Oddsmakers set the over/under on Florida’s regular season win total at nine. I recommend taking the “under.”
One potential source of optimism for Florida‘s upcoming season is quarterback Feleipe Franks. On the one hand, Franks went 63-for-97 (64.9%) for 863 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions in his last four games. On the other hand, the four teams that he faced (South Carolina, Idaho, Florida State, and Michigan) ranked 88th, 116th, 80th, and second in total defense. In the bowl game, Michigan sat out key defenders and most of the ones that played offered a scrimmage-level effort.
Moreover, Florida’s offensive line clicked, solidifying itself as one of the best in pass protection based on sacks and pressures allowed. Franks was more often able to wait for plays to develop and step into his throws. As a result, he took advantage when defenses crowded the line of scrimmage and applied press coverage.
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A stronger area of support for Franks will be in his deep wide receiver crew. One shouldn’t object that Franks lacks a go-to receiver. It’s characteristic in a Dan Mullen offense to not have one and instead to spread the wealth. Florida returns all six receivers.
UF’s receiving crew is a mixture of lackluster ability and untapped potential. Last year, Van Jefferson led it with 35 receptions, 503 yards, and six touchdowns. Although, he only eclipsed 50 yards and/or scored a touchdown against Florida State, Charleston Southern, Colorado State, Vanderbilt, and Idaho. He showed good hands underneath.
He could break and gain leverage inside against lesser cornerbacks and reliably make a catch in traffic. Still, he lacked athleticism and explosiveness. So his positive route-running skills didn’t suffice to make him a threat against stronger defenses.
Florida’s other five receivers accrued between 200 and 400 yards. One interesting player is Kadarius Toney. Toney is always a big-play threat when he has the ball in his hands because of his speed and agility as a runner. His problem is that his rawness as a receiver, a position that he switched to after arriving to Florida as a quarterback, limits him primarily to screens, jet sweeps, and wildcat formations.
An underachiever is Trevon Grimes. 118 of his 364 yards last year came against Florida State. He looks the part of a receiver. He was a five-star recruit who transferred from Ohio State. He’s 6’4 and fast. But he lacks the footwork and otherwise the technical ability to separate himself from receivers. Here is an example of his lack of route-running fluidity and difficulty in selling different moves to defenders.
Franks’ biggest problem will be in pass protection, which allowed him towards the end of last season to sit back and lean into his throws. Jawaan Taylor, Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan, and Fred Johnson all played 13 games last year and all departed. Taylor was an SEC second-teamer and Ivey a three-time All-SEC left tackle. With one returning starter, this unit requires almost complete rebuild.
Less of a problem is running back. Instead of a duo, the position will feature one back and then some unproven talent. Last year’s leading rusher Lamical Perine must assume a larger role with the departure of Jordan Scarlett, who split carries evenly with Perine. Plus, he must operate behind doubtful run-blocking. Last year, the Gators lost three of the four games in which they averaged fewer than five YPC.
The defense is less of an issue but still faces question marks, especially in its pass rush. Florida ranked 15th in sack rate and eighth in QB pressure rate and reliably forced third-and-longs. But, it loses Buck Jachai Polite, who led the team with 11.5 sacks, 4.5 more than any other Gator. Polite was a difference-maker with his ability to command double-teams and make momentum-changing plays. With fellow departed Buck CeCe Jefferson, they combined for 11.5 tackles for loss.
UF will also miss Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and leading tackler Vosean Joseph. Both were superb at blitzing and combined for 11 tackles for loss. Florida still returns significant experience along the defensive line, but not the same playmaking quality. The linebacking crew looks for players to step up next to sole returning starter David Reese.
The secondary has the returning individual ability to again finish 13th in pass defense. C.J. Henderson, who didn’t allow a touchdown last season and led all returning SEC corners in opposing passer rating, and Marco Wilson, who missed 2018 to injury but was All-SEC in 2017, will excel at cornerback. Trey Dean, who was All-SEC for freshmen, will learn the hybrid star position and showcase his ability to cover and his physical skill set.
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Still, look at what opposing quarterbacks did to Florida in its three losses:
Georgia’s Jake Fromm went 17-for-24 (70.8%) for 240 yards and three touchdowns.
Kentucky’s Terry Wilson went 11-for-16 (68.7%) for 151 yards, two touchdowns, and one INT.
Missouri’s Drew Lock was 24-for-32 (75%), for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
In a nail-biting Florida victory, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley went 18-for-28 (64.2%) for 239 yards, two touchdowns, and one INT in a 31-point performance.
In the past five seasons, UF is 1-7 when allowing quarterbacks to convert at least 68% of their pass attempts. The one victory came against UAB. The following statistic indicates a key factor in the success of opposing quarterbacks:
In the above four games, Florida achieved one sack and two QB hurries against Georgia, one sack and zero hurries against Mizzou, two sacks and two hurries against South Carolina, and zero sacks and zero hurries against Kentucky. In those four games, UF failed to reach its season average sack rate of 8.6%. So, UF’s regressed pass rush will prove deleterious to its pass defense. Granted, the increased role for the speedy Amir Burney should improve Florida’s ability to defend opposing running backs given his strength in pursuit. With question marks in the front seven, the rush defense likely won’t improve its ranking of 52nd in opposing YPC.
