GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida doesn’t yet know who its quarterback will be for the 2017 season. Coach Jim McElwain still has positions on his coaching staff to fill. Spring practice is two months away yet.
But it’s never too early to peek ahead at the Gators’ schedule for next fall and start plotting out the best matchups.
Everybody knows that Florida ended up losing two home games this past season through the Hurricane Matthew ordeal and the contentious rescheduling process with LSU.
The home slate is packed full of marquee matchups in 2017, though.
Here’s a breakdown of the most intriguing games on the Gators’ schedule, ranked 12 to 1.
12. Northern Colorado, Week 2, Sept. 9, The Swamp
McElwain may have some familiarity with the Bears from Greeley, Colo., from his tenure as the head coach at Colorado State, but Florida fans certainly don’t.
Northern Colorado plays at the FCS level and finished 6-5 last fall.
This is merely a confidence-builder in the midst of a pretty challenging non-conference slate.
11. UAB, Week 12, Nov. 18, The Swamp
Florida didn’t have the luxury of a break in the late-season gantlet this past fall, losing its scheduled game with FCS-foe Presbyterian to accommodate the rescheduled LSU game.
If all goes as planned, the Gators will get a tune-up game against UAB the week before the annual rivalry showdown with Florida State.
In a bizarre sequence of events, UAB folded its football program after the 2014 season only to reverse the decision less than a year later. So after two seasons without a team, the Blazers are returning to Conference USA in 2017.
10. at Missouri, Week 10, Nov. 4, Columbia, Mo.
Florida walloped Missouri 40-14 this past season, which is pretty telling given how much the Gators struggled to score points in most of their games.
The Tigers finished just 4-8, avoiding what could have been an even more disastrous season with wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas in the final three weeks.
Coach Barry Odom will return for his second season on something of a hot seat, as will junior quarterback Drew Lock, who had some nice moments while passing for 3,399 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (despite a forgettable outing against the Gators).
9. at South Carolina, Week 11, Nov. 11, Columbia, S.C.
Florida’s tour of the SEC’s Columbias continues a week later at South Carolina.
There is some intrigue to see how the Gamecocks progress in year 2 under former Gators coach Will Muschamp after a 6-7 finish in 2016.
Florida contributed to South Carolina’s 1-3 closing stretch to the season, defeating the Gamecocks 20-7 in The Swamp.
8. Vanderbilt, Week 5, Sept. 30, The Swamp
Florida’s SEC home opener comes against a Vanderbilt team that has given it trouble in recent years.
Back in 2013, the Commodores came into Gainesville and pulled off a 34-17 win. In 2015, the Gators narrowly survived with a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt. And on the road this past fall in Nashville, they managed a narrow 13-6 victory.
Coach Derek Mason’s team’s made some waves in the SEC in 2016 with wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee before ultimately finishing 6-7 overall.
Commodores running back Ralph Webb, a Gainesville native, will get one more chance to cause trouble for the Gators, as he seems to do every year. Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher will look to further climb the SEC all-time lists while entering the season with 3,342 rushing yards.
7. at Kentucky, Week 4, Sept. 23, Lexington, Ky.
Nevermind that Florida demolished the Wildcats, 45-7, early this past season. Kentucky went on to have a strong campaign, finishing 7-6, mounting a surprising challenge in the SEC East, pulling off a stunning win over Louisville and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
Coach Mark Stoops has a some real momentum building in Lexington.
The fact remains, though, Florida has won 30 straight meetings between the teams.
6. Texas A&M, Week 7, Oct. 14, The Swamp
The Gators and Aggies meet for the first time since 2012 and just the fourth time overall. The teams have not met in Gainesville since 1962 and come across this rare opportunity as part of the SEC’s rotating cross-divisional schedule.
The Aggies are coming off three straight 8-5 finishes, which has the fans in College Station, Texas, a little restless.
