You may note, throughout the SB Nation network, that this Monday is marked by looking forward to the future. The SB Nation homepage is sporting a fresh look to rival those of The Verge, Vox, and Polygon, and all of the hundreds of SB Nation sites now have new, slightly spiffier logos with fonts that match the SB Nation standard font.
As part of that, the college football network has been asked to forecast the next five years of our programs’ paths. We’re doing that in the form of five predictions.
Here are five things I think we can look for from the Florida Gators of the gridiron between now and 2021.
The passing plateaus
Florida hasn’t had a quarterback throw for 3,000 yards since Tim Tebow did so in 2007, and hasn’t thrown for 3,000 yards as a team since 2009. It hasn’t had a quarterback throw 20 touchdown passes since Tebow in 2009, though Florida did throw 20 touchdown passes as a team in 2015 — with Antonio Callaway’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl toss meaning its quarterbacks stayed under 20 TDs on the season. And no Gators passer has finished above 150.00 in passer rating since Tebow.
I think we may well see all three of those marks reached in the next five years — and could see at least some of them as soon as 2017.
Feleipe Franks is Florida’s presumptive starter at quarterback this fall, and he marks a sea change from virtually every post-Tebow QB the Gators have rolled out: He’s got a potent arm and the height to see well over his defenders, and he has enough mobility to be more than a sitting duck behind a leaky line. While he may not be more talented than Will Grier or Jeff Driskel, at least physically, he is arguably at least as talented as those passers — who were on pace to threaten some of those marks at junctures in their curtailed Florida careers, with Grier at 10 touchdowns and about a 145 passer rating through six games in 2015 and Driskel at a 135 passer rating when he broke his leg in 2013.
And neither Grier nor Driskel — nor John Brantley before them — had as full a complement of skill position players as Franks and the passers who will compete with and come after him as Gators signal-callers should have. Brantley’s leading receiver in 2010 was Deonte Thompson; Driskel threw dozens of passes to Quinton Dunbar; Grier got Demarcus Robinson’s disappointing junior form and only the early flashes of Antonio Callaway’s greatness.
Pair upgraded options with a fortified line and give them both to talented passers in an offense that has shown an interest in taking deep shots under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, and I think we can be cautiously optimistic about at least one statistical swell for Florida’s passing attack.
The millennium marks
Similarly, I think we should expect Florida to produce at least one 1,000-yard rusher and at least one 1,000-yard receiver in the next five years.
The 1,000-yard rusher is almost a given, and could very well be Jordan Scarlett in 2017. Kelvin Taylor tallied just over 1,000 yards in 2015, and he wasn’t nearly as efficient on the ground as Scarlett was in 2016, when he fell just shy of 900 yards and racked up 93 or more yards each time he was given 20 or more carries. Scarlett’s chances of getting 1,000 yards if he can get 200 carries in 2017 are quite strong, I imagine — he’s around a five-yard clip per carry in his career — but 200 carries might be a stretch, with Florida having a slew of options with which to spell him.
Still, even if Scarlett can’t quite get to 1,000 yards, Florida’s lead backs may be as good or better over the next several years, and they will all have similar paths to 1,000 yards.
A 1,000-yard receiver is a somewhat harder ask. Florida hasn’t had one of them since 2002, when Taylor Jacobs finished at 1,088, and Callaway wasn’t particularly close in 2016, recording just 721 yards through the air and seeing his yards per catch plummet from more than 19 in 2015 to just over 13 as a sophomore.
But Callaway’s played about 75 percent of his games with Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby throwing passes to him — and in that brief window in 2015 when he caught bombs from Grier and Harris, he looked like he could click off 100-yard games regularly.
And Callaway’s just the best candidate for big numbers at wideout this season. Tyrie Cleveland and James Robinson are waiting in the wings as potential No. 1 receivers, and Florida’s probably one very good season of passing offense from reeling in even more talent at the position. Given McElwain’s history of feeding his No. 1 receivers when they are reliable and he has reliably competent quarterbacks, I don’t think the first 1,000-yard season in 15 or more years is far off.
