No 4 - Florida Gators 2010 Preview
Saturday, September 04, 2010
by Aengus Moorehead
As hard as it is to believe, Florida’s 13-1 campaign last fall actually fell below expectations for the vast majority of Gator fans. Many believed that the school’s first undefeated season would lead to their 3rd National Championship in four years, and for the vast majority of the season it seemed like that would be the case. However, it all came crashing down against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and Florida Gators was relegated to blowing out Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl to cap off the fantastic career of legendary quarterback Tim Tebow and many of his classmates.
Needless to say, there is going to be a lot of rebuilding work to do for the Gators this offseason after losing nine players in the NFL draft in April. The good news is that Head Coach Urban Meyer has reduced his workload in the offseason and will come back for the season after contemplating retirement due to his health last December.
The biggest reason for the success of the Gator offense in the last few seasons was the play of Tim Tebow, who led the team in rushing in each of the last three years. The attack is going to look significantly different this fall as junior John Brantley (410 yards, 7 TDs in ’09) doesn’t have Tebow’s mobility and that will force UF to run a more traditional offense. While he is definitely a talented player, the entire offense is going to have to adjust to the change in focus away from the read option that was Tebow’s bread and butter.
That means that Florida’s talented trio of tailbacks will get a lot more carries this fall. Juniors Jeff Demps (745 yards, 7 TDs) and Chris Rainey (575 yards, 5 TDs) and senior Emmanuel Moody (378 yards, 3 TDs) will be relied upon to carry the load in Tebow’s absence and they are a very capable unit. However, they’ll have to up their play to account for his team-leading 910 rush yards from 2009.
With a really strong offensive line returning, there is a lot of confidence that those three will continue Florida’s excellence on the ground. Four starters return up front from last season’s team, including 2nd Team All-American guard Mike Pouncey, who takes over at center this season from his brother, Maurkice Pouncey, who was a 1st round pick in April. He’s one of three players on the line who have anchored the unit to 26 victories in the last two years and there is little doubt that this is one of the country’s finest offensive lines.
Where there is some concern is at wide receiver. Junior Deonte Thompson (24 catches, 343 yards, 4 TDs) is the only returning starter from last season’s unit and he was a distant 3rd on the team in catches. However, there is certainly a ton of talent on hand as Meyer has recruited a lot of exceptional athletes to Gainesville and there are a few major breakout candidates. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Andre DuBose, who was compared to Percy Harvin in camp last fall before suffering a severe hamstring injury that cost him the season. He could be a major contributor right off the bat catching passes and replacing virtuoso returner Brandon James in the kicking game.
Let’s be quite honest here: Florida Gators is going to have a strong offense even without Tim Tebow. The quality of their offensive line and their depth at tailback all but ensure the Gators of another great season on the scoreboard. However, Florida Gators averaged 40.6 points per game during Tebow’s three seasons starting under center and it is extremely unlikely that they’ll match that level of production this season. With the change in philosophy to accommodate Brantley’s talents and the inexperience at wide receiver, expect the Gators to take a small step back from the elite units in the country this fall.
Florida was absolutely vicious on defense last season, allowing a paltry 12.4 points per game. Considering that they brought back every single starter from a defense that won the national championship in 2008, this came as no surprise to anyone in America. However, there is a lot of brilliant talent to replace as the Gators lost five players to the NFL draft and all of them were selected in the first three rounds. On top of that, longtime star defensive coordinator Charlie Strong left to become the head coach at Louisville, leaving the staff without both coordinators from their two National Championships.
The D-Line is the first place to look, as both starting defensive ends were selected in the 2nd round after combining for 16 sacks last year. The good news is that both starting tackles are back as junior Jaye Howard (29 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and sophomore Omar Hunter (17 tackles) are 300 pound bulwarks against the run. As for the lost pass rush, senior DE Justin Trattou (17 tackles, 2 sacks) has started 18 games in his Florida Gators career and he should be a solid but unspectacular performer. Keep an eye on true freshman Ronald Powell as well: He was the country’s top recruit this past year. With Meyer’s great recruiting, there is a ton of depth on hand, so this should still be a really strong line against the run. However, it seems unlikely that they’ll have as much consistent pressure on opposing passers this fall, even with their highly talented ends.
The Gators are hit hardest by graduation at linebacker, where 1st Team All-American Brandon Spikes, top tackler Ryan Stamper and major contributor Dustin Doe have departed. All three players had key roles in Florida’s enormous success over the last four seasons and they will be sorely missed. However, senior A.J. Jones (37 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 INT) will be entering his 3rd full season as a starter and he should provide strong senior leadership for the Gators. Like the rest of the team, there is a ton of elite young talent but they have such overwhelming production to replace that it seems impossible to match that level of play. Expect a strong set of linebackers this season but they won’t match last year’s excellence.
