Changes in Gainesville
June 19, 2018
By Brian Edwards
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Florida has been in mired in mediocrity for most of the last eight seasons. Sure, UF has two SEC East titles and a pair of double-digit win totals during this span, but the offense has been stuck in the mud for nearly a decade.
This isn’t what the orange and blue faithful became accustomed to during Steve Spurrier’s 12-year tenure and a six-year run under Urban Meyer. First downs and touchdowns were in abundance back in those days.
Former Florida AD Jeremy Foley didn’t hire Spurrier. Although he did beat Notre Dame to hiring Meyer, he also brought Ron Zook, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain to Gainesville. Between this trio, there were merely three combined seasons of head-coaching experience before they were brought into the pressure cooker known as “this great big battleship we call Gator football.”
The battleship quote came from Spurrier at his farewell presser in January of 2002. Those three years of HC experience belonged to McElwain at a Mountain West Conference school (Colorado State). McElwain should be grateful he’s ever stepped into a room with Spurrier, who was reportedly denied by the former in both instances in which he volunteered to sit in and offer his assistance during offensive meetings last year.
(Quick aside to how we speculate that exchange went: Spurrier: “Hey Mac, since you didn’t score any TDs against Michigan and got two gift TDs thanks to Kentucky not lining up right, maybe you should let the ol’ HBC offer you a few tips during film watchin’ today?” Mac: “No thanks, Coach.” Spurrier: “You sure? There’s a reason the field is named after me. You only averaged 23.2 points per game in Year 1 and 23.9 PPG in Year 2. Heck, Mac, we usually scored that many in the first quarter. Even when I had Terry Dean, Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer pitchin’ it around, we’d at least have that many by halftime. And Dean wasn’t very good, D.J. was drinking more beers than Stephen Garcia and Jesse was more worried about that gel in his hair than the oncoming blitz. But I here ya, Mac. I hope you and ol’ Dougie (Nussmeier) draw up a couple nice ball plays on Saturday and so forth. Gator Nation sure is ready for some touchdowns.”)
Foley’s failed hires have decimated the program. This space has been explaining to loyal readers what a moron Foley has always been for decades. We were right the entire time and have never looked more accurate than we do today.
McElwain took UF back to Atlanta thanks to the defensive talent Muschamp left behind, but his offenses were abysmal. Running Will Grier out of town proved to be an incompetent mistake by ‘The Swamp Donkey,’ who was desperately looking for a way out before the end of October in his third season at the helm.
Dan Mullen has arrived to clean up the mess. The former offensive coordinator at Florida for a pair of national championship teams in 2006 and ’08, Mullen had an excellent nine-year tenure at Mississippi State, taking the Bulldogs to eight consecutive bowl games. He inherits a team that finished 4-7 last year.
Florida returns 10 starters on offense and nine on defense. However, the quarterback position is still a major issue. Feleipe Franks, a redshirt sophomore, is the only signal caller that’s ever taken a collegiate snap. Most of those were forgettable, too, as the Wakulla County High School (Fla.) product was in and out of the lineup last season.
Franks, who has a cannon for an arm, great size and above-average athleticism, struggled to get through his reads and constantly made disastrous decisions. He completed 54.6 percent of his passes for 1,438 yards with a 9/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Kyle Trask, a redshirt sophomore who missed last year injured, could end up being the starter in Week 1. There’s also true freshman QB Emory Jones, a four-star signee who was in for the spring and flashed plenty of potential.
UF is loaded at the RB position with Jordan Scarlett, Malik Davis, Lamical Perine and Adarius Lemons. Scarlett missed all of ’17 for his role in the credit-card scandal that resulted in nine players being suspended last August. As a sophomore in ’16, Scarlett rushed for 889 yards and six TDs while averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
Davis ran for 526 yards and a pair of TDs as a true freshman. He was averaging 6.7 YPC before going down with a torn ACL in a loss to Georgia. Perine, a junior, has started eight games and rushed for 983 yards in his first two seasons. He had a team-best eight rushing scores last year. Lemons (7.2 YPC) showed excellent burst on 19 carries as a true freshman.
