Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: Florida
Florida is coming off its worst season under Dan Mullen. It’s odd to say considering the Gators played in their third straight New Year’s Six bowl, made the SEC championship game for the first time since 2016 and had their first Heisman finalist since ’08. But UF’s eight wins were its fewest in four years, and the defense was the worst it's been in a century. Florida also ended the season on a three-game skid, which included a regrettable cleat toss and a lifeless bowl loss. That’s not to say the pressure is on Mullen, who received a three-year contract extension this summer, but building on last season’s campaign will prove difficult considering the production that left via the NFL draft. It’s a good thing the Gators have three-year understudy Emory Jones stepping into the role of starting quarterback this fall.
Can’t Miss: Kaiir Elam
Florida’s defensive rebound starts with lockdown cornerback Elam. He’s the best player on a unit that was putrid against the pass in 2020 and, without an elite offense to support it, will need to hold its own moving forward. Elam started every game last season on his way to All-SEC honors. He’s already receiving first-round draft hype and preseason All-America honors. If he lives up to that billing, and all indications show he will, Florida’s defense should be much improved.
Key Question: How will the Gators avoid complete offensive regression?
Behind Kyle Trask’s arm, Florida boasted the most prolific passing attack nationally. But it’s not just that Trask is gone—his weapons are, too. UF will be without its top three pass catchers from last season, who accounted for more than half the team’s receiving yards. Jones has not yet proved to be the passer Trask is, and his top targets—Jacob Copeland, Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson—do not compare to the first-round talent of Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. The Gators figure to tip the offense back toward a rushing approach with the elusive Jones behind center and Dameon Pierce, UF’s leading rusher in 2020, in the backfield alongside him.
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X-Factor: Jones’s running ability
Jones has stood in waiting for three years, occasionally getting his number called for select packages and during blowouts. His allure stems from the big-play threat he presents with his legs and the history of what Mullen-coached quarterbacks can do when they can run (see: Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott). The entire offense hinges on the threat Jones poses as a rusher, whether that’s actual production on the ground or just the possibility of him taking off keeping defenses close to the line and setting up favorable matchups for receivers.
Date to Circle: Sep. 18 vs. Alabama
The Crimson Tide are winners of seven straight against the Gators, most recently a thrilling SEC championship game in December in which UF nearly toppled the SEC West powerhouse. That was the closest Florida has been to beating Alabama since Mullen’s first stint in Gainesville when the Gators last took the SEC title, in 2008. Florida opens up conference play in mid-September at home with its toughest opponent. This bout will be a very early indication of whether UF will be a true player in the conference or if the Gators are simply in another race with Georgia to take home the SEC East title.
The Bottom Line
Florida lost many of its best players on offense, defense and special teams in the draft, and UF has a quick turnaround before Alabama comes to town to expose any weaknesses. The best programs in the country consistently see top talent leave, shrug it off and continue to compete for conference titles and more. Can the Gators do so in 2021?
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