As we count down the hours until the season opener, we’ve decided that it’s an appropriate time to discuss our expectations and projections for the 2018 Florida Gators football team.
The 2017 season was forgettable for much of the fan base as Florida finished the season 4-7 and fifth in the SEC East. The Gators also saw their head coach fired almost immediately after a 42-7 loss to rival Georgia.
However, a new optimism is abound in Gainesville as Dan Mullen was brought back by the administration after a nine year stint at Mississippi State, this time he returns as the head coach. The roster returns nineteen starters and has a ton of experience, including on the offensive and defensive lines.
Florida has to navigate through the SEC East, which has improved immensely over the last couple of years. In addition to the preseason favorite, Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri are also expected to fare well this season. The Gators will face Mississippi State and LSU in cross-division conference games while taking on Charleston Southern, Colorado State, Idaho, and Florida State in the non-conference slate.
We’ve decided to do a round-table discussion on each game and provide a prediction to each game with our staff and contributors.
Sept 1 vs Charleston Southern:
Mark Stine- The Gators have a lot to figure out in their first game. Coach Dan Mullen said whoever the starting quarterback is entering the game, he’ll be the guy moving forward (we now know that is redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks). But don’t be surprised to see the backup and freshman Emory Jones. And position battles at kicker, punter and center — just to name a few — will like spill over to Week One. With all of these moving parts, I see a low-scoring affair, but the defense dominates. UF wins 20-6.
Olivia Granaiola- Home opener, Mullen’s first game as HC, and the first opportunity to show that the team has improved since last year’s disastrous 4-7 season. Expect the Gators to get fancy after halftime, when Charleston Southern will inevitably begin to lose steam. Florida 31-10
Michael Pfeffer- This one will be no surprise. Despite Charleston Southern boasting 10 Big South All-Conference players, they are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to the talent gap. Expect the Swamp to be electric as fans and players are eager to begin the Mullen era with a win. Gators win 49-10.
Brian Fox- Last season it took Florida three games to finally score an offensive touchdown. That won’t happen this year as the Gators should light up the scoreboard early and often against FCS CSU, regardless of who is playing at QB (again, Franks will start). Florida 44-17.
Sept 8 vs Kentucky:
MS- Last season, the Gators don’t go to Kroger Stadium and win without two blown coverage assignments by the Wildcats. But this is a new season with a new coach, and Florida is bringing back 19 offensive and defensive starters. Coach Mark Stoops and Kentucky will look to get their revenge, but I see UF edging this one out. Gators get the ‘W,’ 21-17.
OG- If the Gators were able to squeak out a win at Kroger Stadium last year with injuries, suspensions, ejections, and a missed last-second field goal attempt by the Wildcats, they can win in the Swamp. 32 years strong. However, Florida must put its hyped “DBU” status to work when it comes to Benny Snell if they want to win handily. Remember, he’s one back. The Gators have six highly capable ones. Florida 24-17
MP- Florida narrowly avoided having their 31 game streak snapped last year. However, this is a new year and these teams are headed in opposite directions. Florida will need to contain Benny Snell, Jr. and avoid being forced into passing downs. If they can do that, I like the Gators to win 36-24.
BF- This isn’t the terrible Kentucky Wildcats that we’ve gotten used to seeing over the last three decades. They’ve got perhaps the best running back in the conference and a talented receiving corps in addition to a dangerous pass defense. However, the Gators should be able to utilize it’s strong run game to overcome Kentucky’s defensive strength. Florida 23-13.
Sept 15 vs Colorado State
MS- The worst thing Florida can do here is look past CSU toward its matchup with Tennessee the following week. However, I don’t think Mullen will let that happen. The speed on Florida’s offense from players like Malik Davis, Kadarius Toney, Tyrie Cleveland and Trevon Grimes should make this one a track meet. I think UF gets off to an early lead, but allows some garbage-time scores. The Gators improve to 3-0 with a 35-20 victory.
