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SEC Preview: Florida

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Florida Gators.

Head Coach: Dan Mullen – third season at Florida; 12th season overall (90-51 overall, 44-44 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales (third seasons)
Defensive Coordinator: Todd Grantham (third season)
2019 Recap: 11-2 (6-2 SEC); defeated Virginia in Orange Bowl
The Gators overcame a season-ending injury to quarterback Feleipe Franks in Week 3 to win 11 games and their second straight New Year’s Six bowl. Florida’s only losses came to division winner Georgia and national champion LSU in competitive games away from home. Dan Mullen’s offense was more pass-heavy than normal due to an inexperienced offensive line, but the Gators now have a proven thrower heading into 2020 after Kyle Trask fared well in 10 starts a year ago. The defense was excellent, finishing in the top five nationally in sacks, top 10 in scoring defense and top 25 in yards per play. A difference-maker on offense was all that kept Florida from competing for a playoff berth.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – at Ole Miss (Noon ET, ESPN)
Oct. 10 – at Texas A&M
Oct. 17 – LSU (3:30 p.m. ET)
Oct. 24 – MISSOURI
Oct. 31 - Idle
Nov. 7 – vs. Georgia (at Jacksonville) (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Nov. 14 – ARKANSAS
Nov. 21 – at Vanderbilt
Nov. 28 – KENTUCKY
Dec. 5 – at Tennessee

Under Center
Trask is a pretty great story. He was always in the mix for a starting role, beginning with his redshirt freshman in 2017, but classmate Franks always had a leg up, earning the starting role in all three seasons. Franks was lost for the season in Week 3 last year, and Trask came off the bench to lead a comeback win at Kentucky and never looked back, guiding the Gators to their first 11-win season since 2012. Franks is now at Arkansas, and Trask is poised to help Florida end rival Georgia’s three-year reign in the SEC East.

Trask isn’t a running quarterback by trade, but he has enough mobility to allow Mullen to run his offense the way he prefers. He completed almost exactly two-thirds of his pass attempts last season and threw only seven interceptions. There’s great trust between Mullen and Trask – more so than there seemed to be with Franks. Emory Jones has been more bark than bite in his first two years in Gainesville, but the backup will have a role in this offense somewhere with the speed he provides.

In The Trenches
Mullen and co-coordinator John Hevesy don’t have bad offensive lines. They have good ones, and they have average ones. Last year was the latter, as a young group hung tough despite a lack of experience. This year should be the best front the Gators have had under Mullen. Senior tackles Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance bookend the line, while Brett Heggie is now an established center. Mullen lured a former player of his at Mississippi State, guard Stewart Reese, to Gainesville as a graduate transfer. The ultimate test for this group, as usual, will come later in the season against Georgia.

Todd Grantham’s defense has some question marks. Gone are dangerous but oft-injured pass rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, as is tackle Adam Shuler. Kyree Campbell is the lone household name, but there are some interesting pieces as well. Georgia transfer Brenton Cox is now eligible after sitting out in 2019, and senior Jeremiah Moon is well-versed in the system. Where it comes from is an unknown, but you can always count on Grantham to create pressure on the quarterback.

On The Edge
Is it finally Kadarius Toney’s time? The versatile senior has generated buzz throughout his time in Gainesville, but the production isn’t there. Toney is yet to have more than 500 yards from scrimmage in a season. Injuries hampered him last year, but there’s a need for Toney this season as the Gators lose their No. 1 running back and No. 1 wide receiver from 2019. Tight end Kyle Pitts may be the nation’s best, and former 5-star running back Lorenzo Lingard is eligible after sitting out last year following a transfer from Miami.

The secondary has historically been a strength for Florida, but there wasn’t much of a wow factor at the back end for the Gators in 2019. The safety group has plenty of experience, led by seniors Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart, but it’s not overly talented. The cornerback position dealt with injuries last year, but junior Marco Wilson and sophomore Kaiir Elam could develop into the SEC’s best tandem. Wilson is now more than a year removed from an ACL tear, and Elam saw a lot of work as a freshman last season.

Ranking The Units
1.   Receivers
2.   Quarterbacks
3.   Defensive Backs
4.   Offensive Line
5.   Linebackers
6.   Running Backs
7.   Defensive Line

Schedule Analysis
Florida had a notable schedule advantage over Georgia with the traditional eight-game schedule, but it’s been partially negated by the two extra games. Florida’s trip to Texas A&M is probably the only losable game of the four opponents added to the Gators and Bulldogs slates, likely meaning there’s not much of a path for the Florida-Georgia loser to get to Atlanta. Having to play at Tennessee in December now is a bad break, but catching the Aggies after they play at Alabama is a positive break.

Season Prediction
My head still likes Georgia in the SEC East, but my gut tells me it’s Florida and Mullen’s time to get over the hump against the Bulldogs. There’s a trap game against Missouri in between LSU and Georgia that scares me, and the Tennessee trip could be as cold of a game as the Gators have ever played. Still, it’s going to come down to Jacksonville, and despite Mullen’s ugly history against Kirby Smart, I’ll go against logic and call for Florida to get the win and reclaim the SEC East for the first time since 2016. The Gators won’t win the conference, but they will still manage to sneak into the College Football Playoff, where they’ll face Alabama for the second time in less than two weeks. What a way to end 2020.

Record: 8-3
CFP Ranking: 4
Bowl: Sugar Bowl (CFP semifinal) vs. Alabama

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.