2021 Preview: Florida Gators

There are high expectations for the UF defense thanks to the return of Brenton Cox (1) and Ventrell Miller (51).

  • Odds to win CFP: 60/1
  • Odds to win SEC: +1400
  • Odds to win SEC East: 4/1
  • Season Win Total: 9 (‘under’ -125, ‘over’ +105 at DraftKings)

Edited on Thursday, 8/26/21. Originally published on July 28.

Florida finished last season 8-4 straight up and 5-6-1 against the spread, going to a New Year’s Six Bowl for the third straight season under Dan Mullen. After taking over a program that went 4-7 SU and 3-8 ATS in its third year of Jim McElwain’s ill-fated tenure, Mullen has gone 29-9 SU and 21-16-1 ATS.

UF won by 12 points or more in each of its eight victories. The Gators’ three losses prior to the Cotton Bowl came by 12 combined points. They lost by three at Texas A&M on a walk-off field goal after allowing an 11-point, second-half lead to get away.

Florida rested Kyle Pitts in its regular-season finale at home — a strategy I initially LOVED when I saw Pitts in street clothes pregame, but one I wanted Mullen to veto at halftime — and paid for it. Actually, the offense was dynamite that night except for four plays.

First, an 11-play, 74-yard drive to open the game was wasted when running back Malik Davis was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal play from LSU’s one-yard line. Next, LSU’s Eli Ricks intercepted Kyle Trask on a third-and-six play when UF was in field-goal range and took it back 68 yards for a Tigers’ touchdown.

Then with 10:26 left in the second quarter and LSU leading 14-7, UF was at LSU’s 15 for a first-and-10 situation. Trask’s quick pass to Kadarius Toney along the sidelines hit his hand before deflecting off an LSU defender’s helmet and bouncing back inbounds. Another LSU defender who had gone out of bounds had to quickly re-establish himself (by inches) before snagging the ball (inches) before falling out of bounds (again).

Later in the second quarter after LSU went ahead 21-17 with a nine-play, 75-yard TD drive, UF took over at its own 25 with 24 seconds left. Trask connected with Trevon Grimes for a 17-yard gain but on the next play, Trask was sacked and fumbled with LSU recovering at UF’s 19. Cade York nailed a 39-yard FG to put the Tigers up 24-17 at intermission.

With 1:51 remaining in a tie game, UF managed a third-down stop at LSU’s 29, only to give the Tigers new life with a 15-yard penalty when senior cornerback Marco Wilson incomprehensibly threw the LSU WR’s shoe 20 yards down the field.

The Tigers went on to get a 57-yard FG from York in a blinding fog for a three-point lead with 23 ticks left. But Trask found Grimes for a 15-yard gain and Toney for two catches that gained 27 more yards to somehow get the Gators into FG range for a 51-yarder from reliable junior kicker Evan McPherson, who would go pro after the season and get drafted in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Although you couldn’t see it sail wide left in the fog, McPherson’s attempt on the game’s final play missed and allowed Ed Orgeron’s team to capture a 37-34 win.

The next week, UF went to Atlanta for the first time since 2016 to face undefeated and top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators had third-down stops on three different first-half drives by the Crimson Tide, only to give them new life with penalties. Nick Saban’s team took advantage and scored touchdowns on all three of those drives.

Trailing 28-10 with 1:09 remaining in the second quarter, Trask scored on a one-yard TD run. However, UF snapped the ball with more than 20 seconds remaining on the play clock. This clock-management mistake would prove costly when Mac Jones hit Najee Harris for a 17-yard TD pass with six ticks left to give ‘Bama a 35-17 advantage at halftime.

UF wasn’t going away, though. Trask hit Trevon Grimes for a 50-yard TD pass on the opening possession of the second half. Then UF’s defense got its first stop when it held the Tide on a fourth-down play.

After both teams traded punts, Florida cut the deficit to 35-31 when Nay’Quan Wright’s three-yard TD run capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive. Alabama answered with a TD drive and added a field goal for a 45-31 advantage after forcing a turnover.

UF pulled to within 45-38 with 6:33 left on a Dameon Pierce one-yard TD plunge, only for ‘Bama to respond with another TD drive. The Gators answered again with Trask hitting Pitts for a 22-yard TD connection, as Pitts elevated over three defenders to make the remarkable reception.