OG- The last cupcake game (until Idaho) for the Gators should serve as some good motivation ahead of the revenge game in Rocky Top. Nothing more, nothing less. Expect some of the strong 2’s Mullen keeps harping on to come out and prove their worth. Expect the new “redshirt rule” to kick in as well. Florida 42-14
MP- The key to victory in this one will be exploiting a young defense that lacks depth in the secondary. I expect Mullen to set a game plan that tests the db’s early and often. The defense will need to pay attention to senior running back, Izzy Matthews. He is fast, powerful, and capable in pass protection. Gators win 42-14.
BF- This was supposed to be Jim McElwain vs his former team. Instead, Dan Mullen will make sure his team doesn’t overlook their Mountain West opponent. The Rams are in rebuild mode, returning only nine starters from a team that went 7-6 in 2017. Florida should win easily, 34-13.
Sept 22 @ Tennessee
MS- Throw out the records and the rankings. It’s rivalry week. Tennessee and new head coach Jeremy Pruitt will be looking to get revenge for the “Heave to Cleve” that dramatically ended last season’s bout. This game will be close, and I think it will come down to play on special teams and turnovers. Luckily for UF, Mullen has emphasized the importance of special teams, and he’s utilizing some of his best athletes in the game’s third phase. UF eeks it out, 16-14.
OG- Last year’s game heard round the world heads to Knoxville this year with two new coaches leading each team. Rowdy fans and Vols with chips on their shoulders will highlight what will most likely be a painstaking, low-scoring game with each team out for blood. Florida’s depth should reign supreme. Florida 14-10
MP- This annual rivalry features two new coaches and will be the first real test of the season for the Gators. Tennessee will give their all in Knoxville with a talented group of receivers and running backs. The defense will have to win some battles and I expect Mullen to exploit the weak defensive front of the volunteers with a powerful rushing attack. Gators win in Knoxville 28-20
BF- The Gators travel to Knoxville for their first road contest of the season. Regardless of who starts at QB for the Volunteers, they will be throwing to All-SEC caliber receiver Marquez Callaway as well as veteran Jajuan Jennings. Tennessee likely won’t be a very good team in 2018, and Florida should be able to top them despite the hostile environment. Florida 27-21.
Sept 29 @ Mississippi State
MS- There’s a lot hype going into this game. Dan Mullen in making his return to Mississippi State, the program he took from SEC afterthought to the Orange Bowl. And a lot people think it’ll be a rude homecoming for the coach, but not me. Florida has the superior athletes, and Mullen has brought almost all of his assistant coaches with him. A lot of the Bulldog players, especially star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, will know what Mullen and his staff will want to do, but the challenge will be actually stopping him. Gators spurt out to a 5-0 record, and crack the Top 25 with a 21-17 victory in Starkville.
OG- The Gators will trash-talk the entire week before heading to their new coach’s old program. Does Mullen know the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses inside and out? Yes; he built the program from scratch. Will he and the Gators expect angry Bulldogs after flip-flopping teams? Yes. But, Starkvegas has a Heisman-caliber guy under center and Mullen himself is frustrated with the lack of QB development in Gainesville. Miss St 41-28
MP- What an interesting storyline! Two new HC’s, two brilliant offensive minds, and both will call their own offenses. Joe Moorhead will face the Gators in Starkville using the monster that Mullen built against him. Emotions will be high in this contest and the crowd will be a factor. I have this as Florida’s first loss. They lose a close game, 28-24.
BF- This is the biggest toss up on the Gators schedule. As much as defeating his former school would mean to Dan Mullen, it may actually mean more to the fans in Starkville. What’s more is that the Bulldogs actually have a really good team this year. Led by Mullen-recruited QB Nick Fitzgerald and a nasty defense, Mississippi State can challenge this Florida team athletically and will want it just as much, if not more than the Gators. Mississippi State 31-21.
Oct 6 vs LSU
MS- It’s interesting that my colleagues all picked Florida to lose at Mississippi State and to win at home against LSU, because I think the exact opposite will happen. After two hard-fought road wins, the Gators will return home to a physical Tigers, who themselves are coming off a homestand. I think fatigue gets the better of UF and it falls, 24-13.
