The college football offseason is long and full of darkness. Maybe you spent it learning about baseball or politics, or going vegan. Your life is your life, y’know?
But if you spent it not (somewhat) assiduously chronicling what has gone on with the Florida Gators, and/or not following the Gators, then this preview — with answers to five pressing questions about Florida that should take you about five minutes to read — is for you. Or your sister. Or your uncle. Or whomever you’d like to share it with.
For you diehards, there’s plenty more coming today. But for your friends, this might be a good guidepost to follow.
Who is Florida’s most important player on offense this season?
As in every Florida football season since the departure of Emmitt Smith from Gainesville, the Gators’ most important offensive player is their quarterback — and in 2019, that’s Feleipe Franks, about as physically gifted a thrower as has ever donned orange and blue.
Franks stands 6’6” and weighs somewhere north of 230 pounds — Florida coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week that his realization that he was “6’6” and 245 pounds” and thus capable of imposing his will as a runner was key to his growth at the end of the 2018 season — and has arguably the best arm of any Florida QB since Rex Grossman. (That arm is, in fact, so good that the Boston Red Sox saw Franks fire a 94 MPH heater in his first mound work since high school and selected him in the late rounds of the 2019 MLB Draft, giving Franks a nice $40,000 signing bonus for his John Hancock on a contract to play a sport he probably won’t actually play professionally.)
But Franks had significant problems with his accuracy on throws and his general poise through much of his first two seasons, and last year’s first under Mullen threatened to go sideways after Franks underwhelmed against Georgia and took an early seat against Missouri in back-to-back losses. Backup Kyle Trask’s attempt to unseat Franks as a starter during the run-up to Florida’s game against South Carolina was undone by a season-ending foot injury suffered during a trick play in practice, however — and that may have, improbably, led to the spark the Gators needed to finish 2018 strongly.
Franks started slowly in Florida’s next outing as the Gators fell behind South Carolina, but he rallied the Florida offense — and riled up the Florida fan base with a finger-to-mouth shushing gesture for the home crowd in The Swamp — to erase a 17-point lead in the second half and win that game. And then he played the best ball of his career in Florida’s final three outings, torching Idaho, Florida State, and Michigan as the Gators closed 2018 with three wins by an average of 35.3 points per contest.
If Franks can maintain or improve on that level of play, he could lead Florida to another 10-win season, which might also include SEC and national title contention — and perhaps a dark-horse run at the Heisman Trophy. Such are the stakes for the quarterback at Florida. But if Franks struggles or is injured, it would be the greatest blow possible to Florida’s season, as his backups are the little-used Trask and redshirt freshman Emory Jones, who combined to throw just 38 passes in 2018.
So, yeah, the tall guy in No. 13 is the most important player on offense — and the roster.
So who’s Florida’s most important defender?
A year removed from being able to rely on the havoc caused by Jachai Polite and the steady play of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida will likely be trying to bring more pressure with more exotic blitzes under Todd Grantham in 2019 — until or unless any of the many candidates to succeed Polite as the Gators’ premier quarterback hound fully fills that role.
And bringing pressure puts pressure on the corners, so the twosome of CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, Florida’s putative top-flight duo at outside corner, is comprised of two men who share the title.
Of the two, Henderson is the one entering 2019 with more hype and production to his name. He burst into the Florida consciousness as a true freshman in 2017 with pick-sixes in his first two games, and has donned the vaunted No. 1 for this season — the first Florida defender to do so since Vernon Hargreaves III did — because of his consistent play as a cover man with speed to burn. But Wilson, who was seen as the slightly slower but more physical and savvy defensive back even prior to the torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2018 campaign, was considered by many to be Henderson’s equal in 2017, and if he can show little dropoff after his injury, Florida has a chance to have the nation’s best pairing of corners.
Of course, if either player misses time, it could also be a crisis for the Gators, who lost talented defensive backs Chris Steele, a promising freshman, and Brian Edwards, an experienced veteran, to transfer in the offseason. Mullen has said outright that Florida’s three true freshmen at the position — early enrollee Jaydon Hill and summer enrollees Kaiir Elam and Chester Kimbrough — will play this fall, and maybe often; if their inexperience supersedes their talent for now, Florida’s secondary could be flammable.
What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
In a world in which things are going right for Florida? Franks being more consistent and comfortable than he was last year, and elevating Florida’s offense from good to excellent or elite in the process.
In a world in which things don’t work out quite so rosily: Probably Florida’s defense being burned more often thanks to more young players (and fewer clear pass-rushing terrors) seeing the field, or Florida’s offensive line, which replaced most of its starters with players with fewer game reps, failing to gel early enough to keep the Gators’ first month from being a struggle to move the ball.
What is the most important game on the schedule — and why?
Tempting though it is to pick Florida’s season-opening game with Miami — which you may have heard about — or its first meeting with longtime annual foe Auburn in nearly a full decade, the answer is that Florida’s game against Georgia should decide the SEC East, could thus decide a College Fooball Playoff berth, and is additionally huge for the outlooks of the programs Mullen and Kirby Smart are trying to build.
Gimme a prediction — what’s the record, and where are these Gators going?
The most likely scenario for Florida this season is probably a 10-2 record with losses to LSU and Georgia that keep the Gators out of the SEC title and College Football Playoff mix. LSU will host the Gators in Baton Rouge, and Georgia’s current talent edge on Florida is going to make the game on the undercard of the World’s Largest Cocktail Party an uphill fight for the Gators until Florida can equalize on talent. That record could be good enough for a New Year’s Six bowl, especially since a 9-3 Florida team made just such an appearance last year; the most likely of those to be a Florida landing spot would be the Sugar Bowl.
And, fairly or not, a 10-win season with many pieces returning from a 10-win season a year before would only count as meeting expectations to many, many Florida fans.