You might recall that last year I ignominiously entitled the 2014 campaign as "The Season of Fun". Of course, it turned out to be anything but (other than that blissful Saturday up in Jacksonville). This year, I'm looking forward to a new coach and a new beginning for our beloved Gators. I'm not calling for us to win any championships, but I do think we stand the chance of actually being entertained for 12 Saturdays this Fall. So without further ado, here's how I handicap the team and our season-
No longer a dirty word among the coaching staff, I think the most exciting thing about this upcoming season is that we might actually try to score points on offense. I'd be lying if I told you I'd spent the offseason reviewing Coach Mac's offense at Colorado State, but he's unquestionably an offensive minded coach and that will be a refreshing change in Gainesville where, once upon a time, we used to score points in bunches.
The bad news is that I'm not sure that Coach Mac inherits much on offense. I'm hopeful that Will Grier lives up to his recruiting hype, but the fact that he and Treon are still dead even might mean we have two average QB's on campus. The really bad news is that we may see 3 or 4 quarterbacks play this year due to injuries. This O line is young and inexperienced, having lost 4 players to the NFL Draft last year (oh, how that talent was wasted in the offenses of the last 4 years). To make matters worse, our 5 star recruit who was likely going to start the first game, Martez Ivey, went out last week with a leg injury that could linger into October or longer. We simply cannot afford any other injuries up front. On a positive note, this inexperienced group is coached by a good one in Coach Mike Summers, so I do predict improvement over the year.
In terms of running backs, Adam Lane's decision to transfer left us with one starter (Kelvin Taylor) with true freshmen and walk ons backing him up. I'm excited to see these freshmen play, but it would have been a luxury to have a bruiser like Lane backing up Taylor when we need a couple of yards on a big third down. At tight end, Jake McGee got another year after breaking his leg early last season and we're all hopeful that he and the backups can serve as good safety-valve options for whoever is playing quarterback.
We haven't had a true receiving corps at Florida since 2009. I like Demarcus Robinson a lot and Coach Mac loves Brandon Powell, but guys like Pittman and Fulwood have been on the field an awful lot without much to show for it. Keep an eye on true freshman Antonio Callaway as an up and comer to take some pressure off of Robinson. Word is he can fly.
I've heard lots of Florida fans lament that whatever happens this year, it can't be worse. The problem is, this is a line of scrimmage league and nothing good can occur on offense without a solid line. I think simply trying to score rather than trying to give the defense a break is a positive start, but if this O line can't block we're in trouble starting week 3.
This should be a solid defense again this year, though I think it will be a step down from last year. I like our D line, anchored by Jonathan Bullard. I think the linebackers will be good once Morrison comes back off injury, and Jarrad Davis and Jeremi Powell played well in spurts last year. I think the secondary will be the best in the country assuming Vernon Hargreaves doesn't get injured returning kicks. That said, teams knew last year that they didn't have to try too much on offense against Florida because our offense damned sure wasn't going to try to score. This year may be different and the defensive stats will suffer as a result.
I think Austin Hardin is a good kicker and hopefully Johnny Townsend can be a serviceable punter. I think you can tell a lot about a coaching staff based on how the special teams units play as it is a real indicator of attention to detail. I think we'll know pretty early if this is going to be a weapon or a weak spot for the Gators.
Trying to predict a record for this team in August is like trying to review a movie that hasn't come out yet. But any exercise in stupidity is one that I'm uniquely qualified to tackle, so here's my approach- Below is our list of opponents in order of our likely ability to beat them:
1. New Mexico State
2. Florida Atlantic
4. East Carolina
5. at Kentucky
7. at South Carolina
8. at Missouri
9. Ole Miss
11. at LSU
I think there's debate in terms of the 8-11 order, but after #4 I start to get a little nervous. I think 6-6 is an average season, 7-5 is a good season, and 8 wins or more is an absolute Year 1 home run for Coach Mac. For me to view this as a good year it has less to do with win total and more to do with a visible improvement throughout the year. So please, keep in mind that we're building something here and not expecting any miracles. Please also remind me I said this after we lose in overtime at Kentucky in week 3.
But let's not jump to week 3 already, let's enjoy a night game in The Swamp to open the new season. New Mexico State is not good (2-10 last year), and in spite of all we have yet to learn about our side, I like the Gators big to open the Coach Mac Era- Gators 52-Aggies 10.
Moving on to my Week 1 picks-
South Carolina v. North Carolina (Thursday-Charlotte)- This will be a fun start to the season. Somehow, the Old Ball Coach always puts on a good show in these openers. His offense is having to replace 7 starters but his defense should be solid. I'll take USC purely on the Spurrier factor. Cocks 24-Heels 20.
Alabama v. Wisconsin (Jerry's World)- Nobody has amassed talent like Nick Saban the last 5 years. They'll be down offensively but they remain loaded on D with plenty of depth everywhere. I've seen Wisconsin referred to as a dark horse pick in the Big 10, but I don't think they have the stones to beat Bama out of the gate. Tide 30-Badgers 18.
Auburn v. Louisville (Atlanta)- Coach Boom will get a test right off the bat for his new defense on The Plains. Bobby Petrino will try to throw it all over the yard. The problem for Louisville is going to be trying to stop what could be a really good Auburn offense if their new QB is as good as projected. War Eagle 42- The Ville 24.
Texas A&M v. Arizona State (Houston)- This is a really interesting matchup. Both teams will score points but I like that The Chief (former Tennessee and LSU D-Coordinator, John Chavis) is now coaching the Aggie D. TAMU 35-ASU 27.
There are several other good ones this weekend but I don't want to strain myself in the first week. It is good to be back.