Expect a Florida offense that will rely way too heavily on Perine and on a defense that has many questions to answer for its pass rush and rush defense (front seven) and that will lean too heavily on its superb set of cornerbacks. With all this being said, let’s go through the schedule.
The probable losses:
Oct. 5 vs Auburn:
Auburn will exploit Florida’s weakness in protection. Eight of its top 10 defensive linemen return, including SEC second-team defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who penetrates with impressive burst at 6’5, 318 pounds. Nick Coe led with seven sacks. Concern at linebacker is overstated because Auburn has already groomed up-and-comers like K.J. Britt at middle linebacker and adds the top incoming outside linebacker in Owen Pappoe. Auburn’s secondary enjoys depth with all but one returning. In particular, Noah Igbinoghene achieved 11 pass break-ups in his first season at corner.
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On offense, the Tigers will revitalize their rush attack in order to exploit a relative weakness of Florida’s defense. It had poor numbers last year after suffering big losses in that offseason. But this year, all five offensive line starters return, totaling 104 career starts. This year’s quarterback will also contribute to the run game.
Oct. 12 at LSU:
Joe Burrow should improve in his second year at LSU with the addition of RPO elements that he’s comfortable executing. Chemistry is already in place with five receivers returning. LSU returns 76 career starts along the offensive line. With its experience, it will improve in the rushing game. Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for 145 yards on 19 carries against Georgia. He’ll be pushed by, among others, the top-rated incoming running back John Emery.
On defense, the line and linebackers each return all but one. K’Lavon Chaisson will be a pass-rushing threat after missing all of 2018 due to injury. The linebackers boast last year’s second-leading tackler Jacob Phillips and proven havoc machines like Patrick Queen and Michael Divinity showcasing their versatility. Florida wide receivers are outmatched by a stacked LSU secondary featuring Kristian Fulton, who allowed six combined first downs and touchdowns last year, and first-team All-American safety Grant Delpit. Each led LSU with nine pass break-ups. Plus, Derek Stingley was the nation’s top cornerback prospect.
Nov. 2 vs Georgia:
The Bulldogs blew out Florida last year 36-17 and I don’t see much changing. Georgia’s offense is stacked with quarterback Jake Fromm, 1,000-yard rusher De’Andre Swift, and four O-line starters (83 career starts) back. The 16th-ranked defense should again be one of the nation’s best with two of three defensive line starters returning and six returning with starting experience. The linebackers will reload, not rebuild. Two to watch out for are Channing Tindall, a former five-star linebacker who played some last year, and overall number one incoming player Nolan Smith. The secondary returns three starters, including leader JR Reed.
The very possible losses:
Oct.19: at South Carolina:
After facing Auburn and LSU back-to-back, the Gators travel to Columbia. A luckily tipped pass played a crucial role in Florida’s nail-biting victory last year. This year’s Gamecocks still possess the firepower on offense with Jake Bentley returning as the SEC’s second-leading passer. Superbly-sized Bryan Edwards and speedy Shi Smith were his second- and third-best receivers and they return.
Most importantly, the front seven should improve massively after suffering issues with depth that were conspicuous in last year’s game. Three starters return on the d-line, including DJ Wonnum, who had six sacks and seven tackles for loss in 2017, with abundant depth at every position. Among linebackers, SEC second-teamer and leading tackler TJ Brunson returns, as well as second-leading tackler Sherrod Greene. Overall, six linebackers with double-digit tackles return. This depth is crucial given SC’s offensive tempo.
Nov. 16: at Missouri:
Mizzou will be at its best for this game. In each of the last two years, Mizzou won its last four games. A rush attack that ranked 33rd in YPC can improve with 1,000-yard rusher Larry Rountree returning along with three starters on the offensive line. Kelly Bryant will have had almost a whole year with his new receivers.
The defensive line won’t be as bad as some people think. It returns plenty of playing experience. Jordan Elliot, who was All-SEC second-teamer at defensive tackle, and Chris Daniels reunite with their former line coach from Texas. Akial Byers will help out at both end and tackle. Mizzou’s strength will be in its secondary that has the depth with five returning starters to keep Florida’s receivers in check.
The less possible loss:
Aug. 24: vs Miami:
Florida’s offense should have massive difficulty against Miami’s top-ranked defense in sack and havoc rate. Three NFL-caliber returning linebackers and playmakers elsewhere will make it hard for Florida to score and keep Miami in the game. If Miami’s defense can force some turnovers, find chemistry on offense under a new coordinator and mostly inexperienced o-line, and get some offensive balance with a functional quarterback to complement DeeJay Dallas in the running game, then it can pull off an upset.
As for the rest of the schedule, Kentucky will fall after losing Josh Allen and Benny Snell to the NFL. Tennessee is still rebuilding and will need a rare gem from Jarrett Guarantano — like the one that he produced against Auburn — to have any chance of being competitive … Florida State has major cultural and coaching issues in addition to problems at offensive line that will still keep its offense very inefficient. Towson and UT Martin are easy wins, as is Vanderbilt if Florida can avoid collapsing like it has done the past four years after playing Georgia.
Nine is a fair number to set for Florida’s regular season win total. I like the “under” because I think eight wins is way more probable than nine.