Somebody has to win the SEC East. We're looking at why each of the contenders might (or might not) take home the title.
2015 record: 10-4
SB Nation site: Alligator Army
Year two is supposed to be the one in which head coaches put it all together. But Jim McElwain put together a fairly impressive freshman campaign in Gainesville in 2015. The Sockless Wonder (tm) reeled off 6 wins in a row to begin his tenure in the Swamp. A road loss to LSU intervened, but the Gators then shellacked the Bulldogs in route to 4 more wins, an SEC East title, and double digits heading into a showdown with instate rival FSU.
That's kind of where things went south down south. The Seminoles pasted the Gators 27-2, Alabama did Alabama things to them in the SEC title game, and then Jim Harbuagh and Michigan handed the Sunshine State Saurians their worst loss of all, a 41-7 Orange Bowl defeat. In the end, the Gators beat everyone they probably should have, a few who they probably had no business beating, and lost to good football teams. That's not a bad rookie effort.
2016 could be a tale of two teams for the Gators. One unit will keep them in a lot of games, and may even win some. The other is far less star-studded and may be the liability that undoes their chance to repeat as SEC East champs.
Why Florida will win the SEC East
The defense is loaded with talent and experience. All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves is gone, but All-SEC corner Jalen Tabor returns. Tabor snatched 4 interceptions in 2015 and led the Gators with 14 pass breakups. He's joined on the other side by junior Quincy Wilson to form a CB unit with excellent size and demonstrated productivity.
The front seven is, in a word, loaded. 8 defensive linemen who saw action in at least 9 contests last year return. That includes senior defensive end Bryan Cox, senior nose tackle Joey Ivie, and sophomore Cece Jefferson, whose posted 23.5 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks during an outstanding freshman season.
While the linebackers are a little younger, seniors Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillan return to the strong side and weak side linebacker spots. Former blue chip recruit Alex Anzalone returns following an injury-hampered sophomore season. Past those returners, the Gators will have to rely on a gaggle of freshmen and redshirt freshmen without game experience.
Overall 8 of the top 11 tacklers from 2015 return for this season, which is a good thing for Florida and a bad thing for everybody else.
Why Florida won't win the SEC East
There are a lot of things that will have to go extraordinarily well for Florida to equal the 23.6 points they averaged in SEC play in 2015. Gone is QB Will Grier, who led Florida to that 6-0 start but was then suspended for failing a PED test. Also gone is junior Treon Harris, who relieved Grier and led the Gators to victory in Jacksonville. Instead the Florida offense will be led by Luke Del Rio, the 6'1, 211 pound son of former NFL head coach Jack Del Rio.
The younger man o' the river signed with Alabama out of high school, redshirted, then transferred to Oregon State (where he participated in spring football in 2014 but never played), then transferred to Florida where he sat out last season. He's a coach's son who's been around the game all his life. But let's get one thing straight: Florida is pinning its 2016 hopes on a former Alabama walk-on who's now going to become the first former walk-on to start at quarterback for Florida since Steve Spurrier tabbed Noah Brindise to lead the Gators in 1997.
That wouldn't be a worry if the Gators had a deep, experienced backfield to whom Del Rio could simply turn and hand the ball. They don't. Gone is 2015's 1000 yard rusher Kelvin Taylor. Returning are sophomores Jordan Cronkite and Jordan Scarlett. "Jordan squared" combined for 338 yards on the ground and 4 touchdowns last season. They'll be joined in the rotation by big (6'2, 237 pound) JUCO transfer Mark Thompson. While all three are immensely talented, none is likely to match Taylor's combination of power and explosiveness (though Scarlett comes closest in my opinion).
Florida's receiving corps have alternated between passable and truly dreadful in recent history. 2016 looks like a minor improvement. Having been cleared of sexual assault charges by a totally impartial tribunal, second-leading receiver Antonio Callaway returns along with slot receiver Brandon Powell. They'll be joined in the rotation by veterans Ahmad Fullwood, Chris Thompson, and C.J. Worton. The problem again isn't talent, but experience. Fullwood, Thompson, and Worton combined for 15 catches and 178 yards in 2015.
Veteran tight end D'Andre Goolsby is also back. Goolsby was the only Gator receiver last season to average more than 10 yards per target (YPT), an indictment both of the receiving corp's lack of explosiveness and the QB corp's inability to get them the damn ball.
Taken as a whole, Florida's offense has the look of a unit that will endure significant growing pains while putting things together in 2016 for a run at the SEC East in 2017. I'm tabbing the Gators to finish second in the East. Until later . . .
Florida has to get better in the kicking game because they couldn't get worse. Gator kickers were an abysmal 7 of 17 on field goals in 2015 and missed 5 extra points. They'll rely on JUCO transfer Eddy Pineiro this season. Because they gotta rely on someone, right?