The Florida Gators were once the class of the Southeastern Conference, winning two BCS Championships during the tenure of Urban Meyer. However, since his departure after the 2010 season, the team has struggled to compete with the elite sides in the Conference.
Will Muschamp had a semblance of success following in Meyer’s wake, reaching the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Florida was stunned by the Louisville Cardinals in the contest and the team failed to recover from the manner of the defeat, resulting in Muschamp’s departure with a 28-21 record.
Jim McElwain arrived and had immediate success, guiding the Gators to the SEC Championship game in his opening term. McElwain won SEC Coach of the Year for his exploits in the 2015 campaign. However, Florida was defeated by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the title contest, while the season ended in a loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
The Gators battled their way into the SEC title game once again in 2016, but the result was a humiliation, losing 54-16 to Nick Saban’s men. A victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl ended the season on a high note. McElwain lasted just seven games into the 2017 season as he was fired following a 42-7 hammering at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Dan Mullen has been handed the challenge of reviving the Gators’ fortunes, but he faces a massive task ahead of him due to the quality of the SEC. As proven in the past, although their record in the Eastern Division has been sound, the competition provided elsewhere in the Conference has been their undoing. It perhaps doesn’t help that college football stadiums can be intimidating for visiting teams, meaning that favouritism from the bookies tends to stay with the home team. Mullen was the offensive coordinator of the 2006 and 2008 sides that triumphed under Meyer and has performed well in his time as head coach of Mississippi State.
When Mullen arrived in Florida in 2005 he was charged with developing quarterback Chris Leak. After a solid opening term, Leak took a huge step forward in the 2006 campaign, utilizing the skills of Percy Harvin and Andre Caldwell to great effect, throwing 23 touchdowns. Harvin was the driving force in the Gators’ triumph in the SEC Championship game over the Arkansas Razorbacks. The offense put up 38 points on the board to advance to the National Championship game. On the big stage, they were even stronger to hammer the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The departure of Leak handed the reins over to Tim Tebow. With the left-armer at the quarterback position, the Gators would dominate on offense, although it would take the team another year to regain their Championship form. Tebow’s ability to run and pass made him at times impossible to defend, while the weapons around him, Harvin, Aaron Hernandez and Louis Murphy, thrived. Their only defeat in 2008 came at the hands of Ole Miss. The Gators were able to see off Alabama in the SEC Championship game, putting 31 points on their vaunted defense, before edging past the Oklahoma Sooners to claim their second national crown.
Offensive Challenges Ahead
Mullen finds himself in an unenviable situation this season. There’s no quality starter in place, with Feleipe Franks struggling immensely last season. However, hope was kindled when Emory Jones opted to sign with the Gators after reneging on his deal with Ohio State. He does have the skill set of Tebow, with the ability to pass and run, although not at his standard. It’s rare for a true freshman to be given the nod, while Kyle Trask and Jake Allen will also stake their claim to the position. It will be Mullen’s first of many difficult choices.
Kyrie Cleveland is the hope at the skill position. He amassed 410 receiving yards and two touchdowns, despite his side’s problems at the quarterback position. He can offer the big-play threat to take attention away from the middle of the field. There, freshman Jacob Copeland could be the star in waiting, with comparisons having already been made with Harvin. Should Mullen get the same performances out of Copeland as he did with Harvin – Florida’s fortunes on offense could improve significantly in 2018. Running backs Lamical Perine and Malik Davis will be just as vital to easing the pressure on the quarterback position – both players passed the 500-mark last season. Should they develop into a force in the running game, it would be a huge boost to a unit that was pedestrian at best last term.
The Gators are losing their best defensive player to the NFL as Taven Bryan opted to forego his senior year to enter the 2018 Draft. He was a force on the defensive line and new coordinator Todd Grantham will have to configure a way to fill the void. CeCe Jefferson, David Reese and Jabari Zuniga all fared well last season and will have to become the foundation of the defense. One of the strengths of Florida’s Championship teams under Meyer was their defensive line, with Carlos Dunlap, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Henry all shining. Therefore, the trio have to perform to a high standard – even without the presence of Bryan.
Meyer’s secondary also boasted quality as Reggie Nelson, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins were all playmakers and have had impressive NFL careers. Cornerback CJ Henderson was a standout during his freshman season, notching four interceptions. Chauncey Gardner also has an opportunity to develop after regaining his best form towards the end of the term. The defense may have to be a work in progress, having ranked 31st in the college game in 2017. However, there is a semblance of talent for Grantham to work with and support the offense to get the Gators back into contention in the Eastern Division in the SEC.
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