GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Football season remains about two months away, but next week will provide a brief respite from that wait.
All 14 SEC teams will convene in Hoover, Ala., for the annual SEC Media Days — an opportunity to hear both preseason projections and thoughts from each coach on what the new season has to offer. The back-to-back SEC East champion Gators will have their moment in the spotlight on Tuesday.
Here are five Florida storylines to watch.
1. Can Florida finally break the door down and win the SEC?
The Gators have made it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game in each of the first two seasons under coach Jim McElwain, where they were being dominated by Alabama (56-14 in 2016 and 29-15 in 2015). Florida will be projected to finish either first or second in the East this season, making a third trip to the conference title game a strong possibility.
Should the Gators win the East again, they will be the first team to win the SEC East in three straight seasons since they made it to the title game five straight times from 1992-96. In January, McElwain proclaimed that “when we get back to Atlanta, we’re going to kick the door down.”
It’s a tall task, but it’s possible if Florida can hold off Georgia and Tennessee during the regular season and make it back to Atlanta. And should Alabama lose a conference game or two along the way, well, that just makes the odds a little better.
2. How will the quarterback situation play out?
This seems like an annual question for the Gators in recent years. The revolving door at quarterback has been a problem since Tim Tebow left in 2009, with the Gators starting nine players under center in the last seven seasons. A 10th is almost inevitable in 2017.
The candidates: Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks.
Zaire is expected to be the frontrunner, if he can learn the offense in the next two months, but Franks impressed during spring practices. A decision on the starter probably won’t be announced until right before the season opener, but seeing how McElwain handles the quarterback battle once summer practices begin is just as important as his final decision.
3. What is the minimum Florida must do to have a successful season?
Heading into Year 3, McElwain certainly isn’t on the hot seat in the eyes of athletics director Scott Stricklin. As for the fans, they want to see Florida return to the top of the SEC — not just the East — and they want to see it sooner rather than later.
So just how well do the Gators have to perform this year to keep McElwain off the proverbial hot seat? Is it 10 wins? Nine? Eight? Is it making it back to the SEC Championship? Or maybe making — and winning — a higher-tier bowl game?
The goal, like every year, is to make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. We’ll know in November.
4. How will the Antonio Callaway situation play out?
Antonio Callaway is arguably Florida’s top weapon on offense. He’s also the one who caused the most off-field controversy this offseason.
First, there was the citation for marijuana possession on May 13 while riding in a vehicle with a 40-year-old man with a lengthy rap sheet.
Then there is also the ongoing Title IX investigation at the University of Florida that dates back to August and has cost the school more than $170,000, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Matt Baker. Callaway was the focus of an alleged sexual-assault case before ultimately being found not responsible. During the proceedings of the case, Callaway admitted to using marijuana on the night in question.
McElwain has not announced whether Callaway will be suspended for the season opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas.
5. Who steps up on defense?
Most of the uncertainty around Florida revolves around the offense, but don’t forget that the Gators lost eight defensive starters from last year and will be fielding a young group on that side of the ball this season.
Seniors Marcell Harris and Duke Dawson will anchor the secondary and juniors CeCe Jefferson and Taven Bryan will be fixtures on the defensive line, but underclassmen likely will handle the rest of the starting lineup spots. Florida’s starting linebackers all could be sophomores (David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson), a year after seniors Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone held down the middle of the defense.