The first year of the Jim McElwain era with the Florida Gators went about as well as could have been hoped since it followed on the heels of a very dark period under Will Muschamp. It was far from perfect, mind you. They were 10-1 through their first 11 games. The only setback was a narrow loss to LSU, and they overwhelmed Ole Miss, beating the team which was ranked third at the time by 28.
But then they never won again and didn't really put up much of a fight.
They lost by 25 at home to their rivals from Florida State - a team ranked four places below them in the polls at the time. Then they were dropped by two touchdowns in the SEC Championship in a game not nearly as close as the score indicated. Finally, they were completely humiliated in the Citrus Bowl. Michigan beat them 41-7, and the gap could easily have been twice that.
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So, there were issues - stamina obviously being among them. There was a lot to like, though, and a lot to build on heading into this key second year. An entirely new coaching staff is now back with a year under their belts, and they have had another year to install their vision. There is real potential here.
Key Additions and Departures
To start, there is, mercifully, a change at quarterback. Will Grier, who missed the second half of last season with a PED suspension, is gone. So is Treon Harris, who replaced him and was really lousy. Harris originally was converted to wide receiver, but in July he announced he was transferring.
The likely starter will be Luke Del Rio, the son of Jack, who transferred from Oregon State last year. He faces challenges, but he has the edge in the race. Whoever is under center, though, he has the advantage of knowing he can't be any worse than the mess the team had at the position last year.
The offense wasn't helped by a very young and very porous offensive line last year. There aren't many changes, but experience should make a big difference. Running back Kelvin Taylor was an offensive highlight last year, but now he's with the Redskins. There is plenty of depth, though, so the team should still be able to run on the ground - especially if the offensive line takes a step forward. WR Demarcus Robinson is also in the NFL - he was taken by the Chiefs in the fourth round - but again depth makes that absence not a huge concern.
Defensively the losses are far more significant. Corner Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Keanu Neal were both off the draft board in the first 17 picks, so the secondary has big holes. Also drafted were two defensive linemen and a linebacker. The defense was the only thing that made this team a winner last year, though it obviously wore down after carrying so much of the load all year. They still have a whole lot of talent, though, so it would be a mistake to assume that they can't replace what was lost and produce top defensive efforts again. The offense should be improved, but the defense will still carry the load for this squad.
Florida Gators Schedule Analysis
The nonconference schedule starts out easy and ends up about as tough as it can. The first two are against UMass and North Texas - sandwiched around a very winnable home game with Kentucky to start the season. The second to last game of the season is against Presbyterian - as easy a game as a team can schedule. But then things change. They play their rivals from Florida State to close out the season and have to travel to Tallahassee to do so. That could be a way to storm into the bowl season or, more likely, could be a stark reminder at the end of the year of just how far they have left to go as a program.
Conference play opens with a huge road trip to Tennessee - a good measuring stick for both programs early on. The other two road trips are an easy one at Vanderbilt and a tough-but-manageable trip to Arkansas. The home schedule isn't too bad - they don't face Alabama this year, and Missouri and South Carolina are very manageable opponents. Only LSU is a very tough home game. And then they have their traditional neutral-site game against Georgia. It's not a perfect schedule, but for an SEC team it could certainly be worse. You don't have to be much of an optimist at all to see eight wins as a base. It's the other four games - Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State - that will determine everything there is about this team. I don't know about you, but I struggle to find more than one win there - two if I really wear the rose-colored glasses.
2016-17 Florida Betting Odds and Trends
Bovada has Florida at +5000 to win the National Championship, which puts them in a group including Washington, UCLA, Auburn and Oklahoma State tied for 18th overall. They sit at +1600 to win the SEC, tied with Texas A&M and Auburn as the sixth choice to win the conference. They are the third choice at +450 to win the SEC East, behind heavily-favored Tennessee and Georgia. BetOnline has set the season win total at eight, with the "over" favored at -125.
The team went a solid 10-4 last year, and profits could be found no matter how you liked to bet on them - they were 8-6 ATS and went "under" in eight of the 14 outings.
2016-17 Florida Predictions and College Football Picks
As I said earlier, I'd be disappointed if this team doesn't win the eight games that set up well for them. I could certainly see them beating Tennessee and/or Georgia, too. I see a gap between the Gators and LSU and Florida State right now, though, so winning there will be tough. Let's go with nine regular-season wins - and hopefully a better bowl performance this time around.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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