GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While all the recent buzz has centered on Florida’s impressive recruiting momentum for 2018 and beyond, the Gators are set to open preseason camp next week and turn the focus fully to the 2017 season.
And there’s plenty of reason to be excited about the immediate future as well.
The Gators return all of their offensive playmakers and add graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire to the group. He’ll compete with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks in camp, and one way or the other, there is legitimate hope that Florida’s frustrating offense might be ready to finally break out.
The defense reloads with a freshman class featuring six intriguing defensive backs who must help plug some key holes in the secondary, but there are enough returning playmakers throughout the defense to expect the Gators to again be stingy toward opponents.
Without further introduction, SEC Country reporters Ryan Young and Jordan McPherson look at what to expect from the Gators relative to the over/under set by the Las Vegas sports books and a few others we created on our own.
Wins — 8 (according to Bovada)
Ryan: Over. Florida has posted 10 and 9 wins, respectively, in coach Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, and the hopes for a long-awaited offensive breakout are enough to buoy optimism for continued success at that level or beyond. McElwain believes Florida’s maligned offensive line actually could be a strength this year, the quarterback play figures to be improved with either Zaire or Franks and the offense is loaded with playmakers. The defense does have a lot to prove after losing so much star power to the NFL, but there is enough talent returning and incoming that the Gators should remain strong — just maybe not quite as strong — on that side of the ball. Add to that a schedule that features most of their toughest games at home (LSU, Florida State, Tennessee, Texas A&M) and I see the Gators winning at least nine games again.
Jordan: Over. Outside of the season opener against Michigan and Georgia, all of Florida’s tough games this year — LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State — are at home. Three home wins against those four teams, splitting Georgia and Michigan, and wins over Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Northern Colorado and UAB would put the Gators at 9 wins with a bowl game (and potentially an SEC Championship Game) to spare.
Points per game — 30.0
Ryan: Over. Yes, Florida has averaged at least 30 points per game in only one of the last seven seasons (30.3 in 2014), but I’m buying the offensive optimism. I expect Zaire to win the quarterback job and for his dual-threat abilities to add another dynamic to an offense with two potential star receivers in Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland, a proven stud running back in Jordan Scarlett, a potential X-factor in the slot in Dre Massey and McElwain’s confidence that the offensive line will be better. A total of 58 FBS teams averaged at least 30 points per game in 2016 so it’s not an especially high bar to reach.
Jordan: Under. The Gators have averaged more than 30 points per game just twice since their last national championship run (30.3 in 2014, 35.9 in 2009). The offense will show improvement from last year, but it won’t be the high-octane group McElwain is hoping for just yet.
Points allowed per game — 20.0
Ryan: Over. Not by much, but I do expect the Gators to take a small step back defensively after allowing only 16.8 points per game last season. That’s what happens when a team loses three second-round draft picks from its secondary, another veteran safety to a season-ending injury, first and third-round draft picks at linebacker and its two best defensive tackles. Only 16 FBS teams allowed fewer than 20 points per game last season. I expect the Gators to be in that next tier this fall.
Jordan: Under. Florida is replacing a lot of talent on defense — especially at linebacker and in the secondary — but the talent is still there to hold opposing offenses down. The key factor will be how quickly the freshmen defensive backs adapt. Florida has historically been good at getting them ready.
Jordan Scarlett’s rushing yards — 1,000
Ryan: Over. Scarlett piled up 889 rushing yards as a sophomore despite being limited through the first part of the season by the coaches’ insistence on a crowded committee approach. When it was his turn, though, Scarlett was terrific. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all SEC rushers in percentage of yards gained after contact (75.4 percent). Florida has had just two 1,000-yard rushers in the last 12 seasons (Mike Gillislee’s 1,152 in 2012 and Kelvin Taylor’s 1,035 in 2015), but Scarlett should join that list this fall if he remains healthy.
Jordan: Over. Scarlett came close to the mark last season despite opening the season as part of a four-headed running back committee. With the starting job his and solely his to open the season, Scarlett should have no problem hitting the milestone.