OG- LSU has a real lack of depth this season. As many of the big-name stars (and then some) left for last year’s NFL Draft, the Tigers will need to develop some of the younger guys (Greedy Williams and Co.) before October 6th to pull out a win. Most interesting aspect of this game will be figuring out who the real DBU is. Florida 20-17
MP- Last year the Tigers escaped from the Swamp with a win. The Gators will be focused and ready to avenge that loss. LSU has a young defense but Florida will need to scheme around Devin White and Greedy Williams. Fortunately, Williams is the star of a secondary that, otherwise lacks depth. Additionally, UF’s defense will likely need to be prepared to face dual threat QB, Joe Burrow, who transferred from Ohio St. this spring. In the end, the Gators will be too much for this year’s Bayou Bengals. Gators win 31-17
BF- It’s been an interesting camp for the Tigers. Two quarterbacks announced that they were transferring in the midst of a QB battle. It’s likely that OSU grad-transfer Joe Burrow will win out, but this is a decent if, not good LSU team. The Tigers will be led by a ferocious defense, however I do believe Florida comes out on top, 28-21.
Oct 13 @ Vanderbilt
MS- Derek Mason is a very good coach, and Vanderbilt is a program that will keep getting better under his tenure. Mason has a good passer in Kyle Shurmur, who led the Commodores to have the fourth-best passing offense in the SEC last season. That being said, Shurmur lost his best running back, Ralph Webb, and best receiver, Trent Sherfield. I think the Commodores will have a difficult time establishing the run against Todd Grantham’s defense, and Shurmur won’t be able to dig his team out of an early deficit. UF wins, 30-17.
OG- Vandy’s an SEC team without an SEC-caliber players. Last season, this was the only real decisive win from the Gators. Not expecting too much to change other than a more disruptive Florida defense on some of the weaker players in the conference and a stronger offensive scheme under Mullen. Florida 31-21.
MP- Vanderbilt is an interesting animal. The offense could be explosive with Kyle Shurmur, Kalija Lipscomb, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn providing big play ability but Todd Grantham’s aggressive defense should keep them on their heels for most of the game. Florida’s offensive line will need to do a good job in protection against a solid pass rush but Vanderbilt lacks depth at defensive tackle, inside linebacker, and throughout the secondary. I expect them to be gassed trying to keep up with Florida’s stable of talented backs and receivers. Gators win in Music City, 42-17.
BF- Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is very likeable. He even has a daughter that plays soccer in Gainesville. Mason has had some success despite the limitations a school like Vanderbilt affords him. This is the most well-rounded team that Mason has had in his tenure as the offense should finally be able to catch up to the defense. Despite all that, Florida has too much talent and should win. Gators 33-24.
Oct 27 vs Georgia (Jacksonville, FL)
MS- Take a close look at Georgia. The Bulldogs led the SEC in rushing last year, but lost their two leading rushers, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. They also lost two of their three leading tacklers, Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter. Their second, fourth and fifth leading tacklers were all defensive backs, which means teams ran into UGA’s secondary. Jake Fromm was praised for his quarterback play, but Georgia was 12th in passing offense (175.9 ypg). That’s worse than Florida’s 2017 output (11th, 179.3 ypg). The Gators are coming off their bye week, and I think they’ll be primed to pull off the upset of the year with the help of some turnovers by UGA. Florida takes it in Jacksonville, 21-20.
OG- Regardless of how the Bulldogs ascended from a mediocre SEC team to a National Championship team in a year, just know they did it. And as a recruiting juggernaut last season, Georgia will be too much for the Gators to handle. Only difference between last year and this year can be that the Cocktail Party should be a much more watchable game. Georgia 42-28
MP- Georgia lost a ton of talent to graduation and the NFL draft but they also pulled in a historic recruiting class. That class will help them in their quest to repeat as champions of the East. The Gators will have their hands full trying to contain D’Andre Swift and will face a young but very talented defense. Georgia wins the cocktail party this year, 36-30.
BF- Georgia is quickly becoming a football factory under head coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs lost a lot of talent to the NFL Draft, but the way UGA has recruited, the loss won’t be felt so bad. UGA now has experience at the QB position and will again be led by a strong running game. Right now Georgia is just too talented for Florida, Bulldogs 45-14.
