2022 CFB Preview: Florida Gators

Florida WR Justin Shorter had 41 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns last season.

The Billy Napier Era at the University of Florida is just weeks away from starting with a home game vs. Utah on Sept. 3. Napier will take a personal 12-game winning streak — the longest active streak among all FBS coaches — into that contest against the Utes, who are No. 6 in my Preseason Power Rankings.

Florida finished last season with a 6-7 straight-up record and an abysmal 3-9-1 against-the-spread mark. What went wrong just one year after pushing a 2020 Alabama team — one that won the national title, finished 13-0 with 12 wins by margins of 15 points or more and had one of the best offenses in college football history — in a 52-46 loss at the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta?

In short? Everything.

In a 31-29 loss to the Crimson Tide at home, the Gators became the only ‘Bama opponent to run for more than 200 yards and hold the Tide to less than 100 yards rushing during Nick Saban’s 15-year tenure. Nevertheless, a missed extra point (that led to a failed two-point conversion) and three egregious officiating mistakes in the first quarter led to the gut-wrenching defeat.

Two weeks later after a 38-14 bounce-back win at home over Tennessee, UF lost the lead and fell behind in the third quarter at Kentucky when a field-goal attempt was blocked and returned 76 yards for a touchdown. The Gators dominated the stats for total yards (382-224), first downs (21-13) and time of possession (36:18-23:42), but 15 penalties for 115 yards, including eight flags for false-start calls, allowed UK to capture a 20-13 win.

Then in a 49-42 loss at LSU, Florida was -4 in turnover margin and the Tigers ran for 321 yards on 45 rushing attempts. LSU would finish the season ranked 13th out of 14 SEC teams in rushing yards, but Dan Mullen still didn’t fire defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after this atrocious performance.

In fact, Mullen didn’t pull the trigger on a pink slip for Grantham until after 40-17 loss at South Carolina as a 20.5-point road ‘chalk.’ By then, it was Mullen’s future that was in serious doubt. Even if the Gators had won out in their three remaining games, it still might not have been enough for him to see a fifth season.

The defense was even worse the following week in a 70-52 win over Samford. When Florida lost 24-23 to Missouri in overtime one week later, Mullen was gone before lunch the next day. The Gators beat FSU 24-21 in the regular-season finale, but they lost 29-17 to Central Florida at the Gasparilla Bowl.

UCF and South Carolina were the only UF opponents who had more total yards than the Gators, but penalties galore and a -9 turnover margin led to four one-possession losses.

Florida was +1,235 in net yardage for the season. Five of UF’s six wins were by margins of 18 points or more, and the Seminoles had to score two late TDs to erase a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit.

Mullen’s dismissal prompted many of UF’s top commitments in the 2022 class to de-commit and eventually sign with other schools. Considering the circumstances, Napier did solid work in salvaging a recruiting class that finished ranked 17th nationally. Seven freshmen have arrived in Gainesville as four-star players.

In terms of specific imports from out of the transfer portal, UF is ranked No. 19 by 247Sports. The Gators have added seven transfers, including four with four-star ratings at 247Sports. Four of those players are from Power Five programs, while the other three are from Napier’s 2021 Louisiana team that finished 13-1 SU and 7-7 ATS.

The Ragin’ Cajuns suffered their lone defeat at Texas in the season opener. Then they ripped off 13 consecutive victories and won the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game. After being hired by UF, Napier insisted that he be allowed to coach UL in the SBCCG, but he wasn’t around for his team’s 36-21 win over Marshall at the New Orleans Bowl.

As is often the case with a regime change in college football, a lot of key Florida players left the program in the transfer portal. One of them was UF’s second-leading tackler in 2021, linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who will return to The Swamp for the opener as Utah’s starting MLB. Diabate started 16 games at UF, producing 174 career tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception.

The Gators also lost their leading receiver and third-best pass catcher. Jacob Copeland, who had 41 receptions for 642 yards and four TDs in 2021, will be a playmaker for Maryland this season. Tight end Kemore Gamble bolted down Interstate 75 to Central Florida after hauling in 31 catches for 414 yards and four TDs last year.

UF’s fourth-leading tackler, LB Ty’Ron Hopper, transferred to Missouri. Hopper enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2021, recording 65 tackles, 10.5 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Another defensive defection was DE Khris Bogle, who was listed as a starter coming out of spring practice at Michigan State. Bogle played in 30 games in three seasons at UF, contributing 67 tackles, 17 TFL’s, seven sacks and one forced fumble.

