Breaking down the preseason favorites.
Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Virtually everyone who stepped on the field for last year's championship defense is back -- all told, Florida loses six-and-a-half tackles with the early departure of backup defensive tackle Torrey Davis. Nine of the returning starters will be front-liners for the third year in a row, holdovers from the much-maligned 2007 group that rebounded to finish in the top-10 in total and scoring D through last year's title run, matching their crystal-hoisting predecessors in 2006 and setting themselves up to rival Alabama in '09 as the best defense in the SEC. Maybe (probably) in the nation. The Gators gave up an SEC-best 12.9 points per game, down almost two touchdowns from 2007; maybe this time they shoot to bring that number below double-digits, which only three other teams have managed this decade.
The really unfair part of the equation, of course, is that -- very much unlike Alabama, or Virginia Tech, or any other likely defensive juggernaut -- Florida is just as likely to push the standard in the other direction with nine returning starters on offense. The combination of dominance on both sides of the ball last year (in all three phases, really, considering UF also blocked eight kicks/punts and scored three special teams touchdowns) was really rare:
The only one of those teams that brought back the following year anything resembling the core Florida returns this fall was Miami, which went 12-0 and was late one pass interference call away from repeating as champ in 2002. And the 'Canes' quarterback was Ken Dorsey.
All the ways you will disappoint us. Ummm ... well, among Torrey Davis' six-and-a-half takedowns was the most important tackle of the season. Otherwise, this is a short segment.
Obviously, the offense doesn't lack for playmakers, but as I've pointed out before, there's no replacing Percy Harvin's versatility and ability to hurt a defense from any position in any formation, anywhere on the field. Yes, Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Brandon James are top-shelf speedsters, and Emmanuel Moody (when healthy) gives the backfield a non-Tebow presence between the tackles it hasn't had under Meyer. But when Harvin was hurt against Alabama in the SEC Championship, those four guys combined for 84 yards in an overwhelmingly Tebow-inspired comeback, and then for just 20 yards against Oklahoma, where Harvin went for 171 and delivered by far the two longest gains of the night for either team.
Aaron Hernandez should be a possession guy par excellence, but combine Harvin's early exit with the graduation of leading receiver Louis Murphy, and there's more than a little potential for issues to develop in the downfield passing game, the threat of which has always opened up the running game for Tebow and Co. Deonte Thompson and Carl Moore, heretofore mere role players, have some pretty substantial hype to live up to.
Stumbling blocks. Aside from the brutal opener against Charleston Southern, there aren't many more dangerous places than Baton Rouge. But the trip to LSU may be the one game the Gators can afford to lose and still work their back into one of the top two spots by the end of the year -- they'll have a month and a half to make the climb, with only one serious threat (Georgia, in an apparent rebuilding year) before a final push in the SEC Championship game.
Realistically, though, UF might be a double-digit favorite in every game. Outside of the tussle with LSU on Oct. 10 and the December date in the Georgia Dome, the main issue will be avoiding cruise control against, say, Arkansas, or anyone else that might sneak up the way Ole Miss did last September. Last year's schedule offered eight other bowl teams as victims to help climb out of that hole; this slate, with Vanderbilt and possibly Kentucky descending, probably won't be that generous.
Visions of champions past. The last No. 1 team to return an unusually telegenic, Heisman-winning quarterback and the vast majority of his supporting cast from a championship win over Oklahoma in Miami was USC 2005 -- which, you'll note, was not technically a championship team, thanks to the Rose Bowl loss to Texas. The better analogy might be USC 2004, which was also coming off a championship (albeit in the AP poll, not the BCS) and fielded a much stronger defense than its successor while still racking up 450 yards per game, a hair over Florida's average (445) last year. The catch: Minus Harvin, the Gators have no apparent stand-in for Reggie Bush or Dwayne Jarrett.
Since my first thought was USC 2005, though, and I've already made the comparison to Miami 2002 earlier in the post, I should make this note: The only other outfits this decade that returned such a feted, star-studded core from a championship team the previous year both wound up losing the return trip to the title game in the final seconds as a relatively heavy favorite, with a nearly unbeatable senior quarterback. They also both survived early, razor-thin calls against seemingly overmatched rivals -- Florida State for Miami, Notre Dame for USC -- that should have been warning signs. If, say, Georgia pushes the Gators to the final gun, consider that a legitimate chink in the armor.
Crystal ball says ... I saved Florida for last in the series because it's just so obvious. The Tebow Child is one thing, but putting him opposite this defense, with or without Percy Harvin, is not fair. I'd like to be contrary -- believe me -- but other than to point out "look what happened to these other awesome, all-time great teams at the last second," I wouldn't know how. If this team doesn't meet your standards for a preseason favorite, none ever will.
out of five.