The team will be introducing a new starting quarterback in 2017 to replace senior Trevor Knight.
5. vs. Georgia, Week 9, Oct. 28, Jacksonville, Fla.
This may well be too low for this annually anticipated rivalry showdown, but the Gators are flush with big games in 2017 and Georgia still has a lot to prove under second-year coach Kirby Smart.
The Bulldogs closed Smart’s debut season with a win over TCU in the Liberty Bowl to finish 8-5.
After a stretch of four losses in five games during the middle of the season, including a 24-10 loss to Florida, the Bulldogs closed strong with wins in four of their final five (including an upset of Auburn).
They’ll be looking for quarterback Jacob Eason (2,430 yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs) to take a step forward as a sophomore while boasting a veteran rushing attack with the return of both Nick Chubb (1,130 yards, 8 TDs) and Sony Michel (840/4).
4. LSU, Week 6, Oct. 7, The Swamp
The Tigers are finally making it to Gainesville … presumably.
After the teams’ scheduled clash in The Swamp was postponed this past October due to the threat of the hurricane, LSU stood firm that it would not give up a home game to reschedule with the Gators. So Florida went to Baton Rouge, La., instead as part of a deal that will bring LSU to Gainesville in 2017 and 2018.
In the end, it worked out fine for Florida, which used an epic goal line stand to close out a 16-10 win in Death Valley for the highlight of its season.
Still, neither the Gators nor their fans will forget how that situation played out as this game rolls around next October.
LSU, which finished 8-4 in 2016, will be in its first full season under head coach Ed Orgeron and will feature running back Derrius Guice (1,387 rushing yards, 15 TDs) as the focal point of the offense with Leonard Fournette on to the NFL.
3. Florida State, Week 13, Nov. 25, The Swamp
The Gators cap a highly-intriguing home slate with rival Florida State and will be looking to snap a four-game losing streak to the Seminoles.
The past two meetings have been especially humbling with FSU claiming a 27-2 win on its last visit to Gainesville in 2015 and then taking a 31-13 victory over the Gators this past November in Tallahassee.
All-time leading rusher Dalvin Cook is off to the NFL, but USA Today has nonetheless already declared Florida State the team to beat in 2017 and its way-too-early preseason No. 1.
This game will be huge for the Gators in one way or another regardless, but they have a ton to prove before truly raising the stakes of this regular-season finale.
2. Tennessee, Week 3, Sept. 16, The Swamp
Florida’s 38-28 loss at Tennessee last September is the one that got away for the Gators. The biggest what-if game that might have changed the tenor of the season if not for that second-half collapse.
Sure, the Vols underachieved this fall while finishing 9-4 after lofty preseason expectations — albeit not enough to lose the “Champions of Life” title. And yes, quarterback Josh Dobbs has completed his collegiate career.
But whoever is at quarterback — for either side — this is a game the Gators and the fan base want bad. Florida had won 11 straight in the series with Tennessee before the forgettable finish at Neyland Stadium in 2016.
1. vs. Michigan, Week 1, Sept. 2, Arlington, Texas
A case could certainly be made for any of those aforementioned rivalry games claiming this top spot, but the Gators’ showdown with Michigan will be built up for more than a month as optimism builds for the 2017 season and fans start thinking about what a season-opening win over the vaunted Wolverines could mean for the rest of the year.
With non-conference games against Florida State and Michigan, the Gators will boast one of the toughest schedules in the country next fall and the outcome of this opener inside the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium will be a telling gauge of what to expect from this team.
Michigan narrowly missed the College Football Playoff in 2016 and finished 10th in the final AP poll with a 10-3 record.
The Wolverines lose a lot of talent, sure, but coach Jim Harbaugh has won 10 games in each of his first two seasons while elevating Michigan football back into the national elite.
The Gators saw that first hand when they lost 41-7 to the Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl to cap the 2015 season, and they’ll be hoping for a decidedly different outcome this time.