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Out on a Limb: Breaking Down the 2015 Florida Gators

Football season is ever so close, and by now you have or will be inundated by depth charts, predictions and a glut of information on any team you want to learn about.

Well, here’s some more of that in a little different package, as I go “out on the limb” about all 14 SEC teams with a look at each:

Today: Florida Gators

2014: 7-5, 4-4 SEC; beat East Carolina 28-20 in the Birmingham Bowl


1) Can the ‘second guy after the guy’ equation work again?

The two biggest coaching giants in Florida football history have both worked their magic in the last 25 years – Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. The guys who have filled in the other years? Yeah, not quite the same level of success. Now Jim McElwain gets a shot at rejuvenating things again in Gainesville much like those two fellow offensive-minded predecessors did.

There are some common threads with both men. Some time at distant outposts as both an assistant and head coach. Connections to power-conference coaches who have built very solid programs. And of course that offense thing. McElwain was the offensive architect for two of Alabama’s national crowns under Nick Saban before he headed to Colorado State and learned the ropes of running his own show.

Much like Meyer, McElwain also benefits from the fact that the defensive-minded coach before him – in this case Will Muschamp – recruited very, very well. That doesn’t automatically mean immediate success under McElwain for the Gators, but at the very least, the first-year coach and his team won’t have to scratch and claw from the bottom of the East Division


2) Was the defense that good or can it be better?

Florida’s defense was usually praised with Muschamp at the controls, and there is some deserved credit considering how well the Gators stood up against some of the better offenses they faced. And most of the raw statistics give the impression that, yes, Florida kept its head above water because of defense.

Only that might not be totally true.

Running the ball against the Gators, now that was brutally tough. In conference play, they allowed only 3.3 yards per carry and 118.1 yards a game. That prompted opponents to go to the air and that was where Florida was middle-of-the-road at best. SEC foes passed for 237.9 yards a game and 11 TDs.

The Gators had 9 interceptions (one every 31.8 pass attempts) and allowed third-down conversions – mostly on passes – at a 43% clip. Randy Shannon, the former Miami coach and well-respected defensive mind, is in charge of the defense now that D.J. Durkin is with Michigan.

In the past, Shannon’s specialty has been an aggressive, turnover-forcing crew.

That’s just what the Gators need.


3) Time for a QB to shine

The list of Florida quarterbacks since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow finished off his spectacular four-year career is symbolized by frustrating mediocrity. Two of the former starters are now the leading men at other D-I programs – Jeff Driskel at Louisiana Tech and Jacoby Brisette at N.C. State.

A year ago, Florida tumbled to dead last in the SEC in passing yards (1,097 in SEC play) for the first time since Spurrier was flinging a Duke visor. The battle for playing time at QB could remain lively the next few weeks between incumbent starter Treon Harris, who made the SEC All-Freshman team after throwing for 1,019 yards and 9 TDs, and highly touted Will Grier. In the spring game it was the pro-style Grier who shined more (8-of-11 for 136 yards) and most media reports hint that the 2013 Parade Magazine National Player of the Year has a leg up.

The mention above that Muschamp’s staff recruited well is emblematic with Grier, but now, as much as any other carryover player, he needs to elevate his game. Florida isn’t the only program in the country or even the SEC that has been mired in a quarterback malaise, but it makes the least sense for a program in a football talent-rich state to not have an all-conference player at that spot in every recruiting class.

Grier, while not a Florida native, could prove to be that kind of player in McElwain’s offense–which is now under the control of former Michigan and Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.


4) October road trip

The Gators have a perfect opportunity to roar out of the gates with four of the first five games at The Swamp – the fifth is a road game at Kentucky.

Two of the potentially toughest foes on Florida’s slate wrap up that opening stretch when Tennessee and Ole Miss come to Gainesville on consecutive weekends. Then things get really challenging with three games in four weeks away, though one is down the road in Jacksonville against Georgia.

Good starts are a plus for every team, but with a new coaching regime and likely a first-year starting QB, Florida is hungrier for that than most other teams.


5) Put a signature on it

One thing the Gators have sorely lacked the last two seasons and for most of the last five years is a major sink-your-teeth-into victory. For a program like Florida, there shouldn’t be a lot of games when it doesn’t at least have a fighting chance to win.

So this is more of a reference to the kind of heavyweight battles that pop up in the SEC all the time. This fall that could be any of a rugged four-game stretch against Tennessee, Ole Miss, at Missouri and at LSU or it could be in one of the blood-stirring rivalry games against Georgia or Florida State. Whenever and whoever matters little, though.

The Gators simply need that one steppingstone in McElwain’s maiden season to build around.

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