UF feels good about three WRs, including Tyrie Cleveland, Kadarius Toney and Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson, who is expected to be ruled eligible by the NCAA any day now. Jefferson was a five-star recruit by the Rebels who started 15 games and had 999 receiving yards during two seasons in Oxford.
All five starters on the offensive line return, a group that’s ranked seventh in the SEC by Phil Steele in the Unit Rankings of his preseason magazine. Steele ranks the QBs 10th in the conference, the RBs third and the WRs eighth.
Mullen brings Todd Grantham with him as the new defensive coordinator. Grantham was one of the nation’s top assistants last season, vastly improving a Mississippi State defense that had given up 31.8 PPG in ’16. The Bulldogs’ stop unit allowed only 20.9 PPG in ’17.
Grantham received great news last week when UF landed West Virginia grad transfer Adam Shuler, who will have two years of eligibility and can play right away. Shuler was redshirted by the Mountaineers in ’15 and earned his degree in just three years. He recorded 37 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks and one QB hurry as a RS sophomore defensive lineman last season.
Other key defensive players include true junior LB David Reese, true senior LB/DE CeCe Jefferson, RS junior DE Jabari Zuniga and CBs C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson, a pair of true sophomores who were outstanding during their freshman campaigns. Reese, a second-team All-SEC selection last year when he had a team-best 102 tackles and 8.5 TFLs, is a first-team All-SEC pick and a fourth-team All-American selection in Steele’s preseason mag.
Jefferson sustained a shoulder injury that required surgery in the spring game. He was expected to miss four months but all indications are that he’ll be ready for the opener vs. Charleston Southern. Jefferson had 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, nine TFL’s and six QB hurries last year.
Henderson had four interceptions, a pair of pick-sixes and four passes broken up last season. He and safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are both preseason second-team All-SEC choices by Steele. Meanwhile, Wilson broke up 10 passes in ’17 and garnered fourth-team All-SEC preseason honors from Steele.
As a RS freshman in ’16, Zuniga produced 25 tackles, five sacks, 3.5 TFL’s, 11 QB hurries, one forced fumble and one blocked kick. He had 34 tackles, four sacks, four TFL’s and six QB hurries in 10 games last year.
Florida lost a pair of stars on special teams. Punter Johnny Townsend and place-kicker Eddy Pineiro were both fourth-team All-Americans in ’17. Townsend, a fifth-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, will be replaced by his younger brother, Tommy Townsend. Evan McPherson, the nation’s No. 1 ranked kicker, was inked by Mullen to take Pineiro’s place. Toney could be a playmaker in the return game.
Florida’s season win total at Sportsbook.ag is 7.5, but the offshore book has heavily shaded the price to the ‘over’ (-165). This means those bullish on the ‘under’ can get paid +135 on the comeback (risk $100 to win $135). Sportsbook has the Gators with 12/1 odds to win the SEC and 85/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff. With those 85/1 odds, that makes UF tied with Texas A&M for No. 22 in ‘Vegas Rankings’ (shortest odds to win CFP).
Unlike Sportsbook, a few shops have moved UF’s win total to eight. The schedule has seven home games, four true road assignments and the annual date with Georgia in Jacksonville.
The non-conference home games are Charleston Southern, Colorado State and Idaho. Mike Bobo’s CSU squad lost its three best players in QB Nick Stevens (3,799 passing yards, 29/10 TD-INT), RB Dalyn Dawkins (1,399 rushing yards, 8 TDs & 6.2 YPC) and WR Michael Gallup (100 catches, 1,413 yards & 7 TDs). As for Idaho, it lost four-year starting QB Matt Linehan and dropped out of the Sun Belt Conference and moved back to the FCS level.
The non-conference road assignment is at FSU in the regular-season finale. As for the two foes from the SEC West, they’re Mississippi State and LSU. Mullen takes his new team back to Scott Field in Starkville on Sept. 29. The Tigers come to Gainesville for a second straight season (thanks, AD Joe Alleva!).
