Florida unexpectedly captured the SEC East in Jim McElwain’s first season as coach. Now, the pressure will be to replicate that success.
While the Gators were dominant early in the year, Florida struggled after losing QB Will Grier to suspension. Now that Grier has transferred to West Virginia, all eyes are on QB Luke Del Rio and a defense that is sure to be one of the SEC’s best.
Here are five bold predictions about Florida’s season in 2016.
The winning streak vs. Tennessee ends
Florida has not lost to the Volunteers since Ron Zook’s final season in Gainesville. The Volunteers have struggled the last decade, particularly under Derek Dooley, but now is a new era.
The Gators nearly lost this game last season. It took a miraculous touchdown by Antonio Callaway with 1:26 remaining to steal the victory in Gainesville. The series shifts back to Knoxville this season, and Tennessee undoubtedly has the more complete team. This losing streak is more mental than physical — the Volunteers finally will take control.
Mark Thompson cracks the running back rotation
McElwain’s offense calls for a strong rushing attack. After losing Kelvin Taylor (1,035 yards, 13 TDs) to the NFL, the Gators need to find new pieces to balance out new starting QB Luke Del Rio.
Sophomore Jordan Cronkrite is the leader to take over at the position. However, keep an eye on junior college transfer Mark Thompson. He was the No. 5 JUCO player in the nation and No. 1 running back. Listed at 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, Thompson is a physical freak with the ball. His all-purpose ability will soon earn him a place in the rotation.
Luke Del Rio has a walk-on game
Del Rio is not a normal walk-on — he held offers out of high school from Oregon State, Oklahoma State and Colorado State. However, Del Rio failed to receive offers from his target SEC schools out of high school.
He worked on his game and now is the worthy starting quarterback at Florida. However, Del Rio has not played a single snap against SEC competition. In at least one game, that will come back to bite him. Circle Oct. 1 at Vanderbilt — the Commodores defense will suffocate.
The defense is the best in the SEC East
Few defenses in the nation are as complete as Florida. The Gators have playmakers at every level of the defense.
Many names are familiar: Bryan Cox, Caleb Brantley and Jarrad Davis broke out last season. Defensive end CeCe Jefferson also will be a familiar name to anyone who follows recruiting closely. But keep an eye on the cornerback pairing of Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson. This grouping could develop into one of the most talented in the nation.
Will Muschamp didn’t do much right at Florida, but no one recruited better defensive talent.
Del Rio gives fans hope late
Ultimately, Del Rio is a massive improvement on what the Gators were throwing out last season. No longer will the Gators average 12.8 points per game, like they did over the last six games with Treon Harris at the helm.
Del Rio’s greatest test will come on Nov. 26 as the Gators play Florida State. The Seminoles are one of the most talented teams in the nation and could be playing for a trip to the College Football Playoff. Though Florida will fall just short, Del Rio will shred the Florida State defense and try to play spoiler.