Florida forced a three and out but only had 16 seconds left when it got the ball back. UF could’ve had more time left, but Mullen made an inexplicable decision after Pitts’s TD grab. With the extra-point team on field for the PAT, Mullen used one of his three timeouts remaining.

Why, you ask? Well, he decided it was more important to waste a timeout (and the 40 seconds it would save) to go for two. HUH (?!?!). It was straight out of the Les Miles’ bestseller on how to NOT manage your timeouts at crunch time.

Anyway, the eventual national champions — who won 12 of its 13 games by 15 points or more — went on to smash Notre Dame and Ohio St. in the College Football Playoff. UF’s season ended on that Dec. 19 night in Atlanta.

The Gators went to the Cotton Bowl, but Toney and Pitts were among 17 players that didn’t dress out against Oklahoma in Arlington. The Sooners beat UF down by a 55-20 count, although the Gators did have 521 yards of total offense and more first downs (28-25).

Florida returns 10 starters, five apiece on each side of the ball. UF lost 22 lettermen, including the trio of Pitts (No. 4 overall to Atlanta), Toney (No. 20 to the Giants) and Trask (No. 64 to Tampa Bay). Five other players were taken in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Fourth-year junior QB Emory Jones has patiently waited for his opportunity and it has arrived. This scribe thinks he’s ready to thrive in his first season as the starter. The gang at Pro Football Focus College agrees, ranking Jones as the No. 14 overall quarterback in college football this year. That leaves him behind only Matt Corral (No. 6) of Ole Miss and LSU’s Myles Brennan (No. 9) among SEC signal callers.

Phil Steele’s preseason magazine has Jones as a third-team All-SEC selection. He has played in 20 of UF’s 25 games during the past two seasons. For his career (including four games in 2018), Jones has completed 55-of-86 throws (64.0%) for 613 yards with a 7/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has 514 rushing yards, six TDs and zero fumbles on 92 carries. That’s good for a 5.6 yards-per carry average.

If Jones gets injured or falters, there’s a talented redshirt freshman behind him in Anthony Richardson, a 6-foot-4, 234-pounder with a strong arm and excellent speed.

Despite a lack of respect from some preseason publications (like its No. 46 label in Steele’s National Unit Rankings), I feel like UF has one of the nation’s premier sets of running backs. All three of last year’s RBs — Pierce, Wright and Davis — return along with a pair of five-star transfers in Demarkus Bowman (Clemson) and Lorenzo Lingard (Miami).

Pierce and Davis both averaged 4.7 YPC in 2020, with Davis catching 31 balls for 377 yards. According to PFF College, Davis’s five catches for 15-plus yards are tied for second among Power Five RBs in the last five seasons (behind only Saquon Barkley in 2016). Pierce had 503 rushing yards, 156 receiving yards and five TDs in 2020.

WRs Justin Shorter, Jacob Copeland and Xzavier Henderson appear poised for breakout campaigns. Shorter, a former five-star recruit to Penn St., had 25 receptions for 268 yards and three TDs in his first season with the Gators last year. Copeland has combined to make 44 catches for 708 yards and five TDs in the last two seasons.

As a true freshman in 2020, Henderson caught nine balls for 148 yards and one TD in six games. The UF coaching staff has been raving about his improvements in technique throughout the offseason. Another young wideout to keep an eye on is Trent Whittemore, who had 10 receptions for 128 yards and one TD in six games last year. His tall frame reminds many of former UF WRs like Chris Doering and Chris Collinsworth.

When Pitts was injured last season and missed three games (four total after opting out of the Cotton Bowl), TEs Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble made plays. Zipperer had three catches for 47 yards and two TDs in a 63-35 home win over Arkansas.

The following week at Vanderbilt, Gamble had three receptions for 66 yards and two TDs. After Pitts left the Georgia game injured, Gamble caught three balls for 51 yards and one TD. This position has also added incoming freshman Nick Elksnis, who left high school early to participate in spring practice and could get early playing time.

The offensive line hasn’t been a strength during Mullen’s tenure, but his offenses have still averaged 35.0, 33.2 and 39.8 points per game. This year’s group returns three starters who have 87 career starts between them.