Florida’s departing from its established strategy of playing most of its non-conference games at home and against lesser competition — one that is likely either smart or cowardly, depending on your allegiance — beginning this fall, with an opening date with Michigan in Cowboys Stadium. The Gators will do the same again in 2019, when they trek to Orlando to take on Miami.
But despite a recent renewal of an agreement that will keep the Gators’ annual meeting with Georgia in Jacksonville for even more of the forseeable future, it’s fair to expect the Gators to make more marquee matchups in the next five years under Scott Stricklin.
Jeremy Foley was famously wedded to the concept of getting as many home games as possible, though it was under his watch that Florida agreed to its dates with Michigan and Miami. Stricklin was far less beholden to playing as many home games as possible as Mississippi State’s athletic director, which helps explain how the Bulldogs played at Troy and Southern Mississippi, against Oklahoma State in Houston, and against Massachusetts at Fenway Park in games either played or scheduled during his tenure.
Florida doesn’t need to schedule a game against Massachusetts at Fenway for attention’s sake, like Mississippi State arguably did: It can let the mountains come to Moses, rather than the reverse. But the Gators would be prime candidates for a future kickoff game in Atlanta, and would also be draws in Tampa or Orlando — cities attempting to increase their college football involvment — beyond just that 2019 game with Miami.
Stricklin is savvy enough and creative enough to strike a deal to get a marquee neutral-site game or two on the slate in future years, and he’s also far more likely to set up a home-and-home series than Foley ever was. Watch out for that in the coming years.
Jim McElwain will win big...
The easy, homeriffic prediction for Florida over these next five years is a return to greatness. McElwain’s two years to date have been about as successful as any in the early years of a Florida’s coach’s tenure, though he lacks the national title that Urban Meyer collected in his second year or the major bowl berth that Steve Spurrier led Florida to in 1991.
And McElwain has a lot of factors working for him in 2017, with a daunting schedule set up beautifully for home ambushes of top teams, a touted quarterback potentially set to revive the Gators’ moribund offense, and a defense that is reloading under a coordinator renowned for simplifying things for his charges.
But those factors aren’t just limited to 2017, and Florida’s window for contention in the SEC East is wide open. Tennessee had its best shot at the East in more than a decade last year, and couldn’t get it done despite beating Florida. Georgia has big-name talent, and arguably a bigger-name coach than McElwain, and has no wins over Florida since 2013. No other East team appears to be a contender in the near future.
If Florida can keep winning the East and also score a big win or two over Florida State and/or other non-conference titans, it should continue on an upward trajectory — and there’s only so far upward that the Gators can go without just being national title contenders.
...or Jim McElwain will lose his job
But the flip side of Florida’s early success under McElwain is that there’s a lot of room below where the Gators currently sit — and stagnation would be poisonous.
If Florida can’t win the SEC East in 2017 — as might be expected of a team with a new QB and new defensive coordinator that is replacing eight NFL Draft picks in a sturdier division — it’s going to get a lot harder to sell a narrative of progress to recruits and boosters. Florida fans have spent plenty of time lampooning Butch Jones and Tennessee for plateauing beneath the East’s penthouse, so what happens if the Vols pass Florida up? What happens if Kirby Smart keeps far more of the Peach State’s talent in state? What happens if Mark Stoops actually makes Kentucky great, if only briefly, and knocks off Florida for the first time in more than 30 years?
Florida has had just two coaches last more than seven seasons since 1990, and both of those guys won national titles. McElwain would struggle to make it all the way through 2021 without one, I think, unless his Gators win SEC crowns and play for the ultimate prize along the way.
And so, if he’s not winning big, we can expect that he might be losing his job.
Those are my predictions for Florida’s next five years. What are yours?