Finally, QB Emory Jones transferred to Arizona State. He started 12 of 13 games for the Gators in 2021. Jones led UF in rushing yards (758), running for four TDs and averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Jones completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,734 yards with a 19/13 TD-INT ratio.

Without those six players, the Gators are left with seven starters returning on defense and six on offense.

Quarterback play was a major issue for Florida in 2021, with the combination of Jones and Anthony Richardson combining for a 25/18 TD-INT ratio. Like I often say in July and August every year, teams that go from getting mediocre QB play to getting excellent production from the position can turn things around quickly.

That’s especially the case when the previous squad finished the season -9 in turnover margin and plus 1,235 in net yards. When you factor in a coaching change that has already shifted team chemistry for the better and eliminate undisciplined play (remember the eight false starts and blocked field goal at UK, the missed PAT and running back that lined up wrong on the two-point attempt vs. ‘Bama and the four turnovers at LSU?), there are reasons for optimism in Gainesville.

Remember, Napier has thrived at this head-coaching thing the last four seasons, albeit at the Group of Five level in the SBC. But the 43-year-old stickler for details won the SBC’s West Division four years in a row. He owns a 34-4 record in the last 38 games he’s coached since the Ragin’ Cajuns lost 38-28 to Mississippi State as 19-point underdogs in the 2019 season opener in New Orleans.

The four defeats? Louisiana lost twice to Appalachian St. in 2019 when the Mountaineers finished 13-1 with their lone loss coming by three points. In 2020, UL lost once when it dropped a 30-27 decision to a Coastal Carolina squad that went 11-1. (The Ragin’ Cajuns were poised to get a rematch in the SBCCG, but massive amounts of positive test results for COVID forced the game to be cancelled.) The fourth loss was in Austin against the Longhorns last year.

Let’s talk more about Richardson, who started only one of the seven games he appeared in as a second-year freshman. He completed 38-of-64 passes (59.4%) for 529 yards with a 6/5 TD-INT ratio. Richardson ran for 401 yards and three TDs, averaging 7.9 YPC.

The 6-foot-4 Gainesville product has great size, incredible arm strength and elite speed and athleticism. Richardson just needs more playing time, something Mullen resisted granting for much of last year.

Phil Steele’s National Unit Rankings have Florida at No. 21 at the QB position, No. 49 at RB, No. 38 at WR, No. 21 on the offensive line, No. 36 on the defensive line, No. 25 at LB, No. 11 in the secondary and No. 40 on special teams.

Mullen utilized a three-back rotation in the last two seasons, but Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are gone. The holdover is Nay’Quan Wright, who ran for 326 yards and one TD while averaging 4.3 YPC in 2021. He also had 14 receptions for 178 yards and one TD. In 26 career games across three seasons, Wright has 563 rushing yards, two TDs and a 4.0 YPC average. He also has 34 catches for 402 yards and one TD.

One of Napier’s transfers from Louisiana is last year’s SBC Freshman of the Year, Montrell Johnson. He ran for 838 yards and 12 TDs with a 5.2 YPC average in 2021. Lorenzo Lingard, a former five-star recruit to Miami out of high school, is also hoping to get into the mix.

As a true freshman for the Hurricanes in 2018, Lingard ran for 136 yards and two TDs, averaging 8.0 YPC. However, after sitting out 2019 as a transfer to UF, he has struggled to get on the field. In four games in 2020, Lingard ran for 32 yards on just five attempts. Then in five games last year, he had 43 rushing yards on 11 carries.

The best returning WR is Justin Shorter, another five-star recruit out of high school who started his career at Penn St. Shorter had 25 receptions for 268 yards and three TDs in his first season at UF in 2020. Then last year, he had 41 catches for 550 yards and three TDs.

The WR group got a boost with the addition of Arizona St. transfer Ricky Pearsall earlier this summer. He started 12 times in 24 career games across three seasons for the Sun Devils, catching 61 balls for 794 yards and five TDs. Pearsall had 48 catches for 580 yards and four TDs last year. He also has 78 career rushing yards and two TDs on 10 attempts for a 7.8 YPC average.

Pearsall sustained “two bone bruises on the metatarsal” at practice on Aug. 9. He was in walking boot on Aug. 10 and 11, but there’s no ligament damage to his foot. Pearsall has been described as ‘day-to-day.’

