GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida football team begins fall training camp Wednesday, exactly one month from the season opener against UMass.
When the Gators take Steve Spurrier Field on Sept. 3, they could be one of few reigning SEC division winners to start a year unranked. But with a total of 11 starters gone from 2015, it’s understandable why prognosticators have their doubts about UF.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said at SEC Media Days. “And yet, it’s kind of part of the fun of it.”
McElwain won SEC Coach of the Year last season after his team won 10 games and played for the conference title for the first time since 2009. But UF will have to beat the odds — and preseason predictions — to make it back to Atlanta this year.
The Gators were picked to finish second in the Eastern division behind Tennessee, and only one media outlet (Athlon Sports) has them in the top 25. Phil Steele, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News and Lindy’s Sports all left Florida out of their preseason rankings.
Since the first SEC Championship Game in 1992, the conference champion has always been ranked the following year. Only four division winners on the losing end of the title game (Arkansas twice, Auburn, Mississippi State) entered the next season unranked in the AP poll, and it hasn’t happened since 2003.
UF would be the first defending SEC East champion to miss the top 25. The AP poll comes out later this month.
While the Gators can’t control where they start the season, they’ll determine how they finish. To exceed expectations, several new faces in the starting lineup will need to set up.
Florida has to replace its starting quarterback, running back, tight end, team-leading wide receiver, kicker and six of 11 starters on defense.
“It will be interesting to see how this year’s team responds,” McElwain said. “We lost some really, really fine players, and I’m excited for them to move on into the National Football League.
“I think we learned a lot of lessons (from 2015). And yet, we’ve got a bunch of new guys. In fact, I think the happiest people on our campus are the people that are going to sell programs, because there’s a whole bunch of new jerseys out there. That will be a lot of fun for people to figure out who they are.”
Week 1 rankings of reigning SEC division winners:
*Conference champion in bold, AP ranking in parenthesis
1993: Alabama (2), Florida (8)
1994: Florida (1), Alabama (11)
1995: Florida (5), Alabama (11)
1996: Florida (4), Arkansas (unranked)
1997: Florida (2), Alabama (16)
1998: Tennessee (10), Auburn (25)
1999: Tennessee (2), Mississippi State (unranked)
2000: Alabama (3), Florida (9)
2001: Florida (1), Auburn (unranked)
2002: Tennessee (2), LSU (14)
2003: Georgia (9), Arkansas (unranked)
2004: LSU (4), Georgia (3)
2005: Auburn (16), Tennessee (3)
2006: Georgia (15), LSU (8)
2007: Florida (6), Arkansas (20)
2008: LSU (7), Tennessee (18)
2009: Florida (1), Alabama (5)
2010: Alabama (1), Florida (4)
2011: Auburn (23), South Carolina (12)
2012: LSU (3), Georgia (6)
2013: Alabama (1), Georgia (5)
2014: Auburn (6), Missouri (24)
2015: Alabama (3), Missouri (24)
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.