Florida football fans are starving for success. The fan base, dubbed as Gator Nation by Steve Spurrier in the 1990s, was spoiled rotten by the Head Ball Coach during his iconic 12-year tenure from 1990-2001.
From 1990-2008, UF won eight SEC titles and three national championships. Since then, the Gators have won the SEC East only three times, losing in Atlanta by 19, 15 and 38 points.
But optimism is extremely high for 2019 after Dan Mullen’s first season as head coach produced a 10-3 straight-up record, a 9-4 against-the-spread mark and a 41-15 blowout win over Michigan at the Peach Bowl.
In addition, Florida won 47-21 at Neyland Stadium (AKA: Swamp North) and went to Mullen’s old school and beat Mississippi State 13-6 one week later. Most importantly, the Gators ended a five-game losing streak to bitter rival Florida State with a 41-14 shellacking of the Seminoles, who fell to 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the first time in 36 years.
The 2018 Florida Gators football team showed some toughness, too. Down 21-3 at Vanderbilt, the Gators rallied to win 37-27, and even covered with a late field goal. Trailing South Carolina 31-14 in the third quarter, Florida scored 21 unanswered points to secure a 35-31 triumph.
The win over the Gamecocks was the turning point for quarterback Feleipe Franks, who finished 2018 with four strong performances. The Wakulla Co. High School (Fla.) product threw eight touchdown passes without an interception, and he also ran for four scores during the four-game winning streak.
Mullen’s coaching helped Franks, who completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 2,457 yards with a 24/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Franks also proved to be a tough and willing runner between the tackles, and he did so without getting injured. Franks ran for 501 non-sack yards and seven TDs.
Franks still needs to improve his decision-making. He was awful in losses vs. Kentucky, vs. Georgia and vs. Missouri. Franks’ overall stats were also padded by eight TD passes without an interception in wins over a pair of FCS foes in Idaho and Charleston Southern. Nevertheless, Franks played turnover-free football in the last four games, and he was the catalyst in the comeback vs. South Carolina.
Offense loaded, but OL a concern
Florida’s offense averaged 35.0 points per game last season, the best output since 2009 when Tim Tebow helped produce 35.9 ppg. Only five starters return, but that’s a misleading number since RB Jordan Scarlett is the only notable skill player who departed.
Lamical Perine is back for his senior campaign after rushing for a team-best 826 yards and seven TDs while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Sophomore RB Dameon Pierce rushed for 434 yards and two scores as a freshman, averaging 6.1 ypc. Malik Davis has sustained season-ending injuries in back-to-back campaigns, but he’s produced 587 rushing yards, two TDs and a 6.4 ypc average in 10 career games.
Phil Steele ranks Florida’s WRs No. 7 in his national unit rankings. In his first year with UF since transferring from Ole Miss, WR Van Jefferson led the team in catches (35), receiving yards (503) and receiving TDs (six). Josh Hammond (28 receptions for 369 yards and four TDs), Trevon Grimes (26-364-2), Freddie Swain (14-265-5), Kadarius Toney (25-260-1) and Tyrie Cleveland (18-212-3) provide loads of depth and experience at this position.
Toney was named preseason second-team All-SEC by the media as an all-purpose player. He played QB in high school and has attempted three passes for the Gators. He had a 50-yard completion at Kentucky on a crucial scoring drive in 2017, and he had a 20-yard TD pass last year.
Toney rushed for 120 yards and one TD while averaging 8.6 ypc in 2017. He was even more effective out of the backfield last year, averaging 11.4 ypc on 21 attempts. Mullen will line him up at QB in a Wildcat formation sometimes, and Toney is dangerous on sprint sweeps as well.
The biggest concern on the entire roster is the offensive line, which lost OTs Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, who was a second-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Taylor was a two-time All-SEC selection and Ivey garnered All-SEC honors three times. OGs Fredrick Johnson and Tyler Jordan are gone after combining for 26 career starts.
The only starter coming back is senior center Nick Buchanan, who started 12 of 13 games in 2018. OG Brett Heggie started eight games in 2017, and many pundits felt he was playing better than any other UF offensive lineman until tearing his ACL at Missouri. Heggie wasn’t 100 percent last season, playing in nine games, but he never got his starting job back. Mullen is hoping for a nice bounce-back from him.
Junior OT Stone Forsythe played in all 13 games last year and has three career starts to his credit. Junior OT Jean Delance is a former four-star recruit who began his career at Texas, but he only saw action in four games in 2018. The competition for the other guard spot opposite of Heggie is between redshirt freshman Chris Bleich and Noah Banks, who had one start in 12 games played last year.
Steele ranks Florida’s offensive line as the ninth-best out of 14 SEC teams.
Let’s address who’s available behind Franks at QB: redshirt freshman Emory Jones and junior Kyle Trask.