There are two other veteran wideouts that the Gators are going to need consistent production out of in 2022, Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore. Henderson, the younger brother of former Gator and first-round pick CJ Henderson, has 35 career receptions for 425 yards and three TDs in two years at UF. Whittemore has 29 catches for 338 yards and two TDs in two seasons.

Three starters return from last year’s offensive line and this group is bolstered by Louisiana transfer O’Cyrus Torrence, who started 36 times in three years with the Ragin’ Cajuns. In Steele’s magazine, Torrence is a preseason second-team All-SEC selection and a fourth-team All-American. Third-year center Kingsley Eguakun, who was a fourth-team All-SEC pick in 2021, is also a preseason second-team All-SEC selection in Steele’s magazine.

Florida’s 2020 defense was one of the worst in program history and undoubtedly the worst of the modern era. That unit gave up 30.8 points per game. Things didn’t get much better last year, as the Gators surrendered 26.8 PPG.

This group will be led by safety Trey Dean, DT Gervon Dexter, sixth-year LB Ventrell Miller, safety Rashad Torrence and CB Jason Marshall. Dean led UF in tackles last year (92) and also contributed nine passes broken up, four TFL’s, 1.5 sacks and one interception.

Miller, a third-team All-SEC selection in 2020, suffered a season-ending injury in last year’s Week 2 win at South Florida. He has started 24 of 32 career games, producing 164 tackles, 15 TFL’s, 7.5 sacks, five PBU, one pick-six and one fumble recovery.

Dean, Cox and Dexter are preseason second-team All-SEC picks in Steele’s magazine, while Miller is a third-team All-SEC selection. Steele lists Dexter as the third-best DT available for the 2023 NFL Draft, while Dean is the fifth-best free safety.

Dexter appears poised to have a monster season. He started nine of 13 games last year, recording 51 tackles, seven QB hurries, 4.5 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and one PBU. Cox was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2021 when he produced 41 tackles, 12 QB hurries, 14.5 TFL’s, eight sacks, four PBU and one forced fumble.

Marshall, one of the few five-star recruits Mullen brought in (out of high school rather than the transfer portal, that is), started seven games as a true freshman last season. He contributed 23 tackles, three PBU, two TFL’s and one interception.

Marshall and Dexter were both named preseason third-team All-Americans by Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, Western Michigan’s Dorian Jackson’s 34.5 percent completion percentage against him was the nation’s only DB to rank ahead of Marshall’s 36.8 percent.

(Rashad) Torrence was UF’s third-leading tackler in 2021 with 87 stops. He also had 3.5 TFL’s, three interceptions and two PBU.

There’s hope that several true freshmen can provide depth right away, including the prize of the 2022 class in DB Kamari Wilson. Napier pulled a big surprise on National Signing Day in securing Wilson’s commitment out of IMG Academy, a powerhouse prep program that wasn’t a big fan of Mullen.

The second-ranked recruit in UF’s 2022 class is LB Shemar James, who actually took first-team reps at practice on Aug. 11 when senior starter Amari Burney was in the pit (area to the side where injured players spend practice with assistant coach Joe Danos).

As of Aug. 12, FanDuel had UF’s season win total listed at seven (‘over’ -115, ‘under’ -105). The betting shop had the Gators at 6.5 (with a -170 price on the ‘over’) earlier this summer.

FanDuel has Florida at 16/1 odds to win the SEC East and 60/1 to win the SECCG. The sportsbook has the Gators at +1.5 vs. Utah and +105 on the money line, although most other shops have the Utes favored by 2.5 points.

FanDuel also has UF spreads for several Games of the Year. The Gators are -4 (-105) vs. Kentucky, -3.5 vs. LSU, +15 vs. Georgia, +7 (at a -105 price) at Texas A&M and +2 at FSU.

The South Point in Las Vegas has Florida installed as a 4.5-point home favorite vs. LSU, a 16.5-point underdog vs. UGA, a nine-point ‘dog at Texas A&M and a three-point puppy at FSU.

DraftKings is the only book that I’ve seen with an early line for UF at Tennessee. It has the Volunteers listed as 5.5-point home favorites. However, the Gators have won 16 of the last 17 head-to-head meetings against UT, winning by double-digit margins in 11 of those victories. They’ve beaten the Vols in five straight games, going 4-1 ATS and winning by an average margin of 20.0 PPG.

Florida will put a 32-game winning streak in home openers on the line when Utah comes to The Swamp for a 7:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff. The Gators haven’t tasted defeat in a home opener since losing to Ole Miss in 1989.