Richard Gouraige has started 17 games at OG for the Gators, but he’s transitioning to OT to replace Stone Forsythe, who was a sixth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Jean Delance has started 25 consecutive games at OT since arriving at UF as a transfer from Texas, but he’s been inconsistent.

Stewart Reese started 34 games for Mississippi St. at OT and OG from 2017-19. He started 11 of 12 games for the Gators in 2020, but he’s moving over to center this season.

Florida had its worst defense since 1979 last year. One year after Todd Grantham’s bunch finished seventh in the country and gave up merely 15.5 PPG, the Gators inexplicably allowed 30.8 PPG. They couldn’t get stops on third down. They committed entirely too many stupid penalties (Wilson’s shoe toss vs. LSU and the three first-half penalties that kept Alabama’s first-half drives alive). They rarely forced turnovers and in a season that was so close to being an all-timer, they were responsible for three losses when the offense produced scoring outputs of 38, 34 and 46 points.

Three players were taken in the NFL Draft, with Wilson going in the fourth round, safety Shawn Davis taken in the fifth and DT Tedarrell Slaton going in the sixth. DBs Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart, who were UF’s third and fifth-leading tacklers in 2020 (but struggled mightily in coverage) are also gone.

LB Ventrell Miller returns after leading the Gators in tackles with 88. The fourth-year junior added 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three passes broken up and one QB hurry. Miller was a third-team All-SEC selection in 2020 and is a fourth-team All-American in Steele’s preseason mag. Steele has CB Kair Elam as a first-team All-SEC choice and a second-team All-American, while Miller, DE/LB Brenton Cox and DE Zachary Carter are second-team All-SEC picks.

Cox had four sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and 18 QB hurries in his first season with UF after the former five-star recruit transferred from Georgia. Carter has 63 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 13.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery for a TD in the last two years.

UF’s defensive line should be improved thanks to the addition of a pair of transfers, former Penn St. DT Antonio Shelton and ex-Auburn DT Daquan Newkirk. Shelton started 22 of 31 games he played at PSU from 2017-2020, racking up 51 tackles, 12.5 TFL’s, six sacks, four QB hurries and one forced fumble. Newkirk was limited to 11 starts in 19 games at Auburn over the last three seasons, recording 39 tackles, four TFL’s, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and four QB hurries.

The secondary has a lot of youth, but players like Jaydon Hill (seven PBU) and Rashad Torrence (25 tackles in three starts as a true freshman in 2020) earned valuable experience last year. Along with Elam, safety Trey Dean is the veteran of this group. Dean has started 17 times in 32 games played from 2018-2020, contributing 86 tackles, five TFL’s, three sacks, six PBU, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

UPDATE: Florida DB Jaydon Hill was lost for the season with a torn ACL in mid-August.

The hope is that true freshman CB Jason Marshall, the lone five-star signee in the 2021 class who left high school early to take part in spring practice, will be ready to have an impact early and often. UF also hopes to get production out of junior-college prospect Jadarrius Perkins, who initially signed with Missouri before changing his mind in May.

McPherson is a big loss for the special-teams units, as he was the first kicker to get drafted after leaving a year early. He’ll be replaced by sixth-year senior Jace Christmann, who spent the last five seasons at Mississippi St. (the first two playing for Mullen). Christmann has 38 career starts, making 32-of-40 FG attempts and 127-128 PATs. He doesn’t have McPherson’s range, however, with his longest career FG being a 51-yarder.

Punter Jacob Finn, who averaged 46.1 yards per punt and a stellar net of 44.2, has also departed. Redshirt freshman punter Jeremy Crenshaw will take Finn’s place. He had two punts for 98 yards in 2020 (49.0).

Toney’s explosiveness in the return game must also be replaced. Steele’s Unit Rankings have UF’s special teams at No. 10 in the SEC and No. 59 nationally.

Steele has Florida’s LBs ranked 20th nationally. The defensive line is 13th, the o-line is 37th, the WRs are 27th and the QBs are 44th. However, Athlon’s preseason mag ranks the Gators’ group of wide receivers seventh in the country.

The non-conference schedule consists of three home games against Florida Atlantic, Samford and Florida St. In Week 2, the Gators travel to Tampa to take on South Florida in what will be a crowd with more Gators in attendance than fans of the Bulls, who are off a 1-8 season in Jeff Scott’s debut campaign. (The win came over FCS foe, The Citadel.)