Nov 3 vs Missouri
MS- After the high of an upset in Jacksonville, I think the Gators catch a hangover against the Tigers. Drew Lock is a very good quarterback and led Mizzou to the second best passing offense in the SEC (3086 ypg). The Tigers lost their leading rusher, but have a nice committee of returning backs, led by sophomore Larry Rountree III, that all averaged over 5.5 yards per carry. Missouri is a good team, and I think it’ll get the better of the Gators, 31-24.
OG- Florida offense should pick up more yards against an iffy defense, but retaining Drew Lock, one of the most accurate passers in college football, for a senior season was a huge win for Mizzou. Lock has done a fine job leading a decent team beyond its limits and even a strengthened Gators secondary will have trouble bringing him down. Mizzou 36-28
MP- I look for the defense to play fast and loose in this one. They are going to want to keep Drew Lock off balance and uncomfortable in the new offensive look while overloading the Tigers’ OL with sheer numbers and disguised blitzes. The offense will be taking advantage of a Mizzou defense that was awful on third downs last season. Florida takes it, 42-24.
BF- Missouri has one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. Drew Lock is likely to be picked early in the 2019 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, the Tigers will be let down by an atrocious defense for most of the year. Gators should win, 31-27.
Nov 10 vs South Carolina
MS- The Gamecocks scraped by the Gators with a 28-20 win last season in Columbia, South Carolina. USC’s star quarterback, Jake Bentley, threw three interceptions and no touchdowns, but rushed for two touchdowns. I think Bentley has another bad game passing the ball against ‘DBU,’ and Grantham’s 3-4 defense keeps the mobile quarterback contained. Gators get revenge on Will Muschamp with 27-16 win.
OG- In many polls, the Gators and the Gamecocks split the preseason prediction for second and third in the East. With only redshirt seniors having played at Florida under Will Muschamp, that “we know his game” angle is mostly gone from Gainesville. But, barring a huge rejuvenation at South Carolina, studying tape will give Florida a good idea of how Muschamp will lead the team… the same way he’s done it since he coached at UF. Florida 32-28
MP- Despite returning stars, Deebo Samuel and Jake Bentley, the South Carolina looks to remain slow and safe. Typical of Muschamp’s style on that side of the ball. The defense will also be typical of Muschamp’s style but not without its weaknesses. With a pair of solid defenses on the field, I am looking for a relatively low scoring game. I like UF, 24-21.
BF- Will Muschamp recruited at a high level while at Florida. Since arriving at USC, the overall classes have dipped, but Muschamp has found his share of stars. QB Jake Bentley is just one example. Bentley leads what could be a high powered offense. USC will employ a new OC this year as Muschamp is still looking to shore up the play calling, an issue that plagued him in his UF stint. I expect a much better offensive showing and I see the Gamecocks scoring a lot points this season. USC takes it, 28-17.
Nov 17 vs Idaho
MS- The Vandals are coming back to Gainesville! This spells good news for Mullen’s Gators as they tune up for a road trip to Tallahassee. Look for true freshman quarterback Emory Jones to utilize the four-game redshirt rule and get some reps after Florida spurts out to an early lead. I got the Gators here, 42-7.
OG- Dropping conferences is never a good look for a team facing a Power 5. Like Colorado State, expect a bunch of “redshirt freshmen” and strong 2’s to exercise their allotted playing times. Not even really expecting a full field of 1’s to play after halftime, if not the first quarter. Florida 42-10.
MP- After a full SEC schedule of games, the Gators will be able to have fun in this match up. Idaho lost their veteran QB, a 1,000 yd rusher, and two top receivers last season and will make the rare move of dropping out of the FBS and going to the FCS. That may bode well for their season as they will still have a roster full of D1 talent but it won’t help them to get out of the Swamp alive. Gators win 56-7.
BF- The Vandals made the move to go to the FCS after a stint in the Sun Belt Conference. This is a make up game from the 2014 season opener that was called due to lightning. This should be a rout and with any luck the Gators will look good doing it. I would expect to see a lot of players rotated in and out to gain experience. Gators 49-6.