Other than mop-up duty in lopsided victories over Charleston Southern, Colorado State and Tennessee, Trask only saw significant playing time in a 38-17 home loss vs. Missouri. He completed 10-of-18 passes for 126 yards and one TD without an interception.
Jones retained his redshirt while playing in four games as a true freshman. He rushed for 41 yards on 2.3 yards per carry, but those numbers aren’t a good indicator of his scrambling ability. Jones got his most playing time against Idaho, connecting on 12-of-16 throws for 125 yards and two TDs without an interception.
Todd Grantham’s defense should be salty
Florida allowed 20.0 points per game in 2018 and brings back eight defensive starters.
Third-year sophomore CB Marco Wilson returns after tearing his ACL. As a true freshman in 2017, Wilson started all 11 games and contributed 34 tackles and 10 passes broken up.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham turned down a job offer for the same gig with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals to stay in Gainesville. He lost leading tackler Vosean Joseph, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Jachai Polite early to the NFL Draft, but still has an arsenal of weapons to help get to opposing QBs.
Senior DE Jabari Zuniga garnered third-team All-SEC honors last season, when he produced 45 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and four QB hurries. Jonathan Greenard, a transfer that Grantham once recruited to Louisville, will play on the opposite side of Zuniga at the BUCK position. Greenard started 10 career games for the Cardinals, recording 70 tackles and 9.5 sacks.
Senior Adam Shuler and junior Kyree Campbell will start at the defensive tackle positions. Shuler had 39 tackles, five QB hurries, 1.5 sacks and two TFL’s in 2018, while Campbell contributed 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two TFL’s, two PBU and one QB hurry.
Senior LB David Reese has 25 career starts to his credit. He has 228 career tackles, 13 TFL’s, 1.5 sacks, one QB hurry, one interception and one fumble recovery. Reese was a second-team All-SEC pick in 2017.
Steele’s preseason magazine ranks Florida’s secondary No. 5 in the country. At the other CB spot opposite Wilson is junior C.J. Henderson, who is expected to turn pro early and be a first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Most preseason publications have Henderson as a first or second-team All-American. He had 38 tackles, three sacks, two TFLs, seven PBU, two interceptions and a pair of QB hurries in ’18.
The STAR position and the two safety slots will be occupied by Trey Dean, Brad Stewart, Jeawon Taylor, Donovan Stiner and Shawn Davis. Stewart had the pick-six on LSU’s Joe Burrow in the fourth quarter of a 27-19 home win, while Stiner made the game-clinching sack of Nick Fitzgerald on a fourth-down play at Mississippi State. Dean led the Gators with six PBU last season.
Special teams are a strength
As a true freshman placekicker, Evan McPherson was money. He made all 50 of his extra-point attempts, buried 17-of-19 field goals with a long of 48 and had 45 touchbacks on 81 kickoffs. McPherson is a third-team preseason All-SEC selection in Steele’s magazine.
Senior punter Tommy Townsend didn’t play while serving as his older brother Johnny’s back-up in 2016 and ’17. Tommy proved to be solid in his first year of playing time, averaging 45.4 yards per punt with a long of 71. He buried 24 punts inside the 20.
Swain was third in the SEC in punt-return yardage (224) last year and fourth in average yards per return (10.2). He had an 85-yard punt return for a TD. Toney returned six kicks for 133 yards, including a long return of 51. Those numbers don’t jump off the page by any means, but Toney is a home-run threat on any given touch.
The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has Florida’s season win total at nine, but with -150 juice to the ‘under.’ Bettors who like UF to go ‘over’ nine wins can earn a +130 payout.
Florida is +800 to win the SEC Championship Game at the Westgate SuperBook and +1365 at 5Dimes (+345 to win the SEC East). 5Dimes lists Florida at 45/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff.
Bettors should shop around to find the best number for a certain wager. For Florida’s win total, you can find 8.5 at Sportsbook, although there’s a -135 price for the over and +105 for the under.
Sportsbook lists the Gators at +800 to make the playoff and +6000 to win the national championship.
In its Games of the Year section, the offshore shop has Florida as a nine-point road favorite at Kentucky in Week 3. Other Games of the Year at Sportsbook show the Gators as 16.5-point home favorites vs. Tennessee, three-point home favorites vs. Auburn (Oct. 5), seven-point underdogs at LSU (Oct. 12), 7.5-point underdogs vs. Georgia in Jacksonville (Nov. 2) and 10.5-point home favorites vs. Florida State.
5Dimes has UF posted as a five-point favorite vs. Auburn, a 4.5-point favorite at Missouri (Nov. 16) and a 13-point favorite vs. Florida State.
