The offseason is about speculation, but now is the time for definitive predictions. With fall camps open across the SEC, teams are starting to take shape.
Florida unexpectedly blew through the SEC East last year in head coach Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville. But after a 6-0 start, QB Will Grier tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance and was suspended, and the Gators went 4-4 in their final eight games. Finding a consistent contributor at quarterback — possibly transfer Luke Del Rio — and replacing 10 starters will be essential to keeping up in an improving SEC East.
Here is how we project each one of Florida’s games this season.
2015 record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC; First place SEC East
UMass – Sept. 3 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Minutemen have struggled since moving up to the FBS level. UMass went 3-9 last season, including losses to Colorado and Bowling Green. Florida still will be sorting some things out on offense, but this is a simple tune-up game.
Prediction: Florida win (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Kentucky – Sept. 10 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Wildcats are building under head coach Mark Stoops. Kentucky — which has lost 29 straight games to the Gators — has accumulated talent under Stoops, but still has not seen consistent defensive performance. This will be the perfect opportunity for Del Rio, or whoever starts at quarterback for Florida, to get some practice against quality competition.
Prediction: Florida win (2-0, 1-0 SEC)
North Texas – Sept. 17 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Mean Green have an exciting new coach in former North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell. Regardless, he takes over a team that went 1-11 last season. The Florida reserves will get a chance to build some live-action experience.
Prediction: Florida win (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Tennessee – Sept. 24 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Four weeks into the season, Florida faces its biggest test. The Gators have an 11-game winning streak against Tennessee that is as much mental as physical at this point. However, this is the year Tennessee finally puts it together. Both teams have aggressive defensive units, but between QB Joshua Dobbs and RBs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, Tennessee has more offensive pieces to work with. The streak falls, and the balance of power in the East shifts.
Prediction: Florida loss (3-1, 1-1 SEC)
Vanderbilt – Oct. 1 in Nashville, Tenn.
Florida has a week off between tough games against Tennessee and LSU — or does it? Even if poor kicker play is to blame, the Gators struggled to beat Vanderbilt last season, winning a 9-7 slugfest in The Swamp. This time around, the Commodores are more experienced and have the confidence to match with the game heading back to Nashville. A slow start in a look-ahead spot will doom the Gators.
Prediction: Florida loss (3-2, 1-2 SEC)
LSU – Oct. 8 in Gainesville, Fla.
This is the pivotal game for both LSU and Florida this season. The Tigers are legitimate national championship contenders. ESPN’s FPI projects them as the most likely team to win the SEC outright, even over No. 1 Alabama. Florida is playing at home, but that might be the Gators’ only clear advantage. LSU boasts the top running back in the nation (Leonard Fournette), a pair of elite wide receiver threats (Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural) and experience (18 returning starters). Florida has some upside, but not quite enough to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Florida loss (3-3, 1-3 SEC)
Missouri – Oct. 15 in Gainesville, Fla.
After a stretch of tough games, this is where Florida’s offense finally starts to find itself. Mizzou quietly has developed into one of the most consistent defenses in the SEC, but the Gators offensive line will have the performance of its life. The running game will have its hands full against a dominant Missouri defensive line, but will attract enough attention to let the Del Rio to Antonio Callaway connection go to work. Missouri will be held to fewer than 10 points.
Prediction: Florida win (4-3, 2-3 SEC)
Georgia – Oct. 29 in Jacksonville, Fla.
In one of the marquee games on the schedule, McElwain’s squad will best Kirby Smart’s in a battle of former Nick Saban assistants. Georgia is trying to replace much of its front seven from last season, and Florida’s running back stable will start to come to life. Georgia RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will go off, but inconsistent quarterback play will cause Smart to finally turn the reins over full-time to freshman Jacob Eason going forward.
Prediction: Florida win (5-3, 3-3 SEC)
Arkansas – Nov. 5 in Fayetteville, Ark.
Florida will be coming off the high of a win over Georgia, but the last thing the Gators will want to deal with after a trying game against the Bulldogs is the Razorbacks’ aggressive and physical offense. Florida will get off to a sluggish start, which will open the door for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to pull off one of his signature November highlights.
Prediction: Florida loss (5-4, 3-4 SEC)
South Carolina – Nov. 12 in Gainesville, Fla.
Not only will Florida have an opportunity to play against the worst team in the SEC; it gets to play against a head coach that took its program from national contenders to cellar dwellers. Will Muschamp has little talent to work with at South Carolina, which does not bode well against a physically dominant Florida squad.
Prediction: Florida win (6-4, 4-4 SEC)
Presbyterian – Nov. 19 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Blue Hose went 2-9 last season, despite playing in the FCS, with wins against Campbell and Kennesaw State. This is nothing more than a well-deserved bye week for the Gators late in the season.
Prediction: Florida win (7-4, 4-4 SEC)
Florida State – Nov. 26 in Tallahassee, Fla.
It’s almost unfair that the Gators defense has to face Dalvin Cook and Fournette in the same season. Both will be looking for Heisman Trophy buzz, and Cook will be able to build it in his final game of the regular season. Florida mustered just two points last season against the Seminoles – in Gainesville, no less. Moving back to Tallahassee, the Gators are in trouble.
Prediction: Florida loss (7-5, 4-4 SEC)
Projected record: 7-5, 4-4 SEC; Third in the SEC East
Analysis: In many ways, Florida is better than last year. With Del Rio under center and a dominant defense on the back end, the Gators are in a position to make strides. But the SEC is significantly deeper than it was last season. Will Florida be the 6-0 team from the beginning of last season or the 4-4 team from the end? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Other installments –
Mississippi State (8/12)
Texas A&M (8/14)
Ole Miss (8//15)