Leading QB’s total passing yards — 2,000
Ryan: Over. Incredibly, Florida has not had a quarterback pass for 2,000 yards since John Brantley in 2011. The Gators had a QB reach that mark 11 straight seasons before this now five-year lull. That will change this year if Florida comes out of camp with a clear starting quarterback who remains healthy all season. I expect that guy to be Zaire, but either he or Franks is capable of hitting that very achievable mark. After all, 86 different FBS quarterbacks topped 2,000 passing yards in 2016.
Jordan: Over. The starting quarterback — whoever it is — will have the weapons around him to be successful and the offensive line to keep him upright. As long as there isn’t a midseason injury, this should be a gimme.
Antonio Callaway’s receiving yards — 1,000
Ryan: Under. Callaway spoke convincingly before the bowl game in January about his motivations to take his production to another level in 2017. He led the Gators with 721 receiving yards last season and had 678 in 2015. He’s certainly capable of a 1,000-yard season, and one could make the case that Cleveland’s emergence as a sophomore will take more defensive pressure away from Callaway. But the Gators have plenty of targets to feed and a ground game that deserves to carry a large share of the load. I expect he’ll improve on his 2016 numbers, but not quite reach 1,000.
Jordan: Over. Callaway is Florida’s most explosive weapon in the passing game, and the Gators’ immense depth at receiver should help free Callaway in open space. If he gets 1-on-1 coverage enough times, he’ll break out enough big plays to be Florida’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Taylor Jacobs in 2002.
Tyrie Cleveland’s receiving yards — 700
Ryan: Over. We never saw Cleveland at his peak last season. A nagging hamstring injury derailed the first half of his freshman season and Florida’s struggles at quarterback limited his opportunities further as he finished with just 298 yards and 2 touchdowns. Everyone remembers the 98-yard touchdown catch at LSU, though. He is a prime breakout candidate in 2017.
Jordan: Under. Cleveland is a deep-threat receiver — much like Callaway. However, there are only so many passes to go around. Add in the other receivers hoping to emerge — Brandon Powell, Dre Massey, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, Daquon Green, James Robinson (if he enrolls) — and Cleveland’s opportunities shrink immensely.
David Reese’s total tackles — 90
Ryan: Over. Because of an incredible rash of injuries, Florida’s leading tackler last season ended up being safety Marcell Harris with 73. The previous two seasons, linebacker Antonio Morrison led the Gators with at least 100 tackles, and Reese should make a push toward those kind of numbers. He finished with 49 as a true freshman despite making only four starts and otherwise coming in as a reserve. He’s key to the Gators’ defensive hopes in 2017.
Jordan: Over. Reese excelled after taking over midseason for Jarrad Davis, racking up 34 tackles in a four-game span. He’s poised to be Florida’s next great linebacker.
Jabari Zuniga’s total sacks — 10
Ryan: Under. Ask the Florida players who they expect to have a breakout 2017 season, and the most common answer is Zuniga, a redshirt sophomore defensive end. He led the Gators with 5 sacks in his coming-out party last season, but most of his production came early in the fall. His teammates have been raving about his potential this summer. A 10-sack season would put him in exclusive company in Florida’s record books as only 10 players have reached that mark in program history. I expect he comes close but doesn’t quite get there.
Jordan: Under. The Gators haven’t had a player record 10 sacks in a year since 2006. Zuniga is a talented pass rusher and led Florida with 5 sacks in 2016, but the redshirt sophomore’s production was spotty last year.
Games started by freshmen DBs — 16
Ryan: Over. With Marcell Harris’ season-ending injury dealing another key loss to the secondary, it now seems clear the Gators will end up starting a freshman at cornerback opposite senior Duke Dawson. If the Gators play 12 regular-season games, reach the SEC Championship Game and play in a bowl game, that’s 14 starts for a rookie DB barring a surprise. Add in however many games the Gators opt to start in nickel and any injury losses throughout the year, and it’s likely this number is eclipsed.
Jordan: Over. With Harris’ season-ending injury, Chauncey Gardner likely will move to safety and the Gators are almost guaranteed to start a freshman at one of the cornerback spots. That’s at least 13 starts (assuming a bowl game). The other starts would come in one of three ways: Florida starts at least four games in a nickel package; Duke Dawson, Nick Washington or Gardner gets injured; or a freshman safety ends up overtaking Gardner or Washington at one of the starting safety spots.