 2007 (and most recently in a wild 2015 game that went to overtime), and the Owls are led by a second-year coach who UF fans know well.
Former Florida State coach Willie Taggart was handed the reins in Boca Raton ahead of the 2020 season, and his first-year returns were a bit average. After finishing 11-3 in 2019, the team fell to 5-4 in the shortened pandemic season. With a 4-2 record in Conference USA play, FAU finished just half a game behind Marshall in the East division race.
Taggart will coach his first game in the Swamp this Saturday. The Gators defeated his Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2018, but Taggart was fired in the middle of his second season before he got to coach a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Gators are expected to once again compete for the SEC East and, potentially, a playoff spot. They should easily dispose of the Owls, but season openers tend to be unpredictable, and this Florida Atlantic team could easily provide a more challenging matchup than next week’s road game against USF.
Here’s your full primer on the Gators’ season-opening opponent.
NEXT: A transfer portal offense
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Florida Atlantic’s 2020 offense was, in one word, anemic. In points scored, it ranked 115th in the nation, and it was only slightly better in terms of total yards, finishing 112th. The Owls return last year’s starting quarterback, Nick Tronti, a North Florida native who transferred to FAU from Indiana. But Taggart opted for changes this offseason.
He moved on from both of last year’s co-offensive coordinators Clint Trickett and Drew Mehringer, replacing them with Mike Johnson, who was most recently Mississippi State’s receiver coach in 2019 but was the play-caller for UCLA and the San Francisco 49ers prior to that.
With a new offensive coordinator, Taggart also went after a new quarterback in the transfer portal. He came away with N’Kosi Perry, who appeared in 24 games with Miami, tossing for 2,484 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was recently named the starter over Tronti.
In the passing game, Perry’s favorite target will likely be last year’s leading receiver T.J. Chase, a Clemson transfer who totaled 334 yards and two touchdowns on 23 catches. Other projected starters for the Owls include Brandon Robinson and LaJohntay Wester, who each finished under 200 yards receiving last year. At tight end, FAU has a converted receiver in John Mitchell, who missed the 2020 season with an injury.
Perry is a quarterback with a bit of mobility, but he hasn’t been very productive on the ground. If FAU wants rushing success, it will likely have to turn to yet another transfer. Taggart added Johnny Ford from South Florida, a 5-foot-5-inch speed back whose best season came as a true freshman in 2018 when he totaled 787 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Florida will also likely see Larry McCammon III, who had just 79 rushing yards last year.
The X-factor offensively could be Javion Posey, an athlete who was initially competing for the quarterback spot but has since moved to a utility role. Taggart has said that he’ll see action at running back, receiver and defensive back this year, and he totaled 403 yards and three touchdowns last year.
The success of all of this will depend on Florida Atlantic’s offensive line play against Florida’s ferocious pass rush of Brenton Cox Jr., Zachary Carter, Khris Bogle and Co. The Owls return starters at center and on the left side, but they will start two transfers on the right side. FSU transfer Chaz Neal, who stands at 6-foot-7-inches, got the nod at right tackle, while Auburn transfer Kamaar Bell will start at guard. The unit should be one of the team’s strengths, and it was far from the problem offensively last year as it finished near the middle of the pack in the Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of sacks allowed.
NEXT: Defense wins championships
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Despite being one of the least efficient offenses in the FBS, Florida Atlantic was still one of the stronger teams in the Conference USA. The reason for that is, quite simply, a dominant defense. The Owls finished with the 10th best scoring defense in college football and the 24th best total defense. That performance landed defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt a new gig as the defensive play-caller at SMU, but Taggart replaced him with another experienced coach in Mike Stoops.
The former Arizona head coach spent the last two seasons as an analyst at Alabama, but he’s considered one of the better defensive minds in college football. He should be able to find a lot of success inheriting a unit that was already one of the Group of Five’s best.
The team returns last year’s leading tackler with 72 in linebacker Chase Lasater, as well as cornerback Zyon Gilbert, who had 46 tackles, a pick and five pass deflections, and edge rusher Jaylon Joyner, who totaled 5.5 sacks last season.
The team will, however, look to a couple of young starters. True freshmen Courtney McBride (outside linebacker) and Jaden Wheeler (defensive line) will start against the Gators. Even some of the Owls veterans will be inexperienced. At the STAR linebacker/safety hybrid position, redshirt senior Korel Smith beat out 2020 starter Ahmad Ross, though both will likely see significant reps on Saturday.
In the secondary, senior Diashun Moss beat out Romain Mungin to start opposite Gilbert, while the team returns starters at safety in Teja Young and Jordan Helm. This may be a unit due for a slight step back, but it should remain formidable in 2021.
NEXT: Overall thoughts
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The Gators may be a team facing a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2021 season, but this Florida Atlantic team shouldn’t be able to keep this one competitive for long. Defensively, it could certainly give quarterback Emory Jones a couple of headaches in his first career start, but even with a former Power Five starter at quarterback, this team isn’t ready to take that step offensively.
Florida’s defense was bad in 2020, but it gets to start things off with what should be a relatively straightforward matchup. If the Owls find offensive success, that is a cause for concern for the Gators, who will need to be much better on the defensive side of the ball if they want to even think about returning to Atlanta this year.
Similarly, this game could serve as a canary in a coal mine of sorts for the offensive line. That unit struggled considerably last year and now has two new starters. Joyner is a good pass rusher, but with two true freshmen starting in the front seven, Florida shouldn’t struggle very much to create holes in the run game and give Jones time to make plays. If it does, it’s a very concerning sign for this team’s prospects in SEC play.
Regardless, Florida should be able to pull away in its season opener against the Taggart-coached Owls, at least by the second half.
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