2016 SEC East Preview: Florida Gators

After a solid first year under Head Coach Jim McElwain, Florida will look to continue to improve in 2016.

Florida stadium. Photo courtesy of Flickr, obtained using creativecommons.org. No changes made.

In 2015, under new head coach Jim McElwain, the Florida Gators exceeded expectations and won the SEC East for the first time since 2009.

After starting the season a surprising 6-0, the Florida offense became extremely stagnant and underwhelming. However, their strong defense helped carry the team to a 10-4 record and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.

With the Tennessee Vols looking to finally return to national prominence and win the division for the first time since 2007, their annual contest with the Gators means even more than usual this season.

With that, let’s take a look at what to expect from the 2016 Florida Gators.

Strengths:

The Gators’ most obvious strength is their defense. Last year, Florida’s defense gave up an average of 18.3 points per game (11th fewest in the country) and 310.2 yards per game (eighth fewest in the country).

These statistics help explain how Florida was able to win the division, even after their offense became anemic. Although they certainly lost some talent on the defensive side, they figure to be just as good in 2016.

With a solid defensive line, a playmaking linebacking corps and a star-studded defensive backfield, the Gators will look to have a similar formula for success as 2015 – rely on the defense while the offense improves.

On offense, Florida possesses one of the most electric weapons in the SEC – Antonio Callaway.

Tennessee fans will surely remember Callaway as the one who caught that fourth-and-14 pass and took it 63 yards for a touchdown, sealing the Vols’ 11th consecutive loss to one of their biggest rivals.

Callaway caught 35 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns, eclipsing the 100-yard mark three times. He also returned two punts for touchdowns, showing he can make an impact on special teams as well. Once he fully returns to the team, he will surely be the No. 1 target on offense.

Weaknesses:

Speaking of the offense, that is where Florida’s issues lie.

The most glaring of the problems the team faces heading into the 2016 season is what to do at the quarterback position. Treon Harris was abysmal last year replacing Will Grier, and Grier transferred out of the Sunshine State to West Virginia University.

That leaves Luke Del Rio and Austin Appelby as the two likely candidates to become the new Florida quarterback, both of whom are transfers (Del Rio from Alabama and Oregon State, Appelby from Purdue.)

There are also concerns about the relative youth, mainly on offense, that the Gators have. Whether some of the younger players can step up and make an impact is a crucial component to the team having success in 2016.

Players to watch:

WR Antonio Callaway  Callaway is one of the most explosive playmakers in the SEC. With stability and step up in talent at the quarterback position, he is poised for a big season as both a receiver and returner.

CB Jalen Tabor His ability and leadership should once again allow the Florida secondary to be elite. And with the amount of trash talk directed at Tennessee he has done this offseason, Vol fans will certainly be watching what he does this year.

RBs Jordan Scarlett/Jordan Cronkrite/Mark Thompson — With Kelvin Taylor gone to the NFL, the backfield is now in the hands of the sophomores Scarlett and Cronkite and the JUCO transfer Thompson. If these three can provide a consistent and effective running attack, the 2016 Florida offense will be solid.

DE CeCe Jefferson  Now that Jonathan Bullard is in the NFL, Florida has his very big shoes to fill along the defensive line. Enter sophomore CeCe Jefferson. He is expected to fill Bullard’s former role of leadership, versatility and production on the defensive line. If he can, Florida will have another star on its defense.

Games to watch:

Sep. 24 @ Tennessee – One of the most important games on both teams’ schedules, the annual Florida-Tennessee matchup could very well decide which team will represent the SEC East in Atlanta this year.

Oct. 8 vs LSU – Last season, in the first game without Will Grier, Florida visited Death Valley and walked away with a 35-28 loss. This year, the Tigers will visit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in a major cross-division SEC game.

Oct. 29 vs Georgia – Although Georgia has a new coach and quarterback, the Bulldogs still have talent throughout their team including a returning Nick Chubb. This game figures to be important in deciding which of the three teams (Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee) will reach the SEC Championship Game.

Season prediction:

9-3 (6-2 SEC)

Losses: Sept. 24 @ Tennessee, Oct. 8 vs LSU, Nov. 26 @ Florida State

Edited by Jordan Dajani

Featured image by arctic_whirlwind

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