Most books have UF installed as a seven-point favorite for its Aug. 24 opener vs. Miami in Orlando, but the number is only 6.5 at the Westgate. Several offshore shops have the total at 50.5 points.
Speaking of totals, the over cashed at an 8-4-1 overall clip for the Gators in 2018. The over was a winner in each of UF’s last four games and went 6-1-1 in its last eight contests.
Brad Powers (@BradPowers7) of PreGame.com is one of the sharpest college football minds. Powers was a part of our roundtable conversation earlier this summer.
Powers had this to say about the 2019 Gators: “I think Florida is being priced appropriately in the market place right now. I’d put the Gators’ season win total at nine even though I think they’ll be favored in 10 of their 12 games. I agree with the big line move on the Kentucky game (opened -3 at CG Technology, now -7).
“The biggest weakness on the team is the offensive line and they also lose three of their best defensive players. Franks should continue to show improvement and this is the best Florida WR corps in a decade. I think the Gators are clearly the second-best team in the SEC East and I have them No. 8 overall in my preseason power ratings.”
Although many across the country might see Orlando and think “neutral venue” for Gators-Hurricanes, don’t fall into that trap. Orlando is 90 minutes south of Gainesville and is filled with an enormous alumni base. The same goes for Tampa, just a 77-mile drive from the west across Interstate 4.
Florida will enjoy a healthy crowd advantage. I’ll be surprised if less than 75 percent of the crowd wears orange and blue.
Open dates won’t have a positive or negative impact on UF. When the Gators have their open dates ahead of games against UGA and FSU, the Bulldogs and Seminoles also get two weeks to prepare for those crucial contests.
Florida has one set of back-to-back road games: at LSU on Oct. 12 and at South Carolina on Oct. 19. UF will be playing its seventh game in seven weeks when it faces the Gamecocks, who have an open date two weeks prior to facing the Gators and play at Georgia the previous Saturday.
Auburn and Florida haven’t squared off since 2011 when the Tigers won a 17-6 decision at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn has won three straight games over the Gators, including wins over Urban Meyer in 2006 and ’07. However, UF is 13-3 vs. Auburn in Gainesville since 1973.
Since Gus Malzahn went out of his way to mention it at SEC Media Days, we’ll point out how Auburn is UF’s homecoming game.
When I first glanced at UF’s schedule, I marked eight wins and four swing games. Those swing games included at LSU, at South Carolina, vs. UGA and at Missouri.
Upon further examination, the home game vs. Auburn could prove to be more daunting than road assignments at South Carolina and at Missouri.
As it stands now (and to be clear, these things can certainly change with injuries, suspensions, etc.), UF is probably going to be a double-digit favorite five times and a single-digit chalk five times.
Unless QBs Jake Fromm and/or Joe Burrow get hurt, the Gators will be underdogs at LSU and vs. UGA. UF and LSU have played five consecutive one-possession games.
If gamblers feel the offensive line will be adequate and trust Franks, then there’s a lot to be bullish about with Mullen’s squad in Year 2.
The one favorite role that’ll be the most difficult is against Auburn. I say that because I feel like Auburn has the nation’s best defensive line, one that will put pressure on Franks and make running the ball a challenge.
With that said, Auburn’s freshmen QBs (Joey Gatewood and/or Bo Nix) will have to deal with the noise of The Swamp, the combination of Zuniga and Greenard stalking them and one of the country’s top secondaries blanketing their receivers.
I think Florida finds a way to beat Auburn and survives close calls at South Carolina and at Missouri. The Gators can win in Jacksonville and in Baton Rouge, but I think 10-2 is the safe call in 2019.
That could result in a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where UF hasn’t been since 2012. If Mullen can get a second straight bowl win and finish 11-2, Gator Nation will survive not going to Atlanta and losing to UGA for a third straight season. After all, not even Spurrier or Tim Tebow managed to beat Miami, FSU, Auburn and Tennessee in the same season
B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets
- UF was +1,084 in net yardage and +12 in turnover margin in 2018.
- The Gators went 4-0 SU and ATS in four road assignments last season, winning by double-digit margins three times.
- UF probably won’t be a home underdog this season, but we’ll nonetheless note that Mullen is 8-4 ATS in 12 such spots since 2013. In the same stretch, he is 10-5 ATS as a road underdog.
- 5Dimes has Franks with 125/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy.
- UF got its fourth verbal commitment for the 2021 class on July 27 from Kamar Wilcoxson. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound athlete from Decatur, Ga., is a four-star prospect ranked as the No. 18 athlete in the 2021 class. Wilcoxson had previously committed to UF, only to re-open his recruitment on April 27.
- Florida recently inked home-and-home deals with Colorado and Texas. The Gators will host the Buffaloes in 2028 and travel to Boulder in 2029. They host the Longhorns in 2030 and will be in Austin on Sept. 6 of 2031.