If Napier’s team can get out of September with a 3-1 record, it’ll be in position to have a quality season. UF hosts USF in Week 3 before heading to Neyland Stadium on Sept. 24. The Gators don’t leave the state of Florida in October. They host Eastern Washington, Missouri and LSU before the open date ahead of the UGA game in Jacksonville.

With it coming a week after a big rivalry game against the defending national champs, the trip to College Station on Nov. 5 is undoubtedly UF’s toughest spot from a situation standpoint. The Aggies also have a tough game the prior week, albeit at home vs. Ole Miss.

Florida hosts South Carolina before a trip to Vandy that precedes the regular-season finale at FSU. The Gators have won four in a row over the Seminoles, who will get UF at Doak Campbell Stadium for a night game on Black Friday.

I initially marked Florida with a 6-2 record with four swing games. Those coin-flip contests included the three tough ones in September and the home game vs. LSU. Therefore, three of those four are at home and the other is against a program that’s only tasted victory once in the rivalry over a 17-year stretch.

Although I’m going to have a small play on ‘over’ seven for UF’s win total, I concede that there isn’t much margin for error. Unless Ohio St. transfer QB Jack Miller, a former four-star recruit who played in only five games for the Buckeyes over the last two seasons (7-of-14 passes for 101 yards), is ready to play at a high level, the Gators will be in dire straits if Richardson gets injured.

There are also depth issues on the defensive line, at linebacker and at WR. If a rash of injuries occur at any of these positions, Napier will have to turn to young and inexperienced players.

If Richardson didn’t lose Copeland and Gamble as throwing targets, it would be easier to peg him for a monster season. Nevertheless, I do think he will be the breakout player in the SEC. Look for him to produce more than 1,000 rushing yards and highlights galore.

With Kentucky’s two-time All-SEC RB Chris Rodriguez most likely looking at a three-game suspension according to my sources, the Wildcats won’t have him in Week 2. That bodes well for the Gators, who haven’t lost back-to-back games to UK since 1976-77.

I have a hard time believing UF is going to lose at ‘The Swamp North’ in Knoxville. Likewise, I think the Gators will beat LSU at home. Therefore, I’m going to call for a 9-3 season and a one-unit wager on ‘over’ seven wins. Furthermore, I think Richardson is worth a quarter-unit play (or whatever your minimum risk is for a bet) to win the Heisman at 60/1 odds (FanDuel).

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

–Florida is 7-4-1 SU and 4-2 ATS in 12 all-time games against Pac-12 foes. The Gators, who are facing Utah for the first time since 1977, haven’t played a Pac-12 opponent since losing 34-7 to Washington in the Freedom Bowl in 1989 when Gary Darnell was serving as interim HC after Galen Hall was fired earlier in the season.

–UF returns 47 lettermen and lost 27.

–PFF has O’Cyrus Torrence as a preseason first-team All-American.

–Steele’s magazine has Shorter as a preseason second-team All-SEC pick and Richardson is a member of the fourth-team. Steele has Richardson as the 12th-best QB available for the 2023 NFL Draft, while Shorter is listed No. 21 among draft-eligible WRs.

–According to multiple practice reports from UF beat writers in the past week, 6-foot-3 true freshman Caleb Douglas, the only WR in the 2022 class (with the obvious exception of Pearsall from the portal), has shown himself to be an excellent route runner and could push for playing time this season.

–UF’s 2023 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 13 at 247Sports. The Gators have 15 commitments from four-star prospects and 15 of the 17 members of the class are from Florida. The latest addition was LB Jaden Robinson, who flipped to UF earlier this week after initially committing to South Carolina. Robinson is ranked as the nation’s No. 378 overall recruit.

–Another Heisman play I think is worth a quarter unit of risk is on Wiscosin RB Braelon Allen at 60/1. As a true freshman last season, Allen ran for 1,268 yards and 12 TDs while averaging 6.8 YPC. Steele’s National Unit Rankings have the Badgers’ offensive line ranked No. 4. As usual, the defense will be elite but the passing attack will be suspect. Therefore, Paul Chryst will use a ball-control approach with Allen getting carries galore. If he can produce huge numbers and Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West (like it’s favored to do), Allen should be in the Heisman mix deep into November.

–For more college football conversation, check out the latest ‘Bet CFB’ podcast I’m hosting for VegasInsider. In Episode #2 earlier this week, Brad Powers was my guest. The first episode last week had Jay Greeson, a long-time columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, as my featured guest.

–If you wish, you can follow me on Twitter at vegasbedwards.

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