I’m going to do my season outlook a little differently than I have done the past two years. I’m not going to go through and break down every game because injuries, schemes, and circumstances are never the same throughout the season as they are in the preseason. Instead I will pick the points of interest and call them how I see them.
The offense will be excellent. It will be able to get whatever it wants against many opponents, and even if the defense isn’t much better, it should be able to win any shootout. Not much else needs be said. The defense of course is the concern.
The line should be much improved. The ends will continue to be the strength, and no one the two deep will make Gator fans worry. They can go four deep at each tackle position if they wanted to, constantly rotating fresh bodies in and out. As it is, they probably won’t go more than three deep at each, and the coaches are more or less happy with the progress they’ve all made. There should actually be some real push up the middle this year.
The linebackers are the strongest group on the defense with a healthy Brandon Spikes. Once his foot heals, they’ll be the closest thing to a set-it-and-forget-it unit, with a great first line and capable backups. Some day, Dustin Doe will get the credit he deserves.
The secondary will remain a concern naturally, but not nearly as much as last season. Joe Haden was a quarterback in high school, Wondy Pierre-Louis never played football before his freshman year of high school, and Major Wright admitted he was kind of just playing center field without knowing fully what he was doing last season.
Those three have been starters in the SEC now, and along with Ahmad Black make up the first string in the back. Safety is thin, so losing Wright would be disastrous. Assuming health though, which seems to be a pretty big if this year, they will be much, much better. Urban Meyer calls them the most improved unit on the team, and he rarely gives out praise like that.
The most important thing is that everyone has the right attitude this year. Both the football team and the basketball team in their most recent seasons ran into the problem of assuming that showing up in orange and blue means you’ll win. They didn’t work as hard and didn’t develop the camaraderie that the championship teams had.
Well, that has changed. Meyer says the group is a lot closer and they had the right attitude in camp. In fact, he has said the fall camp was the among the best he has had at UF, and his comments so far indicate he likes this group more than even the 2006 squad at the same time of the year.
For the first time since that game in the desert, intangibles are on the Gators’ side.
As many people have pointed out, Florida’s schedule looks pretty doable. Hawai’i would have been a better game last season, while Miami would be a better game next year. FSU still has three quarterbacks battling for the starting role (which means they have no quarterback), and Florida has a lot more talent on the field and on the sideline.
As you can probably tell, I don’t think the non-conference schedule will be too difficult. The FSU game will be closer than it was in Gainesville last year just simply because of the site. The Gators didn’t win there between 1986 and 2004, and the wins in ’04 and ’06 were by just seven each time. There’s something about Tallahassee that keeps Florida from playing all that well, but I still think the Gators will prevail.
I’ve said this a few times this offseason, but here’s how I view the year: the team will be better and the schedule will be easier, so a 10-2 regular season is where the expectations start. Dropping Auburn for Arkansas is the primary reason for that. The other is that in my estimation, playing in Baton Rouge last season was more difficult than playing in Knoxville will be this year.
The three games I see as the greatest chance for losing are at Tennessee, home against LSU, and against Georgia in Jacksonville. South Carolina will probably be tricky since outside of the game during the collapse last season, Spurrier has played UF pretty close. Plus the Gamecock defense should be among the best in the conference.
Playing at Tennessee will still present atmospheric challenges even if it isn’t quite LSU. Dave Clawson’s new offense could also present a lot of trouble for the Gators’ young defense. Something that helps considerably is that UT plays UCLA this weekend, and the Bruin defense will be good enough to force the Vols to open the playbook a bit. Add to that Florida’s bye week before the game and the defense should have enough tape and time to get ready.
LSU’s issues at quarterback have been well documented, but ultimately I think they’re overrated since Andrew Hatch knows Gary Crowton’s system and was good enough to sign with BYU. There is so much talent on that LSU team all around that they don’t need fireworks from their signal caller; after all, Matt Flynn led them to a title without being a YouTube superstar.
The real issue to me is the Tiger defense. That may sound odd, considering how many great players are on it, but Bo Pelini has a special defensive mind. They will miss him, and the fact they replaced him with a committee would make me nervous. Florida was a couple well-timed stops from beating LSU last season, so
it’s not like it’s a lost cause for the Gators. Playing the game in the Swamp will definitely help.
The Georgia game is a bit problematic to project now. A lot depends on whether Matthew Stafford makes the big junior year leap or not, if the wide receivers stop dropping as many balls, if the offensive line will mesh into a unit as good as last season’s, and if super freshman A.J. Green is as good as advertised. Moreno will get his, Caleb King will get some more. Florida has more talent on offense, but Georgia has more experience on defense.
Meyer has been rattling his saber about last season’s Bulldog celebration, and he’s 8-1 against the three rivals. Florida was down by just five points last season with nine minutes to go, so, stop me if you’ve heard this before, getting a defensive stop would have given the Gators a great chance to win.
Florida will be better, but so will Georgia. It’s too tough to say conclusively today who will win, but you can’t rule either out as well. I suspect Florida will win, but I will get into that more around the time of the game.
In essence, nothing looks to me like an obvious loss candidate on the schedule in the way that the game at Auburn in 2006 and the game at LSU in 2007 did. The Gators leave the state just four times and have a bye before the worst trip.
If the expectations begin at 10-2, then they must go no worse than 1-2 in those three tough games. Florida has lost to an SEC West team every year since 1999, so if you believe in patterns, LSU is the most likely loss. Ole Miss and Arkansas just aren’t ready to beat a team like UF yet. Georgia would be the most crucial win since the Bulldogs are more likely to be competing for the SEC East crown than Tennessee is.
I think they’ll go 2-1 in those three tough games. Only one Florida team ever, the 1995 squad, has made it through the regular season unscathed. That’s once in 101 seasons.
In some ways, this team is like the 1995 team. It will be an offensive juggernaut, but it just does not feel like it’s ready to win it all yet. The core is still on the young side, especially on defense, and the injuries are well-documented. Things are set up to be at their best next season, but there still is a sense of urgency to get something done in 2008 with the potential of Tebow and Harvin going pro after the season.
Winning the East and then winning in Atlanta is a reasonable expectation. Going 10-2 or 11-1 in the process is also reasonable. There’s no shame in finishing second in the division to a loaded Georgia team, of course, but another 9-3 regular season would be a disappointment. That would indicate the defense didn’t get better, a significant setback considering they face seven first-year starters at quarterback (if you count Tommy Beecher) and three brand new offensive coordinators.
I certainly hope this isn’t the last year of having Tebow or Harvin. I can’t blame them if they go, but the 2009 team would be just phenomenal if they stayed. Now’s not the time to worry about 2009 though.
Enjoy this season, Gators. We may never see another one like it.