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has several UF contests in its Games of the Year. The Gators are 13-point home underdogs vs. Alabama (Sept. 18), 6.5-point road favorites at Kentucky, three-point road underdogs at LSU, 7.5-point underdogs vs. Georgia and 14.5-point home ‘chalk’ vs. FSU.

DraftKings has UF installed as a 15-point home favorite vs. Tennessee in Week 4. Most shops have Mullen’s team listed as a 24.5 or 25-point home favorite for the opener vs. Willie Taggart’s FAU squad.

Nine is the understandable number for the season win total. UF will be favored in nine games and unless LSU gets off to a terrible start, it’ll be a ‘dog three times. The toughest spots for the Gators as favorites will be at UK and at Missouri. The trip to Mizzou is a look-ahead situation for UF with arch-rival FSU on deck. Clearly though, the emphasis on that look-ahead spot before playing the Seminoles isn’t nearly as big as it was when Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher were roaming the sidelines.

The three swing games are vs. ‘Bama, at LSU and vs. UGA. The Week 3 showdown with the Tide is set for a 3:30 p.m. Eastern kick on CBS. If you’ve never been to The Swamp for a day game in mid-September, I can assure you that it’ll be at least 110 degrees on the field.

It’ll also be the first SEC game at The Swamp with full capacity since the regular-season finale vs. FSU in 2019. In other words, the fans will be electric. Although Alabama has won seven straight games over the Gators, only one of those games was in Gainesville way back in 2011. It’s certainly not an ideal environment (heat and crowd noise) for a redshirt freshman QB (Bryce Young) to make his first career road start.

I’m really high on LSU to have a nice bounce-back season, especially in its opener at UCLA. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as bullish on UGA as most pundits seem to be. The Bulldogs lost 30 lettermen, six defensive starters, five of its top-eight tacklers and star WR George Pickens tore his ACL during spring practice.

I have no idea why so many are drinking the JT Daniels Kool-Aid this offseason. He had an ordinary freshman season at USC in 2018, throwing 15 TDs compared to 11 interceptions in 12 starts for the Trojans, who went 5-7 SU and 4-8 ATS. In the 2019 opener, Daniels tore his ACL.

With Kedon Slovis emerging as USC’s QB of the present and future with a banner freshman campaign in 2019, Daniels transferred to UGA in the spring of 2020. His recovery from ACL knee surgery took much longer than most these days.

In fact, he didn’t take his first snap at UGA until a Nov. 21 home game vs. Mississippi St. Daniels completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards with a 10/2 TD-INT ratio in four games.

Those are undoubtedly impressive numbers, but let’s consider the competition. MSU (4-7 SU, 5-6 ATS) was tied at 24-24 with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. UGA got a go-ahead score and won by seven points as a 25-point home favorite.

South Carolina, which finished 2-8 and had already fired Will Muschamp and seen its two best players — DBs Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu — opt out, lost 45-16 to UGA on Nov. 28 as a 22-point home underdog. Then on Dec. 12, the Bulldogs won 49-14 at Missouri with Daniels throwing two of his three TDs to Pickens, who (again/reminder) is probably out for the season and certainly won’t be ready to return by Oct. 30.

I’m not hating on Daniels. I’m simply implying that a four-game sample (UGA rallied to beat Cincinnati 24-21 at the Peach Bowl) against ho-hum competition doesn’t make this dude Dan Marino. I think Daniels is good, but he’s not one of the top-15 QBs in the country.

PFF College agrees with that notion, ranking him 23rd overall in its QB Rankings.

PREDICITON: Florida’s offense will be much different and won’t have the explosiveness it had last season. With that said, Mullen’s offenses will keep scoring TDs. This year’s version will just have more emphasis on the running game. There was no excuse for UF’s defensive ineptitude last year, but there’s no reason that this unit won’t be vastly improved in 2021.

I think Florida wins at least nine games and if the defense is a Top-20 unit nationally (it is from a talent perspective), the Gators will win at least one of its three games against the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Bulldogs.

Therefore, I lean ‘over’ on the season win total of nine and will play it for one unit. I’ll also have one-half unit on UF to win the SEC East at 4/1 odds.

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