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Friday Forum: Examining our expectations for Florida football in 2021

Emory Jones will lead the Gators into the future. Where they go is anyone’s guess — but history could be a guide.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Goodyear Cotton Bowl - Florida v Oklahoma Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Please welcome back Alligator Army contributor Christopher “Topher” Adams — who, I’m proud to say, rejoins our roster for the fall, and has recently been around SB Nation’s Orlando City blog, The Mane Land. (If you’re interested in writing for AA? We’re always looking.)

Christopher Adams: Even with a few disappointing losses, especially LSU and Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, I believe 2020 was a successful season for Florida football. Beating Georgia, winning the SEC East, and giving Alabama a run for their money in the SEC Championship was a level of accomplishment that I, as a fan, wanted from this program.

Most of that team is gone now, though, and the page has turned to 2021. And the question this fall is whether this group of Gators can keep the momentum of the Dan Mullen era.

I’m not sure what the rest of the country expects from this squad, but I actually have high hopes for this team this year — and it all starts with Emory Jones. I was among those who wanted to see the former four-star recruit on the field after Feleipe Franks went down injured, and while I was happily wrong then, I still think Jones is going to be a superstar for the Gators. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation for a guy with under 100 collegiate pass attempts, but he seems poised to impress.

Jones is, I’d argue, the first true “Dan Mullen” quarterback we’ve seen at Florida — the first one Mullen’s recruited, sure, but also the first one with his preferred skill set and runner’s mentality. Jones’s versatility already has been giving the Florida offense more options, especially in the run game, for years. With Jones and a whole host of quality running backs, the Gators will boast a strong running game, but that doesn’t mean the passing game will fall off a cliff.

Over the last few seasons, in our windows into his progress, Jones has grown from a run-first quarterback to a true dual-threat type. Granted, the sample size of actual football is small, but given what we’ve seen in those spurts, what we see from practice, and Mullen’s track record with quarterbacks, I think it’s fair to expect a lot from Jones this season.

Outside of quarterback, I believe in the talent across the board. Most of the best players from last year’s team might be gone, but the guys waiting in the wings have the talent to keep this team near the top of college football. Kaiir Elam is one of the top defensive backs in the country, the defensive line is either intact or upgraded from last year, and there are plenty of skill players who look primed for Kadarius Toney-esque breakouts.

The schedule is tough, especially with Alabama on the docket in late September, but I expect this Florida team to compete amongst the top of the conference yet again and have a decent shot at retaining their SEC East crown.

Andy Hutchins: Where do the Gators go after a year in which a Heisman contender takes Florida’s offense to a new level of potency and a leaky defense scuttles championship dreams?

Well, if history is any guide: To the mountaintop, right?

All the caterwauling about 2020’s Florida defense as a historically bad unit and one that served as the anchor keeping the Gators from ascending to the stratosphere had more than a bit of truth to it, but acting as if that scenario was unprecedented seemed to me to be the province of fans who now rule Twitter but might have been too young to have accounts when the service was a year old — in, say, 2007.

Florida had a great offense that year, too, and paired it with a defense that coughed up points like it had SARS. (What, too soon?) 2007 Florida allowed 31 points to Troy, and to a South Carolina team that featured Steve Spurrier pulling his old QB rotation tricks with the immortal duo of Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley. (Those Gamecocks never scored 40 points, kicking off a three-year stretch in which they couldn’t crack that mark, finished 6-6, and ended their season not in a bowl but with a loss to Clemson and a brawl that ended up being a sort of turning point — things that might have frustrated the Head Ball Coach, perhaps.) 2007 Florida also gave up 37 points to Kentucky, and 42 to Georgia, and couldn’t stop Jacob Hester in Death Valley, and got utterly thrashed by the same Michigan team that had lost to Appalachian State in its season opener in the Citrus Bowl, allowing 524 yards and 41 points to a team that committed four turnovers to the Gators’ zero.

Does getting rinsed out in a bowl game that didn’t really matter after a season that culminated with a player going to New York for the Heisman ceremony sound familiar? Should I tell you that 2007 Florida was third nationally in points per game, significantly better than 2020 Florida’s 12th? That Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin might, in fact, have been a better combination than Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts? That Charlie Strong kept his job as defensive coordinator in 2008?

Do you remember that everything kind of worked out in 2008?

To be clear: I’m not saying that expectations this year should be the same as they were in 2008. The parallels between that year and 2021 haven’t been drawn yet because 2021 is still a blank slate. Hell, I’m not convinced that comparing 2020 Florida to 2007 Florida is as perfect a match as comparing 2020 Florida to 2012 Texas A&M — another team that was a surprise national championship contender thanks to a quarterback massively outperforming expectations, weighed down by both a 20-17 home loss to a team with a Will Muschamp defense and a road loss at LSU.

And 2013 Texas A&M and 2008 Florida also returned the Heisman winner (Johnny Manziel, Tebow) and his primary sidekick (Mike Evans, Harvin), while the best player (Pitts) and Heisman candidate (Trask) from 2020 Florida’s offense are both taking snaps for NFC South teams at present.

But I’ve watched enough college football to think that one weird year — like, I dunno, a 2007 campaign in which everything in the sport tended toward chaos, or a 2020 season played under the restrictions of a pandemic — does not necessarily dictate the trends of the next. And I’ve watched enough Florida football with Dan Mullen coaching the offense to think that those teams are probably always going to have very good offenses even if they don’t have future NFL players like Jacob Copeland and Demarkcus Bowman on hand. And I like Emory Jones. And I think that the Gators defense has an interesting mix of young, hungry talents and older, hard-bitten veterans that could surprise on the field.

So I’m cautiously optimistic. But I usually am.