Florida will probably be a road favorite in Week 4 at Tennessee and Week 6 at Vanderbilt. The only opponent that gets two weeks to prep for the Gators is UGA, but that’s a wash with both teams getting their open date prior to squaring off with each other.
In the South Point Hotel’s Games of the Year, UF was an underdog in all three of its contests that were lined. The Gators opened as 3.5-point home underdogs to LSU, but the number moved down to LSU -1. UGA opened -15 vs. UF, but that number was reduced to 13. Finally, FSU opened -7 against the Gators and that number hadn’t moved at last look.
Other potential underdog situations include at Mississippi State and vs. South Carolina.
Prediction: Like I always say during the summer: If I don’t have a good feel for what sort of QB play a team is going to get, then I certainly don’t suggest a wager on a win total. With the Gators this year, who knows? I’m on the record too many times to count that Franks isn’t going to be “the guy.” As I already noted, the skills and size are there, but the decision-making isn’t. Maybe Mullen can work his magic on Franks? I hope so but seriously doubt it. I think Trask is going to win the job. Since Tim Tebow left after the ’09 campaign, the only time UF has had quality QB play was in the first four games of 2011 (from John Brantley before suffering a severe ankle sprain in Week 5 vs. Alabama) and the first six games of ’15 (Grier before being suspended).
Therefore, we don’t have confidence in the Gators getting even average production from this position. But if UF can get adequate QB play or perhaps even slightly-above-average play, then it can win nine games, maybe even 10. Considering the Gators’ success going back multiple decades against Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, those are three likely wins along with three non-conference home victories. The home games vs. LSU, Missouri and South Carolina could go either way. I would think that stretch produces two wins, though. Tallahassee and Starkville haven’t been kind to UF since the late ‘80s, and Georgia will be heavily favored against the Gators. I’m thinking 8-4 for Mullen’s first team but, again, that’s not a confident forecast.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
-- In Steele’s ‘Going Up’ section, Florida is his No. 1 team. Considering the 4-7 ledger last year, however, this shouldn’t prompt too much excitement from Gator fans.
-- Steele’s SEC Unit Rankings have the Gators fourth on the defensive line (before the addition of Shuler), third at LB, fourth at DB, ninth on special teams and sixth in team chemistry.
-- Steele’s national Unit Rankings have UF 49th at QB, 21st at RB, 27th at WR, 23rd on the o-line, 12th on the d-line, 20th at LB and 22nd in the secondary.
-- Steele ranks Florida’s schedule as the SEC’s easiest and the nation’s 64th toughest.
-- UF is mired in a 1-7 ATS slump in its past eight road games.
-- The Gators went 3-8 ATS last season, but the three spread covers vs. UT, at UK and vs. Vandy could’ve easily gone the other way. Davis broke a long TD run on a fourth-and-short play late in the fourth quarter to produce the cover vs. the Commodores. After the play, McElwain was upset on the sidelines because Davis was coached to take a knee after getting that first down. The cover vs. the Vols depends on when UF bets were made because that spread had heavy movement all week, in addition to the fact that the Gators won by six on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play. As for UK, it wasn’t even lined up with a cornerback on a receiver split out wide on two TDs, including the game winner.
-- In addition to WR Van Jefferson waiting on an NCAA ruling for his eligibility, so is Ohio St. transfer WR Trevon Grimes. The former Buckeye was a five-star signee by Meyer. Grimes’s case for immediate eligibility isn’t as clear cut as Jefferson’s.
-- We noted the health of CeCe Jefferson after shoulder injury. Although OT Martez Ivey has much better upside in terms of the NFL, many feel like OG Brett Heggie was UF’s best o-lineman before tearing his ACL at Missouri last season. Heggie’s return to full health is another concern for Mullen and his staff. Davis, the sophomore RB, also missed the spring with his knee injury.
-- Toney was a big-time playmaker last year when he was healthy. He’s only listed at 5’11”, 194 pounds, and those numbers are probably generous. Toney needs to stay healthy and make plays for UF’s offense to thrive.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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