Nov 24 vs Florida State
MS- It’s a common thought among college football fans that first-year coach Willie Taggart is overrated. They may be right, but you don’t get the head coaching job at Florida State for being a bad coach. Taggart is blessed to inherit Deondre Francois with a great backup in James Blackman. He also has Cam Akers, one of the best running backs in the country. UF has definitely improved its depth at running back, but he quarterback play for FSU will be too strong to overcome. I’ll take the Seminoles in a close one, 33-27. Maybe, this will be the start of historic rivalry between Taggart and Mullen.
OG- Willie Taggart is a bit overrated as a head coach and Dan Mullen is absolutely not. That being said, Taggart is an all-star recruiter and as long as he can call good plays, he can rely on high talent and not really coach to pull out a win. Florida is at a disadvantage in the oppressive atmosphere at Doak, but again, expect a real game to be played. FSU 28-17
MP- Once again, Florida faces a new HC in Willie Taggart. On offense Florida needs to try to exploit the inexperience of FSU’s linebackers while avoiding a powerful pass rush. The defense will need to put the brakes on Cam Akers if they are to get the Noles off of their backs and put an end to the 5 year streak. Gators end the streak, 21-17.
BF- Florida fans won’t want to hear this, but FSU has a talented roster stacked with solid recruiting classes from the last several years. Florida will have to find a way to stop Cam Akers in the ground game and will likely need to utilize the tight ends in the passing game to exploit the holes in the Noles’ defense. This game could go either way, and if it was played in The Swamp, I’d be inclined to take the Gators, however I have FSU at home 24-20.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTIONS:
MS (9-3, 6-2)- Florida will definitely have to make a lot of on-the-fly adjustments in its first year under Mullen. However, I think the work put in over the spring, in the summer under strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, and in fall camp helps UF over-achieve this season, and they find themselves at 9-3 and second in the SEC East at the end of the regular season. Who could possibly dislike a spot in the Outback Bowl or Capital One Bowl? Depending on which Big Ten team UF faces, maybe they’ll capture that critical 10th win for the first time since 2015. Most importantly, I think Feleipe Franks develops into a quarterback Florida fans will be able to trust. He has the respect of his teammates and coaches being named the starter, now he has to go out there an earn the respect of Gator Nation.
OG (8-4, 5-3)- With all of the Gators desperate to leave last season in the past, a hyped up team will definitely bring the fun back to Florida football. Team is pretty deep in most areas (besides QB, OL, and LB) and Mullen can finally restore the Gators’ offensive glory days and make it to a good bowl game. That being said, it’s still a “first year” and it will be extremely rare for the Gators to get back up to their desired speed in that timespan.
MP (10-2, 6-2)- A couple of these games could go either way but with Mullen’s track record with home games and the way our schedule sets up this year, I think 9 wins are almost guaranteed and that we potentially steal one that we shouldn’t win. Much of this is predicated on the gains we have seen in strength & conditioning as well as the assumption that Mullen can get the most out of his quarterback. I expect a significant bump in offensive production this season. Due, in large part, to the simple and wildly effective nature of Mullen’s schemes.
BF (8-4, 5-3)– I have Florida finishing with an 8-4 record. I could see anywhere from 6-6 to 10-2 depending on a number of factors. Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida State could all put the Gators in the loss column, but they all could be wins as well. I also firmly believe that an 8-4 mark or better would be a terrific first year of the Dan Mullen era. Give Mullen time to transform this team from the 4-7 mess a year ago and this team is going to be something special. Mullen will lead Florida back to ‘The Gator Standard.’ We just need to be patient.
Mark Stine works the Gators football beat for The Independent Florida Alligator, where he has written for a number of the different programs over the last two years. Mark is a contributor for Chomp Talk as well.
Olivia Granaiola is a telecommunications major at the University of Florida. She is working the Gators volleyball beat for Chomp Talk in addition to her projects with ESPN Gainesville, WRUF.
Michael Pfeffer is a lifelong Florida Gators fan who enjoys spending time with his family. Recently, Michael has taken over the Gators football beat for Chomp Talk.
I appreciate each person taking time out of their schedule to provide their input on the upcoming season. What do you think will be Florida’s final record in 2018?