One position where Florida Gators is still clearly loaded is at defensive back. Junior corner Janoris Jenkins (38 tackles, 2 INT) is entering his 3rd season as the starter and he is one of the best cover corners in the country. While the other corner spot is a mild concern after Joe Haden was a top 10 pick in the NFL draft, there is so much top-tier athleticism on hand that the position will be filled with ease. For example, the Gators are going to be exceptional at safety, where senior Ahmad Black (70 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will pair with junior Will Hill (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks) to form the top pairing in the SEC.
Overall, Florida Gators appears to once again have one of the best defenses in the SEC. However, there is going to be a bit of a hangover from the extreme loss of talent from last year’s team and do worry that the Gators will struggle with a new set of linebackers and a less effective pass rush from their defensive line. But in the grand scheme of things, this is still going to be a very strong unit that finishes in the top third of the SEC in 2010.
Florida’s schedule might be the most difficult that they’ve faced since Meyer’s arrival in Gainesville. First of all, archrival Florida State looks as talented as they’ve been in half of a decade and the UF has to make the trip west to Tallahassee. On top of that, rising Big East power USF also has their first meeting with the Gators. This is only the 2nd time since 2003 that Florida Gators has played two BCS Conference opponents outside of league play!
Then there’s the SEC schedule, which is going to be difficult. The draw from the SEC West features a trip to Alabama and home dates against LSU and Mississippi State, leaving the Gators with one of the toughest slates in the East. They also have to travel to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but the good news is that they get challenger South Carolina in The Swamp and also get an off week to prepare for Georgia. Despite the good news with their primary Eastern challengers, there are probably nine teams on this schedule that will go bowling.
There is no doubt that the Gators have ascended into the elite rank of teams that reload instead of rebuild and this season’s team will certainly be proof of that. Florida Gators appears primed for a strong offensive season that should be powered by a more traditional running attack behind their solid O-Line. Furthermore, John Brantley is going to immediately become one of the league’s most productive quarterbacks. But as talented as this group is going to be, they’re not going to be the absolute juggernaut that carried the day during the Tebow years. The Gators simply are not going to continue running teams over in the SEC without one of the best players to ever play college football in charge of the offense.
The defense is going to be similarly effective. There’s no questioning this unit’s talent, especially in the secondary, but they have to replace some of the country’s best players on all levels of the defense. The other thing to remember is that the last two seasons saw the Gators trot out the exact same starting lineup, making it difficult for some of the younger players to get some on-field experience. This is going to be a talented defense, but they’re probably not going to finish in the top five the country in scoring for the 3rd straight year.
The final part that hasn’t gotten a lot of mention from most pundits is Florida’s fluctuation on the coaching staff. First of all, Strong’s departure after functioning as one of the country’s best defensive coordinators will be a blow; you don’t find elite recruiters with BCS Conference head coaching potential running defenses at many schools in the country. Then Meyer’s health woes kept him away for much of the spring, leaving the Gators a coach short at times. Finally, Strong’s replacement, George Edwards, didn’t even make it for a single game before he left to go coach in the NFL. That means that new co-coordinators Teryl Austin and Chuck Heater are the 3rd and 4th men to oversee the Gator defense in the last year!
When you factor everything together, the conclusion is that Florida Gators is going to come slightly back towards the SEC pack this fall. They’re not going to continue blowing teams out of the water like they have in the past few seasons; instead they’re going to have to earn almost every victory. On top of that, they have a daunting schedule and two of their rivals (Florida State and Georgia) have enjoyed significant coaching upgrades during the offseason while the Gators have been forced to deal with more tumult than any other school outside of the state of Tennessee. One of the major advantages that the Gators have had during their recent run of excellence was a clear coaching superiority and they don’t have that anymore with two former coordinators running BCS programs and a ton of turnover on staff.
That said, the rivalry game that will give Gator fans the most consternation is the season-ending trip to Tallahassee to face Florida State for the first time in the post-Bobby Bowden era. No team should have grieved Bowden’s departure more than the Gators, who have enjoyed a significant coaching edge over the aging Seminole staff in the last few seasons, especially on defense. With a more modern defensive approach under new DC Mark Stoops, exceptional talent on both sides of the football, home field advantage and a Heisman Candidate at quarterback, Florida State is going to be fired up to end their six game losing streak against Florida Gators.
PREDICTED RESULT: 9-3 (6-2 SEC) - Bodog NCAA College Football Futures Lines
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